Quitting 101 for Writers

quitProbably the biggest complaint I hear from writers is that they “don’t have enough time” to write.

This is usually followed, in the next breath, by listing all the things they’ve got going. All the social events, clubs, projects, volunteer activities, charity work, parental commitments, etc., they have been participating in.  And then how exhausted they are.  And how they can’t fit writing in anywhere.

Even though writing is supposedly a “priority.”

Even though publishing is “all they have ever dreamed of doing” with their lives.

The problem is, no matter how much of a priority something is, if you’re not making time for it, it really isn’t a priority. No matter how many times you call it that.

Actions speak louder than words. If you say writing is a priority, then take action to make it a priority!

So, how do you make time for writing? By quitting.

What?! “Quit,” you say? But winners never quit and quitters never win!

I beg to differ.

When is Quitting Okay?

How many of you struggle with quitting reading a book that you hate or that’s boring?  How many of you are still volunteering for something that no longer interests you or that you’ve come to dread?

Quitting, even something you’ve come to despise, can be really unpleasant for some folks.

But in order to make writing a priority, you can’t just talk about it.  You have to really make it one of the most important things in your life (maybe behind your kids, spouse, health . . . things like that). Remember this, again:  actions speak louder than words.

So, when is quitting okay?

When you’re doing too much –We often do all the things, volunteer for everything, and accept every invitation because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  But you can’t do everything, so it’s okay to be selective. There’s only so much time in a day, and spreading yourself thin can be hard on your health, family, and most definitely any chance you have of starting or maintaining a writing career.

When you’re doing things that aren’t yours to do – Are there things you’re doing that really should be the responsibility of someone else?  Or could they be someone else’s responsibility?  Delegating is a parent’s best friend. No one says you have to clean up after everyone or cook all the meals or drive all the carpools.  If a task can (or should) be done by someone else, hand them their responsibility and stop doing it all yourself.

When you’re only doing it out of habit — Just because you’ve been watching the same soap opera every day for the last ten years, doesn’t mean you have to keep watching it. If you’re only watching it out of habit and not really enjoying the rehashed plotlines, it’s time to quit.

When you’re only doing it because you spent money on it – This is a big one and really hard to get past for some people.  Even if you spent money on something, if it no longer brings you joy, quit. So what if you invested $1000 on piano lessons?  If practicing bores you to tears, you suck at it, and you don’t love it anymore, there’s no reason to keep pursuing it. You may have invested your money, but stop investing your time on something you dislike doing.

When you’re only doing it because someone else expects you to – Did you join a club because your friend begged you to, only to find that you no longer care?  Quit.  If your friend is a true friend, they will understand that you need to make writing a priority in your life.

When what you’re doing doesn’t support your goals — Don’t let saying “yes” become more important than reaching your own goals and dreams.   If the activity in question isn’t supportive of what you’re reaching for in your life, it’s time to quit.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, quit.

How (and What) to Quit

Once you’ve made the decision to quit those extraneous things in your life to make more time to write, how do you go about it?  How do you decide what has to stay and what can go?

Make a pros and cons list –  Not sure whether you still want to belong to the service club you’ve belonged to for ten years?  What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? If there are any cons, consider quitting if there’s no passion left.

Ask for outside opinions from trusted friends or family – Is there anything in your life that they have been telling you to quit?  Ask for their honest thoughts . . . keeping in mind that if you’re trying to quit an activity that they are invested in, they might not be the right person to ask.

Figure out how much extra time you’ll gain by quitting –  How much time do you spend at each of your activities on a weekly basis?  Start by calculating the most time-consuming activity you participate in, and see if it still seems as appealing, if quitting it could give you back that equally large amount of writing time.

Finally, try applying the KonMari method – From the crazy popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, this is really meant to tidy up your life by getting rid of material things that no longer bring you joy.  Applying this same method to the activities you participate in, though, could have an amazing effect on the time you have available to write!

One thing Kondo suggests in the book is clearing out all at once, rather than little by little.  Throwing one thing out a day isn’t going to clean your house up fast. On the other hand, ridding your house, all at the same time, of every item of clothing that isn’t bringing you joy will feel so good, you will be less likely to “relapse” into bad habits or add more things to your wardrobe that leave you joy-less.

