In 2016 I went to see Beyonce in Dublin. It was one of the best lessons in pleasing your audience that I’ve ever been given.
We may inhabit the same planet, but Beyonce lives in a different universe. She flew in from London that day after watching Serena Williams win her seventh Wimbledon title. Then she performed at Croke Park in front of 75,000 fans.
Her show was an amazing spectacle. There were lasers and dancers on water. There was fire and fireworks. There was the feeling that comes from being part of a huge crowd, all of whom are focused on enjoying the same thing; a global superstar.
Yet her show wasn’t what I expected.
The Hero’s Promise
When you connect with your heroes through their work, you have certain expectations. When those expectations are met, you’re satisfied. If they’re not met, you’re disappointed.
Your feelings about that experience shape your future choices. If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or attended a concert by someone you admire, you know how that plays out.
“That was amazing, can’t wait for the next one!” Or “It was all right.” Or “What a waste of time, next time don’t bother.”
All these responses are mediated by dopamine.
Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain. It lights up the pleasure centres when we do something that feels good, and prompts us to repeat the behaviour.
Our brains have evolved to reward us when we engage in behaviour that improves our survival, such as drinking water, eating, and procreation. Nowadays we also seek dopamine hits elsewhere, in activities like shopping and gambling. For our brains, it’s all the same thing; if it feels good do it, then seek it out and do it again.
When you get what you expected, you get a dopamine hit. But it’s much larger when you encounter the unexpected. That’s why novelty is so important in life. That’s why gambling machines pay out unpredictably. Gamblers are hooked by a small win, and play on compulsively in search of the biggest win and the ultimate dopamine rush.
Why does that matter and what does it have to do with a pop concert?
No Rest For The Best
Beyonce is a global phenomenon. She could have milked the adoring crowd, played a few of her many wonderful old hits and forced a smile. She didn’t do that.
Instead of resting on her laurels, she raised her game.
She gave us more. More dancing, more costume changes, more new material. More dopamine hits.
We were dazzled by a smile that looked genuine and a gorgeous show that was underpinned by tons of hard work. She gave us her best and lived by her work ethic.
Her ethic says create a wonder, send it out into the world, then create another. Her ethic pays attention to the tiniest detail that 99.9% of consumers miss, but delights the 0.1% who notice. Her ethic says, “My audience turned out for me, and I am sure as hell turning up for them.” This is a creative philosophy we can all get behind.
Delight Is Tough
The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it. Pearl S Buck
Building a body of work is hard. You have to keep going through stress and doubt and blocks. You have to go to your audience, shout for their attention, and then continue to deliver to keep their attention. Isn’t it tempting to rush through and cut corners? To say that will do and send it out anyway? That’s a mistake. While you absolutely must ship your work and avoid the perfectionist trap, it’s even more essential to maintain your standards. And to grow as a creator, you must push your limits and raise your standards over time. When you under-deliver, you risk turning people away from your future offerings. They won’t necessarily give you a second chance unless they’re one of your true fans – or feeling generous. When you over-deliver, casual observers eventually become fans who will amplify your message by sharing it with enthusiasm. The better you get, and the more you surprise even yourself with the quality of your output, the more pleasure you’ll have in your work. Put care into the details, and someone else will notice and smile. One of the joys of a good set of headphones is hearing all the intricacies that artists put into their music. Even though none of it can be heard on the radio or at concert volume, it’s there if you look for it. So to create delight, do more than is expected. Add extra information and references to blog posts. Layer meaning in every name in your fantasy world. Use the language of flowers in the bouquet given to your romance character. Don’t take attention for granted because novelty really does wear off. Try to find that extra 5% when you can, because it amplifies the whole experience for those who see it. The unexpected brings us joy. We’re wired for it.
Give us your best – plus a little extra we didn’t predict, to keep us coming back for more.
Comment or question? Drop it below and let’s talk.
Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?
Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.
Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.
All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.
It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.
You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.
The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.
Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.
If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.
Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?
We struggled. Every one of us.
The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?
We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.
One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.
I had to find another way, fast.
Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start
Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration. Wayne Dyer
Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.
In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.
A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.
For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.
I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.
We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.
I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.
I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.
There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.
A Different Playing Field
You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:
You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.
1. Nice Try But No Cigar
You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.
Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.
Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. Newt Gingrich
Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.
2. The Lies You Tell
Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.
Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.
You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.
You can have excuses, or you can have results.
You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.
Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.
Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.
Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.
Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.
How Much Do You Want It?
Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe. Sumner Redstone
Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?
Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.
The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.
And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.
Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.
So you want to write a short story or maybe even a novel. Your idea is ready, you have an outline, and you’re raring to go. Or you’ve finished a piece and you’re wondering if it’s good enough to release into the world.
