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How Writers Can Use Visual Aids

In my February post, I showed a picture of one of my favourite visual aids. It’s an index card on which I’ve drawn an arrow. Inside the arrow I wrote, “I am a creator”. Being a writer, it is particularly appropriate for me.

I have several of these index cards scattered throughout my home. Some are pinned in plain sight while others–more private ones—are tucked inside various notebooks and drawers. Each one contains a positive message that acts as a reminder of the things I want to focus on.

I first came upon this idea while reading Sonia Choquette’s book “Your Heart’s Desire: Instructions for Creating the Life You Really Want” and I’ve been using it ever since. It’s a good way to break up negative thought patterns and bring your mind back to the present. Depending on what each card contains, they can be used to inspire you, get you to take action, cheer you up, or even encourage you to enjoy life a bit more.

It’s a simple trick that doesn’t require a lot of time. All you need are a bunch of index cards and some markers. Failing that, feel free to use whatever you have on hand. If you’d rather create something more eye-catching (and happen to be artistically inclined) you can also turn them into beautifully designed pieces.

Here are some suggestions for your cards:

• I write every day
• Ideas come to me easily
• I find the right homes for my stories
• I am confident
• I am happy
• I am successful
• I am fearless
• I fill my life with joy
• I breathe deeply
• I follow my dreams
• I try new things

Simply write what you’d like to see more of in your life. Be creative and have fun with it. Then place the cards where you’re most likely to see them. Sometimes I forget where I put them and it’s always a nice surprise when I come across one.

Now take a screen break and go make some cards!

Do You Cut Corners and Settle for the Easy Win?

I’ve never been motivated by the easy win.

It used to drive my gym teacher crazy. Whatever team sport we’d play during phys ed, I hardly ever tried to score even though I was one of the best athletes in my school. I didn’t see the point of scoring against kids who could barely dribble the ball. I got a bigger kick out of helping them make that basket or sink the ball between the goal posts.

The same thing happened in class. I would never answer easy questions unless I absolutely had to. I’d only raise my hand when a juicy problem would come up, when there was a chance I might be wrong. Again, teachers seemed baffled by this attitude.

In both cases, it always amazed me that my teachers could not see what I was doing. When actual game time came along or exams popped up, I never fooled around with scoring and getting all those right answers in. Because then, it mattered.

Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’m attracted to writing. There’s nothing easy about it. And there’s no guarantee of success either.

Starting a book doesn’t mean you’ll finish it. I should know. I have several unfinished manuscripts to prove the point.

Finishing a book doesn’t guarantee it will find a publisher. Again, I have many orphans in my files.

Publishing a book doesn’t automatically ensure it will get read, bring fame, or even stay in print for long. One of my books survived for less than one month before the publisher unexpectedly decided to close up shop.

No, there’s nothing easy about writing. But there’s nothing that could bring me more joy, pride, and satisfaction either.

If you like easy wins then maybe writing is not for you. But then again, it doesn’t need to remain a struggle. If you’re not making the progress you desire, then it’s a sure sign you need to change your game plan.

Start by answering these questions honestly:

  • Are you putting enough time into your writing?
  • Are you keeping up with market news?
  • Are you querying, pitching, and submitting regularly?
  • Are you learning continuously?

Just because you’re a part-time writer doesn’t give you a free pass to skip the steps necessary to succeed. Sure, you may not have as much time as some other writers do, but it’s not a valid excuse to cut corners.

A friend of mine publishes at least one novel a year. He teaches full-time, has three kids, and is involved in various causes and activities. He certainly hasn’t skipped any steps to reach this level of success. I bet he’s not motivated by the easy win either.

What about you? Will you settle for the easy win—or take a chance, invest in your dream and become the writer and person you want to be? The choice is all yours.

Are You Sticking to Your Plan?

Wow, it’s already February! How did your first month go? Are you sticking to your plan or is the shine of the new year already wearing off? This month is super important—even more so than the last. Take some time now to review the fabulously inspiring goals you made in January.

