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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Focus Your Goals

“A piece of paper with a resolution on it isn’t that important. Writing that resolution is. Writing makes your ideas more clear and focuses you on your end result.”—Scott H. Young

New Year’s isn’t that far away. The traditional time for resolutions, new starts, lofty goals you can’t possibly keep . . . Make your resolution this year something attainable, specific, measurable—in other words, make it a S.M.A.R.T. goal. Write it down. It doesn’t really even matter if you save that piece of paper because somehow just writing it down gives it a weight it didn’t have when it existed only in your mind.

To focus your goals, try this:

Set a S.M.A.R.T. goal. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, Time-constrained), write it down and seal it in an envelope. Put it in your desk or somewhere and don’t look at it again for awhile. Each month increase your daily goal by 25% or 50%. In three or four months, take a look at your resolution and see how you’re doing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No Arguing

“It is a lot harder to establish a habit, particularly one that might cause you some distress or discomfort in the beginning, if you think you are doing it for life. However, you do need to give yourself a reasonable timeframe of daily writing to lay down the habit. . . .
The idea is to remove the negotiation from your brain. You have made the commitment, so you don't need to make any internal arguments with your hippocampus about whether or not you will write today. It has already been decided.”—Rene Hadjigeorgalis

Set a daily word count goal (a low one that’s easy to reach) and decide on a length of time you will commit to. If you look down the road from where you are now, it might feel like a prison sentence. You feel defeated before you even start, and as a result, you delay or completely avoid starting.

Look only at the immediate future with it’s easy-to-reach goals. 28 days is a good length of time to aim for. You can do pretty much anything as simple as 15 minutes a day, or 100 words a day, for 28 days.

You can do the same thing with exercise – especially if it’s something you’ve avoided as much as possible. Set a goal of walking only 10 minutes a day. Or even just 5 minutes. But commit to doing every single day for 28 days. At the end of that 28 days, it will seem pretty easy to increase it to 10 minutes a day for the next 28. It may take longer to reach the ideal amount, but if you take your time, you’re more likely to stick to it for the long haul.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dust Bunnies

“It doesn't matter if you are tired, busy, have dust bunnies to kill, need to paint your ceiling, have visitors, need to caulk the bathtub, or just can't concentrate because you believe your faculty colleagues are really aliens from the planet Zortex in disguise. Remember - this is only 15 minutes of your time during this habit establishment phase. Even if you just open the laptop, stare zombie-like at your manuscript, and add a period, you will be making great progress in establishing the habit of writing.”—Rene Hadjigeorgalis

I admit, I have dust bunnies that, if they organized, could take over the planet. But will 15 minutes out of my day really make a difference in their population? Probably not. Not even if I were dedicated to exterminating them (which, I hate to admit, I am not). But I am a master at distractions. Nothing can increase my interest in scrubbing the toilet more than an unmet word count goal.

(The secret is out now. I preach write every day, but I struggle to do that consistently just like everyone else.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Daily Habit

“When trying to establish a long-term daily writing habit, it is helpful to think of your first foray into this new territory as simply your establishment stage. In the beginning, it is most helpful to focus on establishing the habit than getting lots and lots of writing done. This is one reason for the advice to do brief daily sessions. Once you have established the habit, you can build up your time per session, or the number of sessions from there.”—Rene Hadjigeorgalis

Another piece in your plan to succeed (after the holidays, of course) is to rebuild the habit. You might even begin to lay the foundation of the habit this week. Set your daily word count goal for 50. Or 100. Something so easy to attain it’s almost ridiculous. You’re not focusing on quantity right now, merely establishing a pattern of behavior.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Balance

“But seriously, if you make a really HUGE effort to go to bed 30 minutes or an hour earlier, you’ll feel the difference the next day!

“If you make an effort to plan your meals and have a good, solid breakfast (oh man, breakfast makes all the difference in the world for me!), you’ll really feel a difference.” –Susan Dennard

So, have a plan, huh? Other than saying “I’ll do better next year” or “I’ll write every day”, what does a plan to succeed look like? Of course it includes a specific writing goal for each day, or each week if you prefer. It also should include taking care of the whole you. Because if your life isn’t in balance, it’s even harder to be disciplined about writing.

