What to Do When You Can’t Do It All

The list of advice for writers is long, seemingly more than is humanly possible to accomplish

Advice for writers is never is short supply. Just when we regularly carve out time to write, another requirement piles on our plate and then a third and a fourth. Before long we grow overwhelmed and want to give up.

I struggled for years to find time to write on a regular basis. Just as that skill began to solidify, someone dropped a bomb on my writing world. That missive said, “You need to read as much as you write.”

Yeah, right.

Now I have to take not enough time and cut it in two.

The next bomb, the most devastating of them all, demanded I build a platform. More requirements soon piled high on my list of impossible tasks.

Here are the main ones:

Write: As a writer, we need to write every day. Or at least we must write on a regular basis. For some people that means only a few minutes a day or maybe a couple times a week.

If we claim the title of writer and aren’t writing, something’s wrong. Writing is the first requirement of being a writer.

Read: To write well, we need to be informed. This means, we must read. We need to read in our genre and outside our genre. Through reading we see what works and what doesn’t. We discover the techniques we like and the ones we don’t.

By reading widely, we cultivate our voice, develop our style, and feed our muse. Reading fuels our writing. But while the goal of spending as much time reading as writing makes for a compelling quip, it makes for better rhetoric than reality.

Still, as writers, we must read.

Build a Platform: I’ll never forget the day an agent turned me down, not because of my writing or my ideas or my ability, but over the lack of a platform. Ouch. That hurt.

It seems writing and reading were not enough. I needed to build and then grow a platform, too. How much time should I invest in platform building? One piece of advice was as much time as I spend writing.

If you’re good at math, you’re seeing the rub: 50 percent of my time writing, 50 percent reading, and 50 percent on platform. If that seems impossible, it is.

The next question is when should we start building our platform. Unfortunately, if we’re asking that question, we’re already behind.

Study: While writing is a good practice to help us improve, we improve faster if we study about writing. That doesn’t mean going back to college or enrolling in a MFA program, but it does mean taking intentional steps to improve. For me that includes reading books and magazines about writing, listening to podcasts, and taking relevant online classes. These things take time.

Network: Next we must network. We need to know other writers. We need to meet agents, editors, and publishers. It’s good to have these contacts before we need them.

Market: Last is marketing. While this mostly takes place as our book nears publication, we must also market ourselves beforehand. We need a professional writer website, an active presence on some social media platforms, and the accoutrements of being a writer, such as a headshot, business cards, an author bio, and so forth. Writers need to juggle an impossible set of expectations. Click To Tweet

Does all this seem overwhelming? It is? Does it seem impossible to give everything its due? It is.

Somehow as writers we need to juggle these expectations. We need to prioritize and squeeze things in and make sacrifices.

A few weeks ago, I ended the day with the irrational assessment that I can actually balance all these things. My satisfaction lasted for all but one day. I usually reach this place a couple times a year, which means for the other 364 days of the year, I’m pulling my hair, screaming, and crying that I just can’t do it.

And you know what. I can’t, no one can.

But as we try to negotiate this list of impossible requirements, there’s one thing we must never forget.

We must write. Everything else is secondary.

What well-intended distractions get in the way of your writing?

Are You Okay as a Writer?

It’s hard not to compare ourselves with other writers and dangerous when we do

As a teenager I remember reading the book I’m Okay—You’re Okay by Thomas Harris. As I recall, the book explained that we consider ourselves in one of two ways, either as being okay or as not being okay. Conversely, we judge others the same way, either as okay or not okay.

Combined, these two dichotomies result in four distinct perspectives of how we view and interact with others:

  1. I’m okay—you’re okay.
  2. I’m okay—you’re not
  3. I’m not okay—you’re okay.
  4. I’m not okay—you’re not

The first view is healthy, and the other three are not, with the book explaining what to do.

I fear a lot of writers struggle with the third scenario. They compare themselves to other writers—the popular, visible ones—and wrongly conclude everyone else is doing better than they are. By comparison they fall short, often way short.

I get this. I struggle with this from time to time. Perhaps you do, too.

We hear of writers who receive lucrative book deals with huge advances, ones we hoped for ourselves. We see authors who make some prestigious best sellers’ list or win a coveted award—sometimes on their first book—which we dream of for ourselves. Others have their books made into movies, which we yearn to experience. Then there are the indie authors who make six and even seven figures annually just on book sales, an outcome we secretly covet.

