Friday, January 30, 2015

Putting Off What You Can Do Today Until Tomorrow—or Never

How many times have you stared at your computer screen or perhaps looked out over it through the window to the outside? There you are, staring into space instead of writing. Why can’t you focus? Oh well, you decide to go for a walk instead—or perhaps clean out your clothes closet or rake the yard or check your news feed on Facebook for the third time today. I think you get the idea. Procrastination, that ugly habit of putting off what should be done today until tomorrow. All writers experience it. So why should you be any different?

Why does procrastination take such a stranglehold on writers? It happens to other people, too, but with writers it seems especially prevalent. Maybe it’s because writing is a mental thing. It takes more effort to get your mind going than your body. Thinking is hard work. And some days you just don’t want to think.

You have ideas—lots of ideas. Which one should you choose to write? That can be a challenge and that in itself can lead to you to procrastinate. This problem is particularly severe when writing a book. If you write non-fiction, you have the facts of a story to fall back on, but if you write fiction, all you have is your imagination, and perhaps some research. That’s not much to go on.

If you’re planning on spending the next year or two writing a book, it better be a good idea. What if you spent all that time, and it turned out to be a bomb? So you decide to take your time. But this can lead to a draw. As your ideas compete with each other for your attention, it draws you away from the one that is most likely the best.

Let’s face it, ideas are always better in your mind than on paper. It never fails. Once you start developing an idea, it seems to lose its punch. Again, if you write non-fiction, you can always dig up more facts. But adding extraneous material to your fiction can often water down a good idea. This can lead you to hesitate getting started for fear that once you start writing, your great idea will fizzle. That just may be because you didn’t thoroughly think out that great idea in the first place.

For a few writers, telling others about what they’re planning to write helps them think out the idea. But for the majority of others, telling friends and family about an idea can often take the motivation out of writing about it.

Feedback is important, but if you get feedback on your idea too soon, it can stymie your need to write it. Plus, the feedback you get from friends and family may not be the type you need. To make sure your great idea gets rolling, only you know what should go into it. Any of this premature feedback is only opinion. And those opinions may be wrong.

One way to avoid procrastination is to plan out a project. While you don’t need to jot down every detail, you do need to block it out so that you have a good overall idea of how it will take shape. Without some sort of a plan—even a loose one written on a scrap of paper— you’ll most likely stall before you make any headway.

Knowing where you’re going in an article, story, or book enables you to begin, stop or switch to something else, and then come back to pick up where you left off. If you think writing is all about sitting in front of a computer screen and waiting for the words to pour out, you’ll be sitting there waiting until tomorrow—or maybe never.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Seeking Perfection

All writers strive for perfection. Some achieve it easily while others struggle to obtain it. For a writer, perfection can take many forms. For some it takes the form of perfect grammar. For others it takes the form of English usage. And for still others it takes the form of content.

The reading public believes that all writers should practice perfect grammar. People are almost unforgiving in this respect. If a doctor slips up on a diagnosis or treatment, the patient doesn’t go back to him or her and correct them. In fact, most patients probably wouldn’t know if their doctor had made a mistake unless he or she said so or something unusual happened.

But with grammar—that thing that everyone studies in school—it’s different. Everyone either uses good or atrocious grammar. For many who perhaps didn’t finish high school or perhaps stopped their education after graduating, daily grammatical mistakes are forgiven—“They don’t know any better.” If a person is college educated, that forgiveness is less forthcoming—“They should know better.” But for writers, for which grammar is a tool of the trade—“They ought to know better.”

Yes, writers ought to know better, but they’re also human. And in conversation, perhaps in the heat of the moment, they may occasionally make a grammatical mistake.

English usage is right behind grammar. Writers seek to practice correct English usage, but with styles changing every five years or so, it’s hard to keep up with what’s acceptable or not. Readers forget that today’s writing style is vastly different from say that of the early 20th century.

Unfortunately, a lot of writers, stylistically speaking, are still back in the mid-20th century. Some will tell you that’s the way they learned to write in school, and so they continue using outdated English usage. A good example is the use of dashes. Today, readers are more visual, therefore writers use dashes more often to visually separate information from the main body of the text.

Another example is the semi-colon. While businesspeople and academics still hold on to using this form of punctuation, many of today’s writers opt to forgo using semicolons. Instead of joining two thoughts with them, they create two separate sentences whose similar content joins them automatically.

