Tag Archives: goals

Keep swimming

I don’t usually take advice from a fish, but Dory’s “Keep swimming” is easy to remember–and easier to do than much of the advice I hear.

In many ways that has become the mantra of my writing this year. As most of you probably know, I’m not yet a published author–at least not to the level I’d like to be. I have to wonder sometimes why I’m even posting here at the Think Tank, because I can’t speak with the authority of an established writer.

In fact, if 2016 is any indication, I’m not writer. I’m a starter-who-can’t-finish-er. I’ve started two novels this year–twice. None of the four attempts have gone beyond 30,000 words. This year has been a step backward for me. I used to be able to finish a novel a year at the very least. My personal hero, Michael J. Sullivan, has written six novels in the past two and a half years.

But I have to slap myself whenever I compare myself like that. He’s a full-time, professional writer. I am a full-time, professional application developer. I write on my lunch break. He gets more writing time in one day than I do in an entire week.

I have to remind myself that I’ve written five novels, and most of those came hour by hour, plugging away during my lunch break while trying to eat my lunch and fielding questions from co-workers who don’t respect the sanctity of lunch hour. And if the “write a million words” maxim is true, I’m going to have to spend a lot more time cranking out novels during my lunch time before I start to get it right.

So yeah, just keep swimming. There’s no doubt this was a bad year. Did I learn anything from it? Maybe. Did I improve in other ways in spite of my lousy completion-rate? Maybe. Am I going to give up?

No.

I realize that much. I’ve asked myself if I want to quite several times this year. And I can’t. I just don’t know how to. Even when I tell myself I’m not going to write any more for a while I still have story ideas mugging me, trying to get out. I don’t think I know how to not write. Even in the twenty years that followed my official decision I was not going to be a writer I couldn’t not write.

I may never get published, but I will continue to write. And hopefully I will continue to improve. Hopefully I’ll even learn some things along the way that help others in the same boat as myself. Hopefully that’s what I bring to the Think Tank: camaraderie and encouragement for we dogged, determined slaves of the written word. I’m still here. I’m still writing and posting. And how are you doing? How did you do with your writing goals this year?

2017 will be upon us soon. It’s time to turn the page on 2016; for better or for worse, it’s ending. It’s time to move forward. A brand new empty page of possibilities.

Ready? Set? Let’s go!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Deep Writing Dreams

Natalie Goldberg, in her Writing Down the Bones, noted that some of her students had been doing what she calls “practice writing” — some of them for as long as three years. So one night, she asked them “Where do you want to go with writing? You have this strong creative voice; you’ve been able to separate out the creator and the editor. What do you want to do with it?” She told them that “There comes a time to shape and direct the force we have learned.”

Then she re‑couched her words: “What are your deep dreams? Write for five minutes.”

I haven’t read every short chapter in her book, but I always leave a marker where I’ve left off. I DO like many of her ideas. I opened to my marker this morning on p. 59 on which I’d highlighted, some time ago, “What are your deep dreams? Write . . .”

In other words, I wasn’t about to write for “only” five minutes.

I was literally shocked to see this particular exercise pop up as the next thing to do. For the last several weeks, I’d been collecting my thoughts on where I want all my UNfinished writings to go. In fact, to facilitate my dreams of writing, I’d already given notice to one writer’s blog, that I would stop writing my weekly blog for them by June 1, because here were (some of) my Deep Dreams:

Before the end of the year, I will finish the first full draft of my historical novel, which I have done many, many hours of research on, written one full screen‑play, and a 36-verse (rhymed & heavily accented “Celtic”in iambic pentameter) poem about my MC’s full story, to be printed with intermittent verses dividing chapters within the novel. All I need to do is re‑read extant copies of historical documents, past writers’ critiques, my poem, invent a new “order” of events to fit the story as it now should appear, and BEGIN WRITING. That’s a lot to do between now and Dec. 31, 2016.

After that? Write my three non‑fiction books (shorter and much easier): My journey through 30 years of ever‑changing cancer treatments; My Spiral Life, where my students, for 50‑plus years, taught me how to be a Teacher; THE Trip, illuminating how I managed to survive, and return to Utah from a trip in 1967 which took me to California, Hawaii, then by cruiser to several ports in Oregon, California (again), Mexico, through the Gulf, into the Caribbean Islands, onward to Portugal, France, eventually England. Which was where I bought my mo‑ped and traveled England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Spain before flying to Copenhagen, then on to NY, and eventually Utah, for my one‑and‑a‑half years of Grad School.

Meanwhile, I’ll be working on trying to sell small pieces (already completed, and sitting in my files): a little poetry, humorous essays, and scholarly articles.

