Race to the finish

On Finishing (and Perfectionism!): A Review of Jon Acuff’s Finish

Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of DoneI’ve just finished reading Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done* by Jon Acuff. It’s a delightfully irreverent book packed with useful insights — sometimes counterintuitive — about how and why we stop ourselves from finishing (hint: perfectionism is the root cause).

It’s been a particularly fun read right now for three reasons.

First, I’ve been reading it alongside several of my Circle members and we’ve been discussing it on our online site. I have a feeling we’ll be doing this again. It’s a mini online book club. Yay!

Second, I’m just about to lead the goal setting call for the Deep Dive Writing Intensive I’m running (we start writing next week!) so I’m looking forward to incorporating some of Acuff’s principles into our goal setting work. And since the Deep Dive Writing Intensive is designed to help people finish (or make major progress in that direction), it’s particularly apropos.

Third, I know I’m a recovering perfectionist. Or at least a perfectionist who’s trying to recover. (The first step is admitting you have a problem!) So this book was useful on both professional and personal fronts.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways from the book:

  1. The “day after perfect” is the make-or-break day. Acuff says the “day after perfect” often turns up as soon as day two of pursuing a goal. I see this happening with writers who put in a big burst of enthusiastic writing for their first day out (sometimes later), then crash and burn the next day by going into massive writing aversion and avoidance the next day… which can lead to despair and giving up. I much prefer to see writers pacing themselves for the long haul. Acuff makes the point that we have to focus on “moving forward imperfectly” and “trying again… today, tomorrow, or next week.” I’ve always been a fan of “starting over tomorrow,” whenever I get off track with my goals so I’m right there with him.
  2. There’s a difference between commitments and distractions. Acuff makes a useful distinction between the things we’re committed to doing, like our day jobs and our kids, as our commitments, and things like Netflix — and those side projects you turn to when it’s time to write — as distractions. See how simple that is? I found this useful for reinforcing what I do when I write out my Three Big Rocks list, which is to focus on the key things I want to accomplish for my goals that day. I don’t include my standing commitments (taking care of my kids and exercising, for example), because I think of them as “givens,” but prioritize the three major commitments I’m making for the day.
  3. You can look for your own sweet spot with rewards or penalties (or both) when it comes to goal setting. Acuff says, “make it fun if you want it done,” and recommends establishing a reward or a penalty for your goal. I’m more motivated by rewards than punishment, but his writing had me think more about deciding on really fun rewards, and deciding on them in advance. I’m particularly thinking about how I can do this on the daily and weekly scale (one example he gave was how author Sammy Rhoades would reward himself with a Friday afternoon movie for meeting his writing goals, which sounds right up my alley).
  4. Pay attention to where you “hide” from your goals. Acuff describes both “hiding places” — where we go to avoid our goals — and “noble obstacles” — the clever schemes we design to make it so we can’t possibly focus on our goals because we’re serving some higher purpose. I’ve seen so many writers over the years come up with the most fascinating and suddenly highly important non-writing or OTHER writing projects than they originally come into our programs with. This is really worth paying attention to and short-circuiting.
  5. Put your new idea at the finish line for your current one. If you tend to come up with a new idea that’s much more appealing than your current project the minute you start (in the coaching world, we call these Bright Shiny Objects), Acuff recommends making the new idea the project you “get to” work on when you finish your current one. With writing, I recommend what I call a “Project Queue” (tips on how to do this with writing projects are in my free guide, “How to Choose Your (Next) Book“). The core idea is to promise to work on the new idea next. In a sense it even becomes a reward for getting to the end of the current one. Yay!
  6. Aim a little lower with your goal setting. Acuff recommends cutting our goals in half, either by cutting the quantity or output in two, or by doubling the amount of time we give ourselves. This is because most of us are entirely unrealistic about how we set our goals. I’ve personally been setting fewer and fewer goals over the last few years, after seeing myself being unable to attain the multiple, too-fast-paced goals I was aiming for, and I can see right now from checking my 2018 goals list that I may have a bit more tweaking to do after reading Finish, especially after the hard start to the year I’ve had. 
  7. The “day before done” is another place many of us go astray. I’ve witnessed this in my own writing, suddenly becoming apathetic toward a screenplay, telling myself I’ve just lost interest in the story. Acuff identifies three primary fears triggered by a looming finish, including a fear of what happens next (Amazon reviews!), a fear it won’t be perfect, and a fear of “what now?” The key, he says, is addressing these fears with a combination of trusting yourself to figure it out and being open to seeing what happens.

More my favorites in this book are the “secret rules” we use to sabotage ourselves (“If I lose all this weight, then I’ll have to go dancing/be looked at/feel more vulnerable”), choosing what to “bomb” (where you’re strategically choosing to suck at something in order to prioritize your goal), using data to track your goals and “celebrate your imperfect progress,” and many more.

While there were times I wasn’t 100% sure if I thought Acuff was actually writing about resistance and not so much about perfectionism (which I consider to be a subcategory of resistance), I loved what he shared and he has stirred some useful thinking and insight for all of us who have read it. 

Highly recommended. 

* This is an Amazon affiliate link, which means Called to Write will earn a small commission if you purchase the book after clicking on this link, for which we are greatly appreciative!
Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Getting Out of Writing Overwhelm and Into Action

Let’s talk about writing. And overwhelm.

First, a story. 

When I was a kid, my parents used to take us on high Sierra backpacking trips. They were hard. We’re talking about high-altitude, have to hit 10,000 feet before you get to the lake kind of hard. With backpacks. On super steep trails. In the blazing sun. I was also prone to altitude sickness, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive to go higher, other than the incredible beauty of the alpine lakes and the satisfaction we had once we reached our destination. 

Which was actually a hell of an incentive. 

Every summer my sister and I would slog up the steep trails, managing the weight of our packs on our sore shoulders, the blisters forming on our feet, the headaches creeping in, the tiredness, and the whininess that would sneak into our voices. My dad always brought up the rear, even though he was the fastest and strongest hiker. 

