Every writer has a goal, whether it’s yearly, monthly, or “someday.” Goals are used as motivation to get stuff done. Resolutions are made, typically with broad intent.
A goal might be to get on the best seller list.
It might be smaller, like come up with x number of viable book ideas (challenges like Storystorm encourage picture book writers to come up with a 30 new ideas in 30 days).
Or get an agent, find a critique group, nab a pitch party.
Or, finish that darn book (NaNoWriMo is famous for encouraging writers to complete a novel in 30 days).
The problem with those kinds of goals, is that the skills needed to accomplish them are glossed over. Nowhere in the goal setting does it account for HOW it will get done.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the skills you need to accomplish your goals, instead of the goals themselves?
As performance coach Derek Schenck puts it, “The Good focus on a goal; the Great focus on a skill.”
Maybe, instead of having a goal to finish your book, you can focus on the skill of, say, self discipline. The skill you choose to focus on for the year or month could be limiting social media to x numbers of hours a day/week, or once in the morning after you’ve checked email, and once in the afternoon after lunch. Maybe the skill to focus on is saying no to interruptions, and reminding yourself you are worth alone time. Those skills free up time for you to write…which will help you finish your book.
Maybe, instead of the goal of finding a critique group, your focused skill could be on better communication and social interactions with fellow writers. You could focus on being the best type crit partner one could have–like having tact, kindness, offering direction/suggestions without rewriting, and knowing when to shush. Practice your people skills (introverts prefer online groups for this very reason–avoiding in person convos. But it needs to happen, and practice makes perfect–or at least better). Find ways to interact with people without expecting a return or gain. The better you get, the more you’ll view yourself as a valuable crit partner, and the more confident you’ll be in seeking others out. Get real good and a critique group might even come find you!
Instead of a goal of finding an agent, how about you (re)focus on your writing skills, getting them so fine and tight and absolutely irresistible that no agent could possibly say no? Same goes for getting a best seller. Sure, some of that might be luck and marketing–but it’s nothing without beautiful writing. Quality writing is something you can control. Fame is not.
Wanna nab a pitch party? Focus on research — what EXACTLY is being asked, how can I meet that, who are past winners, how did they format their pitch, who can I bounce revisions off of until I’m ready?
To paraphrase the hilarious Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, to master the skills needed to reach your goals, the question isn’t so much “Who do you want to be?” so much as it’s “What are you doing to make it happen?”
His blunt questions are: What are you improving at? What are you learning and gaining? Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve…ask yourself, “What do I want to be good at that I’m not?” Then he challenges you to get working on it.
Goals are easy to formulate. But when you achieve them, you need new goals. When you don’t achieve them, you feel disappointed if not disillusioned. Repeat ad nauseum. You’re never done; you never close the loop.
I hate to make hasty generalizations, as my college professor Dr. Funkhouser would point out, from the story he read to us about the man with the beaver-skin hat.
But 2021 reeks.
This was supposed to be the redemption year, the recovery year, the year we bounced back from from that crap-ball of 2020.
Maybe it was the high expectation we all placed on it. <Delta variant laughs voraciously in the background>
Maybe we made unfair assumptions, that anything would be better than last year. <see earlier reference to Delta laughter>
Maybe we (and by we I mean I) assumed most of the tough stuff happened to other people, and it wasn’t coming my way–not because I’m better than anyone, but because it felt far off. You know, like how we were told to eat everything on our plate because there were starving children in the world. It didn’t seem real, it felt more like a tale.
I’m not going to detail my year to date, as I know people have had far worse. I can handle my disillusionment. Suffice it to say I’ve underestimated the effect other people’s lives have on mine. Seeing people I care soooo much about go through things I can’t help them with is rough. Of course not as rough as it is on them! But I’m a do-er. I want to do things. Fix what’s broken. Make them not break again. And I can’t. It seems as soon as the waters start to calm, some big swell shows up unexpected, uninvited, and unwelcomed.
Man oh man, can I sub out for a while?
One thing I think I’ve forgotten is how many people are out there that we can rely on. We haven’t be able hug people or pat them on the shoulder or even truly look them in the eye. At least, not without bleaching our hands and face afterwards.
The longer we are away from that human connection, the more we forget it’s there. That it’s real. And that we need it.
About six-eight months ago, I dropped off of social media because it’s so fake. It’s a humblebragfest, or flat-out bragfest, and it was irritating the heck out of me. Cold turkey, just stopped checking in. Deleted it from my phone. I felt so free! When I see people (you know who you are) on their phone easily 6-8 hours a day scrolling and posting, it breaks my heart they they aren’t living in the moment — they are choosing a false sense of OTHER PEOPLE’S reality instead of looking up and living their own. I find it sad. And I feel bad for their families. My family too.
But I’ve recently realized that social media can be a form of release, like writing. It can be healing, actually. Touching base with friends, having them touch base with you, and being part of a larger community is a wonderful thing. If you can find a way for it to not be all-consuming, it really can be a lifeline to the world that’s in the middle of a huge, swirling, poop storm.
I stopped seeing it for what I came there for–true connection across the miles. I joke that my husband is a “lurker” because he scrolls and scrolls but doesn’t post that much. It’s taken me this long to figure out it’s exactly how he is in real life: at a party (remember those? lol), for example, he’ll stroll by people interacting in conversation and really only engage when spoken to directly, or when it’s important enough for him to join in. Whereas I, as you can imagine, have always felt compelled to join every conversation at all times and if I don’t then I’m either about to miss something or already did. Exhausting, right? Maybe I don’t need to do that. Maybe I can let other people talk for a while, join in when I want to, and know whatever else is going on, is going on whether I’m there or not. But can I do that? With all that’s been going on, I might not have a choice. I need my people back.
I’ve started popping in a little more often, doing my best to prioritize who I check in with, and what I look for. I need those virtual hugs and pats on the back and those group zoom calls that offer eye contact. I miss cheering on my friends and applauding their fun posts. I miss them doing the same for me. And they can’t fill my cup if I’m not there holding it out. If I’m not with them (even virtually), I can’t share a laugh with them. I need some laughs!
