“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
- Robin Williams
“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”
- Robin Williams
“If you don’t take some time off, your work is going to suffer.”
This inner admonition sliced through my murky, overwork-induced fog, snapping me to full, present-moment attention. The last thing I want is for my work or my health to suffer, and I had been diligent about taking time for and good care of myself. Still, my workaholic tendency to forge ahead like a steamroller gaining momentum had kicked in without my realizing it, and I was dangerously close to hitting the wall.
I was burned out, a very real condition that entrepreneurs of all stripes—and that includes writers—are prone to when their passion, coupled with an overdeveloped work ethic, blinds them to the reality that they are driving themselves way too hard.
Two months ago, I wrote that today’s authors are expected to be entrepreneurs; gone are the days when writers focused solely on writing and PR and marketing people did the promoting and marketing. Alas, today’s authors are responsible for it all, whether they traditionally or self-publish. Running in all directions and wearing all the hats, which for some may be exciting and invigorating, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism, depression, and a host of other maladies if one is not mindful of maintaining balance and a healthy perspective.
I’m grateful I took heed before my work had suffered and/or I had done serious harm to my physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Perhaps the fact that I was aware of my tendency to overdo helped me hear the instruction to slow down and pay attention to it—before it was too late.
And that’s the key to avoiding burnout: know thyself. First, know your basic nature. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need regular downtime to recharge your batteries. Second, know what downtime means for you. For some of you that may be white-water rafting with forty of your closest friends, for others of you that may be curling up with a good book with nothing but silence and solitude for companions. And third, know those pitfalls that ensnare you and those temptations that lure you into the rocky shoals when you least suspect. One of mine is “Oh, this will only take a minute.” Before I know it, an hour or more is shot because, along the way, I’ve stumbled across a few more things that “will only take a minute.” And, of course, this is in addition to that day’s initial to-do list.
Finally, take time for yourself daily, or at least weekly, and do those things that relax and refresh your mind and body and revive your spirit. And above all, listen to your inner wisdom. Loving what you do will result in a heap of ashes if you don’t love yourself first.
Recently on Facebook, one of my friends posted a photo of his book cover with the caption “On sale now…” What immediately followed, along with the 51 “Likes,” was a flood of comments: “Where can I buy it?” “Where is it on sale?” “Is it on Amazon?” “Is it available in kindle version?” “I want it on kindle version too!” One of his friends even shared it on his own FB page, saying, “He’s finally publishing!”
I, too, was excited. I read his rough draft two years ago and encouraged him to publish. This man is a survivalist and a world traveler and has tales to tell that not even Hemingway could have made up. I read further through the comments, hoping to find out where his book is available.
Then I came across his comment: “its not for sale … i just put it up there as a joke.” This, too, was met with a flurry of comments, one of which summed up the collective outrage: “yer a #@* … that would be a book a good few folk would like to read.” Frustrated, I couldn’t resist adding my own two cents. I wrote, “You have what every author dreams of—a market and a platform. You really ought to publish your book.”
In publishing, the first half of the battle is, of course, writing a good book; the second half is platform and market. Writers are often confused by what is meant by platform and market, and sometimes think they are the same thing. But they are not. Platform is an author’s visibility and reach to a specific audience to whom the author has a reputation as an authority in a specific area. Using my Facebook friend as an example, his platform is solid, as he has high visibility and reach with at least 300+ “friends” on Facebook that span the globe. In addition, his blog and YouTube videos, all pertaining to his adventures in the wild and life on the road and showcase his survival skills and gift for storytelling, have a significant following.
Market, on the other hand, is the group of people who want the information, stories, etc. from that author and will buy his books, attend his speaking events/book signings and seminars/webinars, and tune in to his televised or broadcast interviews. Again, using my FB friend as an example, his market is other survivalists/world travelers (and wannabes) along with personal friends who are salivating for his book, which is filled with salacious yarns and fascinating yet highly practical survival tips and techniques.
In traditional publishing, agents and editors are looking for authors who have a solid platform and an eager market clamoring for their book. And in self-publishing, these are just as important. But don’t despair if you don’t yet have either one. Building a platform and finding your market takes time, patience, persistence, ingenuity, and consistency. Keep showing up and don’t give up. My FB friend’s platform has been literally years in the making. And now it’s paying off.
I recently spoke with one of my clients, a twice-published author, who said, “I’m finding that I’m now running a small business, whether I want to be or not.” And she was so right. Published writers today are–and must be–entrepreneurs. So this got me to thinking. Nathan says that writers “kind of have to have” addictive personalities, and I’ve long known that in today’s world published writers must be entrepreneurs. Is there a connection between the two?
Fueled by curiosity, I hit the Internet to research the characteristics of addictive personalities and those of entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by my findings. Both addictive personalities and entrepreneurs are:
Of course, this is not to say, or even imply, that all entrepreneurs are addictive personalities any more than all addictive personalities are entrepreneurs. What it does say, though, is that there is a connection. But whether these common traits prove to be the right stuff (self-empowering) or the wrong stuff (self-destructive) depends on various factors. But that’s a topic for another time.