Then we feel small. Even our best accomplishment seems insignificant in comparison. Then that writer voice inside us says “They’re okay, but I’m not. They’re a success and I’m a failure.”Writers compare themselves to others and wrongly conclude everyone else is better. Click To Tweet

We need to stop that. It’s not healthy to our wellbeing, and it’s not helpful to our writing.

Instead of comparing ourselves with others, we need to compare ourselves to us. Ask two questions:

First, did I do the best I could with what I just wrote? If so, then be proud over our accomplishment.

The second question is, how could I do better? Pick one area, and set about to get better. Then our future self can look back at our present self with the firm knowledge over having improved. That’s success. Then we can say, “I’m okay.”

My hope for you is that you can truly say, “I’m okay—you’re okay.”

What steps do you take to avoid making unhealthy comparisons?

How Do You Find Time to Write?

Writers struggle finding time to write, but the solution is simple

I commonly hear writers complain that they don’t have time to write. Some say “no time” and others say “not enough time.” Time, it seems, stands as the enemy of writing.

Yet the fact remains that everyone has twenty-four hours in their day. From the busiest person to the least active, we each have twenty-four hours to use—one way or another. Some of this time goes for eating and sleeping. And if you work, that takes up about a quarter of the week (forty out of 168 hours). But the rest of our hours are discretionary.

Yes, some of our discretionary time goes to extremely important things. Caring for children, paying bills, and grocery shopping come to mind. Yet even with these essentials, we exercise a degree of control over when we do them and how much time we spend.

If we intend to write, we need to make it happen. We must carve out time if we expect writing to occur. This requires sacrifice.

What will you give up so you can write? Writing is a priority for me. I make sacrifices so I have time to write. Click To Tweet

I suspect everyone can scale back on watching TV and the social media time suck. We might socialize less, not be so worried about work around the house, or eliminate non-essential tasks.

Depending on where you are in your life and the scope of your responsibilities, you may only be able to free up a little bit of time for writing or maybe you can find more.

The worst thing, however, is to put your writing on hold. I can guarantee you that if you’re too busy to write now, you’ll be too busy to write next week, next month, and next year. And don’t put writing off until retirement. I hear retirees become even busier, which is one reason I don’t plan on retiring.

I am a writer. Writing is a priority. I make sacrifices so that I have time to write. I do this every day, every week, every month, every year. And as I do, my word count grows.

Finding time to write is simple. Implementation is hard. We make sacrifices and give up other things so we can write.

When do you write? What sacrifices have you had to make?

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5 Tips to Become a Better Writer

Writers serious about their craft should take concrete action to advance their career

I am a Writer, by Peter DeHaanIn a recent interview an author was asked, “What’s the best thing you’ve ever done to improve as a writer?” What a great question; I so appreciated the author’s answer. Yet my mind immediately considered how I would respond.

Within seconds I knew my answer. I smiled, thinking back to how that one decision changed me as a writer, propelling me forward.

Just as quickly another idea popped into my mind. It was a good answer, too. Which one was more important? I wasn’t sure. How could I pick just one?

But then a third significant thought surfaced, followed by a fourth, and then a fifth. They were all pivotal. Without any one of them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Each was essential.

So I have not one answer to share, but five. My five tips to becoming a better writer are:

1) Call Yourself a Writer: It sounds corny, and it’s hard to do. But my first tip is to say, “I am a writer.” When I first did this, my lips moved, but no sound came out. After three tries my claim was just a whisper—and that was in private. It took a couple years before I could comfortably tell someone, “I am a writer.”

I occasionally teach a “Get Started” workshop at a writers conference. I often have my class say this. Their first try is cautious, timid. But by their third attempt, they are confident and grinning. We need to call ourselves writers in order for us to believe it. Block out significant time each day to write. Click To Tweet

2) Commit to Writing: Once I called myself a writer I needed to commit to it. I had to set time aside to write, not just when I was motivated or had an idea, but even when I didn’t feel like it. Once a week on Saturdays, became three times a week in the evenings, which moved to five times a week in the mornings. Now I block out significant time each day to write. It’s my schedule, like going to work—but in a way it is. Writing is my job.

