Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

What You Think is What You Are (or Will Be)

Remember the schoolyard taunt, “What you say is what you are!”? It usually followed a mature exchange of insults, often beginning with “cooties,” and progressing to “You’re just dumb!” Thankfully, the recess bell often intervened in time to prevent meltdown, but “what you say is what you are” was usually the beginning of the end.

There’s a slightly different and far more useful version of that phrase that you might consider posting over your desk. “What you think is what you are” can be a reminder to think of yourself as a professional, a gentle nudge to get off the pity party train, or a nag to lose the complaining spirit. It can even be the jolting realization that if what you’re thinking right now is what you are, you don’t really want to go there.

Finish the article at my primary blog, Do What Matters, Make it Pay.

New Year’s Resolution: Do the Next Thing

Don't worry about minute-by-minute scheduling; just do the next thing.Do this. Don’t do that. Be this. Don’t be that…

New Year’s resolutions sometimes sound like the barking of a Marine sergeant dealing with raw recruits on a sub-zero morning. Personally, I’m a fan of warm covers on sub-zero mornings, and I tend to ignore barking of any kind (just ask my terrier). But I still like to go through the process of thinking back over the previous year, considering what went well and didn’t, and focusing on what I’d like to make happen in the new year.

I’ve discovered that simple is usually better when it comes to resolutions, so I try to boil down what I want to accomplish into one sentence. This year, it’s

“Do the next thing.”

Not very specific, is it? The secret is that I already know my long-term goals and have a strategic path marked out to help me meet them. Every day, I do three kinds of work: creation, communication, administration (the CCA cycle). I try to do them in that order, because creation requires a fresher mind than administration, while communication can eat up the entire day if I don’t postpone it until the creative work is done.

When I arrive at my desk in the morning, I look at my “Create” list. I pick the next thing and begin working. When I find my mind wandering, I move to the communication tasks. Those include everything related to speaking or marketing; preparing handouts and PowerPoint slides, blogging, social media, minor website tweaks, answering client e-mails, and more. There is creativity in much of this, but because it’s deadline-oriented and so closely tied to an immediate audience, it’s quicker and simpler than the larger long-term projects I work on in the morning.

Finally, I do the administration things I don’t enjoy. This includes anything to do with numbers– invoicing, paying bills, balancing bank statements, following up on orders or inquiries, and other routine and often tedious tasks. I do these last because I’m already at my desk and can’t make up an excuse to escape without doing them, and they really need to be done. If I tried to do them in the morning, I’d procrastinate so long that I wouldn’t get anything done, and I’d waste the most creative time of day on tedious, non-creative tasks.

The CCA cycle is a system that works for me, and I think that “do the next thing” will be a pretty achievable resolution this year. If it happens to not work, I’ll let you know!

The Magic of the First Line

In a recent workshop a student asked, “What is the best way to start writing a story?” Though I was tempted to prescribe composing in purple ink on a yellow legal pad while sitting in a green leather chair in a room with exactly seven windows, I settled on sharing a bit about my own fiction writing process.

I do a lot of thinking before I ever start to write. Storylines and characters form, shift, and morph until I finally begin to make notes. I keep paper and a pen in every room of the house, and scribble down scenes, descriptions, and dialog fragments that arrive.

Once I feel that I know the characters fairly well, I begin transferring character and scene notes into StoryBlue (software for writers). This always feels like the first official step in establishing structure, but it’s not yet the beginning of writing.

Sometimes my writing process seems to stall at this point and I’ll turn to other projects. The story simmers at the back of my mind until a perfectly formed first line* presents itself. As soon as it arrives and I write it down, the story starts to unfold, scene after scene.

I’ve tried writing without the magical first line, but find that until it arrives I struggle to capture the voice of the story. It’s almost as if the story elements have to go through a process of ripening before they’re ready to be written. For me, that luscious first line is the beginning of a writing harvest.

So… how do you start writing fiction? NaNoWriMo is coming up, so now’s a good time to start thinking about it!

*The first line may change by the end of the book, but at the moment of beginning, it’s perfect for its purpose.

Just Do Something: How to Escape the Slush Pile

Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoungI’ve been reading Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing In the Sky, Etc. by Kevin DeYoung. I picked it up at a recent conference, not because I have trouble with decision-making, but because I’m a sucker for a catchy title (there’s a lesson there for publishers).

It’s a solid little book that takes a serious look at the harm done by indecision, waffling, inconsistency, and the unwillingness to just put a hand to the proverbial plow and get moving. Spiritualizing indecision and inaction may make it more socially acceptable, but it doesn’t make it a more effective life strategy. Just Do Something is more than just a title, it’s a strategy that works.

