Managing creativity

Managing your creativity is one of the difficult parts about being a writer. Now this may sound like an odd concept because most people view creativity as something that we react to. We often describe inspiration as something that strikes, is fleeting, it rarely comes when we want it to. There seems to be so much waiting around that It’s no wonder that Greek mythology described inspiration as a bunch of fickle spirits called called muses.

While creativity may seem like a passive process, it really isn’t. When writing is your business, you really can’t wait around for inspiration or else you might be flat broke. It’s the worst feeling in the world to sit down to write and inspiration is nowhere near your computer, but that should never deter you from attempting to write anyway.

Creativity is an active process that needs stimulation and proper direction to surface. To put it another way, the muse does not reward the writer that simply waits around for her. She rewards the writer that seeks her out and wants to put her to work.

Two sides to the Coin

Creativity becomes necessary when we are challenged to do something. We turn to it when there are problems that need to be solved and we create space for it when we are totally focused on finding a solution.

When writing fiction, finding creative solutions to narrative problems both large and small is the biggest challenge. On a small scale the hardest part is writing scenes that are coherent and flow well. That requires me to solve problems that have to do with point of view, believable dialogue and proper description. On a larger level it’s plotting the story so that all these disparate scenes form a coherent narrative.

In both of these cases I’m challenged to find solutions to the many obstacles that get in the way of good writing. In this context, inspiration and being creative is when you are so focused on solving these particular issues that you begin to work through them on instinct. You know exactly what you are doing and how to do it without much thought on the matter

Creativity needs space to operate. It require you to allow room for solutions and new ideas to flow through. Often the challenge is keeping your inner space clear enough to be inspired. If you’re worried or distracted about something, then you are crowding out creativity.

There is such a thing as creating too much space for creativity. I’m the type of writer that gets easily absorbed in my work. When the muse strike, she comes in a flood that won’t ever leave me alone until it’s down on the page. I can get so absorbed in a concept or idea that it consumes all of my focus.

Until that idea is written down and articulated in some way, I can be very distracted and often lose touch with what is going on around me. If I’m not careful, a single piece of writing can take over my life to the point where other important projects can fall by the wayside.

Managing your creativity is essential to being successful. Creativity can become unwieldy when you can’t put down the Muse for a while and focus on things that are equally important to your writing life.

Blogging went on a two week hiatus because an idea for a short story took hold and simply would not let go. It’s now completed and in the editing process, but it made me realize that working this way isn’t efficient.

The flip side of this is not creating enough space for yourself to be creative. There are the people that wait their entire lives for inspiration to come and often never get around to starting a creative project. Or they ride the initial momentum then burn out before they even get to the finish line.

People like this can wait around their entire lives before ever starting that book, poem or painting. Often, they don’t schedule time to do their art and let themselves be swept away by other things that are “more important” than the creative project they hope to finish.

Striking a Balance

Creativity rewards active people. It lends itself to those who seek to use it and becomes most effective for those who know how to manage it.

The first step to doing this is to set the edges of all the projects that you have. You can’t apply your creativity to something if you really don’t know what you are doing. Think about all the steps necessary to accomplish a goal. Be specific, make sure to write them down and review them as much as possible.

Creating space for creativity also means knowing when you’ve started and when you’ve finished. The Muse is more likely to visit if she knows you will be working at 6 a.m. every morning to finish a short story due by Sunday.

The second step is to be aware of all your commitments so you do not neglect any one aspect of your life. Disappearing off the face of the planet for long periods of time simply because a single project took over your life is not a healthy balance.

Know when to put down the pen and work on something else. Make sure that you are still taking the time to properly deal with other issues aside from writing that allow you to be successful like planning, market research and maintaining your social media presence.

Third is to make sure that you are always in the moment. Worry, fear, doubt and distraction are not proper places for creativity to show up. If you were thorough in defining your goals for a project and you’re clear about how you are going to deal with all the other commitments that surround your writing life, then you’ve done much of the work to clear your inner space and allow creativity to come through.

Realize that obsessive focus on the end goal is not a good thing either. If you are constantly thinking about the end of a project rather than the step you are taking at that particular moment then that tends to choke off creativity. Remember that creativity thrives on being active and in the present. If you are worried about something in the past or obsess about the end goal to the point where you neglect the present then you leave no room to be creative.

Clarifying values is first step to becoming a writer

There’s a big difference between being a professional writer and being an amateur. The amateur chooses the safe path and gives himself an out when it comes to writing. Often when the moment comes to choose between writing and to do something else he will choose to do something else.

The amateur does not have his heart into his choice to become a writer.

This isn’t an easy choice nor is it one that you make by simply declaring to the world “I am a professional writer.” Really it’s a paradigm shift that may require you to change the way you approach the decisions that you make.

I say this because you don’t make the choice to become a professional writer one time. I make it perhaps hundreds of times in a week. Writing is a choice that I make every day that isn’t motivated by paying the bills or making an honest living for myself. It’s the simple fact that I have something to say and I believe it’s worthwhile to share it with other people.

The reasons I write are important to me and the only way to show that commitment is by doing.
John Wooden, the great UCLA baksetball coach had a saying “Little things done well.” The difference between an amateur and a professional is that the pro makes the right choice on all the little decisions that they have to make.

Consider all the decisions I have to make each day: Sleep in or get up early and read, watch television after breakfast or write this post, plod around on facebook or start writing this short story, Watch a movie after work or spend an hour or two plotting my novel.

