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- Do the work.
- Get feedback about the work.
- Do better work.
A while back, I was giving a talk at a writers’ group on how to stay motivated to write even when faced with rejection and other challenges. During the Q&A session afterward, several of the writers asked about finding time to write.
There are many questions that I don’t know the answer to, such as “Why is the sky blue?”
“Where can I find the time to write?” is one of those questions. I have no idea where you’re going to find the time to write. I only know that if it matters to you, you will. But I didn’t give that answer, not wishing to appear ungracious.
I said a few of the usual bromides: don’t watch so much television, schedule your writing time as if it were an appointment, choose your own priorities. Most of the people just wanted reaffirmation that they could privilege their writing, allow it to be more important than dusting the coffee table, and I was happy to oblige.
But as usual there was one writer in the crowd who absolutely could not find the time to write today, this week, or even for the next several months. Absolutely not. I asked if she thought there was any way she could even spare even a few minutes a day to do some journaling — any kind of writing that would keep her creative habit going. But there was absolutely no way. She had a job, and kids, and a husband, and some after-work events and family commitments and so on and so forth.
I said, “Okay.” And shrugged. You win, I wanted to tell her. But take a good look at what you win before getting all excited about it.
I am not the first person to point out that as a species we are all so in love with our busy-ness competition that we lose sight of the fact that winning it generally means we don’t have any idea of what’s really important in our lives. We just rush around and rush around, letting other people with other agendas tell us how to live.
I’m betting you, like me, spotted the flaw in the writer’s argument about being too busy to write. If she was too busy to write, and writing is important to her, what was she doing listening to me talk? She could have been using that time to write.
But very often we don’t see the obvious because we’re so busy (ha ha) making our circumstances fit our beliefs. We believe we’re too busy to write (or to pick up men or to learn Sanskrit), and we make that belief come true without even thinking about it. If there’s something important you want, claim it. Don’t let your ego and your untested beliefs get in your way.
A while back I wrote a piece for The Writer on beliefs writers often have that can affect their motivation. This is an updated revision of that article.
These five common writing beliefs can stall your progress. Here, I offer tips on how re-thinking them can help you stay motivated to finish your book.
Limiting Belief #1. “It’s impossible to get published.”
Certainly the odds don’t look good. Ask a typical agent how many clients she takes on and she may say fewer than 1% of the people who query her. But that’s a misleading statistic. First, you won’t be querying just one agent (and once she signs you, she won’t be querying just one publisher). Even if every agent takes on only 1% of the people who query them, they’re not all going to take on the same writers. Second, a lot of the material an agent (or editor) rejects is abysmal. If you’re constantly seeking to improve your writing, eventually you can find yourself in that top 1%. Is it hard? Sure. But you’re competing with a lot of people who aren’t actually any competition.
Many thousands of books are published every year. And every year, plenty of first-time authors find a home. Beyond that, options for publication are more numerous than ever. One way to re-think this belief is to get information. Find out what worked for people instead of focusing on what the odds are.
Limiting Belief #2. “It’s about who you know.”
Sure, if you’re married to a media mogul (or better yet, are a media mogul), your odds of landing a publishing contract are a bit better than Joe-on-the-street. But while it’s helpful to know agents and editors, most published writers don’t have an inside track. I know I didn’t. What worked was getting to know agents and editors, which I did by attending conferences, querying them, and getting my work out into the world.
Limiting Belief #3. “It’s not perfect so I can’t send it.”
This is an excellent way to never send anything. How I overcame my perfectionist tendencies? I turned it into a game. For my first non-fiction book, I decided I wanted to get 100 rejections before my next birthday. I actually got a book contract on my birthday.
Limiting Belief #4. “Nobody’s buying westerns” – or fill in the blank.
It’s true that some genres sell better than others, but that doesn’t mean you have to hang up your pen if you write one them. There are plenty of opportunities for writers of all kinds of genres, especially if you factor in niche publishers, including e-publishers.
Limiting Belief #5. “If this book doesn’t sell, then I’m a failure and I’m going to stop writing.”
A writer I know recently told me, “I really believe this book is it. Either it appeals to editors and I make a success of it, or I’m going to have to stop trying to be a writer.” It may be easy for me to say this is ludicrous, but she believes it’s true. Until she stops believing it, of course she’s going to have trouble finishing her book. She’s made it into a do-or-die situation – but wait, if she doesn’t do, then she doesn’t fail, and she doesn’t die. So obviously she’s better off not doing the work. Which is all backwards.
Start with a less important project to build your nerve, and remember the only way you can really fail is to stop writing.
Here’s my synopsis for a romance Love by Design (written under my Jenny Jacobs pen name). It’s the first romance I ever wrote, and it sold (to Avalon) … after I took the synopsis advice here.
Love by Design by Jenny Jacobs (synopsis) -
Tess Ferguson has a weakness: taking in strays. She has a special fondness for the canine kind but she has also taken in more than one human stray. Her impetuous generosity has landed her in trouble more than once, and she’s had to rely on her sister Greta to help her out of the hot water afterwards. Tess, a seamstress who dreams of becoming a fabric designer, is also the single mother of eight-year-old Belinda, the daughter of a sister who has died. Practical matters, like supporting them both, have taken all her focus. Tess believes she owes it to Greta and Belinda to set her dreams aside and to keep her heart firmly under wraps.
Greta, an interior designer, is also Tess’s boss. When Greta is laid up after knee surgery, Tess is required to be the go-between with Michael Manning, the owner of a carpentry business. Tess is attracted to Michael’s calm, quiet strength, but when she sees the sadness in his eyes, she’s convinced he’s just one more stray. Michael is drawn to Tess, who stirs physical sensations he has long suppressed. He finds her warm, open and likable. But her curiosity and persistence in asking questions he doesn’t want to answer threaten his hard-won peace.