In every trip, there were always points along the way where I begged to stop. I’d despair that we’d ever get there. My dad was my coach at those times. Giving up wasn’t an option. He was always patient, calm, and quiet. He’d just wait with me until I was ready to get up and keep going. 

He’d say, “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t think about how far it is to the top. Just look at the trail right in front of you, and focus on getting to the next bend in the trail. Then the next, and the next.”

And bit by bit, we’d get there.

Overwhelm In Writing

As writers, we often hear the line from E.L. Doctorow, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Usually this quote is used to describe the process of figuring out a story and how we find our way through it, bit by bit. But we can also use it to describe and understand the entire process of writing, from first draft, to rewrite(s), to publication, and to marketing, including dealing with any and all overwhelm at each of those stages. 

When we’re writing, the big gap between here (where you are right now) and there (where want to end up — done! finished! published!) can feel pretty darned overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that you might be wondering if you’re even capable of making it. 

Underlying Causes & Solutions for Addressing Overwhelm  

Let’s dig a little deeper into where you might be feeling overwhelmed, and then look at some solutions to help you find your way through.

6 Underlying Causes of  Writing Overwhelm

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, no matter what stage of writing you’re in, here’s what might really be going on:

  1. There’s so much left to do, and it really is overwhelming. Writing a book is a long haul project. So is a screenplay, when you consider the many drafts a script often goes through before it’s produceable and marketable. There’s a ton of work left to do, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when staring up the face of the enormous mountain you’re attempting to scale. (Hint: You’re looking at the mountain, not the trail.) 
  2. You’re scared to put yourself out there. Writing a book can trigger self-doubts, fears, procrastination, perfectionism, and resistance. When you’re conscious of it, you can feel overwhelmed by the enormity and responsibility of it all. When you’re less conscious of it, you can get stuck in writing overwhelm as a kind of “safe haven.” It can feel easier to go around in circles than to take the risk of fulfilling your big dream. 
  3. You’re doubting that you’re up to the challenge. Hand-in-hand with #1, above, you might not even feel sure you have what it takes to write at the level required to succeed. You might be losing confidence in yourself, your book, and your ability to write. If you’re in this place you may be so overwhelmed that you’re considering giving up on your book, or worse, giving up on writing altogether. This is the kind of overwhelm that comes from a crisis of confidence. 
  4. You’ve lost your way. Sometimes you can end up feeling lost, like you’re not sure how to solve the story problems you’re facing (or even to figure out what the problems truly are), or you’re overwhelmed with a sheer quantity of content and disorganization, and you can end up going around in circles, feeling paralyzed, dazed, and confused. The fear here is that you’ll never find your way.
  5. It feels like you’re running out of time. Many of us have this ticking clock inside our heads about when it’s okay and when it’s too late to “arrive” on the scene with our finished books. The fear here is that it’s too late for you, which creates a sense of overwhelm around trying to fit way too much into too little time.
  6. You’re feeling overwhelmed by life, too. We’re busy. All of us. Our culture, our world, and our lifestyles seem to be busier than ever and only getting worse. Finding time to write seems darned near impossible when you’re juggling a job, kids, friends, pets, family, spouses, and more. The fear here is that you don’t have the time and space in your life to actually pull off making time to write, which again leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

6 Solutions for Moving Past Overwhelm and Into Action

Here are six solutions to help you overcome the overwhelm and move into action with your writing.

  1. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, just like my dad taught me. The most basic antidote for overwhelm is to take the smallest possible steps, one by one, to move through it. This means making a plan for how you’ll approach your writing (or rewriting), and working on it in the smallest possible pieces until it’s done. In fact, the more resistance, fear, or doubt, you’re feeling, the smaller the chunk you’ll want to work on (even if you spend all day working on small pieces). If you keep your focus on the next step right in front of you, you can get through to the end.
  2. Get mad. Resistance is a smothering force. It paralyzes you and bogs you down, until you begin to feel hopeless and like you’ll never succeed. Anger, on the other hand, holds the powerful energy of action. When resistance gets you down, get mad. Use the energy of being a little (or a lot!) pissed off that resistance is trying to beat you to get fired up and get back to work. When I feel discouraged, my fighting spirit rises up in me and says, “No way! I’m not letting resistance win.”
  3. Use a map, aka, remember your Big Why. When you’re lost and overwhelmed, remind yourself of your Big Why. Think about (and write down, for next time) WHY you’re writing this book. What do you love about it? What are your deepest reasons for wanting to write this book? Reconnect with your passion and love and energy for the book. Pair that with the energy of anger to light a fire inside yourself.
  4. Get help for the climb. Sometimes, you need help to reach the top of the summit. This could look like working with a coach, joining a writing group, or partnering up with a buddy. Someone who will be patient, supportive, kind, and compassionate without giving up on you for a single second. 
  5. Make a push of progress on your book. A nifty trick for dealing with overwhelm is making a focused, concerted burst of progress on your story. Writing solidly, with focus, helps you regain your sense of identity and your confidence in yourself as a writer. This is what Tony Robbins calls “massive action.” And though I generally advocate for regular daily writing as the primary antidote for resistance, sometimes we need to take powerful action to restore our confidence, energy, and momentum. You can do your own focused writing intensive or join mine to help you make that happen.
  6. Remember your ultimate destination. Not only are you writing this book or screenplay right now, you’re also working to fulfill your overall writing career goals. This project, right now, is part of the map you’re using to get there. While this might sound like contradictory advice, holding the big view of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it can help with taking the small steps along the trail.

The reward?

Reaching that ultimate destination. Seeing the world you want to see, from the great heights you’ve earned, step by step.

 

Join the next Deep Dive Writing Intensive.

Find out more and register here: https://calledtowrite.com/deep-dive

 

 

 
 
1. Featured image by AJ Yorio on Unsplash
2. Unsplash

11 Tips for Revising Your NaNoWriMo Draft

It’s mid-January. If you “won” NaNoWriMo, you’ll have 50,000 words of raw material for a new novel. If you didn’t make it to the 50k mark, you’ll still have pages to work with.

But now what?

Where do you start, in shaping your big block of marble into something with legs, something that works, something that’s marketable?

