Monday, February 6, 2017

Writers: How to get out of your own way and build resilience.

Resilience: The Key to Reaching Your Writing Goals in 2017

(This article was first published at Anne R. Allen's blog on January 29, 2017. Visit Anne's blog this week for her always-reliable advice on 5 good reasons to blog and 5 bad reasons.)

Books! The ones that got written!

They’re mean and nasty and they're out there waiting to get you.

  • Inhibitions
  • Hang ups
  • Glitches
  • Gotchas
  • Snares and snags
  • Roadblocks
  • No go zones
  • Flops and fizzles
The reasons (excuses?) for not writing/not beginning (or finishing) your book/not allowing enough time and energy for marketing/blogging/advertising often come down to the same tried-and-true suspects.

1) The P Word.

As if you don’t know what I’m talking about. 😉
But, just in case you only recently landed on Planet Earth, let’s call it what it is: PROCRASTINATION. Here’s a short list of tip offs:
  • Tweeting instead of writing.
  • Surfing the web instead of setting up your AMS ads.
  • Making coffee instead of contacting reviewers.
  • Playing Words With Friends instead of working on your BookBub application.
  • Cleaning the bathroom instead of searching for the right cover image.
  • Organizing your spices instead of updating your blog/website.
  • Alphabetizing your shopping list instead of building your email list.
Bottom line: You’re doing anything and everything you can think of exceptdo what you need to do to take the next step forward.

2) Interruptions.

  • Phone.
  • Kids.
  • The dog.
  • The cat.
  • Neighbors.
  • Your husband/wife/significant other.
  • The Amazon drone delivering 3 pairs of gym socks you ordered half an hour ago.
Interruptions are the writer’s toxic waste dump. Interruptions cause you to lose your train of thought.
If you were in the zone, you’re now out of the zone. If you weren’t in the zone, you’re now out in Siberia.
You’re frazzled, frustrated and cranky and you’re wondering how you can get through your to-do list when you’re dealing with almost constant interruptions.

3) Power Failure.

Your MC is on the top branch of a burning tree and the bad guys are down below. With guns, knives, IEDs, RPGs, snarling tigers. machetes and blowtorches.
So now what?
What does the MC do?
What do the bad guys do?
How about his/her husband/wife, cubicle mate, best friend, bridge partner, girl friend/boy friend, Pilates teacher, dog walker, nutty neighbor, favorite TV comedian or movie star?
Who says what? To whom? Why?
You mean you don’t know? Don’t even have a clue?
The outline is useless. Imagination is kaput. Forward motion is stopped.
You’re experiencing a complete power failure.

4) Fear And Loathing.

You have more ups and downs than a yoyo. Right now, your current state of mind redefines the downside of bipolar.
Maybe you…
  • Forgot why you’re writing the damn book and you hate every word anyway because you’re a no-talent nobody.
  • Can’t figure out whether it’s a comedy, a thriller, urban fantasy, horror or romance.
  • Can’t remember why you started the stupid thing in the first place.
  • Have no idea what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, who your characters are, what genre you had in mind and why the bleep you even bothered in the first place.
  • Have a  first chapter that sucks, a blah middle, and you’ll never figure out the ending.
  • And you’re bogged down, flailing away in quicksand and only getting in deeper with every chapter. You’d be better off slinging burgers at Mickey D.
Writers, like everyone else, have mood swings. Usually not enough for clinical intervention but enough to seriously undermine confidence and halt forward progress.

5) The Fantasy Trap.

You’re writing the Great American/Bolivian/Icelandic novel. It’s so wonderful you’ll out sell Stephen King and Nora Roberts combined. Millions and millions of readers will lap up your every book and wait breathlessly for the next one.
An invitation to the White House, to a billionaire’s yacht, to a fabulous mansion on a private island in the Caribbean will arrive in the mail. Beautiful, brilliant people are lined up, just waiting to experience the exquisite pleasure of your company.
And, while you’ve unleashed your imagination about the rewards about to come pouring down on you, please, definitely do not forget the prizes: The NBA (Not the one aka hoops that’s played by tattooed seven feet tall men. The other one.) The Booker. The Legion of Honor. The Nobel. The Pulitzer. Foreign translations. The big azz movie deal. Your name in lights.
The list is endless.
And it’s paralyzing.

