Friday, January 29, 2016

Is Your Writing Group Too Nice?

I've been part of a writing group for over a year now with a terrific bunch of writers and it's been a great asset to my writing life. We share our work, talk about the publishing business, books we're reading, chat about our lives and laugh. We offer suggestions and encouragement. Our group is a safe, comfortable place to explore our work. We know that when we share a piece of writing, it will be treated with fairness and respect. We give each other slack. We are each other's biggest fans.

Our writing group is a vastly different experience than what you'll find in most college workshops, where a collection of not-necessarily like-minded souls are thrown together. Sure, you'll find a few kind people here and there, but also a few sticklers, a curmudgeon, that one person who 'doesn't get' your work, and a competitive type or two who are more interested in their own talent than anyone else's. Even with careful ground rules in place, workshops can be a little intimidating--and that's actually a good thing. If you know your work is going to be met with a critical eye, you're more likely to try harder. A tough workshop is excellent preparation for the larger, even more critical world you'll face when you're published.

I was thinking about the difference between my cozy little writing group and a true workshop after receiving e-mails from two of our group members who were apologizing for not having anything to share for our upcoming meeting. At first, we'd all been great about keeping to our deadlines, but little by little our collective discipline was starting to erode. All it took was one person saying they weren't going to be able to make deadline and suddenly we all relaxed. I was probably the worst offender of all, not submitting work for months because I was editing my novel. It occurred to me that the reason why we all joined the group was to write more and to be held accountable for it. Instead, we were enabling a lack of discipline. We were being too nice to each other. I decided it was time for us to buckle down and I was going to be the meanie to say something.

I was a little nervous about sharing my thoughts. By bringing this problem to the fore I, too, would no longer have a free pass. But it had to be done. Overall, the other group members seemed to take it well and everyone agreed that we needed to buckle down.

To soften the blow, we changed our rules a bit. Instead of submitting our work every other month we changed our deadlines to every three months--giving us all a little built-in leeway. If we were unable to generate something new or didn't have a re-write to share, then we had to write a piece using a prompt. One of our members distributed a list of some interesting prompts she found on the internet.

It was settled. No excuses. No more missed deadlines.

If you're in a self-run writing group, I recommend an annual assessment of how the group is functioning and then making adjustments accordingly. Don't be afraid to set goals for your group. On a whim I threw out a challenge to everyone--by the end of the year, we all had to submit a piece of writing to a journal or a magazine. The piece doesn't have to be perfect--we just have to get over our initial anxieties about trying to get published and start getting into the habit of regularly submitting our work.

What challenges does your writing group face? How do you overcome those challenges?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Working With Your Personality To Reach Your Writing Goals

Have you caught Gretchen Rubin fever yet? She's the author of best-selling self-help books including THE HAPPINESS PROJECT and her latest, BETTER THAN BEFORE. She also has a new hit podcast called HAPPIER, which she hosts with her sister, television writer Elizabeth Craft (who, incidentally, was an editor for the SWEET VALLEY series around the time I was ghostwriting, but our paths never crossed). If you aren't familiar with Rubin's work, she studies behavior and how we can work with our personalities to achieve our goals.

I'm particularly fascinated by Rubin's concept called "The Four Tendencies". According to her book, BETTER THAN BEFORE, people tend to fall into four different categories when faced with expectations (both inner and outer). Here's a quick overview of The Four Tendencies (if you're not sure which category you fit into, Rubin has quizzes on her website to help you determine your tendency). Disclaimer: this is my interpretation of Rubin's book and may not represent her work precisely. For a more thorough explanation, be sure to read the book.

The Four Tendencies:

UPHOLDERS are people who respond well to both inner and outer expectations. Upholders keep the promises they make to themselves and to others. They set goals and follow through. For example, if Upholders decide they need to get into shape, they'll stick to their diets and go to the gym without fail. While they are extremely disciplined, they can sometimes be seen as rigid. Upholders are accountable to themselves and others. They make up a small percentage of population.

OBLIGERS are the people pleasers. Most people fall into this category. Obligers are motivated by the fear of disappointing others, but aren't so good at meeting their own expectations. For instance, if an Obliger wants to get more exercise, they'll go for a walk every day if they have a walking partner, BUT if the walking partner happens to be sick one day, they'll probably stay home and eat potato chips on the couch instead. Obligers need accountability from outside sources.

QUESTIONERS are the opposite of Obligers. Questioners are good at keeping promises to themselves, but reject being told what to do. If a Questioner wants to go to the gym regularly, they'll go. However, if someone tells them they have to go to the gym because it will make them healthier, they'll need need statistics and documentation to back up the claim and then they'll make up their own minds to go--if there seems to be a good reason for it. Questioners are accountable only to themselves.

REBELS are the opposite of Upholders. They don't like limitations of any kind--from themselves or others. Among the Four Tendencies, this is the most rare category. When something needs to get done, Rebels have to want to do it. The task has to be fun--otherwise, forget it.

I don't think everyone fits neatly into one of the categories all the time--for example, I define myself as an Obliger with Questioner tendencies--but recognizing what motivates you can have a profound effect on making you a more productive writer.

How can we apply The Four Tendencies to our writing ?

If You're an Upholder...Deadlines from editors are not a problem for you. You know you'll meet that deadline, no problem. However, if you don't have a contract it's important that you set deadlines or goals for yourself whether it be setting time aside each day to write or setting your own deadline for a project. Use specific times and dates.

