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writing life

Willpower

I read a lot of books about things like productivity and time management, mostly because I have no adult supervision, so I need all the help I can get. I’m my own boss, so there’s no one monitoring when I go to work, what I do during the workday, when I stop work, or how productive I am. I have even less structure when I’m writing for independent publication and there’s no publisher deadline. That means I need to figure out ways to keep myself honest and make the most of my time. There’s also an element of fascination and curiosity. I love psychology and figuring myself (and other people) out. My life makes for a good experimental environment because I have total control over just about everything. I decide when to sleep and wake up, when and what to eat, when and how to work. That allows me to try the various advice I read about in a way that I couldn’t if I had to worry about a job, spouse, kids, or even pets.

My latest read was a book called Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. It’s all about how willpower works and how to use it. They cite the now-famous study in which preschoolers were given a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it before the researcher returned to the room, they’d get another marshmallow. They were studying self-control in children, but then later followed up with the kids when the daughter of one of the researchers, who’d been part of the preschool class used as a study group, mentioned running into her former classmates in college. They were curious to see what became of the kids, and it turned out that the greatest predictor of future success wasn’t intelligence or even socioeconomic background. The kids who held out for the second marshmallow were overwhelmingly more successful — better grades, went further in school, got better jobs, were better liked — than the kids who ate the marshmallow. The kids who ate the marshmallow were more likely to have dropped out of school or gone to prison. This held true even when they adjusted for race and class. I guess I’m interested in this kind of thing because I was the sort of kid who not only would have held out for the second marshmallow, but I’d have then held onto both marshmallows, saving them for some future special occasion. I would say that I’m not particularly successful, but then again, I am making a living in a career where most people who try it don’t end up making a living, so maybe we’re grading on a curve.

Anyway, the book offered a few takeaways that I found interesting and potentially useful for people who are trying to manage their lives more effectively. One key thing about willpower/self-control is that it’s essentially a decision — you’re deciding to take one action (usually a less immediately pleasant one) over another action (usually one with short-term benefits). It functions in the brain like any other decision you make — what to wear, what to do, what to buy, etc. We only have a limited amount of stamina for decisions, and once it’s depleted, it’s difficult to make decisions at all. By the end of any decision-making process, we’re likely to just not care and go with whatever the default is, and there’s lower willpower after that. Because of this effect, if you’re trying to change something in your life that takes willpower to do, it’s more effective to focus on one thing. You don’t have the stamina to make that many decisions on an ongoing basis. That’s why New Year’s resolutions usually fail: that long list of things you’re going to improve requires more willpower than you’ve got. You’re better off picking one thing and focusing on that.

The cool thing is that once you focus on that one thing, other things tend to fall into place without you really trying. They found in a study that when participants worked on one change in their lives from any category (physical fitness, financial planning, study habits), they also ended up eating better, smoking and drinking less, exercising more (even when physical fitness wasn’t the thing they were working on), and generally getting their lives in order without making any conscious effort to do those things. I’ve found that this summer. Because I’m rehabbing my bad knee and am in physical therapy, I have to exercise daily. I’m highly motivated to do this because I’ve been in pain and not able to do things, so I want to get better and know that doing my exercises will help. There’s also a financial motivation, as my medical bills will be lower the sooner I’m released from therapy, and doing the exercises daily will make me get well faster. And I’m getting monitored on my progress by the physical therapist, so I’m held accountable. That has made it relatively easy for me to make myself exercise every day. I’ve found that the rest of my life has fallen into place. I’m going to bed earlier and getting up earlier, feeling well-rested. I’m eating better. I’m doing a lot more writing. I’m making progress on organizing my house.

The other helpful thing is that after you do a behavior that requires willpower for a month or so, it becomes a habit, and doing it regularly no longer requires willpower. Then you can move on to some other thing you want to focus on. So, instead of making a list of resolutions, pick one thing to focus on. When that becomes a habit, move on to the next thing.

Accountability and monitoring really help in sticking to something. For writers, they suggest keeping track of the number of words written and amount of time spent writing (which I do). Planning also helps because it separates the decision from the action, which means it takes less willpower. I’ve found that to be very effective for me. I make a schedule for my day in the morning, and I find it’s a lot easier to say “it’s time to clean house” or “it’s time to write” because it’s in my schedule than it is to have a big open amount of time and then have to decide how to fill it when I’m in the moment, especially later in the day, when I’m tired. One fine tuning I’ve made to my schedule this week is to schedule my breaks. I used to just block off afternoons for writing, but I found that when I took a break during that time, it was sometimes hard to get back to work. So, instead of just blocking off the afternoon, I block off distinct writing sessions with distinct breaks, and I even plan what the main activity for each break will be. Then it’s a lot easier to get back to work. I’m not deciding it’s time to get back because the decision has already been made.

