Author Insights: 5 Lessons Learned from a First-Time Memoirist (+ an Autographed Book Giveaway!)

And we're back! It's time for the next installment of our "Author Insights" series. In this series, I'm introducing you to writers who've taken their writing all the way to the finish line of publication, and they share their "lessons learned" 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 Friday, March 24th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, you'll be entered to win an autographed copy of the author's book in a random drawing. (IMPORTANT: You must be located in the United States to win.)

Meet Mary Montanye, author of Above Tree Line

I'm thrilled to introduce you to Mary Montanye. Mary joined my Called to Write Coaching Circle at the beginning of 2013 in order to finish the memoir she'd been working on for five years before she joined us. She's now tackling her next big writing dream with the help of the Circle: Writing a romantic suspense novel. Mary quickly became a staunch advocate for the approach we use in the Circle and joined the team as a coach after participating as a member of the Circle for about a year and a half.

I asked Mary to share her insights about writing her memoir with us. 

Mary Montanye on 5 Lessons Learned in Writing Above Tree Line

My memoir, Above Tree Line, took seven years to write and publish. During that time, I made a lot of mistakes. Here's what I learned and how I’d do it differently now.

1. Find support early in the process, but don’t let that support stop you from completing the project so you can move on to others.

I worked with a brilliant writer and teacher for much of the writing of Above Tree Line. I learned a great deal from her and will always be grateful for the time I spent as her student. But eventually I realized that somewhere in my work with her I’d become stuck. We were spending all our time together going over and over the same material — changing, tweaking, finessing. I began to wonder if my resistance to publishing and her desire to keep me as a student, might be getting in the way. I ended our working relationship and joined Jenna's Circle instead. I completed my memoir within a couple of sessions and moved into the publishing stage.

2. Don’t start at the beginning when writing a memoir. (This might be true for other types of writing as well. I’ll let you know when I finish the novel!)

Start anywhere you feel the heat — a memory, a taste, a color, an image, a sensation, a fragrance. Write from there. “She was born on August 16th at such and such hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii…” will bore you and make it more difficult to continue. Your reader won’t like it either. So why bother?

Let the first draft be all over the place. Let it be messy, filled with what was powerful and exciting for you. Ask yourself what interests you about your history or your family. Put it all in, even those parts you know you’ll never let stand. This draft is not the time to censor yourself. If you worry about what your readers will think, you might find you’ve left the gold in the ground and can’t remember where it was when you want to dig it up later.

3. Recognize fear and resistance for what it is — just fear and resistance. It doesn’t mean that you’re not a writer or that it is time to quit.

Fear and resistance got the best of me during the writing stage because I was not separating the creating of a project from the publishing or marketing of it. If I was in the middle of writing about a painful period of my childhood, for instance, and suddenly flashed on the idea that someday someone, perhaps even someone I knew and loved, would be reading it, I froze. I also stopped myself from writing when I’d compare my writing to that of others or when I read posts about the impossibility of publishing in the current marketplace. My coach and fellow writers in the Circle gently guided me back to what was in my power to do: write. Write the best story I could write now, they urged, and leave the rest for later.

4. When you share your writing other than with friends and family, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone won’t like it, that you will get rejections or negative reviews.

I was devastated when a woman who reviewed my memoir for a contest said that, even though the writing was good, she didn’t like either me or my husband. She was a stranger and still it hurt that she didn’t like me and that I’d portrayed my husband as unlikeable as well, at least in her eyes. I made this one review more important than it was — even more important than the complimentary reviews I’d received. A negative review almost stopped me from ever sharing my writing with anyone again.

The lesson in this for me, and I hope for you, is that if you write honestly, if you allow yourself to be vulnerable on the page, you will affect people. And that’s what we want, right? It’s okay if some of our readers don’t approve, like the writing, or even us. Feel your feelings about the review. The Circle and my coach helped me with this, too. They shared my pain and helped me to put it aside, to  continue on.

5. Keep at it. If you have a desire to write, you are meant to write. Jenna would say you have a calling, and we both believe that callings are meant to be followed.