You don’t want the editor or agent to pass on it because of errors you could and should have fixed before submission.
You also don’t want to give your reader any reason to put down your manuscript or click away from the page.
Just because you’ve read published work that wasn’t that good doesn’t mean your work should be sub par.
Here are ten common writing errors new writers make and how to correct them.
1. Weak Concepts Don’t Fly
What’s the central drive of your narrative? What differentiates it from the next story and the others that came before it? If you’re writing about a married woman who is unhappy with her life, you’d better have a unique take on that.
Sometimes you’re writing an anecdote rather than a story, and that isn’t enough to hold a reader. An anecdote stays in one place but a story moves. The characters are changed in some way by the events.
Make sure your story has a start, middle, and end. Follow genre conventions, even if you leave some loose threads for the next book. A romance must end with the main characters together, at least for the moment. A mystery must be solved.
2. Poor Pacing is a Drag
Readers have multiple media competing for shortening attention spans. It’s vital to hook their attention and hold it.
Starting too early kills the pace. We don’t care about the journey to work, it’s what happened at the office that matters.
Failure to raise the stakes as time goes on can cause readers to lose interest.
Too much action without actual plot leaves your reader wondering why any of it matters.
To correct these try the following.
Follow the screenwriters’ rule: get in late and leave early. Write the interesting part where a situation develops or characters interact, and leave the rest out.
Check that your characters are facing larger challenges as a consequence of their earlier choices. Making their life difficult is more interesting.
Starting in the middle of things is good advice, but we need to care about the characters first. A huge battle only matters when the readers are invested, so spend time establishing who the players are and why they act as they do.
3. Overwriting Weighs a Story Down
Don’t let your love of words get in the way of your story. Less is more when you’re writing for the reader and not yourself. An overly detailed description can stop a story in its tracks.
Trust your reader. Give each character one or two interesting features without describing everything and you’ll inject more life into them than a list ever could. Let the reader fill in some details in her head; that’s one of the joys of reading.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov
Telling robs significant moments of their power.
When the cop finds the third body, don’t say he was angry.
Describe his actions so we can work out what he feels. Show him walking away, throwing his latex gloves on the ground; gripping the steering wheel, his stomach churning; drinking his third whisky, ignoring his team playing on the screen above the bar.
Telling is essential of course. Telling summarises action and gets us from one scene to the next. Rather than describing the cop’s uneventful drive home, jump to him fumbling with his front door key. Instead of walking us through every hour of his restless night, he wakes bleary-eyed.
Give your pivotal and climactic scenes the page time they deserve so the reader doesn’t feel shortchanged. Whenever you’re tempted to write a perception such as he thought, felt or knew something, stop. Find another way and let the reader do some work.
5. Dialogue Tag Troubles
Dialogue tags are a frequent source of errors new writers make.
Many writers and editors advise that ‘said’ is the only dialogue tag you need. It’s the most versatile and tends to disappear when read. The dialogue should make the emotional tone clear.
There will be occasions where ‘said’ isn’t precise enough. Avoid adverbs such as quietly, loudly, angrily and so on. Use a stronger verb such as whispered, called, yelled, but consider whether you’re telling what you should be showing by actions.
You can get around overuse of ‘said’ and make your writing more varied by using action tags.
“Is this okay?” She held out the report. He scanned it, then put it on the table. “I think it’s all there.”
Notice that the tag is on the same line as the dialogue it belongs to. Getting this wrong is irritating and confusing for the reader, who can’t follow who is doing what.
If you have dialogue between two people, you can leave out some tags. Be sure your reader can follow, either by using different speech patterns or by actions.
6. Point of View Problems
Point of View (POV) ranges from the distant, omniscient third person typical of fairy tales to the immediate, internal first person typical of modern YA novels. For example:
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a poor boy was making his way home. A great storm was brewing over the horizon.
My ragged shirt was no match for the rain and I shivered, already soaked to the skin.
Imagine there is a camera stuck to your POV character’s head. It sees only what he sees. Therefore write what he sees and knows and nothing else. Things that happen outside his view can only be revealed in dialogue unless you’re writing in the omniscient 3rd person.
This avoids head-hopping, where the camera jumps from one person’s perception to another in the same scene. The character can’t see his own expression unless he’s looking in the mirror. So you can write that his face felt hot but not that he looked embarrassed, which his companion can observe.
It’s tempting to write something like, “I didn’t realise then that this storm would change my life.” That destroys both POV and pacing. As the author, you know everything. Resist the impulse to give your plot points away, and leave the reader guessing.
