Marathon Writer, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – Build a Bookcase — 1 of 12

Writers must read.

We read writers who are in our market niche, because these are often the kind of books we most enjoy. And, it pays to know what the competition is up to.

We read writers who, because of the topic or complexity of writing, write far outside our comfort zone because we need at least a nodding acquaintance with the full writing spectrum.

A word of caution here.

The captain of the Titanic didn’t need to see the entire iceberg to know he had a problem. ~Denise Tiller, mysery writer

If a book deals with too much violence or graphic subjects, don’t feel compelled to read the entire thing. Start at the beginning and read until the first disturbing detail is reached. Once, for me, that was the third sentence. I knew, at that point, that continuing to read would do me more harm than good.

We read great writers because it’s a pleasure to see how well the craft can be done, and we read lousy writers because it’s also a good idea both to see how badly the craft it is done, and to console ourself that we write lots, lots better than that.

One thing I want to do this year is build an essential bookshelf of books and other references that mean a lot to writers. The blog on the last Tuesday of every month will be Build a Bookcase.

This month, let’s start with what was the first book that got us seriously interested in writing? And why?

Mine was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, published in 1986.

By the time I read Writing Down the Bones, I’d been hobby writing for twenty-four years. I’d churned out short stories, some rather regrettable fan fic, and at least two complete novels (neither published to this day, thank goodness). I’d kept a journal for eight years. I’d even gotten a degree in English/Creative Writing. And I was pretty sure that I’d nailed this writing thing.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. For me, this book cracked open the difference between writing and living a writing life. I realized I had to stop writing behind closed doors, and start writing in cafes and other public places. I had to find some writing partners. I had to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. I had to learn to allow flow to happen, back and forth, between writing and living. And, a whole bunch of other things that I’m still learning and polishing today.

This is one of three books that I still keep close at hand, in a little wooden box, less than a foot away from my keyboard, just in case I need a quick refresher.

What book got you started on seriously writing?

Going back to the Marathon Writer — Spiral Effect that I started the year with four weeks ago, here’s a followup on why sitting and writing is a bad idea. In the past week, the longevity columnist on CBC Calgary Drive Home – why sitting is bad for us gave the best summary I’ve heard so far about why sitting is so bad for us. It’s 7 minutes, 20 seconds long.

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Marathon Writer, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – To Do or Not To Do?

To-do List Myth

We put items on a list in order to get them done.

To-Do List Reality

The more things on a list, the more things that are never completed. The longer the list, the greater the guilt, and guilt is a strong de-motivator.

We say we put things on our to-do list so we can get them done, but in reality, we’re know one of three outcomes is likely

  • We get the item done.
  • So much time passes that the item becomes irrelevant and we cross it off the list.
  • The item remains on our list for a long time, generating guilt and convincing us we are ineffective, bad people

Feeds and Seeds

To-do lists are made up of feeds and seeds. These terms were coined by Douglas Rushkoff, in Present shock : when everything happens now. Feeds aren’t a problem; seeds are. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Feeds are temporary

  • The United Fund Campaign closes at 3:00 PM on Friday. If we’ve already made a donation or don’t plan to, we basically don’t care.
  • Feeds don’t stack. By 4:00 PM on Friday, that message is off our to-do list.

Seeds stack

  • Seeds are spring-loaded and often generated by other people.
  • They send us e-mails, assign us tasks, or have expectations for our help and cooperation. Each time we get a seed message, we open a loop on our to-do list. That loop remains open until we’ve done the required task.
  • Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet completed stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer.  We open more loops in one hour than our grandparents opened in several weeks.
  • Seeds stack. Right now I’m carrying about 50 seeds on my to-do list, and I suspect I’m at the low end of the scale. Many people have over 200 loops open; some have over 500.

Unwind the Spring-Loaded Seeds

The biggest thing we need to do with seeds is unwind the spring-loading someone else applied and re-load it so it works for us. Opening an e-mail isn’t a commitment to do something; it’s a chance to assess what is being asked of us. Instead of grabbing a pen and adding Read article Carmine sent me for Tuesday’s meeting, to my to-do list, what I really need to do is an assessment.

  • The article is twenty-seven pages long.
  • Carmen has no idea what my workload is like between now and Tuesday. Essentially, she’s put the ball in my court and I am conditioned to value her spring-loading over my need to control my own time.
  • If I give this situation any thought at all, I console myself that the meeting is next Tuesday, and not thirty minutes from now.

What are my choices?

  • Look at my calendar and see if I have a block of time to read a twenty-seven page article.
  • Ask Carmen exactly how this article relates to Tuesday’s meeting. If she says it will be a large part of the afternoon’s discussion, then I’m going to have to find time to read it; but if she says that she’s planning to use the 3 principles in the sidebar on page 19 as a discussion guide, then I know I can get by with a lot less reading.
  • Negotiate a mutually-agreed spring-reloading with Carmen. This includes letting go of some tasks.

Seeds Take Time

The next biggest thing we can do for ourselves is remember that each seed, each loop, each to-do item, whatever we want to call them, is a time commitment. Look up Alice’s new Zip code takes less than 5 minutes. Repaint the bathroom takes an entire weekend, maybe longer.

It may help to add a time element to an entry. Look up Alice’s new Zip code (5 minutes). If we see we have several less than 5 minute items, we can group them together and get them done all at once. Or if we have that bathroom to paint, maybe we need to pick the weekend we plan to do it.