When I held my published memoir in my hands, felt the weight of it, and flipped through its pages, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I was so proud. I wish you the same experience. No matter where you are in your writing, no matter how unsure you may feel, keep going. Get help if you need it, but whatever you do, don’t give up. It is so worth it!

About Above Tree Line

From Amazon.com: "The traumas and losses of childhood are often buried. The child grows up appearing normal, unscathed and perhaps even successful. But often what is buried comes back to attack at the very moment when life is reaching its pinnacle. This is the story of one woman’s spiral downward into physical and mental breakdown and her return to wholeness by courageously, and some would say recklessly, following her intuition. Ms. Montanye’s intuition leads her to a tiny town in a Colorado canyon alongside the wild and scenic Cache La Poudre River. There, she immerses herself in the grandeur and beauty of the surrounding mountains. When her journey begins, no one involved can know that it will lead to such a powerful and bittersweet end: an end that includes healing for herself, her marriage and for the difficult relationship she endured with her mother."

Above Tree Line is available on:

About Mary

Mary Montanye, her husband, George, and two rescue cockers, Pepper and Chrissy, live on the central Oregon Coast where Mary gratefully writes and coaches while often resting her eyes on the beauty of the natural world that surrounds them. Mary has a master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Iowa and counseled individuals and families through nonprofit agencies and her own private practice for many years before retiring and following her dream to write. Mary now coaches other writers in the Called to Write Coaching Circle and is working on completing her first novel.

You can find Mary online at www.marymontanye.com.

Read more from Mary on Called to Write here.

Enter to Win an Autographed Copy of Above Tree Line!

Mary has graciously offered to give away 3 autographed copies of her memoir to my readers. Leave a comment on the blog about one of your own writing lessons or something you learned from Mary's insights before Friday, March 24th 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.

 

When to Write and When to Call It a Day

I've been sick too much this year, and thought it worth revisiting one of my favorite articles from 2013 on "when to write and when to call it a day." Here's an updated version for you:

During a live coaching call for my Circle, a writer once asked about how to know when to push through and write if you're not feeling well versus how to know when to focus on regaining your well-being.

In my opinion, the answer depends a bit on the circumstances, so let's look at some specific scenarios.

1. You've just come down with a wicked cold or flu.

Assuming you have a solid, regular habit in place, when you get really sick or you're just those early stages of wretchedness, it's okay to take a few days off from writing, knowing that you'll get back to it as quickly as you can.

When I'm feverish, wiped out, or worse, I know the most important thing I can do for my body is to rest and heal.

I have found myself writing even while sick at times -- because I felt truly drawn to work on my piece -- but in this case my focus is very much about listening to my body.

This is very much like being an athlete, and knowing whether or if to train when you're sick or injured, and when to take a day off.

I also trust myself enough deep down, after months of regular writing, to know that I'll re-establish my habit as soon as I am able, usually within 2 to 3 days. The longer you're away from your habit, the harder it is to get going again, so it will behoove you to pay attention to starting again quickly, even if you start small, such as in 15 minutes a day.

2. You're going through a rough patch in your life, you're generally tired or run down, maybe you're not sleeping very well, or maybe you're mildly sick.

On the other hand, if the chips are down and you're having a rough time in your life, maybe you aren't sleeping well, or maybe you're getting better from that wicked cold or flu, I'm inclined to recommend that you simply ease up on your writing time a bit, but still keep writing. When I've gone through particularly difficult phases in my personal life, I've made a point NOT to stop writing, but to carry on at my "rock bottom minimum" level of writing.

As a writer, it's worth knowing what that minimal level of involvement is with your work for you -- the amount of writing that will keep you engaged and connected to the work. For me, it's a minimum of 15 minutes of writing a day, even if it's morning pages just to keep writing flowing, though ideally it's on my main project. For another writer, it might be 5 minutes or 60 minutes. It varies between individuals, but the point is, know what YOU need to do to sustain your connection to the work even during a challenging phase.