7. What Time Is It?
Is your character’s story unfolding now or in the past? Use of present tense is more popular now, especially linked with first person POV. It gives the narrative immediacy and is immersive. You live the events with the narrator in real time.
Past tense remains the most familiar choice.
Tense is not the same as POV. You can write first person, present tense: I run to the store.
Or you can write first person, past tense: I ran to the store.
Shifting between past and present can be an effective stylistic device when used deliberately and with care. Be certain of your choice before you start. Rewriting a whole work is tedious and careful editing would be even more essential than usual.
It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense. Mark Twain
Fiction makes a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to treat the events as if they really happened by suspending their disbelief. The writer pledges to make the events seem believable. If not, the reader is pulled out of the story.
You’ve experienced a character doing something that makes you scratch your head or just say, “No way would that happen.” You know how frustrating that is.
Characters need to behave in ways consistent with the storyand their motivations. As the all-seeing author, you might make them do something unexpected as long as it’s in line with the story’s resolution.
This means that you can add twists and surprises, but they must be foreshadowed in clues beforehand or explained by later events. Your hard-boiled female detective is unlikely to foster orphaned kittens, because of the different demands of each activity. But if she does, there’d better be credible explanations of how and why.
Having the protagonist get exactly what they need out of nowhere is lazy writing. Known as Deus ex machina, this device introduces a new and pivotal item just in time to save the day. You can use coincidence to get characters into trouble, but they have to fight their way out.
Don’t make life too easy for the characters. Make it impossible to reach their goal, and the eventual victory will be sweeter.
9. It’s All Too Much
Have you chosen a theme for your story or a symbolic motif? Be careful.
It’s okay that the weather mirrors your heroine’s mood. But it’s not okay if it’s always sunny when she’s happy, raining when she cries, stormy when she’s angry… you get the point.
Use a light hand with symbolism. Often theme only emerges when you read the complete story, and sometimes it’s clearer to other readers than to the writer. During editing, you can decide whether to add extra clues or tone it down.
Similarly, too much action in one scene can feel like being hit over the head repeatedly. Movies might get away with blowing things up every two minutes but most novels need some quieter space in between the action sequences.
Don’t go on so long that the reader gets bored. Show the aftermath and let the character’s development shine through. Strong language and strong emotion lose their power if overused, so add some contrast whether it’s a fight or a love scene.
10. Not Looking Good
Your words must look good on screen or in print. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are essential.
Whether you self-publish or aim to be traditionally published, make sure the work you send out looks professional. Nobody wants to read work that’s littered with errors, giving the impression that the author doesn’t care.
1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something. “he wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”
2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy. “he faces charges of collaboration”
What comes to mind when you think about working in groups?
Collaboration can have both positive and negative associations depending on who you work with and for what result.
Writing is a solitary act. You close the curtains and lock the doors before exposing your inner thoughts and desires. Then comes the agonising process of deciding how much to show and how much to tuck away safely out of sight.
You set limits on displaying your truth, much like the spectrum covering those who walk around a changing room proudly naked and those who withdraw into a closed cubicle — or go home and keep their secrets.
Collaboration can feel like sharing that cubicle with a stranger, for a long time. The thought of inviting more people inside is even worse.
In the gym, people often work with one or two others or in bigger groups to achieve their aims.
Can that work for writers too?
All By Myself
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. Helen Keller
Working alone is great because you can please yourself. And working alone is bad because you can please yourself. Who will call you out and make sure you show up if you don’t? Nobody will. You’ll simply make excuses and move the finishing line to tomorrow, sometime, never.
Promises to ourselves are much easier to break than promises made to others. That’s why we’re advised to make our resolutions public so other people can support us when we waver.
Working with someone elsemakes you accountable.
If you’ve agreed to meet up, write something, or complete an exercise, it’s harder to let yourself off the hook and disappoint your writing partner(s). In a small group you’re more visible and under greater social pressure to finish the task.
This alone can mean the difference between moving forward and spinning your wheels without any progress. An external deadline is a great motivator. In fact, for some people, it’s the only pressure that moves them from thinking to doing.
You know how hard it can be to start writing, and it’s even harder to finish. Self-imposed deadlines can work, but even the most disciplined person sometimes runs out of steam.
Then a scheduled meeting or submission date comes into its own because you don’t want to let someone down. Your self-image as an honest, reliable, trustworthy person depends on delivering.
So you focus and produce something. Perhaps it isn’t the perfectly polished jewel of work that you dreamed of, but that only ever existed in your head. Deadlines force completion.
Collaboration means accountability. Accountability means getting things done as promised. What does that mean for writers?
One Plus One Equals One
Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act. Tom Clancy
Presumably, Clancy was talking about fiction. If a novel represents one person’s vision, how can more than one person write a novel?