Although many writers, already know this, it’s worth stating: Under most circumstances, do not revise from the beginning to the end of your draft in order.

When you’re working with a first draft, you first have to assess what you have before you start revising. At this stage, editing, polishing, proofreading, and wordsmithing are premature, unless you’ve written a near perfect draft, which is unlikely at this stage.

Unless you’re a thoroughly seasoned writer (in which case you probably aren’t doing NaNo), if you revise chronologically, you’ll most likely find major structural and development issues in your story and end up cutting or substantively changing the work you’ve just spent hours editing, which can be heartbreaking and a big deterrent to getting to a truly final and finished product.

What you’ll want to do instead is craft a revision plan

Here are 11 tips to get you started.

11 Tips for Revising Your NaNoWriMo Draft

1. Think of your NaNo draft as an “intuitive draft.”

We’ve all seen and read the Hemingway quote, “The first draft of anything is sh*t,” and while that can help us overcome our perfectionism and get something down, I’ve come to see labeling our first passes as a “sh*tty first draft” or a “vomit draft” does a disservice to this valuable and important stage of work.

The term “intuitive draft” is thanks to one of my screenwriting mentors, Corey Mandell. I love his notion of seeing a first rough draft as a window into the souls of our characters and the feeling tone of the story. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but from it you gain valuable raw, fresh writing to guide your next steps.

Other names I like are “lightning draft” or “speed draft.” While this isn’t a hard and fast rule — you get to call it what you like, after all — I want to encourage you not to devalue your rough work but instead celebrate it as a valuable start.

2. And speaking of celebrating, did you?

And before you begin revising, celebrate! It’s important to acknowledge the work you’ve done. In the long-haul of writing a long form novel, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the work you have yet to do, and to dismiss or diminish or forget what you have already done.

I mean, dude (can I call you dude?), you just wrote 50,000 words! That’s not nothing! So celebrate and reward yourself for the good work you’ve done.

3. At the same time, keep “finishing” in perspective.

I can’t tell you how many first-time writers I’ve met who think their first draft is a finished book.

(Most non-writers think that’s how it works, and is probably the source of that endlessly annoying conversation that starts with something like, “Are you still working on your book?”)

But the truth is, unless you are a genius or meticulously plotted your draft from start to finish and wrote your draft in “pitch perfect authentic” form (another Corey term), this is first draft is essentially only that intuitive draft we were talking about, which means… the real work is about start.

4. Start by cataloging what you have.

One of my favorite and most beloved (if hard) steps from Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k book is the notion of “reverse-outlining” your draft, where you note the primary story event for each scene, along with any other key tidbits of information, like POV and word count.

The idea is to capture what happens in each scene in one brief sentence in a spreadsheet or document so you can easily see what you have, at a glance. It’s hard to grok what you’re working with in full length form, so creating a reverse outline will help you get a good overview.

Since I write in Scrivener, I like to use the synopsis area to write my brief one sentence story event summary for each scene. Then I switch over to outliner mode and export the outliner contents as a comma separated values file (CSV) and import it into my favorite spreadsheet software (Numbers for Mac) so I can work with it further there.

Recommended resource: 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron *

5. Then, do your macro story work, either again or now.

Now it’s time to do the macro story work. Take a step back and look at the story as a whole. What kind of story are you trying to tell? What genre is it? What values are at stake? Are you meeting the conventions and obligatory scenes for your genre? Who are your characters? What are they trying to get or do? What’s your premise line?

There are many tools you can use to answer these important macro questions. 

Over the last few years, I’ve become an ardent admirer of Shawn Coyne’s book The Story Grid. His take on understanding genre and how it influences audience expectations has been groundbreaking for me. 

And lest you think he’s prescribing dreaded formulaic writing, take another look. The brilliance of his work is that he clearly demonstrates what an audience will need to experience in order to feel satisfied by a story — but ALSO highlights the importance, and the difficulty, of a writer innovating on those conventions and scenes.

For example, if you’ve seen it, think about the “Lovers Break Up” scene in the movie Passengers. It’s a perfect love story scene, in the sense that one character discovers a betrayal by the other. But the writer innovates on that “typical” scene in a totally unique way with incredibly high stakes (life or death). 

This piece of work is about stepping back and thinking about what story you’re intending to tell and what the story needs to contain in order to work, in terms of story, plot, and character development. You can use The Story Grid and/or many of the other excellent tools available for helping you take that step back.

Recommended resources:

6. Review your desired story beats.

However you like to plot — or not, you pantser, you — now’s the time. Write out your major plot points, not necessarily based on what’s in your intuitive draft, but rather what you want them to be based on your macro story work.

I use a funny combination of plot points from working with ScreenwritingU.com, Chris Soth’s Mini Movie Method, and Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot approach to identify my major overarching plot points:

  • Opening
  • Inciting Incident
  • End of Act I, Lock In, Plot Point #1
  • First Pinch Point
  • Midpoint
  • Second Pinch Point
  • End of Act II, Cave Moment/All Is Lost, Plot Point #2
  • Crisis
  • Climax
  • Resolution

I ALSO use Shawn Coyne’s Beginning Hook, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff method, with each of those broken down into what he calls the 5 commandments of Inciting Incident, Complication, Crisis, Climax, Resolution. Yes, this is redundant. And, it helps me cross-check and make sure I’m not only building the plot across the entire story, but within each act (and ultimately each scene as well).

7. Write out your Revision To Do list.

Using your macro map of what you want to create, compare it to what you have cataloged. Very quickly you’ll discover missing scenes and also where you’re already on the mark.

Use this process to create your Revision To Do list (another tidbit from Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k book) so you’re clear on the steps you’re going to take to revise.

At this stage, you’re still looking at the big stuff rather than the fine details of individual scenes.

For example, you’ll be identifying which scenes to cut, which scenes to add, what character or plot changes you’ll need to make, etc.

(Tip: Once I’m doing this work, in addition to saving a copy of my intuitive draft, I also I make a “compost” folder in Scrivener for scenes and raw material I cut so I can refer back to them easily retrieve them to pull back into my new draft. Alternatively you can use “snapshots” in Scrivener to help with this.)