Those are all very small decisions, ones that are made every day without much thought, but they are important because they are  choice to act.

The first step in becoming a writer has nothing to do with learning any particular skill or taking a specific class. It comes down to making that choice— are you a professional or an amateur?

The Personality ethic

I’m a big fan of success literature and a big chunk of my reading time is devoted to books on personal development. What I’ve found is that the true mark of a professional is the same whether you want to be an artist, writer or the head of a Fortune 500 company.

Professionals are people that let character dictate personality. To be clear,  character is the way we truly are while personality has to do with perception.  Indecision, regrets and negativity— all the things that hold you back— stem from trying to live based on perception rather than character.

The emphasis these days is on the personality ethic meaning we strive to project a certain image of ourselves based on the way we want people to see us.

The basis of a job search is selling your potential to prospective employers. So you acquire skills and learn specific techniques with the idea of becoming attractive to future employers. Employers looking to hire the type of personality that fits in with their company.

We project that image of ourselves in several ways. The obvious one is our cover letter and resume.  Others include personal websites, blogs and social media. Even certain face-to-face interactions are often done with an air of projecting a certain personality.

When you go in for a job interview or meet with a client there is a certain decorum that is expected that is different from meeting with friends or family. When an employer asks you for an interview what they really want to know is if the person you exhibit on paper is the same one that is standing right in front of them.

The personality ethic does not just apply to your job search.

Marketing campaigns are built on selling you on the fact that their product fits in with the specific image you have of yourself. Social media like Twitter, LinkdIn, Pinterest, Facebook and many others are built on the principle of sharing your personality with others.

Personality is just the tip of the iceberg though and where people miss the mark is not taking the time to figure out who the real person is underneath all the layers of personality.

Living from the inside out
Personality is easy to fake. The easiest way to lose credibility among your peers is to expose yourself as a phony. The best example of this is Tiger Woods. Think about the way you viewed him 10 years ago then now.

It’s almost like looking at two different people, but really what happened is that his character came to the surface in a very public way. He was an untouchable personality for nearly a decade–at least that was the image fans and the media came to know.

The error was ultimately believing that he actually was untouchable in all aspects of his life.
Woods could not live up to the personality other people created for him and ultimately that wasn’t necessarily the man he was or wanted to be. The results speak for themselves.

Think of character, or the person we really are, as a series of concentric circles much like a dart board. At the heart of it are your values, which is the relative worth you hold for yourself.

The values you regard highly form the core of your character. Love, hard work, perseverance are positive values while on the opposite end are greed, selfishness and laziness. These values in turn drive our beliefs, which is the next ring on the circle.

Beliefs are our opinions and convictions about ourselves and others. If you value hard work, then you will believe that others are hard working as well. If you love yourself then you will believe others are loving as well.

Beliefs lead to the next ring, which are our expectations. If you really believe that you will persevere through anything then you will expect that out of yourself in every situation. Contrast that with the person that believes that they will fail, chances are they will enter a situation with the same expectation.

The outermost ring are our actions, which is the one that we ultimately judge ourselves and others by. What we do is a reflection of our expectations, beliefs and values.

In the end, character is the basis of personality or the image we hold of ourselves and others. Anytime we are dealing with other people, what we are really doing is taking it on good faith that personality and character are one in the same.

When we say one thing and do another then we are violating that basic agreement that who I think you are is the same as who you really are. Once that happens it’s very hard to to get that trust back.

Negative emotions happen when what we are doing is not in line with our core values. When somebody is not happy with their job, what they are really saying is that deep down the work that they are doing does not have much personal value.

Clarify, Clarify, Clarify
The professional strives to be clear about every aspect about their lives. If they don’t know something then they strive to learn about it so they can be clear about what they are getting into. This is what people call being solution oriented.

If you are thinking about switching careers or making a life altering decision, the best place to start is within. Clarify your values and figure out what is really important.

Love, perseverance and hard work are just concepts, but what do they really mean to you? How do they apply to your work?

Choose the values that are important to you then apply them to your own life by working outward on each ring of the character circle. Inevitably you will reach the outmost ring. At that point you will be thinking of actions that will embody the things that are most important to you.

Clarifying your actions is the process of planning and goal setting. If you’ve worked from the inside out then this is the process of constructing a personality that is in line with your true character.

If in the end this means you need to change careers or pursue something different, then you have a decision to make. If not, then at the very least you will feel much better about the job that you are doing right now. Gaining that kind of clarity over your work situation is enough to give you peace of mind and in turn you will do your current job better.

Measuring success

Clarifying your true values is ultimately fruitless if you don’t take the steps necessary to achieve them. The steps you come up with may not be easy and ultimately it’s your decision to do them or not.

Perhaps what you truly want is to pursue a career in writing, but quitting your current job would make it difficult to support your family. That is a difficult choice and one you would have to think very long and hard about.

This is different from choosing not to do something out of fear. This kind of resistance is mental and stems from worrying more about the perceptions of others then what we truly want. If you truly seek to live from the inside out then your actions will be the measure of the values you hold dear.

That might mean standing up to your parents who think that giving up a steady job is foolish, or making the decision to give up a certain lifestyle in order to make room for the career of your dreams.

Sacrifices and change go together, but the professional is an expert at dealing with failure.

Our current culture equates success with winning and that goes hand-in-hand with our obsession with personality and image. If that is what you truly value then in the end you will never be happy or content with your life.