3) Attend Events: Next is the need to connect with other writers. Join a writing or critique group. Attend conferences. Mentor someone else and seek a mentor. Maybe you need to mentor each other. At my first conference, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights. It was terrifying, and my naiveté cost me a bit of embarrassment, but the conference was so worth it. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

4) Learn about Writing: With technology we have many options to learn about writing: blogs, podcasts, and webinars are usually free. Books and magazines don’t cost too much. I’ve also taken some online classes—not university types, but practical, applicable writing instruction. I started with reading blogs and the rest of these followed.

5) Seek Help: As I began to make some money with my writing—which took years, by the way—I had funds to invest in my work. I began to hire experts to help improve. Aside from an editor, for my first effort I paid a retired writing professor to help me improve my short story writing (as a prelude to novels). His input was invaluable. Since then I’ve hired developmental editors and a grammar guru. With them, I slash my learning curve and gain valuable information fast.

These are the five steps I took to become a better writer. I can’t say which one was more significant, but I will admit that without taking that first step, I would have never gotten to the next four.

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How I’ll Write My Next Book

NaNoWriMo inspired me on a new way to approach writing a book

How I’ll Write My Next BookI’ve written several books, most of which didn’t have a deadline. Though I would regularly sit down to write and methodically plod through from start to finish, I wasn’t as intentional as I could have been. I would take several months to complete my first draft of these books—and it was arduous.

Last November I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, where the goal is to write the first draft of a novel in one month. I effectively did this, but it didn’t happen as expected. (Check out my post of my first NaNoWriMo experience).

Going forward I plan to write all my books NaNoWriMo style. I’ll hunker down and crank through the first draft in one month. Here are the benefits of taking this approach.

Increased Focus: Writing a book in one month requires making it a priority. It’s not one of many things to dilute focus; it’s the one thing. This gives a hyper-intensive focus. In fact, I was so into my novel, which took place in May, that I actually thought it was spring in real life; I had to keep reminding myself that summer was not about to happen, but eight months out. That’s intense (or crazy). Regardless I had focus and finished writing that book.

Better Continuity: When writing large chunks of a book every day, it’s much easier to keep everything straight. One chapter easily moves into the next. But had time interrupted my writing it would have also caused me to lose my comprehension of the story arc. This would necessitate re-reading large sections, a too-frequent referring to my notes, and missed opportunities to produce a better read. But because I was able to stay in the writing zone, the words flowed forth with greater ease. Taking fewer days to write a book gets me to the end faster and avoids a mid-book slump. Click To Tweet

Faster Results: For me the difficulty in writing a book isn’t the number of words I need to write, it’s the number of days it takes. When I write a book in one month, there’s no time to bog down in the middle, yet a book that takes several months to complete will always produce a discouraging sag of motivation midway through. Taking fewer days to write a book gets me to the end faster and avoids a mid-book slump.

Sense of Accomplishment: It’s a great feeling to finish the first draft of a book. Writing with NaNoWriMo intention rewards me with that feeling of satisfaction faster. Having that great sense of accomplishment encourages me as a writer and motivates me to produce even more.

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I plan to write the first draft of my next book in a month. And I won’t even wait until November to start.

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?

There is only one, single decree for you to obey as you write

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?If you spend any time at all learning about writing and working to improve your craft you will have heard all kinds of advice of what to do or not do. These are often presented as rules, incontrovertible requirements for us to follow. If we don’t, we will commit a cardinal sin of writing – and no serious writer wants to do that.

Unfortunately after a while we begin to hear rules that contradict one another. One person says to never do this and another tells us it’s okay or maybe even recommended. As an example of this insanity, consider some of the supposed rules I’ve heard about dialogue tags, that is, identifying the speaker:

  • Let the context indicate the speaker so you don’t need to use tags
  • Tag every piece of dialogue.
  • Avoid tags whenever possible.
  • Only use the tags of “said” and “asked.”
  • Never use “asked” for a question; use “said” instead.
  • Always write “said” and avoid all other tags.
  • You can have up to four pieces of dialogue without attribution.
  • Have no more than three pieces of dialogue without attribution.

Plus each person who advocates one of these rules pronounces it with the fervor of absoluteness. It makes my head spin.

These conflicting rules leave me in a quandary of which guru to follow. Whose advice wins? Recently one person who I respect greatly said to not use “then” in a narrative. It is implied and therefore a wasted word. Another person, who I also respect, politely responded, “I disagree,” and I’m sure he was holding back what he really thought.

Through all of this – and it took me too long to figure it out – I’ve realized there are no rules, not really. There are writing guidelines, recommendations, and best practices, but absolute rules do not exist – not really.