My challenge is to not get sucked back in. There is a healthy medium in there somewhere. My challenge is to give back to the online community what it gives me….to thank those that care, to reach out to those in need, and to celebrate with those sharing happy news (even when my news isn’t). My challenge is also not to sit around bemoaning an empty cup. I need to go out and fill it, wall to wall if necessary. How else will you know I want to hear from you if I don’t tell you? Social media isn’t designed to sit and wait for people to contact to you, and get upset when they don’t. They have their own 2021 to deal with.
If there’s ever a time when we need support and back up, it’s now.
Speaking of which, can you join me in telling 2021 to kiss my…no, wait, let me rephrase.
Can you join me in politely asking the rest of 2021 to go easy on us? At least easier?
If not, I thank you in advance for having my back.
As a panelist on the WriteOnCon session “We Were All New Writers Once: Growth on the Journey,” I spent some time reflecting, of course, on my own writing journey.
Here’s the thing: I honestly never thought I’d be a writer.
My daughter disagrees. She says from what I’ve told her, at every turn I was a writer…from the boxes and boxes of saved handwritten letters (each one means I wrote to them first), to papers I claimed to have loved writing in school (including my dissertation), to comedy & theatre sketches, to the way I somehow always ended up writing at work whether it was news releases or ghostwritten technical papers or business plans. She even mentioned the mock Christmas newsletters I used to send out, like when I claimed she toured Europe in sold-out piano concertos (she was 7) and one son had unlocked the secret to the Dead Sea Scrolls (he was 5) and the other had been banned in the Midwest for his expert ninja skills (he was 3). [I guess I was always creative if nothing else.] Yes, I had stints as on-air and newspaper reporters too, but they came as a result of a corporate job where, to make a long story short, I ended up co-writing a syndicated newspaper column on a fluke.
Or was it a fluke?
Did I unknowingly will it to happen? Have I always been a writer?
My daughter’s accusation, if you will, really caught me off guard. But OK. Maybe I really have always been a writer even if I didn’t realize it until this week. Maybe it’s that I never thought I’d be an author. But honestly, aren’t they really the same thing?
I realized I have always been drawn to — what…places? work?… — where writing plays a large role. What a great creative outlet! And you’re in control the whole time. Don’t like what you’ve written? Go back and fix it. Get feedback that what you’ve written isn’t right, or good? Well it’s not like math–right or wrong. It’s subjective. So you don’t have to like what I’ve written. I do! It’s the perfect loophole, lol.
Surely that “you can’t tell me it’s wrong” caveat gets tricky when it comes to being published. The other person HAS to like what you’re writing in order to publish it, unless you are self publishing. Even then, there are grammar rules, punctuation, etc. People have to like your writing in order to buy it. It’s not exactly a free-for-all. But as a writer, I am in control of everything! I write when I want. What I want. I certainly take what others say into consideration. I honor proper English and don’t go rogue on spelling or manuscript formatting or query protocol. I have several critique partners that I couldn’t live without. I definitely do my research, attend conferences, and listen to experts. I learn and adapt. I feel I improve a little every day. I don’t do it for anyone else, any more than someone who practices free shots in their driveway over and over does it for any one other than themselves. (Are they trying to impress the neighbors? Get an NBA contract? No. They just want to get better at free throws. They earn a sense of accomplishment, of work well done.)
My daughter had a point. Maybe my journey started before I even knew I was on board, and all that time I spent writing earlier in life helped land me where I am now.
And my journey isn’t over. Far from it.
Maybe your journey started years ago too. Maybe it’s starting right now. No matter when it began, your writing journey can go wherever you want it to! You are in control, my friend.
Your writing is yours. Only you can write what you write, from your perspective, with your voice, with your knowledge base. And so too is your writing journey. Only you can decide where and how to map it out. Only you decide how often you write, how often you edit, how seriously you take professional feedback and direction. It might be up to another person to say yes or no as far as a contract, but its up to you to get your work to the point where they simply can’t say no! Write once in a while? Great. Just don’t expect grand success if you’re not hammering away regularly. Even the best natural writers won’t succeed unless they–wait for it–SIT DOWN AND WRITE.
It takes time. Probably more time that you’re gonna want it to take. Other people will succeed before you. But that’s their journey, not yours. Keep at it. You might not have all the time in the world right now. No one does. It might be really hard to see how to get from point A to point B if you can’t even make it through the day. We’ve all been there! If you can only afford a few hours a week for now, that’s okay. Relish those few hours a week! Work smarter so those 20 minute a day can be even more productive than an open day where “let me just finish this last email” leads to three hours of wasted time. It’s your time, respect it. It doesn’t have to be strictly in front of your computer. Block off time on the calendar and temporarily cut off the internet. Eat lunch alone outside under a tree and speak your notes into your phone. Brainstorm while folding laundry. Find a pen-pal to swap ideas and manuscripts with (note: be upfront with what you are looking for: do you want ongoing positive reinforcement or true honest feedback?)(not that they are mutually exclusive!). Try to do one thing every day to move your path forward, even if it’s one tiny step…but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day. Or three.
Your journey can only move forward if you’re in motion!
Mainly: take yourself seriously. Allow yourself that daily distraction-free time, even if nothing immediately usable comes of it. Nothing creative is wasted anyway. You’ll reuse it in some form, either by learning from it (finding out it’s not a direction you want the story to go, for example, is great progress!) or from the positivity you just allowed yourself to embrace.
Don’t forget the “journey” part of the writing journey means it’s a process, not a one-time event. The journey might be spotty and frustrating at times, but it will also be rewarding and wonderful. Stick with it, even if it’s just for fun. Not everything we write has to have the ultimate goal of being published. Some of our best writings never have to be read by anyone but ourselves. We can be proud of our work no matter where it sits. The important thing is that we’re writing–present tense.
Unique Gift Ideas For Writers They They Really Want (Hint: Not Another Journal)
What a year, amiright? I think it’s okay for me to be blunt. 2020 has been so nutty that I think we all deserve some peace this holiday season. Let me help ease your mind with some unique gift ideas for your writer friends; gift ideas that will leave them happy and thankful you took the time to understand them, to see them.