Also, it helps to break down big jobs, like the bathroom, into the first small step. Instead of reminding ourselves to Repaint the bathroom, how about reminding ourselves to Measure bathroom walls, so we’ll know how much paint to buy?

Personalize our Lists

The third thing we can do is make our to-do lists fit our personality. Some people go gaga over a slick black leather notebook, pristine white paper, and a premium fountain pen. Other people like colors, doodling, and silly messages to ourselves. If you’d like to see some cool things people are doing with their to-do lists, I recommend checking out the Google + community, The Bullet Journal.

My to-do list? Electronic all the way. iCal with 20 color-coded categories and as many automatic repeating reminders as I can build in. For my permanent records, a PDF copy of the previous month saved at the beginning of the next month.

One of the things I’d like us to do this year is build a bookshelf of books we’ve found helpful getting us into writing and keeping us there. I’m devoting the last Tuesday of each month to building that bookshelf. Next Tuesday, January 27, I’m focusing on the first book. I’ll tell  you which book got me into serious writing, and why. See you then.

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Marathon Writer, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer – The Spiral Effect

Three times in my life I’ve chosen to see a health care professional about why and how my life had gotten off track. The last time I said to the woman, “I dealt with this issue when I was in my twenties, and in my thirties. Why do I have to deal with it again now?”

She said, “Because life is a spiral. It only seems like you’re coming back to the same problem. In fact, you’re coming back to a different, more complicated problem because you bring with you all that you learned since the last time you worked on this.”

That’s why the same questions plague us as writers decade after decade.

  • Am I really a writer?
  • Can I make a living at writing?
  • What do I do next?

Are we really writers?

If we are recording words with the intention of telling a story, then yes, we are writers. There’s a reason that screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee titled his writing guide simply Story. Story is the heart of writing. When nothing seems to be working, story becomes our refuge, the place we turn to, as the late singer and songwriter Stan Rogers said, “like a child to home whenever darkness comes.”

Can we make a living at writing?

That one is far more difficult to answer. I’ve heard a lot of high numbers — 75%? 80%? More%? — bantered around by industry professionals about how big a role pure luck plays in a lucrative writing career. Sadly, most of us will never be able to quit our day jobs, so what we learn to do instead is juggle time for writing, running a business, doing our day job, living in a family, having friends, and the whole rest of the world.

Here’s the absolute bottom line: there are 168 hours in a week. We aren’t getting any more, so let’s work on making something of what we already have.

What do we do next?

Here’s the first aid kit that every writers need. You’ve probably seen this list before, but have you thought about it being at the heart of being a writer? When we start to spin out of control, we need to do 6 things.

Stop

This is a quote that marked a turning point in my writing. I realized I could not keep going at the pace I was going and continue to be a writer. I had to make a choice between learning to slow down and quitting writing. I’m still writing.

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace, because it kills the root of the inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

~ Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), Catholic writer, Trappist monk, priest, poet, social activist. and student of comparative religion

Breathe – libraries and the Internet are full of resources about breathing and breathing meditations. Learn the basics and practice them

Drink water – even a 2% dehydration, not enough to make us thirsty, reduces concentration and creativity.

Get enough sleep – The National Geographic program Sleepless in America  says that 40% of people in North America don’t get enough sleep. That figure is rising.

Eat healthy and exercise – do I really need to explain these?

We are always spiralling either up or down. There is no standing still. I vote for spiralling up.

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, January 20, for What to do about those pesky To-Do Lists.

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Marathon Writer, Writer's life, Writing

Marathon Writer — Reentering

A New Year, A New Blog Theme

Welcome to 2015. We spent last year writing a novel, one step at a time, from Theme Statement to Archiving the Manuscript.

Non writers have the mistaken idea writing takes up all of a writer’s time. All we have to do is string together enough words to make a book, play, or short story; edit those words; and bang, we’re done.

We writers know a different tale. To quote myself, and writer/counsellor Claudia McCants

Writing is a marathon. Warm up, write, cool down. Eat right. Drinks water. Exercise for stamina, balance, and staying power. ~Sharon Wildwind, mystery writer

What gets in my way when I’m writing? I think the question really is, What doesn’t? ~Claudia McCants, mystery writer, and Christian counsellor

When we are in this writing game long-term, we learn to be on intimate terms with qualities like balance, persistence, patience, reinvention, and most of all, hope. Our journey this year will explore what gets in our way as writers and ways that some writers have found around those things.

Look out world, here we come

Yesterday was the 12th day of Christmas; today is Little Christmas, or the Christian feast of the Epiphany. In other words, the December holidays are over for another year. At our house, the last 12 days had some good things, and some not so good. Frankly, I am exhausted. I need a holiday to recover from the holidays, but hey, it’s already January 6th, and I am SO, SO far behind.

Fortunately, last year I came across some very sage advice from a woman named Jennifer Louden. She says whenever people, particularly women, are faced with moving from a vacation, holidays, or time off back into the swing things, we tell ourselves six lies, in essence that we have to

  • reenter life full speed
  • punish ourselves for having the audacity to have had a good time
  • do an immediate self-make over
  • put all those good times completely out of sight, and out of mind
  • acknowledge that we are failures because we took a break
  • put everyone else first because we’ve been terribly selfish to do something good for ourselves

Here’s Jennifer’s blog about how to gracefully reenter our life after taking time away. Reading what she has to say is a great way to start this new year.

Here’s the question for this week: what’s the hardest thing to overcome when coming back from the holidays?

Next week, January 13th, I’ll have thoughts on The Spiral Effect or why do the same issues plague us decade after decade?

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