8. Decide what you’ll tackle first.

Once you have your Revision To Do list, put it in order.

I recommend starting with the macro (biggest level) and then working your way down to the smaller stuff with your revision work.

If you’re restructuring the story, start there. You might begin by deleting all the scenes you don’t need any more (make a backup of the intuitive draft first) and insert placeholders for the new scenes, for example.

If you’re changing specific characters, devise a strategy for tracking and changing their development through the story. 

9. Plan a timeline for your revision, if you like.

Optionally, you may want to plan a timeline for your revision.

This is usually most relevant when you a) have a deadline by which you either have to or want to finish by, and b) when you actually know what your writing pace is.

If you were tracking your time during NaNoWriMo, you probably have a sense of how much time it took you each day to hit your 1,667 word count. And if you know you have approximately, say, 20,000 additional new words to write for new scenes, based on your revision plan, you’ll know approximately how much writing time you’ll need.

On the other hand, you won’t necessarily know how long it will take you to take each revision step, so you’ll want to give yourself time and space to figure that out as you go along. Be aware that you’ll be highly likely to stumble across various “black hole” sections in your work, as one of our Circle members calls them, where you’ll end up spending many times longer than you expected, sorting them out. This is normal. :) 

10. Work with the smallest chunks possible.

Now that you’ve got your Revision To Do list and your timeline, you have a plan.

But you may still have a case of the heebie-jeebies facing all that work.

The trick here is to pick out the small chunks possible to work on. 

Even the macro work can be broken into smaller actions, such as backing up the first draft (I make a duplicate of my entire draft in Scrivener and label it 1.0, then label the new draft my 1.1 or 2.0 draft, depending on where I feel like I am in the process), cutting unneeded scenes from the first draft, putting in placeholders for the new scenes. Those are each small steps that can be taken, one by one.

If those are too big, make them smaller, e.g. cutting unneeded scenes from first act, or first section of the first act, for example.

The idea here is to craft your overall plan, and then forget about it while you focus on these day-to-day small steps. I call this willful blindness, and it’s a lifesaver when dealing with a major revision. Sure, check in with the bigger plan from time to time to make sure you’re on track, but in general, keep your focus on taking the smaller steps each day.

11. Get support.

Facing a rewrite can be daunting. (It’s even harder when it’s your fifth or seventh major revision.) I highly recommend getting a support system in place for yourself.

This is part of what we do in the Circle. You can also work one-on-one with a coach, join a critique or writer’s group, or set up a buddy system where you’re supporting a fellow writer and vice versa.

The important thing to have in place, in my opinion, is not just the practical support for staying accountable for doing the work of your writing, but also for the emotional journey. There are a lot of ups and downs and dark nights of the soul with rewriting, and you’ll not want to be alone for those.  So do establish a support system for yourself. 

I wish you all the best with your revising!

Get a whole year in the Circle for less than $100 per session.

Join the Called to Write Coaching Circle for the upcoming session starting on January 29th and save up to 32% depending on the package you choose. Registration closes Thursday, January 25th at Midnight Pacific Time.

Find out more and register here: http://justdothewriting.com

 

 

Make This Your Year to WriteMake This Your Year to Write

Jenna’s Visioning & Goal Setting Guidebook and Journal Prompts are now on sale!

Find out more and pick up your copy for only $17 here: 
https://calledtowrite.com/vision

 

* This is an affiliate link, which means Called to Write receives a small commission from any purchases you make using this link, and which we deeply appreciate.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The Many Faces of Procrastination, Part I

When I work with writers to help them stop procrastinating, usually they don’t quite know why they’re doing it. They often end up labeling it as laziness or writer’s block. I can tell you that I’ve never met a truly lazy writer, and while I certainly have met some who are blocked, sometimes a little delving is required to uncover the deeper issues that are stopping them from writing.

Let’s talk about the spectrum of writing-stoppers that show up as procrastination.

You’re stuck.

You might find yourself procrastinating when you’re stuck. Maybe you’ve hit a section you aren’t sure how to deal with, or you need to rewrite some or all of your draft but you’re not sure where to start, so you just… don’t. This stuckness doesn’t take long to turn into procrastination, and soon, to full on avoidance.

Antidotes: Sometimes when you’re stuck, you need help to get going again. A plot coach or a writing friend often comes in handy here. Alternatively, you might want to write about the writing — this is a great time for some journaling and brainstorming to unlock your writing energy and ideas.

You’re overwhelmed.

Sometimes the sheer volume of work facing you will cause you to procrastinate. When you’re looking at a mountain, it’s hard not to feel the weight of it bearing down on you. 

Antidotes: The antidote for overwhelm is to find one small step to take. In other words, what’s the first thing you can think of, no matter how small, that you know you can do now? Then do the next thing. This is a great time to pick easy things to do too, because when you’re feeling overwhelmed, easy makes it doable. Sometimes I’ll just work on formatting for a bit to get myself back into the project, no matter how fiddly it is. No step forward is too small.

You’ve been hooked by perfectionism.

When you get stuck in believing that you must make your writing perfect or get caught up in visions of this being your biggest hit ever, you’ll be triggering procrastination faster than you might believe. Perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis work together to create a vicious cycle that keeps you from writing, ever. Perfectionism is funny way of staying safe too, because if you don’t write it, you don’t have to see it being flawed and imperfect, nor can you be ridiculed for it.

Antidotes: Make peace with being an imperfect human being who values writing and finishing more than telling yourself whoppers about incredible success or massive failure that hold you back. Embrace the notion that only the divine is perfect, and decide that messy and done is so much better than not writing.

Your inner critic is freaking out.

When the voice of your inner critic starts getting loud and scary, it’s hard to keep writing, especially if you listen to it as if it’s the voice of truth and reason, rather than simply a terrified guard dog it trying to keep you safe. Also note that this voice will get louder and scarier the closer you are to the precipice of taking action, finishing a draft, or moving into a new level of your career. If those aren’t reasons to procrastinate, I don’t know what is!

