Inspiration

5 Things I Learned in 2014 & Some Resolutions for 2015

I think of 2013 as “The Year I Learned To Accept Publishing For What It Is (and to stop whining about it)”, and that year held a lot of rough, pretty low patches for me. I wasn’t the only one. In fact, if you do a quick scan of blogs from other authors in my debut year (2012), you’ll see almost every one went through the same emotional highs, lows, and fist-clenching frustrations.

It’s just part of the author’s journey.

But I weathered 2013…only to face a new year with a whole new set of challenges. Forever after, 2014 will be “The Year That I Thought I Was Creatively Broken (and then realized I wasn’t).”

It was a hard year, but I’ve stepped into 2015 with a whole new outlook–and a fresh awareness of WHO I really am, WHAT I really want, and WHY I love telling stories.

Here’s what I learned in 2014, and what I want to focus on as I move through 2015.

1. Saying “no” is okay.

You see, there is such a thing as too much on a to-do list, and I reached that point halfway into 2014. What with the blogging, the newslettering, the giving back, the workshop-teaching, the traveling, the drafting, the deadlines, and–of course–the general day-to-day surviving, I BURNED MYSELF OUT. Like, I scorched myself into a husk of my former self (read #2 below).

It got so bad that in October I had to take an impromptu getaway for a 1.5 weeks with no internet in order to find my zen and learn to simply function again. I wrote about that whole-assing experience here, and that immersion session was a REAL eye-opener for how I operate on a creative level.

Actually, you should just read this brilliant blog post because author Tricia Sullivan states it all better than I ever could. 😉

Resolution: I will practice saying “no” to external obligations that I don’t need to do. In fact, stay tuned for some announcements on this coming soon. 🙂

2. Health and life should come first.

I think it’s easy to lose sight of what matters when your job is your passion. Not only do I define myself by my writing, but I love, love, LOVE what I do. Even when I made no money off of this, I still wrote. And even if, one day, I make no money off of this, I would still write. Forever.

But, as mentioned in #1, there is such a thing as too much, and when your health starts to deteriorate because you’re determined to write “just one more blog post” or revise “just two more pages,” then you’ve got a problem.

I had a problem–some pretty serious health problems, actually, that were brought on by some dietary issues that were wildly, WILDLY exacerbated by my stress levels.

And of course, when your health is bad, then your creative life suffers…which just increases the stress even more…which just makes the writing even harder.

But in the fall of 2014, I really worked to get my health and life back on track. I started karate again (after a 5 year hiatus! Shame on me!), focused on keeping my diet 100% clean of the foods I know make me sick (bye-bye dairy and gluten and sugar 🙁 ), and spending quality time with friends and family. I can already see a HUGE shift in not only my physical happiness, but my creative well-being.

Resolution: I will practice saying “yes” to personal, non-writing endeavors.

3. There is no Right Way to write a book.

Despite knowing this on the surface–that there is no right way to write a book–I didn’t really learn this deep in my bones until late in 2014. I struggled to write a novella (like REALLY struggled) and was convinced I’d lost my mojo…Then I stepped into drafting a new full-length novel, and after a few months of seemingly fruitless brainstorming and false starts, I was seriously starting to despair…

I mean, I had SUCH an easy time with Strange & Ever After and Truthwitch. Why was I struggling so much with a prequel and a sequel?

To make matters worse, I kept seeing (read: actively searching for) all these authors online who outlined so easily, then stuck to said outline, and then churned out 6+ books a year… I convinced myself that if they could do it, so could I.

Wrong.

Just like it was wrong to try to emulate authors who wrote everyday or into the wee hours of the night or by the light of a full moon. Just because they seemed to write more/better/faster than I didn’t mean their methods would work within my own weird framework.

What is WRONG with me?! ⇒ That thought must’ve entered my head 10000000 times a day this 2014.

Until, literally in the space of a heartbeat (while driving to karate, I might add), I realized 2 things:

First: Not a single one of my novels has ever come out the same way. Some have required many, MANY rewrites and exploratory drafts…while some have come out almost “perfect.” But just because one book poured forth in a frenzy of inspiration does not mean they all will. And when a book is hard to grind out, IT DOESN’T MEAN I AM BROKEN.

It just means that this book is going to require a different approach from the last. And that’s all good.

Second: I cannot and absolutely MUST NOT compare my method to other writers. I think it’s great–vital even–to explore other approaches to writing a novel, and I truly, truly love attending writing workshops or reading about other authors’ methods. But just because something works for that guy over there doesn’t mean it will work for me…and yet again, if it doesn’t work for me, then IT DOESN’T MEAN I AM BROKEN.

Resolution: Remember to trust the process and allow each book to grow in its own unique way.

4. Simplify and prioritize all the stuff.

This might sound similar to #1, but I’m not talking about emotional stuff so much as physical STUFF. The clutter, the knickknacks, the jeans you swear you’ll fit into next month, or the present given by a well-meaning friend that you’ll NEVER use…

I have so much junk–as does my husband–and late in 2014, I realized it was starting to weigh on me. My office had so many piles of un-filed paper, that I was afraid to walk in lest I be reminded of it all…and feel crippling guilt. My closet was a disorganized mess of so many things I never wore anymore. And the basement was literally filled with boxes that were unpacked despite having lived in this house for almost 2 years (I am deeply ashamed of this–not gonna lie).

So hubby and I both decided it was time for a trip (or four) to Goodwill. In a single day, we got rid of two thirds of our clothing. Believe it or not, I felt instantly lighter and my clothing-decision-time in the morning has been drastically shortened.

We also went through our endless supply of toiletries (do I really need that body spray from 2007 still? Yuck!), old reading material (my husband is SUCH a magazine/newspaper hoarder), unused electronics (bye-bye iPod from college!), and we even donated our old car.

In a single day, everything just got simpler. Best of all, organizing my office finally seemed manageable. Gone is the miserable reminder of backed-up filing, and now I have clean place I can step into for writing. 😉

Resolution: Stop accumulating stuff. If I don’t need it, I won’t buy it and I definitely won’t keep it.

5. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

This is something my agent, Joanna Volpe, has been telling me since I signed with her 4 years ago: “Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.”

It’s such a great quote, and it’s true not only in the writing world, but for life in general. Rush-rush-rushing to have All The Things NOW doesn’t get you where you want to go. Slowing down, focusing on the long-term, and really pushing quality over quantity–that is how you sustain a healthy career and a healthy life.

I have a published trilogy and novella under my belt. That’s pretty freaking cool. Even cooler is the fact that it’s only the beginning. Few authors have crazy success right out of the debut-gates, and most never have New York Times Bestseller success. But does that make them unsuccessful? Goodness no! So does my own mid-list status mean I’m a failure.

GOODNESS NO!

Longevity is what matters here. Staying relevant, writing what I love, and keeping my own personal reader base happy–that’s what really matters in the publishing biz.

The same could be said for life in general, no? Longevity, doing what I love, and keeping I friends and family (and myself) happy is what really matters in the end.

Resolution: Don’t put pressure on the next book to be The Big One since there are many next books still to come. This is only the beginning. 🙂

So there you have it, dear readers. Those were the biggest, most life-changing realizations I had in 2014–and these are the resolutions I’m holding closest for 2015.

You tell me: What did you learn last year? What are you hoping to do differently (or the same) in 2015?

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Detox December (and Rejuvenation January)

As I recently discussed in a Misfits & Daydreamers issue, whole-assing (a.k.a. full immersion) is the only way I can get a book written. I need to fall so deeply into the story that no outside distractions can…well, distract.

I’m not the only author who feels this way. In fact, I’d say that the #1 complaint I hear from my fellow writers is that email, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr…basically, The Internet, is a black hole that both sucks away attention and also sucks away motivation.

Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE me some social media–and nothing gets me more excited than Twitter conversations about Vampire Diaries. But, whether we realize it or not, all those interactions stress us out.

It’s all part of what’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, which basically says that unfinished tasks cause stress and intrude into our thoughts. So for every unanswered email, tweet, text, etc. that you’ve ever read, your brain is carrying around STRESS. And until the messages are answered, that stress will build up and take away precious attention for creativity.