Same with that long list of activities you participate in!  Try listing all the things you do (aside from the necessary things, like feeding your kids and getting regular dental checkups) and then go through them one by one, all at the same time, and decide what really brings you joy.

“Start by discarding,” says Kondo. “Then organize your space, thoroughly, completely, in one go.” [Emphasis mine.]

And by “space,” in this instance, we’re talking about your writing “space” – the time you spend, or want to spend – pursuing your goals and dreams.

Once you know what brings you joy, you know what to keep.  Ditch the rest.  Be a quitter and make time for the writing that you love and want more time for!

Final Quitting Thoughts

Remember, nothing is permanent.  If you quit something and then later find you miss it too much, you can always go back. As long as you aren’t doing it to procrastinate from writing.

If the idea of the KonMari method and quitting things all at once is a bit too much, or if you’re just not sure you want to give up a particular thing yet, at least commit to checking in again in six months to see if you still feel the same about it.  Once you’ve got the idea in your head that you may want to quit this activity, you might find all kinds of reasons cropping up that support this.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about quitting things that prevent you from writing — writing that you have determined is a priority for you.

Quitting 101 isn’t a primer on how to quit writing.  Writing is hard work and not always fun.  But there’s a huge difference between quitting something because it’s hard sometimes and quitting something because it leaves you no room for what’s really important in your life.

If you’ve committed to a writing career and decided it is your priority, then look for things to quit that don’t support this priority.

Being a quitter isn’t always bad. Quit the right things. For the right reasons.

And then go Rock Your Writing with all that free time you have.

~  Shannon McKelden

Take the Hypocritic Oath

DO HARMCathy’s note: here’s another winner from our newest editor, Lewis! 🙂

If you’ve watched medical or police procedurals, you’ve probably encountered the Hippocratic Oath, associated with the Greek physician Hippocrates—that’s four syllables, Bill & Ted fans, four—at some point. The oath is often summarized as “do no harm” though those words are not part of the oath itself.

Today, I’d like to introduce a different oath, one for authors and storytellers.

I shall call it the Hypocritic Oath, which states:  “Do Harm.”

Think about it. A book where nothing bad ever happened to characters wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? Do you want to read a book with no barriers to success of the main character(s)? A book with no conflict?

Ok, so why “hypocritic”?

Because as an author, you do all these terrible things to your characters, introduce obstacle after obstacle into their path, so they can overcome them. You know they are going to overcome them (unless you’re the kind of crazy-popular author who can get away with writing themselves into a corner before killing everyone).

It’s all about balance.

The more spectacular you want your ending to be, the more triumphant your hero(ine), and the larger the scale of the story, the greater the obstacles there should be, and the more pain and suffering and sacrifice your characters should endure before they achieve victory.

So I am here today to give you permission, as I often have with authors, to Do Harm.

Let’s get started.

Repeat after me:

I promise…to do horrible things…to my characters. To fill their lives…with pain…and misery…to torture them…at every turn…and to never…ever…make anything easy.

So, what now? Should you drop meteors on your main character’s head in the first scene? Well, I suppose you could, if you want your story (or your character) to be very short.

In many stories, the stakes increase as the story progresses.

This is an easy way to build tension. There might also be an added element of time pressure that comes increasingly into play, like the bus your character is on that can’t slow down without exploding might be running out of fuel. Ok, seriously subconscious, why do Keanu movies keep popping up in this blog post?

There should also be a natural order to the challenges you present.

I’m going to pick on the wisest of sages for a moment, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Mr. Yankovic’s ability to devise dastardly doings is unparalleled. But sometimes, for comic effect, he likes to screw up the order of escalation. There are a couple of great examples in the song “Virus Alert” from the album Straight Outta Lynwood. If the titular virus has melted your face off of your skull, is limiting your iPod to only being able to play songs by Jethro Tull really much of a concern? Probably not. Similarly, if a rift in spacetime had been torn open, would we really be concerned about litter caused by Twinkie wrappers?