When that’s done . . . I may have to write down my next Deep Dreams.

 

 

Keepin’ Stuff, and Keepin’ Goin’

I keep a lot of “stuff”. Some of it, I even keep on my computer: old writers magazines I didn’t make time to read when they hit my INBOX. Further, I admitted (all too recently) how many partial books I have written (and “kept” thinking “some day . . . ). And admitted how much I want to work on my longest, most researched, toughest book, an historical tale from Celtic Times in today’s England.

So I was deleting literally HUNDREDS of “saves” from some of my 1586 folders (that is an accurate, not an exaggerated, number). And I spotted an old Writer’s Digest article called “6 Simple Ways to Reboot Your Writing Routine,” by Brian A. Klems. Since my “writing routine” consists most of thinking about, but not necessarily DOING the writing, I thought maybe I’d better READ THE ARTICLE, this time, from January 10, 2012. And, yes, sometimes the “old” ideas are the really “good” ideas.

Since this was an old January 2012 piece, I thought it very fitting that I try to learn something from it now, at the end of January 2016. Here’s the short list:

  1. Your New Year artist statement: You do have one don’t you?
  2. Your Current regimen. Still working?
  3. Your hardware, software: Time for an upgrade?
  4. Writing extracurriculars: Are you missing out?
  5. Your support network: Is it in place?
  6. Day planners and deadlines: Have you mapped out a path to success?

SELF‑EXAM TIME:

  1. What do I write? Any fancy, new idea that pushes its way into my head. Why do I write it? Because sitting down to write something new is exhilarating! At this point, everything always looks POSSIBLE. OK, Brenda, but dig deeper. How much does this really matter to me? Why should I bother?

DEAR READER: WRITE A SIMPLE, HEARTFELT ARTISTIC STATEMENT WHICH WILL SUSTAIN YOU OVER THE NEXT 11 MONTHS.

(If you wrote an artist statement LAST YEAR) drag it out, dust it off and find out whether any of it still applies. Make sure this statement for the new 2016 year fits you, fits your desires, fits your aims.

  1. Current regimen ‑‑‑ I HAVE one ? ? ? I usually set goals for the next day as I write my 750words on my journaling site. I know my most productive hours are in the morning. That said, those hours often collide with my “new” husband’s hours (haven’t quite reached our 4th anniversary, and this while we are in our 60’s and 70’s ‑ can you say “set in his/her ways”?), and I drop things from my agenda which are REALLY the things I want to get done. I need to start VERY early in the a.m. and get the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS done FIRST ‑‑‑ before our hours clash. SO:

6‑7 am: Get up, eat

7‑10:30 am: WRITE & REVIEW RESEARCH

I’m currently blogging for 3 different sites: A ‑ short, once a week; B ‑ full length, once a week; C ‑ two per week, but will need to increase as we get closer to May and June

Blogs can be written later and on specified days.

10:30‑noon: Household chores

And I MUST set my phone to buzz me when it’s time to move on ‑‑‑ for me, that’s a deadline and I’m pretty good at meeting (or even beating) deadlines!

  1. Hardware, software & upgrades: It’s good having a live‑in computer genius with magic hands around. Why, just tonight he reinstalled a program which may now prevent the SEVEN SHUT DOWNS I’ve been plagued with today! Hooray! for husbands ! ! !
  2.  Writing Extracurriculars: We’re both “retired” from Navy (him) and Teaching (moi). We’re just well enough off, normally, to be able to go to many writing workshops, conferences, as well as many theatrical venues: as a former drama director/debate coach, that’s Life’s Blood to me. We’ve already paid for two major workshops, and have our season’s tickets for this years plays and musical events which keep my blood flowing (AND ideas coming ! ! !).
  3. Support Network: I’ve been in one 40‑year‑old critique group for many years. I couldn’t go to their weekly sessions while I was teaching, but am now able to attend pretty regularly. My husband and I also started a small critique group (2 couples, with occasional visitors). Both families have been a bit bogged down since before the end of 2015 with holidays, illnesses, family “emergencies,” etc. We’re working at getting back on track. I’ve also found a neighbor and an “old” friend of many years who would be glad to act as Alpha or Beta readers. My Distractors/Discouragers? I have no one who discourages me from writing . . . other than myself. With this new plan (above, and last item below), I’m hopeful that will not be a problem now. Distractors? That’s something else again. The needs of extended family are occasionally almost over‑powering. I MUST learn to find good, gentle, kind ways to keep that from being a regular problem.
  4. Day Planners/Deadlines: I loved the quote the Writer’s Digest author of these main ideas gave: He’d had a college professor who would tell her graduate students, “A good paper is a done paper.” I’ve already set deadlines for myself from now until June 20, 2016. When I get close to that deadline, I’ll extend it through the next several months, and move from my historical novel (which takes precedence now) to one of the THREE non‑fiction tomes I’d like to pen. Or, actually, “compute.”