Lastly, writers strive for perfection in their content. Not only should sentences be complete and logical, but thoughts and ideas need to be, also. In a shorter piece, that’s usually not a problem. But when a writer is working on a book, a play, or a screenplay, he or she can lose sight of where they’re going. And if they don’t check for consistency once in a while, they may lose their readers as well.

Perfection for most writers comes during the revising and rewriting process, after they’ve finished writing a piece. But going over and over a piece, constantly revising it, can do more harm than good. Too much revising is as bad as too little. Trying to be too perfect can ruin a good piece of writing.

For many writers, perfection comes after working on many pieces. Each one adds to a writer’s overall sense of perfection. To be a perfectionist too early on can stifle not only a writer’s creativity but his or her ability to write.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Get Into the Writing Habit

Everyone has habits—both good and bad. Some say we’re creatures of habit. It’s human nature. In fact, all mammals are. In the animal world, it’s called instinct, but for us humans it’s called habit. Most people concentrate on their bad habits. But everyone has some good habits, too. Which you have more of is up to you.

Developing good writing habits takes time and discipline. It also takes some determination and dedication. So how do you develop good writing habits?

First start by finding time to write. Not just here and there in your busy weekly schedule, but a specific times. You don’t need a lot of time, just a reasonable amount, say an hour or two, several times a week. If you use the time you set aside to write productively, you’ll get a lot done. If you wile away that time daydreaming about your first novel, you won’t get anything done.

Begin by making a schedule for yourself. Lay out everything you do in a week, including relaxation time and meals, plus employment if you work at a full-time job. Look to see if there’s any time left. Don’t cut into your relaxation time, but look carefully at how much time you spend at meals. You’ll soon discover that you can easily set aside an hour or two to dedicate to writing.

The trick is to stick to your writing schedule. The time you’ve set aside doesn’t have to be spent actually writing. You could be doing research or editing. But you should be doing some sort of writing-related activity.

Like physical exercise, writing often isn’t a lot of fun while you’re doing it. The key is to make it enjoyable. Begin by writing about subjects that interest you—subjects that you’re passionate about. Your passion will produce the words.

Some writers literally go straight from their bed to their computer the first thing in the morning. For some working full-time at another job, this means getting up with the roosters. But even if you’re a full-time writer, starting the first thing in the morning is a good habit. And any distraction that takes them away from their work kills it. Once you get into the rhythm of writing, the material will flow from your fingertips, almost like magic.

To get yourself into a good writing habit, start by setting aside a designated time to write, each day or on selected days, according to your schedule. Try, if possible to set aside the same time each day, so that your mind will get used to delving into writing problems at that time. Many fiction writers set a number of words to write each day. Non-fiction writers, on the other hand, usually set a certain number of pages to write at each session.

Another good habit to develop is proofreading. With spell-checkers and grammar assists, too many beginning writers fail to do careful proofreading of their work before anyone else sees it. Set up a routine of sifting through your work. First proofread it by reading it from the bottom to the top and from right to left to throw our brain off. This will allow you to see mistakes you might otherwise miss.

Follow proofreading with polishing. Nothing says amateur like a piece that hasn’t been carefully polished. During this process, you’ll delete things that don’t fit, tighten up sentences, take out wordy phrases, and eliminate repetition.

By developing these good habits, your writing will go forward. And the more you do it, the more successful you’ll become at it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

This Could be the Year

Do you know your Chinese horological sign? Why not look it up right now. This year is the Year of the Sheep. The Chinese are very superstitious people. Most won’t do anything important until they consult their daily horoscope. Your Chinese horological sign—Monkey, Pig, Tiger, Snake, Rooster, Rat, Rabbit, Horse, Dog, Ox, Dragon, or Sheep —comes around every 12 years from the year your were born. For some people, those years turn out to be the best in their lives. Is this your year? If so, it could also be the year you get published. There shouldn’t be anything holding you back, but for many beginning writers, the fear of getting published overwhelms them.

You’ve probably been writing for several years if not longer. During that time, you looked ahead to the day your dream of getting published will become a reality. So why haven’t you been published yet? You’ve slaved over what you consider your best work, but each time you send a piece out to a publication, it comes back with a vague rejection letter or Email, if the publication even returns it to you.

As the New Year moves forward, it’s time for you to take the bull by the horns, as the old saying goes, and make a concerted effort to get something—anything—published. Make that your primary goal for 2015. And if you’ve already been published, try to get more pieces published in better markets.

Fear can be a mind-numbing thing. It takes hold of every part of your body. It prevents you from thinking of new ideas. It stifles your creativity. It hinders you from acting logically when sending out your work to publications. Do you get shivers down your spine each time you hit the “Post” button on Facebook? Just imagine what it will be like when you finally publish a print book or ebook.

