Systems and Focus and Goals, Oh My! … Plus the 3 Necessary Ingredients to Finish a Book or Script

I recently read a blog post by James Clear that suggested we forget about setting goals and focus on systems instead. I appreciated his points about how goal-focused thinking can get us into trouble because it can: 1) keep us dissatisfied with the present moment, 2) cause trouble with long-term progress, and 3) create a sense of control we might not actually have. I agree with all of those points.

But I disliked the implication that therefore goals should be forgotten. Like anything else, they are one possible tool to help us create outcomes that we want, and like any other tool, they need to be used wisely. At the end of the article he even says, "None of this is to say that goals are useless. However, I’ve found that goals are good for planning your progress and systems are good for actually making progress."

So despite the fact that it seems that James and I are in agreement about the value of both goals and systems, since there's usually a lot of debate around this time of year about whether or not goals or resolutions are "right," I thought I'd share some of what I've learned from working with hundreds of writers on goal-setting and creating systems to help them reach those goals (writing habits).

The truth is that goals and systems can work hand-in-hand quite beautifully. Here are eight thoughts about goals, systems, focus, and finishing:

  1. There's no one right way to do anything. We each have to find what works for us individually. My way of setting goals might not work for you. Your way might not work for me. You don't even have to set goals if you don't want to. But what I've seen is that when we focus on something specific (a goal) and pursue it, we are much more likely to achieve the outcome we're looking for than by hoping it will happen. 
  2. Systems, habits, and routines alone can get us somewhere, but we can get lost along the way when we use them without an intended outcome. I love, love, love systems. And systems in and of themselves are brilliant solutions for consistently problematic issues, like dishes stacking up in the sink and feeling overwhelmed by them (run the dishwasher every night without fail), or laundry taking up writing time or becoming a magnet for resistance (schedule a time for laundry outside your writing schedule and stick to it), or putting off paying your bills (create a routine for how and when you write checks).

    But if you're attempting to use a system, routine, or habit to achieve a long-term outcome, like writing a book, you actually have to have an outcome in mind in order to reach it, aka a "goal." You can't just write every day and hope it will happen (though it may eventually, assuming you keep working on the same thing without fail, which perhaps sounds obvious but can be a big assumption in the world of project-hopping writerly types). I've seen too many writers get lost in the weeds of writing without writing toward an end, and lose track of what they set out to do in the first place. Even James actually had an outcome in mind for the system he was using (writing and publishing blog posts twice a week).
  3. Goals help us focus our efforts. Honestly, there is so much going on in our lives, that unless we are super clear about what we are trying to accomplish, it's easy to get pulled off track. That writing habit can become a pat on the head ("See, I did my writing today!") unless it is focused. Pick something to finish. Finish it. Pick something else. Finish that. Repeat. Setting a goal keeps your eye on the prize.
  4. Goals set in a vacuum won't get us very far either. Having stated the importance of goals, I see many writers creating unrealistic goals ("A page a day!" ... but what happens when you're in revisions, are you still going to write a page a day in addition to revising?) or using magical thinking to neglect the reality of their daily lives and ending up frustrated at year's end because they don't achieve their goals. Or even worse, they set goals to match what other people are doing, whether or not that's achievable in their lives ("My friends are all writing six scripts a year, so I should be able to do that too, right? Never mind that they don't have kids or that their spouses are independently wealthy."). We have to set goals that work within the context of our lives, even when we're setting stretch goals for ourselves. 
  5. Goals without systems are likely to fail. Goals and systems work hand-in-hand. Want to finish a book, a good one? You can't write it without a writing routine or practice. You have to put in the time, show up, and do the work. It won't happen on its own, and it probably won't happen well if you're binge-writing it at the last possible minute. (And even if it does, the cost on your health, well-being, and future writing energy may be higher than you like.)
  6. Use systems and milestones to counteract flagging motivation on long-range goals. When we set very long-term goals (such as year-long goals), they can feel so far away that we have a hard time staying motivated and engaged with them. Having a writing system helps us manage that sense of disconnection from our distant goals, particularly when we combine it with milestone goals. A system helps us keep writing -- it's a practice we're accustomed to engaging in every day -- so we can't help moving the project forward, as long as we don't stray to another. We can also hugely benefit from setting shorter term goals (one to three-month goals) that are completion milestones along the way to the finish line. That ultimate finish line can feel really far away, so we can give ourselves something to work the system with in the meantime.
  7. Taking stock periodically helps maintain momentum. Post your goals where you can see them, check in with them on a regular basis, and take stock of what you've accomplished so far (add up ALL THE THINGS, even if they seem small) to help you see your progress and stay motivated to continue.
  8. Progress without a finished product isn't particularly satisfying. Yes, as writers we have to be in love with the process and the practice of writing. Yes, we may never be published or produced. There are no guarantees. Yes, yes, yes. But we can still take our books and scripts to their completion points to the best of our abilities and ship them out into the world, and move on to the next project. We can use goals to focus our efforts so we get to the finish line. Working a system and being productive without focusing on an outcome or a finish line can become an endless loop that doesn't feel satisfying otherwise. We have to have both.

The 3 Necessary Ingredients to Finish a Book or Script

From what I've seen, there are three necessary ingredients to finishing a book or a script:

  1. A specific writing project to work on. Preferably just one long-form project. I rarely see writers completing more than one project at a time successfully. Maybe the true pros can do it. Maybe. My recommendation: Pick one project at a time. And finish it. Then do the next one.
  2. A writing system. You can also call this a writing habit, practice, or routine. It means showing up daily or near daily to write. This is what we do in my Circle.
  3. A goal for completion. Yes, set a goal. I'm a fan of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Resonant, Time-Bound) because they help us double-check to make sure we're being specific enough about the who, what, where, why, and how. Set a goal for when you'll complete your book or script, and while you're at it, map out the timeline too. 

So put those systems and goals to work, and make your writing happen. I'll be right there with you.

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In other news, Make 2017 Your Year To Write is available in the shop and on sale through January 31. Check it out here: http://programs.calledtowrite.com/2017-vision.

