The Only Thing Standing In My Way Is Me

stopsabI love to plot. Brainstorming a story problem gets me excited. I also love to edit. Tinkering and tweaking previously written words makes me happy. It’s the stuff that comes between brainstorming and tinkering that sometimes makes me want to tear out my hair and rend my garments. You know, the actual writing of all those words.

We can analyze the psychology of it all until the cows come home, but it basically boils down to this: self-doubt, leading to fears that paralyze my mind and fingers. And there are really only two big fears here. Ironically, they’re on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

Fear of failure. What if I finish and it sucks. I’ll never be as good as I want to be. People will realize I’m a fraud, that I can’t really write. I’ll be criticized and ridiculed and will have to change my name and drift away from all my writing friends.

Fear of success. What if I finish and it doesn’t suck? What if someone actually wants to publish it? Then I’ll have to write another one, similar to this one because that’s what readers expect. And it has to be at least as good as this one or everyone will say that one sucks. I’ll have to deal with editors, agents, deadlines. I’ll have to learn about edits, covers, marketing. What if I make a wrong choice along the way? What if my long hours of writing become mandatory instead of voluntary? What if I lose the joy? The passion? What if I can’t keep doing it all? (See fear of failure, above.)

These two fears then lend themselves to a truly amazing array of self-sabotaging behaviors.

Procrastination. The baseboards suddenly need to be dusted. That box of twelve-year-old tax papers must be shredded now. The newsletter article I’ve been putting off has to be written before I work on my book!

Avoidance. I deserve to watch that Netflix show everyone’s been raving about but I haven’t seen yet because I’ve been so busy writing, poor pitiful me. I also deserve to spend more time reading books, lunching with friends, playing with my dog. I shouldn’t have to give up everything I love to do in order to write, should I?

Perfection Complex. I sit my butt in that chair, I put my hands on that keyboard, and I start writing. But the word I just typed isn’t quite right. There’s a better one, but I can’t think of it. So I pull up Google on my other screen and do a quick synonym search to find the perfect word.

A couple paragraphs later, I’m not sure which imaginary river should flow into the imaginary lake in my story. I made up the lake, for God’s sake. I should be able to make up the river, right? But what if that state has no rivers that flow into natural lakes? I don’t have a dam on my lake. Should I? Back to Google, for never-ending research.

As writers, we all know that what we write will never be perfect. But that doesn’t stop some of us from striving for it. It’s not just in our writing – it applies to other areas of our lives. Again, I won’t get into all the psychological mumbo jumbo of it, but it’s a thing. Unfortunately, when we inevitably fall short, we beat ourselves up, call ourselves failures and say “I can’t do this.”

And…we’ve come full circle. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of failure.

I’ve come up with a few creative ways to deal with these self-sabotaging behaviors. I reward myself with a show or a book when I meet writing goals. I throw my dog’s ball close to the wall when we’re playing fetch, and she dusts the baseboards as she slides by. And instead of Googling as I write, I type one particular word in caps when I get stuck. Later, when I get to do the fun editing stuff, I do a search for that word and Google to my heart’s content.

I know in my heart that I can accomplish any goal I set for myself. I just need to get out of my own way.

 

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May Your Reach Exceed Your Grasp

Shoot2I gave up on making New Year’s resolutions around the same time I quit writing my adolescent fantasies in pink diaries that came with tiny metal keys. I’d learned that both things had about the same odds of success. But that doesn’t mean I gave up on either one completely. The fantasies improved with age, and if I wrote them down, they were channeled into fiction writing. And the resolutions gave way to goals.

Resolutions are often so vague or so big, they’re impossible to keep. Goals, on the other hand, are specific. They can be broken down into smaller steps. And most importantly, they’re within my control.

At my local RWA chapter’s Christmas party, everyone jots down their writing goals for the following year. One member keeps the goals and brings them to the party the following year. We share what we did or didn’t accomplish, and then write our goals for the upcoming year. Sometimes we celebrate achievements. Sometimes we just stick the same paper back in the container and vow to do better. It’s a fun part of our celebration, and it’s helped me focus on what I want from my writing each year.

I know that having my book traditionally published can’t be my goal. I can’t control whether or not an editor buys my book. But my goal can be to submit my book to editors. To do that, I have to finish the book. To do that, I have to write a certain number of words, pages or chapters within a certain amount of time. I need to research editors. Learn how to write a query letter. Learn how to write a synopsis. (Gack!) Each of these is a measurable step in reaching the goal of submitting my book.

There’s a popular method of goal-setting called the SMART plan: Your goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. A Specific goal is more likely to be reached than a general one. Measuring your progress helps you stay on track and motivates you with what you’ve already accomplished. A goal is Attainable if it’s something you want and are willing to put in the effort to achieve. Your goal is Realistic if it’s important to you and isn’t at odds with other goals you have. And a Timely goal is one with target dates for each step of the way. This is a great template for setting goals.