I gained tremendous confidence and strength from seeing myself commit to and show up for doing the work every day, no matter what.

In concert with easing back to your minimum, when you're going through a phase like this, make a point to ramp up your self-care. Put sleep, healthy food, good hydration, fresh air, and exercise at the top of your list and get yourself back into balance. But do stay connected to the work.

3. You're in a bad mood or someone said something terrible to you and your confidence is shaken.

A common refrain among writers -- particularly those of us who are more sensitive and easily affected by other people and experiences -- is "I'm just not in the right mood to write today." This can particularly come up if you've lost confidence because of something someone said about your writing or if you've been hooked by the Comparison Monster ("Everyone else is doing so much better at this than I am!"), or even if you're just in a crummy mood.

Hear this now: As one of my Circle coaches once said, "There's a difference between self-care and mood."

Being in a bad mood is NOT a good reason not to write.

Let's face it, you wouldn't be here, right now reading this, if writing was easy to do.

As Steven Pressfield says, "It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write."

Don't let a bad mood or a rough day become an excuse not to write.

There are far too many reasons to resist and procrastinate about writing, and if anything, I think we need to err on the side of writing more regularly and consistently than not.

As Brian Johnson says (via Jack Canfield), "99% is a bitch. 100% is a breeze." So hang in there, do the work, and make it easier on yourself. (A side note: A weekdays-only practice at 100% works.)

You'll most likely be pleasantly surprised that your level of productivity and your ability to create are not at all related to your mood.

In fact, you may find -- as many of our Circle members do -- that your mood may well shift when you write anyway, and if even if it doesn't, you'll still have demonstrated your commitment to yourself, which is deeply affirming and happiness-building.

(See also my post called "You Can Change Your Life in a Split Second.")

4. You're going through a painful period of loss, grief, or personal anguish.

At another end of the spectrum is experiencing an extreme loss -- like a death of a loved one. When my grandmother died in 2012, I felt as though I was in another world -- approaching the veil of life and death on some level -- and I found it very difficult to write fiction in yet an entirely different world. So I choose to take a few days off from "real" writing, though I did do a tiny bit of tinkering with my script one day.

On the other hand, Steven Pressfield recommends writing even during times of "personal anguish" in his excellent post of the same title.

He says, "I’m not saying pain is good. I’m not advocating screwing up our lives for the sake of art. I’m just making the observation that our genius is not us. It can’t be hurt like we can. Its heart can’t be broken. It’s going to send the next trolley down the track whether we like it or not."

My experience is that those few brief days of being between worlds while in grief are the only spans of time in which I have felt truly unable to write, and then, just as I've said above, I still get back to writing as quickly as possible.

5. You need to refill your creative well.

All this said, I am a firm believer in taking big "put my feet up" days off. I love to pick out a day on my calendar when I can feel the need building up, that I block off "just for me." I take my son to school, and then proceed to do whatever I feel like doing, which usually involves some combination of a fantastic herbal or decaf beverage, a movie in bed, a nap, maybe a meal at a favorite restaurant. It might also involve going shopping at a beloved and inspiring store, like an art store or museum shop. Whatever it is that feels inspiring and uplifting.

On these days, I fully, completely enjoy my Not Writing time, and I know I'm replenishing and rebuilding to dive back in the next day.

Your Turn

The bottom line, for me, is that each one of us needs to experiment, listen to our own bodies and inner selves, and find what works best for us. And, like I said, given the massive opportunities for resistance, fear, avoidance, procrastination, and self-doubt, my strong recommendation is to find a way to stick to your work as regularly and consistently as possible. What do you think? What works for you? Leave me a note in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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This article was originally published in January 2013 and has now been republished with revisions.

 

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How to Write Morning Pages In 3 Easy Steps (and 5 Inspiring Reasons You’ll Want To!)

Morning pages are something I mention fairly often here at Called to Write, but haven't ever defined. Many writers are unfamiliar with the concept.

Morning pages are a writing tool created by Julia Cameron and described in her book The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity*.