The moment money, fame and glory are gone then what is left for you? Only amateurs strive to hold on to things that that are beyond their control. The real professional measures success by the quality of effort they put into their actions at that moment not by winning or achieving the end goal.

When I sit down to write, my goal is to put forth maximum effort in the time allotted. Whether that’s a 15 minute session or six hours of straight writing I am happy and feel successful at the end.

The reward is in the process and in the end that means I never really fail.

Profiling professionals: Writer Nick Mamatas

Writing is hard work that requires you to be in your own head so much that it can be easy to lose perspective on what you are trying to accomplish. I tend to lose myself in the short term goals of trying to finish a particular scene or story that I lose perspective on how it fits into the bigger picture.

I’ve always dabbled in fiction. I usually have a story or two in the works to break up the monotony of doing daily journalism, but never took it very seriously. Without a clear goal in mind none of these stories were ever really completed, but in the past few months I’ve had the urge to really take it seriously.

I took my usual approach when it comes to learning how to do something— read every single book that I could get my hands on. After a while, I felt confident enough to pay the money and take a writing critique class on genre fiction through the Writing Salon in Berkeley.

It was humbling to know that your writing isn’t as good as you think it is, but the critiques also made me reconsider my approach.

My instructor for the class was Nick Mamatas  who was a great teacher in addition to being a talented writer. I encourage you to take his class at the Writing Salon Fabulous Fiction: Thrillers, Romance, Fantasy, Sci Fi & More! available this spring. His lessons were on point and the criticisms were honest and useful.

It dawned on me that reading all the craft books in the world won’t make you a better writer (trust me I’ve read them all these past few months) so I sought a different tact— ask the expert and try to learn from what they did.

I met with Nick again at FogCon, a convention for genre fiction writers  that was held in Walnut Creek. He was kind enough to answer all my questions and even pay for lunch so the least I could do was offer you his insights in the hopes of helping all of you learn what the writing life really looks like.

Taking the Plunge

Take a look at the bibliography on Nick’s website and you’ll see that his writing credits are numerous and far ranging. There are works in fiction, short fiction, feature articles, essays, cultural criticisms, reviews, interviews, peer reviewed articles, comic strips and even a little bit of poetry.

The lesson here is really simple, but often gets lost. In order write well, you have to write a lot. Merely writing reams of pages is not enough though. You need to write with a purpose or you may find you aren’t getting anywhere.

Professionals have ambitions to put their work out there for people to see. There really is no way of getting around the fact that in order to be published you must impress all the people (i.e. editors, publishers and fellow writers) that really matter.

How long that takes is really up to you.

For Nick, it took two years from the moment he decided to make the commitment to write full time to the time his first article made it into a magazine. Up until that point he was working in the film industry.

“Well on some level I always wanted to be a writer. On some level I wanted to work in film. Then I realized that I didn’t want to wake up early and wanted to work from home.”

Nick got his first writing job by responding to an ad in a newspaper. He wrote term papers for college students while working on sets and doing lighting for various indie films.

He lived a rather bare-bones lifestyle in a New Jersey tenement.

Nick said that the term paper work was “feast or famine” and often in the summer months there really wasn’t any work to be had. It was during this time that he would explore the marketplace and really work on his stories.

He stopped doing movies and television in 1996 and switched to strictly term paper work in 1997. His first story “Your Life 15 minutes from Now” was published in Talebones magazine in 2000. His second story came out a year after then his third and fourth stories came out a year after that.
“(Two years) is pretty short. The cliche is it takes six years to teach yourself how to write. What you think in your mind and what ends up on page are two different things. When I first started writing, they were ideas I saw on TV. Slowly I moved to thinking of things only I could write. That’s when the (rejection) letters  started to change.”

Accept the fact that this isn’t easy

Publishing four stories in two years does not necessarily make you a decent living, but building a writing career takes time, patience and perseverance. In my final class at the Writing Salon, one of Nick’s remarks struck a chord with me.

To paraphrase, he said that that writers have something inside of them that they want to say and that if they are truly committed to the work then nothing will really stop them from saying it; not sleep, not your day job and you may even leave your dog alone to piss in the corner.

He put it more succinctly in our interview.

“If you don’t have a love for words then really it’s not worth doing.”

There’s no getting around the fact that your commercial success is dependent on being known and the fastest way to do that is to make sure your writing is in front of as many members of your targeted audience as possible.

Getting published requires you to finish stories and then put those stories in front of editors that will decide if they are worthy to be published. The lead time between how long it takes to hone your craft enough to get the attention of editors is the barrier that stops people.

Although it isn’t for everybody, writing short fiction is the fastest way to do this because they can be turned around pretty quickly and allows you to practice all the skills necessary to produce much larger work.

Nick says that he likes to write short stories because they don’t take hours and hours to churn out. He said that by 2006, 40 to 50 of his short stories have been published.

These days, Nick doesn’t have to solicit people to publish his works anymore. Many times publications come to him asking him for stories and he gets to pick which ones he gets to do. He said that the big breakthrough came when his first novel was published in 2004, but really the foundation was built long before that with the reams of pages he wrote that were never published.

He also wrote other things aside from fiction to pay the bills. In addition to writing term papers, he also did service journalism writing features on technology during the height of the .com boom in the late 1990’s.

He moved from Jersey City to the Bay Area the first time in 2004, moved back to the east coast then later moved back to the Bay Area where he now lives in Berkeley.

