Writers, suit up. Your game is on.

Writers, suit up. Your game is on. | Rock Your WritingMany authors I meet are in what I call practice mode.

What does practice mode look like?

It can be the writer who is endlessly polishing his writing skills, but hasn’t completed a draft.

Or the author who is plotting an intricate series, but hasn’t written a word.

Or even the novelist who abandons her third partial draft, seduced by the next idea, certain that this one, this one finally, will be the one that takes her from obscurity to the pantheon of writing greatness.

All of them are preparing, so when their time comes — when they’re finally on stage, presenting a finished work to the world — they will be ready. They’re not sure when that moment will be, but they’re fairly certain they will know it when they see it.

You know you’re in practice mode when…

  • You don’t let anyone see your work.  This doesn’t mean you’re not querying, or self-publishing. It means just that: you’re not sharing your work with anyone. If it’s a rough draft, that makes sense. But if you’re on your third revision and you’ve gotten no feedback — you’re probably in practice mode.
  • You don’t complete a single project.  If you’re on your third or fourth manuscript, and you’ve never completed one draft and one revision on any of them, you may be in practice mode. Or you may have technically completed a project, but you keep fiddling with it, polishing it, revising it, rewriting it, with no subconscious intention of letting it go.
  • You have a grand plan, but not an action plan.  If you’ve got a double-trilogy in your head that you’d love to write, but you aren’t carving out time in your schedule to write it beyond “I’ll write every day!” –then you’ve got the dream, but no practical way of executing it. That’s practice.

Sometimes, it makes sense to be in practice mode.

I took a year-long sabbatical from fiction writing last year, because I knew I was burned out. How’d I know? Because I was in a year-long “practice mode” plateau the year prior. I’d start things, then decide they weren’t working.  I’d fiddle endlessly with plot outlines. I’d develop whole series arcs and backstories and then ditch the lot.

I was the Queen of Waffling, the Princess of Practice Mode.  I was also tapped out, completely drained. I needed to shift focus — and more importantly, I needed to give myself specific and clear permission to shift from practice mode into replenishment hibernation. Otherwise, I was going to keep plugging away ineffectively, doomed to failure because I lacked the fuel to get to my goal — and resenting myself for failing, because I didn’t recognize that fact.

Other valid reasons to be in practice mode:

1.  You have no idea what you’re doing.  You’ve just started this whole writing thing, and you’re still  raw and vulnerable.  Practice is just what you need, so that tiny seed of an idea doesn’t get stomped to death by well meaning professionals.

2. You have your own issues to work through beyond writing. This could mean big personal stress factors (death in the family, illness, move, or other major life changes) or it could mean massive writing factors (you’ve been dropped by your publisher, you are trying to change genres, you’re feeling insecure and confused).  Practice mode is your re-training and rehabilitation ground. (Extreme cases can require rehabilitation mode.)

3. You’re scared.  For any reason.  Fear needs to be acknowledged and treated with care.

Everybody’s ready at different times, at their own pace. The trick is to be aware of where you are — and why you’re there.

The problem most authors have: they’re in practice mode, but they think they’re not.  They think they’re “in it to win it” when, in actuality, they haven’t even left the locker room.

Successful authors take the field.

It’s not that they aren’t honing their craft, or plotting larger projects, or deciding which project will best suit their careers.  They may still have plenty to learn. Big issues.  And, yes, they still have fears.

But they’re in motion. Their game is on. The clock is ticking, and they’ve got to play or forfeit their dreams.

They are willing to make mistakes in front of other people. They put their entire hearts into their pursuit. They might be scared, but it’s a bit late for that. They’re in it until the game’s over.

For some, that might be a period of a year. Or a novel, however long that takes. But they know that the time for waffling is over. Whatever their objective is, they’ve burned their boats: there’s no going back.

What would you do if you were totally committed?

I don’t mean “I’d quit my job, move to a shack in Montana and write twenty hours a day, subsisting on only dandelion greens and spring water” committed.  Generally speaking, that’s not commitment, that’s fantasy.  (Or insanity.)