The core idea is to write three long-hand, stream of consciousness pages every day, first thing in the morning upon awakening, no matter what, even if you only write, “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again. 

If you have a comment or question about writing morning pages, make sure you leave a comment by Friday, March 10th at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time because one lucky commenter will receive a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition of The Artist's Way, as my gift. (And if you already have the book, I'll send it to someone you want to share it with!)

How to Write Morning Pages in 3 Easy Steps

Here are three easy steps to help you get started writing morning pages:

Step 1: Get yourself a notebook to write in (and put it somewhere you'll find it quickly and easily in the morning).

I like something with half-size sheets so that it doesn't take me all day to fill the pages. My favorite is this steno notebook*, because I love the paper weight and the size of the pages. I prefer using something a little more disposable like this than a fancy journal since I don't want to feel attached to them. Though I've kept all of my many notebooks so far, I expect to eventually have a bonfire with them and I don't want gorgeous leather-bound books energetically stopping me from letting go. I keep my notebook with my favorite pen tucked into my nightstand for easy retrieval upon awakening.

Step 2: Write three pages -- about ANYTHING -- when you wake up.

I love to write morning pages before I do anything else other than make a quick trip to the bathroom and put in my contact lenses. Then I hop back in bed and write. My pages tend to take me about 20 minutes. Some writers prefer to get up and make coffee or tea, and sit in a cozy spot to write their pages. If you're tempted to stop short of three pages, I highly recommend pushing through. There's so much insight that happens once you get deeper in (usually about the 2.5 page mark) -- don't miss it. Don't worry about what you're writing -- just write whatever is swirling around in your brain, even if it's boring, whiny, ridiculous, or pointless. It doesn't matter.

Step 3: Repeat the next day... and don't look back. 

Write the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Morning pages are one of those tools for life that are worth holding onto. Especially in the early days of writing morning pages, don't re-read your pages. Julia Cameron even recommends stapling the pages together when you first start so you aren't tempted to go back. Just put the words on the page, and move on. It's a tool, not a record.

5 Reasons You'll Want to Write Morning Pages

Some pretty amazing and miraculous things start happening once you've been writing morning pages for a while. Here are five reasons you'll want to make them part of your regular writing routine:

1. Morning Pages Lead to Creative Recovery

Morning pages are a powerful tool for creative recovery. Many writers and artists experience creative burnout at some point and struggle to regain their creative footing and orientation. Writing morning pages helps us find our way back to our creative selves.

Morning pages also are a way to "rest" on the page -- a way to keep the words flowing even if you're feeling blocked with writing your book or what to write next, and can be a "bridge" to keep you writing between finishing a draft and tackling your next revision when you don't want to lose your writing habit and momentum.

Writing pages this way also helps free us from perfectionism. Since we're writing without editing or for publication or even for sentence structure, it gives us great practice at letting the words flow freely without judgement or internal censorship.

2. Morning Pages Prepare Your Mind for Creative Insight and Discovery

Writing morning pages will help you clear away any angst, fear, worry, and doubt -- in any area of your life. Morning pages are not journal pages -- you aren't (necessarily) going to be recording your life experiences through your morning pages. Instead, use them to purge the voices of negativity that hold you back. Get them out onto the page and out of your head, so you can move to your writing with a lighter heart and fresher spirit. So go ahead and vent and complain. Get it all out and leave it behind you.

What's so cool about this is that it helps you quiet your mind. And a quieter mind is one better prepared for creative insight and discovery. 

3. Morning Pages Foster Self-Trust and Honesty

Morning pages require honesty. Writing every day about what bothers you and what’s going on has a way of surfacing truths for your attention and recognition. You just can't get away with complaining about the same thing over and over again without feeling called to make a change. You'll notice what’s working and what's not working in your life. And as you listen to yourself, you'll build trust with yourself and your inner wisdom because you'll be noticing over and over again where your inner voice is giving you information about what's going on -- and you'll see the evidence of it.

