Category Archives: Psychology of writing

The Time of Turtle Steps

For the past month, every time I sat down to write a major post about goals, productivity, and other topics of interest to me, I’ve ended up tossing out what I wrote instead of posting it. Too much of it read like boring platitudes.

I was probably spouting too many platitudes because there were a couple of life crises that happened during the last two months behind the scenes, and as a result I had to hunker down and focus on using what little time I had to just write. Everything else–blogging; getting the editing done on stories to be published as ebooks; marketing plans–got temporarily paused.

I now call times like these the “Time of Turtle Steps,” because even when I keep working, I feel like a turtle surrounded by hares. It feels like everyone else is racing past me while I plod along far, far behind.

And yet, I’ve now learned enough to know that I’m wrong. Those turtle steps add up over time if I keep doing them step by step by step…the hard part is to keep going. Too often we stop out of despair.

Let me give an example from my own experience. In October, a couple of crises hit at the same time.

I wasted a lot of mental energy in October beating myself up for my slowed pace in writing and in working on my career. There was little time to write, and my final word count for the month was 23,255 words.

In November, I decided that while I couldn’t participate in NaNoWriMo since I wanted to keep working on my novel in progress, I could at least change my attitude and stop beating myself up. The crises continued to eat up lots of time in November, but once I accepted that I was a turtle, I found I could mentally relax and enjoy the writing more when an opportunity appeared to grab an hour to write, and I passed the 50,000 word mark for November two days ago.

So my productivity more than doubled once I stopped beating myself up about my writing pace and lack of time to do career tasks.

There are times in our lives when a crisis hits and we have to jettison everything but the most essential tasks. Be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up for the slowed pace. It’ll just make it harder to get anything done.

Be a turtle. Do each step by step by step, and keep going…and you’ll be surprised by how far you can get in a month. I certainly was.

The Power of Kickstarter and Other Links

I’ve been swamped with writing and editing work, so that’s why I’ve been so quiet here on the blog for a bit. But there’s some links I want to share before I forget.

Everyone has probably heard all about Kickstarter (the funding platform for creative projects), but if you haven’t, go and check them out! Kickstarter is proving to be a great way for professional artists to get the start-up funds they need and for people to support favorite artists and web shows. For example:

A writer friend of mine, Annie Bellet, was able to successfully use Kickstarter to help fund her tuition to Clarion this past summer.

The web show Put This On just successfully raised over $70,000 to film Season Two.

Travis Hanson, a fantasy/comics illustrator I got to meet briefly at Albuquerque Comic Con, has successfully raised the funds he needs to print his web comic in book format.

Money has always been an issue for artists, especially filmmakers and illustrators, so the rise of crowd-sourcing such as Kickstarter excites me to no end.

In other news, Dean Wesley Smith has an important technology blog post on how writers, publishers, and booksellers can use Book Cards to market an e-book cheaply and attract readers into independent bookstores to buy e-books for their e-readers. WMG Publishing and Lucky Bat Books were passing out the first ever e-book cards at Worldcon to show off this brand new marketing idea.

And 20+ year pro Bob Mayer has some blunt, quick advice on how to be a fiction writer that has a career that lasts for decades.

Every Renown Writer Starts Out a Beginner

Every renown writer you love to read started out as a beginner.

This is so obvious, and yet it gets forgotten so easily since it’s the masterpieces that get remembered when we talk about our favorite dead writers…not the unpublished works and the weak stuff published early on (unless you’re an English major doing research or an obsessive fan).

Very often, people who are not artists or just starting out have this mental gap in their heads about the journey that an artist takes from beginner to master:

beginner———– > luck  ————> master

Mastery and success are attributed to luck.

Well, there’s a middle phase that gets left out:

beginner ——-> apprentice ——> journeyman —> (95% hard work, 5% luck) ——-> master

The apprentice phase for writers is equivalent to the law school phase for someone who wants to be a lawyer. This is the phase where a writer often has to get on a plane to study with a particular writing teacher or to attend a national-level writing workshop. In old novels or movies, this was the point where the young artist packed up to move to an international hub for artists like Paris or New York City or London.