While none of these can be wrapped, they are all ways to better your writer’s life. And boy will they appreciate them.
REVIEW THEIR BOOK The best possible gift won’t cost you a dime. You can do it from home, any time, day or night. And you don’t even have to leave your house. Win/win, right? Reviewing your friend’s book means more than you realize. Admit it, when you’re about to buy a widget on Amazon, you look at the reviews. How many stars did it get? How many reviews are there? You don’t want to take a risk that what you’re about to buy is crud. Same is true on books. Even though reading is subjective (it can’t break, it won’t matter if it’s smaller than the image shows, etc), reviews matter. More reviews implies heavier loyalty/popularity, which helps get their book ranked higher in searches. It impresses future/potential buyers. It can make or break a sale.
Do your author friend a favor and review it anywhere you can: Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, your local library, your local bookstore’s website.
NOTE: If the book is not your style, or you feel you’ll do a disservice by reviewing it, ok fine. Don’t leave a review. In that case, see #2.
BUY THEIR BOOK I can’t believe this goes without saying. You can’t review their book if you haven’t read it. If you HAVE to, buy from Amazon, but please get it from your local independent bookstore. If they don’t carry it, ask them to order it for you. That is a double bonus because it introduces your friend’s name the the bookstore owner!
And yes, technically you are buying YOURSELF something, but ultimately you are gifting your friend the best kind of support.
Once you’ve read it, two things can happen: You like it or you don’t.
If it’s not your cup of tea, still let your friend know the extent to which you bought it. No need to give your opinion, just give them admiration for all the time and effort they must have gone through to complete such a book. Ask your writer friend to send what’s called a “bookplate” and they will be thrilled!! (A bookplate is a signed sticker that can be placed inside the book, the quasi-equivalent of the author signing the book in person). Let them know you are either going to “keep it forever” or will now share it with a local school or library so more people can enjoy it.
If you like it, review it (see #1). IF you already bought one, buy another copy for another friend, family member, school, or library. If it’s kidlit and you have kids in school, ask your kids’ teachers to have the class read the book. Ask your friend what their rates are on a Zoom visit and maybe help sponsor an author visit. Again, let your friend know the extent to which you’ve gone. Ask your writer friend to send bookplates for the copies you’ve purchased and they will be thrilled!! (See above for bookplate definition).
BUY EDUCATION/GROWTH/NETWORKING OPPS Regardless if your writer friend is published yet, they’ll always want to be a better writer. They’ll want to hang out with other writers, even if it’s virtual. Get them a year’s membership in SCBWI (free webinars, access to publishers contact list), classes in legit places such as Institute of Children’s Literature or The Writing Barn or Children’s Book Insider (always check credentials before signing up!), or a subscription to Writer’s Digest (yes, the paper one!). Donate $5 or $5/month to Writers Happiness in their name so they can take some online writers’ yoga classes to ease their weary neck and shoulders. Research and create a list or calendar of virtual meet ups they might want to participate in (there are so many I guarantee they don’t even know about!).
Writers don’t need another pen, journal, or notepad you can use on the shower. We don’t need bookmarks or posters or coffee mugs. I mean, sure, yes, they are great gifts, I mean no disrespect. But what if you gave it just a little more thought?
Just like The Grinch learned, Christmas doesn’t come in a box.
Or, perhaps better titled: Creating in the Time of COVID: When Having All the Time in the World Somehow Means Less Time to Create
Quarantine time. In a way, it’s a dream come true. You’re home. You have free time out the wazoo. That book you always wanted to write, that is right there at the forefront of your brain and tip of your tongue: there will never be a better chance to write it. What an opportunity, all this free time. It’s happening!!
Yet hey, look–how did you never realize how dusty those floorboards were? Those dressers and closets, man, it was high time someone Marie Kondo’d the heck out of them, right? And did someone mention virtual happy hour?
A month goes by. Then two. As a third smirks and waves on its way past, you realize it’s time to knock off the distractions and get to work. This is something you’re doing for you, afterall. Since self isolation isn’t going away any time soon, you still have a chance. So pull up your laptop and get to work. This is something you always wanted to do! Let’s go already!
You face the screen. The white, blank screen. Your mind is as empty as the chapters you thought you’d have finished by now. Is that blinking cursor laughing at you?! They should call it a curser for pete’s sake…
ENOUGH!! Focus. Smack that writers block in the face and get to work, man!! This home-time is a gift that you can’t waste any longer.
There are good ways and not-so-good ways to go about it. Here are some counter-intuitive tips to get your muse out of that cave and onto the page.
1. GO FOR A WALK? HAH nice try. All a walk is going to do is take you farther away from your problem. If an athlete is tired of training, does she say I’ll just sit out for a while? No, she trains anyway. Going for a walk is only helpful if you’re, say, trying to think of the perfect word or trying not to swear, and you are coming right back to your work. Otherwise we know we’ll never see you again. Sitting down and powering through is the only way to improve (shout out to Malcolm Gladwell and The Outlier Effect that talks about the more you practice, the better you get… “There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it.” Read that book, please!)
The best thing to do when faced with a blank screen is to start writing anyway. Anything. Write your grocery list. A fan letter. Your favorite smells. Your thoughts about how it stinks to not be able to think about what you want to write about. If you’re stuck on a certain part of the story, skip over it and come back to it later.
Hammering out repetitive words or phrases isn’t helpful as it doesn’t engage the brain or thought process. Writing about work stuff isn’t helpful as it switches your thought process in a different (aka wrong–for now) direction. But writing ANYTHING else does two things.
First, it keeps your butt in that chair (“BIC,” as 380+ book author Jane Yolen likes to say) and trains your mind (and butt?) to stay focused on the task at hand. It reminds every part of you that sitting in front of a screen and writing things non-work related is OK. You can do this. You can’t get used to doing something you aren’t doing!
Second, it gets those creative juices flowing. And if you promise to try it, I promise never to use that phrase again.
2. START AT THE BEGINNING AND PLOT TO THE END? Nope. Try the opposite. If you’re stuck on where to go next, or even where to start the story, try going backwards. I know I say a version of this a lot, but: if you don’t know where you are going, how do you know how to get there? Start at the end. Picture what it will look like. Don’t write anything yet, just imagine it. Where and who are XX and YY are going to be?