WHAT’S YOUR PLAN ? ? ?

AGING, GRACEFULLY — OR NOT ! ! !

WOO‑HOO ! ! ! I just saw something GREAT online. It was a guest blog for the online Writer’s Digest by a stunning red‑head named Babette Hughes. She called it “The Big Lie of Age and Writing” and opened with “Age is not a disability, it is a second chance at life. I’m 92 years old and Post Hill Press has just published my three‑novel Kate Brady series . . .”

WOO‑HOO, again ! ! ! I just survived my third bout with cancer (over a nearly 30‑year period), and, with radiation NOT an option for already radiated flesh, I opted to go the surgical route: a double mastectomy. My birthday was one week after surgery: I turned 76. So I figure, I STILL have time to get published . . . SOME day. But some DAY sooner, than I’d been working toward.

Wanna back track, and go back to your youth? I sure don’t! Somehow, I got through several “shy” years, when we moved back from Hawaii when I was ten: everybody already HAD a “best friend” by the time I got here. I’d known all along that I wanted to become a teacher, so I rushed through three years of college to get there. Meanwhile, I’ve endured three marriages, two divorces, three bouts with cancer, a total of 46 radiation treatments, and all the indignities which go with mammograms . . . especially when they’d call or write back time after time after time, to get me to come back for a re‑do. . . they weren’t “sure” about something they were seeing on the first shot.

All this, along with the regular worries of a teen emerging into adulthood, and, as Ms. Hughes said, “career worries, relationship worries, money worries, kid worries. A time with no idea of who we are or even what we want in life [at least I had THAT one nailed] . . . Age gives us the freedom from those hectic years with the wisdom and time to write.”

I think, at my age, I deserve to “let go ” of some of the angst I’ve always carried with me. And a brand‑new year is JUST the time and place to do it. Hughes claims that LIFE, “comes in a bundle ‑‑‑ the good, the bad, the disappointing and even the tragedies are all of a piece.” Our acceptance of “the whole bundle” ‑‑‑ with “moral nerve and a certain toughness” means that “we choose life.” And Life chooses US, right back. Accepting all that comes with Life, instead of choosing “the chair and the TV” (in other words, giving up) makes us emotionally, spiritually able to survive the hits, and “endows depth and richness to our writing.”

And look what Life‑choosers can still accomplish:

Doris Haddock (89) began walking between L.A. and Washington D.C. ‑ a 14‑month journey

Kimani Maruge enrolled in first grade at 84.

Grandma Moses (75) began painting and lived to be 100 ‑‑‑ still painting.

Tao Porchon (93) and her 23‑yr.‑old partner swept ballroom dancing competitions in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico.

Mieko Nagoka (80) took up swimming, and at 100 became the first centenarian to complete a 1500‑meter freestyle swim

Hidekichi Miyazaki (103) holds the world record for the 100‑meter dash (29.83 seconds) in the 100‑104 age group. They HAVE a 100‑104 age group ? ? ?

These last two women are from a culture “Japan’s ‑‑‑ that, unlike America, reveres old age.”

That mastectomy I told you about? I decided to go “all the way” because I was still pretty healthy at 75 (for another week); then I turned 76. I wanted to get this DONE, OVER WITH, so I wouldn’t have to do it at 78 or 79, or 83 or 84. Because I’ll be too busy then.

I’m NOT going to make New Year’s Resolutions like all my old ones: lose weight, get more exercise, REALLY find a “working” diet, finish writing five of my books before next year. But I AM going to quit a few bad habits:

No more:

  • “I’m too old,”
  • “I’m not strong enough,”
  • “I’m too tired,”
  • “I’m not flexible enough,”
  • “I’d rather just watch TV,” etc., etc., etc.

Now it’s going to be:

  • “Wow! I can still do that!
  • “Hey! I’ve never tried that before ‑‑‑ let’s go!”
  • “Sure, RIGHT after we take a nap!” (got to keep it practical ! ! !)
  • “Sounds like a GREAT book ‑‑‑ may I borrow it when you’re through?”
  • “I’ve never written a steam‑punk story before . . . I’ll give it a shot.”
  • “I’m going to send my poem to that contest.”

What can you give up for the New Year?

What will you try that you haven’t done before?

 

Looking backward, looking forward

We’re closing in on the end of another year. I know this comes as no surprised to anyone. We’re probably all busy thinking back over the year and deciding on resolutions for 2016.