None of us are perfectly well-adjusted; we all have our guilty (and not-so-guilty) pleasures and proclivities that we believe we can’t live without. The difference is the degree that we can’t live without them. So in the interest of good mental, spiritual, and literary health, all writers would be wise to tack to the wall above their writing space The 12 Steps of Queryers Anonymous, one of the most clever posts I have ever read. Of course, my personal favorite is Step 6: Became entirely ready to pay freelance editors to fix our manuscript.
I’m assuming that Nathan Bransford was referring to writers who seek publication in some form, and I’ve taken the same approach here. But remember: being a successful writer is how you define it for yourself.
Last month, I attended the UW-Madison Continuing Studies Writers’ Institute, which was tremendous. The last presentation of the Institute was a panel discussion about how to keep our enthusiasm for writing alive after the conference. Spending two or three full days attending back-to-back sessions all pertaining to writing-related topics, surrounded by and hobnobbing with editors, agents, bookstore owners, published authors, and other writers, breathes new life into our writing dreams. We realize once again that, yes, they are possible. We, too, can one day be the next Michael Perry or Anne Lamott, and we are flooded with renewed passion to make those dreams come to fruition. But then we get back to our everyday lives, and before we know it—poof!—our enthusiasm and passion—along with our dreams—have gone up in smoke.
So how do we maintain our passion and enthusiasm for our writing post-conference? At the top of the panel’s list: join a writers group if you haven’t already done so.
A good writers group does several things:
Having a consistent, equally committed group of people in your corner, and you in theirs, is a key factor that fuels the flame of enthusiasm in a writer’s spirit. Without it, all writers—and their writing dreams—perish.
However, notice that I said a good writers group. By “good” I mean one that is the right fit for you. For example, if you prefer a more structured format, a loose, informal one will most likely set your nerves on edge. And if you’re a gregarious Chatty Kathy, a group of serious No-Nonsense Neds will not be your crowd. As with dating, where we all must fish awhile before finding and hooking the “right one,” sometimes writers must shop around before they find the group that is the “right one.” So be patient. As in dating, the right one is worth the wait.
For those of you who don’t yet have a writers group, here are some helpful resources to aid in your search:
The dialogue bubbles that appear on my smartphone in texts has got me thinking about dialogue (again), so I want to continue this topic from last month.
In response to last month’s article, one of my subscribers asked, “How much dialogue is too much?” That’s a good question and one that has no clear-cut answer. It all depends on the scene and the characters involved. However, there are two questions you can ask yourself to help ensure that your dialogue is concise, effective, and efficient.
1. Could more information be revealed through dialogue?
Many details, such as a character’s education level, age, and outlook on life, can easily be reflected in the words and tone in which he or she speaks, and thus alleviates the need for distracting backstory or asides. For example: “I ain’t got no time for all this gobbledigook!” This character is most likely elderly, uneducated, cantankerous, and cynical—all of which is conveyed in only nine words.
2. Can important information be revealed through actions or the use of punctuation rather than spoken words in the course of dialogue?
In other words, show rather than tell, a mantra all writers are familiar with. For example, through action:
“It’s time to leave.” Susan rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.
(rather than) “It’s time to leave,” Susan said, frustrated.
“I walked in the door and—”
“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim said.
(rather than) “I walked in the door and fell over the rug.”
“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim interrupted her.
In both of the above examples, the writer shows the reader vital information that adds depth and nuance to the scene without taking the reader out of the scene to tell him or her pertinent details.
Finally, a good practice for determining if your dialogue is too lengthy or includes too much detail is reading your scene out loud or, better yet, having someone else read it out loud to you. Often our ears will catch what our eyes don’t. Even if we struggle with writing dialogue that flows and sounds authentic, we know it when we hear it—and when we don’t.
Dialogue is one of the trickiest elements of writing. The ability to capture on the page the natural flow of speech and conversation is a skill that comes naturally to some writers and evades others. But never fear. Writing dialogue well can be learned.
There are three components to dialogue: words of speech, cadence and flow, and dialogue tags, all of which together can reveal the character’s personality, temperament, ethnicity, and current emotion or mood. Here, I’m going to address dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are the two words at the end or in the middle of a line of speech, e.g., “said John” or “John responded.” Their main purpose is to keep the reader informed as to which character is speaking. But when they are overused, they tend to interrupt the flow of conversation and thus distract and irritate the reader. The first rule I abide by is this: When there are only two characters in a scene, it’s not necessary to include a dialogue tag every time each character speaks. However, in lengthy scenes of dialogue, do add them occasionally to keep the reader up to speed as to who is speaking. And of course, in scenes containing more than two characters, including dialogue tags more often is necessary.
The second rule I adhere to like glue: Use any word apart from said sparingly. I came to accept this rule kicking and screaming because, in my own writing, I loved using the diverse tags that (I thought) added such color and depth to my scenes. Clever words like opined, elaborated, and divulged along with everyday words like explained, interrupted, and replied. However, as an editor, I now embrace and laud this rule, as I’ve seen over and over that these tags often distract from the narrative and, yes, even sound pretentious. And in most cases, they are redundant and therefore unnecessary. In the course of the dialogue, it is typically apparent that a character is opining, elaborating, divulging, explaining, interrupting, or replying.