Antidotes: First, pat your inner critic on the head and tell him/her that you’re going to take care of everything, you got this, and you don’t need any help protecting yourself. Then, one by one, rewrite the negative self-messages that swirl through your mind while you’re writing into positive, believable statements. Having a coach or witness for this work helps it land more deeply and take root in your psyche in a positive way. 

You’ve gotten feedback on your work and it’s affecting you.

Good feedback, bad feedback. Feedback period. All feedback affects us. It’s an energetic shock to the system that’s hard to absorb. We’ve been tenderly entwined with our beloved writing only to have it held at arm’s length by a stranger who cooly evaluates it. The stun from this can send you into a tailspin. And good feedback? Glowing feedback on your early chapters? That can be a recipe for triggering perfectionism and the anti-creativity cycle too, because suddenly you have to measure up to your existing work and you might not believe you can.

Antidotes: After giving yourself some time to recover from getting the feedback, take a deep, deep breath. Remind yourself who is in charge. (That would be you.) Evaluate the feedback as cooly as it evaluates your book. What do you agree with? Use that. What do you disagree with? Throw it out or save it for later re-evaluation.

You’re deeply exhausted and you’re self-protecting.

Sometimes you may procrastinate because you’re actually deeply tired or burned out, and reflexively protecting yourself from overextending. This may be the result of binge writing, pushing to meet deadline after deadline, or from being exhausted by a non-writing life circumstance.

Antidotes: Rest. Write for the love of it, if you’re called to do so, but make it easy, like journaling, and give yourself some time to recover. You will feel the call to write again. Trust me. 

You’re dealing with a creative wound that needs addressing.

When you’re not writing… and not writing… and not writing… and it’s just going on forever, sometimes there are deeper creative wounds that have gotten triggered and need addressing. Like that time you were ridiculed for daring to make art and express yourself creatively. Or how you were raised in a family culture that taught you that writing would never pay your bills and you were a fool if you pursued it. Or the scathing feedback you received from someone you deeply loved. Events like these leave open wounds in our psyches, like ghosts in the machine.

Antidotes: Revisit the events in a safe way (such as through visualization or journaling) so you can find the truth in the experience from a broader spiritual perspective. From there, you’ll be able to begin to find forgiveness for yourself and peace with the experience. Often these experiences happen to us when we are young, and having our more mature perspective helps us begin to shift how we feel about it now. While you can do this work on your own, working with a coach or witness who can hold a safe space while you’re processing what happened can accelerate your growth and ability to move past the pain.

And there’s more…

There are many more underlying reasons for procrastination, including creative apathy, confusion, adrenaline addictions, and more. Read Part II, here

When has procrastination most reared its head for you, and how have you dealt with it?

Share your stories and experiences in the comments section below.

 
 
Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

Perfectionism Is Lying to You

Writers don’t always recognize the grip of perfectionism when caught in its vise. But perfectionism is a wicked master that keeps us from achieving our true potential.

I should know. I struggle with perfectionism too.

Perfectionism is a Coping Mechanism

I learned to be a perfectionist as a way to keep myself safe. If I did something correctly (as evaluated by my family), I was praised and validated. If I did something incorrectly, I was critiqued. That critiquing resulted in a lot of shame for me. Shame that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t measuring up. There was an implication I’d embarrassed my family with my error (even if it was something as simple as arranging crackers inartistically). If ever I objected to taking part in something aesthetic, I was told, “but you’re so creative.” So I would comply out of sense of obligation and guilt. And then when if or when my creativity didn’t measure up, I would go deeper and deeper into hiding and shame. And yet at the same time, I loved (and love) being creative. Such a trap!

So many writers have similarly intricate sets of creative wounds, and perfectionism as a coping strategy is the result.

Perfectionism Endangers Excellence

Either do it perfectly, or don’t do it at all.

Perfectionism tells us there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. To do anything. Perfectionism doesn’t allow for mistakes or failure. But those so-called “failures” and “mistakes” are where the greatest breakthroughs and innovations happen. We’ve seen this through history, science, and technology. The path to success is rarely a straight line.

When we court perfection, we endanger our own brilliance, excellence, discovery, and evolution.

Perfectionism Lies to You

Interestingly, writers who are perfectionists will often self-describe as being “lazy.”

Perfectionism says you aren’t good enough, you aren’t trying hard enough, and concludes that you must be lazy or you would be working harder. And in fact, when you procrastinate on taking creative action, you might even look lazy. But that is a lie. 

The real reason you are procrastinating is that you are afraid you will not be able to do your work perfectly, so it’s safer not to do it at all.

You are not lazy, you are terrified.

These “lazy” writers are also often the same writers with intense fantasies of landing on bestseller lists and high achievement.

Perfectionism also lures you into daydreams of massive success. Awards, recognition, fame. But rather than being motivating, these visions are also paralyzing, because just as before, you are afraid you will not be able to achieve this high level of success, so it’s safer not to try at all.

Perfectionism likes black and white extremes. In perfectionism’s eyes, you’re either a massive failure or a massive success.

Perfectionism is lying to you.

Write Because You Love It

What if you were just you? Being your excellent, awesome self? Showing up, doing your work, writing because you love it, because you’re called to it, not out of fear of blowing it or the hope of making it big? 

Instead of striving for perfection, strive for excellence through action. Allow yourself to fall, and get back up, over and over again.

Keep writing.

You can watch me chatting about perfectionism and productivity with Deborah Hurwitz in my upcoming interview for her free Productivity for Perfectionist’s Virtual Summit coming up April 4 to 23. Find out more and register here.*

 

* This is a referral link, which lets Deborah know I sent you. I won’t receive a commission for your participation in this free event.

What if you don’t want to write every day?

As the proprietress of an online program designed to help writers build a daily writing habit, every once in a while someone says to me, “But Jenna, what if I don’t want to write every day?”

My answer is, “That’s okay.”

If….

The reason we advocate daily or near daily writing in my Called to Write Coaching Circle is that most of the time, the writers who come to us are flat out struggling to write  — at all. And it turns out that the more frequently you write, the easier it is to sustain the habit.