But keep in mind, setting attainable and realistic goals doesn’t mean not stretching yourself. As Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” That doesn’t mean you’re setting yourself up for sure failure if you dream big. You only fail if you don’t set goals and start taking steps. I can reach for the moon, knowing I’ll still be successful if I simply grasp a star.

Happy New Year. And may your reach always exceed your grasp

 

NoNo NaNo

Turtle2I’m in awe of writers who can do NaNoWriMo or any other book-in-a-month endeavor. I wish I could spew forth 50,000 words in four weeks and wind up with something salvageable. I’ve tried in the past to convince myself I could do it. If only I had the idea for the plot. The outline for the plot. The turning points, goals, motivations, conflicts, and black moment all lined up like newly-sharpened pencils next to my computer.

But therein lies my problem. NaNo is based on pantsing. I can pants to a point. But I live November in fear of pantsing myself right out of a whole month’s worth of writing time. Just as I don’t like surprises in real life and have a tendency to plan things to death, complete with checklists, I don’t like big surprises in my writing. Little surprises are fun, but big ones bother me. I’m not what you’d call spontaneous. To me, anticipation is half the fun. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

There’s also the issue of pressure. Now, I work well under pressure. Click a stopwatch and I can do an hour’s worth of work in fifteen minutes. But I can also crack under pressure. If I start slipping behind and the daily word count deficiencies keep adding up, I spend more time obsessing about that than I do writing. I refuse to set myself up for failure.

Not every writing method works for every writer. So instead of feeling disappointed about missing the party, I will cheer on my friends who do NaNo and admire from afar everyone who makes it to the end. But for me, NaNo is a big NoNo, and I can accept that. If you feel the same way, it’s OK. Trust me. Just spend November doing what you’ve been doing (assuming that’s writing at some pace). If I remember correctly, the tortoise won the race.

 

I Will Never Stop Learning

LearningIt’s my nature to be inquisitive. I love research, both in writing and in life. If I want to know something, I google the shit out of it until I’m satisfied. But I also like to scratch curiosity’s itch by asking people questions, taking classes, and attending workshops. I never know when someone will say something that flips a switch, even one I hadn’t realized was off.

Within the past two weeks I’ve been to two conferences put on by local chapters of Romance Writers of America. At Houston Bay Area’s Starfish Conference, Melinda VanLone spoke about book covers and Tracy Brogan discussed small moments and working humor into any story. At Northwest Houston’s Lonestar Conference, Damon Suede presented workshops on branding and creating power couples (and so much more). I’m not ready to think about book covers yet, and branding is barely on my radar. But I’ll remember the things I’ve learned from these conferences later, when I do need them. I had several lightbulb moments during Damon’s workshop on voids and verbs that had me speeding home to my computer, eager to apply these new techniques immediately.

Last month I took Terry Odell’s online class on writing romantic suspense, which answered questions I didn’t realize I had. I’m currently taking a class on weapons for writers, taught by Wendy Rome and Mark Pfeiffer. I’d decided it was time to learn about guns from the experts. I hadn’t counted on them also discussing head wounds, a timely assist for my current book. And the resources they’re providing for everything from poisons to stab wounds are invaluable. I’ve already signed up for a class next month on intrigue techniques by Colleen Thompson. I never pass up an opportunity to take one of Thompson’s workshops.

I look for learning opportunities everywhere. My only caveat is that the knowledge doesn’t come at the expense of my writing. My classes and conferences are rewards for putting words on the page, not excuses for being unproductive.

No matter if we’re young or old, novice or professional, successful or not, none of us are so transcendent that we can’t pick up nuggets of wisdom from others. I will never stop learning.

 

A Whirlwind of Inactivity

stressHurricane Harvey was bearing down on the Texas coast. I evacuated during Rita and Ike, so this would be my first time since moving here that I had to ride one out. I set about making preparations – I filled the car with gas, figured out how to start the generator, stocked up on bottled water and non-perishables. I had my Kindle charged, booklight batteries replaced, Scrivener on my iPad. I felt ready, especially since I’d been snowed in in Colorado plenty of times. If I got rained in for a week, I would just hunker down and write, write, write. Right?

Wrong. Oh, I got rained in, all right. Hours upon hours of isolated time, yet I didn’t put a pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard. What I hadn’t counted on was the creativity-killing stress from a storm like Harvey.

For more than a week, the local TV networks were all Harvey all the time. At first I watched for information. Safety. Watches and warnings. Soon it became an obsession. Social media was a lifeline, a way to stay in touch, find out which friends had water in their houses, lost power, been evacuated. Even when reading, the electronics were on…just in case. We had 148 tornado warnings in three days. The phone/TV-blasting, hide-in-the-center-of-your-house type of warnings. Stressful.

