Defining (writing) success

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Success means different things to different writers. Perhaps you have a writer you aspire to be like, or you aim to publish in a particular way within a certain time frame, or you have technical goals about how you to ideally express yourself, or all of the above.

The question is:

  • Are your goals realistic and achievable?
  • Are they truly your goals (or some other ideal defined by people you know, writing mythology or your parents)?
  • Are you flexible enough to adjust your goals as needed?
  • Can you accept failure as part of the creative process, learn from it and continue?

Whose goals? Your goals

  • Do you dream of fame and fortune like JK Rowling enjoys? That might be nice, but her writing journey belongs to her just like yours belongs to you. Don’t rule out producing five best sellers in the next five years if that’s your aim, but remember that good writing comes from authenticity. So cast away others’ expectations, stop worrying about what the market claims it wants (which would likely be outdated by the time you produced something similar, if you could that is), forget about proving yourself to your parents or whoever, and look inside yourself to discover what writing means to you. Write for that reason and persist. Relentlessly. Be you.
  • Remember, few people are instant successes. Often, many years of learning and hard work sits behind such myths.
  • Finally, understand that one person’s success is another’s failure. This is why you must define success for yourself. At the end of the day, once the flashbulbs dim, even JK Rowling has to sit down alone and create a book she’s happy with.

Yes, but…

  • There’s always another hill to climb with writing—the next story, the next competition, a better publisher etc.. When you achieve something celebrate it.
  • To do this, monitor your progress. Break it up into bite sized achievements that you can celebrate along the way. Did you write 1k words each week for the last 8 weeks like you planned?  Tick. Did you do a course on character building and bring yours to life? Yay. Did you approach five publishers like planned even if though didn’t hear back from the first two? Brave. Did you enjoy the  writing process? Well done. Did you get lost in your love of language, or did the characters carry you away to unexpected places? Wondrous!

Learn to fail well

  • Failure is a binary concept that requires success as its polar opposite. Failure and success are thus abstract and arbitrary. We’ve already seen how definitions can vary wildly. Don’t let your beliefs about them stall or stop you. They’re only ideas, which you don’t have to be bound by. Change your thinking.
  • Writing requires failure
    • If we weren’t willing to fail, new territory wouldn’t  be traversed and creativity would cease to exist.
    • Don’t let the redrafting process make earlier drafts feel like failures. They’re not, they’re simply part of the process. Accept this and keep going.
    • Also, because many writers aspire towards perfection they’re bound to always fail. How can we ever succeed if we continually moved the goal posts further away? Even multi-published authors are often dissatisfied with their achievements. Get off the perfection treadmill.

Tenacity

  • Above all, writing and publishing are about tenacity. In this post, I discuss how persistence beats talent. It can be a long process of learning your craft before you test the market to find the best, and sometimes only means to publish your work.
  • If things don’t go to plan, don’t give up. If you expected to find a traditional publisher but that didn’t work out, consider self-publishing, research a hybrid model, put your book away or begin again until you produce something your kind of publisher wants. You might also need to lower the bar. Begin slowly but surely. Tortoise, hair – remember?
  • If you do ‘fail’ to meet your goals, make use of it. Learn from it and continue writing.
  • Remember, THE ONLY WAY TO FAIL WRITING IS TO QUIT. 

 

Finish your [writing] project

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In 2016, I attended a two-day workshop run by an author and psychologist. Its purpose was to give writers the necessary tools to finish their project, focusing on how to get in the right head space and plan properly.

Many attendees, including authors who’d published multiple books, were stuck. I was bored and had almost stalled because the drafting process felt endless.

At the end of weekend, I came away with a solid, realistic plan to finish my novel. I exceeded my goals and finished drafting well before my deadline. I’m using the same tools now to help me finish my redraft before Christmas.

Here are a some helpful points that came out of the workshop.

Mindset

The optimal mindset for creativity involves being a little excited, optimistic and seeking pleasure. You might have to fake it til you make it, but don’t give in to negative thoughts.

There are ways to help you create this mindset. Close your eyes and imagine a welcoming, mental place you can travel to before you begin work. For me, this was a deserted beach with wild waves on a cool days. For someone else it was a brightly coloured circus tent. You might also like to do a bit of relaxation, meditation, repeat some affirmations, go for a walk or do some breathing exercises before you work.

If you have a bad writing day, and we all do, separate yourself from your work. Don’t judge yourself and create fear and anxiety, which will be counterproductive the next time you write. The work simply didn’t go well — it wasn’t your entire being the failed.

Develop strategies to push through fears and doubts. There are many books on this, or read a piece by an author you admire about how they achieve this? The are loads on the Internet.

Be prepared to go beyond your comfort zone into new creative territory. Play, have fun. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Not a lot when you think about it. Trust yourself! You can always adjust your words later. Just get something down on the page.