When you are crafting a story, the circumstances should become progressively more challenging as the stakes and pressure increase. Aligning these factors can really help keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.

But if the order is off, the pacing probably will be too.

Now that you’ve been officially indoctrinated into the Order of Hypocrites (OOH), we should talk about two of the greatest enemies of the Order, “almost” and “nearly”. Ever have a character nearly get hit by a car or almost get shot? If you have, ask yourself why that happened.

Why did that car/shot/meteor miss the intended target? Were you subconsciously avoiding inflicting harm (breaking the oath you just took and condemning you to an eternity eating shards of broken glass)? Were you perhaps afraid that if your character were injured you wouldn’t know how to deal with that? If the answer to either of those was “yes” then you are injecting yourself into the story, which should be avoided.

Most importantly, if the character had been injured at that point, would it make the story better? Would it add tension and help with pacing? Does the character need something else to overcome at that moment?

Story structure can vary, but in most stories, a series of Bad Things will befall our intrepid heroes after the midpoint, escalating in intensity toward the point where all their hopes and dreams seem to have been flushed down the toilet with all those Twinkie wrappers. One of the many things that Donald Maass talks about in his various books and workshops is taking a situation and making it more difficult.

Here’s an exercise.

Take a look at one of your own scenes. What’s the situation? How can you make the circumstances worse? Once you have an idea, how can you make it even worse than that?

Have fun with it. Get creative. But do make sure the complication you introduce is organic to the story and doesn’t feel forced, you know, like Keanu starring in The Watcher.

 

 

Say No to the Multitasking Mistake

multitasking
Photo courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ihavezlatathoughts/

We live in a world that is full of the drive to do more, more, more.  As writers, we suffer from this expectation maybe more than a lot of other people.

We are expected to write more, blog more, market more, be visible on social media more.  It is all Important, with a capital I.  Not doing all these things constitutes failure as a writer. Doesn’t it?

So a lot of us turn to multitasking.

What is Multitasking?

How many of you carry on multiple Twitter conversations while writing?  Or work on more than one book at once. (And by “at once” I mean at the same sitting, maybe even on separate screens.)

How many of you watch TV while working on copyedits or play solitaire while writing your rough draft?  Anyone ever burned dinner because you were sucked into some black hole of research?

The “busy-ness” of multitasking makes us feel like we’re getting a lot done.  If we’re honest about it, though, in most of the above cases, multitasking is really just another term for “unable to concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing.”

So what exactly is multitasking?  Multitasking is doing more than one thing, side-by-side, which requires one’s attention to be given equally to each.  But since your brain cannot actually focus on two things simultaneously, what you are really doing is switching your attention back and forth between the two things.

Write a paragraph, answer an email, write another paragraph, answer another email. You’re not really working on both at the same time. You’re alternating between two separate things, each of which requires your brain’s undivided attention at the time of the doing.

Writers and Multitasking

Keep in mind that, by “multitasking,” I don’t mean doing different writerly things on different days or at separate times. As a working writer, or one trying to establish relationships with their Right Readers, for example, you may need to assign different tasks to different days.  Writing Monday through Thursday, bookkeeping on Fridays, marketing on weekends.

Alternatively, some writers divide their days into different types of tasks…writing in the mornings and answering emails and doing other business-related tasks in the afternoon.   None of these examples really falls into the category of multitasking because you are focusing on one task at a time.

Sometimes you have to make time for other tasks besides writing spur-of-the-moment. If you’re published, you’ve probably been deep into the first draft of a new book, only to get your editorial letter or your copy edits and have to completely shift gears.  There’s not much you can do about that…because you likely have a deadline.

How Multitasking Affects the Writing

When it comes to the effects of multitasking on the writing, these are the main issues:

  • Decreased productivity. While multitasking may make you feel busy, scientists estimate that productivity is actually decreased by 40% when you’re doing more than one thing concurrently.

Switching your focus to something other than the writing every couple of minutes has the same effect as if you saved your document and closed your program after a few paragraphs, only to need to wait for it to open again to work on it once more a few minutes later.