Take the first thing that comes into your head and run with it. Explore all the possibilities it could bring to the story. You might surprise yourself with “What? I was planning on Y going to France!” You might realize your ending is too ‘expected,’ and more twists are needed. You might find someone new sitting there. Stew on it for a bit. IN YOUR CHAIR. You are thinking for a few minutes and are getting right back to writing so don’t even think about grabbing a cup of tea. Sit and think. Are there changes that need to be made in order to make that ending happen? New scenes you can add? Hints you can drop or details you can point out? Now start writing. Some authors think you can plot easier and save time by now realizing certain paths to get to that ending are better than others, and you can better streamline your storyline.
I recently had an idea for a story when an image came into my head. As I thought about the image, I realized it was the end of the story. Now I am figuring out who it is and how they got there. I love this part of discovery!
That first thought that you are playing around with doesn’t have to be the end you stick with. Have fun with it for right now, though. Take risks. See where it leads. That image I had in my head? I actually hated it. When it wouldn’t leave, I knew I had to embrace it. I encourage you: if you HATE the ending you just thought it, it might just be the ending you need. Go from there. Put your character someone you never dreamed they’d go. If you can’t think of a plausible ending, you might not know your characters well enough yet, so go back and work on that. You might realize a change in setting is needed, so work there. There is so much you can work on that isn’t just going from page one to page two.
3. FINESSE DIALOGUE? Speaking of writing out of sequence (were we?), writing doesn’t have to mean plausible word count. That pressure is what can make an author go mad. Burrowing in the nitty-gritty like dialogue or scene transitions can get tiresome. Sometimes when you “write,” you really “plot.” Why not look big picture instead of detail? But I’m not exactly talking plot. Take a one step further back and outline your story.
Start by filling out the blanks: Hero wants __[goal]__ but can’t __[obstacle/problem]__ so they __[take action]__.
This works for almost all picture books too! Now you have everything you need. Take the time to outline just the highlights of your story that tell the problem, actions, and outcome–yes, even if it’s a 500 word picture book. As far as what you’ve written so far: where are you in the standard plot arc? What areas need more meat? (If you don’t have some sort of plot arc…dude…start working on one. If you need help, Google “plot arc” and about a hundred images will pop up, along with blog posts that walk you through how to do it. I especially liked the image below from Christine Wodtke.) Are there enough struggles in your journey, are the stakes high enough, is the resolution unexpected and worth it?
You know that idea I’m working on? Every thought I had on it, I put on a post-it note, as I thought of it, so I could rearrange into a timeline. That helped me outline it by better understanding not only where I was trying to go but how I was going to get there. The post-it notes were not evenly-weighted as far as plot or outline, by any means. They had suggested phrases, ideas for names, and some just had an idea for a change in setting. It was by no means what most people would call an outline. But I had enough to go on to think through how I got to the pivotal point (the twist), and what the milestones might be. (I’m still working on the manuscript FYI–it’s not a miracle cure.)
Do you need to go into that notes & graphing detail? No! Do you have to draw out a plot arc and paginate each piece? No, no, not at all. But you should have an idea of where it all falls. Creating a new outline for WIP is a great way to see if it’s a lopsided story, where it might need more action, or less action, or if you forgot about a character introduced in Chapter 3. Stepping back to look at the outline of a manuscript you think is almost finished is a great way to take another look at an issue that has you stymied or treading water. Maybe that part is in the wrong place, or needs amping up.
Now, I’m saying all of this about multi-chapter books when I primarily write picture books, so I might be out of my league. But I know firsthand that all of this applies to picture books.
Sometimes we think if the story doesn’t come to us organically, that it’s not worth working on. No story in the history of publishing has ever been successful without some sort of planning and plotting. Even wordless picture books!! And we’ve all had moments where we doubt and want to walk away.
Writing in the Time of COVID: Two Golden Rules of Word Count Goals
As our daily lives have been uprooted in the most unexpected if not the rudest of ways, I’ve been seeing A LOT about writing goals lately. Setting writing goals. Meeting writing goals. Not meeting writing goals. Adjusting writing goals. Changing writing goals.
With three school kids at home, and a husband who might as well be, it’s enough to make a gal want to panic. I’m going to put your mind at ease. Hint: there is no magical word count.
But first, some reasons why it’s not as easy as “don’t worry about it.”
I’ve been a huge advocate for setting goals. As a marketing professional helping business owners, I would always ask my own version of the Alice in Wonderland question: If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
In this case we know the ultimate goal: finish writing your book. As that is an intimidating goal, as scary as finishing a marathon when you’ve never run before, it’s best to take it one step at a time. Break it into pieces. No one expects you to stand up one day and run 26.2 miles; you’d train and run a certain number of laps/miles a day and eventually get there. Everyone has their own pace, it doesn’t matter how fast the person next to you is. They might be naturally-gifted runners. Or have a personal trainer. Or ran races for 15 years. You are running your race, they are running theirs. They finished first? Good for them. That doesn’t mean you can’t finish too! Your accomplishment is every bit as valid as theirs, regardless of how long it took. So let’s look at the first Golden Rule of Word Count Goals right off the bat:
Don’t compare your goals or progress to anyone else’s. This is your journey, not theirs.