Often the most difficult part of the writing life is balancing writing with real life. Right now Nick has a job with Viz Media, which affords him healthcare and a regular 9-to-5 job, but he finds the time to write all the things that he wants to.

He said that for a while there wasn’t a real good balance between writing and real life as he struggled through health and money problems that caused him anxiety.

“This was the hardest way to do it. I had to struggle.  When you have no choice; it’s either write or starve then you have to write. I love working at home,” Nick said. “I enjoy my job at Viz, but I always think I should be at home.”

Successful writers read A LOT

For all the craft books that I’ve read about writing, being successfull really comes down to doing two things— reading and writing. All other things are really just ancillary and if you don’t do both of things then it’s impossible to be good.

Nick said that what stops people from being successful writers are the quality of work, which stems from the fact that they don’t read enough.

The reasons people don’t read are far ranging. Maybe they don’t have the time or patience for it. Perhaps they feel resentful about reading rather than spending time writing, but in the end all of those things are excuses. Watching television and movies or playing video games with a critical eye aren’t a substitute for reading.

Writers read a lot and there isn’t any way around it.

The way you read is also important. Read your books on multiple levels as a writer, reader and also a critic. In an ideal world you would reread your books on multiple times with those three perspectives in mind.

Nick says that he doesn’t read books multiple times, but he does keep those three perspectives in mind when he does read. He admits that he does miss some things by not rereading books.

“You look for a  story that makes sense and works together, whether all the facts are together,  whether it’s persuasive or not, whether it shows the limits of language.”

Don’t put any limits on the things that you read. Read anything and everything that you think is good. If you are a fiction writer then read some non-fiction books. Read features in magazines and articles on the internet. As long as it’s good writing then it’s worthwhile to take a look at.

“I read tons of non-fiction, political science and tons of articles. I read features and all the hard news. There are  some great feature writers out there and it’s good to know how the world works.”

Some notes on habit and parting advice

Being a successful writer really comes down to the choices you make each day. Every successful writer differs in the way that they produce their work, but they all make the decision to write something and follow through.

Being selective about the things what you do aside from writing is often the thing that either holds you back or ensures your success. Just remember that time spent watching TV, movies and going out with friends is taking away from the time you could otherwise be using to write.

The key is being able to balance those things with the two things you have to do— read and write. If it’s getting in the way of doing enough of both those things to be successful then maybe you need to reorganize your priorities.

Here are a few tidbits from Nick on various subjects.

• On copying the style of your favorite authors:

“I do it purposefully. I’m a  pretty talented mimic and I’ve done stories in the voice of Jack Keruac. I like mimicking other people’s voices, but they are still  Nick story.”

• What a typical day looks like.

“Back when I was freelancing, I’d wake up goof around looking at email, read the new, have lunch, walk my dog, and mess around online. I’d do everything aside from writing, but while doing all this procrastination, I’d be thinking in the back of my brain about my story. When I write novels I try to make myself write a page a day if it’s going great then I’ll go until I get tired.”

• On writing toward a certain market.

“I have firm idea in mind of what I want and I don’t care if it’s commercial or not. I just do what I like to do. It’s very destructive (to write to what the market wants.) It’s all about the gap between in knowledge between that is produced and what is not.”

A day at FogCon

I’m an admitted convention newbie. My first experience was Animation on Display in San Francisco this January and now FogCon at the Walnut Creek Marriot yesterday. FogCon is a convention that brings together genre fiction writers (and their fans) of different of types together to talk about issues that surround this field.

I heard about this really late after my teacher at the The Writing Salon Nick Mamatas told me about it a couple of days ago. It was a great experience and worth the money. This won’t be the last convention that I go to this year.

The biggest things that I got out of this were the contacts and also some inspiration for my own writings. So often writing is an individual task, but writers need to commiserate with their own kind and network. I felt inspired just hearing people talk about the things they are passionate about and that made me want to write a lot more.

I went to three panels on Friday. The first was a 75-minute writing session. The writing session was fun for the idea-generation exercises, but the biggest benefit was meeting other writers with the same goals as me. I’ve met a few people with stories similar to mine that have agreed to exchange their work with me.

The first Panel I went to was called “Apple Pie, Rayguns and Galactic Ovelords,” which dealt with the tropes that show up in genre fiction. The panel featured talked about how writers use different tropes and how readers view them. It’s something I knew about before, but I’m now a lot more aware of them when I read. I’ll definitely research this issue a lot more

The second panel was “Equal time for Non-Vampires” which dealt with the prevalence of vampires in genre fiction and other monsters in mythology that have shown up in writing. This was particularly interesting for my story Goddess INC, which deals with a variety of spirits so now I have some new myths to research and possibly incorporate into my story.

The third panel was on the “The Redefined Body” which dealt with body modification, cybernetics and how non-fiction and fiction authors deal with that issue. One of my favorite anime and manga shows is Ghost in the Shell, which deals specifically with the issues that come of from this. This panel certainly sparked a few short story ideas that I want to pursue.

There a still a couple days left in the convention so if you want to go check it out here.


The way you think is key to a writer’s success

The motto of this blog is “The art and business of creativity.”

I stress that because becoming a professional artists is really about the marriage of two seemingly incompatible things things— making money and creating art.

The idea that you can’t make a living doing something creative is off-base. I can point to numerous examples in my personal life of some very talented artists creating successful businesses, but there is a caveat to that.

None of them are focused on business when they are actually going through the creative process.