When you work on something else, then come back to the writing, you have to reboot your brain to get reacquainted with where you were before you can start again. If you’d just kept going, that “reboot” time could have been spent actually writing.

  • Loss of focus. If the words aren’t flowing easily, they certainly aren’t going to flow any better if you allow yourself to shift focus to something else instead, even for a few minutes. You’d be better off staring into space when things aren’t flowing, and letting your brain work out the problem, instead of giving it something completely different to do.
  • Increase in mistakes. Typos, skipping important information in a scene, calling a secondary character by the wrong name.  Sometimes, when you’ve switched tasks, your brain is still back on the other one, which can cause errors.  Another way mistakes can increase is by loss of continuity.  Copy editing while watching TV can cause you to skip sentences. Your focus is pulled away to the television, and when you come back, you don’t go quite back to where you ended, and you miss something.
  • Greater stress level. Yes, believe it or not, task-switching increases adrenaline in your system and actually increases your stress level! While working on your manuscript, your mind may be stressing out over what you might be missing on Facebook.
  • Decreased likelihood of finishing things…like your work in progress. Starting multiple stories and working on them all at once means it’s going to take longer to get these things completed…if they ever do get finished. (You’re liable to get bored with one or both and move on to yet another shiny pretty new things before ever completing any of it.) Multitasking produces activity, not accomplishment.

 

Multitasking Solutions

Are we ever going to be able to get rid of multitasking completely?   Probably not.

But if you’re struggling to get that chapter done, feeling like you’re never quite “in the zone,” wondering why you feel like you’re missing opportunities on Twitter or Facebook to communicate with your readers, finding yourself making mistakes…STOP. Take a look at  your work habits.

It could be that you’re never giving one task all of your attention for any length of time.

Here are a few solutions to making the mistake of multitasking.

  • De-socialize. Turn off email and social media notifications while working. Don’t answer the phone. No one is going to miss you for an hour or two. When you’ve completed your writing for the day, feel free to play on Twitter all you want, giving it all your attention instead of only half of it.
  • Save things for later. DVR your favorite shows if they come on during your writing time. The show will be just as good at another time. Bonus…you will likely pay more attention to the show AND be able to skip commercials.
  • Get rid of distractions. Delete Candy Crush or any other addiction from your phone or computer.  If it’s not there, you won’t be tempted to just “play one more level” between paragraphs. Change when you write.  If all your writing friends hit Twitter at 6 p.m., can you write before that, so you aren’t tempted to multitask?
  • Check into distraction-free writing tools that will help keep you focused.
  • Schedule your tasks and your downtime. Put a day without writing on your calendar, and take care of personal things on that day, or feel free to explore marketing or social media more in depth. Schedule a couple of hours of research time in the morning and then work on the scenes you were gathering research for in the afternoon.  Don’t research as you go.

With a bit of adjustment, you can disable the multitasking bug most of the time.  You’ll find that once you’re focusing better on one task at a time, you’ll accomplish more, faster, and better.

Last month when I wrote my blog post for Rock Your Writing, it took me nearly a week of evenings. This month it took me a few hours one evening, including research time.

Why the big difference?  Last month I wrote while watching TV each night. (And if you don’t think Sam and Dean can take your focus away from what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ve never watched Supernatural.)

This month I turned off the TV and concentrated on one thing, researching and writing my blog post. It took me a fifth of the time.

If that’s not proof of the evils of multitasking, I don’t know what is.

Where do you find multitasking tripping you up?  How do you solve the problem? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Rock Your Writing!

~Shannon McKelden

Introducing our new editor, Lewis Pollak

Lewis photoRock Your Writing is growing! We’re bringing on a new editor, the fantastic Lewis Pollak. He’s an experienced developmental and line editor, working with Entangled Publishing during its explosive growth in the past few years. I’ve worked with him, myself, and can vouch for his editorial prowess. (The guy’s got a gift!)

I’ll let him tell you a bit more about himself, in his own words. Welcome, Lewis!

Danger: Puns ahead. You have been warned.