As far as your ultimate goal is concerned, let’s not focus too much on that end result right now. You know what it is, we all know what it is. We don’t need to keep saying it. The world is hectic. Home life is weird. They are both unpredictable. Trying to eat a entire elephant right now just might not be possible. The last thing you want to do is set yourself up for failure. So let’s look at eating that elephant one bite at a time. As the great Judy Blume said at the #SCBWI conference this summer, you can write a novel spending two hours a day. Yes, two hours a day would bring great progress. But I can’t repeat that lovely nugget with a straight face. Who has two concentrated hours a day right now? We need to take what we can get, and eat whatever part of the elephant we can get our hands on. Don’t concentrate on eating the entire elephant by sitting at the table two hours a day right now. All that will do is set us up for failure. Let’s look at one part of the elephant and take it very seriously. Can we commit to the legs? One leg? An ear? OK, just the tail for now? It doesn’t matter if we eat it fifteen minutes at a time while the kids are zooming their hearts out, or a half hour before bed, or if it means we THINK about eating it while taking that weekly shower. Pick ONE thing, and do it. Do it well. When you’re done, pick another. I’ve got this bio idea in my head. First I need some research. So my goal is to interview people that knew her. Until I do that, I can’t get much further. So my part of the elephant is interviews. Back that up, and you’ll see I need to figure out who to interview, what to ask them, figure out how to get in touch with them, how I will approach the confidentiality of anything they may want ‘off the record,’ etc. So there is more to the goal of interviewing those people. It’s not a simple check mark. It’s not something I can complete two hours a day, especially since them getting back to me is not under my control. But with that as my goal, I can continually be working towards it. If I’m at a standstill, I can press a virtual pause and look at the next mini goal to start on in the meantime. Yes, that means all the steps/goals should be written out. Not having a word count goal doesn’t mean you don’t make yourself accountable for the steps required to meet your goal. It just means the number of words written per day isn’t on that list. That brings me to our second Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
2. Word count doesn’t mean hooey.
Think quality, not quantity. You might make more progress with the sudden realization a side character or chapter has to be cut than any number of words you could have placed on a page that day. You might figure out a plot hole and spend time thinking through how to fix it–without a single word added to the manuscript. As long as you’re writing or thinking about solutions to what you’re working on, you’re making progress. Even if you end up scraping a day’s work, you now know what DOESN’T work; you’re still closer to your goal. I think it was the late and wonderful Sid Fleischman who used to say the only thing wasted on experimental writing is a piece of paper. Don’t focus on the number of words per day or week or month. All that will do is stress you out. It might force your butt in the chair, sure. But at what expense? Maybe you’re better off taking a day or two away from the ol’ laptop and giving your muse a mini vacation. (Make sure she’s earned it!) There is simply too much going on right now to worry about the number of words you are or aren’t cranking out. That brings me to the Bonus Golden Rule of Word Count Goals:
3. Be kind to yourself.
Don’t beat yourself up over missed opportunities or time away right now. It’s OK if you skip a day or two. Nothing bad will happen if a file is left unopened three days in a row, no curse will leak out of the USB port. It will all be there when you’re ready. Write a blog post (LOL). Send an email to an old friend with a fond memory. Call your parents or brother. Bake cookies for your sister or neighbor. Draw a tree. Or do nothing at all. Don’t force creativity if it’s not there. We know it’s a fickle beast. It’ll come back when it’s ready. In the meantime, let yourself know you’re doing the best you can. It’s all you can do. When it ain’t got than swing, numbers don’t mean a thang. I’m proud of you not matter what you’ve done so far.
Who knew that within weeks the words “viral” and “virus” would have such polarizing connotations? The year 2020 sure is a unique beast. As authors, we’re forced gifted lots of home time to create. The longer we’re home, the more (ideally) we’re writing. Hooray for opportunity.
One of my first thoughts has been, “I better make sure my stuff is good. With everyone else home with all this free time, writing and rewriting, there is going to be more competition than ever.”
My next thoughts are, “Wait…with everyone home writing, who is out there buying? Is it even worth submitting? Will it sell?”
I did some digging. Talked to friends and colleagues–authors, illustrators, agents, big publishers, small publishers. Researched a bit–the big picture international news down to smaller scope of our children’s book industry. I wanted to see for myself:
What is going on in the publishing world? What will it look like ahead?
I’m no expert (my Econ degree and MBA play no part in this post!). I’m just a curious author that likes research and is concerned about our future. I know other authors are wondering too. Here’s what I’ve found:
For those TLDR types, lemme say this: Yes, books are still selling (but they are slowing). No, it’s not horrific (changes will come about slowly, and even if the world is magically back to normal tomorrow, we will still see small repercussions down the line in a year or two). Yes, there is a big uptick in pandemic plotlines and both agents and editors are saying KNOCK IT OFF. No, there is no reason stop writing and submitting–as long as it’s your very best work. So no panicking, OK? Keep creating. It’s what you do.
Books are selling. Great! But of course numbers aren’t as high as usual. A study in Sweden shows a sharp decrease in March sales compared to last year (boo), but an uptick in online sales greatly softened the blow, and the LA Times reports the new ABA-backed online-only Bookshop.org has reported a 400% increase in sales since opening in February (*crowd cheering*). Marketwatch states overall book sales have been driven by juvenile nonfiction in particular, which are up 25% year-to-date, and up 65% for the six weeks ending April 11, according to NPD BookScan. “We definitely seeing an uptick in kids’ educational and activity book sales this week,” reports Kristen McLean, NPD books industry analyst. Sure, bookstores and libraries are temporarily closed, tradeshows (where many small publishers rely on sales) have been cancelled, and those free e-books don’t always cut it for parents and kids…yet people are still reading, and books are still selling. Publishers reiterate to me that most sales are activity books (understandably) and series (books they can rely on). Debuts–if an author/illustrator can hold a successful virtual launch–are doing OK but not as good as if they were live or on tour. [Side note: You can help your friends and indies by ordering ANYTHING from your local bookstore as they likely deliver; not only will they appreciate it but it might keep them from going under. Ask your friends to do the same.]
Agents and publishers are still buying. Work-for-hire is still assigning. But…likely not as much. One reason is, due to slower sales, many books they were going to release this summer or fall have been pushed to next year or later, so they won’t need as many titles in 2021 or 2022–the timeframe the title they’d sign today would be released. And if they think sales are going to continue to drop in the near future, they might not take on as many new titles…making them pickier than ever. And they’ll have to be choosy…agents are saying their inbox is fuller than usual (one said even though she is closed to both queries and submissions and only accepts via her website anyway, ever-eager writers are blatantly subbing directly via her email regardless)(not cool!), and The Guardian reports some publishers are seeing a three-fold uptick in submissions! [Side note: It doesn’t mean the pool of writers is better, but it does mean it’s much bigger. It’s harder to get noticed. How is yours unique? Better than the others? You don’t have to submit any or every thing you’re writing right now. Just keep writing. Maybe it’ll turn into something (better) down the line.]