And then there’s the journeyman phase, where the writer has started to sell his or her stories, but there’s still so much to learn. This phase lasts for years to decades, or even a lifetime if the writer decides to stop learning and coast.

As for mastery, it doesn’t spontaneously happen. Don’t ask me why, but people  seem to have a natural tendency to ignore the middle phase when they talk about a particular famous dead writer or fantasize aloud about how easy it would be to write a bestselling novel if they just had the time.

And yet it’s the hard work in journeyman phase that will make or break a writer in becoming a master of the craft.

I think one of the most valuable lessons a writer can do once past the beginner stage is to choose a couple of favorite writers (both living and dead) and read their early works.

So, for example, if you were a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte as a writer, you’d dig up a research book that had her unpublished first writings and probably also a copy of her first novel, The Professor.

Or how about William Shakespeare? Go read his earliest plays (researchers still fight about which play he wrote first, so I’d advise reading several). Then think about how we’d see him now if he’d stopped after those early plays and had never written anything more.

But make sure to also include some favorite recent writers who wrote over a long time frame, twenty years or more.  For example, I went out and bought collections of the early published short stories of three recent writers whose later works I loved to read:  John D. MacDonald’s More Good Stuff, Stephen King’s Night Shift, and James Lee Burke’s The Convict & Other Stories.

This turned out to be an eye-opening exercise for me as I read the unpublished  early works of old greats (such as Jane Austen) and early short stories of favorite present day NYT bestsellers.

Their early works weren’t as well-written as their later works were. They’d gotten better at their craft over time. Big shocker, right?

Of course not.

But I’ve noticed a lot of my fellow Americans like to see their artists as the equivalent of Athena jumping fully formed out of the skull of Zeus. The arts are supposed to be “easy.” You have either “got it” as an artist or you don’t. No hard work, no sweat, no tears, no frustration, no years of dedicated study–as if somehow the arts are different from every other human endeavor.

So reading the early works of these various writers impressed upon me, at a deep gut level, how craft gets better over time as one works at it. Hmm, let me put it bluntly. A few of the early works “sucked.” A few seemed like they showed “no talent.” And yet these writers persevered and became masters of their craft. It would have been a terrible thing if any of these writers had quit during the early days due to a mistaken idea that it was impossible to improve in writing skill.

Every writer starts out a beginner. Where we go from there is up to us.

Shutting Up Your Inner Critic

Dean Wesley Smith reposted an edited version of his essay on the attitude that “Writing is Hard,” and it got me thinking about how to get the inner critic to shut up. You know, the inner voice that says, “This sucks! You suck!” when you’re trying to get your first draft written.

I just came up with a nifty technique for shutting up the inner critic that I’d like to share. It’s sort of a mental combo of National Novel Writing Month‘s daily word quota assignment, Laura Resnick’s essay “The Long Haul” in Rejections, Romance, and Royalties where she compares writing to trucking, several episodes of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, and thinking about my past experiences as a cafeteria worker.

Step 1: Choose a down-to-earth analogy for writing. It can be trucking, bricklaying, road paving, plumbing, cafeteria cooking, whatever. However, choosing an environment that will make your inner critic feel uncomfortable to be in is a definite plus.

Step 1 Example: I really liked Laura Resnick’s trucking analogy for writing a long fantasy novel, so I chose trucking. Instead of meeting daily mileage goals, I’d be meeting word quota goals. But the mindset had to be the same. I have yet to hear a story about a trucker moping at a truck stop about how his inner critic keeps  telling him his driving sucks…and so he’s stopped driving in mid-journey.

Step 2: Hone in on that inner critic voice that keeps showing up when you’re trying to write. Give it a physical persona that you can visualize in your mind–what does he or she wear? look like? what profession? etc.  (Note, if it takes on a persona that won’t be intimidated by the analogy chosen in Step 1, choose a new analogy.)