Writing environment

This is about creating the optimum writing environment for you. When, where and how are you most productive? The aim is to find regular times to write and the best physical space in which to do that with the technology and other resources you need.

Write down your answers and create a plan. Diarise these times and build strong boundaries around them to ensure nothing gets in the way of your writing.

Set your intentions

Write down your long, medium and short-term goals. Be specific.

  • Specificity = measurement = accountability (to yourself).

Measure your progress daily, weekly and monthly. Small achievements over time add up and are motivating.

I keep a diary of my daily weekday word limit because that’s how I’ve decided to monitor my redrafting. But word count is only one possible way. You could set goals for outlines, chapters or a manuscript end date. For example:

  1. I will finish redrafting my novel by 21 December. My MS is x words long, there are x weeks until then, which means I must draft x words 5 days per week.
  2. I will have a first draft completed in 12 months i.e. by 24 October 2018. The average book is 80,000 words long and I plan to take 3 weeks holiday in which I won’t draft. This means I will draft 1,630 words over 49 weeks. I will write 3 days per week.
  3. I will write 1,500 words, 4 days per week.
  4. I will write for 1 hour, 5 days per week before work.

The plan

In your plan, make sure you have the following elements:

  • Specific, measurable goals
  • Creative mindset strategies
  • A creative environment you go to each time you write
  • A diarised writing schedule.

For more hints on creating a writing routine, see this post here.

Now go for it!

Helpful reference ‘books’ for writing

IMG_1618.PNGGrammar is the rules or conventions that make the meaning of language and sentences clear.

Many people don’t care about grammar these days. But writing in a clear way by observing these conventions will help you to convey your message most effectively and optimally. The correct use of grammar will also that can help lift your writing into the professional realm, letting people know you’re a serious writer who works at their craft.

There will be times when you want to break the rules of grammar in the name of creativity. Go for it! But it helps to know them first before working out how best to manipulate them.

The five books I find most useful for grammar questions are as follows:

  1. A thesaurus – I use the online Dictionary.com almost every time I write to find synonyms for words I need to repeat. I like how you can click on a synonym in a list to find synonyms for that word until you’ve found the right one. I couldn’t write without a thesaurus.
  2. Fowler’s Modern English Usage – For me this is the bible on all sorts of questions you might have about specific words in both British and American, Australian, South African etc. English. For example, should I write roofs or rooves, is it ok to use ‘didn’t ought to’, what does ‘sic’ mean, what is the English versus American spelling of ‘program/me’, is the correct word ‘strategic’ or ‘strategical’? Make sure you get the latest edition.
  3. The Elements of Style – This book is great for writing rules such as when to place a comma before ‘and’ and ‘but’, slang, redundancy, using the active and not passive voice, verb tenses and mood, and is it which or that? The misused words and expressions section is fun reading, if you like that sort of thing. This book is priceless.
  4. A dictionary – I’m Australian and we generally speak British and to American English—although that’s eroding—so I use the Macquarie dictionary. It includes Australianisms  that other dictionaries don’t. Find the best dictionary for you in the version of  language  you want to write in—either online or physically. This is particularly important during the rewriting/editing/proofreading stages.
  5. Style Manual – This is an Australian Government book that I use for writing and editing advice. When I’m unsure about punctuation such as when do or don’t I include a comma in a string of adjectives, should I use a colon or a semi-colon, where do I place quotation marks, when do I use an en, em or 2-em dash, or hyphenation, then this is my go-to reference book. Very handy and easy to use with its detailed index.

To quote Winston S Churchill again, ‘This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

Persistence beats talent

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All the writing talent in the world is meaningless if you don’t stay the course. You must apply ‘bum glue’ to adhere you to the process of producing work, consistently, relentlessly and unconditionally.

For many people, writing is hard and good writing—where readers are inspired to read on and recommend your work to others—is even harder. Often there are few rewards, at least initially. Yet most of us are conditioned, through education and parenting, to expect benefits for our efforts. With writing, we may need to endure years without recognition,  remuneration or reward.

At times, the process becomes mired in negativity. For example, submitting work to agents and publishers often results in rejection. Even if you don’t submit to agents and publishers and self-publish, there’s no guarantee your e-book will sell. There are days too when you realise that despite your efforts, your work isn’t where you want it to be.

