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Your One Big Thing

As I know I’ve said, I get a lot of “I wish I could get as much done as you do!” comments. I am never quite sure how I should respond to these. The “I wish I could” is invariably followed by
“but.” But I have a day job, but I have a kid, but I have a hobby.

I have these things, too, in their most demanding aspects, but that has never stopped me, or, rather, it has never stopped me for long. So when people say, “I wish …” my response is always, “You can!” And because I am a problem solver, I show them how.

But long experience has taught me that people aren’t really asking for my tips about how I don’t watch television, or how I have learned how not to check email every ten minutes when I’m working on an important project, or how every other weekend is unplugged at my house.

And I get it. I wish I were as slender as my friend Kelly, but I don’t actually want to give up my berry pie to get there. I just don’t. I know how Kelly has fought the war against the next size up, and it would require a lot of work that I am frankly uninterested in doing.   So when people say, “I wish I ….” I’m inclined to think it is about wishing, not about action plans.

But this would be a fairly pointless post if I were going to leave it at that. So I am, in fact, going to give you my very best tip, just in case you want it. And that tip is to find the one big thing that would make a difference and just do that.

The one big thing that if you did it, you would be a lot closer to where you want to be. It’s getting your retirement contributions deducted directly from your paychecks so you don’t have to think about it. It’s hiring a personal trainer to get your butt into action. It’s … turning off the television and spending that time on your WIP.

For me the one big thing is devoting the first two hours of the day to my writing. I don’t care what else is on the agenda, the first two hours of the day are for me to get the creative work done. The sky could be falling, and often is, and I still do the work every morning. Every damned morning.

What is your one big thing?

Making Choices to Get Things Done

A friend of mine always teases me about being held hostage when my daughter is with me (as opposed to when Jess is with her father), because I answer the phone less and don’t talk as much.  It’s absolutely true, and if said friend were to make an issue of it, my response would be, “Have a nice life.”  I’m pretty sure this is where I get my reputation for not being, you know, touchy-feely. I try to give it a somewhat gentler spin: “When Jess is with her dad, I can spend more time with you!” But frankly my friend is a grown-up person, and she understands that my disabled teenage daughter’s needs trump hers. Period.

So, this is not rocket science. But it is at the core of the question I get asked more than any other: “how do you get so much writing done?” (As many readers know, I also have a full-time editing job and teach online classes.)

I get things done by knowing what matters most at any given time, and understanding what it costs to pursue any goal. It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.

Here’s an example of what I mean: I love to vacation at Disney World, and this always require a bit of planning, so I will check out some forums during the planning stages to find out what’s new and if any policies have changed since the last time I went. And invariably someone is making their vacation impossible:  “How can I see all four parks in three days without using park hopper passes, meet characters without spending time in line or money at a character meal, and convince my kids not to pester me for souvenirs? For a family of four, for under $1000, including transportation.”

You can’t.  Of course, saying “you can’t” makes them more insane than red flag/bull.  But you have to decide. And if you don’t decide, what happens is that nothing gets done, or things get done half-assed, or the right things don’t get done at the right time.

You have to decide. Disney or a vacation for under $1,000. One park a day or the more expensive park hoppers. Standing in line or paying for a character meal.  And please don’t think anyone on an online forum can teach you how to convince your kids not to pester you for souvenirs if you don’t already know how.

Those are the choices. You make them and stop dithering. When new information alters the parameters, you can review your choices, but mostly you just get on with it. That means closing doors. It means doing the work when you would rather be doing something else. It means not turning the work into an  opportunity for an existential crisis. It means doing the damned work.

Entire books have been written on how to create to-do lists in order to accomplish things. But the problem isn’t in remembering what to do. The problem isn’t even in knowing what’s important. The problem is in doing it, despite everything else you could be doing, a great deal of which is more fun. All the to-do lists in the world can’t help you with that.

It would be really nice if I could come up with a sure-fire plan, ten easy steps, to make it possible for anyone to reach their goals and live happily ever after. But I have no idea what those ten easy steps would be. All I know is I write every day, even on the very many days when all I seem to manage is crap. I just keep on working. I don’t stop for fear or pain or doubt or rejection or general insurrection. I even, in fact, kept working when the kitchen stove caught fire, because I had a sentence to finish, but I don’t recommend that.