 

 

Author Insights: 7 Tips From a First-Time Novelist (+ an Autographed Book Giveaway!)

Happy New Year, writers!

We're kicking off a new year here at Called to Write with a new author insights series featuring book giveaways. I'll be introducing you to writers who've taken their writing all the way to the finish line of publication, and they'll be sharing their "lessons learned" stories with you. There's nothing quite like learning from a writer who has made to the other side.

Plus, if you leave a comment at the end of the post before Tuesday, January 17th, you'll be entered to win an autographed copy of the author's book in a random drawing. (You must be located in the United States to win.)

Meet Donna Baier Stein, author of The Silver Baron's Wife

Let me introduce you to Donna Baier Stein. Donna was a member of my Called to Write Coaching Circle in 2012 when she was working on establishing a writing habit to help her complete her first book. And the proof is in the pudding, because, ta-da, her book The Silver Baron's Wife came out in the fall of 2016. So exciting! 

I asked Donna to share her greatest insights from writing the novel.

Seven Tips From First-Time Novelist Donna Baier Stein

Donna Baier SteinI chose the historical figure of Baby Doe Tabor as the main character of my first novel thinking her fascinating, event-filled, roller coaster life provided its own ready-made plot. I’d been writing stories and knew that my strength was language, not narrative structure. I’d even spent time in two radically different writing groups—one focused on literary fiction (heavy on characterization and language) and one focused on more plot-oriented genre fiction. I, rather arrogantly it turns out, preferred the literary focus. I was definitely a pantser rather than a plotter.

So I decided to write about a woman whose life story had already been the subject of an American opera – The Ballad of Baby Doe – and several other books. There were so many events to choose from her life: her work in the silver mines of Colorado and first marriage to a philandering opium addict, a second marriage to a man worth $24 million when they married at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, with President Chester Arthur in attendance, her years writing down her dreams and marking visitations of spirits on her wall calendar at the Matchless Mine in Leadville. All I had to do was write what had happened in Baby Doe (Lizzie’s) life, I mistakenly thought, and voilà, I’d have a novel.

So I started my research. I researched for years, taking occasional stabs at writing early chapters. But the writing of the novel was far less easy than I’d naively hoped it might be. Here’s what I learned from my mistakes:

  1. A writer can do too much research. I had boxes of hard copy files and dozens of folders on my computer. And in early drafts, I put far too much emphasis on describing the physical details of clothing, furniture, food of the era. I’d say “Bluchers” when saying “boots” would have sufficed, for instance. It was only in the final drafts that I realized I could focus only on the items that the characters came into direct contact with… and see them as they would see them, not as if they were described in a museum catalog.
  2. Narrative arc is key. I discarded many early chapters about Lizzie’s childhood because they didn’t serve to tell the story I ultimately wanted to tell. I had to choose certain episodes of her life, ignore others, and create new ones in order to show the change in Lizzie I wanted to reveal. The novel, unlike a biography, wasn’t just about re-telling Lizzie’s life. Its purpose was to reveal a theme and a transformation in my main character.
  3. When writing dialogue, be inside your characters. At first, I felt intimidated by them. How could I talk like a 19th century woman talked? I did find some historically current slang phrases to toss in, but mostly I wrote dialogue as I heard Lizzie and other characters saying it in my head.
  4. Be inside your characters as they move through a room, too. It was like being an actress on a stage. Instead of seeing Lizzie from an outside view camera, I had to metaphorically go inside her. See what she would notice in the rundown mining cabin in Dogwood or the extravagant villa in Denver. And feel what she might have felt living in such radically different environments.
  5. For me, writing in first person really helped me inhabit my main character. An agent once told me that third person limited narratives were easiest to sell. I rewrote the book that way and though it came close, it didn’t sell on that go-round. I went back to the first person voice I felt most comfortable writing in, and I’m happy with the result. That was the way I wanted to tell Lizzie’s story from the beginning.
  6. It’s hard, though certainly not impossible, to give adequate attention to every phase of someone’s entire life. The next novel I write will focus on a much shorter time frame than 81 years.
  7. Don’t be obsessive about rewriting until you’ve got your story down. I must have rewritten the first pages of the novel fifty times. I thought, mistakenly, that I had to have it exactly right before moving forward. This is not the way to get a novel written.

I’ve already started writing a new novel, and I’m grateful to have the first under my belt. I’m sure I’ll learn new lessons this time, too!

About The Silver Baron’s Wife

silver-barons-wifeKirkus Reviews called the The Silver Baron’s Wife “an artistic, sympathetic imagining of the life of a 19th-century woman who made headlines for all the wrong reasons.” Foreword Reviews gave it five stars and said, “A unique portrait of a time and place populated by fearless people, this reimagination of an uncommon woman is powerful.”

The Silver Baron’s Wife is available on:

About Donna

Donna Baier SteinDonna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron's Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist), and Sometimes You Sense the Difference.

She founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a Scholarship from Bread Loaf, a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, three Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards and elsewhere. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Virginia Quarterly Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals and anthologies.

She is currently completing a new collection of stories based on Thomas Hart Benton lithographs. You can find Donna online at www.donnabaierstein.com.

Enter to Win a Copy of The Silver Baron's Wife!

Donna has graciously agreed to give away 3 autographed copies of her book to my readers. Leave a comment on the blog about one of your own writing lessons or something you learned from Donna's insights before Tuesday, January 17th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time and you'll be entered in the random drawing. You must be located in the United States to win.

 

Armchair by Jez Timms

This Writer’s Life: A San Franciscan Middle Grade Novelist Breaks Down the Work Into Manageable Chunks

Today we're continuing my "This Writer's Life" series, in which you get to meet some of my Called to Write Coaching Circle members and take a look inside their writing lives. If you're just joining us, I encourage you to also check out the pieces about Rebecca, Frani, and Rick.

Today we're joined by Foenix Ryder, a writer who found her home in Middle Grade fiction.

Meet Foenix Ryder: A San Franciscan Film Freelancer and Middle Grade Novelist

I've known Foenix for almost two years now. It's been such treat to have her participating in the Circle. She's the kind of writer whose enthusiasm, energy, and positivity is always present, even when the challenges of writing rear up. I love her determination and passion for her writing, and I'm thrilled to be helping her get her words out into the world.