Competition kills the creative process not necessarily the art. There is a distinct difference between the two. The pressure of producing something to advance your business is healthy and can can compel you to create art.  It’s when you start thinking about all those things when you’re actually creating something that it all starts to go wrong.

Think about what you think about

Art is knowledge work meaning it takes the combination of vision and skill to create. Vision is the ability to see what you are creating in your mind before it turns into prose, a painting or a sculpture. Skill is the means to produce it.

Where people struggle in the creative process is doesn’t have as much to do with  having enough skill, as it does being able to envision what they are going to create.

Successful artists are the ones that put themselves in position to have vision in the first place. Clarity of thought is key to art and if you are busy grappling with negative emotions then it is difficult to create art on a consistent basis simply because your mind isn’t all there.

That’s not to say artists don’t deal with negative emotions— they do. It’s just that the professional artists are the ones that are able to push aside all pretenses and and focus on what you are doing on a consistent basis.

This may sound blatantly obvious, but it’s so much harder than you think.

The inability to deal with the things that keep  us from being artists is the number one career killer. This is especially true for artists that work full time. A day job can sometimes consume 40 hours in a week or more. Then there are those voluntary time wasters like the internet, watching movies or playing video games that can consume what little free time you do have.

The best thing you can do for yourself is create the time and clarity of thought necessary to have vision. Then you can use those skills you have more effectively.

A first step in doing this is deciding on a time and place where you can be an artists. The one thing that I’ve noticed about all professional artists whether they are writers, painters or sculptors is that they choose to carve out time devoted to creating their art and nothing else.

This is time where you are totally in the present moment. That means there isn’t any multitasking, stressing about work, or worrying about what you have to do 30 minutes from now. This is an important distinction because if your mind is somewhere else, it’s impossible to have vision.

Think of your mind as an empty room and every thought that comes through is a box that appears and takes up space. This room is constantly filling up with boxes, but the only way to clear the room unpack what’s inside. If you are constantly unpacking boxes filled with worry, fears, stress or thoughts of doing something else then there is no room in there for the thoughts that truly matter to you.

The practice of being completely present in what you are doing means pushing aside all those boxes that don’t matter and creating space for the ones that do. It means making a conscious choice in that moment not to check facebook, not to open up your email or give credence to anything else but what you are doing.

If you are truely passionate about being an artist and wish to take that next step from amateur to professional then you won’t just make this choice once, but probably thousands of times over  in a day because the temptations come often. It’s especially strong when you sit down for your allotted time to be an artist.

I’m not saying give up all those things you like to do, just give them all up when it’s time to roll up your sleeves and be an artist.

It’s only in those moments that you are totally present that you have vision. It requires you to be vigilant about what you are thinking about or the time you allotted to work on your art could be wasted.

I create this space every single time that I sit down to write something whether it’s a news story, a work of fiction or even an email to a friend. If it’s important enough for me to sit down and type it then it deserves my full attention.

It’s almost a feeling of splitting yourself in two. There’s one part of myself that’s watching, filtering through the thoughts that run through my head searching for the ones that are relevant to what I am working on. When a thought comes along that isn’t relevant or is negative then I simply let it pass and move on without judgement or a second glance.

To use the room analogy, I’m unpacking all the boxes and passing on the ones that don’t matter. I like to think of my thoughts as brown cardboard boxes because they all look the same until you open them up. It’s a lot easier to discard the ones that aren’t relevant if you treat them all as nondescript on the surface.

The ability to detach yourself from thoughts that aren’t important is a skill every artist has to master. You have to be willing to pass on thoughts or ideas that aren’t relevant. In the end what you think about is useless if it doesn’t turn into actions.

My job as an artist is to choose the best thoughts to act on in that moment and simply discard the rest.

The danger is letting certain thoughts hijack your focus.

Thoughts have momentum to them and can and take over your psyche with such speed and ferocity that it’s hard to stop. Sometimes this can be a good thing, like when I am on a tight  deadline after a basketball game and the details fall into order naturally. When that type of inspiration comes to me I roll with it and suddenly there’s 15 inches of copy sitting on my editors desk in the span of 10 minutes. Usually there is very little editing necessary.

It becomes a problem when you attach yourself to the wrong kinds of thoughts. These usually come in the form of negative emotions. In the above scenario, things go wrong when I start to focus on the deadline. I begin to let the fact that I only have 15 minutes to write something cloud my thinking space.

Thoughts about deadline turn into regrets that I should have left the gym sooner rather than talk to a coach. That turns into wishing that the your deadline was an hour longer and then anger at myself for making a wrong decision and at the paper for not extending my deadline. Suddenly I’m thinking more about the deadline then the actual story that I have to write in that moment.

That’s precious time wasted thinking about things that don’t really matter.

For one day, try to really observe where your attention is going. Keep track of points when you are completely focused on what you are doing. Take note of the times when you are doing one thing and thinking about something else at the same time. When you see these schism’s try and solve them immediately so you can back to focusing on the present moment.

How often are you truly focused on what you are doing?

Thinking about success

I began this post by saying that being a professional means balancing the idea of making money and creating art. The reason that these two ideas seem so incompatible is because of the social value we place on a certain idea of being successful.

Success to a lot of people is making money and being able to support yourself doing the thing that you love. There is really nothing wrong with that, but the thought of attaining that is so powerful that we can’t let it go when it’s necessary.

For writers, the common mistake is to rush the creative process because you want to get that book out now for one reason or another. They are afraid another writer will get there first, or they want to get their career going quicker and decide to cut a corner.