I mean, given the other obstacles you’re facing — negotiating the needs of a day job and a family and your own personal well-being — if you were told “if you write your book this year, there’s a good chance we’ll publish it”, what would you do?

Or what if you were told, “if you promote yourself, build your platform a bit, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have a shot at a life-long career”, what would you do?

Would you go for it? Or would you let it pass you by, think “maybe next year?”

Showing up doesn’t mean winning.

Some might argue that they wouldn’t unless “good chance” got bumped up to “guarantee.”

Sure, if they absolutely knew that there was no way they could fail, they would somehow carve out time to write every day. They’d figure out a strategy for promoting themselves, and diligently, day by day, build up their platform. They’d go to superhuman lengths — if they knew there was no way they could fail.

Successful authors know there are no guarantees. They make the commitment anyway. They create the plan, set aside the time, get the training and support, and go for it.

Sometimes, they pay a harsh price. Rejection, criticism, financial hardship.  Some drop back into practice mode for a while.

They also know one thing that unsuccessful authors don’t:  there is always another season.  They just need to keep playing.

So tell me, in the comments: are you in practice mode? Or are you in the game?




17 Replies to “Writers, suit up. Your game is on.”

  1. Damn, Coach. Fess up – I’m your poster-boy for this essay, aren’t I? Am I in eternal practice mode? Am I looking for some kind of guarantee? Lord knows I’m terrified. “The trick is to be aware of where you are — and why you’re there.” Bingo!

    Hard-hitting stuff. Thanks for not pulling your punches. You’ve giving me lots to chew on while I apply the ice-packs back here in the locker room. 😉

    1. If it’s any comfort, Vaughn, you are far from alone. I didn’t really realize until this year what a difference that mindset made. I’d been in the game before (when I was younger and fearless), then drifted. Now that I’m back, older and wiser, I can see just how crucial the commitment (and, even more importantly, taking action!) is. Hang in there!

  2. Hi from the locker room! I’m still back here mapping out book ideas and waiting for them to write themselves. I’m definitely still in the learning phase, but you’ve really hit the nail on the head for me. Thank you. Now that I see that I’m really in the locker room, I’m going to figure out what it means to be in the game, and how that looks.

    1. Great observation, Abby. I’m a big fan of education and building your skill set, but after a certain point, the best knowledge comes from practice. Hang in there!

  3. Kick me out of the locker! No wait, I’m bare-ass naked. All my insecurities are hanging out. Ouch, you must have been thinking of me when you wrote this. Certainly an eye-opener, but once your eyes are opened you can never go back the way you came. Eh?
    Great post.

    1. Giggling. 🙂 Yes, insecurities and nakedness tend to be touchstones for staying out of the game. If you know why you’re in practice mode, and you give yourself permission to be there, it’s perfectly valid. But you have to do it consciously, or weird things happen.

      I’m glad you liked the post!

  4. I’ve come in and out of practice mode since I started writing “novels” in high school. In my early twenties I hit game time, but I was really green. I tried, and failed at a lot, and I learned, but also picked up bad habits. Year before last, I was in practice mode and didn’t know it. Last few months it was intentional because real life stuff was still insane, but now, it’s game time.

    The fear is still going strong, and even now I worry I’m making the wrong choices. But I have to pretend I can’t fail in order to press on, and keep doing the best I can.

    Thanks, this post was wonderful. Part of what’s helped me in game time is using Painless Promotion to not just plan out all the stuff that’s fallen by the wayside like blogging, but also given me a structure for drafting and revising.

    1. I’m so glad that this post, and Painless Promotion, are helping you move into game mode. It’s scary, but it’s worth it.

      The other key: it’s less scary if you’ve got support. Make sure you’re connecting with writing friends. And feel free to email me, any time!

  5. Excellent points and well presented. These are especially helpful for new or aspiring authors. There are so many reasons that we hold back or stay in the practice mode, but moving forward is the only smart option. It’s like jumping in the lake, once you are in, it’s more fun than you expected. Thanks for your time and sharing your experience.