One example is the successful crime author Nicci French, made up of husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. They chose the female name combination because their first novel had a female narrator.
They talk here about how they make shared writing work. Strict rules are essential — for example, each must accept the other’s edits, preventing a constant back and forth that would be exhausting and result in no book at all.
Writing pairs remain the exception in fiction. If you’re compatible with another writer in terms of personality and style, you could attempt it as long as you agree on the ground rules from the beginning. Each of you will bring different skills and knowledge to the work.
But there are many pitfalls in trying to create a cohesive story with more than one writer. Is there a place for multiple authors in one book?
The Sum Of The Parts
The fun for me in collaboration is… working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven. Lin-Manuel Miranda
A short story anthology gathers a number of pieces into a single volume, with or without a unifying theme. Each writer works as an individual but is included by group membership or success in a contest.
The editing process is a collaboration aimed at polishing your work so it conforms to external standards. If you haven’t published anything before, working with an editor will teach you how to present your writing and save you time and effort the next time.
Writing groups offer support while requiring you to produce work regularly. I’ve found my real-life and online groups invaluable. They’ve challenged me to write in different styles, to a theme and deadline, and most importantly to engage regularly with other writers.
Sharing tips and problems improves all our work. And my stories have now been published in four anthologies, with more planned this year. Collaboration means opportunity.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is just you and a blank page at its simplest, but that isn’t the whole story. Collaboration makes you a better writer. It brings accountability, opportunity, and productivity into the picture.
Combine all three with your hard-won words, and you’ll go far.
Have a comment or suggestion? Drop it below and start a conversation.
How special do you feel right now? Over seven billion people on this planet, and there’s nobody quite like you.
But unique isn’t always enough, is it?
You feel ordinary, nondescript, forgettable. Even though you’re trying hard to be more, make a difference, stand out somehow, it’s not working. You feel like a failure because the gap between where you are and where you want to be is so great.
So what do you do about it? Let’s start with what definitely won’t work.
Feedback Doesn’t Work
You’re realistic about what you can achieve.
Your goals are SMART. You write, but you’re not JK Rowling. You sing, but you’re not Beyonce. You play soccer, but you’re not Lionel Messi.
You take stock of your skillset and work on your weaknesses. You take on board the lessons of constructive critique.
Playing only by these rules traps you in a limiting cycle of assessment and remediation.
Can you recall being praised for doing something really well? How long ago was that?Yet being rewarded for doing something well makes it more likely that you will do it again.
Positive reinforcement works, whether we are learning to tango or training a dog to fetch a ball. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behaviour. Each time you do something that brings you closer to the desired standard in any way, you get a reward.
Rewards are tangible like money, or intangible like time or praise. Praise is one of the most potent rewards of all because it’s rare, and winning genuine praise from a person you respect is a great motivator.
Positive reinforcement rewards effort, not just the final result. Reaching a standard involves repeated effort that moves closer to the target, and rewarding the work done motivates you to keep trying even when the goal is still some way off. That’s crucial when undertaking a lengthy project or course of study.
Bad To Be Good
Some skills come easy. And we are conditioned to believe that if they come easy, they aren’t as valuable as those that are hard won. The teacher doesn’t praise your descriptive prose, she focuses on your weak grammar. The parent ignores your accurate scale model of the Death Star but focuses on your low grade in maths.
Over time your confidence in the things that you can do with ease, the things you enjoy, is eroded. You’re trained to discount your talents in favour of endless remedial work on things that are valued more. You’re forever failing. How does that feel?
Time to reset your approach and accentuate the positive.
The Humility Trap
Some people have a hard time identifying anything they’re good at. They feel uncomfortable even thinking about it. This usually relates to a time when they showed skill and were reprimanded for it.
Perhaps you were told to stop showing off, to be humble and modest, not to rub it in people’s faces. You remember how it felt to be slapped down for thinking you were better than the next person when you were probably worse.
Your discomfort is rooted in shame, a deep and pervasive human emotion. Shame is corrosive. Shame bypasses the behaviour and sticks to the person, leaving a sense of wrongness that’s hard to describe but easy to take on board.
Negative value judgements by important figures can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem.
You learned to keep your head down because the tall poppy standing above the others gets cut down. Even heroes of popular culture are revered one day and vilified the next.
These comments are expressions of envy. Building strong self-esteem helps you shrug off the hateful comments. They hurt, but you move past them because you know what you’re here to do.
Performing a task successfully gives us a sense of being in control and achieving a goal. The more often we do this the greater our feeling of self-efficacy. It follows that performing tasks we enjoy and are good at increases confidence.