This also happens when authors write toward a certain market for financial reasons  rather than writing what they know best. They react to a market that may change once that book is finished. It’s alright to write within the parameters of a genre, but when it drives the moment-to-moment plot decisions or you derive a certain style from another writer simply because they sold a lot of books then it becomes a problem.

What happens when you finish and suddenly find out your book isn’t going to sell? If you measure your success by the social values I described then you are a failure. .

I’m not saying you shouldn’t set goals for yourself or put deadlines for yourself, but don’t become so attached to those thoughts that it limits you to certain ideas or it forces you to finish something before it is ready.

Art is not a competition to see who can produce the best work and to measure your success on the basis of what someone else has done is a recipe for disaster. Once you do that, everything you produce is seen through the lens of somebody else’s work and you will never be satisfied with anything that you produce.

When it comes time to really get down to work on your art, pressures stemming from the business side of your life should be just another box in the room that you have to pass on. You stay in the moment and just focus on what you are doing.

John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, was a man who enjoyed true inner peace in his life. He was able to achieve this because of the way he measured success. Success to him had nothing to do with winning or achieving a certain result, though he did strive to bring out the best in himself and his players through setting goals and working hard.

True success to him is peace of mind that comes from knowing you did the best you can with the circumstances presented to you. In the end that’s the only thing you have control over is yourself. You can’t predict where the market is going nor how critics will react to a piece that you finish.

To measure success based on such standards means you’ll never have true peace of mind.

In the end you really can’t ask anymore of yourself then your best when it is called for. If you approach working on your art as trying your best in the time you’ve allocated for yourself then it’s possible to be successful even if you fall short of your goal.

As a writer, my goal is to achieve inner peace. That isn’t necessarily in line with my long term goals of making a living as a writer, but it lays the foundation for me to get there.
For me, true inner peace comes when I am present and focused every moment that I sit down to write. Knowing that I’ve tried my best to do that affords me the peace of mind and clarity of thought necessary to stay present and keep on writing regardless of the obstacles that stand in my way.


The Importance of Platform

I’ve always known that building a platform is important to your writing career, but defining exactly what your platform is and how it functions was harder for me to understand. The best way I can explain it is a personal example.

It happened during work when I was doing research for an article at the Vallejo Times-Herald. I was sifting through our online archive, searching for an article I’d written a year ago when I noticed exactly how many times my byline appeared in the newspaper.

In the span of three years, my byline has appeared in the newspaper 340 times and given our circulation size of about 15,000 readers, that’s a lot of people who may view me as an expert on sports in Solano County.

I remember writing a fraction of those articles, but unknowingly I’d built a pretty sturdy platform as a sports reporter.

What is a Platform?

The idea of having a platform is not a new concept and many of my ideas on the subject come from reading about it. The two best sources I’ve found on the subject are in Sage Cohen’s book The Productive Writer and Christina Katz book Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. Katz’s book is great if you really want to get serious about this subject.

Platform is an expression of your expertise. It says to people ‘hey world, this is me and this is my experise.’ If you look at it from a business sense this is the organizing principal that will govern what you work on, how you work on it and who you work with.

Being clear about your platform brings focus to your writing life and gives you the criteria to evaluate what projects to work on, what type of research you need to do and allows you to take advantage of opportunities that may be staring you right in the face.

Creating multiple Platforms

The best example I’ve seen of exactly what your platform is actually supposed to look like and how it functions in your writing life is the website of job coach and professional geek Steven Savage.

Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a professional geek whose aim is to help people combine passion, talent, media and technology. Find info on his current project at http://www.focusedfandom.com

You can find his website here.

I met Steven during the Animation on Display Festival in San Francisco two weeks ago. I was trying to network and develop a second platform as an anime and video game writer, when I stumbled upon his panel called “Fans Without a Dream Job.” His tips on leveraging your hobbies and interests into a career led to the creation of this blog and now this post.

If you’d never met Steven before you could figure out who he is and what he’s about by going to his website and taking a quick glance at the home page. It’s the perfect example of clearly defining your platform.

“I am Geek 2.0, where technology, culture, media, and career come together…”

These days, writers rarely have just one platform and many times people that get into writing are experts in something else and fall into writing. Steven has been an Technology Project Manager for the better part of 16 years. He’s also a fan of anime and all things geeky, which he’s leveraged into jobs as a career coach, freelance writer and public speaker.

Steven is also the author of five books that deal with helping anime fans turn their hobbies into careers.

“Any writing job is communication and any career is about communication so it’s not hard for everything you do to feed it back into itself,” Savage said. “It’s easy to think of these things as separate, but you have to tie them together.”

It’s not just important, but essential for writers develop multiple platforms. If your goal is to make a business out of your writing life, it’s important to use every opportunity to bring the service you provide to all the people who need it.

In other words, the more you write the more chances you have to get paid. The faster you produce work, the faster those dollars come.

“A writing job is a lot more complicated,” Steven said. “People think they are  going to be one kind of writer, but the big thing is if you want to write for a living. Write as much as you can.”

Building your Platform

I think Steven Pressfield said it best in his book War of Art. He has a chapter called YOU INC, which expresses the idea that as a writer you are the President and CEO of your writing life. Thinking of yourself as a professional puts you in the proper mindset to think of your writing and work as a service. Your platform is the guiding principal that dictates where you put your time and effort.