Hey there, all you folks out in Writerland. Cathy asked me to write a blog post introducing myself, but before I do that, let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to be joining the team at Rock Your Writing. Cathy and I have known each other for several years now, and I am excited about bringing a new element to the team so that we can all serve you better. The best part is, I get to do more of what I love: editing.

I have worn quite a few hats over the years, from med student to game designer to Toyota salesman. Oh, and Realtor. Not to mention husband, father, and general layabout. Editor is definitely a favorite. The thing about being an editor that appeals to me is that I have the chance to shape stories and help make them better. If all I was interested in was nitpicking stuff to death, I could just write reviews.

Speaking of which, I’ve always been puzzled by book, movie, and game reviews. Why do so many reviewers insist on telling me whether or not they like the thing they are writing about? Frankly, I don’t care if they like it or not. I won’t even go into the number of reviews I have seen where the reviewer clearly doesn’t even like the genre of work and then criticizes it for being exactly what it purported itself to be. As a person trying to make a purchasing decision, I want a review to help me figure out if I’m going to like it and whether it is going to be a good purchase for me. It’s all about me, right?

For most of the editors I have spoken to, the same holds true for them when they are reviewing a proposal. They want not only to love it, but to be in love with it. Wanting to be in love with a story makes a certain amount of sense if you have to go into an editorial meeting and convince others in the room that a particular project should be acquired. I suppose that’s one reason I don’t particularly care for being involved in acquisitions.

As a freelance editor, it doesn’t matter to me if I like a book when I am asked to edit it, any more than I care whether a reviewer likes a product.  When I am editing a book, it isn’t about me at all. It’s all about the story and making it the best story it can possibly be, whether the author hopes it will be a bestseller or it is the book of their heart and a story they simply need to tell. So what if “Planet of the Grapes” doesn’t have a market? If that’s the story that keeps you awake at night, you must believe me when I say I won’t be wining about it.

Wine puns… Sorry, but I did warn you.

You see, I know that when I begin working on a story, the object before me is a precious thing, even if it doesn’t look like it yet. Just as nature requires incredible amounts of heat and pressure to create diamonds, I have great respect for the blood, the sweat, the heart and soul that each author puts into their work. And every single time I take on a project, I am humbled to find myself in the remarkable position of having people share their work with me. Like a gemcutter, an editor can help bring out the best shape in a story, give it facets, and polish it until it sparkles, but none of that would be possible without the astonishing amount of effort that goes into the not-so-simple act of putting those words down on (digital) paper.

When I have done my part, it is my hope that two things are true: that the story is better for having gone through the process and that it is still a story the author wants to tell. That last part is of critical importance to me. I can come up with the best ideas in the world to make a story better, but if it no longer remains a story that the author wants to tell, if the characters no longer feel like theirs, then those ideas are worthless to the author. Being told by an author that they love the direction a story is taking, that they have renewed excitement for working on it—those are the greatest compliments I will ever receive.

Above all, I get to work with talented people, participate in the creative process alongside them, and help them progress toward completion, knowing I had a hand in making their work better. And I can do all that without having to tell an author that the thing they have worked so hard to create isn’t good enough because I’m not in love with it, needing to convince anyone it should be published, or worrying about whether post-apocalyptic varietals are hot right now.

 

How to Rock Your Resolutions

New year
Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/cydcor/

Every year millions of people make New Year’s resolutions on January first. And by January thirty-first have completely forgotten what those resolutions were.

I’ve been guilty of this.  As the new year rings in, I create this “wish list” of things I want, only to shamefully admit failure within a few weeks.

If I even remember what those resolutions were a few weeks later.

But why do we do this?  It’s estimated that somewhere between 80 and 90% of New Year’s resolutions are broken within a couple of months at the most.  I mean, if we want something badly enough to put it on a list of things we want (Lose weight!  Get more exercise!  Write a book!), why is it so hard to stick with it?

Here’s what I think:  when we come up with these resolutions, we don’t often give thought to whether we are willing to do what is necessary to accomplish them.