Not only do we work together in the Circle, but I also have the pleasure of coaching Foenix around building her writer's platform, something I'll be offering in 2017 to other writers as well. I asked Foenix to tell us more about her writing and what she's learned over the last several years -- including how to break down the overwhelming tasks of a major writing project.

foenix-ryderWhat kind of writing do you do, and where are you in your writing process?

I love Middle Grade and Young Adult stories whether they’re action, adventure, fantasy, coming of age or anything else in those genres. Naturally, that’s what I’m drawn to write: Stories where kids and teens can get immersed and relate -- and hopefully be inspired and encouraged when they read. 

Right now I'm on the verge of starting the third draft of my second novel. After struggling for a few weeks with a major element in my story, I realized I needed to pause to study the conventions and expectations of fantasy stories so I can further develop the world I've created and the rules within it.

In some ways it feels like I’m “taking a vacation” from my story and avoiding the work. But I’m reminding myself that I am and always will be developing as a writer. The stepping away to learn more about my genre and craft will only empower me to tell the best story I can. And that’s what we are all here to do.

How has your writing practice changed since you've been in the Circle?

Oh wow... it’s changed immensely! Before the Circle, over the course of six years, I wrote and revised my first novel. It actually still needs a major overhaul, but it was written in bits and pieces, from different places in the story, and most days it felt like I was struggling just to get words on the page.

Since joining the circle in March 2015, where I was instantly welcomed into a warm community of other writers, my practice has become almost daily. Writing my second novel while in the Circle, I feel like I finally have a rhythm. I create a daily goal, sit down and write, and then check in on the Circle site. I feel grounded and supported by my group every single day, which helped me write the first draft of my second novel in 7 months!

That’s not to say there haven’t been moments when I struggled, but now I have a space with other writers where I can voice my challenges and get encouragement. That helps keep the excitement going when things are great or get it going again when things are difficult.

I also love going to the daily writing sprints where I can jump online, say briefly what I’ll be working on, and completely focus on what I’m working on for one hour. The sprints have created a foundation for me to begin each day while also giving me a moment to think about what I would like to accomplish before diving into the writing.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer ?

I have learned so much over the past seven years I’ve been writing. For instance, I've learned that I do my best writing in the morning, and ideally write from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day.

I've also learned to create a timeline/calendar for myself at the beginning of each draft, section, or when I’m starting something new to help me stay on track. It helps me see how much time I need to accomplish my goal and what I need to get done each day. I have also learned to let go of worrying if someone is going to like my stories or that I don’t write like other writers that I admire. I can only tell my stories as best as I can. And it is my duty to write these stories.

And something huge I am just starting to take in is that I have a tendency to see a project in its enormity and can get overwhelmed thinking I need to get it all done TODAY! But Jenna has helped me see the impossibility of that and instead break things down into much smaller chunks in order to achieve something in a realistic way. This has taken so much stress off of me while helping me accomplish small tasks that add up to a larger piece of the storytelling puzzle.

How much do you write, and where do you typically write?

I have a unique life as a freelancer in the film industry where I sometimes have 12-hour plus days for a few weeks and then I have a chunk of time off. When I’m off, I have time to dive into my writing and be fully present. So when I’m not immersed in “work work” I typically write four hours a day, Monday through Friday. I find it’s the perfect amount of time for me -- anything past 4 hours, I just start to fizzle out.

I write in an artist's studio in the Mission in San Francisco. It’s a private room I share with another artist inside a building where all types of artists have spaces. My half of the room is like a small apartment with a cozy couch, a soft blanket, some china lanterns, and a cool pirate ship kite I recently bought on the beach in Bali.

In order to get into my writing “dreamspace,” I must be curled up into a ball, legs pulled to my chest, body hunched over, blanket around me, with my headphones on playing the constant rumble and downpour of “Thunderstorms.” This allows me to tune everything out except the adventure movie I see inside my head while writing by hand as fast as I possibly can.

What does a successful writing day look like for you?

A successful writing day is one where I have either gotten through the section I wanted to get through, have worked out some kind of problem in my story, or where I wrote so fast, I felt energy flowing through me, writing while the story just poured from me. Those days, I walk away feeling vibrant and excited and truly feel like “I want to live that adventure!”

What's next for you with your writing?

I’m planning to finish my novel mid-2017 and submit my manuscript to agents. Between drafts, I’ve been writing a short story which I’ll revise a few more times and submit to magazines for publication. I feel writing short stories is valuable for me in two ways: First, I get new ideas often and want to get them out into the world so this gives me an outlet for writing something in a shorter timeframe, and second, getting a few short stories published will help me build a brand by getting my stories in front of people who would enjoy reading them.

Also! I’m working regularly with Jenna to create my website and writing platform, building my writing brand around my pen name, Foenix Ryder. Having a pen name helps me maintain the energy I feel when writing my stories.

Circle Profile

foenix-ryder

Name: Foenix Ryder
Roles: Novelist, short story writer, screenwriter, film industry freelancer
Location: San Francisco, California
Genre: Middle Grade & Young Adult Fantasy
Current writing goal: 1) Finish 3rd draft of my current novel by February 2017, 2) Build my writer platform including developing and launching my website by January 2017.
Biggest writing challenge: Working myself out of the stressful mind-numbing boxes of what I "don’t know" about my story.
Biggest writing ah-ha: When it was pointed out to me that I write Middle Grade fiction, it helped me understand my writing better and also see that there is a place for the stories I love to tell and that people of all ages can enjoy them.
Go-to writing platform: Writing by hand, Scrivener
Favorite writing spot: My super cozy writing studio that has a comfy couch and a warm softy blanket.

Bio: Foenix Ryder is a Middle Grade and Young Adult storyteller based in San Francisco, California who tells fantastical stories and lives brave adventures. Foenix’s stories explore diversity, confidence, and self-discovery while taking readers on an action-packed ride. 

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Join the Circle: Get Your Words Into the World

Join the Writer's CircleJoin us in the Circle and get daily accountability and support to make your writing happen. With our special end of the year savings, you can get a whole year in the Circle for less than $100 per session.

