Self-Talk for Writers

Writers are notorious self-talkers. We have to be. All of our employees live in our head. Self-talk is our way of motivating them to do their jobs.

But not all our self-talk is helping. Some of it is de-motivating those employees. Yes, it’s true that there are a few uniquely-wired writers who seem to be genuinely motivated by de-motivation. If repeating “I’m a loser!” inspires you to greatness, well…good for you. (And be sure to tip your therapist.) But be careful. Negativity (and also just plain wrongful thinking) leaves a residue that can poison your writing life.

The solution seems simple enough: just use self-talk that actually helps and avoid the stuff that doesn’t. Yep. But it’s not as easy as it seems. Some self-talk appears to be positive, when it actually isn’t. Here, I’ll show you.

Don’t say… “I’m going to write a bestseller” (see also: “I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling”). Why not? Isn’t that every writer’s dream? Not exactly. Because you don’t write a bestseller. You write a book. Then, if the literary wind favors you and blows your book into the right hands, it becomes a bestseller. (Lucky you.) If your motivation is “writing a bestseller,” your chances of falling short of that goal and into a deep, desperate depression are…well, it’s a really big number. Will some of you write a book that becomes a bestseller? I hope so. Probably. But not most of you. Still want to write? Good. Then keep reading.

Do say… “I’m going to write the best damn book I can.” Yes. Please say this. Every time you sit down at the computer or legal pad (remember those?). And then do what you say you’re going to do. Write, read, learn, apply. I don’t care what genre you’re writing – romance, science fiction, mystery, bacon (it’s my blog, I can make up genres if I want to), whatever – and I don’t care if you think you’re a literary writer or can’t tell the difference between David Foster Wallace and David Foster – if you can find motivation in writing well, you will always be successful.

Don’t say… “I’m brilliant.” You might be. I suspect you are, actually. But unless you’re just rehearsing ironic self-effacing humor for the talk show circuit, this kind of self-motivation will be self-defeating. Especially when you see the notes from your editor. You are what you are as a writer. And the only person who can rightly call you brilliant is…anyone but you.

Don’t say… “I suck as a writer.” Yeah, you do. You shouldn’t even be allowed near a laptop. Really? Does saying that to yourself help? Try this instead…

Do say… “I have a long way to go as a writer.” Then just…um…keep going. The journey isn’t the only thing, maybe not even the  most important thing, but it is a Very Important Thing. This is true of every writer on the planet. It should be, anyway. Let me know if you ever come to the end of your abilities. Then we need to talk.

Don’t say… “I don’t have enough time to write.” I totally understand this statement. I say it more than most. But what I’m really saying is “I’m not willing to change my writing habits right now.” We say this because we think we need something more than what’s available to us. Two hours instead of the one that sits before us. A whole day instead of an afternoon. A weekend away from distraction instead of these impossible 15 minute windows. I still need to work on this one. If I wrote during a tenth of the small pockets of time that appear in my day, I’d have completed a dozen novels by now.

Do say… “I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t write today.” How does this motivate? Well, it gives you permission to live. Writers have to be intentional with that sort of thing. Because what are we doing when we’re not writing? We’re thinking about writing. Tell yourself it’s okay not to write all the time, not to dwell on it every waking second. Go outside and enjoy the scent of rain for what it is instead of worrying about how you’re going to fix that scene where someone is enjoying the scent of rain for what it is.

Don’t say… “I don’t need an editor.” You do. We all do. Accept it.

Do say… “I love my editor. He makes me better. I will send him chocolate.” Nuff said.

Don’t say… “I’m ten times a better writer than [insert bestselling author here].” What’s wrong with this? It’s true, isn’t it? Well, maybe. It depends on how you measure “better.” (Frequency of adverb use?) Look closely at the statement. It’s a dangerous motivator. Sure, it could push you to the page, propel you forward to The End. But once again, there’s’ a good chance it will ultimately lead to disappointment. Think about it. What does “being a better writer than someone else” get us? Well, we hope it gets us more attention from agents and editors and readers. In a perfect world, it does. But that result is entirely in their (subjective) hands, not ours. The only two things we’re certain to get from such a claim are smugness and a sense of entitlement. If you ask me, smugness and entitlement don’t look that good on (most) writers.