When I was researching this a little, I fell upon a great blog post at Let The Words Flow. There are reminders to eat healthy—this means not skipping breakfast or surviving only on a breakfast of caffeine, to get some exercise and get the blood flowing to your brain—this doesn’t mean prepping for a half-marathon, it just means get outside in the fresh air (even if it’s raining or snowing) and walk a little, and to take care of your soul—which might mean an artist’s date (a la Julia Cameron), some new music to write or meditate to, or maybe make a muse candle (instructions).

What are some ways you can increase balance in your life?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Couch Potato?

"My block was due to two overlapping factors: laziness and lack of discipline."
—Mary Garden

They say we are often our own worst critics. I know I’m harder on myself (most of the time) than anyone else. So when I look back at the past two weeks, I think “wow, I was so lazy and undisciplined, what a loser.”

I do think some amount of laziness might have been a factor, but if anyone else had told me about their last two weeks, I highly doubt I would confirm their ‘lazy’ diagnosis. Most likely I’d say “don’t be so hard on yourself. You have a lot going on, plus it’s the holidays.”

If I’m honest about the past two weeks, I see that almost every evening was full of activities, volunteer obligations, writing group, holiday baking, visiting family and friends, and the like. Work has been busy enough that I haven’t taken my full lunch most days, let alone an official break in which I take my notebook to the lunchroom and write. When I finally did crawl into bed at night, I had multiple websites to update and build, emails that needed replies, not to mention mental down-time.

So, if I was to give advice to someone describing my past two weeks, what would I say?

“It’s okay if you take a vacation now and then. Plan it. Plan when you’ll return to work – and stick to it.”

I’m still not happy with myself for missing two weeks of posting quotes, but I have a plan for catching up by the end of the year, and a plan to stay on track in the future.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Excuses

"The easiest thing to do on earth is not write."
—William Goldman

True story.

Well, there might be three things on that list: not write, not exercise, and not eat healthy. Especially during the holidays. It’s so easy to say “I’ll get back on track after the new year.” “I’ll get back to eating better when the holidays are past. I’ll exercise more when, er, the weather gets better (hey, wait, we still don’t have any snow this year) . . . when I get caught up on my blogs . . .

Whatever the excuses, recognize them for what they are. If you plan to get back on track as a New Year’s resolution, then work on a plan now. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Make sure to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. If it’s been awhile since you’ve veered off track, start easy and increase slowly, but steadily. Five minutes every day. Ten minutes every day. Thirty minutes Monday thru Friday. Whatever your ultimate goal, set habits now with smaller chunks of time and gradually increase the time. Make your minimum writing time each day brief and mandatory, like brushing your teeth.

(Hopefully you're not waiting to get back to brushing your teeth until after the new year . . .)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A relapse is just a challenge in disguise . . .

“Rather than viewing a brief relapse back to inactivity as a failure, treat it as a challenge and try to get back on track as soon as possible.”
—Jimmy Connors

Advice to self: Don’t beat yourself up for stumbling, just get back up again.

I hope you’ll forgive me for backdating a few quotes as I try to get back on track. I'm not trying to put anything over on you, it's just a way for me to be sure I've honestly 'caught up'. If you follow this blog via email, you’ll know what’s going on when you get emails with 3 or 4 quotes of the day several days in a row after a couple weeks of not seeing anything from me.

I could use the holidays as an excuse, or the busyness at work, but they would be just excuses. I suppose the holidays are somewhat to blame with the extra activities in the evenings, houseguests and holiday baking taking up time I might ordinarily use to write, but if I practice what I preach, I should get my 15 minutes of writing done first.

But I’m not here to beat myself up. I’m here to accept the challenge and get back on track.

So, with the space heater warming my feet and a kitty draped around my shoulders keeping my neck warm, here I go. . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Paper Training

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor's yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”—Anne Lamott

Linda Gerber’s blog today asked about distractions and solutions. Distractions is right up there on the list with procrastination and excuses. And the solution is self discipline, whatever you choose to do.

Distractions show up in all sorts of masks, with all sorts of justifications (most of which aren’t as urgent as they want you to believe). Don’t beat yourself up if you suddenly realize you’ve allowed yourself to be distracted and pulled away from your writing, but also don’t excuse it. Bring yourself right back to the page. (I thought of going further with the analogy of paper training a puppy, cuz you know me and analogies, but I think I’ll just stop here.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Storytellers

“Some critics will write 'Maya Angelou is a natural writer' - which is right after being a natural heart surgeon. “—Maya Angelou

During a recent interview, I was asked a question: “Do you think anyone can become a writer?”