  6. “’if you write your book this year, there’s a good chance we’ll publish it, what would you do?”

    Uh, faint, then cry, then do whatever it took!

    “’if you promote yourself, build your platform a bit, there’s an excellent chance you’ll have a shot at a life-long career,’ what would you do?

    Uh, faint, then cry, then cry more because I would be instantly frustrated (as I am now because I’m clueless) and angry at the world of publishers and what this business has become (as I am now).

    That aside, I am practicing. Apparently. 🙂 Trying hard to find a path and spending money on trainers, classes, webinars, pens and paper and, assorted “stuff” — ideas with no real benefit, so far, and money not-so-well spent.

    Finding my way back to the world of bloggers where comments make such a difference! 🙂 Thank you, Cathy, by the way. Sorry for the less-than-upbeat reply.

  7. Great post, Cathy, thank you. Came across your site from your post on The Book Designer.
    You really made me think and that is always good!
    Right now, I’m running down the corridor into the stadium/arena to get into the game. After many years in practice mode, my first novel has just come back from a developmental edit and more real work awaits a little refocusing and rescheduling of what I thought were achievable goals for this year. About to read your next post about goal setting 🙂

  8. This is so true and useful. I ‘practised’ for over a year – my novel must have the most polished first three chapters in history. But something snapped in my this year. I have it to someone to read. They liked it. Then someone who is a literary scout and she liked it. Now I am in synopsis / query letter mode and attacking my second novel like a hungry wolf. I wish I’d read this a year ago!

  9. I think I’ve been stuck in Practice Mode for a while now. It’s time though, way past time for that to change. Reading this post of yours was like a kick in the pants. Thanks for that, by the ay.

    It’s time for me to stop waffling and to take the same approach with writing as I do with my job. It’s time to get serious and get it done!

  10. I’m pretty sure I’ve been hanging out in the locker room for about 20 years, I’ve chosen a corner for myself and decorated it in my haphazard nonsensical way. I’ve decided to use a few extra lockers to store all those unfinished pieces I’ve accumulated, never finish but never throw away either. They number in the 100s possibly the thousands. I’m so mortified about my inability to leave the locker room I’ve stopped admitting to anyone in person that I actually do write, sort of. Does it count as writing if you’re too easily distracted to finish anything?

    I’m trying Camp NaNoWriMo at the moment for some sort of accountability except when stuff usually flows really easy until I get distracted this story, not so much. Normally I write in a linear pattern knowing in my head much of what will come next and I continue working on that piece until my head gets all fuzzy with another idea. This one, I’m writing random scenes that I know are from this story and hoping at some point I’ll figure out how they’re connected. If I meet my word count goal of 100k this month I should have something close to a finished draft to start working with. Who knows if that will happen with how poorly the draft is even coming out. There’s this part of me saying it’s probably not the right idea for me and another part of me that says, none of the other ones that started so easily got finished so does that mean every idea I’ve had, that have clouded my mind and interfered with clear thought are the wrong idea? So I’m trying to stick it out with this piece no matter how horrible it turns out. My goal at the moment is to have a finished rough draft. If I can reach that goal I might make a new one. I know that’s not coming out of the locker room, but it’s a lot closer to the door than I’ve ever really been.

    I think I’m in the locker room for a combination of the three reasons, but not with all the symptoms if that makes any sense. I’m happy to let other people that want to read what I’ve got written. I look forward to their feedback especially if it’s critical, outside thoughts of where to fix stuff. So that’s not really an issue for me. I don’t really solicit people to read my work, it’s not even finished, it’s never finished. But someone asks, I will. I’ve tried joining crit groups hoping it would offer me a combination of accountability and a outlet to help me improve. I haven’t found the right one for me. Not because I didn’t get feedback, that was nice. It’s that they were larger online groups and I’ve worked in journalism and small press editing before so I tend to encounter those people that don’t want to follow the normal rules and instead send things off list. The last crit group I was in I’d have so many things to edit of everyone else’s that I’d take 2 or 300 pages of other people’s chapters with me on vacation because I couldn’t keep up with them if I took a vacation without it. So if I ever do another one I want it to be smaller and sort of equalish. Which sounds so awful, but if you’re going to be in one of those you aren’t really accomplish anything if you spend all your time doing crits for other people and none of it writing. Finding something like that when you’re not very outgoing isn’t exactly easy. And I don’t really see much of a point until I can finish an actual draft.