4. Morning Pages Are an Antidote to Self-Forgetting 

Morning pages are a powerful antidote to self-forgetting. When you write morning pages, you'll reconnect with yourself. In my experience, it can be challenging to “come back to yourself,” especially in a world where busyness and materialism abound (and especially as a sensitive, intuitive, introverted writer). All the noise around us can make us feel lost and disconnected from ourselves, and morning pages bring us back to who we are.

A writer who knows herself is better able to deliver her highest quality work.

5. Morning Pages Are a Pathway to Self-Acceptance

Once you’ve stepped into this place of consciousness, it’s hard to go back. Fundamentally, morning pages give you permission to be who you are. They are a pathway to a radical form of self-acceptance. By being true to yourself and fully expressing all of yourself without judgment, you honor the truth of who you are.

Personally, I have found morning pages invaluable, from plain-old venting to accessing powerful insights. I use my pages to whine, moan, and complain. I unload my greatest fears and my deepest desires. And I ask for guidance from my inner self. It's an incredible way to clear your mind and listen to your heart.

Answers to Common Questions About Morning Pages

  • Do I have to write morning pages in the morning? Yes. :) Though you get to make your own rules for yourself, and of course no one can tell you there's anything you HAVE to do with your writing. At the same time, this is such an incredible writing tool it's worth experimenting with as prescribed.  
  • Do I have to write morning pages long-hand? Julia Cameron (and I) both recommend writing morning pages long-hand. There's something incredibly transformative about writing your pages out by hand. And... there's a pretty nifty site called 750words.com as an option for writing pages online. You could certainly use ByWord or Scrivener as well (two of my favorite writing tools).
  • What's the different between morning pages and journaling? The main difference between morning pages and journaling is that morning pages are about ANYTHING. It's about clearing out, writing stream of consciousness style, about whatever is circling your brain. Journaling can be the same, of course, but it tends to more "about" something, such as recording your day, or exploring a particular issue. And while that happens sometimes in morning pages, it's just as often as not complaining about errands we have to run or other things we're processing. 
  • If your writing time is limited, is it better to just focus on your book than on doing morning pages? Maybe yes, maybe no. I've made the choice for the last couple of years since baby #2 to focus on my primary writing projects rather than doing pages because time (and sleep!) has been at such a premium. And... I've dearly missed them. I've gone to doing a morning journal check-in lately instead, but I'm going back to morning pages too.
  • Can I share my pages with other people? I don't recommend sharing your morning pages with anyone else, ever. Part of the magic and what's makes them so powerful is that they are completely private and sacred. We can't fully reveal ourselves on the page when we're holding back for fear of what someone else might think. So keep them just for you, and protect yourself that way. This is great practice for learning to more fully reveal yourself when writing stories and books as well.
  • Can I write evening pages instead? If you want to, though really, they ARE quite different animals. You might find that you want to do both. My colleague Jill Winski just wrote a post about writing evening pages in addition to her morning pages. Similarly, The Ultimate Writer's Toolkit includes a set of morning and evening journal prompts, but focused on writing only. The Circle also somewhat fulfills the end of day writing "check-in" role that evening pages can play, but again, only around that day's writing. My take: write morning pages to write morning pages, and use your other tools to fulfill their unique purpose rather than making substitutions.

Do you write morning pages? Do you have other questions about writing morning pages? Tell me in the comments by Friday, March 10th at 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time ... and one lucky commenter will receive a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition of The Artist's Way, as my gift. (And if you already have the book, I'll send it to someone you want to share it with! I'll send the ebook version if our winner is overseas.)

I'll happily answer questions you have about writing morning pages here on the blog, too.

 

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How to Access Your Own Deepest Writing Wisdom

As writers, we're often either besieged by advice about our writing careers and writing projects or actively seeking out feedback on our writing or our career trajectories. Rare is the writer who never does so. And yet, when we give it the chance, our deepest writing wisdom comes from within. This isn't to say that feedback, mentoring, and coaching isn't also valuable, but at the end of every long writing day or hard writing decision, the person we have to answer to is ourselves. I've worked with mentors who don't understand this, or care, and I've worked with mentors who do. The difference can be astonishing.