In Steven’s case he was fortunate enough to be a Project Manager before being a writer.

“What I’m doing is applying project management skills to writing. What I like to do is start with the endpoint in mind. Ask yourself where your trying to go. This is something a lot of people miss. Look at where you’re trying to go then try to understand it. It helps to understand cause-and-effect once you understand how you’re getting there and where your trying to go. If you have a goal in mind then you can work back and get there much better.”

You have to decide what you are an expert at before you can tell people you are an expert at something. Sit down and figure out what subjects you know the most about and you may realize that is your expertise. If it’s something you have a passion for, but don’t know much about then figure out what you need to do in order to become an expert at that subject.

Once you’ve found your expertise, put it down on paper as a single statement of purpose. This will be your guide as you map out out exactly how you are going to get there.

Proper planning is essential no matter whether you see success as writing a book, running a successful blog or building a freelance career. “Planning is a creative process. The act of planning can be inspiring,” Savage said. “ It’s seeing what we can do. Creativity is something you have to take everywhere.”

The key to planning anything is having clear measurable goals and hard deadlines to get it done.

“The really difficult thing is knowing how long something is going to take. Even project managers at large companies have trouble estimating the size of a project,” Savage said. “The secret for planning a good project is to break things down to reasonably sized compliments. If you’re doing a book, go for X amount of work each day.”

The final and perhaps the most important step is to get started. Whether that is defining your platform, planning out how to reach your goals, or writing. Do something toward building your platform every day, because many times putting in steady consistent effort is the one thing that stops people from succeeding.

An overview of the Writing Process: Planning

Writing is a process and getting yourself to the end of a piece involves a lot more than just actually thinking about what you want to say. Developing a system to get you from rough draft to finished product in a timely fashion is common sense.
The key is knowing what you want done and when you want it done. Call them deadlines or anything else you want, but they are necessary. The trick is to create hard deadlines for yourself. Avoid soft deadlines that are unfocused and unclear about what being “done” means.

Negotiating deadlines with yourself  is the same with the people you are writing for. Learning to hit deadlines that are realistic and move you forward is a skill that all working writers have. This is the way I do it, but it isn’t a rigid system.

You are free to take anything I’ve outlined here and incorporate it into your own process.

Planning

The first thing I do with any writing project is outline my expectations for this particular story and stick it right at the top of my page.

Some things I keep track of  in this upper portion of the page:

Goals- A simple statement of what I want to accomplish with this story. This is the part where you say what you are writing and when you want to complete it. I change this part at each due date until the project is completed.

Due date- I put the due date for a story prominently on the page. This isn’t necessarily a “done” date but the date your scheduled to revisit this project and revise the top section. Something is finished when I reach a due date and feel that I’ve completed everything that needs to be done.

Word Count- I usually keep a cumulative word count and the number I want to hit for each day at the top of a story.

Prospective audience- Thinking about this helps set the tone every time you sit down. It puts you into a mindset to write a magazine article or  piece of fiction because you are writing for somebody. The faster you can focus on what you are writing, the more useful your time will be. Sometimes a story is only meant for your eyes only and that’s ok. Projects like that are necessary, just keep in mind why you want to write this particular piece and let that guide you.

Finishing any project is a matter of  having a clear view of the end you want to achieve and mapping out a specific schedule for completion. Once you’ve worked out all of your expectations for a story, gear every single minute you work on a project toward hitting one of the goals you’ve stated above.
For example, I may have 15 minutes to work on a piece of fiction. In order to maximize my time I have a clear goal in mind to write at least 500 words in that span. After the time is up I see how many words I got through and added it to my overall word count.

The other part that people tend to avoid is measuring progress and adjusting expectations. At the end of each week I’ll look at the top section of every unfinished project and check my current progress against expectations I set the week before.

Review your work as often as you think is necessary. Some people go months or even an entire year before thinking about their goals again. Either way,  the important thing is to think  about your goals and find a way to make them focused and relevant.

Here are a few questions I consider each week along with some follow up questions:
Did I honestly fulfill my expectations for the week (Celebrate if you did) ?
– If no  then ask, why didn’t I meet expectations?
-Then, how can I adjust my goals to make them more realistic?

If yes then ask think about setting more ambitious goals or stay at this pace until next week’s review.

Next topic is rough drafts.

