Tag Archives: Productivity

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.

The Craving for Validation Can Really Screw Things Up

Writers–especially new writers–crave validation the way a cat craves catnip. I’ve seen the craving result in a few writers doing some incredibly destructive things from a business perspective. I myself did quite a few stupid things business-wise due to the validation crapola in my head until I learned from much more experienced writers that the crapola was there and that I needed to get rid of it.

Validation is NOT asking “Is this piece of writing any good?”  Validation is all about saying stuff like:

When thus-and-so happens, then will I be a REAL writer.

It’s the part about “then I will be a real writer” that messes writers up in the head. Badly.

Several wise old pros told me, “a real writer is someone who writes, day in and day out,” and I used to be inexperienced and stupid enough to scoff at that saying.  Surely there had to be more to being a “real” writer.

I don’t scoff anymore, because I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a core seed of truth to what those writers said.

A writer writes.

A painter paints.

A singer sings.

A coder codes.

Whenever someone quits doing the action (code, sing, write, etc.) that is the core of their dream, everything grinds to halt in a matter of time. Writers who stop writing will eventually become the topic of “What ever happened to so and so?” among readers.

Also, validation is NOT about setting goals.  It’s fine to have goals.

What I’m talking about here is having a mindset where a writer is totally dependent on a particular thing happening to feel like a “real” writer. This dependency results in neediness that can be manipulated by scammers, and a frantic urgency that results in bad business decisions that can postpone (or even wreck) the ability to make a living as a writer.

For quite a number of writers, “thus-and-so” is “published with a NYC publishing house.” The problem is the “When I am published by a NYC publishing house, then I will be real writer” mindset leads to a neediness that makes it hard for a writer to do the negotiating that needs to be done to get a decent contract.

Here’s something to think about.  These NYC publishing contracts are between a writer and a corporation.  We aren’t talking about two individuals working out a joint partnership here. Those people you meet from the corporation can be really really nice, but at the end of the day it’s the corporation the writer signs with. Editors and CEOs can be fired.

The craving for validation from corporations based in NYC can be used against a writer in contract negotiations. It’s just the nature of business–the writer’s book is a profit-and-loss statement for the corporation. If a writer wants to play doormat, that’s the writer’s problem as far as the corporate entity is concerned. Sometimes an editor will warn a writer if the writer acts too much like a pathetic wuss in negotiations, but for the most part the writer is on his or her own.

The other nasty part of this “NYC publishing house” requirement for being a “real” writer is that all the great middle-sized publishing companies get ignored because one is chasing after a narrow definition of being “real.”  There are some terrific small and middle-sized publishing houses out there, ones that are going to be big publishing houses 15 years from now.

Lastly, the whole mindset of  “when thus-and-so happens, then I’ll be a real writer” also makes it harder to keep morale up. Several old pros have pointed out to me that writing is disheartening enough as it is due to the rejection process; there’s no need to pile more anguish on by setting absurd goals for what is “real” as a writer.

A real writer writes, day in and day out.

Everything else is just a goal to aim for.

The Pricelessness of Time, and a Couple of Great Links

There are only 24 hours in a day. That’s it. Even those people who have a natural need for only 4-5 hours a sleep a night (or even none) can’t get around this time limitation.

Several swift deaths that have happened to people I cared about over the past three years have brought home to me just how priceless the time we are given is.  Once Death shows up for you, it’s over.  That’s it. We all like to assume we’re going to live into our eighties or later, but there’s no guarantee. And people love to assume that they’ll have lots of time to put their lives in order and do those things they always dreamed about.

Death can kill you in seconds. A stroke can strike you down where you stand and there won’t be time to say, “Goodbye,” or write a couple of poems before it is too late.

Never assume you can wait until retirement to do the things you dream about. People die before they reach retirement all the time. If your dream is to go to Paris before you die, start planning out tiny steps tonight that you take to work towards making that dream a reality sooner rather than later.

I think about time a lot, since I’m in the “squeeze” years. There’s work to do, a family to raise, a house with never-ending repairs to deal with, and writing to do. Several of my hobbies had to be put aside when I started to pursue writing in a serious way–there were only so many hours in a day.

Several months ago, I decided to turn off comments on my blog, because it was either do that or stop blogging all together. I didn’t know what impact it would have, but one of the surprising results was that now my blog thoughts sometimes dig deeper into things.  The time I used have to waste wading through spam in the queue instead gets spent thinking and writing the post instead.  There is only so much time each week I can devote to a blog, and I was actually surprised at how much a help it was time-wise to have comments off.

Zoe Winters did a post not too long ago about why she turned off comments on her blog, and brings up her reasons why a writer may want to do so.  Every writer is different–one writer’s healing potion is another writer’s poison. So each of us will have to experiment to see what works best.

In other news, I stumbled across a wonderful short essay by James Lee Burke on writing, “Seeking a Vision of Truth,” that can give consolation to writers in difficult times. I hadn’t known that his novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie received 110 rejections during nine years of submission.  I’ve provided the link to get to it on his website.