Think you’ve got a great idea for a story that takes place during a pandemic? Well so does everyone else. Not only are publishers and editors already tired of seeing dystopian (especially pandemic) plotlines, the main issue is timing. As agent Jennifer Laughran points out, “publishing is a long game.” While the world may be changing overnight, our industry moves slowly. A book takes a good 2 to 5 years to get to market. The last thing a 12-year-old kid will want to do is relive the time their own 8-year-old self was quarantined at home. Without toilet paper.
Bottom line: like every industry in the world publishing is slowing–but all signs point to us doing okay in the long run. The future of publishing may be changed for good after this. Maybe even for the better. But it won’t change overnight. Stay positive. Keep on plugging away, giving it your best. And maybe happiest.
Seeing as we are now living in a real dystopian society, it might be time for ideal worlds to make a comeback. Let’s lighten up.
How to Easily Work the Camera and Adjust Your (Nervous) Attitude
With videoconference meetings all the rage (if not necessity), odds are you will not escape attending one. And odds are you’ll be attending more and more of ’em, even after quarantine guidelines are lifted. Yep, they are here to stay. Does that make you anxious? If you hate seeing yourself on camera, or were never a fan of meetings to begin with (let alone ones where people CAN SEE YOU AT ALL TIMES), well, suck it up, buttercup. Videoconferencing is here to stay.
It’s making introverts nervous. It’s making teachers–who are already used to teaching–nervous. It’s making people who have attended hundreds of meetings, and held hundreds of meetings nervous. It’s even making extroverts nervous.
The good news is even the most introverted of introverts can succeed–if not enjoy–Zoom. (Or any other videoconferencing app/program/website.) Even if you don’t know how to present yourself on video. Or how to manage distractions that are out of your control. Even if you panic at the thought of being on camera. Maybe you don’t want strangers peeking into your room? The good news is, these videoconference meetings aren’t so bad. They’re not hard to run, and honestly not that tortuous to attend. Even if you’re an introvert! Really.
Here are six detailed ways to make the most out of your Zoom and Zoom-like videocalls, that even quiet-types can put to good use:
Making The Camera Love You
Worried about how you’ll come across on screen? The camera angle makes all the difference. Place your laptop or pc so the camera is at or slightly above your eye level.
Don’t have it on a desk or coffee table looking up or it’ll focus on your double chin—even if you don’t have one. Balance the computer on however many magazines, books and/or shoe boxes needed to get the right height (making sure it’s stable enough to last the entire call without a TIMMBERRR situation).
How close up is too close? I think you can answer that yourself. You know what size is comfortable to look at other people in the meeting, so follow accordingly. You don’t want to fill the entire screen with your face by leaning in too far, and you don’t want to sit so far away that you’re an indistinguishable dot.
Most people sit the same distance as if they were typing along their keyboard—OSHA suggests the best ergonomic position is about 20-40 inches from the monitor. Odds are you’ll need to access your keyboard/screen at some point anyway, so within an arm’s length is the safest and easiest way to sit.
If you want to get down to the nitty gritty on where in the screen you should be, the best ratio is to have your face in the upper one third of the screen, not centered. (Have you heard of the “rule of thirds” in the art world? Our brains naturally prefer to see things in thirds…https://digital-photography-school.com/rule-of-thirds/.) Don’t overthink it though, that top-thirds isn’t imperative. It’s more important that people can see you enough to recognize you, without your face taking up the entire screen.
Experts (Tom Ford and Hank Green among them) emphasize lighting. The recommendation is to have a desk or floor lamp next to you, aimed at the side your pretty little face. Make sure it’s not shining directly in your eyes in a “Where were you on the night of the 12th” kind of way, where you’re squinting. Yes, having it off to the side might make you feel like the moon where one other half of your face is in darkness, but unless you are blasting your car’s headlights, it won’t come across like a yin/yang symbol. (Even if it feels weird to have one side more lit than the other, it actually looks ok, honest, Google it.) For balance, place blank white paper or a white tablecloth under your computer—but Tom Ford suggests making sure the white isn’t visible in the camera frame. Picky, picky.
How fancy do you need to get? This, to me, depends on what kind of meeting, who is there, how well you know them, and whether you’re in charge or simply listening in. As with real life, your appearance can dictate the level of effort you’re putting into a meeting. I realize in the age of quarantine these rules have laxed quite a bit. But they haven’t gone away. People notice when effort’s been put in, and when it’s been blatantly disregarded.
If you are a makeup wearer, apply it a little thicker a darker than normal when on camera. Or not, your call. Have a look at yourself on your computers’ camera before going live to see what the others will see. At a minimum be sure to have foundation and powder, maybe a quick swipe of blush. I always use mascara. (If you wear glasses you’ve got a bonus: no need for eye makeup!)
If you’re not a makeup wearer, no need to start. In fact, please don’t have this be your first time in full foundation and cherry red lipstick, it might freak people out. A touch of powder won’t hurt, though, to soften a shine and even out ones (guys too). And don’t forget, there’s always the beauty filter! (Check your settings.) (Why that doesn’t default to ON is beyond me.)
Overall, makeup is for special meetings. No need to go full hog for Zoom Happy Hour with friends. They’ve seen you at your worst already.
Your hair? Tricky. If you throw a hat on, it will mask your face by shadowing it. Maybe you think that’s what you want. But others will find it frustrating. You can pull your hair back, but be aware that puts your smiling face even more center stage. Do your hair as you’d normally do it if that gathering was in person. Wet hair at least implies you’ve showered, which hey, these days is a win, but come on…
As for clothing, typically it too should be the same as if you were meeting in person…but again, that too carries less weight given our current sheltering-in-place. Do your best though. Skip the PJs, ditch the sassy t-shirts you would never wear in public, no bathrobes, etc. Even if you’re at home and under quarantine, you’re still at work, in a meeting. Studies show that dressing up (or at least not wearing sweats all day) helps you feel more professional and therefore act more professional. A recent Vogue article quotes isolation psychology professor Francis T. McAndrew as saying how you are dressed “…signals something about what you are prepared to do. If you are dressed professionally and you’re dressed up, in some ways that raises your own opinion of yourself, and you want your behavior and demeanor to match the clothes. So, if you’re dressed like a slob and you are in your sweat clothes, you’re either prepared to work out at the gym or clean out the basement, but you’re not doing anything professional or mentally challenging, and that spills over into your motivation and confidence.”