Finding the momentum to finish a story

Momentum is often very fickle and in my writing life it comes in fits and starts with little without any real consistency. This is a problem for somebody who wants to write for a living and it’s one of my goals to find the momentum to finish every project that I start.
One of the keys to staying motivated is to simply start from where you are right now. I tend to place writing on a pedestal and think my way into a wasted writing session. I have to remember that not every word has to be perfect before moving on. The key is to be in motion and stay in motion. That means putting away that inner editor for a moment and simply let the words flow on the page as they are. There will always be time to fix things later.
It helps to think of every writing session as practice no matter how important, or not important, the assignment it. Practice means setting a deadline for yourself to finish, having a goal in mind before getting started and not worrying about the end. That can be hard to do, but try and occupy the nagging part of your brain by giving it other things to think about like keeping track of time or listening to some music in the background.
The other key, and perhaps the hardest thing for me to master, is not to be impatient about something that I am working on. Impatience is deadly to a project and  it is imperative that you don’t attach a reward to finishing a story. It’s done when it is done and there is no pushing something through prematurely.
That sounds odd considering  the goal seems to be finishing,  but the reward should be in figuring things out. That’s easy for somebody who does writing on the side and has another career to sustain them, but it’s different pressure for somebody sees this as a life-long career.
I understand there’s a financial pressure to getting your book out there for the world to see, but everybody is on a different path when it comes to getting published. You will find success, the key is to be patient and find reward in the process of seeing a story through to its end rather then in the end itself.
Being impatient tends to make me  push an idea through to what I think completion should be rather then what it is. This makes my writing sound contrived and that does not work.  If you quite trying to “work” on something you’ll meet less resistance in finishing it.
This may sound silly, but I really don’t know what I’m doing when I write a story and that’s ok. I sit down at the blank page with an idea in mind not a 50,000 word novel or a 3,000 word short story. As the words come down from on high a piece slowly takes shape. Trying to get in the way of that process creates bad writing.
One caveat to that are writing assignments, including freelance ones. Those are parameters for you to get paid and you have to follow them, but I don’t sit down to work on a piece of journalism with an angle fully formed and ready to put on the page. It often takes time and a lot of extra words to drill down to the 500-1000 words that are ready for publication so be prepared to know less before you know more about what you’re writing.
The hardest part is finding the motivation to get through this long process on a consistent basis. Especially those boring assignments that inevitably get you paid. Unless you’re financially stable and have time on our hands to write, not every assignment you do is a an exciting creative project.
The trick is to think long and hard about why you are working on a novel, short story or even that press release you feel that nobody ever reads. If there are specific reasons for doing something then there is a motivation for doing it (or to stop doing it). Once you find that remind yourself of it every time you sit down to work on a project.
Writing is similar to seeing that light at the end of the tunnel. You’re motivated to reach the light and get to a new destination in your writing life, but once you get there you find yourself eager to find another long dark tunnel to get through just to see where else you’ll end up.

The Inner critic

There are those inevitable moments that I finish a piece of writing and wonder “why the heck would anybody like this?” That tiny voice is my inner critic and a big part of my job is to make sure it has no influence on my writing life.
I avoid writing because it can be hard and scary. Not in life or death jump out of a plane scary, but the self examination and not liking what you see kind of scary. Putting down words offers them up for judgement and I worry that people will think my writing is poor. Sometimes that feeling is so overwhelming that kill a story before  it’s even written down. Being preoccupied with what other people think about your work is normal and natural for a writer.
Perhaps that idea was a piece of crap and showing it to anybody would have been a mistake, but it would not have been a waste of time. Judging work is not an author’s job and the needs of an audience should never factor into the decision to write something. I’m not saying that the audience doesn’t factor into my writing at all, they matter at a certain point in the process. When it comes to developing an idea though, the audience should be furthest from your mind.
Write what you know, write what makes you feel good and don’t worry too much about where it is going to go. Figure out what you’ve got first and appreciate anything born from your fingertips. If you feel this is a piece of writing worth sharing with the world then invite that audience into your psyche and listen to their input with clear eyes and a full heart. If not then simply file it away and appreciate it for what it is—your idea.
The true motivation to finish anything for publication is having personal stakes in the outcome or else it is going to become a chore to finish. If I feel comfortable with an idea then it will be an easy sell to an audience.
This isn’t a garauntee that everybody will love what you write— far from it. I’m just saying that it is not my place to judge whether something is good or bad. It’s my job to do to see every one of my ideas to their full potential.

Finding your voice as a writer

A writers voice is simple to define but elusive to find. The real great writers, the ones that have a lasting place in this business are the ones that capture it day-after-day, story-after-story and still leave you coming back for more.

Voice is a confluence of style, tone and diction that is unique to you. It’s why you can pick  a random passage from Old Man and the Sea not knowing who wrote it and know that you’re reading Ernest Hemmingway.

How you develop a voice is really not that hard, the problem is actually doing it requires a lot of work that many would-be authors aren’t willing to do. On a practical level it requires you write reams of pages and on an emotional level you have to be willing to plumb the depths of your soul time- after-time until you are comfortable with what’s there.

Some writers find the blank page very scary, but I embrace it and often take solace in it. Writing is a healthy emotional release that I’ve come to rely on in some of the darkest moments in my life. Often emotional moments in life are measured in tears or bursts of anger, but for me it’s measured in blank ink and word counts. Emotions are given form on the page in metaphors and similies and distilled into sentences and paragraphs until I can say that it is off my chest.

You find a voice in those moment you hold up that mirror  and figure out what’s deep inside. To find it consistently means “going there” over and over again until you can call upon it at will. When I write matters of grammar and mechanics are so far from my mind and really, writing produced in that fashion sounds mechanical and stilted. Not to say you should master those things, but it isn’t the most important thing when it comes to the act of writing something that is compelling.

The soul of a story is comes from the most obvious place— you.

No other person thinks and talks like you  and really, no other person can write like you either. The question is how much work are you willing to put in to figure out exactly who “you” are.

Good writing is born in a place of honesty and  good writers spend their lives being honest with themselves. That may be hard to believe, but it’s the reason why people take their writing so personally. People get their feelings hurt at workshops because getting critiqued is akin to making a judgement on them as a person.

This may sound weird, but you have every right to take it personal. That is you and if you put one iota of yourself into producing something then it will sting to hear somebody tear it down. It’s about being comfortable enough with who you are and the writing you’ve created to say “ok, I’m willing to improve my writing and willing to improve myself no matter how much it hurts.”

It takes a strong person to overcome that fear and write for an audience just once and it takes a person of character to do this over and over again.