Also, musician Jonathan Coulton has done a long thoughtful essay on how he became a success as an indie musician. I think what he has to say also applies to becoming a success as a fiction writer (whether traditional, indie, or a traditional/indie combo).

So, I leave you all with the question, “When Death comes for you, is there anything you’re going to regret having not done? And if the answer is ‘Yes,’ what small steps can you take here and now to change that?”

Getting Beyond “Yes or No” Thinking in Writing, Part Two

So, last time I wrote about tips and techniques I’d learned from others to get past seeing rejections as personal (“My story sucks”), pervasive (“I’m a loser”), and permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”).   Rejection is a fact of life for writers–the rate of rejection will go down as one gets better, but it will never go to zero.  Even the best writer produces a lousy story on occasion.

Chances are, you’ve noticed how binary humans can be in their thinking, i.e. that attitude of “It’s either Yes or No.”   So this week I want to go into more depth about getting comfortable with searching for the wriggle room between the “Yes or No” mindset.

Since we’ve been discussing the pursuit of publication through a traditional publisher or magazine, let’s use it as an example of the wriggle mind game.

Playing Mind Games with Rejections

On the surface, it seems so straightforward when a story is submitted to an editor–it’s either a sale or no sale.

But if we dig a little deeper, we find that not all No’s are equal.   There’s:
1) “No, but please send us your next story.”
2) “No, but interesting story.”
3) “No.”
4) “No.  This story is not to my taste.”
5) “No.  The craft in this story is poor.”

That third “No” can have a lot of hidden background that the writer doesn’t see.  It might just be a plain old “No, this story is no good.”   But, it is also possible the editor was swamped with stories and had to do form rejections for everyone, even the ones that were liked.  Or a story was recently published that was very similar to yours, so they had to pass on it.   Or the editor wanted to buy it, but the sales and marketing department rebelled.

Too often, writers see all No’s as exactly the same, because they’re focusing on selling one particular story instead of focusing on establishing a relationship with an editor.

I’m sure you’ve heard salespeople talk about cultivating clients.  Writing is no different.   Over time, as they submit story after story to an editor, writers have the chance to cultivate an editor by showing what they can do.   Stephen King did not sell the first novel manuscript he sent to William Thompson.  Nor the second, nor the third.  It was on the fourth manuscript, CARRIE, that he finally made a novel sale.

That’s why pro writers with 20+ years experience making a living as writers emphasize the importance of “keep submitting a work,” and “keep writing new work.”    A “No” isn’t about “No,” it’s about cultivating potential business relationships that may result in a sale a few years later.

The Wriggle Room Between “No Control” and “Absolute Control”

So, we’ve seen that when we look closer at rejections there’s more going on than a simple “Yes” or “No.”  Another example of that binary attitude at work is when we see a situation as having “No Control vs. Absolute Control.”  Oftentimes, there’s wriggle room if we look closer.

This is probably best explored with an example.  Let’s take the example of … book covers in publishing.

It’s rare that a writer gets absolute control of his or her book cover unless the book is indie published.

But often we go to the opposite extreme in mindset, and assume we have no control at all when our book is traditionally published.  But if we sit down and brainstorm ideas, sometimes we can come up with ways that can “tweak” what is going on with a book cover at a publisher.

Okay, so I’m going to take a moment and try to brainstorm ways I could wriggle past “No Control” on book covers with a publisher.  There’s no guarantee that any of them would help, but I wouldn’t know unless I tried.

Brainstorm Ideas to Get Past “No Control” Over Book Cover

1)  I could learn more about book covers in publishing.  Laura Resnick has a great series of articles to read on covers.

2) I could make a collage of favorite photos and pictures about the book, and send a JPEG copy to my editor to share with the art director and/or book artist.

3) I could ask for “cover consultation” in the contract if I have some clout; if I have major clout, “cover approval.”

4) I could demand a particular cover artist in the publishing contract if I have enough clout.

5) I could ask for final approval of the cover artist chosen written into the publishing contract if I have the clout.

6) I could provide a list of cover artists I admire (with their website gallery addresses) to the editor.  The editor and art director might throw the list out, but there’s a chance one of the names might catch their interest.  Can’t hurt to try.

7) I could politely ask the editor for a chance to see the cover sketches and layout before the final cover is done.

8) I could take a class on Photoshop, graphic design, or illustration so that I had a better understanding of what a book cover artist does.

9) I could go to bookstores to study covers, and browse through e-bookstores to look at thumbnail-sized covers.

10) I could find out who has won awards for their cover design work, and study the award-winning covers.

I could go on, but I’m certain you all see the point I’m getting at.   Sometimes even in situations where the writer officially has “No Control,” there’s wriggle room IF the writer is pleasant to deal with.   Woo, don’t whine.

So, to reiterate, remember that there’s more to a “No” than just “No.”  And keep an eye out for ways to wriggle out of a “No Control” business situation in publishing.   Good luck!

Getting Beyond “Yes or No” Thinking in Writing, Part One

In last week’s blog post I talked about dealing with rejections by stopping the thoughts that it is personal (aka “My writing sucks”), permanent (“I’ll never sell a story”), and pervasive (“I’m a loser”). Some of us like to call these negative thoughts “the problem of the three p’s.” And they are a problem, because they create a feedback loop that sabotages the ability to keep submitting and also makes it difficult to focus on craft skills.