Some writers CAN write on a different schedule and it works perfectly well for them. That’s completely fine. I have no objections. Because if you’re someone who can write two to three times a week and keep that going over the long haul, that’s great! Or if you like to go for months without writing and then have no problem cranking out a book without getting burnt out or frazzled, all the more sparkle bright ponies for you. Really.

But if you’re someone who wants to write but isn’t, or isn’t living up to your desired level of productivity and completion, or keeps getting burnt out in binge-writing frenzies, or is wrestling with procrastination, burnout, perfectionism, or writer’s paralysis, you might want to try our daily/near daily approach. It just makes it so much easier to break the patterns you’re stuck in.

The thing is, a tremendous amount of paralysis that can build up for writers. It’s all founded in fear — fears of not writing well enough, of succeeding or failing, of public humiliation or ridicule, and more. All that fear builds up in our unconscious minds and sends us in an entirely OTHER direction than writing. But when we first break that pattern of writing-aversion and turn toward writing again with a small, doable step like writing for five to fifteen minutes, we can build new neural connections that reinforce writing as a positive thing in our lives. And if we do it again the next day, it makes it easier and easier to keep going. And once we build our writing up to habit levels, we start operating out of a whole new paradigm, one where taking a day off here or there doesn’t throw us completely off track.

No matter what though, the bottom line is this: Do what works for you. There is no one right way to write. There’s no one right answer to how to write. Different approaches work for different people. Find yours.

News

My latest news is that I’ve just signed a contract to rewrite a sci-fi feature for a producer, which I’m very much looking forward to. We’re kicking off the project tomorrow. I have a busy 40 days ahead of me!

And on the personal front, my littlest one just turned two yesterday — I can hardly believe it. And my older boy is about to finish 2nd grade. Time really flies.

Coming Up

Coaching CircleThe June session of the Called to Write Coaching Circle starts on Monday, May 23rd and the last day to register and join us is Thursday, May 19 (that’s today) by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com.

  

fittingwritingintoyourlifeI’m leading a one-week intensive called “Fitting Writing Into Your Life: Becoming a Productive Screenwriter” at Screenwriter’s University starting on August 11th and running for 7 days. It’s a three-part online recorded video presentation from me and plus online discussions, interaction, and support from me. Find out more and register here. *

 

* This is an affiliate link, which means I’ll earn an extra commission in addition to my teacher’s pay, if you register through me.

 

 

Free Class: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

The second class in my free Master Your Creative Productivity series was last night and we had a terrific time! With over 110 writers now signed up for the program, I’ve loved getting to work with the writers who’ve been able to be there live so far and I know more will be listening to the recordings.

In case you’ve missed the first two classes, you can still sign up for the four-part series (we’re continuing next week with Part III on Tuesday, March 22 at 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time).

You’ll get instant access to the recording archives when you register and you’ll also get the call-in information for the next class. 

Here’s what we covered in the first two classes:

Part I: Powerful Tools to Help You Write Productively

  • Defining what being productive means.
  • 3 writing productivity principles.
  • 5 time principles to help you be more effective with EVERYTHING you do.
  • 7 writing productivity power tools you can put to use right away.

Part II: The Anti-Creativity Cycle and How to Break It

  • Defining perfectionism and 5 thoughts about the role perfectionism plays in our writing lives.
  • The Anti-Creativity Cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis and a laundry list of ways it shows up.
  • Other creative blocks and obstacles like impostor syndrome, fear of success and fear of failure, and more.
  • 15 solutions and antidotes for the Anti-Creativity Cycle and other creative blocks.

Both recordings are 60 minutes each and include 15 minutes of Q&A time at the end of the classes.

Next Tuesday, March 22, for Part III, we’ll be covering Energy Strategies and Softer Skills to Keep you Operating at Peak Performance, and Recovery Skills for Whenever (or If Ever!) You Need Them.

Join us!

 

[otw_shortcode_button href=”http://programs.calledtowrite.com/creative-productivity/” size=”large” bgcolor=”#006666″ icon_type=”general foundicon-right-arrow” icon_position=”left” shape=”square” text_color=”#ffffff”]Register for the Series & Get the Recordings Here[/otw_shortcode_button]

 

 

The Antidote to “Blank Page” Paralysis

Does staring at a blank page paralyze you?

Here’s how you can work around it.

It’s a common vision of a writer’s life. Sitting and staring at the blank page, waiting for inspiration to come. But in my opinion, it’s a terrible strategy for a certain breed of writers.

From my experience working with so many other writers, the ominous blank page can be incredibly paralyzing. It usually triggers paroxysms of perfectionism, because we feel that we must come up with the perfect line, the perfect way to begin, or the perfect topic. And if you’ve been hanging around here for any length of time, you’ll know the vicious cycle of perfectionism, paralysis, and procrastination is one of a writer’s greatest enemies.

Oddly enough, I’m pretty sure I’d be paralyzed by a blank page myself, but I never allow myself to be confronted by one.

If you’re someone who feels frozen in the face of all that white space, here are some strategies to help you get into the flow of writing, whether you’re blogging, writing short pieces, articles, or stories, or working on full-length long-form masterpieces.

  1. Begin with an idea. Sounds super simple, right? It’s not always so easy to do (we can talk about generating concepts another day), but once you’re in the habit of writing, you’ll find that coming up with ideas is less cumbersome that it might be now. When I’m starting a project, I’m walking around thinking about it for hours or days before I sit down to write. Because I blog on a weekly-ish basis, I have a constant stream of ideas coming into my head, so I pretty much always have an idea of what I’ll be writing about when the time comes. If I don’t have an idea for a blog post, I’ll often ask the writers around me for ideas. There’s always something up, somewhere!

    Alternatively, if I’m starting a script, I’ll be honing and crafting the concept in my head and on paper before I sit down as well.