I do think anyone can become a writer if they want to bad enough. I think some people are better equipped than others at the start of their journey due to family influences and school and other factors. But I have no doubt anyone can become a writer with enough work.

But, I don’t think everyone is a natural storyteller. I think some people are born with a special filter through which they view the world. Possibly these kids are the observers, the ones who hang back and watch the action for awhile before joining in. Maybe they are the quiet kids, busy absorbing what’s going on around them rather than being the center of attention. Maybe they are the kids who tell stories about what they saw on Mulberry Street (Dr. Seuss). I’m not sure what young storytellers look like.

What I do know is when I share some of the ways I view the world, there are people who don’t get it, and there are people who do. The ones who do are almost invariable storytellers. I can stand in the express checkout line at Walmart and make up a story about each person in line in front of me based on what I see in their cart, who they’re with, and what they look like. I’m probably way off target most of the time, but the point is in the story I create, not in the reality of that person’s life. The more my story resembles a stereotype, the less likely it is my story comes anywhere near truth. But understanding stereotypes is just as useful as knowing how to break stereotypes, and knowing how inaccurate they are on an individual basis.

The point is the story. My kids and I like to play a game we call “The Random Game.” When they were younger, it was a way to pass the time while we waiting in line. Now that they’re older and shopping on their own, it’s not unlikely that they’ll send me a text with a picture of their items on the checkstand. We assess points on a whim (rather like Drew Carey on “Whose Line”). When we’re in the car, we make up categories – like “you’re at a church potluck and there are three items left untouched on the table afterward. What are those three items?”

Or “you stop at a thrift store and there is a clearance table at the front with 5 items on it. What are those items and what are their prices?”

Or my favorite – "you buy a used 1988 Caprice Classic. In the glovebox are 3 items. What are they?” The key isn’t in obvious solutions. It’s with the specifics that your score will increase. If you have an owner’s manual for that make, model and year, it’s not so random. But if, in your 1988 Caprice Classic, you find an owner’s manual for a 1972 VW Bug, that’s pretty random. Add to that something slightly obvious, like 3 packets of Taco Bell hot sauce, and something uber-specific like a Barbie doll leg, and you have a winner.

What do YOU think makes a storyteller?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dream Catcher

“Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.”—Goethe “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else. ” ― Erma Bombeck

The idea that I was exposing my dreams or my inner self in my writing didn’t occur to me for a long while. I was writing fiction, after all. It was even longer before I understood that writing fiction was still a way to process the world and events in my life. When I encourage you to freewrite, to let your first thoughts spill onto the page, it is so you learn to tap into the rich well of your experience to give your writing depth and authenticity. Don’t shy away from the dark thoughts because somehow they will show up anyway. Better to have courage and write about them honestly and intentionally, using them to connect with your readers.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dream Box

“There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, 'Yes, I've got dreams, of course I've got dreams.' Then they put the box away and bring it out once in awhile to look in it, and yep, they're still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box. It takes an uncommon amount of guts to put your dreams on the line, to hold them up and say, 'How good or how bad am I?' That's where courage comes in.” ― Erma Bombeck

Are your dreams of writing a novel or a memoir in a little box somewhere? Do you content yourself with writing blogs and emails and crafting great Facebook status updates?

What dreams do you have in your box?

They don’t do much sitting in the box. There isn’t much hoping of making them come true if you keep them packed away for someday. (BTW – this advice applies to the ‘good’ china and Grandma’s pearl earrings. Don’t save them for a someday that you might not see. Enjoy them now.)

What are your writing dreams? Start on them now. Set small goals – daily, weekly, or monthly. Take baby steps. Sure there are risks, but anything worth having is worth working for. Every step gets you a little closer to realizing your dream.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Burn Out

“. . .spend your days trying to meet unrealistically high goals and burnout isn't far behind. . . . Set reasonable goals and meet them, and you will stay emotionally involved in your work and keep burnout at bay.”—Steven Berglas, Ph.D.

