Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Accountability Is Essential for Book Writers--If You Ever Want to Finish Your Book!

A friend once said:  "Books are marriages.  Sometimes I miss the one-night stands."  Ever feel that way?  Writing a book delivers a huge payoff, but it's a lot more work to keep the relationship going.

Books take an emotional and psychological toll.  I love this quote from writer Red Smith:   "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  

Sometimes, showing up at the page requires intense vulnerability, even courage.
  But first-time book writers think it's just about the writing.  If you learn how to craft good sentences, you're home free.  That's only half of the process.  Like any long-term relationship, it's also about your accountability. 

What keeps you in the desk chair?  What makes you eager to get back to your book every day? 

Craft is essential.  I've written and published thirteen books, and I'm working on my fourteenth.  My craft skills improve with each book, but each project also demands two kinds of accountability from me--internal accountability and external accountability--to finish well.  To keep me in the race.

Why do so many books stay in the desk drawer, never get to draft stage or even revision stage?  Accountability.

Let's look at that skill this week--a detour from craft, but just as essential.   

Internal Accountability

Enthusiasm for your book is often high in the beginning.  You have lots of internal accountability when it's easy to show up at the page.  The writing is going well.  You're finally doing what you've wanted to do for years! 

These honeymoon periods can last a while--months, sometimes into the first draft.  Nanowrimo (National Novel Writers Month) is built on this kind of enthusiasm.  Just keep writing, no worries about the quality.  It's golden to be flooded with ideas, to think about your book all the time.

Internal accountability starts off being propelled by this kind of success.  Truthfully, we don't know better--we don't know what it takes to actually finish a book.  Thank goodness for this kind of start.  Otherwise, who would write a book?

Internal accountability doesn't require support or feedback.  It builds on itself, as long as the momentum is there.   Sometimes, this creates a solid writing habit, all by itself.  The more pages you write, the more successful you feel about your book.

Eventually, you wind down.  Maybe you get your first feedback.  Maybe a crisis happens in your regular life and you stop for a while.  When you reread your draft, the words sound weird.  The flow feels shaky.  What were you thinking?   The Inner Critic, always hanging around, waiting for an opening, snatches your heart.  Are you really a writer?  Probably not.  Might as well stop now, before anyone else reads this. 

The internal accountability dries up overnight.  Many writers, especially if this is a first book, will walk away at that point. 

Goodbye marriage.

Unless you know about the other kind of accountability:  external.  AKA, good support.

External Accountability
Writers who know that internal accountability has limits, know that they will need support.  Ever read the acknowledgements pages of your favorite books?  Most published writers thank legions of supporters.  

External support comes in lots of forms.  Online classes are big in my book--I teach them and I take them.  In my classes, I foster the sense of community, boost the external accountability with weekly deadlines, and teach writers how to ask for the kind of feedback that keeps them going, rather than deflates them.

This gives them time to gather their own internal accountability again, recommit to the marriage with their books.

Writers groups are another form of external accountability.  I love my weekly online exchange with peers.  They make me work hard on my chapters, they give me new ideas, they keep me going when my internal accountability is low.  Writers groups can be dangerous too--it's important to cultivate one that boosts your internal accountability.  If there's too much critique too soon, if one person dominates, if you only get positive comments when you're ready for more depth, they can make you falter.

Putting Them Together
I've learned that the two types of accountability toggle back and forth.  Internal accountability--what keeps my enthusiasm strong and new ideas coming--depends on how much external accountability I have in place.  I set up both, when I start a new book project.  I plan my writing time each day, I make lists of what I want to work on (to avoid the horror of the blank page on a bad morning), I read voraciously and study the craft. 

But I also set up deadlines for feedback, and I sign up for online classes.

One of my online students signed up for another semester this week, and emailed me to say why.  "Summer is a tricky time for my writing," she said.  "Kids are home, we travel, there's always distractions.  But I really, really want to write.  Last summer, I tried to just handle it all and the writing--of course!--totally disappeared.  So I need this class, the accountability of showing up every week, people who care about me and my book.   I want a creative life for me this summer, and this is how I'll get it."

What is going to keep you accountable to your writing this summer?  What internal accountability do you have, and what have you set up externally as support?

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This week's exercise lets you assess your accountability to your book, figure out what you can do to bolster it, where needed.

1.  Browse this cool link:  Gretchen Rubin's blog post on how we form and keep good habits, based on our natural tendencies.  Her new book is called Better Than Before.

2.  Freewrite for 15 minutes on your summer:  What's realistic to expect?  How will you keep your book marriage going, with all that happens in summer? 

A Short PS about My Online Classes This Summer External accountability via an online class really works!  If weekly feedback and support sounds like just the ticket for you too, my next round of online writing classes begin soon.  There are still a few places left. 

Fun, lively communities of writers from all over, book writers like you--plus weekly feedback and skill building.  Please join us.