What I do recommend is working even on those very many days when you don’t feel like it, even when there is no promise of reward, when all you have to make it worthwhile is the process. And if that is not enough, then this is the wrong work to do.  It’s as easy, and as hard, as that.

6 Steps for the Time-Crunched

We’re heading into one of those times of years where there are more demands on my time than time to deal with them. But as ever, I have a solution to my time-crunch problem.  I just have to dig it out and remember what it is.

  1. Step back.  I ask myself, “What are you doing, why are you doing it, what fills up your day?”
  2. I figure out what I can drop, which is usually the least rewarding thing, like cleaning my house.
  3. I ask myself, “What can you hire out/get help with?”
  4. I try to become more aware of what’s wasting my time.  For example, spending the morning surfing the web when I should be finishing a proposal.
  5. I schedule the time.  Whatever is important needs to be put on the calendar.
  6. I consolidate.  For example, my daughter is off school and wants to spend time with me. I have errands that I need to run.  I have a friend I haven’t seen in a while. So, my daughter and I will meet a friend for ice cream while we’re out running errands. Mission(s) accomplished.


Focus on the Positive

Traditional publishing is undergoing a lot of changes and that can seem scary and threatening to writers. So much is out of your control — there is nothing you, the writer, can personally do about the economy, imprints closing, publishers trimming their acquistions, editors losing their jobs, and agents retiring to Peoria. Except maybe to go buy a bunch of books and encourage your friends to do the same.

But even if publishing weren’t having a few, err, struggles, the sky would still be falling on writers because: they’re too old, they’re too young, they’re not talented enough, they’re too talented for the hacks in the publishing world to appreciate, they’d get this book done if only they didn’t have to work their day job, they’d get this book done if only they didn’t have to worry so much about money, they’d get this book done if only they didn’t have so much money and needed to, they’d get this book done if only their kids were grown, and they should have written this book when the kids were little.

You see where I’m going with this.  I’m not saying you’re crazy and neurotic for thinking this way and I’m not saying that some or all of these beliefs are not true.  It’s just that none of them are helpful to you. I’ve made this point time and again about perseverance: so much about success in publishing is about not giving up.  That’s it.  And not giving up is the one thing you can control.

Whenever I want to go to my room and quietly suck my thumb, I keep in mind these two mantras about writing and publishing:

  • Seek constant improvement.
  • Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.

Easier said than done, I know.  But worth the effort.


"Inspiration is for amateurs"

Or so says the artist Chuck Close.  And even though I spent half the morning staring out the coffee shop window, hoping the divine spark would fall out of the sky and land on my head so that I could figure out how to write the scene I’m working on in my newest novel, I absolutely agree with him.

I have had entire books that seemed to spill out of my pen, inspired by whatever muse is in charge of such things, and I have had entire books that were pulled one drop of blood after another from my flesh after another, and while I like the “spill out of my pen” process better than “pull one drop of blood after another from my flesh,” on reading the works in question, you would have no idea which is which.

It’s not as if one process yields a better result than the other. And you learn a great deal about the craft of writing from the tough slog of writing even when you don’t feel particularly inspired.  That’s why I have always believed it’s a mistake to think that you should wait for inspiration to strike before writing.

Does that mean you should force ideas before they’re ready? No. It just means that you should sit down every day and write — and not just write, but write with the purpose of making progress toward a goal: to finish a  chapter, to polish a proposal, to respond to a writing prompt, to draft a scene in your novel.

Yes, It IS Hard Work

Every single stage of my writing career has been a pain in the ass.  I think the last time my love of writing was pure and unadulterated with any concept of “why does this have to be so hard?” was when I was five and the lightbulb went off in my head and suddenly I could write in sentences.

All of the labor that had gone before — identifying the letters of the alphabet, naming their sounds, sounding them out into words, figuring out how to hold the number 2 pencil in my hand so I could form large, awkward letters on my Big Chief tablet — all of that was overshadowed by the fact that I could make sentences that anyone could read: my parents, my teacher, my siblings, a total stranger whose name I didn’t even know.

Just as intoxicating was the fact that I could make things up — I could lie through my teeth — and no one got mad at me as long as I prefaced the bald-faced lies by saying, “This is a story.”  Sometimes I forgot to preface the lies, but I was five, what do you expect.