It's the perfect time to join us -- our next session begins on Monday, January 2nd so you can start off the new year "write"!

Registration closes on Thursday, December 29th. Find out more and join the Circle here.

 

Mountain Sunrise

This Writer’s Life: A Swedish CIO Writes His Historical Thriller at Dawn

For your Christmas reading pleasure, today we're continuing my "This Writer's Life" series, in which you get to meet some of my Called to Write Coaching Circle members and take a look inside their writing lives.

Hopefully the holiday fervor has died down for you now, if you celebrate Christmas, and you'll have a few quiet minutes to read about this inspiring writer, Rick, a Swedish businessman and historical thriller writer who recently completed a major novel revision ... in the dawn hours. 

Meet Rikard Bergquist: A Swedish CIO and Historical Thriller Writer

Rikard, whom we fondly call "Rick," has been with the Circle since 2012. Rick is a constant with our group -- always writing, never giving up, even through the ups and downs of a major novel revision. He's just finished his 8th revision and is getting ready to submit his novel to agents after getting some final feedback from his story coach.

You may remember Rick from an earlier guest post when he finished the first draft of his novel after jump-starting his writing habit with five minutes of daily writing. When he joined us he lived in Sweden, but has now moved to Reno, Nevada, where he is working as the CIO of a Swedish startup, raising his family, and writing.

To say that I am gratified by and proud of his achievement is an understatement. Having written alongside Rick for these last four years has been a true gift. It's so easy when we see people reaching major milestones like this and to compare ourselves to them. But when we are right there with them in the trenches, seeing all the challenges, the highs, and the lows, it's just a giant celebration for all of us to see him being ready to start submitting his completed manuscript to agents.

Rikard-BergquistWhat kind of writing do you do, and where are you in your process?

When I write it’s mainly fiction but I also do business plans, research grants and business presentations. However, when I refer to writing it is my creative endeavors that I think of. Right now I’m putting the final touches to an historical thriller set in Sweden in the 16th century I’ve been working on for the last five years. I used Storyfix, The Story Grid, and the services of a professional reader in my revision process.

How has your writing practice changed since you joined the Circle?

The Circle taught me about the importance of process and how you can trust that process even when you don’t know where you are or where you’re going with your writing. Keep on writing and roll with resistance. Nearing the finishing of my manuscript I’ve been close to calling it quits a couple of times, but the Circle has gently nudged me forward and pulled me back in. This last year it’s been my happy place when I’ve struggled with the writing. I also feel that Jenna has a set of very hands-on tools to enable me to see through the despair for what it is, handle my resistance, and keep me on track.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer?

Writing is a lonely business and I need my efforts to be seen. Even if not one single person reads my novel, I need someone to share the ups and downs of getting it done with. The Circle provides just that perfect environment of learning about yourself in likeminded company. I’ve learned that writing for just five minutes in a day, isn’t so much about the progress that day, as it is about overcoming the resistance. That is the real achievement and that positive feeling feeds on itself until you’re suddenly writing two hours a day. That’s magic.

Where do you typically write?

I have several places I write in. I feel most comfortable in the places where I can feel undisturbed. I need to be able to shut the world out and go inside of myself. That can be in a café, at my desk a couple of hours before everyone arrives at work, or in the study at home when it’s empty. For some reason I tend to go to busy cafés, where I can look up now and then, and remember that there’s another world waiting for me out there when I’m done.

What does a successful writing day look like for you?

I like to start early, early -- preferably in the dark -- and write through dawn. Get my hours in before the rest of the world wakes up. Spending the first hours of the day on writing, gives my a sense of accomplishment and I can hit the rest of the day with a smile on my face. I feel like I’ve put what’s most important to me first.

What's next for you with your writing?

I’m currently outlining part two in my historical trilogy and I hope to have a first draft ready in six months. The big challenge will be going back to first draft mode, after being in the finishing touches phase for the last year. It won’t be long before I miss having a full chapter to revise instead of a empty page to fill. I hope the Circle is ready to roll with my ups and downs once again. (We are, Rick!)

Circle Profile

Rikard-BergquistName: Rikard Bergquist
Roles: Writer, CIO in the healthcare industry, father of two girls, skier, hiker.
Location: Reno, Nevada
Genre: Historical thrillers
Current writing goal: Finish first draft of second book in a trilogy before July 2017
Biggest writing challenge: Not falling into a chasm of despair by looking at how far I am from my goal
Biggest writing ah-ha: Stay connected every day with your writing, even for five minutes, this will keep your subconscious in gear to write your story for you.
Go-to writing platform: Scrivener, Word
Favorite writing spot: Early morning, with a coffee, at a back table in a café

Bio: Rikard Bergquist is a historical fiction novelist from Sweden living in Reno, Nevada, who writes in the mornings and works as CIO for a healthcare start-up in the day. He loves the outdoor life and snow of the Sierra, where he fills his creative well skiing and hiking together with his wife and two girls.

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Join the Circle: Get Your Words Into the World

Join the Writer's CircleJoin us in the Circle and get daily accountability and support to make your writing happen. With our special end of the year savings, you can get a whole year in the Circle for less than $100 per session.

It's the perfect time to join us -- our next session begins on Monday, January 2nd so you can start off the new year "write"!

Registration closes on Thursday, December 29th. Find out more and join the Circle here.

 

Laguna Madre by eutrophication&hypoxia

This Writer’s Life: A Texas Psychotherapist Revamps Her Life to Write

Today we're continuing my "This Writer's Life" series, in which you get to meet some of my Called to Write Coaching Circle members and take a look inside their writing lives. Next up is Frani, an action-adventure novelist who joined the Circle in June of 2015.

Meet Frani Bradley: Psychotherapist and Action-Adventure Novelist

Frani is a psychotherapist who lives in Texas, and has impressed me with her dedication to her writing in the time I've known her. She leaves no stone unturned when it comes to her writing, getting out of her own way, and honing her craft, and she recently undertook a massive life redesign in order to make more time for her writing.

