THE WRITING DISCOMFORT DILEMMA

dilemmasIn my other blog, THE SOUL OF SELLING, I often write about the Selling Discomfort Dilemma—but it occurs to me that the Discomfort Dilemma shows up in almost every aspect of life, and especially for writers. I have suffered its effects, and here offer some solutions that have worked for me.

WHAT IS THE DISCOMFORT DILEMMA?
The Discomfort Dilemma is that perilous moment when you stand poised between moving forward and doing whatever is the next step—or doing something to avoid it. That next step might be:

  • Starting a new piece of writing
  • Beginning the next draft or edit
  • Finishing what you are working on
  • Sending it out to an editor, agent, or publisher
  • Just sitting down at your desk
  • Anything that involves discomfort, the possibility of failure, or any potential for rejection—or that you just plain don’t wanna do!

When we’re on the horns of the Discomfort Dilemma, the next step always seems agonizing or impossible. We want to dive under the bed and mainline chocolate. We will do almost anything to avoid the imagined discomfort of that next step—even when we know from bitter experience that trying to avoid it only makes us more uncomfortable.

The problem is, that next step is still before us when we finish mainlining the chocolate. Only now it seems even bigger. It’s later in the game. We feel even more behind the Eight Ball, and we’re not sure we can trust ourselves now. It’s easy to feel as if, in order to make up for having gotten off track, we have to produce more results, better results, and we have to produce them more quickly. Misery!

GIMME A BREAK!
In the midst of the Discomfort Dilemma, almost anywhere seems better than where we are. And there are so many more comfortable things to do! We could call a friend. We need to keep up these relationships, after all. We could play with the kitty. The poor thing needs exercise. We could even pay bills. Righteous activities!

Hey, we could shampoo the rug! Sure, it’s “writing time,” but just last week we read an article on how crucial it is to shampoo rugs on a regular basis to keep them mold-free and extend their life! Come to think of it, we might have read that article during “writing time!” Which only shows how important it is to be flexible about what we do during “writing time!”

Bills need to be paid. Rugs need to be shampooed. But not during the time when we said that we would write. During that time, cleaning the bird cage or fish tank are going to seem like good ideas—to say nothing of kicking back with a cup of coffee to chat with a friend. Knowing that the Discomfort Dilemma will never go away, and understanding how it works, gives us a leg up.

WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
The Discomfort Dilemma pops up whenever we start moving forward, or doing anything new. These things represent change—however small, and however good. When change of any kind is in the air, mental chatter gets startled and wakes up—on the wrong side of the bed. It scowls and stamps. It pouts, and begins its siren songs:

  • I’m only thinking of you. You need a rest. Take a load off. Relax! You’ll do better in the long run.
  • It’ll sharpen your wits to play computer games. You need that.
  • C’mon, don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud! You’re human. Life’s too short to work that hard. Give yourself a break. Here, try this tiny piece of chocolate…

And before we know it, we’re mainlining.

When mental chatter starts cajoling and nattering, we need to remember that it does not always have our best interests at heart. We can postpone or delay whatever is next, but ultimately we have to do it. The longer we put it off, the longer we prolong the agony and the more uncomfortable it becomes.

NIKE!
I struggled with the Discomfort Dilemma for years, and became a champion computer game player in the process. I also became quite anxious. The stress of backing away from uncomfortable “next steps,” and then running back to fix everything at the last minute, double speed, started to take its toll. Cortisol and other stress hormones surged into my system until, finally, I reached my pain threshold.

I experimented with the Nike Solution: Just do it! In fact, I did the most difficult things on my to do list first! It sounds hard core, but in fact, it made life easier. A lot easier. By noon, I had often written the “hard” material I was going to tackle that day—and had the whole afternoon to knock off “easier” to do list items like research, returning emails, and handling “businessy” things.

About that same time, I came across Annie Lamott’s dictum to “write shitty first drafts.” I embraced this advice, held it to me as I wrote and wrote through my “writing time.” Some of what I wrote was good, some bad, and some mediocre—but I always had something to work on the next day.

The three main benefits were huge:

  • I was a lot more relaxed and enjoyed life more.
  • My self esteem skyrocketed.
  • I became a far more productive writer.

“Just do it” isn’t the best advice in every area of life, but I believe it almost always works to our advantage as writers. It makes me feel good about myself and about my life as a writer. That can’t hurt my work, and it just might help it.

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How to Survive Book Marketing Overwhelm

book marketing overwhelmUnfortunate Truth #1: We all have to market our own books, whether we publish independently or with a traditional publisher.

Unfortunate Truth #2: Most of us don’t.

Why? Book marketing today (translate: internet marketing) can involve a steep learning curve. What to do? Where to start? How to build a brand on social media? How to create, manage, and optimize a website? Not to mention interpreting algorithms, mastering Search Engine Optimization, and finding where in the world your target audience hangs out–especially if you write non-genre fiction.

THE PROBLEM: TOO MANY CHOICES
There’s no shortage of information. You can find out anything you want to know via Google, usually with a snappy YouTube video or 17 to demonstrate how it’s done. White papers, free webinars (translate: video sales pages), and websites hold the answers to whatever questions you might have.

Sure, you usually have to subscribe to somebody’s email list, but so what? You just keep getting free information in these emails. There is often an “offer” attached, tempting you to buy the one essential piece of information that is not free, but nobody holds a gun to your head or reaching into your wallet for your credit card. Truly, you can learn almost everything you need to know without much cost, if you’re willing to invest some time and energy.