6) The Michelangelo Dilemma.

Every word chiseled in marble. Every syllable a treasure for the millennia. So, of course, it has to be perfect. That’s why you have that infallible misery-maker, your own personal internal critic, to tap you on the shoulder and remind you of every terrible thing anyone ever said about you ranging from your defective personality to your crappy taste in clothes.
You’re so terrible, even your dog hates you.
You write. And rewrite.
Consider and reconsider.
Contemplate and then contemplate some more.
You hit the delete button. Then the undo. You open the sentence-in-question in two documents and review them side by side. Still can’t decide which one is better so you write a third version.
Which just adds to the confusion and misery as you scratch your chin and tear your hair (at the same time if at all possible because—don’t forget!—we’re going for perfection here) and try to decide whether or not a fourthversion is called for.

Tough (Self) Love Leads to Resilience

Almost every item on this list, no matter the superficial differences, is a self-inflicted wound. Bottom line, you are the one who is causing your own suffering.
The mess you’ve created is your own doing.
You did it to yourself.
You are the snarling beast standing between yourself and your goals.
We are not in “it-hurts-so-good-don’t-stop” mode here. We are in self-defeating territory, a lethal terrain in which you will never get your book written, much less edited, revised, proof read and published. Much less promoted, publicized, advertised.
Which is actually the good news. Since whatever is going wrong is something you are doing to yourself, you are the one who can undo the damage. The key is resilience—the ability to bounce back—and perception is key to resilience.
Do you conceptualize a negative event as traumatic or as a chance to learn and grow?
If you shift your focus from external (blaming fate, Amazon, your editor) to internal (What can I do to change the outcome?) and you will feel less stressed and more in control.
Here are some specific approaches to rescuing yourself from the setbacks and frustrations almost every writer faces at one time or another. Over time, you will learn which approaches work for you and, most likely, develop effective coping techniques of your own.

1) The P Word.

Are you an adult? Or a kid who doesn’t want to go to school because there’s a history test today and you haven’t done your homework? The real answer is—or should be—that you’re a professional and professionals get the job done. If you’re floundering in self-defeating procrastination, pay attention to the following techniques.
Dr. Patrick Keelan uses a Flow Chart method to help clients overcome crippling procrastination. Dr Keelan’s practical, effective approach starts with four simple questions.
From revising your to-do list to rewarding yourself, these tips on beating procrastination for students also apply to writers.
Professor Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University in Canada, works with the Procrastination Research Group and offers six steps for freeing yourself from the trap of procrastination.

2) Interruptions.

Nora Roberts famously said that she will allow interruptions only in the case of blood and/or fire. NR is as professional as it gets. Isn’t her no-nonsense attitude something to emulate?
Although we can’t control emergencies, we can (usually) exert some control over the day-to-day interruptions that steal our time and energy.
  • If your cluttered, disorganized home office is working against you, here are some tips about how to make your office work for you.
  • If home is too chaotic, go to the library or a coffee shop.
  • Turn off the Internet. Here are 8 web distraction blocker tools.
  • Silence the phone and let voice mail handle your calls.
  • Put up a “do not disturb” sign. Or, like a friend of mine, string yellow “crime scene* tape in front of your office door or work area. (I love this idea! Maybe I’ll put one at my front door to keep out those magazine salespersons and religious nutjobs…Anne.)
  • Make a deal: Trade a hour of uninterrupted work for an hour of errands/child care/chores: you’ll walk the dog (the one who hates you)/do the grocery shopping/take the kid to soccer practice in exchange.
For further consideration: If your family doesn’t respect your work, might that mean you have somehow given them the signal that it’s OK to barge in and interrupt you whenever with whatever?
If so, you must undo the damage you have inflicted on yourself by having a serious heart-to-heart with the perp (or perps), or, if necessary, some sessions with a therapist to help figure out why you are undermining yourself.

3) Power Failure Reboot.

Every writer faces the blank wall, the blank screen, the blank brain. Every writer has been there and every writer has escaped because, if they hadn’t, no book would ever have been finished.
Including Isaac Asimov who wrote 500 books in 25 years and who often got stuck but didn’t let getting stuck stop him. Over the years, he developed a strategy:
“I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more.”
What you need to do is Be Like Isaac (read about his 6 writing tips in Charles Chu’s article at Quartz) and develop a backlog of techniques that will get you moving again.