“How to” apply makeup, and what to wear dress tips will be coming in another post. Hint: it’s more than you’d do in person and a little less than you’d do for a TV interview.
Here’s an idea: have enough fun with your background image and no one will notice your face! There are all kinds of sites popping up offering anything from making it look like your living room has a 65th floor view of the city skyline to having it appear you’re sitting on the deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Some people go so far as to make or buy their own “green screen” so the backgrounds look even more realistic, but it’s not necessary at all. A solid wall works best but anything, even a chair or couch and wall is fine. Open space behind you, like the kitchen though, won’t work–you need a solid background. Find and choose some super cool backgrounds from here, or here or here. Or, of course, choose any of your own images.
It’s easy to take that new image and change your background too; learn how with easy instructions here and here.
Your own wall and home is fine too! Don’t feel pressured to change anything. Be sure to look around and behind you before you hit the “start video” button. Keep in mind whatever you have in your background becomes public. Artwork, photos on the wall, books or food on the shelf, furniture style, family members walking by without pants, etc. If you’re a private person that doesn’t want to invite people into your world, or your friends and coworkers are jerks (looking at you, Karen), then move to a part of the house or room where there is nothing to see and no one can walk behind you. Sit on the floor in a closet if needed. Just make sure you prop the laptop up and you have decent lighting.
If you’re running the meeting and you’re nervous, RELAX! We’ve all had our first video call and we’ve all been there. What you DON’T want to do is belittle yourself the whole time. NONE OF THIS “ack, darn, how do I do this?” or “oh that was dumb, I hate this stuff” or “where is that darn button?” No. Shush. Calmly look for that button or fix what you’re trying to do. Can you tell the difference between, “Can someone tell me how to share a file?” and 35 seconds of, “Hold on, wait, dang it, I thought…no…ack this is…oh there it, no…one of…is it this, no, wait…I’m such an idiot, I give up, can anyone tell me where that dumb share button is?” In both scenarios the leader asked for help. One was a heck of a lot more professional about it. If you simply keep your mouth shut as you look for what you need, then matter-of-factly ask for help once you realize you can’t find it, it shows a completely kind of different leader than if you bumble and grumble around, doesn’t it?
Talk a little louder than a normal conversation—as if it’s a large meeting room and you need to make sure that jerk Karen hears every word you say. (Don’t give her any reason to call the manager this time.) If you’re using a headset with a mic, please for the love of everything that is holy do NOT place the mic so close to your mouth that all those plosive Ps and Ss come across scratchy like nails on a chalkboard. You’re not a pilot, I know you can hear yourself, you do not have the buzz of the engine for an excuse.
Smile. You’re on camera. The whole time. When Marco starts telling that same story he tells every gathering and you look over to Janice to roll your eyes like you normally do….well, not a good idea. Literally everyone can see you. And if it’s recorded, well…they can see it forever…
If you hate being on camera and are worried about being stared at, unless you are the presenter, relax. Everyone is NOT staring at your or watching your every move. (Don’t flatter yourself.) There is too much going on for anyone to be watching any other person for too long. You are one of many attendees. Listen and participate as you would a regular meeting.
If you are the presenter, yes, people will be looking at you almost the whole time. But they’ll also be looking at others in the meeting, their cat, the slides or materials you are discussing, etc. Don’t feel like you are under a microscope the entire time. You’ve held meetings before, right? This is barely different.
One more favor. Please. DON’T GREET EVERYONE AS THEY JOIN THE CONVERSATION. Would every single person seated greet every single person by name as they walked into the conference room? No. Don’t do it here either. It’s understood they can see you’ve joined. You’re on camera: wave. The meeting organizer can say “looks like Tavisha just joined, right now we are talking about xxx” and keep on topic without offering her the opportunity to say hello. If you’re in charge of the meeting, when you send meeting information let them know you’ll allow them time afterwards to chat and be social, and ask attendees to please refrain from greeting everyone as they join. Or, offer them 15 minutes prior to the call to sign in early to chat and catch up.
We get it, you’re at home. Distractions will happen. It’s not the end of the world. Try to get back on track quickly. No need to apologize or call attention to the fact your dog pooped or your kid is crying. That just makes the distraction all the more disruptive. Fix it and come back.
If you need to get up and answer the door or use the facilities, do it without announcing it. I swear not only do we not want to know what you are doing off camera; we don’t care…your life is not what the meeting is about. Come back silently and join the meeting in as if nothing happened.
The best way to get more comfortable with any technology is to keep using it. Take a trial run or two or three. Play around with the site/program on your own before your first meeting.
This may sound like a basic Q, but have you ever taken a tutorial? (Don’t be shy or embarrassed about it…for one, no one will know because you’re in the privacy of your own home. For two, there is no shame in getting help learning a new skill. You had to take drivers lessons, right?) If you’re nervous about the call, becoming more familiar with it will ease your mind. Try the “Getting started” or “Video tutorial” links offered on their own site. Zoom even offers free live training; watch the recording if you’re still too shy. You can Google “how to use [name of videoconference]” for even more help.
When you’re feeling comfortable, schedule a Zoom test meeting. Or call a meeting with friends or family to get used to it live. Check in with neighbors or relatives. Call some college buddies. Try any excuse to play around with and use the app. [I’ll offer specific “how to use Zoom” tips in another post.] This way you’ll knock out all those “am I doing this right” and “how do I share a file” Qs. The more you play around with it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the less nervous you’ll be.
Overall, treat videocalls just like you would any other gathering. Be nice. Pay attention. Unless you’re running the meeting, you don’t have to talk or participate in any greater way than normal–speak up if you want, be quiet if you want. No big deal.