After I published Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption, I signed up for all of these author marketing newsletters, blogs, webinars, etc. I learned a vast amount of techie and marketing stuff in a short period of time, built my own website, and started blogging.

But the emails kept coming! Each day, I got 30-40 emails warning of the dire consequences of not clicking through to the latest offer, mastering another algorithm, creating an “irresistible” sales page, getting hundreds of new people to “like” me building a platform, selling hundreds of thousands of books in 24 hours, or earning “six figures” within two weeks. (Early on, I started deleting anything with the words “six figures” in the title.)

My initial enthusiasm began to wane. Each email suggested about 30 minutes of work that day—so there went 15 hours out of each 24 hours. I couldn’t do it. But I knew I should. So every morning as I watched all those emails drop into my Outlook, I felt more guilty. What kind of a miserable author was I, not to do everything I could to promote Chasing Grace?

Ultimately, I got so overwhelmed not only by the emails, but also by the guilt, stress, and anxiety that I became PROMO-PARALYZED. I just stopped opening the emails, and stopped promoting. I did not, however, stop beating myself up.

Obviously, I had to find a solution to AMO: Author Marking Overwhelm.

THE SOLUTIONS
For me, there were two solutions, and I switch back and forth between them depending on how I feel and what I’m working on.

1.Give yourself permission to stop marketing the book(s). Set a time limit for your hiatus—a week, a month, six months—so that you don’t just drift off into the edge of the cyber-universe. Tell people you’re “working on your craft” or “totally consumed by writing the new book.” Then resist the temptation to beat yourself up—and return to some minor marketing at the end of the hiatus. Re-enter gradually, as you would if you were returning to the gym after a rest.
2.Choose 30 “to dos” from among the thousands of suggestions you’ll encounter each week in your emails and put them on a “Chosen Marketing Activities” list. (The title of this list is an affirmation.) Make some of them fun, like (for me) learning to edit images for your site and blog posts, or learning to build a website the easy way. Also include some “must do’s” that you may or may not yet realize are fun, things like (for me) understanding SEO and trying to see the world as Google and Facebook do.

The point is not to go crazy, and to give yourself some space so that you can keep writing—not to mention remain a happy person. Marketing is important, but not at the expense of your writing, your sanity, or your enjoyment of life.

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Why I Love Writing Deadlines

deadlineWriting under a deadline gives me freedom. Deadlines tell me when the project will be finished. They help me plan my time. Instead of just working, working, working with no end point, I can divide the job into smaller segments and schedule each segment so that the whole task is done by the deadline date. Deadlines tell me when I’ll be “free at last!”

I would much rather work with a crisp, clean deadline that have a project on which I could conceivably work until the end of time, trying harder and harder to do perfect work. I’m much happier with a date certain when I can say, “There! That’s the best I can do in this time frame.”

If I don’t have an external deadline for a project, I usually create an internal deadline—a time by which I can say, “That’s all she wrote.” Still, my journey to making friends with deadlines was not exactly a straight line. Here are some of the breadcrumbs, the mini-lessons I had to learn:

MASTER BRAIN FREEZE UNDER DEADLINE (BFUD)
It’s befuddling, but easy to overcome! With BFUD, the negative mental chatter simply takes over temporarily. All the mean, nasty, self-critical inner voices start yelling at the same time:

  • “You’ll never think or write fast enough.”
  • “Quick! Quick! What’s the perfect thing to say?”
  • “C’mon! Out with it!”

These voices can be overwhelming and cumulative. Our brains decide that listening to all this disheartening chatter is simply too much. They go on overload and just switch off. They freeze, muttering some version of, “If this is what it’s like to be awake, let’s go to sleep!”

The creative spark within us sputters. We stare into space, horrified that we’re not producing anything. Meanwhile, time flies by. We become so paralyzed that we can barely recognize that 2 + 2 = 4. Brain Freeze Under Deadline is nothing more than negative mental chatter gone wild. The solution is to take a deep breath and march through these steps:

1. Recognize that BFUD is just what Buddhists call “monkey mind.” The voices are not reality; they are just the fear-based part of our minds on a screaming binge. What they say is almost never true. These are just monkeys, not facts.

2. Stop the runaway monkeys. Don’t let the monkeys’ worry and craziness take over. Clear your mind in whatever way works for you. Stand up and stretch. Pray and throw yourself on the mercy of whatever is divine to you. Walk around the block. Pat the dog or kitty. Break the pattern somehow.

3. Find something to enjoy about the writing that needs to get done and focus on that.

REMEMBER: YOU CAN DO IT FUN, OR YOU CAN DO IT DIRTY 
You can do your project in the Zone—even with a deadline—or you can fight with it and, at best, wrestle it to the ground and “defeat” it. Either way is fine, but you get to choose.

The books for which I contract have to be done by a certain date—whether or not I’m inspired. I can take a little time and energy to call up the Zone and have a ball doing them, or I can rush in thinking, “I don’t really need the Zone this time. I’ve got this one nailed.” When I do that, I usually realize very quickly that I am so, so wrong and that I can’t really do it on my own—or that I won’t have much fun doing it that way.

It is much more pleasant, much quicker, and much more productive to work in the Zone.

How do you make deadlines work for you?

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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?

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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.)

WHAT TO DO  
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?”

NOW WHAT?
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.

WHAT YOU GET
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.

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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.”

SECRET STRATEGY #1: THE SPAS SYSTEM
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!

SUBJECT

  • 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?

PURPOSE

  • 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.

AUDIENCE

  • 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?

STRUCTURE

  • 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?

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