Every writing rule I’ve ever heard has been successfully broken by someone at some time. This means that the one rule of writing is: There are no rules. The one rule of writing is: There are no rules. Click To Tweet

Now don’t get carried away and disregard every piece of advice you hear on how to be a better writer. Don’t assume you can do whatever you want and get away with it.

Study writing. Learn the conventions. Navigate contradiction, and never assume anything is absolute – because it’s not. Whenever possible follow recommendations and adhere to best practices, but don’t be a slave to them either. Know expectations, and if you decide to ignore one, do so in an informed way and for the right reasons.

Now go write, and have fun.

Recommended Podcasts for Writers and Content Producers

Podcasts provide practical on-the-go instruction – and entertainment

Recommended Podcasts for Writers and Content ProducersI listen to many podcasts, between five to ten hours a week. Most cover writing or publishing, and a few (not listed here) address other areas of interest. I listen in the car, during lunch, and as I work around the house. I access all through iTunes and listen on my iPod.

I select podcasts to help me become a better writer and producer of content. Of course easy-to-listen-to hosts, as well as overall quality are also important. With so many options to pick from, I don’t want to waste my time.

Here is a list of my current, can’t-miss podcasts, in order of preference:

I also have a string of alternate shows and listen to some episodes based on the practical application of specific topics. They are all good, professional productions, but since I have limited time to listen, I must be selective:

  • On the Media considers all things media related, some of which includes writing, publishing, and books; just under an hour, weekly: www.wnyc.org/otm-podcast
  • Story Grid Podcast discusses the art of writing a book: under an hour, weekly: storygrid.simplecast.fm
  • The Portfolio Life (Jeff Goins) covers how creative people can build a portfolio of work to make a difference; up to an hour, weekly: goinswriter.com/portfolio-life
  • ProBlogger Podcast shares tips to be a successful blogger; at least weekly, varying lengths: problogger.com/podcast
  • This is Your Life with Michael Hyatt looks at intentional leadership, with references to writing, marketing, and platform building; thirty to forty-five minutes, weekly: michaelhyatt.com/thisisyourlife
  • Social Media for Authors is no longer being produced, but it does have relevant information; up to fifteen minutes: www.socialmediajustforwriters.com

This list is long and no doubt, daunting. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Pick one to check out and go from there.

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Do You Dream of Writing? 5 Aspiring Writer Personas to Avoid

People who say they will one day write seldom get around to it

Do You Dream of Writing? 5 Aspiring Writer Personas to AvoidWhen I tell people I am a writer I get various responses. Aside from a blank look of incomprehension or the dreaded question of “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?” they usually tell me about their own writing aspirations.

Here are five common personas:

Someday Sally: This earnest lass yearns to write, but she isn’t in a good season of life right now. Once she emerges from this crisis, this transition, this grueling job, or this financial situation, then she will start writing. Not now, but later. The problem is her next season of life will be no more conducive for writing than her present one.

Procrastinator Paul: Like Sally, Paul has plans to write. He has an idea, he’s done research, and he’s made an outline. He’s going to start next week. But next week he doesn’t. He needs to develop better characters first; he’ll start next month. Next month he realizes his plot won’t work, so he redoes that. Then it’s the holidays, which he reasons is always a bad time to start. Next week becomes next month, then next year, and he never writes one word.

False Start Fiona: This idealist just sat down and started typing. She worked hard for a couple of days, maybe even a week, but then she stalled. Things weren’t working so she gave up. Her computer holds dozens of started projects but not a single finished one.

Retirement Ray: He’s always dreamed of being a writer, but right now he is too busy with work. When he retires he’ll have time. Yeah, right. He won’t have the time then either, and besides he won’t be ready.

Romantic Rhonda: This visionary sees her finished book, flattering reviews, royalties rolling in, and an abundance of accolades. The problem is she doesn’t want to write; she merely wants to have written. She will never put in the hard work required to write a book, so she has no chance to see her fantasy unfold.Do you dream of writing or do you dream of having written? Click To Tweet

I’ve met many aspiring writers like this quintet. Maybe you identify with one or two of them. All five have visited me in the past, but I sent them packing – because I stopped dreaming of writing and just did it.

What gets in the way of you writing? What will it take to move forward?