For example, I can say I want to lose 25 pounds and it sounds great!  Until I realize what I will have to do to lose those 25 pounds.  Dessert every night?  Nope.  Dinners out every Saturday at my favorite Mexican restaurant?  Nope.  The ability to binge eat through a Netflix marathon every weekend?  Nope.

Suddenly, I’m not nearly as motivated to lose weight as I was when I so naively added it to my list of resolutions.  Simply because I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to accomplish that 25 pounds of weight loss.

Writer’s Resolutions

Is one of your resolutions to write a book this year?  To be successful, you need to decide if you’re willing to do what’s needed to get that book written.

It might mean turning down social engagements on weekends, so that you can write, because you have a full-time job, a family with lots of activities, and don’t have time to write during the week.

It might mean that writing a chapter each week becomes more important than vegging in front of the TV every night.

It might mean choosing to write in your car during your lunch hour rather than going out with your coworkers every day (which might actually also help that 25-pound weight loss goal, coincidentally!).

What if your resolution is even loftier than one book?  What if you resolution is that you’re going to quit your day job and become a full-time writer by the end of this year?

Goals like this one, which are huge and life-changing, require even more thought and planning to ensure that you have even the slightest shot at success.  You’re going to have to know where your income will come from (the writing or somewhere else?), how much time you’ll devote to writing, whether you’ll solely write fiction, or will you write nonfiction or do some other kind of work to supplement your income?  But the #1 question is:  Am I willing to do what is necessary to fulfill this resolution?

Ask Yourself These Questions

So how can you tell if you are committed to doing what is necessary to accomplish the resolutions you make?  Ask  yourself the following questions…and be honest.  If you try to play Mr. or Ms. Committed when you really aren’t, the only person you’re hurting is yourself.

  • Is this resolution something I really want, or something I feel is expected of me? While your best writing friend may write full time, if you’re honest with yourself, you might find that you don’t really want to write full time.  Perhaps you love your day job or enjoy the social aspects of working outside the home.  Don’t make resolutions based on what others tell you you should want or what you think is expected of you.
  • Am I really willing to do what is required to accomplish this resolution? Starting a Twitter account and Facebook author page might be a great resolution if you’re working to build your tribe.  But if you don’t know a tweet from a hole in the ground and hate Facebook and aren’t willing to put in the time to maintain it and interact with others, they will just grow stagnant when you get tired of them.
  • What’s my motivation regarding this resolution? If you’re not “all-in” in terms of being driven to follow through with your writing resolution, you’re going to end up forgetting all about it within a month or so.  If your resolution is to write an erotic novel this year and your motivation is purely the idea that erotica sells, but you can’t stand the genre, you can almost guarantee your failure to keep this resolution.
  • Is the timing right for this resolution?  If you’re a tax accountant, setting a resolution on January 1 to complete a 100,000-word draft of your novel during the first quarter of the year might be really bad timing.  Think about your other commitments before rattling off resolutions that are destined to fail because you simply don’t have enough time in a day.
  • What am I willing to give up and not give up in order to accomplish this goal/resolution?  This one is pretty self explanatory.  Really consider what you might have to give up to be successful. You may run into something you’re not willing to give up that will make your particular resolution impossible.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.

By asking yourself  these questions and really being honest about the answers, you can vet those resolutions up front and have better chance of success by picking resolutions you are truly committed to.

What if You Already Made Resolutions This Year?

I get that it’s nearly mid-January already, and you could very well have named your obligatory resolutions a few weeks ago.  Are you still going strong?  Maybe these are the right resolutions for you.  Have they already started petering out like a forgotten gym membership?   Go through the above questions and see which resolutions might fit and be worth salvaging (or revamping) and which you just aren’t willing to do the work on.

Don’t worry if you discover that you’ve made a  mistake with a few of your resolutions (or all of them!).  You’re armed now with more knowledge about what makes resolutions worthy of your time and efforts! As far as I’m concerned, resolutions aren’t just for January 1. A good resolution works any time of year.

So, readers, are your resolutions rockin’? Or do they need some revisions?  Let us know in your comments!

Rock Your Writing!

~Shannon McKelden