The brain likes finished tasks–it can’t let them go otherwise. So until you ANSWER or DEAL WITH all those social media messages, your brain can’t relax. It can’t unplug.

But hey, if you don’t even know the new email is there, then whoa! Suddenly your brain has some freed-up space.

But it’s not just messages that cause stress–it’s ANY to-do item that’s unfinished. Those packages that still need dropping at the post office. Those blog interviews you never got around to finishing or ARCs that you totally meant to read/review…

So how do we fix all this stress? We finish, we eliminate, and we stop taking on more.

As Jeff Vandermeer says in his awesome Booklife:

…I am not the kind of person whose book promotion/Internet brain is interwoven with my creative brain. The two are separate. To summon one I must banish the other. To go from being in the moment while writing in the morning to this other thing in the mid-afternoons–this person who fields requests for interviews, fan mail, production questions on forthcoming books, and all the other things a writer or other creative person deals with outside writing–to do this, I must make a transition. I cross the border into another land, assume another identity. Because, for me at least, I am becoming someone else entirely.

This is true guys. So true.

I am both Writer Sooz who never bathes and wears the same disgusting sweatshirt day-in and day-out…And I’m also Social Sooz who loves to talk to other writers and readers, who gets all glammed up for an event, and who could spend HOURS on Twitter discussing Henry Cavill’s perfect jawline. But the two sides of me don’t mix too well, and when Social Sooz takes on new tasks, then those unfinished jobs (or unanswered messages) prey on Writer Sooz’s creativity.

Hence me making Fridays my “administrative day.” This has been working quite well for me thus far. BUT, when it comes to drafting an entire book from scratch and also on deadline, I have to allocate my time in an even stricter way. I can’t just make Friday’s my day for Social Sooz. I can’t just try to avoid Twitter and Pinterest for as long as my self-control lasts (ungh, I love them both so much….). And I can’t just put everything on hold to travel for an event.

Somehow, I need to give Writer Sooz all the time and distraction-free space that she (er…I?) needs to write a book.

So, after chatting with Sarah about this, we decided to take December and January “off.” We’re both on deadline and we’re both pretty empty on the event front–which means, this is the PERFECT time for us both to try to whole-ass our way through some first drafts.

What we’ve decided to do–at least for now–is to assign strict “No Internet” hours for each weekday. We’ve settled on 12PM – 4PM. During those four hours, we’ve agreed we WILL NOT:

  • Answer emails.
  • Go on Twitter.
  • Check Tumblr.
  • Pin something.
  • Use any other form of social media.

In fact, unless there’s some pressing research need, we won’t get on the internet AT ALL from 12 to 4 every weekday. Personally, I’m hoping the less I’m on, then the less I’ll even want to be on… (Bye-bye Stefan vs. Damon discussions…at least for now.)

On top of the 12-4 ban, Sarah and I are going to:

  • Eliminate blogging (unless there’s some important announcement to make).
  • Cut back on newsletter-ing (well, Sarah doesn’t have one–so just me!).
  • Take a 2 week holiday break on Starkillers updates.

Sarah and I hope that, at the end of our Detox December and Rejuvenation January, we’ll not only each have a first draft (or a large chunks of a first draft) completed but that we’ll feel more connected to our writing. We’ll love our stories and our characters, we’ll find creative flow is easier to achieve, and our Writer Selves will have had a much needed “vacation” from our Social Sides.

Now, since December tends to be a time of reflection, and since January is often a time for setting new goals, we thought we’d invite YOU ALL to join us in our creative immersion time! We’ve got a little image you can pin on your Twitter feed or add as your Facebook status…or put anywhere, really! It’ll let people know you’re taking a little break (but will return!), and it’ll let us all join in the #DetoxDecember and #RejuvJanuary together! 🙂

DetoxDecember

Alrighty, guys! I’ll see you on the 2015 flip-side! (There will be a newsletter on Friday, and a few more throughout this time. Plus, I’ll still be on my social media outlets…just not as much. PEACE!!)

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The Productive Writer

I got a bit behind during week 2 of NaNo. Some major changes happened in the trajectory of my projects (I’ll explain in Friday’s newsletter), so I’ve got some MAJOR catching up to do this week!

Anyway, as promised for NaNoWriMo, I’m sharing links each Monday to all my past content so that YOU can more easily find what you’re looking for.

In addition to the organized posts, I have a forum open where you can ask anything about today’s topic, and I’ll answer it as best I can.

During week 1, I covered A Writer’s Basic Toolbox (ask questions here!), and in week 2, I dug deeper into the more advanced tools at a writer’s disposal (ask questions here!).

This week, we’re moving onto maximizing our productivity and output.
 

Productive Writer

 
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General Productivity

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Rituals & Routines

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Rhythm & Immersion

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Goals, Breaks, & Progress

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Improving Your Skills

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Announcing the YA Runs a 5K Fundraiser!

A month ago, Melody Simpson reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in setting up a 5K fundraiser. I think I terrified her with my response of “OMG YES LET’S DO THIS” (especially since I answered her, like, 5 seconds after she messaged me).

Neither of us really had any idea what we were doing, but after a bit of research and fumbling, we finally managed to put together something that we’re proud of–and SUPER excited for. So allow me to introduce the…

YA Runs a 5K

On July 19 Melody and I are running a 5K! (Though I might just be walking because I’m SO OUT OF SHAPE. Thus far my attempts at jogging have been…pitiful…at best. ;)) Our goal is to not only improve our fitness (and maybe yours too!) but—more importantly—to help children without access to books (more on that below or read more here).

The 5K we’re running is the Color Run in Philadelphia. Why the Color Run? Because it looks AWESOME. Why Philly? Because that’s where Eleanor Fitt is from (duh!)!! We’d love for you all to join us if you can, or if you can’t reach Philly on 7/19 (we totally understand!), then you can enter the Virtual Run instead! 🙂

That’s right–in addition to a physical 5K meet-up for the Color Run, we’re also hosting a Virtual Run! Virtual runners will get a virtual bib (that you can tweet, Facebook, Pin, whatever!) and can share their running progress with the #YARunsA5K hashtag! Learn more about the Virtual Run here.

Now, a little about what this donation/fundraiser thing is all about. Essentially, we’re trying to raise money for First Book. This organization provides access to new books for children in need. To date, First Book has distributed more than 100 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income families throughout the United States and Canada. First Book is transforming the lives of children in need and elevating the quality of education by making new, high-quality books available on an ongoing basis.

To donate to our First Book fundraiserclick here. If you donate $39 or less, you can enter a giant raffle! See the raffle prizes here!

If you donate $40 or more, you automatically get a free book! (Yep, you read that right!) Once you’ve donated, scan the list of available titles and choose what you want. Then fill out this form or email us (yarunsa5k@gmail.com) to select your book. By donating financially to First Book, you can help us reach hundreds of children without access to books!

We’re also auctioning off books and critiques. Half of each auction will go into funding our team t-shirts (until we cover that cost, of course!), and all extra proceeds will go to First Book. 🙂

Additionally, if you can’t donate financially (we TOTALLY understand), you can donate books, ARCs, or critiques! By donating physical items to our fundraiser, you can help us increase our donations! We’re shooting for $2000 raised, and every item donated helps us get closer to that goal!

Finally, if you run with us and BRING books, you can help us expand the collection at the Free Library of Philadelphia. We’ll gather up all books brought to the Color Run on 7/19, and then we’ll donate them to the Free Library after the race.

So let’s do it, guys!! Let’s come together and RUN for healthiness, fun, and books! And help us spread the word using the #YARunsA5K hashtag and the link http://yarunsa5k.tumblr.com/about!! Thank you SOOOOO MUCH!

P.S. We have to extend a HUGE THANK YOU to all the agents, authors, and bloggers who have donated! We are beyond overwhelmed with the amount of support thus far! We can only imagine what’s ahead! Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

P.P.S. Melody will be attending BEA as well as the Teen Author Carnival in NYC, so if you’re an author and would like to donate a book or if you’re a reader with too many ARCs lying around, feel free to reach out via twitter or email (yarunsa5k@gmail.com). Melody will gladly receive your donations. 🙂

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Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 3): the power of routine

RoutineAh, routine. The second step on the Productivity Pyramid. In case you’re new to the series, you can learn more here:

Now back to routine. I almost made this the base of the Productivity Pyramid because it can be so powerful for productivity–and not just creative productivity, but for all aspects of your life.