  2. Immediately empty your brain onto the page. Once you’ve got your idea and it’s time to sit down to write (you do have a time to write, yes?), do a “brain dump” onto the page. If I’m working on a blog post, this means kind of spewing out the ideas I’ve got on the subject onto the page, randomly or in order, it doesn’t matter, as well as coming up with a working title (often temporary) that becomes the “container” for the piece. Usually I’m imagining myself talking to all of you, so that helps too — it feels like I’m writing down the conversation we’re having in my head.

    If you’re blogging and struggling at this point, you might even want to write down and answer a question, like, “Where do my readers struggle with this?” Or, “What would be most inspiring for my readers on this subject?” to get you going.

    If I’m working on a script, I have a kind of formula that I complete, and it starts with capturing any ideas I have for the logline and story concept, so I begin with getting those onto the page along with anything else I “know” about the story as well.

  3. Turn to structure. From there, start organizing your project. With blog posts, since I’ve written down the ideas, I start organizing them into a natural order or flow that occurs to me. It doesn’t have to be perfect, I think of it as a work in progress, just like my working title.

    If I’m working on a script, this is where the heavier-lifting comes in. I have a set of parameters I “fill in” (that’s the formula I’m talking about in step two). I detail my main characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. I break out major plot points. I outline scenes.

  4. Fill in from there. Once you’ve got your structure, just start filling it in. If I’m writing a blog post, this means fleshing out and refining what I’ve started with. When I’m working on a script, I import my scene outline into my screenwriting software, and then fill that in.

    This way, I’m always “filling in” and responding to what I’ve already set up for myself, rather than starting from a “blank” anything, so I never feel lost or paralyzed. Well, maybe not NEVER. :) But much more rarely.

So if staring at a blank page for you is difficult, use these ideas to get something (ANYTHING!) onto the page to get yourself jump-started, and go from there.

Happy writing!

Are You Waiting for Permission to Write?

In the teleclass I taught last week: “Called to Write: Align Your Daily Actions with Your Soul’s Deeper Purpose“, something that resonated for my lovely group of attendees was the idea of no longer waiting for permission to write

(If you missed the live class, you can still sign up to get the recording by clicking here.)

I waited for years to start writing fiction.

Inside, I felt like I had to get some kind of stamp of approval before I was “allowed” to write. That I needed an expert or agent or mentor or master writer to see my potential and encourage me to pursue writing. That otherwise I was chasing a fool’s dream or breaking the rules somehow. 

Change Your Mindset

I think many writers or want-to-be-writers do this. It’s tied to perfectionism. A belief that we have to be “good enough” before we start. That there’s a qualification level we have to reach before we even begin.

But how can we learn how to do anything, until we actually start doing it?

One of my mentors, Hal Croasmun of ScreenwritingU.com, talks about how he makes a point, every two years, to learn a new skill, so that he always remembers what it’s like to be a beginner. This helps him develop the programs he runs for new writers because he can put himself in our shoes. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t wait for permission to learn karate or poker or horseback riding. I’m betting he picks something that interests him, and goes for it.

Why can’t we do the same with writing?

Perfectionism, again. This has to do, in part, with the black and white nature of writing in this digital age. Back when I wrote drafts on paper, I didn’t hesitate to scratch things out. I knew I was writing a first draft. (I can even recall telling my father that I didn’t think I could ever write without real paper! How times have changed…) There’s something about seeing our words looking so final that makes them seem like they should be final draft, publication quality. Which is entirely unfair to our early stream-of-consciousness drafts.

Underneath the perfectionism is also fear, the lurking originator of perfectionism and other writerly issues, which tells us to play it safe and protect ourselves from potential failure, ridicule, and rejection. It’s a powerful force that works against us and our writing.

But again, how can we learn, grow, and develop ourselves as writers without actually doing the work?

We cannot.

We have to change our mindsets from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

And we have to stop waiting for permission — for some kind of pre-approval that will guarantee our success — otherwise, we are really just kidding ourselves.

Don’t Wait for Permission

Here’s the thing.

You do not have to wait for ANYONE to validate you or tell you that you are good enough or deserving enough or talented enough to write.

No one has to “see” or recognize your writing as “good enough” before you can write. There’s no outside evaluation or assessment of “potential” needed or required.

YOU ARE A WRITER.

You are a writer because you are CALLED TO WRITE.

You know you are called to write because you have been persistently nudged, cajoled, and pestered by your deeper, higher, wiser self to write. 

That means, by definition, you have been invited by the Universe to write.

And therefore, you have all the permission you need, right now.

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Coaching CircleReady to fulfill your calling as a writer? Join the January 4th session of the Called to Write Coaching Circle and start getting your words out in the world where they belong. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com. Save $30 on your first session with coupon code NEWYEARWRITE and lock in our 2015 rates as long as you keep your membership active.

 

Choose a writing project with decision criteria

Today I’m continuing a series I started last week about choosing writing projects. This is the first post of the series where I’m delving into HOW to choose a project. In the last post I wrote about the issues and challenges that tend to come up for writers around choosing a project and what underlies them (spoiler alert, it’s often some kind of perfectionism!) so that we can start to shift how we’re thinking about it.

** Check out the newly updated version of this series available
for download here (or scroll to the end of this post) **

More on mindset first

But first, a bit more on mindset before we explore “decision criteria”:

I remember when I started the ProSeries at ScreenwritingU in 2011. I was concerned about picking the “right” project to work on. And I remember that our instructor (Hal) seemed to be relatively unconcerned about my choice, which at the time I found somewhat disconcerting. Hindsight being 20-20, however, I can see now WHY he was unconcerned. He knew that — especially for someone like me, a then newbie screenwriter — it didn’t actually matter that much what I chose. It would be a learning script, and if I continued screenwriting, which is of course an assumption of the program, it would be one of dozens of scripts I would write.

It’s hard to hold that in mind when we’re choosing projects, especially because of the things we talked about last time (“It’s so much work!”  “What if I choose the wrong one?!” etc.), but if we take an eagle’s eye view of our writing careers we can see that yes, this next project will be just one of many projects we work on in our lifetimes. Will it be a best seller or a runaway hit? Maybe, maybe not. But you can see that if you try to choose on that basis alone, you might get somewhat paralyzed.

Enter criteria

Hence the concept of criteria.