Your Book Starts Here, online class, Part 1--
for intermediate writers just starting or who want help structuring the flow of their novel, memoir, or nonfiction book.   Starts June 1.  
  for writers with chapters or a partial manuscript written, who want to strengthen characters, plot, setting, theme, and voice via weekly feedback.  Starts June 1.

for advanced writers with a complete manuscript draft who want help with in-depth revision, including structure, content, and language revising.   Starts June 8.

for intermediate and advanced fiction or memoir writers wanting fine-tuning of language for more imagery, emotional punch, and tension.  Starts June 8.

All four classes are perfect for summer schedules--easy access 24/7 to the classroom, so you can log in anytime and post when it's convenient.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Can You Boost Your Brain Power--and Your Health--by Writing Every Day? (Yes!)

Last fall, the Harvard Business Review ran an article about the new use of story in business presentations.  Rather than Death by PowerPoint, the writer showed solid proof that stories work a LOT better to "capture people’s hearts--by first attracting their brains." 

When we engage with narrative, the studies showed, various physical functions, such as oxytoxin synthesis, improve. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

You've Gotta Choose! Five Tips to Prevent Distractions from Becoming Derailments in Your Writing Life

A friend told me a great story about a long-distance swimmer.  In one of his swims, this athlete ran into a school of jellyfish.  He'd bat them away, then another would smack him in the face.  It slowed him down, and for a while he considered stopping the swim.  But other than a few small stings, the jellyfish were just a distraction.  He switched his attention back to his swim and finished it. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

How to Keep Your Memoir from Being Just a Selfie

A writing colleague sent me this recent article from the Washington Post--a humorous look at how memoir has evolved.  One new direction is the selfie.  Look at me, in other words. 

Selfies can be quite entertaining.  If the selfie shows a unique angle on someone's life, and we want to learn more about that someone, it's worth the time.  The Post writer, Mark Athitakis,  breaks down his short list into categories of selfie-memoirs, such as "I'm Famous," "I'm Running for President," and "I Used to Be Dead but for Some Reason I'm Not Anymore."  You can imagine others:  "I Had a Screwed-Up Family but I Turned Out OK" or "I Survived Something Very Intense."

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Titles--How Important Are They? How Do You Get a Great One?

Imagine finishing your book manuscript and sending it out to agents and then publishers--and getting a big YES!  You've sold your book.  Time to celebrate.  Then the reality of production begins. 

All those changes suggested by editors.  Gearing up your promotion.  The marketing department wanting to change your book title.


Yep.  Pretty common.  I've had three book titles get changed by marketing departments or editors after the contract was signed.  It's always done with good reasons and in the end, I've been glad (my early titles were awful).  But it's a bit disconcerting.  Especially after I'd published five books--my trusty agent had sold my sixth manuscript to a mid-sized publisher . . .  whose first request was to change the title. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Rest Breaks for Book Writers--When Are They Procrastination and When Are They Required?

This week I'm taking a rest break from my book.  I'm still thinking about it, still mulling over its many problems, but I have recognized some important signs of burn-out that I need to attend to.  I've begun pushing rather than listening.  I have a more-than-usually-overactive Inner Critic.  And occasionally, a feeling of the blues about my work will creep in. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Go On! Make a Bad Decision! Your Story Will Thank You

Still life.  A painting term for something captured in time.  Frozen, unmoving, maybe even perfect.  Looks pretty.  Gets a little boring after a while.  Is far from real life, isn't it?

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Big "W" and Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey Story Arc

Writing a book is hard work.  So it helps to get help--anything that has worked before.  What makes a story satisfying?  What keeps us reading?  One writer who has solved this question for many of us:  Joseph Campbell, his Hero's Journey, and the W structure that evolved from his work.

Campbell offered a classic definition of mythic structure in storytelling.  The narrator, the hero, starts a quest and faces challenges that change him or her by the end.  It's the structure you see in so many films, books, and classic fairytales.  Most movies out of Hollywood follow this structure. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding Time for Yourself: The Value of Writing Retreats

Writers who take on a book learn that it is always connected to their lives, some way, somehow.  Even if the story is about another planet.  Even if the writer is making it all up.   

We can't write completely outside of who we are, especially when we're spending 300 pages doing so.  This means we must face ourselves squarely, look at our motivation for our project, as well as any oh-so-personal obstacles to getting there.

It requires being alone with our creativity.  Writing retreats are great places for this to happen.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Studying Stephen King: Subtext and Dialogue Use by a Master

My April 2 dialogue workshop is almost sold out, so I wanted to give those of you who are coming (and anyone who can't come) a jump start on understanding subtext in dialogue.  Subtext is the undercurrent in written dialogue. 

It makes dialogue expand from information-giving to emotion- and tension-fostering.  It's what makes dialogue really work.  And what gets your manuscript past that round (rejection) file.