Here are a few suggestions—

  • Brainstorm with a trusted friend.
  • Go to your junk file. By that I mean drafts you wrote but didn’t use. Never delete unused paragraphs or scenes, just put them in a junk file. When you’re stuck, open the file. You may well find just the right route forward in something you once rejected.
  • Make a list. Steven Sondheim spoke of making a list of all the words that might apply to the song he was writing. That list, SS said, revealed hidden connections he hadn’t seen before. There’s no reasons that approach can’t work for a writer.
  • Have a glass of wine. I am not talking about getting rip-roaring drunk. I am talking about having a glass of wine with dinner. The combination of a small amount of alcohol, good food, a relaxed mood and diverting conversation can spring open a door that has been stubbornly closed.
  • Go for a walk. Take a shower. Weed the garden. Empty the dishwasher. Go to the gym. Often, just getting away from your desk and engaging in a mildly diverting or physical activity is enough to get you off dead center and break the block.
  • Give up and go to sleep. Let your unconscious (which knows more than you do) get to work. Amazing how often you wake up the next morning with just the answer you’ve been looking for.
  • Make friends with your own tics and twitches. For some, it’s beginnings. For others, it’s endings. And what about that godawful, go-nowhere, endless muddle in the middle?
  • Anne offers reliable advice about first chapters.
  • Chuck Wendig lists 25 ways to fight the mushy middle.
  • The experts at Writer’s Digest tell how to write a great ending.
  • Janice Hardy talks about chapter endings and book endings.

4) Fear and Loathing.

Happens to everyone. In fact, fear and loathing are so predictable that many writers (include me in) have come to see F & L as a normal part of the process.
F & L need not be a way of life or a dead end. Here are a few escape routes.
  • Going back to your original outline can help. So can reading over your notes and research. Finding just the right, almost forgotten nugget can make all the difference.
  • Making a reverse outline will often untangle the snarl.
  • If you’re working on a computer, viewing your book on paper via a print out yields a different perspective.
  • Sending your manuscript to your Kindle and reading it there can make a difference. Even changing the font can help you view your work in a fresh way.
  • Having someone else read your manuscript and report back can help.
  • Maybe it’s not as mind-blowingly vile as you think.
  • Or maybe it is, and you have to rewrite/revise. Rewriting and revising are part of the process, your precious second chances. Embrace them.
  • F&L is why god created beta readers, crit groups, and editors.
  • Patience, perspective, persistence, and, if necessary, a pair of outside eyes are called for.

5) The Fantasy Trap. 

Dreams, even big dreams are OK and, for some, come with the territory.
They can motivate but if they lead to paralysis, you will need to ask yourself why you are allowing a dream to interfere with the necessary day-by-day, word-by-word real-life work required to make the dream come true. Only you will be able to answer that question but unless you can look at yourself with an unflinching eye and cut down the unrealistic fantasies that are stopping you, no dream can come true.
Remember, even Stephen King has to take out the garbage.

6) The Michelangelo Dilemma

Perfection doesn’t exist. Everyone knows it. So why do some writers torment themselves trying to achieve something no one—not Einstein, not Picasso, not Shakespeare—ever achieved?
If you are in that group or even if you have self-defeating tendencies in that direction, try a dose of reality. For shock therapy, go to the Amazon page of any famous, bestselling writer and check out the one-star reviews.
Ernest Hemingway—“I have had root cannels [sic] that were less painful”
Nora Roberts—“worst thing I’ve read in a long time”
Lee Child—“garbage”
Need I go on?
And you think you’re going to write the perfect book? 😉

The Takeaway:

The more times you rescue yourself from perfectionism, procrastination, a block, unrealistic dreams, the more you will become a writer with confidence—and resilience—and the closer you will be to getting where you want to go.

The Giveback:

Now about you: Have you fallen into the fantasy trap? Do interruptions trip you up? Does a rotten review ruin your day/week? Do you know how to rescue yourself? Do you have a plan for developing the resilience a career as an author demands? Do tell!

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