Ultimately, though, I settled on ritual as the base because I realize not everyone can routinize their everyday life. Also, rituals can allow you to reach creative flow at any point in the day–something a routine is not able to do.

Plus, a routine can eventually become a ritual–and it’s no surprise. The definitions are very similar. As I mentioned last Monday, a ritual is “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.” (from Merriam-Webster)

Meanwhile, a routine is “habitual or mechanical performance of an established procedure.” (from Merriam-Webster) Notice how routine has habit built into it! That’s important–and ultimately why rituals and habits had to come first on the Productivity Pyramid.

So for example, my morning routine has become a habit. I go through the exact same actions in the exact same order every freakin’ morning.

When my light alarm blinks on at 5 AM (best gift from my husband ever!), I roll out of bed and let my dogs out. While they’re out, I eat an apple and make a cup of coffee. Then I straggle into my office, pull out my notebook and pen, push in my headphones, and get to work.

I do that every single morning. Even weekends. That is the first part of my daily routine. It is also the ritual that leads up to my most productive creative time of the day.

Basically, if you practice your routine long enough–if you build your rituals and cues into your day–then ultimately everything about your schedule can become second nature.

But ugh! Routines!

Sooz, are you mad? Why would I want to have every day be the same? Yuck! That sounds awful! I want adventure, I want change, I want to experience the day–not just plod through the same way for the rest of my life!

Well, I hear your complaints, and all I can say is that I used to be the same. And while my day to day life on a macro scale is most certainly the same, the small pieces of the day are wonderfully different.

And my creative flow sessions? Those are never the same! Those are always exciting, new, and incredibly empowering for me.

But what makes routine incredibly powerful–possibly even more so than ritual–is that it can bust the FRABs better than any other productivity technique.

Why? Because if creative time is a routine part of your day, then it’s not scary. It’s like making dinner or driving to work–and unless you make dinner in the Hunger Games or drive to work through the Walking Dead, then those shouldn’t be scary parts of your day. They’re just a matter of daily course. Period.

And so too can your writing be a matter of daily course. Or any creative time, for that matter.

So our goal this week is twofold:

1. We want to make writing a routine,

2. And we want to routinize other parts of our day so our brains don’t have to waste precious brain power.

Writing as Routine

As I said above, when writing is part of your daily routine, it’s not scary. It’s just what you do at X time everyday. In two weeks (sorry! I’l be  traveling next week and plan to give away a copy of Strange & Ever After to compensate!), I’ll talk about rhythym, which will allow you to pick the best time of the day for creative work. But for now, you can go ahead and start looking at your daily schedule and pick a time to pencil in “Creativity!”

Once that time is blocked out on your schedule–and blocked out regularly (preferably everyday)–you must commit to it. The only way to transform your writing routine into second nature is to do it consistently. Just like a ritual, you must go through your routine often enough for your brain to internalize it.

So for example, my brain has completely internalized my morning routine. There is absolutely no thinking required. When my alarm turns on at 5, I might yawn and scowl a few times, but I always get up. Then the rest of the routine just falls into place–including the writing.

And because I do this every single day, I’m not scared of the creative time. My FRABs are miles away for those morning sessions because my 5 AM creative time is simply what happens everyday between waking up and breakfast.

Do you maybe see how liberating that can be? Even though the rest of my day might get disrupted and my routine might fall apart, I ALWAYS have that 5 AM session of productive time.

And like I said in the first week, working a little bit every single day will carry you to “The End” way faster than you might think.

Here are some other fun (and productive) author routines:

On most days, [P.G. Wodehouse] would get up at half past seven, go out onto the porch at the back door, and do the “daily dozen” sequence of calisthenic exercises he had performed every day since 1920. While Ethel, always a late riser, was still upstairs in bed, Wodehouse would prepare his regular breakfast — toast and honey or marmalade, a slice of coffee cake and a mug of tea — and, as part of the early morning routine, he would read a “breakfast book,” for example a Rex Stout or Ngaio Marsh mystery. Then he would light the first pipe of the day, crumbling the cigars Peter Schwed sent him into the bowl in preference to pipe tobacco. At nine o’clock, after a short walk with some of the dogs, he would retire to his study, a spacious, pine-clad room overlooking the garden, for the morning’s work. His writing methods had not changed in years. He would sit and brood in a favourite armchair, draft a paragraph or two in pencil, then move to the typewriter, sitting under a Victorian oil painting of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank’s Lombard Street offices. — from Wodehouse: A Life, via Daily Routines

Well, that is quite a specific daily routine if I ever heard one! And of course, it was also quite a productive one. P.G. Wodehouse wrote almost 100 novels in his lifetime!

Then there was Roald Dahl, who–despite having his strict routine–could still take up to 6 months for a single short story. (So imagine how long it might’ve taken him to draft without his routine!)

Settled into a writing career, [Roald Dahl] lived on a farm where he raised livestock and bred greyhounds. His routine was to write from 10 A.M. until noon, spend the afternoon tending his animals and return to his writing again from 4 to 6 P.M. — from The New York Times, November 24, 1990, via Daily Routines

And, of course, there’s the SUPER strict, SUPER impressive schedule of Haruki Murakami:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity. — The Paris Review, Summer 2004, via Daily Routines

I am more than a little envious of Murakami’s routine. Just imagine being able to fall so completely into your writing–and to also eliminate outside noise by adhering to a bare-bones routine…Yeah, it sounds like heaven to me. 😉

Routinize the “Small” Stuff

I swear part of what makes my morning sessions so productive is the fact that I don’t have to think at all before sitting down with my notebook. I’m wearing pajamas, I have an apple, I go to the same spot on the same couch, and my notebook/printed scene + pen + headphones are already waiting for me.

Removing the “think” factor is critical to really opening up your creative channels.

Remember how I said in the first week that your daily willpower is limited? It’s like a muscle, and it can quickly burn out.

Roy Baumeister did the first experiments on this phenomenon, known as “ego depletion,” showing that the exertion of willpower in one area makes it harder to exert it on another task later.

–from the essay “Pogromming your Daily Habits” by Scott Young in Maximize Your Potential

Making decisions, answering emails, checking your Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr–ALL of that can deplete your self-control. So if you start your day with that stuff,  you’re just subtracting from the focus you can use later in the day.

This willpower depletion is actually why President Obama always wears the same suits.

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” — from Vanity Fair

Essentially, Obama saves his willpower for the stuff that actually matters. So why can’t we do the same? If we routinize as much of our day as we can, we’ll clear away headspace for the stuff we care about–from creative work to projects at your day job to even committing to a new diet/exercise regimen.

fewer decisions = more productive flow

I block out my day in hourly chunks and specify exactly what I'll do when. At the bottom, I have space for extra To Do stuff that pops up.

I block out my day in hourly chunks and specify exactly what I’ll do when (all the way down to what WIP, what scene). At the bottom, I have space for extra To Do stuff that pops up.

So for example, in my attempt to routinize my day, I started big. I time blocked my day like the brilliant Cal Newport suggests (he’s awesome; read his blog; learn how to time block here). This took me weeks of daily commitment, but I made myself do the same things at the same times everyday.

(Obviously, I’m in the lucky position of writing full-time, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t routinize your day even if you also have a day job.)

Once I felt like I had a really good handle on the macro pieces of my day*, I moved to the small stuff. I wanted to eliminate even the smaller decisions.

As an example, I walk my dogs everyday at the same time, and to make that as mindless as possible, I walk the same route every single day. No phone, no distractions, no decisions. (I doubt it’s a coincidence, either, that those walks are when I have the most aha! moments. My brain is completely free to do what it wants.)