Achieving mastery of a task is one of the best ways to increase self-efficacy. It promotes a positive attitude to change, and willingness to engage with challenges that serve us well in every area of life.
You have the right to be good.
Every Facet Shines
An elite practitioner spends many hours working on their weaker areas. But they also work on their strengths, the things they are good at. To be elite is to grow in all areas, not just one or two. Exercising skills makes us happier, more attractive to others, and more confident.
People who possess confidence without arrogance and believe in their own abilities are happier than those who have low self-esteem. The belief that you can change and improve your own life is built on setting goals and reaching them. This confidence supports all areas of life, as long as you have a growth mindset. That is, you believe that you can learn and change throughout life; your skills are not fixed in stone.
A person with a growth mindset isn’t limited by where they are currently because they know they can learn new things. They acknowledge their skills, and then they amplify those skills. They value their talents, therefore they work on them and use them, which makes them happier and more likely to repeat the behaviour.
A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals. Larry Bird
Focus On The Right Things
What’s your superpower?
It’s the thing that comes easier to you than others. You don’t know how you do it, you just do. You learn and improve quickly, even if you struggle with other things. It might be part of a bigger skillset or stand alone.
Packing a suitcase
Playing a new song by ear after hearing it once
Knowing all your sports team’s stats for the last five years
Sense of direction
Affinity for animals
Making a meal from leftovers
You might not need or use these exact skills every day, but when you do they bring a smile to your face. You did it and you did it well. Why not smile and feel good about yourself more often?
Own Your Power
Think of your superpower.
What do you find easy and enjoyable? What makes you smile?
You’re going to do more of that. Take your sports knowledge to the pub trivia team. Get out your guitar and play along with the radio. Read that story you wrote last year and enjoy the descriptions you got just right. Bake a pie because you’re a dab hand at it, take it to work for coffee break. Buy a book of Sudoku or download a game to your phone and play to the end. Instead of buying a card for your friend, paint a tiny canvas instead.
Why do this? Because you can.
Doing a thing well is its own reward. If you do something really well, in a way no-one else can, money may follow. If money were the only measure of success, the rich would be happier in proportion to their wealth. We all know that money is important but not the whole story.
Focus on how you feel about yourself and avoid the trap of more money, less happy.
We’re not here to blend into the background. We’re here for a short time, and our only purpose is to make the best use of that time.
I want to marvel at your ability to compose rude poems on the spot or drink a yard of ale without spilling a drop. I want to see your beautiful calligraphy or hear you sing Happy Birthday in four languages. Then I want to see you smile and feel good. Isn’t that better?
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. Marianne Williamson
You found an idea and arranged the words to express that idea before putting them out in the world.
You spent time and effort making sure you’re adding something new to the conversation.
You’ve chosen to share it with the world, but it’s still yours.
Except that the moment you pressed publish, you lost control.
No Strings Attached
We’re trained to be polite when giving and receiving gifts. We learn to navigate the minefield according to unwritten rules, and if someone fails to play the game right we call foul.
When you send your work into the world, you expect it to be received with polite thanks at least, and effusive gratitude at best. But you fear bad things will happen and you’ll be powerless to do anything about it.
Your work, that gift for the reader that you laboured over, gets ignored, thrown to the ground and trampled on, or taken apart until it is shredded beyond recognition. You’re angry, disappointed, and afraid to risk trying again.
You must try again and change your attitude to giving.
We’re all adults and we know that many gifts don’t hit the spot. It’s on the recipient to decide what they do with the gift, and as long as you gave in good faith that’s where your influence ends.
If you’re giving what someone might need or use, give it freely. Don’t be that person who gives money but dictates what to buy with it. Don’t be that person who gets huffy when you don’t bring out their gift every time they visit.
All you can do is put enough time and effort into making sure you’ve created your best possible work.
After that, it’s time to forget expectations and cut the strings.
Lightly Not Tightly
A busy road separates my house from the main residential area. My son, then aged nine, wanted to cross the road and cycle to his friend’s house alone. I was worried; a girl had been killed on that road shortly after we moved in. I was acutely aware of all the potential hazards. At the same time, he was growing up and wanting more independence.
I had several options at that point:
Keep him at home
Let him go but only with a parent
Let him go alone
Many factors played into this decision but eventually, he would have to face the world without me beside him. My job as a parent was to teach him how.
Two of the hardest parenting lessons to learn are how and when to let go.
Stories are like children. You’re responsible for keeping them safe while they develop and giving them the tools to survive. But after that, they’re on their own.
Your story belonged to you. Now you must find a way to set it free with a light heart, rather than holding on too tight. Then, like your child leaving the nest, you give your words and creativity room to grow and fulfil their purpose.