When it comes to following the advice of editors, you're very cooperative about making changes. However, be careful of your perfectionist tendencies, which can keep you from moving forward.

If You're an Obliger...You'll bend over backwards to meet any deadline because the thought of letting your publisher down strikes fear in your heart. When you're on your own without a deadline, you need to decide on a writing goal (with a specific date) and then tell everyone you know about it. Having others know your goals will keep you accountable.

Like Upholders, you are easy to work with during the editing process. The one pitfall to look out for is that your people-pleasing ways sometimes prevent you from standing your ground. You don't always have to make the suggested changes. Do what feels right and don't be afraid to speak up if it doesn't.

If You're a Questioner...Personal goals and deadlines are important to you--editorial deadlines, not so much. It may help to find out the full publication schedule, then you'll better understand why that particular date was chosen. If you know a few weeks out that you're going to miss a deadline, be sure to give your editor a heads-up. If they know ahead of time, often they can work around the new date.

You tend to push back when given editorial suggestions. While there's nothing wrong with following your gut instinct, try to remember that the ultimate goal for everyone involved is to make your work the best it can be. Take the time to consider a suggestion. Ask all the questions you need to understand the reasoning behind a change. You may discover the reason is valid.

If You're a Rebel...What can I say? If you want to write a book or short story or article, write it; if you don't, don't. Since you like to do things your own way, I wouldn't recommend sending agents proposals or half-finished manuscripts. Write the entire piece the way you like, at your own pace, before sending it out. Maybe self-publishing is the best route for you.

I envy you rebels, being able to write for yourself without worrying about pleasing others. I'm convinced some of our most creative minds are rebels. I would caution you not to adopt that 'difficult artist' persona, however. Find a way to work with others without sacrificing your artistic integrity. Being difficult will only hurt you in the end. But never mind what I think--you're going to do what you want, anyway.

Have you recognized your tendency? How has it hurt/helped your work?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Writing Goals for 2016

Every January I like to take a little time to look back at what I accomplished the previous year and take stock of what needs to be accomplished in the year ahead. I'm a firm believer in setting goals--it's the single most important exercise we freelance writers can do since most of the time we are accountable only to ourselves. Goals help us stay focused and moving forward.

Looking back, here are the goals I made for 2015:

1) Read 52 Books. I'm proud to say that I actually read 54 books. This is a big accomplishment for someone who used to read 1-2 books per month. I used to call myself a slow reader, but not anymore. By signing up for the annual Reading Challenge on Goodreads I made more of an effort to read. The one downside: I was less likely to drop a book that I didn't love because of the time invested.  

2) Post More Often. I was surprised to learn that I achieved this goal, too--but not by much. I posted 22 times last year, which is more than I had the previous three years. Still, not a great number. It was tough keeping my focus on the blog because I was heavily immersed in rewrites.

3) Continue to Build Platform on Social Media. This goal was purposely vague, but I did reach out to my local writers' community and had more engagement than ever before. Also, my blog readership continues to grow.

4) Finish Short Story. Yeah...this didn't happen. I did make headway, though.

5) Finish My Manuscript. I came oh-so-close. I'm in the process of finishing rewrites and hope to be done by the end of January. 

And my one wish for 2015 was...

Sell My Manuscript to a Publisher. This didn't happen, either, because I'm still working on the manuscript. 

With all this in mind, here are my goals for 2016:

1) Read 60 Books--and Some of Them Have to Be Classics. Ok, I'll admit it--part of the reason I was able to read so many books in 2015 is that some of them were pretty slim. Also, at any one time I was reading a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction. When I look over my list for the previous year, I've noticed that I read a lot more memoir and non-fiction because it was a lot easier to read quickly. The fiction I read was mostly contemporary, which can also be easy to read. This year I'm going to dive into some thick novels and some classics that I've never tried. Like War and Peace. There are just so many books to read--it's overwhelming. 

2) Post 36 Times. Instead of being vague, I'm committing to a number. I'm aiming for 3x a month. Still not often enough, but to be honest, coming up with compelling content is not easy. Maybe a book contract will give me lots to write about...

3) Stop complaining. This comes straight out of Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR. I just devoured this book and will post about it soon. Briefly: Gilbert reminds us that we should approach our work with a grateful, playful attitude and not take ourselves or our work too seriously. Deep in our hearts, we artists know we've got it good, but we feel that if we don't act like it's a struggle, the outside world will think we're just goofing off. We should own our good fortune. So when someone asks how the writing is, I'm not going to sigh and list all my difficulties (after all, no one's making me do it!), instead I'm going to cheerfully say, "It's going well, thanks!"

4)  Finish My Short Story...and Maybe Send It Out? Believe it or not, I've never submitted a short story for publication. I stopped writing short stories the second I graduated from college. I've always seen myself as a novelist, but want to challenge myself by writing something in a different form.

5) Finish and Submit My Manuscript. This is a cheater goal, because I know this is going to happen. I'm only a few weeks away from making this goal. Sometimes you need to throw in a sure thing just so you can feel successful at the end of the year. Will a publisher buy it? That's anyone's guess. It's completely out of my hands, so for now I'm not going to worry about it. My goal is to get my work done--the rest will take care of itself.

So here they are--my humble goals for 2016. Nothing earth-shattering or exciting or all that different from the previous year. This list underscores how the writing life is just a slow and steady continuum. It's perseverance. It's keep on keepin' on for the love of the work--without expectation of glory. It's making a commitment to yourself to create (and finish your creation), even when no one's looking.

What are your writing goals for 2016?