Anything you can do in advance to make the decision less taxing can help. If you’re dieting, don’t have tempting food in the house and you don’t have to decide not to eat it. Measure out portions ahead of time so you don’t have to decide how to eat or when to stop eating. Lay out your exercise clothes ahead of time so you don’t get sidetracked by deciding which t-shirt and shorts to wear. That’s something else I’ve been doing, scheduling time to set up my writing area. That way, all those little procrastination behaviors don’t happen during the designated writing time. The glass of water, computer, notebooks, etc., are all already there when it’s time to get to work. It used to be that the first half hour of my writing block was filled with the equivalent of the toddler demanding a story, a glass of water, and a closet monster inspection to delay bedtime. Now I have that block scheduled for preparation, and I find that I’m actually starting writing sooner.

It’s interesting reading if you want to work on managing your life, and might even be good character fodder.

writing life, writing

Change vs. Persistence

In my last writing post, I talked about dealing with discouragement. One of the pieces of advice was to change what you’re doing. There’s the often quoted saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, it makes sense to change what you’re doing.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for persistence. What you’re doing may not be wrong. It may just be a case of sticking with it and building up momentum. In the business book Good to Great, Jim Collins brings up the concept of the “flywheel.” In a factory, this is a large, heavy wheel that takes a lot of effort to get moving, but once it’s moving, it can be kept moving with minimal effort. The idea behind the metaphor is that in your career, it may feel like you’re not getting results at first, but if you stick with something long enough, you’ll eventually reach the point where it keeps turning on its own. If you keep starting and stopping or changing to something else when what you’re doing seems to be difficult, you’ll never build any momentum.

Which advice is right? It all depends on the situation.

In some cases, the need for change is pretty obvious. If you’re not selling enough stories, then it makes sense to write more stories and/or work to improve your writing. Sending out the same story over and over again, even after everyone’s rejected it, isn’t necessarily the good kind of persistence. The persistence there is continuing to write and submit rather than giving up at the first setback.

Other situations are more difficult — is it better to stick with a publisher and hope that you’ll gradually move up in the ranks and eventually have a book chosen to be a lead title, or is it better to move on and hope that you can find a publisher who’ll give you more attention now? Is the agent who launched your career the best fit for you when you want to move to another level? Should you continue with your current marketing efforts and hope that you can build an audience if you just let it build momentum, or should you drop some things and try some new things?

One thing to consider is how much you’ve sunk into doing things the way you’ve been doing them. Sometimes, that investment means you should stick with it, but that can also hold you back in making needed changes because you don’t want to lose that investment. Would starting over do you any good? Are there any opportunities waiting for you if you stick with where you are? Is there a potentially better use for the resources you’re currently devoting to what you’re doing now?

Have you given it enough time and opportunity to take off? If you’ve given what you’re doing a reasonable amount of time and aren’t seeing results, change makes sense. Are you seeing a positive trend? Are things getting better over time, even if you’re not yet where you’d like to be? If things aren’t improving even after you’ve given it some time, then change makes sense.

Here’s an example from my own career: I’ve been hitting science fiction conventions as an author since soon after my first fantasy novel was published, more than ten years ago. Travel to conventions was the biggest part of my marketing budget. Last year, I started thinking about whether that marketing strategy made sense for me. I realized that even that far down the road, I was still relatively unknown at the bigger conventions. I don’t seem to be making a name on the convention circuit or among that particular crowd. I’ve had one invitation to be a guest of honor at a convention. I mostly see the same faces in the audience when I do readings. I got a big boost from conventions early in my career when I went from being unknown to being slightly known, but I don’t seem to be growing beyond that level. I’ve given it more than ten years, which is long enough that if I were building momentum, I’d have seen it by now. The results seem to be tapering off. There are more effective ways I could use that time and money, so I decided to back off from conventions unless I’m an invited featured guest. Instead, I’m attending professional development and networking-oriented events and library and school events. I’ve used the travel budget on getting a new logo and website developed, and I’m working on other activities that I hope will get my name out in different ways. I’m also using the time I would have spent traveling to and recovering from conventions to write. I wasn’t feeling the momentum, so maybe I can build momentum in a different way that might allow me to hop back into conventions at a level where I can see more results, or at least do it for a different purpose, meeting fans instead of building a name.

If the answer is to stick with it, you may still need to make changes, like improving your writing, increasing your output, or finding new ways to build word of mouth. You can seldom get over any kind of slump by just continuing to do exactly what you’ve been doing all along. At the very least, changing something makes you feel more empowered and may help change your frame of mind, which makes it easier to weather the discouraging moments.

writing life, writing

Dealing With Discouragement

When I was at the Nebula Awards weekend last month, I was on a panel about dealing with discouragement. While preparing for that panel, I thought a lot about that topic, so I thought I’d share some of the ideas I came up with, only some of which actually made it into the panel discussion.

I think just about every writer deals with discouragement in some form or another, and at every stage of his or her career. When you’re just starting to write, you may be discouraged about being able to find time to write or struggling to get all the way through a book. Later, you may be discouraged about your work being rejected. Once you’re published, you can get discouraged by reviews, by the way the publisher treats your book, by sales figures, by the kind of recognition (or lack thereof) you receive. That’s why it’s important to learn and practice good coping skills so you can turn your discouragement into a positive force.