From then on, though, the process of getting to the next level — figuring out how to put those sentences into paragraphs and the paragraphs into chapters, how to make a plot work, how to create characters, how to write dialogue — has been a pain in the ass.

On the nonfiction end, it’s been the same: figuring out how to write effective queries, putting together book proposals, writing and promoting books — all one enormous pain in the ass.

Which is not to say that the process has been unrewarding.  Obviously it has been or I’d have given up a long time ago.  I’m just saying that getting to the next level may be joyful, it may be fulfilling, it may feed some deep inner need for meaning, but it is also plain hard work.  A lot of the time the work goes nowhere.  Half the time I’ve got nothing to show for all those words I spill on the page except the understanding that this is not working.

Because I have a bizarre affection for the Stoics (“be of good cheer, all men are mortal”), I found it very comforting when a friend of mine recently pointed out, “We’re way past the stage where this is going to be easy.”  Which, as a mantra, may not be as catchy as “Just Do It” but I like it better.


Pushing Through Challenges

Working in book-length can be a tough slog, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. If you’re a writer who has ever thought of giving it all up to become an accountant instead, raise your hand. Right. That would be all of us.

Is the slog worth it? Some days I know the answer to this question. Other days I don’t. Probably because of my past experience, I don’t tend to have too much trouble getting through the tough slog when I’m working on nonfiction. I’ve been in the middle of plenty of 320-page books when it looked like all I would ever be writing about for the rest of my life was baby brain games, but it turned out that by keeping my butt in my chair, the task was accomplished. The book was finished and published, and I got to revel in the feeling of accomplishment and, you know, the advance money.

With fiction – and with any goal that I haven’t achieved twenty-two times before – I’m more inclined to self doubt. Will this be worth it? Wouldn’t my time be better spent doing something else?

In every novel – as in every worthy goal – there is the middle part. This is the hardest part. The excitement of the beginning has worn off, and the end is not in sight. This is the Sahara desert, and what made you think it was a good idea to wander into it? You could go back, but that doesn’t seem like any kind of answer. You could go forward, but what if you’re just wandering around in circles? You could just stand there, but then you’re going to die of thirst.

Okay, enough with the uplifting analogies.The secret to getting through the tough slog is resolve – grit, determination, single-mindedness, whatever you want to call it. It isn’t enough to have a goal and a list of steps you’re going to take to get there – or at least it isn’t enough for the really tough goals. Note that I’m not saying resolve means you’ll successfully achieve your goal, because I don’t promise that. Some of our goals are things that are outside our control: we can’t control whether Random House publishes our series of historical novels. We can’t control whether we end up on the New York Times bestseller list.

But I am saying that you’ll be able to get through the tough slog if you do two things to build your resolve (that is, the endurance you’re going to need).

The first is caring passionately about your goal. Here’s the thing: I may want to have a million dollars. I may fantasize about the things I could do with a million dollars. But unless I feel passionately about getting that million dollars, I’m not going to be able to stick the tough slog it will take to make the million dollars. This is why I’m not now and probably never will be a millionaire: I just don’t care enough about it to make it my life’s work.

All of the goal-setting in the world isn’t going to change that. All of the shoulds I could tell myself won’t make a difference: “I should care more about money. I should do whatever work I have to in order to make more money. I should give up time with my daughter to make more money.”

If you’re anything like me, those shoulds strike you as ludicrous. What shoulds are you telling yourself to reach a goal you don’t care about? They’re just as ludicrous. If you don’t care passionately about your goal, find another goal.

The second part of resolve is believing you can achieve your goal.  This is where people ultimately give up.  They encounter challenges and obstacles and think, ah, I can’t do this after all.  But they need to believe they can. Usually this requires an effort at self-delusion. Just because you’ve never lost those twenty extra pounds before doesn’t mean this time you’ll fail!

When I first started in publishing, I had the touchingly naive belief that I was different from all the other writers who tried and failed to establish successful careers in publishing. If I had known then what I know now, I probably would never have tried. But I did try, and I did succeed, and in no small part because I just thought I could.

The same with earning my black belt or my Ph.D. That many of the people who embark on these endeavors never conclude them didn’t make any difference to me. I convinced myself that because I cared so much, I’d achieve what other people found difficult, if not impossible.