Start by taking a look at what’s been working so far and what totally bombed. The first is easy, but the second requires a bit more thought. You’ll want to ask yourself a few questions to figure out what went wrong:

  • Why did this goal fail to move forward?
  • Did I give it enough time and attention?
  • Is this goal something I really want to work on and achieve?
  • Should I keep it or replace it with something else?

When writing part-time, it’s easy to overreach and fail. But worse is to keep chugging along, struggling with things that don’t work and keep failing until you’re tempted to give it all up.

In my case, on the third week of January, I noticed a couple of flaws in my monthly tracker (a system I use to make sure I’m working on the right tasks-see previous post). Some of these tasks included various forms of writing such as magazine pieces and book manuscripts. But because I spent a great deal of time studying markets, I didn’t do that much actual writing. I discovered that it’s really easy to get carried away when studying markets. The deeper I dug, the more markets that popped up. I got distracted even more by creating lists to keep track of them all.

This means my tracker looked pretty empty even though I hadn’t been slacking off. To fix this, I added an extra row in my February tracker for market study. This should help me better balance my time between the two so that I get more writing done.

Another thing that came to light as I reviewed the previous month was that I needed to plan my days better in order to make the most of my tracker. So the very first row of my February tracker is reserved for daily planning. It acts as a reminder for me to take a few minutes the night before and decide what tasks I need to work on to move me towards my goals. This way, I don’t waste valuable time the next day wondering what to work on or get sidetracked working on things that may be fun or interesting but that won’t take me in the right direction.

As the weeks go by, I expect to be doing a lot of adjustments to my monthly trackers. That’s the beauty of this system, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me!

Ready for 2017? Reach Your Goals!

Like most of you, I have spent a lot of my free time this month pondering my goals for next year and how best to accomplish them. I’m a fantastic list maker, but seeing them through to completion is always a challenge. My biggest problem is that I can’t predict what will happen in one day, let alone an entire year!

So I dug around in my writing toolbox and here’s what I came up with.

First, the lists. I started off by jotting down all the things I would like to work on or see happening in 2017. I then separated these into two lists: professional and personal goals.

For my professional goals, I shuffled the items on my list and grouped them into three main categories: landing more writing gigs, maximizing my two websites, and expanding my social media presence. All of which, I hope, will lead to my main objective: a substantial increase in my income for 2017. I then analyzed each category and trimmed it down to those items which I felt would help me reach this objective.

The next step involved figuring out how to make each one of my goals a reality. The thing about goals is that unless they are paired with concrete actions, they’ll very likely never see the light of day. As I dug around in my writing toolbox, I pulled out my monthly trackers and decided to see if I could adapt them to propel me forward.

Monthly trackers are extremely popular with fans of bullet journals. They’re basically charts used for tracking activities or habits. The first column contains a list of actions you wish to keep track of. The following columns are numbered to reflect each day of the month. So, let’s say you wanted to track the days you spend promoting yourself on Facebook every month, you would add a check mark or colour in a square for each day that you did. Here’s a picture of what I mean.

goals monthly tracker

This particular tracker contains both professional and personal goals and starts in the middle of the month. The ones I’m working on right now for January will contain one page for professional goals and another for personal goals and will cover the entire month. My professional goals tracker will list specific actions that I feel will help me reach my overall objective. And by colouring in each day that I complete an action, I will have a clear visual guide to ensure I move in the right direction. By the time we near the end of January, I’ll use my tracker to help me plan for February and so on. Maybe I’ll notice that some actions work beautifully while others need to be modified or changed completely. But whatever happens, I’ll be able to adjust as needed so that by the end of the year there’s an excellent chance I’ll have reached my main objective.

Now excuse me while I go finalize my trackers before January 1st comes along!

Keep Track of Your Progress With a Writing Diary

When you’re writing part-time it can be difficult to judge if you’re making progress or stagnating. Everything seems to take longer to get done. And if your interests are varied, you’ll probably have lots of projects at different stages of completion. As you hop from one to the next, you may start to feel that you’re not getting anywhere at all.

For me progress comes when I do two things: write regularly and submit regularly.

Of course the writing process involves much more than that, such as brainstorming, researching, planning, outlining, keeping up with industry news, promoting, networking, and taking classes. But if I stop producing new words and submitting on a regular basis, my progress slows down or comes to a complete standstill.