So, while we’re being retrospective, what did you accomplish in your writing this past year? Did you have any specific goals? Did you have any successes you can take satisfaction from? What went well this year? What could have been better?

I had the goal of finishing my fifth novel, which I did. I also went back and revised my fourth, giving it a deeper edit than I’ve ever done before. So while I’m still not particularly great at revision, I made some positive strides there. I also submitted a short story for publication, and though it was not chosen, that was also a positive step forward for me.

What bothers me, however, is how I fell flat as a writer over the past month. I’ve been prepping for my next novel for a couple months, and that’s evidently too long. I’m finding I’ve lost a lot of momentum and enthusiasm, and I’m struggling to even complete my pre-writing. The exercise has been fruitful, but the cost has been high.

So what are your goals for the next year? What one single improvement do you feel would help you most in the coming year? What things do you want to try? What would make you stretch most as a writer?

I’ve got a couple of goals for 2016. First of all, I want to write novel #6. That means I’m going to have to pick myself up, dust myself off, and make myself get excited about writing again. And the sooner the better.

I want to focus on characterization this year. My characters have always felt a little thin to me. I need to figure out how to give them depth, how to make them feel more real.

I also want to submit more stories. I’ve got to get used to submitting my work and taking feedback, even if it’s in the form of rejection. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

What successes would you like to trumpet from this past year? What things do you still need to work on? What are your writing goals for 2016? Leave a comment and let us know!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Love, LuAnn

I’ve always had Three Loves: teaching, theatre, and writing (the order changes from time to time). Before I began kindergarten, I “knew” I wanted to be a teacher. (It’s probably always been a control issue.) When I played “school” with my little pre‑kindergarten friends, I was always the teacher. How did I even know what a teacher would do?

Then I began school, and was learning to read. I remember The Day I “got it!” I was looking at a very long word, which I didn’t know. As I sounded it out in my mind, I realized I DID know the first part of it: “may”. Then I realized I knew the second part of it too: “be”! May Be. Maybe. It was like a bolt of lightning zapped through my head. Neither of the two words means the same thing as the combination means ‑‑‑ it was a word I didn’t recognize, as written, but once I’d puzzled it out, I was beyond thrilled that I knew THAT word too! At least, when hearing or saying it. It was MAGIC ! That had to be when my love affair with words began.

Many, many years later, when I’d already been teaching for a few decades, I met a like soul: LuAnn Brobst Staheli: the consummate teacher and wordsmith. I think we “recognized” each other upon our first meeting. She always had wise words, and that broad, welcoming smile! (How I miss her now.) I ran across an old blog of hers, and would like to pass along a few nuggets. She had become discouraged, at one point, and feeling that ‑‑‑ in spite of “small” successes with a couple of books through “niche presses” and what could only have been the beginnings of writing awards she received, she was ready to give up: too many “No, thank you,” “not right for our list,” “We’ll have to pass on this,” and “Good luck finding a house for your work” rejections.

Was she writing the wrong things? What would be the next Big Thing? Editors and others could only answer, “We’ll know it when we see it.” She was asking the questions most prolific, but unpublished, writers ask themselves. Then she made a decision and set a goal: “

LuAnn tried to look at her writing ‑‑‑realistically ‑‑‑she loved to write, knew how to tell a good story (that could have been from all those years of capturing the attention of her hundreds of junior high school students!). She knew she could write for a broad audience: middle grade, YA, adult, fiction and non‑fiction with topics just as wide ranging from memoir, education, history and all kinds of swirling, yet‑unrealized topics and subjects.

“So in December, I made a decision,” she wrote. “If publishers didn’t want to buy my books, then I’d need to move on without them. I had readers who were tired of waiting and I was too. . . . I made a list of all the books I had already written that were sitting on my hard drive, waiting for a home. I added the manuscripts that were nearly done as well, and found, that even with not yet counting the two manuscripts

I had out waiting for a response from traditional publishers, that I had enough books close enough to completion to meet my goal. (Since then, both of those books have been formally rejected, so they are now a part of my master list of books that will be lining up on Amazon, ready for an instant download to the readers who want them.)”

And so her 2013 goal came into being: she would publish a book‑a‑month, even if she had to do it on Kindle. She began with Leona & Me, Helen Marie, based on her mother’s stories of childhood, growing up in southern Indiana, which she’d written shortly after her mother passed away. The cover showed her mom, Helen Marie, and her aunt, Leona Mae.