One thing to know is that it’s okay to be discouraged and even angry. The trick is to channel it in a more positive direction rather than letting it fester and become a negative force on you and your career. Eat chocolate, rant and rave a little, throw a beanbag at the wall, vent to your friends. However, do all this in private. A social media meltdown could come back to bite you. It may be a turnoff to industry professionals who may want to work with you in the future, and you don’t want readers or potential readers to think of you as an angry whiner. That doesn’t mean you have to always be Little Mary Sunshine, but you should probably think about and process your discouragement before expressing it publicly rather than ranting out of pure emotion on a public stage. I would also caution you to not get too physically unhealthy in your emotional coping strategies. A little chocolate or a drink with your writer friends is one thing. Drowning your sorrows in alcohol isn’t going to help matters. You also don’t want to stay angry and bitter without moving forward because that will affect the quality of your work — and your life.

Once you have the raw emotion out of your system, you can get more analytical. What, exactly, is it that’s discouraging you? Write it down and try to get to the core of it — I’m struggling with the middle of the book, which feels boring; I can’t seem to get beyond the form rejection stage; my publisher did absolutely no publicity for my last book, then blamed me for the bad sales; I’m getting horrible reviews.

Now identify the factors that you can control and do something about. You can’t change what publishers do, what reviewers say, how agents perceive your work. But you can change what you write, how you write, how much you write, what professional activities you participate in, how you promote yourself, etc. So, for example, if you’re getting nothing but form rejections, you can try writing something different — maybe there’s not much of a market for what you write — or taking some workshops to try to improve your writing. You can get into a critique group or find a critique partner to get some feedback on your work and see if you can identify what might not be catching editors’ or agents’ attention. You can go to conferences to network with people, maybe get some face-to-face pitch sessions so that you can get some up-front feedback if it’s what you’re writing that’s being rejected, or you may get a more personalized response that identifies what it is in your writing that isn’t working. Develop a plan based on things you can control and do something about to address the source of your discouragement. Set goals and targets that you can measure, and keep track of your progress. That not only puts you on a path to correcting things, it makes you feel more empowered, which makes you feel less discouraged.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of things you can’t control, and that becomes more true the higher you go up the career ladder. You can’t make publishers decide that yours is the book they want to promote, you can’t make reviewers review your work and like it if they do review it, you can’t make your book get nominated for or win awards, you can’t make readers buy your book and tell others about it. How do you deal with it if the source of your discouragement is something you can’t control? I think this is where positive anger comes into play. That’s using anger as a motivation to persist and improve. Even at this level, the things you control are still the same. It just may take a lot more work to get enough change to make a difference, and it will take a lot of motivation to power through. If you’re not getting a push from publishers, what it takes to get it is a book that makes everyone in the publisher excited about its potential, or else a track record of steadily rising sales that makes the publisher feel like this can be the book that breaks out. That means working hard to find the right concept, executing it brilliantly, maybe some networking to build support and establishing a professional reputation. That’s possibly even more difficult than writing a first book, and you’re going to need all your righteous anger to fuel you and remind you that you need something too awesome to be ignored. It may help to have a motivational mental image. I’ve joked about what I’ll demand when I ride into New York at the head of my conquering army, with maybe a few dragons circling overhead, but that mental image does spur me to get back to work when I’m ready to settle for “good enough.”

I think the worst way to handle discouragement is to focus on the things you can’t control without having any kind of plan in place to deal with the things you can control. Then you just have that free-ranging disappointment and anger, that sense that the world is out to get you. I find that it really helps to dig into what’s causing the problem I’m having and what I can do about it, then focus my thoughts and efforts on what I can control.

writing life

Writing and Medical Care

I’ve started physical therapy on my wonky knee, with the evaluation yesterday and the first real appointment this morning.

This experience is making me realize just how vulnerable authors like me are. Because I’m self employed, I have to get individual insurance, which can get expensive. For a few years, I haven’t had the fear that using my insurance will make my premiums rise or that being diagnosed with something will mean I have a pre-existing condition that will mean higher premiums, an inability to get coverage, or coverage that doesn’t include that condition. Unfortunately, that protection seems to be about to go by the wayside. I don’t have the protection of a big employer that can negotiate with insurance companies or loop me in with a large group. I’m very concerned about what will happen to me as a result of what’s going on in Congress right now. I’m making enough money writing that I don’t need a regular job, but I’m not making enough money to afford the kind of health insurance costs that may come out of all this. I might be in the position of having to get a job I don’t need or want in order to get health insurance, which means less writing and fewer books. Of course, that’s if I can get a job after 15 years out of the workforce and as a middle-aged woman. I don’t even know what I’d do. My PR skills are way out of date because it’s all about social media these days.

Meanwhile, there’s no sick leave, no workman’s comp (if this were a work-related injury). It is nice to be able to schedule therapy appointments whenever without worrying about taking time off from work, but they may also cut into my productivity. Today’s appointment was early in the morning, which leaves the rest of the day free, but I’m also tired and sore.

But I need to earn a living and maybe make enough to pay my medical bills and whatever happens to my insurance next year, so I will write even though what I really want is a nap.