So remember: go easy on the use of dialogue tags in scenes containing only two characters and refrain from overusing various words in dialogue tags. Often, a simple “said” is sufficient.
When I began my newsletter eight months ago, I was on fire, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm and committed to having it sitting in my subscribers’ inboxes first thing on the first day of each month. And for the first six months, I did just that. But then on the seventh month, it showed up in their inboxes on the fourth day of the month (because of the New Year’s holiday, I told myself), and now today, the eighth month, it showed up on the fifth day of the month. What’s happening??
Like all of us do at one point or another, I’ve hit the muddling middle.
The muddling middle is that place where the flame of our enthusiasm has waned, our once clearly charted course has veered into the brambles, and our keen vision and sense of purpose has grown cloudy and sludgy. We have all been there or are now. The muddling middle of life. The muddling middle of winter. The muddling middle of writing or editing a book. The muddling middle of building a business. The muddling middle of (you name it). Despite the circumstances, the muddling middle feels the same: blechy.
Blechy, perhaps, but part of the process. All living things have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the creative process is no exception. We give life to whatever we pour ourselves into, whether that is a relationship, a project, or a cause. I’ve found that realizing and accepting that the muddling middle is just part of the journey—as winter is a part of the cycle of nature—helps me soldier on toward my goal, one step, one keystroke, at a time. Eventually, I find that I’ve slogged my way out of the muddling middle and have ended with a sense of accomplishment and renewed vision.
So don’t lose heart once the dead of winter sets in. Just keep showing up every day and do what you can toward your goal, even if it’s very little. Remember: winter may be long and hard, but spring is on its way—and every day we’re one step closer.
I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, mainly because they tend to be just that—New Year’s resolutions. An event. A short period of time, like the New Year’s holiday. Once the resolution period is over, which for New Year’s tends to be around January 31, so is our commitment to our new resolutions.
Bottom line, a resolution is a determination to change, fix, or accomplish something. So why do we so often fail? I believe it’s because we resolve to possessing the end result (e.g., be twenty pounds lighter, have ripped abs, be on The New York Times bestseller list) rather than committing to what it will take to achieve it. Once we embark on the journey toward our dream, we find “getting there” will take a whole lot longer and require much more work and sacrifice than we thought and is fraught with unknowns and potential perils we never imagined. As we allow fear (or boredom, impatience, laziness, discouragement, etc.) to chip away at our resolve, our dreams lie buried in the rubble. Instead, we gain ten more pounds, our abs become flabbier, or our unfinished novel molders at the bottom of our desk drawer. Then next New Year’s we make the same resolutions all over again. With the same end result: nada.
I love the adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” but I only agree with it in part. We need to keep our eye on the prize to remind us what our heart longs for, to motivate us when we feel we can’t take another step or type another word, and to encourage us to not give up when all we see for our best efforts is an ocean of blood, sweat, and tears or a mountain of rejection letters. But that can’t be all we focus on, for the purpose of the journey is who we become and the lessons we learn on our way to “getting there.”
So if you’re a goal-oriented control freak like me who likes to foresee and plan for every possible occurrence, whose “getting there” muscles are way overdeveloped, here’s my writing challenge to you for 2014 (notice I didn’t say “resolution”): Plant your fanny in the chair, place those fingers on the keyboard, and allow the journey to take you where you need to go, in the way you need to get there, and in the time it takes to get there. Take it from Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old marvel who swam 100 miles from Cuba to Florida: “getting there” will be all the sweeter for it.
I recently read an article that took me back many moons ago to when I was about eight. I was riding with my mom in my dad’s white Ford Galaxy, which was a stick shift. Mom ground the gears as she tried coordinating shifting with her right hand and steering with her left while using both feet simultaneously with one on the accelerator and the other on the clutch. As I clutched the door handle and braced myself hard against the seat to avoid whiplash, Mom growled under her breath, “Damned car galloping down the street!”
Mind you, the article I was reading had nothing to do with cars, mothers and daughters, or even horses. Yet I experienced the distinct sensation of galloping across hard terrain—ta-DUMP, ta-DUMP, ta-DUMP—which felt no more pleasing than it did in Dad’s car with Mom at the helm. And the reason for this sensation and thus the memory trigger? The article was peppered with commas, very few of which were necessary or appropriately placed.
Now I fully admit to being a full-fledged commakaze myself. However, loving commas does not give one license to abuse their use and thus do damage to the message and cause angst to readers. In the article I was reading, the galloping prose not only obscured the article’s message, it also made me angry with its author for the jolting, jarring read. From now on, I will approach any articles written by that author with caution.
But in that author’s defense, some writers are not innate editors. Still, it is the writer’s responsibility to deliver a clear message that flows more like a canter, and failing to do so reflects poorly upon the writer. Readers don’t care if the author is not a natural editor, but they do care about painful, frustrating reading and often will not give the author a second chance. This is why having a good copyeditor is an absolute must-have, even for writers who are natural editors, as all of us have blind spots when reading our own writing.
So remember: beware of galloping prose. And then hire a copyeditor who is skilled at creating a smooth, steady canter.