Here are other examples from my own life as well as ideas for how YOU can reduce your daily decision pool:

    • Get your work ready the night before. I always lay out my spiral-bound notebook and/or printed scenes (if I’m revising) at my workstation (i.e. retro 60s couch) before I go to bed.
    • Figure out what you’ll wear the night before. This is easy for me since I can literally spend most of my life in pajamas. BUT, I do occasionally wear Real Attire, and when I do, I plan my outfit the night before.
    • Eat the same thing for breakfast everyday. I wake up with an apple, then 2 hours later, I have a full breakfast of eggs and sausage. (Yes, I do eat eggs and sausage–or bacon–every single morning.)
    • Get your lunch ready the night before–or else know exactly what you’re going to eat. My husband and I always have leftovers. It’s part of our routine to make enough dinner every night for lunch the next day.
    • On a similar note, plan a weekly menu. (I do this every Saturday morning. It was something I started for budgeting purposes, but it has had the added benefit of allowing me to never think, “What’s for lunch/dinner?”)
    • Drive/walk/travel the same route everyday. While this would serve you ill in the wild (those crocodiles are smart, man! They learn their prey’s habits and then waaaaiiiit accordingly), it can serve you well in modern society. I imagine you already go the same way every time if you commute to work, but just in case you don’t, I thought I’d mention it.

I’m sure you guys can think of other aspects you can routinize, so feel free to share them in the comments!

 The Power of Routine

I realize that routine and ritual overlap a lot, so hopefully you don’t feel like I’ve just rehashed what I talked about this week. As I said above, I think of routines as feeding off of rituals and habits. They’re almost a macro ritual that you do day-in and day-out.

What I think makes routines SO powerful, though, is how easily they can remove the FRABs from creative work. As mentioned (and as I will keep mentioning because I think it’s so incredible!), when you make writing a part of your daily routine, you stop fearing it. My morning creative sessions are no more frightening to me than having breakfast–writing is just what I do at 5 AM every morning. End of story.

Best of all, writing empowers me now! When I finish a writing session, I feel GOOD. It encourages me to do it again the next day…and the next day (the reward to my habit, remember?). So now, not only do I not fear writing, but I can’t WAIT for the creative part of my day! Every night is like Christmas Eve for me because I’m so excited for the next day’s creative session. (I am not even exaggerating.)

Quite simply, routine has been one of my major strategies for clearing away my FRABs and achieving my goal of “reaching creative freefall easily.”

In the next post of this series, I move onto the middle step of the Productivity Pyramid: rhythm, so be sure to check that out as well.

Now you tell me: Do you have a daily routine? Do you schedule in regular, routinized writing? And can you routinize other aspects of your life to give your brain more willpower for other projects?

*I knew my routine had become second nature for me because it had also become a routine for my dogs! They would wake up, yawning and ready to move, at the exact times I had scheduled in my breaks, meals, and dog-walks. Pretty cool, huh? They’ve basically become alarm clocks now. 😉

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Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 2): the power of ritual

RitualLast week, I introduced my Productivity Pyramid (that isn’t a pyramid at all, but I just can’t let go of the lovely alliteration from 2 p’s, you know?). This week, I’m focusing on what I think is the most important part of that pyramid–the base upon which all the other R-words are built.

Yeah, that’s right: Ritual. A ritual is (according to Merriam-Webster) “an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.”

Rituals are INCREDIBLY powerful tools, and they can be the key to unlocking some great habits.

But wait, you say, I thought we were building rituals, Sooz! Make up your mind!

Yes, yes–we’re building rituals too. But in order to understand why cultivating rituals can effect change in your lives, you need to understand how a habit works.

Understanding Habit

A habit is (again, according to Merriam-Webster) “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” So for example, I have this awful habit of putting on lip balm whenever I’m nervous. I’m pretty sure I don’t even need the stuff, but whenever I get a bit stressed, I’m grabbing for it from my pocket.

I have another habit, though, that’s a good one: I can easily fall into creative flow. Like, as long as I have the right set of conditions–the right ritual to start–I can sink into a productive whirlwind right away.

And that’s our goal here, guys: We want to build a ritual so that productive flow becomes a habit.

Now what do I mean when I say productive flow? I mean “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” (definition from Wikipedia)

For me, productive flow = creative flow. When I’m writing in a mental state of creative flow, the hours ZIP by. I feel great, I love what I’m doing, and I come out feeling energized. That energy is a great reward, so I want to make sure I feel it again the next day…and the next day and the next.

But I wasn’t always this way. In fact, it used to be a real challenge for me to get to a creative free-fall state. I needed the “perfect conditions” or “inspiration had to strike” or some other magical voodoo star-alignment had to happen. However, just as I learned how to build the habit of productive flow, you can learn too. 🙂

As the amazing John Cleese put it:

“Creativity is not a talent. It is not a talent, it is a way of operating…the most creative have simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood–“a way of operating”–which allowed their natural creativity to function.” – from John Cleese’s talk on creativity

Components of Habit

According to Charles Duhigg’s fabulous book The Power of Habit, there are three components to a habit: the cue, the routine, the reward. Essentially, a cue triggers you to behave a certain way, and then after the behavior, you get some sort of reward. That reward reinforces your habit so that it reoccurs each time you’re exposed to the cue.

Here, watch this video and you can understand.

Of course, Duhigg is talking about breaking habits (which is a useful thing to be able to do), but what we want to do here is start a new habit. We want to make productive flow a habit. And we’ll do that by tapping into what he calls the “cue.”

Rituals as Habit Cues

So just as my anxiety is a cue for grab lip balm from my pocket, I have a cue that triggers me to start writing. My cue is a ritual–a specific series of acts and conditions–and when I enact my ritual, it gears up my brain for work. And not just work, but creative, productive, focused work.

Sounds pretty fantastic, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not gonna lie: it is fantastic. And I’m not the only one who has a cue. A close author friend of mine always drafts on her laptop while sitting on her couch. That location (the couch) and the prop (her laptop) tell her brain it’s “go time”.

I have another friend who uses legal pads. When she sees the legal pad (her prop) sitting on the desk (her location), her mind slips into creative flow immediately. But it’s not just my group of writer friends who rely on cues to trigger productive flow. Here are some famous authors who have tapped into the power of ritual:

Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense. – Toni Morrison (from The Paris Review, via Daily Routines)

When he first started writing, Grisham says, he had “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week.” –San Francisco Chronicle, via Daily Routines)

“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.” (from Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, via Daily Routines)

Notice that each author has are a specific sets of circumstances, and I’ve divide these “ways of approach” into three categories:

    • props
    • locations
    • actions

My personal ritual requires 2 props: a spiral-bound notebook and a pen. That’s it. I don’t need a special location or a special action. As soon as I see the ruled paper, I am ready to write.

That said, in the past few months, I’ve honed my ritual to try and take my creative flow to a new level.

I’ve added an action (making a cup of coffee), a location (an old 1960s couch in my office), and a third prop (my headphones & music). Now, when I have all five components of the ritual–notebook, pen, coffee, couch, music–my brain is instantly cued that it’s creation time! Hours will fly by, and I’ll come out of the writing/revising/brainstorming session feeling like I can take over the world.

Crafting Your Own Ritual

The key to tapping into your own habit of productive flow is to figure out WHAT your ritual/cue is. So take a close look at your current creative time. Is there something you ALWAYS do before your most productive sessions? Even the smallest thing might be crucial to getting your brain in the zone.

It took me years to recognize that I am a tactile writer. I can’t work on a computer–I prefer to write by hand, to revise by hand, and to generally create by hand. In all likelihood this is because I started writing before I had a computer. Not only that, but I usually wrote my stories while I was in class. I would scribble new worlds and characters into the margins of my notes.

And guess what–I took notes in spiral-bound notebooks. In other words, I cultivated a ritual for creative flow back when I was 13–without realizing I did it, of course–and I still react to those same powerful cues.

Of course, if you don’t have a ritual, you can CULTIVATE one by creating a specific set of circumstances–specific props, locations, and actions. If you enact these specific actions with specific props in a specific location every time before you start your work, it will teach your brain to react as you want it to react.

Basically, you are Pavlov’s dogs right now, and you need to make your own bell.

Your “bell” could be something as simple curling up on your bed and opening your laptop (a specific location and a specific prop). Or it could be as complicated as catching a bus to your favorite coffee shop (a specific action as well as a specific location), ordering a cookie (an action and a prop), playing your favorite musical piece three times (an action), and then opening a Word doc (an action/prop).

In fact, here’s an example of what I’d call a pretty complex–though clearly effective–ritual:

“Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, rises at 5am and checks into a hotel, where staff are instructed to remove all stimuli from the walls of her room. She takes legal pads, a bottle of sherry, playing cards, a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus, writing 12 pages before leaving in the afternoon and editing the pages that evening.” – Shortlist.com

Pretty crazy routine, no? Yet 12 pages a day is insanely productive, and you could easily have a draft in a month at that rate!

The Power of Ritual

Hopefully I’ve offered you enough incentive to look at your own rituals and habits. The great thing about this tool–what really makes ritual incredibly powerful–is that you can it to trigger your brain for any new habit. Want to start jogging in the mornings? Try putting your shoes and workout clothes on the floor beside your bed. Then, when you wake up, you’ll step on them…and then put them on. Once you’re dressed to impress, there’s nothing to stop you from heading out the door to run. If you do this every morning, eventually, the ritual of seeing your clothes/shoes will cue you for the habit of a morning jog.

The next post takes us to the next step on the Productivity Pyramid–routinebut in order to effectively tap into the power of routines, we need to first hone our rituals and habits.

So you tell me: What rituals do you have that prep your brain for productive flow? Or what rituals would like to cultivate?

Speak up:

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Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 1): the productivity pyramid

As promised in the FRAB to Fab series on my personal blog, I’m doing a spin-off series on increasing your writing productivity. Today is an introduction to what I call the Productivity Pyramid…Except that it’s not really a pyramid at all, but rather an upside-down triangle (as you can see below).

STILL, you get the idea. The top of the triangle–ritual–is what I consider to be the most important technique for increasing creative output. Then each technique beneath that builds on the one before.

Make sense? It will, I promise. And if you check back on my personal blog over the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into each technique in a workshop-style format.

But before I dig into my Productivity Pyramid, I want to explain how I became so obsessed with the science of productivity. On top of that, I also want you to see how much these techniques affected my writing life (in an amazing way).

So it all started in mid-2013. I was in something of a slump (to put it mildly). I wrote Strange and Ever After in a frenzy that drained me on so many levels. Then, after a short break, I started a new project called Truthwitch and hammered out the first 200 words in that…

And then nothing. NADA. I was under revision deadlines, I was traveling a lot for events and tour, I was organizing all my own promo, and THEN I was revising some more. Any spare time I had, I knew I should be writing, and yet…I couldn’t.

The same thing had happened to me the year before, in 2012. I was away from writing for so long because of self-promo, traveling, and revision deadlines that I totally lost touch with HOW to write. Yet,in 2012, I had an e-novella and a book 3 due, which forced my butt in gear. (Deadlines are good like that.)

This year, I had no such deadline after Strange & Ever After was finished. I still had to travel and coordinate self-promo, but I figured with all this open time, I should be able to hammer out a TON of books. Why, I’d just fall right back into my frenzied writing like I used to do, all those years ago before I had a book deal.

But–and here’s the BIG BUT–that didn’t happen at all. iIt took incredible effort to even get myself to a keyboard. Even writing Truthwitch–a WIP I knew I loved and that had initially just exploded out of me–wasn’t working.

At first, I thought I was just being lazy. But BICHOK didn’t help. I could spend six hours at the keyboard, but every word was terrible. Like, truly terrible–that wasn’t just self-doubt pushing its way in. I was writing words on a page, but when I went back to read them the next day, I knew right away they’d all have to be cut and rewritten. There was nothing salvageable.

Next, I thought maybe the problem was that I was writing the story wrong. That I was forcing my WIP in the wrong direction, and as such, I was losing my passion. So I listened to music and daydreamed and scribbled ideas for days. But days soon became weeks…which became months, yet I remained as uncomfortable at the keyboard as I had been before.

Basically, I tried all the amazing things Janice Hardy suggested last Monday, and nothing worked.

Needless to say, I was frustrated. Really, really frustrated. And terrified out of my mind. What if this was it? What if this was the final proof that I was a hack and that I wasn’t cut out for life as an author? Why did the thought of hammering out books make my stomach clench with fear?

WHERE HAD MY MOJO GONE?

It turned out my writing mojo had fled for two reasons. One of those reasons was plain ol’ fear–and I just wrote an entire series on how I combated my Fear-Based Artistic Blocks (or FRABs for short).

The other reason was that I’d developed a lot of bad habits. Like, a lot. All of the wonderful, productive, and empowering habits I’d developed before I had a book deal–the habits that helped me draft, revise, and ultimately sell Something Strange & Deadly within a single year–were gone.

So while I worked on embracing my fears, I also started reading about habits (my favorite read of 2013 was hands-down The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg). Those books then led me to read books about willpower. And then I moved on to reading about creative behavioral psychology. And finally, I devoured books on how all those various things work together to make some people highly productive and not others.

Basically, I read a lot of books and blogs and articles on what makes a successful creative.

And I was FASCINATED.

More importantly, it changed my life.

Because what I discovered was that there IS a master plan for how to create good art in an efficient manner. If you look to the pros in any field, you see the most successful ones all have a few major things in common.

And this is where my Productivity Pyramid comes into play. Let’s look at it, shall we?* And then, let’s define what each part is.

Productivity_pyramid2

1. Successful creatives develop a RITUAL or triggering habit with regards to their creative time. This is a sort of behavioral cue that triggers your brain to think, “Oh! Now it’s time to create!” For example, as long as I have a spiral-bound notebook and a pen, I can easily fall into creative flow. Here’s what Stephen King does:

“I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.” (from Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, via Daily Routines)

2. Successful creatives have a strict daily ROUTINE. Why? Because willpower is a finite, and it can run out if overused. The more decisions you have to make in a day, the more your daily willpower supply gets depleted. Yet, if you can routinize your day to reduce how many decisions you must make, you will have more energy and willpower for your creative endeavors. For example, knowing what you’ll wear and what you’ll eat for breakfast can actually save you loads of mental capacity you could later use for creative pursuits.

This is why Obama wears the same kind of suit everyday–so he can save his decision power for the Important Stuff. This also why everyone says NOT to start your day with email since it will drain your daily willpower supply before you’ve even gotten started on your own Important Stuff.

Here’s what Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s extreme (and I find enviable) routine looks like:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” (from The Paris Review, via Daily Routines)

The really critical thing, though, is to make your creative time part of your daily routine. If you block out every evening from 9 to 10 as “Writing Time” it means you will never fall out of the practice of writing (trust me: creativity is a muscle and must constantly be used to stay strong). It also means you will always be producing and moving forward on your projects. And most important of all, it means you don’t have to be afraid of your creative project since it’s just part of your daily routine–no different from having breakfast or driving to work.

3. Successful creatives also know their energy RHYTHM throughout the day. In other words, they know at what times during the day they have the most mental energy, and they block those parts out for important work (they schedule their routine around those rhythms!). So, if morning is when your brain is “on”, you would use mornings for your most intensive creative work. Obviously, if work or school overlap with your best times, this might be tricky. But you can still figure out what your most energetic hours are outside of school/work.

If you want to find your most product times, I suggest Productivity Heat Mapping. Throughout my life, I had always thought I was an afternoon writer, but after keeping track of my productivity for a week, I learned I actually get the most accomplished per hour in the morning.

4. As the pyramid reaches its point, we have some other helpful tactics that I don’t think are as critical to increasing creative output, but which can still make vast differences in your productivity (they did for me).

    • Set REALISTIC goals. Don’t think that your best day should be everyday. Yes, I can write 10,000 words in a day, but it isn’t easy for me. It takes a helluva lot of effort and pretty much the entire day. Which means I should not be aiming to hit 10,000 words every day. Particularly because, if I don’t meet a goal I set for myself, I get pretty darn miserable. As such, I should set a realistic goal that I know I can comfortably meet every single day–even on the bad days. (In case you’re wondering, my goal is 1000 words per day. I write at least 1000 words as soon as I wake up every morning, weekends included. It may not sound like much, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can reach “The End” with it.)
    • Plan in daily breaks that allow your brain to RESET. Just as you have a time of day during which you’re rhythmically more inclined to produce (see #2 above), you also have a natural ebb and flow to your brain power on a smaller scale. Everyone’s cycle is different, but the average time a person seems to be able to intensely focus on something is between 30-90 minutes. After that burst of creative flow, your brain needs a break. It needn’t be a long break, but stepping away from your work for a bit can work wonders. (This doesn’t mean going and checking email/social media, which drains brain capacity rather than refueling it. It means taking a walk around the block, doing the dishes, or basically engaging in anything that requires zero thinking.) You’ll be amazed at how many AHA! moments you’ll have during those pauses.
    • RECORD your daily progress so you can see how far you’ve come. Creative endeavors are often HUGE . “Write a book” is such a big undertaking (and so vague a goal) that progress can be hard to keep track of–especially when you’re in later phases, such as revising. Sure, you can see in your Word doc how far you’ve come, but it’s not very concrete. “Oh, I wrote another 14 pages today” isn’t the same as glancing at a spreadsheet of EVERY DAY’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS and saying, “Oh, I wrote 3,766 words today, and that’s 1K more than yesterday! And holy crap, I’ve written almost 40,000 words in 3 weeks!” Seeing how far you’ve come can be fabulous motivation for pushing onward. It also gives you a great way to establish realistic goals (see above) and know approximately when you’ll finish a project.

So there you have it guys. That’s my Productivity Pyramid (that’s not really a pyramid but has a lot of R-words in it), and I hope it gives you some food for thought. If you want to know more about each technique, I’ll be going into them much more deeply on my personal blog (next week, I tackle the power of rituals and how to incorporate them into your life).

Now, you tell me: Do you use any of the techniques in your creative/work/home life? Do you have any other techniques that I missed?

Speak up:

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From FRAB to Fab (part 3): the science of fear and why fighting won’t help

In case you missed the first parts in this series on overcoming artistic blocks, here are the links:

Read them first, and then come back here. 🙂

So as I mentioned last week, we’re going to be avoid getting aggressive with our fears, and instead, we’re going to try a “let’s all play nice” approach. I won’t pretend I came up with this method entirely on my own–it was actually sparked by a few outside sources.

The Science of Fear

The first spark that led to my FRAB-busting method was the book Maximize Your Potential from 99U (I’m unhealthily obsessed with 99U and I highly recommend their books), and in particular, this lines:

“When we think about risks, we think about failure. When we think about failure, we start to get scared. When we start to get scared, our brains send out signals to get the hell out of there.”

-Chapter 4 introduction in Maximize your Potential

I read that line, and it was like a light bulb exploded over my head. The scientist in me couldn’t help but consider all the implications of such a statement. Think about it with me:

As animals, we are hardwired to avoid things that put us in danger. Back in the caveman-day, those dangers were sabertooth tigers or blizzards. Nowadays, they’re more like eating undercooked meat or walking down sketchy alleyways at night.

In other words, you could walk down that empty alleyway by yourself, but is it worth the risk? Probably not, your brain tells you. So you choose a different route home and your survival instinct might’ve just saved your life.

But what if the outcome isn’t physical (like getting food-poisoning from undercooked meat) but rather emotional (like embarrassment in front of others)? Can your brain tell the difference? Or does it just try to protect you either way?

Short answer? Nope. Doesn’t know the difference.

“The primal fear center in the brain, the amygdala, lights up, sending chemicals coursing through our bodies that make us physically uneasy, emotional uncomfortable, and in short order, spent.”

-from the essay “Leaning into Uncertainty” by Jonathan Fields,

in Maximize your Potential

Basically, our brains are just trying to protect us from whatever it is that scares us. A long time ago, it was rational, life-threatening stuff. These days, it gets way more emo.

Yet whatever artistic-related fears you’re grappling with, they are nothing more than your survival instincts at their finest. My fears simply want to keep uncomfortable outcomes at bay–be they Salmonella or embarrassment.

And what “uncomfortable outcomes” am I so afraid of? Here are just a few of the biggest, deepest ones:

  • failure
  • rejection
  • looking stupid in front others
  • wasting time I can never get back

Of course, as it turns out, humans expect failure to suck way more than it ever does, so we end of fearing failure way more than we ever need to.

“But science is also revealing that these fears are not only counterproductive, they are overblown. It turns out that humans have a strong tendency to overestimate both the pain of failure and how negatively others perceive our mishaps.”

-from the essay “Demystifying the fear factor in failure”

by Michael Schwalbe, in Maximize your Potential

Ah, so our brains want to keep us safe, but they aren’t very good at gauging the SCALE of a risk. Heck, for many people, the thought of speaking in public is ten thousand times more terrifying than being caught in a tsunami. But only one of those events is likely to kill you…

Logical? No. But we already know fears aren’t logical. Which is why logic almost never works on combatting them–or it doesn’t work for my fears, at least. These guys have been crippling me for decades, so it takes a bit more than mere rationalization to get them on my side.

Making Peace with your Fear

This is where my second invaluable source came into play: the blog Fluent Self, specifically this post, this post, and this book (which I haven’t read, but just reading about it opened my eyes. I imagine, if you can afford the cost, it is very helpful. Havi Brooks is a wise, wise lady).

What I read was this line (from this post):

The only way to get the fear to dissolve is to interact with it. Just like you, it wants to be noticed and cared for.

Your fear needs to know that you are taking steps to keep yourself safe. So give it some reassurance.

Again, a lightbulb burst into a thousand shards over my head. If I talked to my fears–if I explained to them that I wasn’t nearly as exposed to risk as they believed–then maybe I could convince them to step aside for a bit.

Then I read Havi Brooks’ example conversation in this post, and I saw exactly how it was done. You just REASON WITH THEM. Show them the steps you’ve taken to safety-proof yourself, and they back off quietly.

Of course, it was much easier said than done, and I found that I had too many different fears weighing me down. Though they almost always revolved around EPIC FAILURE, they were definitely separate kinds of fear. So I poked some more around Havi Brooks’ website, and I stumbled on her book Monster Manual. Now, as I mentioned above, I haven’t read the book, but just reading the page ABOUT the book was the final link in my FRAB puzzle. (You guys might want to give her book a try; it might have way more helpful insight to offer than I have.)

What I figured out was that I needed to identify each of my fears, and then I needed to name them.

Yeah, I realize it sounds super hippie-woowoo, and trust me: it felt very strange to me too. BUT I swear there’s something incredibly effective about anthropomorphizing your fears. You can even go so far as to give them a face. Yes, my fears do have names and faces–and I’ll share two of them below. That way, you can see how this whole anthropomorphizing a FRAB works, and you can see what MY fears are like (and hopefully see you’re not alone).

Two of my Creative Fears

CaterpillarDisneyMeet FRAB #1: Humbert.

Humbert is a nasty little fear who crops up a lot in my creative life–and it always mumbles the same thing:

Everyone else writes better than youYou can never write as well as them, so there’s no point in even trying.

I bet at least one of you reading this post knows that FRAB. It’s a pretty common, I think–especially among creative types.

And before you ask: no, I don’t know why I named the FRAB Humbert (or why he’s male)…or why I imagine him looking and sounding like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Maybe because Humbert has absurdly high standards, and that darn caterpillar is super pretentious and snobby…?

Which is sort of our how my FRAB is too. Humbert doesn’t want to bring me down–he WANTS to keep me from making a total fool of myself. He looks at everyone else’s success, beauty, power, wealth, and triumphs, and he just doesn’t want me to fall on my ass because I aimed too high.

Now, if you’re not sure whether or not you’re being plagued by a Humbert-like FRAB, then skim these questions below:

    • Do you ever say nasty things about other people in your creative field? If yes, how often?
    • Do you ever catch yourself feeling jealous of other people in your creative field? If yes, how often?
    • Do you ever speculate on the hows or whys of someone else’s success–and then chalk it up to better luck than you have? If yes, how often?
    • Do you ever say/think, “If I just had what X-artist had, then I’d be happy”? If yes, how often?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions–and then went on to say, “pretty often”, then I’d say you’re definitely dealing with a Humbert-like FRAB.

But don’t worry. I’ll show you EXACTLY how I “play nice with Humber” next week. (Sorry to make you wait! I would do it this week, but this post has already gotten mondo enough.) In the meantime, remember: for all Humbert’s expensive tastes and lofty ideals, he isn’t actually judging you. He’s trying protect you.

GollumNow let’s meet FRAB #2: Giles.