Do say… “I am a writer.” Those four words are magic. Say them often. When you’re in front of the computer or stuck in traffic. When you’re looking in the mirror or lingering in a bookstore. When you’re frustrated and when you’re encouraged. “I am a writer.” Say it again. “I am a writer.”

Yes. You are. So write.

 

The Maybe (An Imaginary Conversation Between Writer and Editor)

Writer: Which is the better career – janitor or hairdresser?

Editor: I take it you got my editorial notes.

Writer: Yeah. So tell me. Which one?

Editor: You already have a job.

Writer: Humor me.

Editor: Hairdresser.

Writer: Wrong. Janitor.

Editor: I didn’t know there was a right answer.

Writer: Exactly! Do you see what I did there? You just fell into my segue trap.

Editor: You’re talking about my notes, aren’t you. Clever.

Writer: I know, right? So about those notes…

Editor: Which ones?

Writer: Well…all of them. But let’s start with the one that says “you show great promise.” That’s just another way of saying “you suck as a writer” isn’t it.

Editor: No. It’s just a way of saying you’re not “there” yet. That’s why I wrote the rest of the notes. I’m trying to help you find your way.

Writer: Where exactly is “there”?

Editor: There? That’s the place where an agent reading your manuscript shouts “Yes!” so loudly she scares one of the nine lives out of the office cat.

Writer: Okay. So you think I’m not there yet. I get that. Are you saying I should self-publish?

Editor: No. I’m not saying that at all. If you want to do that, fine. But even if you choose to self-publish, you still want to go to “there.”

Writer: I thought I was nearly there until I saw your notes.

Editor: “Nearly” is an interesting word choice. Lots of authors are “nearly” there. So many, in fact, that you really can’t tell one from the next. Do you see how that creates a problem for agents?

Writer: I guess. But if I’m nearly there, why do I feel like such a failure after reading all your notes?

Editor: Blame The Maybe.

Writer: The what?

Editor: The Maybe. Tell me, why do you write?

Writer: Because I like writing.

Editor: You don’t need me for that. Why did you hire an editor?

Writer: Because I want to be published. Someday.

Editor: Right. What makes you think you’re worthy of being published. Someday.

Writer: I don’t know. I guess I hoped that maybe…

Editor: Stop there. See The Maybe? When you came to me, you were standing on the sunny side of The Maybe. That’s the side where hope lives. It’s a pretty great place. The possibilities are endless. Maybe you’ll be the next Stephen King. Maybe your novel will be as popular as The Hunger Games. Or maybe you’ll find just enough readers to write full time, even if you never reach the bestsellers list.

Writer: Is it so wrong to hope?

Editor: Absolutely not. But you were asking me why you felt like a failure, remember? Here’s why: when you saw you had work to do, you stepped to the dark side of The Maybe. That’s where doubt rules. Suddenly you’re thinking “Maybe I can’t write after all,” or “Maybe I’ll never reach my dream of being traditionally published.”

Writer: When I got your notes, I was still pretty pumped. I do want to be a better writer. But then…you really like the color red don’t you.

Editor: You’re speaking metaphorically.

Writer: Yes.

Editor: It’s a strong metaphor, well-matched to the moment, and you didn’t follow it up with unnecessary explanation.

Writer: You’re giving me a writing lesson right now, aren’t you.

Editor: Yes.

Writer: So you think I can do this? You think I can get “there” from here?

Editor: I think that’s mostly up to you. How are you at paradoxes?

Writer: At writing them?

Editor: At living them. A successful writing life is all about paradox. You have to be okay holding confidence and uncertainty at the same time. Then there are the publishing twins: idealism and realism. Love and hate? That’s the definition of writing in three words. If you can’t live in paradox, the writing life isn’t for you. Can you do that? Can you be patient and eager at the same time?

Writer: Maybe.

Editor: Which side of The Maybe was that?

Writer: The sunny side.

Editor: Putting off your career change, then?

Writer: For a little while longer. Yeah.

Editor: Good. Because I was lying before. You wouldn’t make a good hairdresser.

Writer: Why not?

Editor: You don’t know the first thing about cutting. Yet.

Writer: That’s a segue, isn’t it.

Editor: Yes.