Water edged closer to my door, lightning turned the night sky into a constant strobe light, thunder shook the house, winds brought down tree branches – all stressful. Then evacuations by boats. Rescues by helicopters. Curfews. National Guard trucks cruising the streets at 3 a.m. Stress. Full.

Once the sky cleared and the waters began to recede, I took stock and was ashamed of myself for wasting a whole week of productivity. Especially as I’d been lucky enough to make it through Harvey unscathed. But after talking to my fellow writers, I found I hadn’t been the only one unable to write. The stress of the storm had sucked the creativity from all of us. Stress is distracting. It affects our ability to focus. Even if we weren’t worried about ourselves, our concern for those who lost everything didn’t leave us with enough mental energy to create.

Life will never be the same for thousands of people in Texas. But we’re working toward recovery. Like many other people and organizations, our RWA communities in Houston have donated money, furniture, clothing, and food. Those of us physically able to have helped friends clean up damaged homes. The sun is shining. And we’re finally starting to put words on paper again. It’s a start.

 

Behold the Mighty Cog

cogsIf you’re reading this, you’re a member of at least one local or online chapter of Romance Writers of America. We’ve all joined RWA for a variety of reasons. Educational workshops and conferences. Access to industry information. Writers helping writers. Hanging with our peeps.

What makes a chapter run like a well-oiled machine? The volunteers within its ranks who act as cogs, turning the gears of the board and moving the chapter forward.

I was having lunch recently with four fellow Houston Bay Area members. We calculated that between the five of us, we’ve accumulated almost fifty years of service, either as officers or chairpersons. Our current board members have served a total of sixty-five years between us (and only two of us overlapped the lunch group). Neither of these totals includes the many years of unofficial volunteering for conferences, literacy luncheons and special workshops.

Chapters need board members to survive, and they can’t be the same people, rotating from position to position every two years. Boards need new blood, new enthusiasm, new ideas. And the members who have racked up ten or more years of service in various positions need a break. It’s not the responsibility of just a few people to keep our chapter’s wheels turning. We’re lucky that we have a lot of members in HBA who can contribute to our chapter’s excellence.

Not having the time to volunteer isn’t really a valid excuse. Being a board member doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time. I’ve been on the board for six years in three different positions, contest coordinator for thirteen continuous years and newsletter editor for the past eight years (sentences running concurrently). Many other board members have volunteered even longer. We’ve done it while working full-time jobs, driving long commutes, raising children, burying loved ones. Oh, and writing.

Why do we do it? Partly because someone has to. But being on the board is as much a privilege as it is a commitment. It’s a way to have a voice in the direction the chapter is taking, the speakers being brought in, the activities being planned. It’s a way to become better acquainted with our chapter members as well as to network with those in other chapters. It keeps us connected when we might otherwise drift away while taking a break from writing.

If you’re taking advantage of your membership by coming to meetings, listening to speakers, socializing with chaptermates, you’re receiving something of great value. If you haven’t already, isn’t it time to consider giving something back? And if you already have, the entire chapter thanks you.

 

…And Then My Brain Explodes

brain explodesHow often do you see a Facebook post about a particular song an author listens to while writing? How many blog articles have you read that detail someone’s writing playlist?

The first time I heard discussions about music to write by, I thought whaaaat? And the more this topic was discussed, the more I felt like some mutant freak. I can’t listen to lyrics without being distracted from my writing. I’ve tried, because it seemed to be one of those writerly things one was supposed to do. I spent a happy afternoon enjoying the music, listening to the lyrics of the songs, and accomplishing no forward progress on my word count.

In an attempt to research this issue, thus proving I’m not the mutant freak I seem to be, I did what I always do. I Googled. Apparently, playing music with lyrics while writing causes the brain to shift rapidly between listening and creating. But the brain works more efficiently when paying attention to just one thing. It has something to do with burning too much glucose and releasing too much cortisol and creating too much stress. In other words…and then my brain explodes.

Listening to repetitive sounds or background noise like rain or waves actually works to improve focus by blocking out other distractions. And there’s no denying that listening to music or songs you like can improve your mood. I have friends who play music before they begin writing to put them into the scene. Especially the bow-chicka-wow-wow scenes.

I’m impressed by those who can listen to lyrics and write at the same time, but I will never be a member of that camp. I prefer total silence, instrumental music, or ambient background noise (rain, waves, the clink of ice in a glass of tequila—whatever). And I realize now that I’ve always been this way. Even in college, I could rock out like nobody’s business, but not while studying. When I cracked the books, I cranked up the volume on the moog synthesizer version of Switched-On Bach.

Yes, electronic classical music. I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drummer. And that’s okay. Synthesized Bach may not make my panties melt, but it keeps my brain from exploding.