I began this year with an intention to focus on Deep Work. (I've since read the book by that name, which I'll write about in the near future.) I've devoted the early part of this year to clearing the decks so I can go deeper and deeper into my writing over the course of 2017. In doing so, I had the opportunity to once again test the Writer's Guided Visualization I developed for the Ultimate Writer's Toolkit.

Our Most Profound Source of Guidance Comes From Within

The visualization is based on my early work as a coach, when I created my first Embrace Your Essential Self coaching program. I designed the processes and visualizations in that program to help people access their own deepest wisdom and get in touch with the essence of who they are. Last year I had the privilege of walking a client through that process again, something I don't "regularly" do these days, but which I found bringing both of us to the point of tears again and again -- the type of tears that spring into your eyes because you're in the presence of that which is profound, wise, and greater than yourself. I was reminded why I loved that early work of mine so very much, and even why I was called to coaching in the first place: Helping people touch the power of who we truly are and how we are called to be in the world is an incredible honor.

I created the Writer's Guided Visualization from that foundation.

When I used the visualization again myself last week, it brought home to me that my mind is often filled with chattering voices, ideas, opinions, fears, doubts, and self-sabotaging impulses that are hard to hear through or filter out. Before I listened to the 10 minute track, I scribbled down a few questions about my own writing trajectory, including:

  • What's the next best writing project for me to tackle?
  • What will move me closest to the path I want to be on?

The answers I received, as I quieted my mind and listened to the wisdom my inner Writer Self had to share with me, were simple in some ways, and profound in others. Isn't that often the truth with inner wisdom? It brings that sense of peaceful, quiet knowing to us. 

Because my Writer Self knew about my intention to go deep, she knew just what to say about where my deep work lies. I've been continuing the conversation with her since our last meeting, as I fall asleep each evening.

Two Powerful Methods to Access Your Inner Writing Wisdom

If you want to experiment with this yourself, here are two ways you access your own inner writing wisdom.

  1. Guided Visualization or Meditation. Visualization, or meditation, if you prefer the term, is my favorite method for helping myself and my clients access our inner wisdom. You can do this on your own, or I can walk you through it in the Writer's Guided Visualization in the Toolkit. Start by jotting down your questions, then relax your mind and body with a simple progressive relaxation, and then have a brief conversation with your future Writer Self in a cozy place, with time and space to listen for the answers. When you're done listening, open your eyes, and write down the insights you received. My experience with this technique is that it is a profound source of wisdom, reassurance, and calming. Our higher, wiser Writer Selves know what's what, and they're ready to share it with us.
  2. Journaling. Alternatively, you could use a similar technique with journaling. In this case, you would use your morning pages or journal to dialogue with your future Writer Self (much as you might do with a character in your novel) and converse with her/him about the questions you have. Ideally you'll shift yourself into something of a relaxed state first, either by taking deep breaths, closing your eyes, meditating, or otherwise changing your mental state into a more open, receptive place. Some writers also find that writing the responses with their non-dominant hand helps access more of their subconscious mind and deeper insight. 

The key to either approach is to not censor anything that comes from your inner self and just letting the answers flow with as little mental interference from your conscious mind as possible. I know for myself, with my strong mind that likes to run the show, I have to consciously quiet it with the relaxation techniques of the visualization or another meditation method in order to cut through the chatter and opinions my conscious mind likes to toss into the ring.

The beauty of tuning to your inner voice is not only that you can gain valuable insight for your writing projects, process, career, and life, but also that by listening regularly to what your deeper self has to say, you strengthen your access to your inner wisdom and your sense of what's right for you and your stories.

Your writing will only become stronger through this knowing of yourself.

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Writing Is My Protest

As a highly-sensitive, introverted writer, I've been working on finding the best ways for me to engage with what's happening here in the United States and rippling across the world. I've not historically been much of a political activist, but I'm finding that I want to be more active and informed than I have in the past. 

And while I am taking action and staying informed (and refining how I take in information so I don't feel overwhelmed, depressed, or overly distracted), what's coming to me most clearly right now is that writing is my protest.