Sure, life happens. On any given day, countless things pop out of nowhere to interfere with my progress. I can make as many excuses as I want, but it won’t change the fact that I’m not writing, not submitting, and definitely not moving forward.

So how do you keep the momentum going to make sure you’re making progress with your writing career? One thing I started to do at the beginning of the year was to keep a writing diary. It helps me see exactly what I accomplish each month. Using a spreadsheet, I make an entry each day that I do something related to writing.

A quick look at my diary shows me exactly what I spent my writing time on, when I made the most progress and when I didn’t. Some months are packed full while others are embarrassingly bare. Usually those bare months of writing and submitting are also my most productive for translating. Some might argue that translating is a form of writing so I should include it in my diary. Although that’s technically true, I prefer to keep the two separate as it would be very easy for me to fill all of my writing time with translations.

HERE’S A SIMPLE WAY TO MAKE YOUR OWN WRITING DIARY USING A SPREADSHEET:

Column 1 – Date (today’s date)
Column 2 – Submitted (number of queries or manuscripts sent out today)

Column 3 – Accepted (number of queries or manuscripts accepted today)
Column 4 – What I Did Today (short description of each writing task accomplished, add the time you started and finished each one if you like)
Column 5 – $ Earned (money earned from work accepted)
Column 6 – $ Received (money received from work completed)

My writing diary helps me have a more balanced life. It ensures my translating and library work each have their own space and allows me to make adjustments so they don’t overly encroach on or totally take over my writing time.

Curious to see what a writing diary might do for you? Then give it a try! You can then come back here at any time and let me know in the comments below if it made an impact on your writing progress.

Meanwhile, make sure to keep writing and submitting!

Blasting Writer’s Blues

Hi, I’m back!

I came down with the flu during the last week of September and was sick for most of October. Now, I’m not one to complain. I always try to look at the positive side of things. But in this case, it’s been a real challenge. Aside from the occasional migraine, I rarely get ill. But this whopper really floored me. In fact it caused me to suffer from writer’s blues as well.

What is writer’s blues and how do you get it? I describe it as losing the will to write. It can strike at any moment and can be quite devastating. For me, it usually occurs after an illness or prolonged energy drain.

When I finally recuperated from the flu, I discovered I had lost my writing drive. Instead of coming home from my library job eager to start working on a writing project, I found myself tackling cleaning chores instead. A house can get pretty messy when you stop looking after it for a few weeks, so it’s not as if I was wasting my time. But did I really need to clean all the hidden cupboards that no one ever goes into?

While my house looked better with each passing day, I was no closer to fixing my writing dilemma. Running out of things to clean and feeling slightly panicky, I forced myself to step into my office and sit at my desk. I stared at my laptop for a while but couldn’t be bothered to turn it on. I really, truly, absolutely didn’t feel like it. Gazing around the room, I found myself staring at a pile of magazines that I had saved over the years to study. Curious to see how old they actually were, I got up to find out. Turns out most of them were more than ten years old! These definitely had to go. As I sorted through the lot and made piles for the recycle bin, I found my spirits lifting. Nothing like a bit of cleaning to get me out of the dumps.

Over the next few days, I ended up cleaning my office from top to bottom. In the process, I found lots of scribbled ideas tucked away in various places. As I read each note, I was surprised to find quite a few good ones. The writing buzz slowly stirred back to life as I collected my ideas and placed them all together on my desk.

The funny thing is that I actually have idea folders in my filing cabinet, but I rarely go through them. They are squeezed in among other important documents and easily disappear from sight. I decided to take them out and give them a place of honour in their own special spot next to my desk. Now whenever I sit at my computer, I see all these ideas just waiting to be developed to their full potential. I’m glad to say that my interest is back full force and that I am happily writing again.

Does that mean you should clean your office if you find yourself suffering from writer’s blues? Not necessarily.