I invited Frani to tell us more about her writing project and how she has created more space by overhauling her life, work, and even her living situation (including a Great Dane!).

frani-bradleyWhat kind of writing do you do, and where are you in your process?

I am working on the second in an action-adventure novel series.

Right now I'm waiting for beta readers to finish reading my first novel and entering it into writing contests.

Soon I'll be studying the feedback they give me, and begin the work of incorporating what I want to use.

How has your writing practice changed since you joined the Circle?

I never had a consistent writing habit before I joined the Circle. Before joining the Circle, I had a consistent daily habit of guilt and regret about not writing. Now, most days I feel very good about keeping my daily habit of writing.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer?

I often wondered if I just liked the idea of writing and would never really finish anything, but in the Circle I learned that I am a writer, someone capable of finishing a novel. I owe this to the support of the Circle. Completing my first novel is the manifestation of a dream I've held since I was five years old. I told my grandmother a story, and she wrote it down. It was about a witch who rode a hula hoop rather than a broom. My grandmother said, "Francie, you are a wonderful story teller. Someday you will write a book." She was right.

There are so many levels of happiness and contentment that I have now, seeing my novel in hard copy ready for beta readers. I'm convinced this would never have happened without our group and you, Jenna. So you have literally allowed a life long dream come true. Thank you!

Where do you typically write?

I usually write at my desk at home. Now and then, at a coffee shop with a friend. I also work with my editor online. We collaborate across the internet in real time and over the phone when we're working together on the novel.

What does a successful writing day look like for you?

A successful writing day for me looks like putting in at least two hours of writing time on the suggestions beta readers have made on my first novel, working on my second novel, and studying a book on the craft of writing or doing research. I feel good when I spend at least two hours involved in something writing related.

How have you shifted your life to make more space for writing?

I'm right in the messy middle of changing my life. Over the last three months, working toward the goal of creating more time and mental energy for writing, I have made an effort to streamline my life. In doing so, temporarily I hope, I've created more chaos and extra time and energy drains. Things are winding down now, so I'm beginning to get my sense of humor back about all that has happened. Also, a glimmer of hope has returned, that it's not been madness to try this. I am beginning to see that my writing life could be as I envisioned it in the New Year. 

I started by closing my office, where I have had a psychotherapy private practice for nearly twenty years. I opened a home office on October 1st. Moving the furniture, changing my address with managed care companies, deciding suddenly I needed to go paperless, adjusting clients to a new meeting space, and all the many boring details of change have snowballed to create extra work. Meanwhile, my home office needed a new driveway and several other changes to create a good space at home for seeing clients.

I also rented the larger home on my two-acre property to new renters and found myself embroiled in figuring out how to successfully house their large Great Dane in a way that worked for all of us (especially me, at night!).

So needless to say, it's been a bigger project than I'd envisioned. :)

It is December, and seems like much longer than three months since I began the journey of making my life simpler. That sentence really did make me laugh. I am feeling excited right now about how I see things shaping up. My doubts and regrets about starting this are disappearing, and I'm seeing a new writing life forming in 2017. Maybe it's true that "change is messy." It's sure been true for me. In the same moment, I hear the saying, "no guts, no glory" and get happy butterflies.

I'm feeling something wonderful out there with my writing waiting for me to step into it. I can't wait!

What's next for you with your writing?

I plan to continue working on suggestions from beta readers for my first novel, entering it in writing contests, and working on my second novel.

Circle Profile

frani-bradley

Name: Frani Bradley
Roles: Psychotherapist, Novelist
Location: Corpus Christi, Texas
Genre: Action Adventure
Current writing goal: 1) Incorporate the suggestions of five beta readers into my 1st novel by April 15th and submit to contests, 2) Complete Outline of 2nd novel by January 31st, 3) Complete first draft of 2nd novel by June 1st.
Biggest writing challenge: Keeping boundaries and commitments in regards to writing time
Biggest writing ah-ha: Two people I trust to give honest feedback have read my novel and enjoyed it as a good read. My ah-ha is that I have a novel that two people have enjoyed. It's enough to keep me going a long, long time.
Go-to writing platform: The cloud version of Pages for collaborating with my editor.
Favorite writing spot: In my living room, looking out over an inlet of the Laguna Madre, in the company of my dog and the large water birds in the distance.

Bio: Frani Bradley is an action-adventure novelist based in Texas who writes alongside running her home-based psychotherapy practice. She's a passionate animal lover and has dedicated herself to bringing the spirit of adventure, respect for animals, and spiritual inspiration to her stories. 

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Join the Circle: Get Your Words Into the World

Join the Writer's CircleJoin us in the Circle and get daily accountability and support to make your writing happen. With our special end of the year savings, you can get a whole year in the Circle for less than $100 per session.

It's the perfect time to join us -- our next session begins on Monday, January 2nd so you can start off the new year "write"!

Registration closes on Thursday, December 29th. Find out more and join the Circle here.

 

Laguna Madre featured image by eutrophication&hypoxia and used under a creative commons license.

 

 

This Writer’s Life: A Berkeley Mama Writes a Historical Fiction Trilogy in 15 to 60 Minutes a Day

It's December, the end of the year. In a continuation of my goal to help you Start 2017 Off Write, I thought you might like to meet some of my Called to Write Coaching Circle members and get a look inside their writing lives. We'll kick off this series with Rebecca Brams, a local Berkeley writer and longtime Circle member.

Meet Rebecca Brams: Mama, Grant Writer, & Novelist

Rebecca is a Berkeley mom of two boys (we have both of those in common!) and she's writing a novel alongside parenting and the grant writing work she does. She has been a Circle member for three years. I invited Rebecca to tell us more about her writing and her writing life. 

rebecca-bramsWhat kind of writing do you do, and where are you in your process?

I do several different types of writing, including grant writing for non-profit clients, personal essay, short fiction and blog. I mainly use the Writer’s Circle for my novel work -- I’m writing a trilogy of historical fiction novels set during the Inca Empire, in what is today Peru. Since I joined the Writer’s Circle three years ago, I’ve written a draft of the first book in the trilogy and put it through a story analysis process including reverse outlining and mapping. I used two story analysis methodologies: Save the Cat and The Story Grid. I'm now partway through revising the novel. (If you’re curious about the novel trilogy, you can learn more about it in an essay Rebecca published here.)