    I can’t say I know a ton about the business, basics yes, I’ve managed to pick up quite a few contacts just doing the things I enjoy that I think would help with that if I ever do get into the business. But as far as what agents want what, or which one I’d want to submit to that’s not something I’ve researched because why would I if I can’t finish anything. You need something polished before you worry about the little details of publishing you need to know in order to get published in my personal opinion. I’ve had personal issues that I needed to deal with like my father passing away when I was 21 and all of his responsibilities landing on my shoulders because I wasn’t strong enough to say this isn’t my responsibility or my problem. I shouldn’t be the only one who has to grow up. So basically my life derailed and I lost a lot of who I was along the way. Recently I’ve been taking an interest in things I haven’t even really noticed since before that happened. It only took about 12 or 13 years and a cross country move to get me to that point. And fear, of course I’m afraid. I’m afraid of failing at my only real dream. I’m afraid of succeeding and then what? Walking into a new set of expectations that I might not be ready for? My life actually changing. Or maybe not changing at all, like what if I finally achieve the dream and all those things I was sure would get better if I could just do this one thing don’t get any better, all that’s really changed is that I don’t have that dream to pursue anymore.

    The thing is I’ve actively tried so many times to walk away from this dream, to find a new one, but it never works, I always start writing again and not finishing. I don’t want to do anything else. It’s like this part of me is missing because I can’t seem to do this. It’s not even about publishing for me, at least not yet. It’s about being able to get the stories in my head that make me feel like I’m going insane at points out on paper in hopefully a somewhat cohesive manner. Okay that’s probably way more of a comment then you wanted, but thanks for letting me post it anyway.

  11. Hi Cathy.

    I just joined your new forum and read this post. Thank you for validating what this “newbie” is feeling. Over the past six months I embarked on this journey of learning how to write a novel. I read both of K.M. Weiland’s books on outlining and story structure, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, and now your books. I am in the process of reviewing them again (I highlighted and “took notes” on my Kindle Reader), and am now learning to use Scrivener, Scrapple and Evernotes. It’s been a lot of work but I realize it will pay off in spades over time.

    I am so happy I stumbled upon all of these wonderful writing tools regarding outlining and structuring a story, developing characters, writing scenes, and the whole plethora of elements that goes into writing a novel. I don’t even want to imagine the disaster this novice “panster” would have produced otherwise – I would likely have thrown in the towel. It was like a Godsend I read these books.

    Now I am finally starting to outline and do a little writing even though I have a ton of material to work with. I also have to organize the enormous amount of research I have done (and am still doing). I have created a storyline that is quite complex, but very compelling according to the two voracious and highly critical readers that know about my idea. They said it is a novel “that needs to be written.” So I have a long (scary) journey ahead.

    This truly life-long, seat-of-the-pants guy has suddenly become a very methodical plotter. Now it’s a matter of coming out of my fiction writing shell and “just do it!” Looking forward to utilizing your wonderful tools, as well as your advice, and picking the brains of other experienced writers here on your forums. Cathy, you and K.M. are the “Prozac” for my writing anxieties. I now know I can walk this proverbial tightrope with a safety net underneath me.

    Thanks for your insight and wisdom. Hopefully, you vicariously turn this novice into a published novelist! 🙂


    Lance Haley

  12. Figure since I just read the other post. I would read this one. I think I am in the game. I am still revising, but sharing my work in a group, finding beta readers and honing my craft more and more each week.

    I put “the End” on my first draft and am reading your book as I go along.

    So yeah, I think I have a cool story, cool characters, I am getting support and am actually finding a couple hours a day to put fingertips to keyboard.

    Batter up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *