Archives for May 2013

Write Your Way Through Distractions, Temptations, and Blocks

obstaclesDistractions, temptations, and blocks! Oh my! We all have them. Let’s look at what they are and how to write our way through them.

We all have our own personal distractions. Here is my partial list: emails, neighbors, phone calls, “earning a living, for God’s sake,” cooking dinner, posting on blogs, Words with Friends, Bejeweled Deluxe on the iPod Touch, and watching the news. What are yours?

We always have a choice—the distraction or the Zone—but in the middle of the distraction, the Zone is the last thing on my mind.  My solution to this problem is the old “Stop, look, and listen” adage:

  • Stop. Don’t go immediately into the distraction—and don’t force myself immediately back to the computer.
  • Look. What’s going on? Is the distraction just a way to avoid the challenge of writing, or something I need to handle? Ultimately, do I need to attend to the distraction or would I rather get on with finishing up the writing?
  • Listen. Take the course of action that will make me feel better in the long run, rather than the sugar high that distractions sometimes provide.

Temptations aren’t quite as serious as distractions. Distractions are already underway when we notice them. Temptations are something to which we might yield. It’s harder to make the argument that we absolutely cannot write because we must play tennis, read a novel, play computer games, sink into a Facebook binge, go to a movie, or chat or text for hours with a friend.

My best antidote to temptations is to identify ahead of time what they might be so that when they show up, I don’t think they are some new and original idea that must be pursued immediately. Rather, they are one of the standard ways I tempt myself away from the computer.  Then, again, it’s a choice: the Zone or the temptation. The key thing to remember is that, in the moment, that will never seem like the choice. The choice will seem like: the fun temptation or the sloggy, hard, drudgery of work. I have to remind myself that sometimes I can only get to the Zone through writing; I can’t expect that it will always be there before I start to write.

Here, I’m not talking about regular old writer’s block. (For info on this, check out “The 4 Top Causes of Writer’s Block, and How to Fix Them.”) I’m talking about more general, society-approved obstacles to writing like:

  • Having a full-time job that we can’t quit
  • Having kids at home
  • Being in school

Some of these obstacles seem insurmountable. It’s easy to argue for the limitations they impose, but I know several people who have finished books with at least two of these blocks in place. When we really want to make something happen, it’s amazing how clever and creative we can be.

The solution here is to make a choice between the obstacle and the writing—and choosing the block is just as valid as choosing the writing. Either way is fine. What doesn’t work very well is to insist that you should be writing, but also to insist that you can’t possibly do so because of the block. If you need to choose the obstacle for now, give yourself permission to do that. When you make that choice, you are the source of what is happening in your life. Either way, you get an enormous amount of relief and a big shot of self esteem.

The Zone is our natural state. When we get rid of the distractions temptations and blocks, all that’s left is the Zone.

What do you do to work through distractions, temptations, and blocks?

Writing Inside the Diving Bell

concentric-circles-in-color-fieldThe Zone in which we all want to write may be magical and even mystical, but the times and places that I have needed it most were pretty gritty and down to earth—and so the tricks and techniques I use to call up the Zone are equally practical and “real world.”

The essence of Creativity on Demand is using practical, organized, left brain tricks to get your creative, artistic, imaginative right brain into gear so that you can use both right and left brain to get into the Zone and finish writing projects with clarity and joy.

I first discovered how to call up the Zone when I was working as a freelance investigative reporter in Chicago. I had turned in two drafts of a story for the Chicago Journalism Review, neither of which had been acceptable.

“If you don’t get it right in the next twenty minutes, and you’re off the piece. I’ll do it myself!” the editor spat. This was a plum assignment that could make or break my freelancing career, and I was about to blow it. The more scared I got, the more my mind froze up until I could barely remember my name, let alone write a vivid, punchy piece. I experienced the ultimate Brain Freeze Under Deadline, or BFUD. Befuddlement.

At that moment, I had a mother-pulling-the-car-off-her-child experience, and did something I’d never done before. I put my hands on the keyboard and started typing, but I imagined being inside one of those old-fashioned diving bells. As long as I was inside the imaginary diving bell, I had everything I needed to write that story in the best possible way.

Nothing outside the bell could distract or trouble me. I knew just what to say and how to say it so that the story would sing. I didn’t hesitate or second-guess myself. I was completely focused inside that bell and just let the story flow from that Zone-y state of mind, to my fingers, to the keys, to the page.

For those twenty minutes, I had the magic. The Zone. I pulled the paper out of my IBM Selectric typewriter and handed it to the editor. He perched on my desk, flipped his glasses out of his pocket, and scowled as he read. When he finished, he looked at me wryly, punched my shoulder lightly, and muttered, “That’s the ticket, kid.”

Knowing that I could call up the Zone at will, that I didn’t have to be in the Zone when I started writing, opened up a whole new world to me. The diving bell was a trick, but it worked. It was primitive, but I figured I could devise more sophisticated tricks as I went along.

Each of the different kinds of freelance writing I did over the next forty years required different sets of tricks—acquisitions and developmental editor, ghostwriter and book doctor, and finally, author of my own books: The Soul of Selling,  Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption, and Sell Yourself Without Feeling Pushy, Creepy, or WEIRD!
At each juncture, I collected new tricks and honed the old ones. Creativity on Demand summarizes everything I learned.

What tricks do you use to get into the Zone?

Finish Your Book: Secret Strategy #3, “You Are Not Alone”

you are not aloneThe third Secret Strategy for finishing your book is to remember that you are not alone. We writers tend to be Lone Rangers. Sometimes that’s good, but it can also keep us from getting the support we need to get our writing out into the world. Here are a few suggestions that I’ve found useful:

1. Get a writing partner with whom you exchange work on a regular basis.
I have a writing partner with whom I exchange writing every Sunday morning. I also meet with an independent publishers’ group every other week. I would never in a million years be where I am today without both of these support structures.

When you begin with a writing partner, it’s important to set some ground rules. Do you want really brutal criticism? Gentle nudges? How often do you want to exchange writing? What form will your suggestions take? How often do you want to exchange writing?

Consider whether or not this person a good match in terms of interests, ability, and sensibility. Most people go through several writing partners before they find one they really like.  Sometimes finding a writing partner is serendipitous. Mine emailed me out of the blue one day. She had been looking for a writing partner and our mutual writing teacher suggested me. As it turned out, we had the same sense of humor, we were the same age, and I found that her critiques made my writing much better. The frosting on the cake was that we enjoyed one another. I’ve never laid eyes on her and am not sure I ever will, because I so don’t want to mess with such a wonderful thing!

There are a million ways to find writing partners. You may want to meet in person, or communicate by email. There are always local writing groups and classes where you can meet people, and your choices expand exponentially if you want to communicate by email. Start by Googling “Find a writing partner.”

2. Find a friend with whom you can talk things through.
Your friend may not even be a writer, or know much about writing. Sometimes we just need someone with whom to talk about a project. In talking it through with someone, our minds automatically start organizing and clarifying the material. Making our project comprehensible to that person often helps make it comprehensible to ourselves. We see things we would never see if we were just sitting alone at our desk. Writing a letter to someone can accomplish the same result, and you don’t even have to mail it!

3. Join a writing group.
Again, this can be either in person or online.
Try out several groups and stick with the one(s) that you think make you a better writer—not necessarily the ones with people you like best, or the most geographically desirable, or the most prestigious.

4. Hire an editor or ghostwriter to help.
No shame. This is the professional thing to do. I hired an editor for Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption. Everyone said, “Oh you don’t have to hire an editor. You are an editor.” No, no! That’s like an attorney defending herself, a recipe for disaster. Define specifically what you want the editor or ghostwriter to do. Do you want that person just to fix grammar or punctuation mistakes? Reorganize all your material and rewrite it? Something in between? Make sure you connect with this person and can communicate with him or her in case there are misunderstandings.

These are only a few of the many ways you can get support for your writing. I have friends who don’t know or care much about writing, but who love reading my drafts and give me excellent feedback. Even better than having their feedback is knowing that I don’t have to do it all alone.

Here are Secret Strategies #1 and #2:
#1 The SPAS System
#2 Spaghetti in the Colander

What do you do so that you don’t write all alone?

Finish Your Book: Secret Strategy #2, “Spaghetti in the Colander”

spaghetti“But I don’t know where to start,” people often say about their books. It’s okay not to know where to start your book. None of us knows that until we figure it out and start.

This week’s secret strategy is what I suggest to people who know the general idea of their book, but are not sure how it all fits together—or if it fits together. It will help you get clear about your book’s structure and give you a running start at your Table of Contents. It was designed for nonfiction books, but I find it helpful for fiction as well. (I used it to write both The Soul of Selling and Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption.)

Imagine that your book is a colander full of spaghetti, fresh from the boiling pot. You can barely see the individual strands because they’re all mixed up together and going every which way. This strategy takes each piece of spaghetti out of the colander and lines it up on the counter in relationship to all the other pieces. You start moving them around a bit—and suddenly, you see the shape of your book! Here’s how to do it:

1. Write down the 10-15 most important ideas in your book.

2. For each of these ideas, create a “basket.” By “basket,” I mean a computer file, a paper folder, or literally, a basket! You can even put butcher paper up on your walls and use colorful Post-It’s to mark your 10-15 most important ideas. Make each “basket” a place where you can note things you want to say about that particular idea. Whenever a thought occurs to you, simply place it in the proper basket. (The down side of the butcher paper idea is that, unless you plan on doing this over a weekend, you may have inadvertently redecorated your home.)

3. Load each “basket” or file with sub-ideas, things you want to say about that important idea. You might sit at the computer, open File/Basket #1, and just ramble on about everything you want to say on that subject. Don’t worry about grammar, organization, or anything other than getting your ideas into that file. Then go on to File/Basket #2 and do the same thing. Fill up each of your “baskets” with all the thoughts that come to mind on that particular subject.

4. As you go about your life, thoughts will occur to you about your book. Jot them down and put them in a “basket” when you get home.

5. Review each basket to see if there is anything else you want to say on that subject.

6. Now that you have a broader idea of what will be in your book, go back to the original list of your 10-15 most important ideas that you created in Step 1. Put those ideas in an order that makes sense to you. How does one idea lead to the next? What do people need to understand first, before they can understand anything else? If you were new to this subject, what is the order in which you would want to read these “baskets?”

You now have your Table of Contents and a good sense of what will be in each chapter. As you write, you may discover that you want to change the order of some chapters, or that you need to add another chapter, or that one particular chapter doesn’t really belong in this book. Nothing you have done is written in stone. You can change it whenever you wish. Remember, writing is rewriting. The good news is that now you have a place to start.

Next, you can start working on the individual chapters. If you wish, you can actually repeat this process internally for each chapter. Take the 10-15 most important ideas in the first chapter, and work through the steps above. Do the same thing with each chapter. Before you know it, you have a rough draft.

When your ideas are organized, it’s easier to enjoy the writing process. You know where you are going, your whole book is outlined, and you can just sit back and write without worry. You may change things around as you go forward. Often, the book’s structure reveals itself to you as you write. But having done this work, you will actually be writing–so you will be there for the discovery!

If you wonder where to find Secret Strategy #1, “The SPAS System,” it’s here.

FINISH THAT BOOK: Secret Strategy #1, “The SPAS System”

spaAs an editor, book doctor, and ghostwriter, I work with people who are in many different places with their books. Some have finished manuscripts. Others just have a gleam in their eye. Most want to be farther along than they are.

I offer three secret strategies in Creativity on Demand: Write in the Zone for people who want to finish their books, once and for all—or who have all the ideas but nothing written down, or who have been thinking about this book for years but haven’t finished, or who are almost finished but can’t quite stop writing. These strategies are designed to create clarity and confidence about your book, and to get you to the finish line.

Almost nothing—and for some of us, really nothing—is better than finishing the book you’ve had on your mind forever. When I finished Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption, I had such a surge of self-esteem, relief, accomplishment, and even grace that I could hardly contain myself. I wish that, and more, for you. The first Secret Strategy for finishing your book is the SPAS system. In coming posts, I will cover Secret Strategy #2, “Spaghetti in the Colander” and Secret Strategy #3, “You Are Not Alone.”

This strategy gives you the absolute foundation of your book, and of your promotion–so even if the book is already written, answering these questions puts you ahead of the game. You’ll also uncover and clean up any niggling doubts or uncertainties that keep you from finishing you book with confidence and aplomb.

SPAS stands for Subject, Purpose, Audience, and Structure. Everybody knows we need to be clear on these four areas—but most of us roll our eyes and turn the page when we are actually asked to write down specific answers to the SPAS questions. It’s real grunt work, and we don’t think we should have to do it. We already know this stuff. Jeez!

My answer is: Do it anyway and start with Beginner’s Mind, as if you’d never done it before. Pretend you’ve never even heard of doing an exercise like this, and nudge yourself into the Zone as you answer these questions. Be open to new levels of clarity, confidence, and even cheer!


  • What is your book really about?
  • What do you want to say?
  • If your book is nonfiction, what problem are you solving?
  • If your book is fiction, what problem is your main character solving?
  • Why is your solution unique?
  • Create a one-sentence answer to the elevator question: What is your book about?


  • Why do you want to deliver the message in your book? Tell the truth. Your answer may be “to make money,” “to advance my career,” “to get more speaking engagements,” “to make sense of my life,” “for revenge” (this was Saul Bellow’s), “to show people how to do something,” or a million other reasons. Your reason isn’t as important as telling the truth about it and bringing that truth from your heart and gut to the page.
  • What is the solid benefit that your book provides? Try this even if you are writing a novel. Maybe your benefit is just to tell a riveting story.  Many people use this formula: “My book helps ____________ (audience) to _____________ (How does it look when the problem is solved?) so that they can ____________ (What is the end benefit?). Here’s an example, using my book, The Soul of Selling. “The Soul of Selling helps coaches and solo entrepreneurs to get extraordinary sales results with ease and joy so that they can have successful businesses.”
  • What do you want readers to take away with them? What will they get out of reading your book? Knowing that you are filling a specific need can help you write with more enthusiasm and Zone-awareness.


  • To whom do you want to deliver this message?
  • Who is your target reader? (Hint: It is not “everybody.”) What are the demographics? Name one specific person you know who is in the target market for your book. Think about how wonderful that person will feel when he or she opens your book and gets the wisdom you are delivering. How will his or her life be better as a result of reading your book?
  • If you don’t feel comfortable using someone you know, make up a generic or composite Target Reader. Make a list of this person’s demographics and characteristics. Find a picture that looks like that person might look and keep it on your desk.
  • When you write, pretend you are sitting in a chair across from this person. Tell your story to him or her.  your information. What do you want to say? What questions does he or she have for you?


  • How is your book organized? (Secret Strategy #2, “Spaghetti in the Colander,” will help with structure.)
  • What is your Table of Contents?
  • Does one chapter lead to the next?

When you have finished answering your basic SPAS questions, congratulate yourself. This is hard, important work and it will help you finish your book.

What have you done in past to finish writing projects?