Holly Lisle’s email newsletter hit home with me today. She talked about burning yourself out with writing. I recognized myself in her words, setting ambitious goals, determined to meet them, then giving up because it was unreasonable to stick to those goals day in and day out without regard to the season, holidays, family, the occasional cold, etc. Basically, I set myself up for failure.

“Self,” I said, “if you can manage a thousand words a day for a year, you could finish a book.”

“No problem,” I confidently replied. “I wrote nearly 6,000 words the other day and stopped only because I had to fix supper for the kids.”

“Well, then, if you can write 6,000 words on a good day, you should certainly be able to write 3,000 on a regular day. You could finish that book in six months.”

“Deal.” And we shook on it. Well, not really, but you get the idea.

The first few days went well. Then the weekend came and the kids were home from school and I had to get groceries and . . . well, Monday came around and I hadn’t written a single word over the weekend. So I was 6,000 words behind with another 3,000 hanging over my head. It didn’t take long for me to start thinking up excuses to myself about why I hadn’t been able to write that day. Pretty soon I was avoiding my computer because I felt guilty and no hope of 'catching up'.

Hopefully you’ve avoided this trap.

A better way to set goals is to keep them low enough that you don’t have to stagger over the finish line dehydrated and cramping. Pace yourself. Set goals that are realistic and take into account the demands of daily life. If you have a blockbuster day, celebrate, but don’t carry the expectation that one prolific day leads to another. There are fairytales and fables and actual for-real studies that show you will be more prolific if you set a steady pace you can maintain. Bottom line is – don’t burn yourself out to the point where you are making excuses for not facing the page.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What Will The Neighbors Think?

“Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, "We *told* you not to tell." But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.” —Anne Lamott

So, let’s say you dug around in your memory closet yesterday and found a few things definitely worth writing about, but after a minute or two you put them back. “Lightning might strike if you wrote about that.” “What would the neighbors/my parents/Great Aunt Taloula think?”

If you’re journaling, remind yourself that no one reads what you write without your express permission. If you are writing fiction, slice it thin and spread it around (and change the names, of course). If you are blogging . . . well, in that case you may want to consider another forum for sharing what’s in your closet. Depending on who your followers are and how likely they are to call your mom and let her know you’re airing the family’s dirty laundry.

The thing is, if you’ve gone through something that needs airing, chances are someone else has, too. As a writer, you might be able to shed light into someone else’s closet and help them clean out some of their junk (read that as ‘process’). Think about what books like ‘Speak’ and ‘Shine’ have done for current issues.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

“We write to expose the unexposed. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words - not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.”
—Anne Lamott

This reminds me of the “how to write when life sucks” blog the other day, but it is actually different. This isn’t about writing in the midst of suckiness, but rather about exploring past suckiness. The benefits of this are twofold: Many times we move past a rough patch and breathe a sigh of relief and don’t look back, leaving the emotions unprocessed. Stuffing it into the closet, so to speak. Digging around in the closet and pulling out the old ‘junk’ helps process it, or you may reevaluate your feelings about it when you first stuffed it in there. It can also be a rich source for your writing practice or WIP.

So brace yourself and go look behind that door. . . .

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Iceburgs

"Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible."—Leo Tolstoy

Although you need to know your character inside and out, it doesn't take much to reveal a wealth of information. Be cautious of overloading your story with too much backstory. A few well-chosen details can convey a character's history and experience. Write your first draft and include as much backstory as you want. When you edit, follow the iceburg rule for backstory—10% of what you know about your character should be on the page. The rest lends weight and helps you draw your character believably.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Flight of the Bumblebee

"People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don't know when to quit. Most men succeed because they are determined to." George E. Allen

Did you know bumblebees aren’t supposed to be able to fly? They are aerodynamically challenged. But go figure, they fly anyway, probably because no one told them they can’t fly.

This isn’t to say any of you have only mediocre ability as George mentions in his quote, but that we often perceive we have mediocre ability when we are in the midst of writing, and even when we have a final draft. After all, we’ve lived with our thoughts and imagination and that voice in our head all our lives, it seems pretty common to us. But what is common to us may be uncommon to someone else. Or if it seems ‘common’ to others, it is sometimes in the common voice that the greatest stories are told. When the writing disappears and the story comes to life . . . that is magic.