The hardest times, or crises, are often turning points that shape your writing self. But how do you keep going when you feel like giving up? The answer is through rabid determination. Here are some specific ways that might help:

  • Acknowledge that writing is something you do alone in a room – Michael Ventura wrote this brutally honest and powerful piece on writing saying ‘The only thing you really need, is the talent of the room’. He explains that the ability to sit alone in a room and write day after day is the main talent a writer needs. Without it, no words will be produced and natural talent is rendered useless.
  • Identify your writing passion and root yourself in it – Ask yourself ‘Why do I write?’ Write it down and insert it in the header or footer of your work or stick it up around your writing space. When times are tough—e.g. you’ve just received your twentieth rejection, your current project isn’t working and you don’t understand why—you’ll be able to read that sentence, remember what it is you love about writing and continue.
  • Imagine what it’s like not to write – How does that make you feel? You don’t have to write, it’s a choice. Are you really a writer? Find your truth.
  • Get zen and let go of expectations and conditionality – Write to achieve your best work, whatever that is right now. You might dream of fame and fortune, but learn to appreciate the process for what it is in this moment. For every writer, there are times when persisting is the main reward. Despite what some people espouse, good things rarely come to us easily.
  • Create a REALISTIC strategic plan for your current writing project
    • Begin with defining your goal. Your goal is the primary high-level outcome you want to achieve for your writing project e.g.
      • To publish my work in the next 18 months (be specific and choose a date)
    • Now define your strategy or your approach to achieving your goal e.g.
      • Complete my MS over the next 9 months (specify a date)
      • Determine the optimum publishing method/s for my work
      • Find a writing group so I can share my work and gain support
    • A tactic is a is a measurable step you take to achieve your strategy e.g.
      • Diarise 2 hours of writing 5 days per week and stick to that
      • Or write 5k words per week
      • Install software on my computer so I don’t get distracted by emails and social media
      • Find 5 agents and 10 publishers who might be interested in my work and send my work to them
      • Or take a course in self-publishing.
  • Stave off boredom and failure through continual learning – Every writer can always improve. Take courses, seek constructive criticism (see this post), and read, read, read to learn how to overcome obstacles and renew your inspiration.
  • Write anyway – Push your doubts, fears and hopes aside, move away from self-doubt, self-pity and negativity and see what happens if you simply apply yourself. Write your way out by using that bum glue.
  • Seek moral support – Read blogs such as this and find interviews with authors where they explain their struggles. This helps you to realise that many of those so-called overnight successes worked at it for years. It also reaffirms that you’re not alone.

In the words of Winston S Churchill:

‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’

The value of constructive criticism in writing

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If you’re to succeed in writing—if success means writing your best story—then direct feedback (otherwise known as criticism) is invaluable, essential even.

But it’s a tricky thing. No matter how motivated you are to improve your work, criticism is by definition judgemental and aims to find fault (in the pursuit of improvement).

Here are some tips to surviving feedback or criticism, without losing the will to write. Above all, remember no work will ever be perfect and all criticism is subjective:

  • Be open to learning, but listen also to your gut. Your story is ultimately your work and your responsibility. Feedback is about teaching you about the strengths and weaknesses in your writing so you can learn the techniques to get your story across better. Don’t be defensive or hasty. Let the criticism settle before deciding whether it’s useful or not.
  • Before you seek feedback, ensure you’re in the right writing phase. This usually means you have a complete draft (not necessarily your first) and are about to rewrite. Some people can write a chapter and get immediate feedback, but for many, criticism too early can stifle their creativity. More on that in this link.
  • Here are some ways to get feedback at varying points of your draft. Some cost money, but not all:
    • Join a writers’ group – Find a local or online group, start one with like-minded writers or find one through a writers’ centre. Perhaps you want to join a group that only writes in your genre, or one that spans many genres. It’s critical to ensure the group is positive and constructive and that members want to help and support your writing, not destroy it. Avoid personalities who seek one-upmanship or are socially illiterate, which can be common. Trial several groups if you need, but don’t settle until you’re satisfied.
    • Find a mentor – This is a tricky relationship that seeks to balance trust with criticism. If you find the right person it can be powerful. Ensure you get along with them and that you’ve agreed on the process beforehand. Some mentors only want to see a finished product while you might want to feed them 5 chapters at a time.
    • Get a manuscript assessment – This is a 10-12 page report that covers everything from style, voice, structure, character, the opening and so on. Compared to hiring an editor, manuscript assessments are a relatively inexpensive way to receive professional comment on how to improve your story. There are publishers who require one before even looking at your story. Again, find the right person who understands, but is not limited to, your genre.
    • Hire an editor – This is the most costly option but you’ll learn most from hiring and editor as you’ll get a line edit on top of a full structural edit that looks at character, voice etc.. Finding the right person is always important. Ask for a free trial first to see if you’re a match e.g. the first 3-5k words, to ensure you’re on the same page (ha ha).
    • Find beta readers – Some writers ask others to read their near-finished work and give feedback. These people usually read in the same genre and won’t be afraid to tell you the truth. Beta reading is not normally paid, but there are some paid services out there not (be careful!). Be clear what you want from your beta readers but remember, they’re not professionals. High level comment is best e.g. did the story flow well, were there any slow sections, were the characters believable, what did you like and dislike most? Be warned, beta readers can be notoriously unreliable.

You could go on improving your story forever, so there’ll come a time when you’ll have to publish, in whatever form you choose. That way you can move on to the next story. We learn to write each story, and each one requires different tools, and so we continue along the learning trajectory—or is it cycle?—of writing.