Random Acts of Connection
I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made by one person, but that’s not true. Every reading of a book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer who are making the story up together. John Green
We write with a specific idea in mind, but that idea can spark many different connections in different minds.
Once I wrote a fictional argument between two gay men about authenticity. I received a long comment in return from a woman, married with children, who identified so strongly with one character that she was in tears reading it.
This was not the reaction I intended. But it told me that for one person at least the issues resonated, so strongly that she took the time to reply.
We write to connect. We can’t predict whether we connect or in what way, because each reader is unique. Each reader views the story through a unique lens shaped by personality and experience.
A story is different for everybody who reads it and the writer only owns the first version. The reader filters and changes your words, consciously or not. Their response has more to say about them and where they find themselves at that moment than the story itself.
The glory of a good tale is that it’s limitless & fluid; a good tale belongs to each reader in its own particular way. Stephen King
So consider your story a child of your imagination. Make it as strong as you can. When it’s ready, send it into the world. Your story is outside your control now, and that’s as it should be.
Every child must walk its own path. Every story must make its own way.
Whether people react to your words with delight, anger, scorn, or tears, you’ve done your job. You made a connection. The outcome is not your responsibility as long as the story comes from a place of love, and a desire to share and receive something positive.
That also means that every story has the ability to change someone in ways you can’t predict. Who knows what comfort you can give to a person who can finally say, “That’s me, that’s how I feel.” If you can do that, why hesitate?
That’s the true worth of a story – the possibility of learning, wonder, and growth for writer and reader. Accept this responsibility and use your powers for good.
Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning. Gloria Steinem
As December ends and we leave the holiday season behind, our thoughts naturally turn to the new year. Like the two headed Roman god Janus, patron of doorways and transitions, we look forward and back at the same time.
It can be a time of regret for missed opportunities, unwanted challenges faced, and unfulfilled dreams.
It’s also a time to look forward with hope, taking the lessons we’ve learned forward to do better in the new year. Here are 19 uncommon goals to improve your writing. Let’s do the WRITE thing in 2019.
Write More, Write Better
1. Write a manifesto
Companies write inspiring mission statements to express their aims in a few words. Write out your personal manifesto. What do you believe in when it comes to life and your creative work? What principles guide you? Condense the ideas into a single sentence that captures the essence of your vision. Use it in your bio on Medium, Twitter and your blog.
2. Set a monthly word count and track your output
What gets measured, gets done.
Daily word counts work well for some people but with busy lives sometimes a weekly or monthly target is better. This allows you flexibility to vary the count according to life events and the unexpected.
You might favour a fancy bullet journal, but a cheap desk diary works too if you like analogue records. If a spreadsheet works better for you, use that. The format doesn’t matter, as long as you complete it.
Set aside fifteen minutes each Sunday to record your word count and plan your week. If you’re falling behind, revise your goals. Schedule it in your diary and show up.
3. Finish that project — create a timeline
Unfinished projects derail you in three ways.
You waste time and energy feeling guilty and anxious.
You deprive yourself of the satisfaction of completion.
You deprive the world because it never sees your work.
You know that thing you started but never finished? Its time has come.
Whether it’s a novel or a blog post, pull up the document now. Figure out the minimum needed to complete it. Start writing. Keep going until it’s done. Don’t think, write.
Don’t stop, even if all you write is “blah blah blah and then they were abducted by aliens, The End.”
When you finish, breathe a sigh of relief and hit delete. You never have to look at it again. And you never have to let it drain your mental energy again, unless it is to edit and publish — if you want to.
4. Build or update your website
Everyone who hopes to send work into the world should have their own blog. It’s a place to build your portfolio, to connect with readers and clients, and to express yourself. Having all your work in one place is unwise, unless you own the platform.
If the platform vanishes, your work will vanish with it. By all means publish on Medium or elsewhere, but also have your own site where you can start to build an email list.
Make a free website this year with WordPress or Blogger.
If you have a blog already, refresh it with a new theme. Rewrite your About pages. Ensure you’re collecting emails for your subscriber list.
Read Something Interesting
It is well to read everything of something, and something of everything. Joseph Brodsky
5. Read a craft book
There’s a number of classic books on the craft of writing. You probably have one unread on the shelf right now. Here’s a list to get you started.
Pick one craft book and read it. Make notes on the new things you learned. Commit to using at least two of them in your next month of writing. It’s not enough to read and understand, you must also apply and assess results.
6. Read one book in a less favoured genre
You know what you like, right? And you avoid what you don’t. But you can learn new skills from different genres. Those skills are transferable to any genre.