Giles is one of those FRABs that is very closely related to Humbert–and that oftentimes pops up alongside Humbert. The difference with Giles is that he’s nastier than Humbert–darker, meaner, and much, much harder to reason with.

In my mind, he looks and sounds like Gollum–maybe because Gollum is sometimes Frodo’s friend (when he has the power to withstand the pull of the Precious) yet is mostly just Frodo’s antagonist. But at the end of the day, isn’t poor Gollum just another victim of the One Ring’s nasty, evil, deep-seeded power?

Well, so is Giles. He’s just succumbing to the weight of embarrassment and shame. He doesn’t want me to feel the pain of failure.

So what is that Giles tells me?

You are not and will not ever be good at writing.

Pretty straight-forward, huh? Yet unlike Humbert, which is very much a comparison-based FRAB and only  seems to appear when I’m on social media or glancing at a magazine cover, Giles is a fear that always lurks in the back of my mind. And let me tell you: Giles can be crippling when it comes to my creative flow. There is nothing that will stop a story from pouring out than the certainty that everything I write is crap.

Not sure if you’re suffering from a Giles-like FRAB? Scan these questions–and answer honestly!

    • Do you ever think or feel that your creative endeavor is just a giant waste of time? If so, how often do you feel that?
    • Do you ever think or feel that if your project isn’t “perfect” it’s not worth doing? If so, how often do you feel that?
    • Do you ever feel incredibly enthusiastic for a project, only to then find yourself stalling after (or perhaps before) you begin? How many projects do you have like this?
    • Do you daydream about being an authors/illustrators/film-makers/(insert creative field here) but never quite take the first step?
    • Do you ever feel like giving up on your dream? If so, how often?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions–and then went on to say, “pretty often”, then you’re definitely dealing with a Giles-like FRAB. As am I…and as are most creatives, I suspect.

From FRAB to Fab: Homework Assignment 3

1. Read through your mission statements from week 1. Are there any more goals you might have uncovered since you first started this workshop? For example, I have a new mission statement that came up since I wrote the first post in this series.

I don’t want to feel guilty anymore about taking breaks. I want to reach the end of each week, knowing I accomplished as much as I could.

2. List the negative outcomes from which your creative fears are trying to protect you. (Like I did above, starting with “failure”.) Think back to the last time you experienced that negative outcome. Was it as bad as you thought it would be? Or did you actually move on pretty quickly…?

3. Do you think Humbert and Giles are getting in your way? Try looking at your other FRABs (from week 2’s homework) and anthropomorphizing/naming them. And as you do so, remember that they aren’t the enemies. These FRABs actually have your best interest at heart.

Now head over to the final part in FRAB to Fab series. I’ll share how I safety-proofed my life so that, when I find myself having a chat with my FRABs about their over-protectiveness, I can point to all the defensive strategies I have in play. Then I’ll share exactly WHAT I say to Humbert and Giles and all the rest of my well-meaning FRABs.

Also,  over on Pub(lishing) Crawl, I have the first in a new series about increasing your creative productivity. It’s a continuation on the FRAB series since there’s nothing like routine and high output to help keep the fears away. 🙂

And as always, feel free to comment  below or to email me privately (susan @ susandennard . com).

Speak up:

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From FRAB to Fab (part 2): finding the fears that hold you back

Last Monday, I introduced the nasty FRAB–or Fear-Related Artistic Block. A lot of you responded well–either in the comments, via twitter, or by email. Thank you for all your replies. It honestly bolsters ME to know that I’m not alone with these nasty ol’ FRABs, and your personal stories and feedback also help me guide how I approach the rest of this series.

(Also, you might notice I changed the series’ name. I didn’t not come up with that amazing new name–it was crafted by the wildly clever Diyana Wan. THANK YOU, DIYANA!!)

To summarize last week’s post: Sometimes our creative flow gets cramped (or maybe–if you’re like me–it’s not just sometimes but oftentimes) and the cause isn’t just laziness or a simple I-don’t-know-what-comes-next-in-my-project. The culprit that keeps us from getting our stories on the page or our hearts on the canvas is that old, always-lurking enemy: fear.

Before you read on (and potentially waste your precious creative time), head back to my first post and run through the checklist–just to make sure you even have a FRAB. If you already know or suspect that fear is holding you back, then read on–because this week, we’re finding our fears.

And we’re not just finding the fears–we’re articulating them and getting really up-close-and-personal. If we don’t know which fears we have festering inside, we can’t make friends them…

Yeah, you read that right:

We’re not fighting our FRABs.

We’re making friends with them.

I used to be all about “punching fear in the face.” I used to think that facing a fear head-on and telling it to piss off was the best way to power ahead. I thought that if you smashed a fear hard enough beneath your boot heel, the triumph of proving a fear wrong would be enough to banish the fear forever.

Nope. Sorry. Not the case at all.

When you fight your fears by dismissing them or pretending you’re not afraid at all, you’re only brushing the fear beneath the rug. Temporarily. It’s like that one closet that everyone has*–you know the one where all your junk goes? That’s getting fuller and messier every time you crack the door to stuff in something else? One of these days, though, the closet will overfloweth, and when you crack open the door to hide one more unsightly sock or doggie chew toy before the guests arrive, the closet will reach its tipping-point…and an avalanche of stuff will crush you beneath its messy vengeance.

Obviously, the closet filled with stuff is a metaphor for that place we try to stash away all our fears. Now I’m not talking about your arachnophobia or your fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth (which is a thing–no joke–that’s called arachibutyrophobia). I’m talking about those deep fears that have to do with yourself. With your place in the world and how people perceive you. Those are the fears that can leave you so crippled with self-doubt, you want to vomit or cry or break something or maybe just huddle beneath a blanket and never face the world again.

Note: if you don’t have any fears like that or have already managed to deal with them, then why are you reading this post? You obviously don’t have any FRABs to befriend, and I am infinitely, infinitely jealous of your unwavering confidence. And you know what? Go. You. Rock that confidence–and maybe I’ll soon see you on the other side.

But if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you have at least one gut-wrenching self-doubt–probably more than one. Most humans do. It’s both normal and totally okay. In western culture, though, we tend to glorify the tough guys. “Suck it up” or “don’t be a pussy” or “get over it” have been said to me more times than I can count. Worse, I’ve even said it before–to myself or to others.

Fear is seen as weakness, and no one wants weakness. “You should be strong” is what we’re taught, and as a result, many of us fake it until we make it.

But in my own desperation to be seen as “tough enough”–to fake confidence and strength until I start to feel them–I have spent my whole life shrugging off things that upset me. Smiling when I want to cry. Forcing a laugh when things I work really hard for fall through.

Yeah, well, thirty years of doing that hasn’t worked out so well for me. (Has it worked for you? If so, then see the note above.) The fears I think I’ve conquered, the zen and inner peace I thought I’ve honed–they always come roaring back eventually. Twice as loud and twice as mean.

I’ve tried rationalizing my fears too. And I’ve had plenty of other people try to rationalize my fears for me. But rationalization is really just another form of fighting a fear–of telling a fear it isn’t valid and to go back whence it came. But fears aren’t rational, so how could trying to rationalize them–trying to force them into submission via logic–ever possibly work? It certainly hasn’t for me.

And I know I am not the only person like this. As a culture, we have gotten really good at saying, “No problem”, that we start to believe that lie ourselves. But it doesn’t change the fact that oftentimes there is a problem.

So this week, to get to the bottom of our FRABs and keep them from popping up and hindering our creative flow, we’re going to figure out WHAT fears are stopping us in the first place. To start, I’ll share some basic fears.

Take note of any you suspect (or know) you might have.

Some General Fears

    • I am a failure–everything I try to do fails. As such, any new project I attempt will inevitably fail like all the others.
    • Everyone does this better than I do it.
    • I have no idea what I’m doing and one of these days, everyone is going to figure out that I’m just a fraud.
    • I have bad luck and that’s all I deserve.
    • Everyone thinks I’m a hack and they’re all laughing at me behind my back.
    • I’ll never get it right/perfect, and people will know.
    • I am wasting my time that should be used on something with guaranteed results.
    • No one cares what I think.