HERE’S SOME OF THE THINGS I’VE DONE IN THE PAST TO BLAST WRITER’S BLUES:
  • Reading inspirational books
  • Rereading my favourite books on writing
  • Treating myself to a beautiful journal and colourful pens
  • Doodling and drawing with markers, crayons, coloured pencils, paint
  • Making lists of things that make me happy
  • Meditating or practicing deep breathing
  • Kicking a soccer ball or shooting some hoops
  • Doing something crazy or unusual and writing down my experiences
  • Writing a short piece in a new genre or form
  • Cooking up a storm and coming up with new recipes

You get the idea! Just do whatever you feel you need to do. The important thing is not to give up. You may need to be creative to get back your writing groove but most of all, be patient with yourself. It’ll come back. Promise!

How to Control Your Schedule

How do you control your schedule? It took me quite a while to answer that one. Fixed schedules don’t work at all for me. I wish they did. They would certainly have saved me a lot of grief over the years. I tried using professional planners with entries for each hour of the day and night, pretty agendas with words of inspiration printed on each page, calendars with extra large squares to write in daily tasks, and electronic versions of each that sent me helpful reminders every single second. Unfortunately, none of these have ever done me any good.

The problem is that if I tell myself I must do a particular task at a specific time, one of two things happens: my brain rebels and refuses to cooperate, or something unexpectedly comes up to change my plan altogether. Then I invariably end up feeling like a total failure for not sticking to THE SCHEDULE.

If this sounds like you, don’t despair. Put aside your agenda for now and try the following technique.

STEP 1

Rather than adhering to a strict schedule, I jot down what I wish to accomplish today, this week, next month or even for the rest of the year. Then I break these down into smaller doable bits and chunks.

Yesterday for example, I decided I wanted to get the following tasks done and that they might take roughly this much time:

  • Translation – 2 hours
  • Write this post – 2 hours
  • Work on a beginning reader story – 1 hour
  • Workout – 30 minutes to 1 hour
  • Call the plumber – 5 minutes

Total: about 6 hours.

Before going to bed, I looked at my list. It was more than I usually attempt in one day. I knew there was a better chance of me getting through it if I finished at least one of these tasks before I went to my library job. Unfortunately, there was no guarantee I would be able to drag myself out of bed before my usual time of 7 am. The thing is I’m not a morning person. Although I naturally wake up around 5 am, if my brain doesn’t latch on to some weird or worrisome thought I happily drift back to sleep for another couple of hours. So for me to get any work done that early in the morning mostly depends on whether I can coax myself into doing so. This is where the next crucial step of my technique comes in.

STEP 2

I give myself options.

Since I don’t like to do things when I feel forced to (does anyone?) I give myself as many options as possible. So looking at my list, I figured out that if I managed to wake up — and stay awake — at 5 am, I could tackle either the translation or this blog post. If not, I could aim for 6 am and do my workout or write my beginning reader story. As for the plumber, I could simply call him later in the day (I doubt he would have happily answered my call that early anyway).

So, how did things turn out? Amazingly, I did manage to work from 5 to 7 am (I chose the translation). When I came home in the middle of the afternoon, I called the plumber and started this blog post. I stopped halfway through to do my workout, then resumed the blog post where I left off. After getting that out of the way, I took a short break for dinner then jumped into my beginning reader story. Yes, it was a very full day — but a very happy one, too. I loved feeling that I had total control over my schedule instead of it controlling me!

The Pampered Writer

I admit it. I’m a pampered writer. I never write unless the conditions are just about perfect. Fortunately for me, they nearly always are. How do I manage that? Fairly easily as it turns out. You see, my brain knows my weak points and loves to take advantage of them. So I’ve learned to bypass my weaknesses by giving myself what I need to make my writing time as productive as possible, no matter what.

Take the weather for instance. It was really hot this week, but I’m not complaining. I love being hot – both literally and figuratively! Actually, this is when I do my best writing. It’s also why I’m about a thousand times more productive in the summer. Unfortunately, summers are not that long in my part of the world. There are many more cold days than hot ones. The worst is that in-between period, when summer has ended but it’s not really cold enough to turn on the heating or start a fire in the wood stove. Every room has a damp feel to it that seems to seep through my clothes and right into my bones, especially on cloudy days. Getting out of bed from my cocoon of warm blankets in the morning is absolute torture. And just the idea of sitting still to write in those conditions is torture times a hundred!