Here's why.

  1. Artists are activists by being catalysts for change. One of my favorite artist archetypes (from a sci-fi story, of course) is Khendron, the jester from The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Khendron's very reason for being, as designed by the city's creators, is to provoke and inspire thought, desire, and action in the minds of the periodically born "uniques" -- people also purposefully designed by the creators to bring about change in an otherwise stagnant world-system. Like Khendron, we catalyze others into action with our observations of the world, expressed through our art and writing. We are critical players in our culture -- influencers -- bringing forth the truths we see in the world, and inspiring others to think and take action for positive change.
  2. Stories heal. We write, read, watch, and experience writing in all its forms for so many reasons. One key reason is recovery and healing: Stories help us escape and rejuvenate so we can do the work we were put here to do. And beyond pure escapism (highly valuable in stressful times), both stories and non-fiction books also help us heal misconceptions about ourselves and our world and change how we interact with everyone around us as a result. By way of a small example, I loved watching the movie About Time, for a new perspective on making the most of every moment we have. In a sense, this kind of healing and nurturing is a form of protest, because it strengthens us to carry on doing our work as artists, gives us energy to take action and stand up for what we believe in, and provides sanctuaries and safe havens for our readers to retreat to. We take care of the people on the front lines -- and ourselves -- when we write.
  3. Stories teach us who we are and what we're capable of. In stories we can "try on" scenarios and find out what we might do in similar situations. Some fictional stories are allegorical, and show us ways we might navigate morally questionable situations. One of my favorite movies of all time is District 9, an incredible allegory for apartheid that offers an up-close and personal perspective on what it would feel like, from the inside-out, to be part of a racially shunned and segregated group. When we write fictionally and metaphorically about what's happening in the world, we help each other understand what's going on from other viewpoints. This allows to us to examine what actions we want to take in the real world as we mentally and emotionally journey through a story world, and feel empathy for people in situations we might not have firsthand experience with. One of the reasons for my passion for sci-fi is the incredible ability it offers to show us our own world through a more objective and yet also more personal lens. As writers, therefore, we protest when we write stories to show each other what's really going on. We can do that figuratively, or literally (see #4, next). 
  4. Writing educates. Beyond storytelling, writers have power to factually educate us about the world. We've seen writing and news that has been ill-used for the purpose of garnering higher ratings. We also see incredible levels of bias that are misleading and confusing. But we're also seeing journalists striving to operate at higher levels of integrity and consciousness, who will help us collectively understand what's happening right now in our world, possibly changing minds and hearts. Education is one of the most powerful ways to influence people to make new choices.
  5. "Joy can be a form of rebellion," as Chuck Wendig wrote in a post recently called "Why Persist As a Writer In Times of Such Heinous F*ckery?" (Note that he labels his site as NSFW -- "not safe for work" -- he swears a lot so if that bothers you, avoid it.) That particular phrase, "Joy can be a form of rebellion," stood out to me. Because when we refuse to be brought down by fear and persist in loving our lives, that is a form of protest. This notion helps me be strong in my resolve to stay connected to what matters most to me in my life -- my writing and my family -- no matter what's happening around me.
  6. Writing helps us find meaning, even in the presence of suffering, fear, or doubt. I'm reminded of Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, who was able to find meaning in his life experience, even while held in Holocaust concentration camps where he lost his parents, wife, and brother. "The meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death." As a writer, the act of writing is an integral part of how I find and create meaning in my life. Although I have at times despaired over the many potential disasters that appear to be in the making and struggled to find the energy to write, I feel a sense of determination not to allow the discord, pain, and distraction in the world to take something so meaningful away from me. I won't be stopped as a writer.
  7. Writing helps us remember who we are. When we lose our sense of selves, we become powerless. If we are writers, we must write, if only to preserve our sense of selfhood and identity. Writing becomes an act of self-preservation, which in turns becomes an act of protest, because it helps us stay in touch with our power. And when we are powerful, we can act, write, and inspire.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

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.

 

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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