Contextualizing Those Fears in the Writing World:

    • I am a crappy writer and no matter how hard I try, I still suck. Why bother writing a new book just to watch it fail like all the others?
    • Everyone writes better stories than I do. Why even try? I’ll never be as good as them.
    • I don’t deserve the success I have. One of these days, everyone will realize it and my house of cards will topple.
    • My book has flopped/been rejected again/been overlooked by my publisher/etc., and that’s all I deserve because my book is crap. I am crap.
    • Everyone thinks my writing is terrible and they’re all laughing at me behind my back–or saying I don’t deserve the success I have.
    • I will never get this story perfect–be it the characters or the world or the research–and people will call me on it. There’s no point in even trying.
    • I am wasting my time and should abandon writing in favor of a “real job”.
    • No one cares what I think and no one will ever want to read what I have to say.

Obviously, this list is not even close to exhaustive. These are just the fears that popped in my mind as I was making this post. What other fears are out there? What fears do YOU have? If you’re willing to share in the comments, I’d love to hear them.

Or you can always email me privately: susan @ susandennard . com

OR, just make a list on your own.

From FRAB to Fab: Homework Assignment 2

1. Got your mission statement(s) from last week ready? Good. Pull it out. Look at it. Memorize it. It’s your fuel, remember?

2. Look over the list of fears above. Look at each fear closely and look at them honestly. Do you recognize any of them? All of them perhaps? If you have any fears that aren’t on the list, write them down (or share them in the comments/via email so I can add them to my list).

Also: think long and hard about this stuff. Spend time on it and dig so deep that it makes your chest hurt and your heart feel awfully exposed. Then, whenever you feel like turning away from the discomfort, look at your mission statement(s), remember why you’re doing this, and then dig a little deeper. You can do this. Get those fears on the paper.

And remember that these don’t have to be artistic-based fears. If you’re feeling brave, you can explore any personal fears that you think are holding you back.

3. Have you ever or do you currently deal with your fears by trying to fight or rationalize them? Has that worked well for you? Or have these fears that you thought you’d conquered only come back to nag at you later in life?

 

This week’s assignment is probably the hardest because it requires some uncomfortable self-honesty. But it’s worth it. I can tell you from personal experience that the payoff–that goal you set in your mission statement–can happen. So stay strong and then head to the next post, in which I finally show you how to do this FRAB-friend-making stuff.

*If you don’t have one of those closets or drawers or little nooks in your living space, then you’re clearly an alien.

Speak up:

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From FRAB to Fab (part 1): the oft-forgotten culprit behind writer’s block

I’m back! Happy 2013, everyone! I had an excellent (and incredibly productive) holiday season, and I am just so excited to tackle this new year.

As I promised back in December, I’ve been working on a series of blog posts that specifically address the “fear factor” in writer’s block.

I feel pretty awful for not only never having addressed this before–the idea that fear is a major source of writer’s block–but also for never having acknowledged that it’s a possibility at all. But I’m here to tell you now: fear can be a major contributor to a writing standstill.

Now, I should preface this series by saying that I “believe” in writer’s block. I’ve heard many authors argue there’s no such thing, but I disagree. Writer’s block isn’t Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny–it’s an actual affliction with actual causes (that I’ve discussed in depth before here and here and likely in many other posts of which I’ve now forgotten).

I get writer’s block and I’m not just making it up for attention or as an excuse for low productivity. So while other authors might not have a problem with writer’s block, I want you all to know that it’s definitely a thing for me and many other writers.

Ahem. Moving on.

Fear doesn’t only cause writers to stop producing–it can impede any creative flow, and I think it often does. Sure, laziness can get in the way. Or a simple lack of what precisely needs to happen next to get the ball rolling, but more often than not, I think the culprit behind any creative block is that nasty, no-good, ever-lurking fear.

Fear is one of the most common causes of an artistic block of any kind.

But since we often forget about fear, dismiss it as simple laziness, or simply don’t speak of it (since no one wants to admit to such a weakness), we never deal with the fears. As such, so they continue to pop up and keep our words/art/creativity from flowing.

Want to know if YOUR creativity is suffering from a Fear-Related Artistic Blockor a FRAB for short?

Well, let’s start with a few simple questions:

    • When you sit down to create, do you find it hard to slip into creative flow? Or, in other words, do you need a while “to get in the zone” or find that you’re constantly looking away from your project to check email/glance at your phone/stare at the wall?
    • Do you wish that you could be more productive with regards to your creativity? I.e. is your daily/weekly/yearly output at the level you’d like it to be? Or do you suspect you could produce more?
    • Do you look forward to your creative time each day/week/year/whatever?
    • Are you happy with your creative life?

If you answered “no” to ANY of those questions, then I’d say you’re possibly dealing with a nasty ol’ FRAB.

But let’s dig deeper–just to be sure. I want you to go through the lists below and make note of which–if any–of these symptoms apply to you.

Symptoms that are easy to spot:

    • You don’t feel like writing, even though you’re pretty sure you love your story.
    • You sit at the computer, thinking you’re really going to write this time…but then you don’t. You check your email 4,321 times and refresh Pinterest 3,690 times.
    • You spend more time thinking and talking about your book than actually writing it. This is fine up to point, but there is a point after which you’ve passed the “acceptable talk time”. For me personally, that’s anything over a month.
    • You know you’re not just lazy because you’re BICHOK-ing every day…but every. Single. Word. You. Write. Feels. Like. Crap. And it’s just agony getting any words out.
    • You know you’re not just writing the wrong thing because you feel this story is right and you’ve daydreamed for hours and the appeal of cookies just isn’t hacking it.

Symptoms that are NOT so easy to spot:

    • Whenever you sit down to write–or even think about sitting down to write–your chest kinda caves in and your stomach knots up. You might power on through that feeling…or you might go do something else instead.
    • There are SO many more important things that need doing RIGHT NOW. The laundry, for one. And the dishes. And alphabetizing all of your bookshelves. And of course you mustn’t forget about cleaning out all the vents–they’re just filthy, they are!
    • You think you might need a new computer. Or a new program. Or a new writing space. Or just a new set of pens. Whatever it is that you need, it’s different from what you currently use to write with–and you simply can’t write again until you have a new program/office/playlist/pack of highlighters.
    • If you have deadlines, you wait until the last minute to start that new book that’s due in–yikes–three weeks. Or, you frequently miss deadlines that you could have met if you’d worked a little bit everyday.*

If you checked off ≥2 symptoms from the first list and then ≥1 symptom from the second list, then you’ve got a FRAB on your hands.

But that’s okay. Do not panic.

For one, you’re not alone (I have quite a few FRABs that get in the way of my creativity).

For two, I’m going to show you how I deal with the FRABs and how you can work through them too.

But I’ll give you hint to entice you back next Monday: the first step to stopping a FRAB and reopening your creative flow is to stop trying to fight the damned thing. Instead, we’re going to figure out what our FRABs are and then we’re going to befriend them. Trust me, I know how hippie-woowoo I sound, but it works. It really does.

Of Fear and FRABs: Homework Assignment 1

1. Do you wish you were more productive or could maintain a longer creative flow? Do you need to work through some current artistic block that has you pulling your hair? If so, write down what it is that you want changed in your creative life. Be clear. For example, these are my current mission statements:

I want to write more books each year.

I want to easily reach the creative free-fall I used to experience when I first started writing.

I want to feel good about the art I create–not like it’s all crap that the world will laugh at.

2. Those sentences are my FRAB mission statements, and whatever you write down will be your FRAB mission statement(s). Keep them somewhere you can look at often because those words are the fuel that will power you through the more uncomfortable and frustrating parts of this series. When the going get’s tough, the tough look at their mission statement and remember why they heck they set out to do this in the first place.

3. According to the symptoms checklists, are you suffering from a FRAB? Or maybe two? If so, join the club and let’s get a dialogue going in the comments! Or, feel free to email me personally: susan @ susandennard . com

 

Now head on over to Part 2 in the FRAB series!

*Note: sometimes authors get deadlines that really are unmeetable, even if you work everyday and start way ahead of time. But if you look back on your time-usage and you sort of know deep down that you could’ve met a deadline with better time management, then you’re possibly  facing a fear-related writer’s block.

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