As much as I would like to, I can’t hibernate for three quarters of the year. So what’s a writer to do?

HERE’S SOME OF THE TRICKS I USE:

For those misery-inducing cold days, I use a heating pad. I can plug it anywhere for instant heat. Wool socks are great, too. If my feet are toasty, it’s easier to keep the rest of my body warm. I even have special writing gloves with the finger tips open for easy typing.

But for those rare days when it’s too hot even for me, a wet towel works wonders. I simply soak it in cold water for a minute, then wring it out and wrap it around my head and shoulders for cool relief. Frozen treats are marvellous, too!

Once the ambient temperature is taken care of, my brain will start complaining about my surroundings. I have a great home office, but if I have already spent several hours sitting at a desk at my library job, followed by more desk work in my own office doing translations, then the chances of me doing any writing in there are nonexistent. So, I’ve made my writing portable. I went all out with the pampering here by getting myself both a laptop and a tablet. Except for the shower, I can write pretty much anywhere.

But then, my brain tried to trick me again: Sure, go ahead and write outside on your lounge chair! Let’s see how long you last after you’ve had to make thirty-six trips back to your office to get something you need! In answer to that, I made myself a writing bag. It follows me wherever I flop down to write. When I hurt my foot recently, it came really handy. As I could neither sit at my desk nor keep dashing back and forth to grab what I needed from my office, I simply stretched out on the couch with an ice pack on my foot. Then with my tablet in hand and my writing bag on the floor next to me, I was all set. What do I keep in there? Everything that I use the most or can’t do without. This includes a fully-equipped pencil case, notepad, important files, thesaurus, market guide, three-ring binders containing book outlines for manuscripts I’m working on, and even an emergency pair of socks (because you never know when the temperature will suddenly drop). It can get pretty messy in there if I keep adding to it, not to mention heavy and bulky! So once in a while I empty it out and make sure that what goes back in is truly necessary.

By ensuring I always have all I need to write, I effectively cut off any excuse the wimpy part of my brain might possibly find to trick me into skipping my writing session. Plus, it’s fun to be a pampered writer.

What do you need to write? Go ahead, pamper yourself!

P.S. If you’re one of those people who have difficulty indulging yourself, see this as investing in your writing career.

Fear of Success

We’ve all heard of fear of failure. Most of us deal with this on a daily basis. The phrase “What if (insert your particular fear here)? ” runs through our minds so often that we’re barely aware of it.

For a writer these fears might go like this:

What if my idea sucks?
What if my writing sucks?
What if, after all that time and effort, every single editor in the whole universe thinks my manuscript sucks?

But fear of success? Really?

Surprisingly, fear of success can be as debilitating as fear of failure. This is especially true if you’re a part-time writer. After all, if you can barely find the time to write, how on earth will you ever find the time to be successful at it?

For me this fear shows up right after I submit a proposal for an article or book I have yet to write. It usually goes like this:

What if it gets accepted?
What if I get swamped with translations? How will I manage both?
What if I can’t meet the deadline?
What if I get writer’s block and can’t finish it?
What if the end product sucks?

Fears like these may have such a strong hold on you that they can even stop you from starting a project or sending that proposal altogether. So how do you conquer your fears?

Here’s some suggestions:

1) MAKE A PLAN

Let’s say you’ve come up with a super concept for a book, and you just happen to know the perfect publisher that might be interested in it. Once the key components of your proposal are in place, you should have a good idea of the work that will be involved and the general word count. Now take that number and play with it. How many words a day would you need to write to finish the project in three months? How about six, or even twelve months? Which timeline seems most feasible for you? Keeping these numbers where you can see them should help convince, and reassure you, that you can make this book happen.

2) USE CONCRETE EXAMPLES

It’s easy to let your imagination run away with you when dealing with worst-case scenarios. But think back on an actual moment when you were successful. This doesn’t have to be about writing. It can be about anything really. How did it go? How did you deal with the unexpected?