9 Keys to Self-Publishing Success

It’s never been easier to publish a book, but that doesn’t mean we should

I once read a self-published e-book, a novella. I read it for several reasons: it was recommended (which turned out to be a bad reason), it would be a quick read, I’d never read a novella, and it was free (I got what I paid for).

On the plus side, the opening captured my attention, the story line was intriguing, and the ending was a delightful surprise. On the negative side, the book did not flow smoothly, was poorly edited (or not edited at all), contained many errors, and was poorly converted into e-book format. Overall, the great ending did not overcome all the negative elements.

For a self-published book to be successful, it needs what all great books need:

  1. A Promising Idea: If you don’t have a great story idea or theme, don’t start writing. This novella did, but its implementation fell short.
  2. A Compelling Opening (a Hook): The opening didn’t grab me, but it was sufficient to make me want to read more.
  3. Great Writing: I felt I was reading a rough draft. Elements of good writing were present, but they were too sparse to be effective.
  4. Professional Editing: The novella may have been self-edited (never a wise idea) or done so on the cheap, but the result wasn’t even close to professional. While publishing perfection is hard to achieve, the goal should be to get as close as possible.
  5. A Satisfying Ending: The ending of the novella was superb. It was the most notable element of the work. But one good line does not make a good book.
  6. A Memorable Title: Some titles are hard to forget and others are hard to remember. I can’t recall this novella’s title.
  7. An Attention-Grabbing Cover: The cover didn’t hurt the book, but it didn’t help either. If I were judging this book by its cover, I would have passed.
  8. A Pleasing Layout: In print, the book shouldn’t look self-published. (We can’t always define it, but we know it when we see it). In electronic form, the formatting should flow smoothly with no glitches, misplaced text, bad alignment, or floating words or titles. In any good book, the interior design should be innocuous. When people notice the layout it becomes a distraction.
  9. Effective Marketing: The above items all relate to the quality of the product. (There are more elements to consider, but these are the main ones.) A quality product requires effective marketing. A stellar book with no sales will not be a success, nor will great marketing of lousy writing work out.Before you self-publish your book, make sure you include these 9 requirements. Click To Tweet

If you’re considering self-publishing, be it in print or e-book, make sure you cover all nine of these items before proceeding. Your book’s success will depend on it.

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Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?

Some writers discover as they write while others plan their journey before they start

Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?In writing, as in life, people tend to follow two modes: pantsing and plotting.

On one side are the pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants. I prefer the label of “discovery writers.” They don’t know where their words will take them. Writing reveals an adventure as they watch their plot unfold, learn about their characters, and sometimes paint themselves into a corner with no way out.

In contrast stand the plotters who map out their writing journey before they write one word. But I don’t like that name because it sounds too much like plodder. I prefer the alternate labels of outliners or planners. These folks know their story arc, strategize the various scenes (or at least chapters), define their characters, and have the end in sight before they type their first word. (NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, allows writers to do this sort of preplanning, though actual writing may not begin before November 1.)

The May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest had some great articles about pantsing versus plotting. And many writing podcasters weigh in on the pantsing versus plotting debate. Writers who like to plan may benefit from the snowflake method; writers who forgo planning, need no instruction. Also see my post “Should You Use an Outline?

While each side of the debate holds firm opinions, neither is the method that will work for everyone. Each writer must determine which style works best for him or herself; there is no one right answer.It’s okay to discover as you write, and it’s okay to plan you writing before you start. Click To Tweet

If you’re unsure which you are, look at how you live life for clues. Do you plan things out or wing it? The answer likely reveals your preferred writing mode. Though you can test out the opposite method, don’t let someone talk you into trying to be what you are not.

My default is to plan in detail, both for life and for writing. (I am, however, more open to detours when I write.) For trips I make lists, verify details, do research, make maps, note addresses and phone numbers, make reservations, pack carefully, and set timetables. Planning calms me; it provides the structure I need to enjoy my vacation. Encountering the unexpected is unpleasant.

Yet within this framework I allow for flexibility to relish the journey and explore as I go. Some of my most enjoyable memories are within those moments of discovery. Yet without my planning I would have never been confronted by those spontaneous, serendipitous delights.

Others are the opposite. They would forgo a vacation if they had to prepare for it as much as I.

So it is with pantsers and plotters. Know which one you are, and learn when you can deviate. This will provide you with the most enjoyable writing experience and the most satisfying results.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? What is your experience when you have tried the opposite approach?