How has your writing practice changed since you've been in the Circle?

I've become much more productive and stay on track more easily. I’ve been part of different kinds of writing communities over the years, including when I got my MFA degree, and I’ve found different types of value in each experience. The Circle is unique because of the daily check-in and because of the focus on process, not content. I know that if I get stuck, my coach will offer me a different perspective, and I often use the coaching calls to help me work through issues that come up. Being in the Circle makes me feel like I’m part of a writing community that’s “got my back” and will help get me back on track when I become overwhelmed or lose focus.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer?

I've learned to trust the ebb and flow of the creative process. Recording my progress on a daily basis (and seeing my fellow Circle members do the same) has shown me that I can have a fabulous writing day, followed by a humdrum day, and then get back into the flow again in my next writing session. Now when I have a tough day or hit one of those “stuck” spells, I worry less because I’ve realized it’s a normal part of the creative process.

Also: This is life. This is it. Every day we create it with our choices. Every day we choose to write even though urgent things are calling us, we honor our creativity, the Muse, and the unique voices that can only speak through us. Every day we choose to be gentle with ourselves, we create a life of compassion and peace. These two elements can feel in opposition to each other, but perhaps allowing for the coexistence of opposing forces is necessary for a rich artistic life.

How much do you write and where do you typically write?

I try to write early in the day, usually right after I drop my kids off at school, before lots of other to-dos pop up. That probably happens three to five days per week, depending on whether there are school holidays, my husband's work travel schedule, or if I have a lot of client work. I usually work at home, but sometimes I mix it up by going to a café. About once a week, I go to an in-person writing group.

When I’m at home, I often work at my secretary desk in my bedroom, but when I’m deep into line-edit revisions, I find I work better sitting in bed or on the sofa -- it gets me more into the mindset of a reader. When I’m strapped for time and trying to get in a sliver of writing, I will sometimes even write in my car. My coach has called me a “time-stealing ninja” for the different ways I’ve managed to slide writing into a busy schedule over the years.

What does a successful writing day look like for you?

It used to be that 15 minutes a day was all I tried for. Now my minute goals range a lot more depending on what else is happening in my life. I’d love to work for an hour a day or more, but there are so many different elements in my life that it really depends. Locking myself into a rigid schedule tends to lead to stress and guilt. I try for consistency and keeping up momentum more than getting the same amount of time in every day. And I do writing retreats -- often solo weekend retreats -- to immerse myself and get in big chunks of time.

What's next for you with your writing?

My big writing goal for 2017 is to finish the second draft of the first book by the beginning of the summer when my kids get off school. It’ll be a stretch, but I'm going to give it my best shot with the help of the Circle.

Circle Profile

rebecca-bramsName: Rebecca Brams
Roles: Grant writer, novelist, blogger, essayist, mother of two boys
Location: Berkeley, California
Genre: Historical fiction
Current writing goal: Finish second draft of novel by June 2017
Biggest writing challenge: Juggling priorities, the unpredictability of young children
Biggest writing ah-ha: Starting is almost always the hardest part.
Go-to writing platform: Scrivener
Favorite writing spot: In bed!

Bio: Rebecca Brams is a writer and mother to two young boys in Berkeley, California. She grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and has traveled extensively in Latin America. She has a B.A. in Anthropology from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from St. Mary’s College of California. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in Carve Magazine, Literary Mama, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing and on blogs, including her own, www.thismamawrites.com.

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Join the Circle: Get Your Words Into the World

Join the Writer's CircleJoin us in the Circle and get daily accountability and support to make your writing happen. With our special end of the year savings, you can get a whole year in the Circle for less than $100 per session.

It's the perfect time to join us -- our next session begins on Monday, January 2nd so you can start off the new year "write"!

Registration closes on Thursday, December 29th. Find out more and register here.

 

Writing With Intention: The Power of Journaling About Your Writing Process

Journaling is an incredibly powerful way to create structure for your writing practice. When you use journaling to bookend your writing practice each day, you become much more intentional about your writing and your ability to learn from what works and what doesn't.

Here are some simple techniques you can use to amplify your writing practice with journaling.

Start Your Day With an Intention For Your Writing

A powerful way to focus your writing day is to start with an intention. I've used this technique in the past, but when I worked with Jessica Michaelson in her Look Up program, I loved how she had us check in twice a day, starting with identifying a core value we wanted to focus on each day in a morning check-in. With her blessing, I've incorporated this idea into the morning and evening prompts in my Writer's Insight Journal (one of the tools in my Ultimate Writer's Toolkit).

The core idea is to identify and name the energy and intention you want to bring to your writing for the day. This simple act brings focus and clarity to your writing, and can be used as a tool to adjust if you get off course.

For example, if your intention is to write with JOY for the day, but you find yourself in angst instead, you can ease up on the throttle and find ways to bring a more joyful, playful energy to your work. On the other hand, if your writing intention is FOCUSED EFFICIENCY and you find yourself in distraction-mode, simply reminding yourself of your intention can be a way to get back on track with your writing.

Complete Your Day By Checking In About How It Went

Similarly, at the end of each day, you can "complete" your writing day by assessing your writing progress and process. What was accomplished, what wasn't. What went well, what didn't. What adjustments you want to make going forward. 

It's the power of self-observation we rely on in my Called to Write Coaching Circle. Simply by observing and noticing what we go through each day as writers -- without judgment, mind you -- we gain incredible insights into ourselves, where we get stuck, where we go off track, and how we might need to adjust our writing process.

So many of us judge ourselves for not writing, or not writing enough, but as writers, our true power lies not in judgment, but in our ability to think creatively. And when we bring our creative minds to troubleshooting the challenges we face as writers, rather than beating ourselves up over them, magic happens. 

This is how we notice ourselves getting trapped by the lure of internet distractions. Or catch ourselves in the throes of perfectionism or paralysis. Or notice that we're using our workaholism to avoid our writing, or that we're procrastinating with sudden obsessive house cleaning. Or cotton on to the fact that the reason we're not writing is that we're just not getting enough sleep and our willpower is too depleted.