So don’t let anyone tell you (even yourself) that you can’t write. Just remember the bumblebee.

Now. Go. Write.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Writing Practice

“What writing practice, like Zen practice, does is bring you back to the natural state of mind…The mind is raw, full of energy, alive and hungry. It does not think in the way we were brought up to think—well-mannered, congenial.” ― Natalie Goldberg

There is definitely a time to write with clear purpose and direction. Writing practice is not that time. When you approach writing practice, it should be with the intention of capturing the most immediate, most alive thoughts in your mind. Don’t try to dress them up for company, or comb and spit-polish them so they find favor with finicky Aunt Ruth. Let them be wild and fresh and free, unconcerned with manners or propriety.

Like the Zen practice of Zazen (sitting practice), which is "opening the hand of thought", writing practice lets you write about those thoughts. Undirected awareness. An observation of the thoughts passing through your mind and awareness. Although I haven’t sat zazen, Debbie did, and she likened it to writing practice.

This is similar to journaling, although I used to journal with an agenda, and more often than not, an imagined audience. In writing practice, there is no audience. There are no requirements for logic or manners or circumspection. All that matters is gut-level honesty with yourself.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Clock Is Ticking . . .

“I don't think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good at it.” —Anne Lamott

There is only one you in all time. You are the only person who has had your exact set of experiences. You are the only person who can tell your stories. Don’t let them be untold.

If you are afraid you won’t be good at it, the only way to get better is to start. It doesn’t have to be at the beginning. Just start. Plunge into the middle. Or the end. Or hopscotch around following your inspiration. The beauty of writing is you can write a really awful first draft in whatever order you want, then go back to polish and rearrange.

There is no time like the present. Today is the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be again.

Now. Go. Write.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Show Me the Butterflies

“What things there are to write, if one could only write them! My mind is full of gleaming thought; gay moods and mysterious, moth-like meditations hover in my imagination, fanning their painted wings. But always the rarest, those streaked with azure and the deepest crimson, flutter away beyond my reach.”—Logan Pearsall Smith

Do you ever want to capture something, a moment or a feeling, but when you sit down to write, it just feels flat? Sort of like when you try to relate a funny incident to someone and end up with a lame “I guess you had to be there.”

I think this problem comes from ‘telling’ about it instead of sharing the experience so others can feel the feelings. Think this takes too many words? Look at how commercials do it in thirty seconds or a minute. Or study some of the 2-3 minute youtube videos that grab your heart (check out Jonah Mowry: “What’s Goin On. . .” or “It’s Time”). They're really mini stories—a glimpse of the ordinary world, a glimpse of change, a conflict, or surprise, a resolution.


Next time you want to capture a moment, think about it as a story . . . . And instead of telling me about it, show me the butterfly.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Pay it Forward

“Nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer.” – John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I discovered this quote when I Googled “how to write when life sucks”. My life doesn’t suck right now. But it has been a stressful few days. Which means it’s not easy to be motivated, not easy to write, not easy to even care about writing sometimes. That’s where my commitment (to myself and, posthumously, to Debbie) helps me out. Habit is what has me here facing the page when I don’t feel like I have much of any worth to say.

So when I Googled ‘how to write when life sucks’, I was a little surprised to see the John Gardner quote. I expected to see things like “just set aside your problems and write anyway.” Logical advice, but kinda fluffy. Not much substance.

Holly Lisle has a great workshop I want to get—“21 Ways To Get Yourself Writing When Your Life Has Just Exploded.” My life hasn’t exploded, but like Holly, I’ve been there, when even getting up in the morning and feeding myself were huge challenges I wasn’t sure I could overcome. I figure, if Holly can show me how to write when I’m in that state, those same tools can help me write when I’m just scuffed up a little.

John Gardner’s quote is a glimpse into one of those tools. I take what I’m feeling right now and give it to a character. Or maybe I should say ‘impose’ it. My poor characters have suffered migraines, strep throat, spilled milk, and paper cuts right along with me. Use your present state to fuel your writing. Pay it forward. If you’re feeling busy and overwhelmed, take five or ten minutes and put your character in that place. You may not use it in your final draft, but at the very least it will help round out your character. And if you’re lucky, your current angst can be extrapolated into your story for added depth.

So, when life sucks, or when you just have the blahs – write anyway.