How does this book relate to writing and escaping the slush pile? Take a minute to read Stephanie Blake‘s inspiring blog post, “How I (Finally) Got a Book Plucked From the Slush Pile,” to get a good look at exactly what “just do something” looks like in the writing world. Stephanie chronicles a year by year saga of her long road to publication heaven, and the thing that stands out is that she simply kept doing something.

Like many unpublished writers, she learned through the process–through slammed doors, frustrating rejections, and tantalizing “almosts.” She went to conferences, worked with agents, did revisions, and did it all again and again. She didn’t wait for the stars to align, for approval from others, or for anything else before she started sending out her work. She sent and sent and sent. She revised. She sent some more. Finally the miracle happened, and The Marble Queen was plucked from the slush pile and accepted.

If she hadn’t written this blog post, there would have been unpublished writers who commented enviously about luck and overnight success and people who get all the breaks (I know, I’ve heard all that– many times, and if you’ve been through Lucky Freelancer coaching with me, you’ll know exactly how to turn those excuses upside down). There’ll probably still be writers who say things like that, but that’s because they’re not out there doing something. They’re just a little too busy–way too busy–to do all that sending and revising and resending, but one day, just watch, they’ll get the call too. Or not.

The fact is that  just do something is the key to almost everything. The book is good too. I’ll be sharing it, so don’t be offended if I send it your way. Just do something!

Review: Smart Women Know Their Why by Sheri McConnell

Smart Women Know Their Why by Sheri McConnellI read quite a few business books, and over the years I’ve found that there’s a common denominator in the ones that stick with me. These are the books in which the author digs deep, gets personal, and shares what’s really worked and what hasn’t. Sheri McConnell’s latest book, Smart Women Know Their Why: The Guide for Discovering Your Life Purpose While Owning a Business So You Can Create Positive Change In the World (and Make Big Profits!, is just such a book.

Sheri understands that without an undergirding purpose and a passion for service, entrepreneurs can create a business that is just another job. Purpose is your reason for being at the time and place you are in this world; passion is what carries you through life’s challenges; and a business is the vehicle that helps you share your purpose with others. Sheri walks readers through the process of discovering life purpose and teaches how to think entrepreneurially and create a business that fulfills that purpose.

What makes Smart Women Know Their Why different from many “purpose” books is that Sheri unapologetically believes that profit is good, because it helps individuals share their purpose and passion with others. What makes it different from many other business books  is that it’s purpose-focused, and written by a mom who has built a seven-figure business from the ground up, working from home.

Throughout the book, Sheri shares her personal journey– an amazing story of transformation that will strip away any excuses you might have for not being able to succeed. I have observed Sheri’s journey over the past few years. From her very first little e-mail newsletter for women writers, Sheri has focused on creating something that would help other women grow and succeed. Smart Women Know Their Why fulfills that purpose–I recommend it.

You can read two sample chapters and order Smart Women Know Their Why at http://www.smartwomenwhy.com.

How to Read a Writing Magazine

I was lucky enough to pick up a few gently used writing magazines from our library’s give-away basket a couple of weeks ago. As I read them, I was reminded of the college textbooks I’ve occasionally bought and sold online. Often, when I’ve purchased a textbook from a user who mentioned getting an “A” in the class, the book has been in “acceptable” condition. There is writing in the margines, sticky notes fluttering from various pages, and very obvious signs of use. In contrast, I’ve also received books in pristine condition with unblemished pages, sharp corners on the covers, and no sign of ever having been opened.

Somehow, I feel that the crisp, near-new magazines I picked up and those unused textbooks have a lot in common.  In order to benefit from the knowledge and experience in any book or magazine, I’ve found that I have to interact with it. I need to read, absorb, analyze, perhaps argue, and finally, I need to apply what fits. Readers who are unwilling to “mess up” a clean page with notes and underlining may be missing essential knowledge.

Just think: If someone makes a habit of sitting down to a meal, glancing at every dish, perhaps tasting one or two, then getting up and clearing everything away, that person wouldn’t be healthy for long. Similarly, someone who skims a writing magazine isn’t going to have a healthy writing career until he or she chooses to absorb and apply available knowledge.