This week I want to dig deeper into what can be done to shake “the three p’s” off, and introduce the idea of what I like to call the “maybe spectrum.” Too often knee jerk thinking is binary–it’s “Yes or No,” “Up or Down,” and “This or That.” Reality is often much blurrier.

The techniques I’m about to discuss can be used not only with rejections, but with any pattern where writers are noticing self-sabotaging thoughts going on. I’m just going to focus on rejections because it’s an easy example that typically causes a lot of pain and annoyance for writers.

Ready? Let’s go.

Taking It Personally (aka “My writing sucks”)

First step, write the negative sentence down.

Second, strike out any personal references–I, me, my, myself, etc–in that sentence.

Now, rewrite the sentence. In this case, it would become “This story sucks.”

Considering that writers are the worst judges of their own work, I now ask, “How do you know for sure?” It may well be that 99% of the time, the story does suck, but at least 1% of the time it might just be repeatedly rejected because has a strange voice. So now you should change the sentence to, “This story probably sucks.”

Welcome to what I like to call the “maybe spectrum,” that fuzzy area between “Yes” and “No.”

Which brings up another point–if you haven’t reached pro level in your craft knowledge, you probably won’t be able to tell if there’s a problem with the story no matter how many times you reread it. And showing the story to other beginning writers also probably won’t help, because they’re in the same boat as you are and are going to have an instinctual urge to rewrite your story in their own voice. However, if there are pros in the writing group, they might be able to help.

Showing the story to a group of avid readers might help, though they won’t be able to tell you how to fix it.

So, under the “This story sucks” sentence, you could then ask yourself, “Are there things I need to study or do to figure out what is going on here?”

Oftentimes if a writer is unpublished, that writer is better off going on to write four new stories instead of trying to rewrite the old one because so much more will be learned in writing the new stories.

Also, like any other field of endeavor, if you want to be the best, you need to study with the best. Look around and see if writers whose writing you love teach a class, write books about writing, or lecture at a conference. And if that means having to get a on a plane to fly cross-country to study with them, do it. Also, if you want to make a living writing fiction, you need to study with writers who make a living writing fiction.

Seeing It as Permanent (aka “I’ll never sell a story”)

First step, write the negative sentence down.

Second, strike out the “never” or “always” that makes it a negative sentence. Because really, how do you know for sure? If you’re able to predict the future at 100%, you’re wasting your special predictive skills by doing fiction writing–you ought to be working for a policy institute that studies future trends. They need you.

Here’s the deal. If a writer tells himself too many times that “I’ll never sell a story,” sooner or later he will come to believe it and stop submitting work. Also, this way of seeing the situation blinds the writer to what is going on around him.

A better tactic would be to say, “This story is looking like it’s a hard sell. What is going on here? Is it a craft issue? A market issue? Productivity problems? Burnout?”

Maybe it’s a craft issue and he needs to go study with some great writers to get better. Or maybe the market for novellas has gone away and he’s going to have to self-publish them instead. Or maybe he’s only writing one short story a year, so the odds of a sale are extremely poor. Or maybe he’s just burned out in his stories because he’s trying to please every imaginary reader and editor in his head. But the only way he’s going to figure this out is if he asks the questions in the first place.

Again, we’re back on the “maybe spectrum.”

Seeing It as Pervasive (aka “I’m a loser”)

I consider this attitude so deadly that I don’t want you to even write it down. And actually, if this is a reoccurring thought for anyone reading this, please seriously consider doing cognitive therapy for a few months to get this destructive thought train to stop.

What makes this thought so nasty that the rejection of a story turns into a self-judgment on an entire person’s life.

Even if it turns out that a writer has no talent for fiction writing, that does not mean those hours while she wrote were wasted. Writing can be a hobby just like painting, and a way to grow as a human being for it pushes one to pay close attention to the world. Also, I’ve met too many people who see fiction writing as the only kind of writing to do because they crave fame or money–it might very well be that non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, technical writing, etc. is a happier fit.

People like to fantasize about fame and money as a fiction writer solving their problems, but in reality if they achieve success their problems will just get more numerous and bigger since fiction writing is a business. Don’t believe me? Go read articles about what happens to lottery ticket winners.

Another point I’d like to make is that failure in one endeavor can result in skills that lead to success in another. Too often the dichotomy of “winner” and “loser” in people’s minds makes them forget about this. The mistakes teach us so much, if we’re willing to learn from them.

People tend to be too fond of slapping labels on themselves. “I’m a _____.” But in reality, we are many many roles at the same time, and have the possibility of discovering new ones to take on if we’re willing to do so…if we’re willing to risk making mistakes.

Remember, each of us has within ourselves an undiscovered country of possibilities.

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Thanks for reading. I had fun writing this at the airport while waiting for my plane flight–it made the time go much more quickly than usual.  Next Monday I’ll go into more depth about trying to look for wriggle room in publishing situations that seem to be one of “no control.”