LuAnn’s February release was A Note Worth Taking, with a cover which “placed it into the Small Town U.S.A. series. She noted that “[a]lthough some readers have tried to read themselves into this novel . . . it’s a story I made up in my mind . . . some of the events are based on truth, but the conflict and resolution, and the characters who play key roles are purely fiction. . . . when it comes to girl drama, there is nothing new under the sun, so you could change the names a million times and people would still wonder, ‘Is this about ME?’“

Having gone through this process herself, Luann wrote on her blog May 16, 2013, “Thinking of giving up your writing career? Time to get energized and take a new direction. Read my story here: T.he Book of the Month Club.”

LuAnn Brobst Staheli was NOT a quitter. She was more likely to follow Winston Churchill’s wise words: “Never give up. Never, never, never give up!”

And so should we all.

(Thanks, LuAnn, and “Winnie” ‑‑‑ I needed that!)

Some other books by LuAnn Brobst Staheli:

  • When Hearts Conjoin (Utah’s Best of State Medal for Non‑fiction Literary Arts)
  • Tides Across the Sea
  • Just Like Elizabeth Taylor
  • Men of Destiny: Abraham Lincoln and the Prophet Joseph Smith
  • Living in an Osmond World
  • Been There, Done That, Bought the T‑Shirt
  • Books, Books, and More Books, vol. 2; A Parent and Teacher’s Guide to Adolescent Literature
  • Temporary Bridesmaid
  • Carny
  • Ebenezer

How will I know I’ve ‘Made it?’

So, when will you finally be a real author? I ask this because for every author it’s different, and not just from one another, but for that author, depending on the status of their career. You see, we writers tend to be a disbelieving lot—which is rather hypocritical of us, considering we specialize in helping readers suspend their disbelief. But when it comes to feeling like a “real author” we have a very difficult time believing we’ve made it because, for one, we don’t feel any different. We also tend to see ourselves in a more harsh light than we do our heroes.

Therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this from one of my own heroes recently. Michael J. Sullivan makes a living as a writer, having four books in distribution and a contract for a series of five books set to start releasing next year. He recently completed one of the most successful literary Kickstarters of all time (it’s over, and people are still sending him money!).

So I was a little surprised to read a blog post from him recently beginning, thusly:

“Long time readers of this blog will know that I keep a note of various indicators that would let me know when I’ve “made it,” or when I can consider myself a “real author.” Those relatively new here, those who foolishly think I am An Author, might find this silly, but trust me, this is a thing.

Every aspiring writer looks for signs that they’ve made it. Everyone likes to believe in the fairytale that there is a definitive point. As Neil Gaiman once put it: that night when he and Stephen King and J.K. Rowling show up at your door in hooded cloaks and hand you the scroll that reads: You are now an author, and give you the key to the secret author’s club. As much as I’d love for this to be true, it isn’t. There’s no finish-line, no diploma, no standard to look for.”

What evidence is he looking for that he’s “made it”?

My dream goal is seeing someone reading my book in the wild. Given very few of the big names have even had this pleasure, I’m not holding out hope. The closest I got was a friend of mine seeing someone and taking a picture to prove it. I still search for indicators of outside acceptance beyond that of sales to give me a sense of how readers perceive my work. For the final assessment of all things comes down to them.

As the odds of meeting a reader in the wild are slim, I don’t see many (any) blips on that radar. The sheer saturation levels at conventions improve the odds, but traditionally these have been exercises in humility. In the early part of my career, I went to several and the experiences were not positive. Even after publishing through Orbit I would sit for signings—just me and my placard, clicking my lonely pen. No one asked for my signature. This experience is about as much fun as reading the one-star reviews of my books, only more public.

In 2013 at ConnetiCon where I was a guest of honor (alongside Brandon Sanderson), I had a “handler” to keep the crowds away. They were concerned I might be trampled, or that the throngs of fanatics would tear at my clothes or fight over my discarded plastic cup. Clearly they had no idea. Still, they set me up with a solo event for me to speak about my books. A surprisingly large crowd of ten people came. Eight knew who I was. Six had read me. This was astounding—a massive achievement that left me grinning. (I’m not being sarcastic—I’m very serious. This was great.)

Read the whole thing if you want further proof that even successful writers doubt themselves, and that very, very few achieve the “rock star” status we probably all mentally equate with success. It makes me wonder what Brandon Sanderson’s definition of “having made it” looks like.

I’m not sure what advice to extract from all this, of course. Perhaps it’s this: You’d better enjoy the journey at least as much as the destination, because you may never allow yourself to “arrive.” Writing is a solitary business, and while we may have unexpected encounters with fans in their natural environment, the most common signals of progress are mere numbers, which look a lot like words, which we as authors have learned can’t be trusted.

Or perhaps my advice should be this: Does it matter if we “make it?” What if someone came to you from the future and told you that your total earnings from writing would come to exactly $43,489.23 by the time you die? That’s not bad, but it’s not “professional writer status”, either. Would you keep writing? Would you give up and pursue another career? What if they told you you’d be worth $22.8 million dollars someday from your writing and subsequent rights and merchandizing? Would that scare you enough to make you stop writing? Would that disappoint you? You certainly wouldn’t be the next J.K. Rowling.

Now, what if they were to promise you you’d make $4 million over the next twenty years from cleaning septic tanks? Would that be enough to convince you to give up writing and buy a pair of nose plugs and shoulder-length latex gloves?

$4 million is a lot of money. It’s more than I’d make at my current job if I worked it the rest of my life. I have to admit I’d be sorely tempted. I could always get back to writing after I retire. But on the other hand, I have a good job now, and yet something drives me to keep writing on my lunch hour every day. Chances are I’ll never make as much from writing as I make just going to work every day. And yet I try to eke out an hour of writing every day instead of going out to networking lunches or otherwise spending that time advancing my career. Writing is something I simply must do, at least for now.

My own criteria for “making it” as a writer? Having made enough money to pay off all my debts and be able to support myself and my family from writing. Would my criteria change once I reached that point? Probably. I, too, have a hard time believing I’m anything cool, or wonderful, or successful. I’d probably just say, “Yeah, well, I guess I’ll really know I’m a real author when I can be guest of honor at WorldCon. Or something like that.

Maybe my advice is really this: Set your dream wherever you want, and move it if you need to. We all know that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Or, to put it another way, “You’ve got to have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?”

And enjoy the journey.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Start Where You Are

I’ve recently started a weight-loss program provided by my day-job as a health benefit. The program, Naturally Slim, consists of a series of weekly video lessons that cover topics of nutrition, weight loss, exercise, stress reduction, and general mental and physical well-being. In one segment on exercise, the speaker pointed out that people, especially men in their forties and fifties, tend to hurt themselves by overdoing exercise when they first try to get back in shape. He further elaborated that our society seems to cling to the unhealthy expectation that to “be fit” is a destination, not a process. If you haven’t worked out in twenty years, you can’t reasonably expect to get up off the couch and power through the workouts that were difficult in your teens and twenties.

With this attitude, most people who try to get into shape to quit before giving themselves a chance to achieve their goals. Most often, they either injure themselves or are overwhelmed by their perceived lack of progress. It is better to be honest with oneself, accept your limitations and “start where you are,” even if all you can manage is a ten-minute walk. Soon enough, ten-minute walks turn into twenty-minute walks. With persistence, you’ll be able to walk for an hour or more, incorporate some weight training and more high-intensity cardio. It just makes sense, right?

At that point, I took a moment to pause the video and figure out why the point seemed bigger to me than simple fitness advice. It didn’t take very long for my mind to wander back to my writing, as it tends to do. I had been struggling with putting words on the page that week and was getting frustrated with my lack of progress. “His arguments about fitness make perfect sense to me,” I thought, “and yet, I also am frustrated when I have writing sessions that result in a lower than desired word count. I’m disappointed when my first drafts fail to live up to the awesome thing I had pictured in my head. It’s as if I’ve convinced myself that small steps means that I’ve somehow failed as a writer.” See how that logic, or shall I say “illogic,” works? It sneaks into your every day life if you’re not careful to watch for it!

As a society, we’ve bought into the fallacy that if we don’t see instant perfection we have some how failed. As such, we are unreasonably hard on ourselves and become frustrated from “lack of progress.” It is unreasonable to insist that we can go from an inactive lifestyle to sprinting without conditioning ourselves with the steps in between. Likewise, it’s unreasonable to insist that we go from a blank page to a polished work without taking the time to draft and redraft.

I, like many of y’all, have been raised and molded in a culture of instant gratification. Personally, I blame marketing. We’ve been told so often that we deserve to be a fit/healthy/sexy person and for all our dreams to come true, instantly. Why are you sitting? After all, you were meant to be up and running! The capital “T” truth is that’s not how real life works. Frankly, those sorts of expectations are unhealthy, counter productive, and only work for the people who are trying to sell you something. Real progress, real accomplishment, takes the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears. In the end, it is the struggle that makes what we accomplish meaningful.

For creative people, this truth is particularly difficult to shake. As the legendary radio personality, Ira Glass put it, we often get into creative endeavors because we have exceptional taste. We want to make the things we love, and when our initial attempts fall short of the standards set by our own good taste, we’re disheartened.

So, the first step to becoming a better author is to realize that our early attempts aren’t going to live up to our full potential. Certainly, we won’t be able to compare to the heroes that inspired us to write in the first place. Truth be told, they weren’t born perfect either, but rather earned their skill. Don’t believe me? Find your favorite author who has published more than ten books. Read their debut novel and then their most recent work. Notice the difference?

There is no such thing as the perfect novel. Writing is too subjective for that to be possible. Rather, we must struggle to be better than we were. Most of the writers I know are too self-critical to be able to help themselves improve in the long run. Certainly, I’ve reached plateaus in my skill that I could only overcome with the help of a new craft book, or the advice and observations of a trusted friend. Not all advice should be treated equally. Instead, we have to find those with the experience to give us an accurate view of our work and who aren’t afraid of hurting our feelings in the process. This is why editors and writing groups are critical to an author’s growth. They help remind us where we are today and show us what we need to do to get better.

I recently experienced this first hand when a writing friend of mine sent me a guest post for the Fictorians. However, the first draft was less than I had hoped from her, less than I knew she could accomplish. It was full of language that hinted at depth and emotional power, but fell short of the mark. I had asked her for the post because I knew she had something to share with the wider world of the blogosphere. I told her just that in my feedback, highlighting my observations with specific examples. Sure, I was reluctant to hurting her feelings, but at that point I was her editor, not her friend. A few days later, I received a note back from her. She had taken my feedback and redrafted the post. When I read it, I found that she had delivered even more than I had initially hoped for! In the end, she ended up thanking me for the push. My honesty had helped her do her best work.

To become a master at any activity, you must start where you are, and start today. You’ll never finish a paragraph if you don’t finish a sentence. If you don’t finish a first draft, you’ll never have the opportunity to practice your revision skills. If you read interviews and biographies of the world’s greatest minds, you’ll find one thing to hold true. Becoming an expert or a professional is a process, not a destination. They were obsessed. They consumed, learned, and practiced voraciously until they reached the end of what others could teach them. Only then could they push further than anyone had achieved before. Sure, there have been a few sparks of brilliance over the course of human history, but more often than not it was persistence that allowed them to reach those unprecedented heights.

Nathan Barra

About Nathan Barra

Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger, not only on his own site, NathanBarra.com, but also with a group blog called the Fictorians (www.Fictorians.com). Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (www.facebook.com/WriterNathanBarra).

Playing the Long Game

I recently attended a concert by Ted Yoder, a hammered dulcimer player from Indiana who was on tour of the Western U.S. He plays a mixture of traditional songs, “yoderized” pop songs, and original compositions, and was the hammered dulcimer national champion in 2010. I enjoyed the concert immensely, as one of my characters in a recent novel plays the hammered dulcimer, and I was pleased to see I’d “gotten it right.”

Ted Yoder, National Champion hammered dulcimer artist
Ted Yoder, National Champion hammered dulcimer artist

Later I started finding out more about Yoder himself and came across this video in which he tells his story. He was born into a musical family, learned to sing and play piano, and wanted to be a rock star. Later in life he had the chance to hear a hammered dulcimer and was immediately smitten. He wanted to play the hammered dulcimer. It would be years before he would actually get his hands on an instrument. He began learning to play.

When a car accident left him unable to continue his career he decided he had to make a change in his life and pursue music instead. In 2008 he set a goal to play at least fifteen minutes every day. In less than two years later he won the national championship and has been able to support his (somewhat large) family from music ever since.

Why am I telling you this? Because I see a few lessons for writers in his experiences:

  1. It’s okay to pursue your dreams, and it’s okay to change your dreams. Yoder initially wanted to be a rock star. He’s not. But he is a professional musician and is making the music he loves. We may not end up doing what we initially imagined as writers, but it’s okay to try for it, and it’s okay to change it as our circumstances and perspectives change. Dan Well wanted to write fantasy, but has put himself on the map with horror and YA sci-fi.
  2. It takes time to “learn your instrument.” If I heard correctly it took Yoder ten years to learn to play before he got serious about his music. It took another two years to get to the level he wanted to be at. Learning a new instrument is a challenge. So is learning to write well. There are so many elements that go into creating a compelling story. Even those who “make it” as writers are still honing their skills years later. I recently finished a six-book series by Michael J. Sullivan which were his thirteenth through eighteenth novels of all the ones he’d written. I could still see significant improvement from the first book in the series to the last. We may never achieve perfection as writers, only “good enough”, and even that may take time.
  3. Winning boosts confidence. It’s entirely possible that Yoder was already good enough to make money as a musician before he won the national championship. But that one piece of outside validation seems to have been a turning point for him, at least mentally if not career-wise. He was already good, but he had proof that others thought he was good. Likewise, whether we self-publish or traditionally publish, there may come a point when we realize that people do indeed like to read our stuff. That boost of confidence likely goes a long way. And yet for myself I’ve always been averse to putting my work out there to be judged, because I feel I’m not ready. And I realize now that’s probably a mistake. Getting that key positive feedback may be a turning point, but I’ll never get it if I never seek it.
  4. Play the long game – have a plan. Yoder, when he decided he wanted to go professional, didn’t just say “Hey, I want to go professional”. He sat down and mapped out what he felt he needed to do to get there. He started with something manageable: practice at least fifteen minutes every day, whether he wanted to or not. He set a goal to compete in the national championship. He broke it down into steps he could take toward his goal. We can do the same. Do we need to establish a habit of writing every day? Do we need to work on particular aspects of writing, such as characterization or setting up good twists? Map it out. Make a plan of what you think it takes, and then work the plan.
  5. Write what you enjoy. Yoder loved his instrument, but he didn’t necessarily like the music that is traditionally played on that instrument. So he began arranging and composing music he wanted to hear. It turns out that’s what other people want to hear, too, and they’re willing to pay to hear it. (I myself bought every album he’s made.) While I suppose it’s possible to “fake it ’til you make it” in writing, I believe there’s a special synergy that comes from writing what you enjoy that kicks your writing up another notch and attracts attention. Yes, it’s possible to appeal to too narrow a readership, but even that may be preferable to appealing to none because you’re “playing it safe” or “writing to the market.”

To be honest, I never would have thought it possible to make a living playing hammered dulcimer. It’s not exactly a well-known, popular instrument making it big in grunge bands or the like. Ted Yoder is taking the road less traveled and making it work. Perhaps there is some inspiration there for all of us. Here’s the whole video:

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

All About Time

time-managementRecently I attended a writers conference where I was a panelist on the topic of Time Management For Artists. I think some of the things we discussed as illustrators, can be related to writing. It is hard for us to balance all the roles that we have in our life. Some of my roles include: husband, daddy, author, brother, uncle, and friend. This doesn’t even include the roles I play at church or in my work as a freelance illustrator and cover designer. There are a lot of people demanding our time. So the question that we get is how do you manage it all? How do you allow time for your art (writing) and still have time to spend caring for those roles?

instead-of-saying-i-dont-have-time-its-not-a-priority-laura-vanderkamThe first question they asked us on the panel was what distractions are there that keep you from doing your work. Some said kids, work, and stuff like that. I admitted my addiction to social media. Because I work from home, social media is my connection to the outside world. I am a caged social butterfly so I need that connection. Social networking IS important. We need a platform as authors, but let’s be honest, it is a time waster. After I recognized my problem I decided to schedule my time on social media. I always get up with my 2 year-old about 2 hours before anyone else. During those wee hours in the morning is when I do most of my social networking. I catch up on emails, Facebook, and Twitter. I have a set work schedule from 8-3 Mon-Fri. From 3-4pm is my social networking time too. Before I set this schedule, I was ALWAYS on Facebook or browsing through Pinterest.

bigstock_Turn_Back_Time_10456Scheduling things was the best advice we gave on how to manage your time. Everyone has a routine. If you don’t, get one. Wake up every day at the same time. Schedule what you do. If you have kids, schedule them in too. Yes “daddy” and “hubby” time is scheduled in there. Then look for the windows (the times you can fit in your writing). If it falls during naptime, schedule it. If you can’t seem to schedule the time because you have a bunch of TV shows in the evening, you might need to rethink your priorities. Rethink that schedule.

This is a link to a great sit with more tips on Time Management
This is a link to a great sit with more tips on Time Management

I am not going to say I have all the answers. But I will say this. If you

are giving up your time as a writer to watch The Voice, you’re not taking your career as an author seriously enough. Most of our time management issues can be fixed with a little rethinking. I have a quote by James A. Owen over my desk in my office. It helps keep me focused on my main goals as an author and illustrator. “Never, ever, sacrifice what you want the most, for what you want most at the moment.” Set goals and meet those goals.

What are some tips you can give to others on how to better manag

e their time as authors?

Mikey Brooks

About Mikey Brooks

Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is an award-winning author of the middle-grade fantasy adventure series The Dream Keeper Chronicles. His other middle-grade books include: The Gates of Atlantis: Battle for Acropolis and The Stone of Valhalla. His picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures, Trouble with Bernie, and Bean’s Dragons. Mikey has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works fulltime as a freelance illustrator, cover designer, and author. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his three daughters and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. As a member of the Emblazoners, he is one of many authors devoted to ‘writing stories on the hearts of children’ (emblazoners.com). You can find more about him and his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com.