I'm not a fan of the word mindfulness in general because it somehow implies a level of perfection and studiousness I find stressful. But intentional works for me.

Be Intentional With Your Writing

Success in writing doesn't happen by accident. That's a theme that's emerged as I've been writing this series. Writing happens when we are intentional about how we use our time, our days, our minds, our focus, and our creativity. And one of the most brilliant ways we writers can tap into that intentionality is through our own greatest skill, writing. Our journals become the containers for our greatest insights when we take the time to compassionately self-observe and learn from what's working and what isn't, and where we can go from there.

So if you find yourself floundering with your writing at all, carve out a few minutes each morning to set an intention for the day, and a few minutes at the end of the day to assess how it went. Sure, you can do this mentally. But since you're a writer, you know the power words hold. Write it down if you can. And if you need help with making more of a space to use this tool, stay tuned for the release of my Writer's Insight Journal in my Writer's Toolkit this week to help you make it happen.  

How do you learn from your own writing process? Tell me about it in the comments.

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3 Tips for Staying Energized When Writing a Book (or Script!)

One of the biggest challenges I've seen for writers working on long-form writing projects (like books and scripts) is losing heart along the way, mostly because we get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work left to do.

It's not easy to keep our energy mustered toward completion when we've got pages and pages more to write... or harder, pages and pages left to revise (and potentially additional revisions left to go).

Here are three tips designed to help you keep your spirits up as you battle the forces of writing resistance:

Tip #1: Create a Plan

For every stage of your writing, make a plan for it. A plan for the outline, a plan for the first draft, a plan for the revision. For example, if you're writing the first draft, identify the milestones you're aiming to hit, like scenes from an outline or turning points from a beat sheet. Create a timeline for those milestones so you know if you're on track, and if you need to make any adjustments as you're moving through the project.

Even if you're a total pantser, you can still make some estimates for word counts, major turning points, or numbers of chapters.

Make your milestones big enough to be inspiring but not so big that they're overwhelming. I love to use 15-page chunks of a script as a milestone, usually the number of pages between each major script turning point because I know approximately how long it takes me to write or revise a section of that length. (You can see me putting a simple form of this in action here.)

Tip#2: Track Your Work

Once you have your plan and start implementing it, make a point to track your work so you can see how your plan is progressing. I like to use spreadsheets for tracking my writing (there's one in my Ultimate Writer's Toolkit if you want a jump-start with your own tracking).

The core idea is this: Track your time and your word or page counts so you can SEE the progress happening. It's one of the best antidotes I know for project overwhelm. There's nothing quite like seeing your counts climb and knowing you're making progress to help you focus on the progress you are making, as opposed to the work you have yet to do. And this is one of the biggest challenges we face as writers.

We tend to be an intuitive, conceptual bunch (at least the crowd I hang out with) so we can easily see the final, finished product in our minds' eyes -- and then despair when we see how far it is from here to there. But when we learn to use baby steps, and track those steps, we shift our focus from what's yet not done to what is already done, and it's an incredible relief.

Another amazing benefit of tracking your work is being able to see how long each stage and type of work typically takes you, and then you can project approximately how long it'll take to hit each milestone. Such as, how long it takes you to write 15 script pages or 2,000 words in your novel. Or much writing you can do in 60 minutes. Or how long it typically takes you to outline. Knowing your own innate pacing is a big confidence booster, and helps you build trust with yourself as a writer and believe in your ability to complete a project. Knowledge is power.

Plus, when you track your work you'll have the evidence you need to help you stay on track with your writer's schedule. If you've set aside 60 minutes a day for writing, and see every day you're adding 750 words to your manuscript, you'll be more motivated to keep your next writing appointment with yourself because you know in your bones those minutes count.

Tip #3: Keep Your Head Down

And at the same time, let tracking your work be enough of the big picture. Learn to keep your head down and focused on the work at hand rather than on the overall timeline.

Here's what I mean by "keep your head down." Once upon a time, I worked as an intern doing digital 3-D modeling (I made digital houses for virtual architectural walkthroughs and elephants for an animated dictionary, super fun). After I went back to grad school, my boss told me about someone they'd hired. "She keeps her head down," he said.

I wondered what he meant, and he explained that she focused well on doing the work that was in front of her, without looking up and around, chatting, or getting distracted. It clicked for me. And I find that the more I "keep my head down," once I've established the plan for my work, and just do said work, the better off I am.

As a general rule, the time to question and design the plan is not in the middle of implementing the plan, unless something has gone horribly wrong and a course correction is required. But if things are moving forward and no major trains have gone off the rails, stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other and logging the time and tackling the items on the writing to do list.

It's when we stop and question that we flounder. I've seen more than a few writers dropping in and out of the game for reasons like this, and it's just not worth it. The only way out is through. Don't spin your wheels asking "Why is it taking so long?"Just do the work. 

Plan the Work and Work the Plan -- And Track It!

So if you're looking for ways to keep your energy up while writing your epic book or script, remember: Plan the work and work the plan -- and track it along the way. You'll be amazed at how motivating it is to see your body of work building and building over time.

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The Magic of Creating a Writer’s Schedule

Many people think writing is something that happens when we're inspired -- struck by a lightning bolt of ideas, if you will. That when we're inspired we just naturally "find" time to write.

And in a perfect world, that'd be true. (And in a perfect world we'd all have mentors and patrons supporting us to fulfill our creative callings!)

The truth is though, most of us are busy with day jobs, families, and other commitments in addition to our writing, so we have to take a different approach.

Creating Your Writer's Schedule Is About Intentionally Making Time to Write

We don't find time to write. We make time to write.

And making time to write requires being intentional. Writing doesn't "just happen."

When a writer comes to me with a book or script to finish, first I find out about their deadline, and whether it's a self-created deadline or an industry deadline. Then I ask about when they have time write.

Sometimes they have answers, sometimes they don't. Usually it's in the form of some general notions about when they could write or how and when they are already writing (if they are), which is a terrific place to start.