When you use criteria to select a project, you systematically narrow your field of ideas using a list of criteria that you choose in advance to help you make the decision.

Everyone has to choose their own criteria, there’s no point in me telling you what they “should” be. I can, however, share with you some of the criteria I use and think about (and why) so that it might spark your thoughts about your own.

(Side note: I’ll write about OTHER methods to choose projects in the rest of this blog series, including some intuitive methods. So if this particular method doesn’t resonate for you, not to fret, there’s more to come.)

Okay, so on to project selection using criteria.

Start with where you are right now

The first step is to think about where you are in your writing career and what you are hoping to accomplish. 

For instance, are you trying to:

  1. Establish yourself as a writer?
  2. Figure out your brand?
  3. Choose your first project?
  4. Build an audience?
  5. Break into Hollywood?
  6. Something else?

I think you can see that each of these intentions have different outcomes, and so a project to fulfill them would ideally be picked with a specific intention in mind. And since the project you might choose to build an audience may be very different than the one you might choose if you are working on figuring out your brand, you’ll use different criteria depending on what you are hoping to accomplish in order to narrow the field.

Have a list of projects

Also, assuming you’re a writer with a ton of ideas you’re trying to pick from, you’ll want to have a list of projects that you can refer to as you make your decision. (If you’re a writer who is struggling to come up with an idea — any idea! — that’s a different issue that we’ll have to tackle another day.)

Choose your writing project criteria

Here are some ideas I’ve used for writing project decision criteria (and I like to frame mine as questions). Although I’ve listed quite a few possible criteria, I ask my clients to come up no more than three to five criteria to when we make their project choice. More than that and they just get overwhelmed.

I’ve listed more than three to five here to give you some ideas of various criteria I’ve used at different times to get you thinking about possibilities for yourself.

  • Would I be thrilled to write this project? First off, I want to think about my attachment to the project. As long as I’m committing to a long form project, I want to ENJOY myself. This is my life after all, and it’s too short to waste doing things I don’t feel excited about. (You can also use the question from The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “Does this spark joy?” as an alternate here.) This is about thinking about your level of passion, curiosity, interest, and attachment to a particular idea.
  • Does this project have a high level of clarity for me? Even though I love most of my project ideas, certain projects have more clarity for me. I know what they are about. I know why I want to write them. I know who the characters are. I know what the basic story is. If I don’t know those things, perhaps I still have a good sense of the concept and feel that it will be relatively “easy” to develop, as opposed to something that has a lot of blank spots in it and feels hard and/or overwhelming.
  • Is this project marketable and/or high concept? Going in, I want to have a sense that the project will have legs in the marketplace. This can mean a number of things, for instance, that there’s a trend or market interest in a specific genre, or that there’s kind of a built-in audience with a high level of demand for a specific kind of project. Personally, I’m not that thrilled about chasing market trends because I know that they can change and/or that I might not catch the wave at the right time (I’ve read that what’s on the marketplace book-wise right now was bought 18 months ago). However, I do like to know that there’s a potential audience for what I’m writing, like time travel (my favorite!). I also like to know that I have a high concept if at all possible — a project that people instantly “get” and want to know more about.
  • Does this project fit within my brand? Although there’s a lot of resistance to branding, it’s particularly helpful in the screenwriting world. This is because it helps potential buyers of your work recognize you in the field of writers. Without a brand, you’re just one of many in a sea of thousands and thousands of writers. With a brand, people start saying things like, “Oh, yeah, I know a sci-fi writer, you should talk to Jenna Avery.” So it behooves me to stick with projects that support and enhance my brand.
  • What’s the potential budget for the project? If I’m picking a screenplay to work on (as opposed to a novel), I’ll look at the potential budget for the project. I do this because I want to flesh out the slate of work I have available. Right now, I have two spec scripts that are on the high end for budget, so for my next spec script, I’ll want to choose something in the low- or mid-range. Other writers might choose to always write high or low budget. Remember, I’m not suggesting that everyone should do what I’m doing here, but I’m rather sharing the things I think about with the hopes that they spark ideas for you.
  • Does it lend itself to adaptation? As a sci-fi screenwriter, I’m looking at writing novels and novellas that lend themselves to the screen, in that they are cinematic stories, structured like screenplays, and lend themselves to future adaptation for the screen. I’m exploring this option because oftentimes it’s easier to pitch a screenplay in Hollywood (especially a big budget script) that already has a loyal audience in book form.
  • Does this project challenge me as a writer and will it help me grow my writing skill set? I like to choose projects that help me grow. For instance, writing low budget sci-fi brings a whole new set of challenges (it has to be more character- than plot-driven). I had a fabulous time writing a low budget script on assignment over the summer simply because it pushed my edges as a writer and expanded my writing repertoire significantly. 
  • Will this project be easy to write? and/or Will this project be fun to write? On the other hand, sometimes when I’m on the more tired side, perhaps because I just pushed myself to write a complex, dark, or heavier project, it’s nice to pick the next one to be on the “easier” or lighter side (notice I said easier, not easy) to create a sense of balance for myself. 

Notice that most if not all of the questions have fairly simple Yes/No answers, they either are or are not true. And again, I wouldn’t use all of these, I’d pick three to five to use, depending on what I was hoping to next accomplish in my writing career.

From here, I’d narrow my field of questions, then go over my list of potential projects, and see which of them meet the criteria. Then I’d sort them into an order and see which of them, if any, naturally rise to the top and/or fit the most criteria. 

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Over the next post or two, I’ll write about putting projects in order of “best fit” to “least best fit for now” and a few more intuitive approaches to project decision-making. In the meantime, let me know what you think about using criteria to choose your project. Can you see any questions or criteria emerging for you that might help you choose what’s next for you?

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Download the Newly Updated Guidebook Version Here

There’s an updated version of this post and the two others in the series, assembled into a How to Choose Your Next Book (Or Screenplay) Guidebook with an overview of the process in a PDF format, along with a workbook in a PDF and RTF format. You can import the RTF into Word or Scrivener and work with it there.

Click the image below to download the Guidebook now.

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