Soon you’ll find it’s not that hard–and kinda fun. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. I mean, even introverts have their limits on being alone, right?
Taking advantage of all that time at home….Resources to get started writing that children’s book of yours
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned I’m a children’s book author without the reply being, “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that.” (Well either that or the implications about how easy it must be but let’s save that for another time, shall we?) What better time to sit down and write that book you’ve been thinking about than in the age of quarantine? I mean, what better excuse do you have to tell your kids to get out of your room, you’re writing?
There’s an uptick in novel writing right now. Which means soon (if not already, according to The Guardian) there will be an uptick in submissions. Which means you need to make sure your work stands out from the crowd. Which means you gotta do your best work. Which means, if you’re just getting started, you need to get started on the right foot.
I’m here to help.
You’re going to need some assistance, even if you’re pretty sure you don’t.
Writing children’s books isn’t as easy as you think.
For example, most writers assume an editor reads the manuscript and decides from the email if they’ll want to publish it, replying by saying they’ll be sending out a contract. Ah, yeah, no. Here’s a peak into the lengthy acquisition process from one publisher, First Second Books (spoiler alert: they have nine steps, meetings, dozens of people and lots of math before any final decisions are made). And that’s just whether or not to send a contract. Even more people get involved after that.
Another probable assumption is timing. It takes longer to get the book in a bookstore than you think. Way longer. About 2-5 years for a picture book to hit the shelves, not including how long it took you to write it–which, if it’s good, might take many months, or years. [I know an author whose publisher waited for a particular artist to be available and it took SIX YEARS to get published from the time she got her contract. An exception, but still.] Maybe two years for a teen YA (young adult) to get to market, according to agent Steve Laube. In this stay-at-home environment that may slow down things even more, since no one’s at the ol’ printing press to make it. Or bookstore to buy it. Or school to read it. So sit down Sally, there’s no rushing here. You might as well take the time to write the best possible work you can.
Just about every picture book writer assumes they need to submit illustrations or photos. I thought I did, when I first started. But you don’t! Do NOT ask your neighbor or friend to create sample artwork for it. It’s not only not needed, it’s not wanted. Send only the words if you’re a writer, and only samples of artwork if you’re an illustrator. If you do both really well, though, it’s okay to send in a mock up.
I could go on and on with random facts. I want to focus back on helping you kick off your manuscript.
The good news is there are hundreds of tools literally at your fingertips to help you set started. The bad news is that there are hundreds of tools literally at your fingertips to help you set started.
Why a mixed bag? Everyone and their brother has started a school or class or webinar on how to get published. And it’s their business, how they put food on the table. I’m not saying a for-profit group or people aren’t helpful! Is Magnolia Bakery‘s icebox cake not the best d*mn cake in the world because they sell it instead of giving it away for free? Of course not. It’s a business and they are experts. The very reason they do it for a living is what makes them the best (shout out to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier’s principle). But people online may not be the experts they appear to be…so be careful, and choosy, my friends.
The only way to get traditionally published is to have great material that’s sent to the right person or place (and now,”at the right time” might be more important than ever. Who knows?). So let’s get crackin’ with some things to consider as you get started.
Make sure any resources you pay for, or heed, are experts too. For example, one YA best-seller doesn’t make them an expert on the industry per se, but it does show they know how to write a great book for teens. They might not be your best bet for picture book advice. And their path to success isn’t necessarily the right formula for you (it’s certainly not the only way) so don’t try it copy it. Almost all authors will recognize this and dole out assistance accordingly. We’re a good lot. But these are the kinds of questions you want to be considering when you look at “Get Published in Five Days! We show you how!” kinds of pitches. Who are the sellers of this information? Are they out to help you–or help themselves?
There are lots of things to consider. If they are offering marketing advice, for example, ask about their own sales numbers and how active a role they personally played in their own book sales–was it based on their idea or the publisher’s? If they offer a course on writing, are they themselves published in the exact genre or age range they are talking about?
Don’t pay for a program or e-book because it’s ON SALE NOW, OFFER EXPIRES AT MIDNIGHT; pay for it because it’s a resource crafted by an expert you can’t find elsewhere that will help you move forward. You didn’t save $100 on $119 download on sale for $19 if you never use it. You lost $19. Think carefully about whether you’ll put it good use.
I’m not saying everyone is out to get you. There are so many great people out there that truly do want to, and can, and will help you. That’s what makes this industry so great. I hope I didn’t scare you away. The number of GREAT sites & resources waaaay outweigh the ones to be wary of. So don’t shut down that laptop yet. You’ve been thinking about this book way too long to give up before you started.
This home-bound time is almost a gift to you to start writing that dang book, so let’s get to resources. We’re gonna start at the very beginning (which is, after all, a very good place to start). Try looking at nonprofits and author websites first, you’ll be amazed at what’s available for free when you google the right “how to” phrase.
A “how to write picture books” search might bring you here (weird that it’s my own video, right?):
Here are a few other resources to look into when you’re getting your feet wet. These are for the true kidlit beginner writer that has just sharpened their pencil and isn’t sure what to do next.
I can’t possibly list every great beginner resource, but this is a start…for your start:
Kidlit411 offers manuscript swaps, writing challenges, all kinds of how-to writing resources from picture book to chapter book to middle grade and YA, giveaways, articles, blogs, and more–all free! (donations accepted) With soooo much content it can be a bit overwhelming so maybe check this after you have your first draft.
scbwi.org offers current listings of editors and agents along with contact information, monthly news, awards and grants, a great community of writers and illustrators that probably live in your immediate area no matter where you are, free or $10-$25 webinars and more (membership required for most resources)
Writers Digest (not as much kidlit stuff but solid writing help, they also offer classes and crits for pay)
There are of course a ton of other general writing resources not dedicated to children’s books. Good writing is good writing but I suggest you center your efforts on kidlit resources as our needs/requirements (such as word count) and formats are slightly different. If you’re not up to snuff on the right way to submit, you’ll be placing yourself at an immediate disadvantage. After all your hard work you don’t want to do that.
If you’ve got other great (free or free-ish) beginner resources to suggest, lemme know!