Michael has every intention of staying immersed in building his business. He wants to prove that he doesn’t have to be an engineer, physician or doctor to be successful. By burying himself in his work, he can forget about the shocking death of his wife and unborn son – and the unhappy secret she left him with.
Because Tess must be Greta’s stand-in while Greta recovers, Tess and Michael are forced to spend time together, desperately trying to ignore the attraction they feel for one another. One afternoon, while Tess and Michael are busy, Belinda goes exploring and discovers a whimsical hand-made Noah’s Ark in Michael’s workshop. Tess realizes that there’s a story behind the toy, its whimsy so at odds with the carefully disciplined and controlled man she’s come to know. Michael tells Tess about the death of his wife and child, and it’s clear to her that the wound hasn’t healed.
Then, a project Greta is working on offers Tess the opportunity to put her fabric designing skills to the test. But Tess doesn’t have the money needed to invest in producing a design. When Michael learns of the opportunity, he offers to invest in Tess’s business. He’s so enthusiastic that she can’t bear to turn him down. With trepidation, she agrees to his deal. Despite their business relationship, Tess vows not to let herself get emotionally involved with Michael. She reminds herself that her ex-husband was also a stray and that that relationship was destructive to her – and to Belinda. She won’t take such a risk again.
Tess focuses on getting her fabric design business underway. Because Tess doesn’t want to continue getting handouts from Greta, Tess keeps her ownership of the business a secret from her sister. When Tess’s first design is approved, she can hardly wait to share the news with Michael, who knows how much it means to her. They share a kiss. The kiss disturbs Tess, stirring up feelings she has for Michael, despite her knowing that a relationship with him would be the worst thing for her right now. Michael makes it clear that he is not ready for a relationship, especially not with a woman like Tess, who won’t let his secrets stay buried.
Greta discovers that Tess has been doing the fabric designs that Greta believed were being produced by a new supplier. She confronts Tess, telling her that Greta’s clients should have known that Tess was the owner of the company since Tess also works for Greta. Tess is crushed. She never realized her actions could create a conflict of interest. She realizes that she’s been acting childishly in keeping the truth from Greta. What if Greta fires Tess? What if Greta turns her back on Tess? Tess has no one else to rely on.
In distress, Tess talks to Michael, who reminds her that he has said all along she should tell Greta the truth. Annoyed and angry (mostly with herself), she demands that Michael should tell the truth himself. Tess says that while she once thought he was still in love with his late wife, she realizes now that his late wife must have hurt him deeply. She asks him what happened that damaged him so much that he doesn’t feel entitled to get on with his life. Michael storms off without responding.
Greta forgives Tess, and Tess realizes that people who love each other take care of each other – it’s not a one-way street. She understands that she could have trusted that Greta would want the best for Tess. Tess finally admits to being in love with Michael but swears she is through with strays. Greta challenges her, saying that she knows there’s a dog at the local Humane Society that needs to be adopted or it will be put down.
Tess wrestles with her decision but finally realizes that there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking in strays. Although she often feels like the stray Greta has taken in, Tess realizes that she gives Greta as much as Greta gives her. In the same way, she knows she gets comfort, affection and companionship from her dogs in return for the affection and care she gives them. It’s not about rescuing dogs – or people – but about creating good relationships with them.
When Greta informs Michael that Tess hasn’t stopped taking in strays after all, he comes to visit Tess, telling her that she was right. He explains that when his wife died, she was pregnant – but it wasn’t his son. Because Michael wanted a family, he was still willing to raise the child as his own. His wife despised him for it, claiming that he couldn’t hold any woman, believing that his kindness and love were a sign of weakness. The betrayal was shattering to Michael, and her taunting him about it, eviscerating. But she died before he could ever earn her respect or decide her opinion of him wasn’t the truth.
Tess knows she loves him and he loves her – and Belinda – but her fate is sealed when she looks at the glider and realizes that he has hidden tiny painted animals all over it for Belinda to find. His whimsical side no longer buried, she knows he’s going to be fine – and they’ll get to live happily ever after.
Many books are the result of two (sometimes more) people working together to create a great manuscript. Sometimes two authors are experts in the subject matter (Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell, the authors of The Renegade Writer, are both accomplished magazine writers). Sometimes one partner is a writer and the other is the expert. In either case, it’s important to set your expectations up front and be clear about what each partner is doing and what compensation each will get in return.
If an expert approaches you and wants to collaborate on a book, you need to be compensated fairly for your time. Especially if the expert does not have a publishing contract, you should be paid a certain amount upfront for writing the book proposal and then the book. This will come out of the expert’s pocket, and he or she can be reimbursed from the advance and royalties when the book is published. Don’t assume that you’ll be rewarded once the book is published (it often isn’t) and it zooms to the top of the best seller lists (it usually doesn’t).
If you have a book idea that you care about but not the right credentials to write it, you may be able to convince an editor to publish the book if you collaborate with someone who does have the right credentials. Since the idea is yours, you wouldn’t expect to be paid upfront for the work you do, and you’d want to keep control of the vision through a carefully written collaboration agreement.
If you’re the expert looking for a writer to collaborate with, you do need to understand that there are costs involved. It’s unrealistic to expect someone else to work on your idea for free or for a promise of some future payment that you’re not guaranteeing.
Any collaboration should start with a letter of agreement between the partners, which clearly outlines their roles and their compensation. Be sure to include deadlines. Decide what will happen if one partner can no longer continue the project because of illness or death. Think all of this through ahead of time to avoid nasty surprises six months into the project.
Both the National Writers Union and the ASJA have model collaboration agreements for you to use, although you have to be a member to access them.