For me, that moment came when my first novel was accepted. I was afraid I would not be able to meet the revision deadlines. My editor was behind schedule and by the time she sent back her first round of comments, the final deadline was right around the corner. Although I suffered a few hair-raising moments, along with having to make do with less sleep during that time, I managed to be prompt and thorough. In the end, everything worked itself out. Best of all, I proved to myself that it could be done!

3) SEE HOW OTHERS HAVE HANDLED YOUR FEARS

The best way to learn is through others’ experiences. The world is filled with examples of both success and failure. If you have a concern about anything, look it up or ask someone who might know the solution.

I first came across the answer to my own fears in Nancy I. Sanders’ book, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children’s Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career. Near the beginning, Sanders talks about gaining confidence when proposing books to editors. Deciding to tackle her own uncertainties, she wrote three book manuscripts in a genre she had never tried before but which interested her. She did all this while continuing to work on her other writing projects. In the process, she learned each book took her a year to write. When she finally pitched an editor with a new idea in that same genre, she ended up landing a four-book deal for a new series. When the subject of deadlines came up, she told the editor it would take her one year to complete each book. His answer: “No problem.” Talk about putting your fears to rest! (By the way, I highly recommend Sanders’ book. It contains lots of examples on how to break down the time you have to suit your writing goals.)

Whatever your fears about success may be, take the time to analyze them. The more you take them apart, the less likely they’ll hold you back – and the more successful you’ll be!

Keeping Your Focus

I mentioned this very briefly in my previous post, but I feel it’s worth expanding on — a large part of being successful at writing part-time is the ability to focus. Of course, the more you have going on in your life the harder this will be. Right now, even though I am supposedly on vacation, I’m busy developing two book proposals, scraping and repainting my back porch, preparing content for this website, and worrying that the weeds are taking over my garden.

So how do you keep your focus when you have too many things on your plate? Let’s pretend you’re not on vacation at the moment but juggling a full-time job with your part-time writing career. Here’s a few things you may want to keep in mind:

Multitasking

I’m not a fan of multitasking personally. Sure, I can handle easy stuff like doing the dishes while figuring out what my next blog post will be about. But beyond that, I need some kind of structure where I know what will be done and when. I also have a limit as to the number of projects I can handle. If I go over my limit, I find myself getting stressed out and my focus runs out the door screaming. When that happens, I put on the brakes and decide what projects I’m keeping and which ones I must let go or put on the back burner. This is when the ability to say no comes in handy. Yes, this can be a tough one for most people, including me, but it’s a skill you will most definitely need to perfect if you wish to succeed as a writer.

Sorting Out Your Work

Concentrate on one job at a time. Literally! As soon as I start driving to my library job, my mind disconnects from home. I begin thinking about the work that’s waiting for me, not the one I left behind. By the time I set foot on school ground, I’m totally there. I don’t even have pictures of my family on display. As much as I love them, I don’t want the distraction.

But what if you get an idea for a writing project while working for someone else? This actually happens to me quite frequently. When it does, I quickly jot down my idea on a piece of paper, stuff it in one of my pockets, then get back to what I was doing. I always keep a bunch of scrap paper close at hand just in case. Later when I get home, I make sure to empty all my pockets so my ideas don’t end up in the washing machine.

Setting Boundaries

To keep your jobs separate you may need to set clear boundaries. For example, at my school I’m sometimes asked to translate or proofread others’ work. I’ll say yes if I’m able to fit it in within my working hours but not if I have to bring it home. It’s not that I’m unkind or unwilling to help, but I can’t afford to let school work interfere with my writing and translating. This also shows my colleagues that my skills are valuable and worthy of remuneration, and not something to be taken for granted. Anything I do for my school outside of working hours is not paid work. It’s volunteering. Knowing that saying no is my weak point, especially when kids are involved, I set my boundaries by making it clear that I can’t volunteer for more than one major event during the school year. Smaller activities that take an hour here or there are okay, but only as long as they happen during one of my slow periods.

In the end, what really matters is not how many projects you can start but how many you can finish. For my part, focusing helps me be more efficient, complete more work, and keep my boss and clients happy.

Now that this post is out of the way, I need to go figure out how to move my flowers so that I can get on with my painting project!