That doesn’t mean getting published or earning my black belt or getting that degree was simple once I cared passionately and thought I could do it. I got knocked on my butt more than once. It was just that getting knocked on my butt didn’t stop me. Possibly it should have, but it never did. I call this “being the last one standing.” In many areas of life, even — or maybe especially — in the achievement of difficult goals, being the person who keeps showing up despite being a bit bruised and battered around the edges is all the difference you need to get what you want.


Big Projects and Productivity

People sometimes get stuck on long projects and stall because the sheer massiveness of the task is so intimidating. “Write a book” seems a little daunting. You can’t get it done today. So you shy away from getting started at all.

Productivity gurus talk about figuring out next steps and putting them in your planner (i.e., David Allen and his Getting Things Done), and that strategy makes a lot of sense for many tasks. If you want to plan a family vacation, you can figure out the main steps and break them down: save the money, book the trip, have a good time.

To save the money you might set up an automatic withdrawal at your bank so that a certain amount of money from each paycheck is moved to a special savings account. To book the trip, you might call a travel agent or search online at Travelocity. And so on.

But some projects are stubbornly resistant to this approach. The “steps” to writing a book are pretty basic: Write one page. Write another page. Repeat as needed. The same for other big, long-term goals. To lose weight, the steps are simple (which is not to say they’re easy): eat less and exercise more.

You can turn these steps into action items by marking off time in your planner, for example, but it still comes back to having the motivation to do these things for the long haul, over and over, even when results aren’t immediate. “Write a book” can be a paralyzing prospect, but so can “write page one, then page two and so on for the next five hundred days,” which is what a productivity guru would have us do.

But to me, and I think to most people who successfully get to the end of a big project, the trick is to get excited about writing one page after the other. I’m lucky I can dedicate time every day to working on my fiction. I can think of years when I didn’t have that kind of luxury. It’s a gift, and I don’t want to squander it.

What I mean is we have to love the process – the act of writing. That’s why so many of us fail at things we know we should do – like lose weight – because we don’t love the process. All we’re doing is trying to get to the reward. But it is really hard to reach the reward if you don’t love the proceess.

Which is why you need to love the process, even when you’ve spent the afternoon erasing everything you wrote in the morning. To me, this is more about mindset than anything: I’m learning something every time I take out a scene I spent six hours lovingly crafting (when I could have spent that six hours doing something equally valuable).This is what I tell myself, anyway, and I think that’s the crucial point. The things we tell ourselves about our work shape the reality of our work. So look for all the ways you can love the process of whatever you’re doing instead of focusing only on the reward at the end of it.

Setting Priorities: What to Do, What to Do?

I just had one of those days when I had about fourteen fairly large-scale projects that I could be working on, all of which are important, but some of which would be a waste of time to pursue depending on what someone else decided about a project I was working on.

It was like applying for jobs because a temporary position is coming to an end while waiting to hear if you got a scholarship to graduate school. You can’t go to graduate school without the scholarship, and since your temp job is ending, you’d be an idiot not to try to find another job in case the whole grad school thing falls through. But you won’t need the job if you get admitted to grad school with the scholarship. It’s hard to be committed to the job hunt under those circumstances, but you’ll really regret not doing it if you don’t get the grad-school scholarship.

At any rate, I know I’m not the only one who, when confronted with this type of decision-making, spends three hours on Twitter (or writing blog posts) instead of doing any work whatsoever.

The first thing I did was remind myself that I did not need to have complete and total commitment to anything I was doing. I just needed to take a step. Do one thing. I took a deep breath and lumped my fourteen (or so) projects into three rough categories:

  • stuff that I know will pay off — projects already under contract, for instance.
  • stuff that I probably should do in case my Plan A falls through. (Experts may say “failure is not an option” but these people are not living my life. Betting everything on one roll of the dice is a great way to end up living on the streets with your kid. Don’t ask me how I know this.)
  • everything else.

Once I had made these simple categories, my brain (and energy) kicked into gear. I dug into the top item on my “I know this will pay off” list. I spent three or four hours on that. Then I spent an hour on the “stuff that I probably should do,” spending about twenty minutes each on a couple of different projects, taking at least one step to move each of them forward, and creating a list of the next item that needed to be done for each.

I put aside “everything else” for another day.

When I was done, I felt very satisfied because I’d made a lot of progress on a lot of fronts.