There Is No Good

Everyone* knows there’s no magic formula for writing a book that’s destined to become a bestseller. (Did you notice I didn’t write “there’s no magic formula for writing a bestseller“? I did that on purpose. Pause for a moment to think about why I did that.) But that doesn’t stop you from trying to find such a formula – or at least discover a few tricks that can improve your chances of such success.

So you reverse-engineer the bestsellers. You study the themes, the characters, the pacing, the writing style. You examine the publishing processes, the marketing tricks. You take everything apart and look for pieces that might fit your novel. You puzzle and ponder until you’re cross-eyed and confused and in the meanwhile, neglect the one thing that has the best chance of setting you apart from the crowd: finding and developing your unique writing voice. (How? By writing. A lot.)

But let’s say you’ve done that. You’ve refined your voice and improved your craft and as a result, you’ve written a good book.

I’m going to have to stop you right here. Because I know what’s coming next. You’re about to compare your novel with a best seller. You’re going to employ some common writer’s (il)logic and whine, “If [insert name of current bestseller here] can sell a ton of books, mine ought to sell even more. Because my novel is actually good.”

I have some news for you: There is no good.

The word is meaningless in this conversation. Here’s why:

1) Good is relative. What you call “good” I might call “bad.” Neither of us would be wrong except according to the other.

2) Good is not a quantifiable measure of anything. (See above.) Therefore, there is no direct correlation between “good” and “sales.”

So what makes a novel a best seller if it’s not how “good” it is?

Connection.

I’m not talking about the “it’s who you know” or “how many you know” kinds of connection, though admittedly, those continue to play a role whether you’re self-publishing or pursuing traditional publishing. As a bonus, here’s the entirety of my post on that topic: Networking and social media are good for you.

I’m talking about the connection a book makes with its readers.

A book doesn’t have to be good (or well-written or brilliant or whatever other phrase you like to overuse) to connect with readers. It just has to make them feel something they want to feel. Hope. Or excitement. Or wonder. Or surprise. Or fear. Or comfort. Or even dismay.

An intriguing plot can do that. So can a clever twist on a tired, old plot. Or, for that matter, a tired, old plot.

Compelling characters – whether superhero or everyman, do-gooder or do-badder – can do it, too.

Sometimes beautiful prose does it. Often, plain and simple does it.

Connection sells books. Readers call many of the books they connect with “good,” but let’s not forget all those “bad” books readers happily devour, too. (We call them guilty pleasures to minimize embarrassment.)

There are other factors, of course. Like simple curiosity 0r our strange cultural fear of being left out. Book buyers are happy lemmings.

The bottom line, though, is this: if a book connects with enough people, it will sell a lot of copies.

I opened this post with a claim that there is no magic formula. We’re at the end of the post and that’s still true. There’s no easy way to craft connection, nor would I encourage you to attempt it.

Every story has the potential to connect with a lot of people or a few. But if a novel doesn’t connect with one person in particular (I’m talking about you, the writer), chances are far greater for the latter than the former. So the simple lesson here is this: Write a novel that makes you feel something you want to feel. Then pray lots of other people want to feel that, too.

So what about writing well? Is that still important?

Well, that’s kind of up to you, isn’t it. I’ll take a wild guess though.

Yes.

 

*By “Everyone” I mean all writers who are smart enough to know that people who guarantee they can make you into a bestselling author are just trying to take your money. 

Once Again, With Feeling: The Empty Page

Life happens. And then it keeps happening. And by the time it starts to happen a little less – by the time you might actually have a little mental space for thinking thoughts and time space to write them down – you realize you’re used to the empty page, at peace with the simplicity of having written nothing.

The blog light grows dim, the empty page becomes an empty stage. There are no actors in the wings. No orchestra in the pit. No director pacing back and forth scribbling notes in his head.

But there are people in the audience. Some are regulars, virtual friends who visit every day just in case. Others are strangers who wandered in off the street because the door was open. And then there’s that creepy guy who lives in the balcony.

They’re here because of you. They want to see what you can do. They want to be entertained and informed. They want you to confirm and erase their fears with clever wordplay. They want you to shake the rafters with brilliance and break their hearts with unresolved chords. They want to feel. They want to applaud.

They get it, of course – they understand that life happens. It happens to them, too. They’ll give you grace for that. But now…now they’re beginning to wonder where you’re going with this.

And so are you.

So you cut the lights and exit the metaphor, stage left.

The regulars smile knowingly. The strangers wonder why you didn’t just edit the metaphor out of the blog post in the first place. The creepy guy who lives in the balcony falls to his knees, stunned to tears by the wisdom hidden so deep within the metaphor even you can’t see it.

And then you’re back to the empty page. Staring at it.

You’re tired of trying to be clever. You’re tired of trying to be wise. You just want say something small, something simple, something true. And so you begin…

The empty page is a curious thing. It seems to have a mind of its own.

It cajoles. It demands. It threatens. It pleads. It heaps guilt.

But that’s not the empty page. The empty page doesn’t care what you do.

The empty page doesn’t feel lonely.

The empty page doesn’t ache for meaning.

And, no, that’s not the blank page crying out to be filled.

It’s you.

Safe Distance

[Usually I write about writing. But what is writing about if not life? This post is a window into mine. Don't look too hard for the writing wisdom here. Sometimes the story is enough.]

Like so many others, we couldn’t turn away. At first we eyed it with simple curiosity, my 18-year-old son and I – the fire teasing above the horizon, peering down the foothills at the houses below. But then the wind picked up the fire dripped down the mountainside like angry red tears and the curiosity fell away, replaced by unvoiced fear.

We had been watching from a ridge a half-dozen miles away – a safe distance – snapping pictures with our cell phones; held and repelled by the surreal beauty of nature’s fury. But in that quiet moment, we knew. This was going to be bad. Really bad.

A family of four joined us on the ridge. They would be strangers in any other circumstance. We shared a story in this one.

“Pretty wild, isn’t it,” said the father. His wife was pointing to the west, their young children straining to see something they didn’t quite understand.

“Yeah.”

Just a few hours earlier I had collected my son from rehab. Twenty-eight days after he’d been delivered there at his request.

It was his second twenty-eight days.

As we drove back to Colorado Springs, watching smoke trails from the Waldo Canyon fire drift skyward in the distance, we had talked about our plans for his move to Michigan – a move away from Colorado Springs, the city where he’d both found himself and lost himself.

“You can’t run away from drugs.” They were my unspoken fears, but his wise words. “It would be naive to think that,” he continued. “And dangerous. I know who I am. I won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned. Still…I’m looking forward to a fresh start.”

Twelve hundred miles from here.

Later that evening as we watched the breaking news, we tried to disbelieve the images of a mountain on fire.

“It looks like the end of the world,” said my son.

“Yeah.”

We already knew what that looked like.

An hour later I got a call from a friend.

“We’re being evacuated. We need a place to stay.”

As my friends arrived with the belongings they had quickly grabbed in escape, we continued to pack my son’s things for his cross-country move. Boxes and bags crowded the small apartment. Some were filled with important things. Some with unimportant things. Most with missing things.

Days and nights blurred by, adding stress to the surreal. And then, some good news.

“We’re free to go back. Our home is safe!” said my friend.

It was a small joy, muted by heartbreak. Three hundred and forty six families would not be able to say the same thing.

As the losses were solemnly mourned and the heroes were quietly celebrated, the mayor spoke these words: “We will rebuild, we will come back stronger.” They were sincere words. True words. But there are no guarantees. Fires will burn again someday. Literal fires. Figurative fires. Life is full of ‘em.

There is no safe distance.

My son has been clean and sober now for 33 days. We look forward to 34. There are no guarantees. But he is determined to rebuild, to come back stronger. His words are sincere. True.

This afternoon I drove by the ridge where my son and I had watched the fires burn. If you keep walking along that ridge you will come to a park. There you’ll find a baseball diamond. A BMX track. A playground. A grassy field for playing soccer or flying kites. To the north, apartments. To the east, a high school. To the south and west, single family homes. You can see a shopping mall from that ridge. This is a residential neighborhood.

As I drove by, I looked up at the ridge. Silhouetted against a cloudy sky there was a six point buck. He was out of place, far from home, but standing tall. Lost, but determined.

I don’t know the rest of his story. It’s still being written. But I do know this: There is no safe distance.

And that is how it should be.