Mystery shows how to write foreshadowing and twists. Horror shows how to write suspense. Fantasy shows how to write worldbuilding. And romance shows how to write dialogue.
Pick a book in a genre you never usually choose. Then read like a writer. You might need to read through and then go back to dissect how the writer achieved their aims.
If you could improve in the areas where you are weakest, imagine how much better your writing would be.
You can experiment with something new, or see what the competition is like in your chosen niche. It might give you ideas.
If you like a book, leave a review. That’s the best way to support a fellow writer, apart from buying their books.
8. Choose new authors on Medium and elsewhere
We live in an age of algorithms and filtered results tailored to our preferences. You can end up in an echo chamber where everyone holds the same views and no dissenting voices appear. That’s not good for discourse or for empathising with other people.
Instead of clicking on the same few names in your Medium email, try searching the tags you’re interested in. Pick a new author and have a look at their posts. Leave an intelligent comment and vote when you like a piece. You might find a new favourite.
Improve Your Skills
9. Take a course
The knowledge you need is out there. Commit to completing a course this year. Paid options include Udemy and CreativeLive. The latter offers some free to view content.
Free content is available as a signup bonus for some blogs like Jericho Writers as well as formal paid courses.
If you learn better with feedback or with demonstration, taking a course might suit you more than reading a book. Take your professional development seriously.
10. Retreat from the world
Writing retreats vary from simple to luxurious, local to exotic, with price tags to match. The opportunity to focus on writing can jumpstart your project or your mindset.
If you can commit the time, you’re halfway there. A retreat could consist of eight dedicated hours on Saturday with the kids sent to a relative or friend and the phone switched off. Or it could be a Caribbean cruise with well-known writers and cocktails.
Award yourself some time to write.
11. Join a Twitter pitch event
Each year, a number of writers find their agent through Twitter. Events are organised regularly by genre, using hashtags for authors to describe their books. Agents read the pitches and request pages, and some authors get signed.
Condensing your book into a 140 or 280 character pitch requires discipline and economy. The same skills are needed for writing blurbs and synopses. If you can’t condense it, maybe your story isn’t ready for an agent. Find tips and advice on winning twitter pitch events here.
12. Make an ebook for download
Ebooks are often used as incentives to sign up for an email list, and it’s good to offer your new readers something valuable in return for their time.
Include your best blog posts, or new stories not published elsewhere. Having your own mini book is another signal that you take yourself seriously as an author.
Use free resources from Canva or LucidPress to make professional looking booklets with ease. Then link it to your sign-up form using a mail program like Mailchimp or Convertkit.
There’s an undeniable sense of achievement in saying “I made that.”
Talk and Connect
13. Leave a meaningful review or comment
Be the change you want to see in the world.
You want people to read and engage with your words. Commit to doing this for another author at least once a week. Leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews are hard to get and vital to a book’s success.
Write a comment that goes beyond ‘good job’ and shows how the words impacted you. Claps and reads and votes are marvellous, but a thoughtful comment is gold. And you can start a conversation that becomes a real relationship, without having to make small talk or even get dressed.
14. Join a group — genre or other
Writing is solitary and people in real life don’t get it. Join a group of people who do. Facebook has hundreds of groups organised by genre, gender, location, and philosophy of writing.
Writing conferences happen throughout the year and all over the world. Most offer workshops, sometimes with well-known authors, and the opportunity to meet agents and others in the publishing world. You can practice your pitch and chat with other writers. Self-publishing is also covered.
Cost will determine your choices here. Weekend events sometimes allow day visitors, which reduces costs of accommodation and catering.
16. Attend an author event
Attend a book signing or reading that’s local to you. Ask Google, or your local bookshop or library might have a calendar of events.
Have a sensible question for the author, but don’t monopolise the conversation or make it all about your book.
Like number 13, this is about good karma and being supportive, as well as learning by observation. Make good connections, because one day it could be your turn.
Entering a contest sets a deadline, which encourages you to finish your piece. You might have to write to a prompt or theme. And if you win, it will take your self-confidence to the next level as well as giving you bragging rights for your bio — and hopefully some cash too.
18. Milestone rewards for writing goals
Celebrate your successes and remind yourself how far you’ve come. Set some goals with a time limit, and write them out. You’re going to attach a reward to each milestone such as number of blog posts, finishing a project, hitting your monthly word count or whatever.
This reward will be something meaningful to you. Getting your 100th follower might mean more than hitting a word count, so let the rewards show that.
Big milestones deserve big celebrations. You got an agent? Finished your 120K epic saga? Wrote for 100 days without a break? Take a bow, choose a prize.
This is when your writing group gives another benefit — having people to celebrate with you. Don’t look for credit where you know it won’t be given, that’s just self-sabotage. Be happy for yourself.