Writing for the public is like speaking in public. Either way, you bare your soul, then sit back and wait for all to judge you. So how can you take control of this gigantic fear and get something published?

Write with a single person or reader in mind. This could be a friend, a member of your family, or someone you know only slightly. Write to them and for them. Speak to them with your words. Talk directly to them.  Forget about the rest of society. If what you write is good, the rest will jump on board soon enough.

As far as publication goes, begin with a small audience. Small publications are far less restrictive and their readerships are far less demanding than those of the big markets. They’ll support you as you improve your writing skills. Too many aim for the best magazines or look up to bestselling authors. In writing, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Forget those dreams of sudden fame—they’re fleeting at best.

Get over the idea of perfection. Most beginning writers freeze up when they think that everything they write needs to be perfect. Perfection is a subjective thing. It’s all in the eye or mind of the reader. Let’s face it, not everyone will think your work is great. And that’s okay.

Every writer has something to say—even you. And what you say may just help someone. Always think of that when you’re writing. You learn by making mistakes and sharing those mistakes with your readers.

And just for one moment, forget what other people may think of your work. It’s what you think of it that matters most. Remember, there are other writers out there fighting off their fear as well. By attempting to overcome your fear of publication, you’ll become a better writer.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Planning for the New Year

As the holidays come to a close, most people’s thoughts turn to looking forward to the New Year. They make a lot of resolutions that last perhaps a week, then it’s back to the old grind. Without some serious thought and planning, you may find yourself back where you were a week or so ago.

Realistically, there’s nothing new about the New Year. It’s begins on the day following the last day of the old year. For some it’s just another day. For others it’s the beginning of a new year, filled with promise and perhaps success. Frankly, the new year can begin on any day of the year. So if you don’t get started on January 1, there’s always the 2nd and 3rd. It’s never too late to plan ahead.

Before you start planning for 2015, take a look at what you accomplished in 2014. Take a look at not just your writing accomplishments but everything you managed to accomplish in the past year. How have you grown as a person? How have your relationships with others improved? How has your writing improved?

Many writers fail to take a hard look at their accomplishments. This past year may have been one filled with problems and downturns, but underneath all that is likely a glimmer of light— one or more things you did that stood out. Try to find those glimmers of light and focus on them, rather than the negative things that happened to you. And while the negative side of things can overpower the positive side, the positive things are still there. It’s up to you to find them.

Make a list of your writing accomplishments. Don’t limit them to just pieces you’ve gotten published, but to what you think you’ve done that was not only good but super, even if editors didn’t think so.

What’s missing from this list? Were there pieces you wanted to write but didn’t get time? Did you miss the mark on the better markets? Was there something special you wanted to write about but never had the chance? And finally, did you make enough money? The answers to these questions will help you plan for 2015.

In order to create a plan of action, you need to set down some goals for this year. Goals come in two forms—long term and short term. The former helps you plan way ahead while the latter helps you stay focused on the here and now.

Long term goals usually span three to six months, sometimes even as much as a year or more. These might include breaking into new markets or working on a book. Ask yourself where would you like to be with your writing in, say six months. What would you like to accomplish?  What skills need improvement to enable you to achieve your goals?

Short term goals are more current, covering as little as a week or as much as a month. They’re also more specific. For instance, you might set a goal to get a particular article or story published. Or you may set some fitness goals to get your body and your mind in better shape.

For both long and short-term goals, you’ll need to list what you need to do to accomplish them. Limit these needs to three. That’s realistic, given the amount of time you’ll have to devote to accomplishing them. More than three may overwhelm you, causing you to avoid that particular goal.

Above all, keep things simple. Don’t list too many goals for a specific amount of time. Set only the number of goals, both long and short-term, that you can easily accomplish in the time you’ve set.

Writing down goals is one thing. You’ll then have to make yourself review them from time to time to make sure you’re staying on track. Set a time to review what you’ve accomplished—at the end of a month, at the end of three or six months, at the end of the year. How did you do? Did you fall short, and if so, by how much?

Don’t worry if you failed to accomplish a goal or two. Just roll the unfulfilled goals over to the next time period. For your yearly goals, there’s always next year. And for your short-term goals, there’s always next week, next month, or next quarter. But don’t just keep pushing goals ahead. Doing so will prevent you from making any progress. Stay on track and move forward so that at the end of 2015, you’ll have a lot to look back on.