If you want to get the most out of a writing magazine, here are seven suggestions:

  1. Read the table of contents. Most magazines offer an annotated TOC that previews each article so that you can quickly identify those that might be most helpful. As you read articles, you can jump back to the TOC and rate them so that you’ll be able to find them again later.
  2. Have your idea notebook nearby so that you can record any ideas sparked by things you read.
  3. After reading the TOC, start at the beginning and read the whole magazine, including the editor’s letter, letters from readers, and short tips and features. There are reasons for each to be there, and you may find exactly the information you need tucked into an unexpected spot.
  4. Don’t glance at an article title and assume you know what an author is going to say. Arrogance is one of the most common reasons for missing great information.
  5. Don’t skip articles about things you don’t write. Even if you write only travel articles, for example, an article about poetry can help you write in a more evocative way.
  6. Make notes in the margins of articles and underline important thoughts. This will help you find significant points if you want to review them in the future.
  7. Use sticky notes to flag articles or other items that inspire you to action. If you read about an agent that might be a good fit for your work, flag the page. If there’s mention of a website you want to check, a book you’d like to read, or anything else that requires action, flag it.

It’s nice to be able to sell a pristine textbook or give away an almost new magazine, but the really valuable book or magazine is the one that has been read, absorbed, and used. To extract the most good from your writing magazines, study them and make them your own. You can’t become a writer just by reading a magazine, but you can become a better writer by actively learning from others who know something that you don’t know.

If you’ve reached the stage when you feel that you know all you need to know, do a quick career check. If you’re living the writing life you’ve always wanted, earning the income you believe you’re worth, then you may be right. If not, keep learning and growing. There’s almost always room for improvement!

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested:

that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,

and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Francis Bacon

I Walk the Line (with apologies to Johnny Cash)

There’s a fine line between creative and commercial writing, and I find myself trying to walk it every day. I work on fiction at least four days a week, and I write non-fiction every day. My goal for each polished piece is to write the best prose I can with the information, knowledge, and resources I have at that moment. Even when I do so, I’m aware that when I look back at any piece from a few month’s distance, I’ll see things I could have done differently. It’s all in the growth of a writer. Blog posts are ephemeral thought collectors that don’t receive the same attention as polished pieces, but they too remind me to be aware of words and how they’re used.

I recently spoke with a budding author who was lamenting the need to find a job, though her novel wasn’t quite finished. Because I know she writes well, I suggested that instead of getting a job, she earn could earn what she needed through copywriting. I wasn’t surprised when she demurred, commenting that she didn’t want to ruin her writing voice.

It’s a fear I’ve encountered many times, but I believe it’s a bogey without much substance. There are creative elements in almost any writing, including all types of commercial writing. Budding ad writers everywhere are probably still advised to be creative and “sell the sizzle, not the steak” (that onomatopoeia is a bit of poetry in itself). Compelling prose is an art form, no matter where it’s found.

If you focus on each assignment, whether commercial or literary, as an opportunity to sharpen word choice, increase sentence fluency, and generally improve your craft, I believe your writing voice will be strengthened by the additional practice. And quite frankly, I feel wickedly gleeful at the thought of being paid to practice an art I love. Yet why not? Master craftsman often serve paid apprenticeships while learning their craft, and it’s a time-tested training method.

As I go back and forth between projects, I’ve found that the greatest challenge is to retain a touch of freshness in everything. Whether I’m reading a how-to or a whodunit, I want to be captivated a deft turn of phrase and charmed or chilled by a precise word choice. That’s an experience I’d like my readers to enjoy as well. Dull prose with a written-by-committee flavor is a good cure for insomnia, or for puppy training, but not for much else.

It may take a moment’s extra thought to choose a vivid word or bypass a worn-out cliche in favor of an unexpected zing, but it’s a moment well spent. I’m not always successful at meeting the freshness challenge (those pesky deadlines and the occasional bouts of verbal laziness catch up with me sometimes), but it’s something I strive for, no matter which side of the proverbial line I’m writing on.

*****

I’m reading Robert Hartwell Fiske’s little gem, Silence, Language, and Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion. It’s a vividly personal compendium of brief observations, prescriptions, and imprecations, all related to the art of words. So far, the overall theme of the book might be summed up in a single phrase: “You are what you say.” I like that thought, as it acknowledges the power of words to shape reality.

Fiske is the editor and publisher of the wonderful Vocabula Review. If you have a subscription, don’t miss Richard Lederer’s wonderful article on “The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll” in the current issue. (One of NAIWE‘s benefits is that members may subscribe free, and it’s one benefit that I’m thoroughly enjoying!)

I’m inspired to write better by reading great writing and reading about the art of words. What inspires you?

National Poetry Month- Write a Poem a Day!

National Poetry Month 2010April, once called the cruelest month, is National Poetry Month. The Academy of American Poets is sponsoring a wonderful celebration this month, with a stunning poster, suggested activities, and more. You can even sign up to get a poem a day sent to your inbox.

I know several people who plan to celebrate by writing a poem every single day of the month, and I am just deciding that perhaps I’ll try it this year as well. Even if there are days when I don’t feel inspired, there’s always haiku. Not that it’s less difficult than longer poetry, but it does have the virtue of being short. I don’t write poetry often, but it’s a wonderful way to focus sharply on the craft of writing. A challenge is usually fun, too.

What about you? How will you celebrate?

And if you need to get back in touch with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, you can find it at at the Poets.org site, with both text and a recorded segment. Enjoy!

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. Read more…

March 4th- National Grammar Day- A Song is Worth….

A song is worth a thousand words, (though it’s still Words Matter Week, so words are worth something too).

It’s a downright singable song– I can see it playing in schools across the land, with good grammar breaking out like a rash in its wake.

Whatever you do, celebrate National Grammar Day, and SPOGG, the Society for the Preservation of Good Grammar.

SCBWI NYC 2010- Final Thoughts

I enjoyed my first national SCBWI conference in NYC a couple of weeks ago. It was exhilarating to be in the same room with so many creative people–writers, illustrators, publishers, agents, editors, and other children’s book enthusiasts (Jane Yolen!!!). While there, I was conscious of the fact that just being there conferred an advantage on each hopeful writer or editor in attendance. There’s nothing quite like the synergy of being present, networking in person, and hearing first-hand from others in the field.

I tweeted many of the tidbits I picked up during the conference, but several things have lingered with me. Here are a few of them:

The most memorable thing I brought home: Literary fiction can be commercially successful; some commercial fiction has literary merit. Lines blur… just write. It’s easy to get caught in the web of trends and traditions, and lose sight of what you need to be writing. Don’t look around; look within and write.

Author Jacqueline Woodson read her work with such beauty and passion that I was too caught up to write down much. However, she quoted author Madeleine L’Engle, and that bit of wisdom has stayed with me: “Write for the children we once were, not the children we have. You know only your own internal struggles.”

Illustrator Peter Sis offered a fascinating overview of his career path which stretched from communist Czechoslovakia to a lengthy, successful, and ongoing career in the United States. He vividly conveyed a sense of the danger of being involved in the arts in a repressive regime, and the importance of perseverance.

Agent Sheldon Fogelman emphasized the need for a detailed, prioritized plan if you want to make a career of writing. Establish a goal, then create steps for reaching it. Other tips: read endlessly in your genre; learn about the business aspect of being a writer; be open to suggestions from your editor or agent; and don’t be distracted–this is a business for serious people.

Jim Benton, The Compulsive Creator, shared more than one memorable line, but my favorite was: “Rewrite it; there are no first drafts in the library.” He also discussed the financial advantages to licensing your work. The numbers were impressive!

Prinze winner Libba Bray spoke of the power of the unexpected and the imporatnce of creating characters that are fully human. She emphasized that it’s important to ignore trends and write your own truth. The most memorable line for me was, “First you jump off the cliff, then you build the wings. The leap of faith is the beginning.” I do believe that.

Agent Susan Raab offered a peek into the future– what is selling and what is not. The most encouraging bit of news is that the children’s book market has held up well when compared to the adult market. She offered many other helpful hints, including encouragement to 1) Advocate for yourself; 2) Reach out personally to readers through your website; 3) Look strategically at the whole picture and build an effective platform; 4) Focus on a specific aspect of the market and become an expert; 5) Be proactive in reaching out to the media.

I attended workshops with three different editors, and was once again reminded that publication is a subjective process. As I listened to each editor talk about the ideal book he/she would like to see, I was able to mentally sort the manuscripts I’ve written and match them to an editor’s style and preferences. Market guides and editor listings just can’t compete with the in-person experience.

The final speaker was someone I’ve long admired– Jane Yolen. She spoke eloquently of the joy in storytelling, and shared the Biblical tale of the Pharaoh’s dream of 7 fat and 7 lean cattle as an apt metaphor for the state of the publishing industry. After offering twenty writer rules she has found important, she reminded us that “The working writer writes. Rules are useless without doing the work. Use anything you have– just go home and write!”

I’ve been re-reading Yolen’s outstanding Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie, and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood since I got home, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. If you’re not familiar with it, be sure to look for it.

My final thought on the conference? It’s important to be at events like this. Not only do you reap the practical benefits of rubbing elbows with others who understand what you’re doing, but you will also come away inspired, refreshed, and equipped to meet your goals.