Step 2 Example: When I honed in on my inner critic voice, it morphed into an English professor guy who likes to wear tweed.

Step 3:Imagine your supervisor for your analogy to writing.

Step 3 Example: I found myself visualizing that I worked for “Flo.” She runs a small trucking company in North Carolina and loves to eat cole slaw burgers for lunch. There’s a stack of James Lee Burke and Nora Roberts paperbacks on the corner of her desk that she likes to read during breaks. Often she wears NASCAR T-shirts. She has 0% patience for whining or crap.  The trucking garage smells of diesel and there’s the rumble of engines as trucks pull up or drive off.

Step 4: The next time the inner critic voice shows up during a writing session, tell it “Go away. I’ve got a quota for this first draft I’ve got to meet.”  If the critic refuses to go away, make him or her go visit your supervisor to complain.

Step 4 Example: When Dr. Inner Critic showed up and wouldn’t shut up during the first draft work I was doing, I imagined sending him off to Flo to whine at her instead about the quality of my writing. Writers, by training, have very vivid imaginations. My imagination gave me a whole short scene of Inner Critic beginning his whine about my writing, and losing steam as Flo glared at him. Then she asked him, “Are you going to do L.M.’s work?” which made him hunch up as he replied, “No.” Then she ripped into him verbally with insults about his stupidity and laziness until he slunk off. I got back to work since there was a quota to meet. Inner Critic left me alone since showing up again would mean  another yellfest from Flo.

These days, whenever an inner critic voice pops up during the writing of a first draft, I do the steps above, and it shuts that voice up darn quick. I hope it does likewise for you all. Good luck!

Turtle Steps Add Up To a Long Distance Over a Year

Turtle steps add up to a long distance over a year.

But we all know that maxim already. But there are days that I have to remind myself of this truth. It’s gets hard to remember it when the rabbits are racing by (or at least bragging that they’re racing through things).

Many of us have jobs and family obligations that demand a lot of our time.  And there’s a temptation to take an “all or nothing” stance to writing.  That attitude that either we need to be writing thirty manuscript pages a day, or else quit.  Yet, writing just one page a day adds up to a 365-page manuscript over a year–a good length for a novel.

Finding the time to write thirty pages a day may be impossible.  Finding the time to write one page a day is not.  Even if you’re a slow typist and writer, we’re talking about finding 15-60 minutes of time–the time can even be broken down into increments of 10 minutes if needed. Most writers I know need only about 15-30 minutes to write that one page (about 250 words).

It’s like people’s attitude towards losing weight–the “shock and awe” approach.  Many go after the extreme weight loss over a two month time period by starvation-type dieting, instead of the steady permanent loss over two years by small changes each week in lifestyle.

I’ve learned from trial and error that tiny steady changes over a year can lead to more extreme results than a “shock and awe” approach to a goal. And when the time frame goes to three to five years for turtle steps, the changes seen can be stunning.

Part of it has to do with the fact that the “shock and awe” approach is often unsustainable over a long time frame.  Sooner or later a crisis happens, or one’s health collapses from overwork, or when one doesn’t meet the outrageous goal for the month, one quits trying at all since there’s that “all or nothing” mindset. For example, being on a strict diet and going off the wagon to eat half a pizza at a party, and then saying, “I failed, so there’s no point in going on” and continuing the eating binge for weeks.

Slowly I am learning not to compare myself to the rabbits bounding by, and to instead keep my mind focused on the next small step as I move along in my turtle-like way. The rabbit path is not feasible right now, but it’s not the only way to get where I want to go.

Or to quote Benjamin Franklin:

It is true, there is much to be done, and, perhaps, you are weak-handed; but stick to it steadily, and you will see great effects; for ‘Constant dropping wears away stones; and by diligence and patience the mouse ate in two the cable; and little strokes fell great oaks.