From there I ask a lot of questions about their ideal writing times, other habits, routines, and obligations and we co-create a weekly Target Writing Schedule. We use a weekly schedule because it's a repeatable model writers can carry forward with them throughout the whole year, adjusting as needed when major schedule changes or variations occur. (My Ultimate Writer's Toolkit includes a simple step-by-step process to walk you through creating your personal Ideal Writing Schedule and Target Writing Schedule.)

We call it a target schedule because we know that sometimes life goes awry and we don't hit our targets, but this way we know what to do when that happens -- just flow back into the plan the next day or at the first available opportunity. It's like having a regular work schedule. You get sick and miss a day, and then go right back to work when you get better.

The Magic Happens When You Make a Writer's Schedule

So much magic happens when you make your writer's schedule:

  • You become more intentional about writing, and more aware of any choices you make that stop you from writing.
  • You make writing a priority in your life, and validate that priority as you put it into action.
  • You have an easier time keeping writing appointments with yourself when they're planned into your day.
  • You raise the bar on the professionalism you're bringing to your writing. There's a chasm between hoping to write and scheduling writing, and putting it on your calendar helps you bridge that gap. It's about turning pro.
  • You become far more likely to protect your writing time from scheduling other meetings or events during those time slots.
  • You create a container for your writing, so when you have a project you want to complete, you know just how and when you'll do it.
  • You become much more likely to stay on track with finishing your project without getting burnt out, or ending up in binge-writing mode struggling to meet a deadline at the last minute. 
  • You know when and how to reboot yourself if you get off track one day -- you go back to the schedule the next day.

If you're looking ahead to writing seriously in 2017, start by setting up your writer's schedule, so you'll be ready to hit the ground running when the clock turns. 

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7 Easy Ways to Sneak In Writing Time Over the Holidays (and Why It’s Worth It)

It's the holiday season, and the crunch is on! We're busy with everything. Shopping, holiday parties, family gatherings, end of year deadlines, kids off school, and more. That makes it a prime time of year for our writing habits slip by the wayside, but I'm here to help with seven easy ways you can sneak writing in, even in the midst of the chaos.

7 Easy Ways to Sneak In Writing Time Over the Holidays

When you're looking for easy ways to get more writing in, try these ideas:

  1. Write early. You've probably heard me talk about the virtues of early morning writing before. During the holidays, early morning writing will save you. You can write before your kids get up and your spouse leaves for work, even when the kids are off school for Winter Break. You can hide out in the guest bedroom at your aunt's house and write in bed -- no one will even know you are awake! You can write before you tackle other projects or head out shopping. Whatever else you have on your plate for the day, when you write first, your heart and spirit will be lighter, knowing you've met your most important commitment to yourself first. 
  2. Set a special holiday daily target. When you're writing during a busy season like this one, you'll want to tweak your daily writing goals. Maybe you're someone who has oodles of time off over the holidays, and you can set higher goals, but if you're like the rest of us with day jobs and kids and a plethora of social commitments, now's the time to figure out your daily holiday writing targets. They're probably lurking somewhere between what I call your "rock bottom minimum" (the absolute minimum amount of writing you want to accomplish on a given day) and your optimal amount of writing during a busy time. Here's what I mean: Normally I aim to write for about 60 minutes a day, more when I'm stretching for a big goal. My rock bottom minimum is 15 minutes a day. So my holiday target is 30 minutes per day. 
  3. Scan your day for potential pockets of writing time. When you get up in the morning, if you're not going to write first thing, mentally scan your timetable for the day to see if you can spot little pockets of writing time. Maybe you can go early to that dentist appointment and write in the waiting room. Or write a bit in the car on your mobile device while your spouse is driving to the holiday party. Or take a writing time-out at a café while you're out shopping for holiday gifts. While I'm not usually one for cramming writing into every available moment of my life, intentionally identifying and using one writing window in a day can be a beautiful way to make space for writing.
  4. Streamline your other activities. My holiday life has gotten so much easier since I do most of my shopping online these days. I shop in batches on Amazon, which saves me an enormous amount of emotional wear and tear and saves my energy for writing. I also carefully balance the number of events we attend over the holidays and try to keep the number manageable (I have a threshold of one social gathering per weekend if I can keep it that way and I make exceptions only with careful forethought). When you purposefully design for sanity, it's much easier to then make time to write, also.
  5. Write light. There's a tremendous advantage to writing regularly, which is quite simply that it makes it easier to keep going... and that's what gets us to the finish line with our books and scripts. But sometimes, keeping your head in a script or novel is just too hard when there's so much crazy going on. In that case, you may want to try lighter writing -- journaling, morning pages, brainstorming, writing outside your project (freewriting within the story but outside the primary document for it). This way, you're keeping the words flowing onto the page and holding the space you have in your life for writing, but also making it easier on yourself.
  6. Write late. If you aim to write in the morning but don't, or just don't want to, considering writing in the evening just before bed. You can even sneak off to bed early when you're staying with your relatives, or go to that office party early and duck out well before last call to make some time for writing. Think of it as your own secret time, just for you. You feed your soul's calling when you write, and there couldn't be a better gift to give yourself for the holidays.
  7. Have fun! The holidays can be delightful, but they can also be quite stressful. Emotions get stirred up; there's more pressure to perform and feel a certain way, look a certain way, etc. So giving yourself a pet project might just be the ticket for some extra writing inspiration and energy, or bringing the spirit of play to your work can help you make a point to enjoy it. You can even make a game out of creating writing time for yourself. Make it feel like you are getting away with something, and you will be. :)

Here's Why It's Worth It To Sneak In the Writing Time Now

When you write now, you'll position yourself well to take advantage of that big burst of writing energy you're going to have come January 1st. You know it's coming, right? Remember, a body in motion has a tendency to stay in motion, so writing now helps you write later. (Whereas not writing now means it's harder to write later -- the body at rest tends to stay at rest... It's all about inertia, baby!)

The good news is that it doesn't have to be hard to write even during this busy season. Use these tips to make writing easy through the holidays so you can jump in with both feet when January 1st rolls around. 

Got other holiday writing tips? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

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