19. Publish a book
The joy of self-publishing is that it gives you total control. There is no gatekeeper. You can write and publish a book with your name on it this year — if you want.
Like many things in life, the most successful authors are not necessarily the most visible. There are independent authors making millions, others following a hybrid self and trad publishing path, and others just thrilled to hold their own book in their hands. It’s not all about money.
Collect your best blog posts and add 25% new material. Collect your short stories or poetry by theme. Polish up your novella.
If this seems like an impossible stretch target, remember everything that exists was once no more than a passing thought.
Think of yourself as a published author. Then act like a published author. Ignore the disparaging comment “self-pub isn’t real publishing.” It is real, and if you’re going to be the next Kindle millionaire you’d better get started.
Putting the 20 into 2019
Most of us have heard of the power of affirmations. And most of us don’t really believe that repeating positive phrases will change our reality.
But we’re mistaken.
Thinking things into being is what creatives do.
So I challenge you to take your wildest, most precious, most secret wish for your creative life. Write it down, for your eyes only, on real paper. Tell it like it’s already real; say I am… or I have…
Now choose a physical object to symbolise your wish.
It could be a talisman like a crystal or a lucky pen. Maybe you’ll roll up your wish on a tiny scrap of paper and hide it in a locket.
Hold your wish in your hand once a week. Say it out loud.
Dream first, because that’s where everything real begins.
Then get working to make it come true.
When you do the things in the present that you can see, you are shaping the future that you are yet to see. Idowu Koyenikan
Good luck with your writing goals in the coming year.
Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right. Oprah Winfrey
As the year ends you can’t escape the notion of a new start and the pressure to commit to resolutions. Maybe you don’t call them resolutions and prefer to talk about setting goals. Or perhaps your new year is marked by assertions like I will lose weight or I will write more.
There’s a gap between here, where you are and there, where you want to be. But the size of the gap is terrifying and the amount of work needed to bridge it is too much to think about.
Unfortunately we have a strong tendency to go into denial when faced with unpalatable facts. You don’t want to know exactly how bad it is, whether that’s your weight or your productivity. That knowledge alone might stop you in your tracks.
You just hope it can be better. So you make vague, non-specific statements of intent. You’ll break them anyway, like 99% of people do.
But do you want to be just like everyone else? If you want to be in the 1% who come out ahead, don’t set your goals yet.
You can tell yourself you’re too creative, too right-brained, bad at math, afraid of spreadsheets, or whatever. You still need to track numbers, and the most important is the number you begin at.
Losing weight is a very different prospect when you’re 100% over your ideal weight rather than 15%. The target and methods might be similar, but the application and trajectory must vary to be sure of success.
If you already write 1000 words every day, you need a different plan than if you’re struggling to write consistently at all. I will write more in the coming year is a single goal, but everyone will take their own path to it.
Before you can start to consider where you are going, you must know where you stand. How else can you map out a route?
Do The Math
I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. Bill Gates
I resolved to start writing regularly a few years ago. My challenges included work that was physically and emotionally draining, family issues, bereavement, raising teenagers, and more. Starting from ground zero made the initial goal simple; I will write a daily journal. No other numbers or targets.
I’m still writing the journal, although not daily. Other targets have replaced it. I went from starting a blog, to posting there occasionally, then weekly. At the end of each year I look back at what I did, and that process is much easier when I have a record.
What works for me may not work for you. I am no bullet journal person and I dislike spreadsheets. But I accept the need for data before making decisions. I want to know how far I travelled, what worked and where I fell short.
To do that I need various types of information, captured in a way that’s simple and easy to understand. In 2017 I used parallel paper and digital records whereas 2018 was paper only.
My 2019 experiment is a structured year planner plus a monthly summary in a spreadsheet. I have bigger goals which demand more detail, so I’ll get over my spreadsheet aversion and do what’s needed.
Get the right information and open your eyes to the truth of your current position before you figure out how to improve.
Choose Your Track
Items you can track include
Words written – day/week/month
Writing sessions done
Chapters/blog posts completed
And more, such as views, read ratios, books you read…
Decide what is most important to you. As your writing career matures, you’ll know which metrics are worth following. If you’re new to tracking, stick to one or two numbers until you’re confident, rather than overwhelming yourself and then giving up.
Although many people swear by daily word count, a weekly or monthly target gives more flexibility. I prefer to count finished works, whether that’s a blog post or a short story. My daily writing habit is already in place and underpins my ability to finish the work.
The simplest way to record a tracked item is a note on the diary page. The easiest way to see it is to add a colour coded spot. Now you can flick through the pages and see where you missed or where you hit a streak.
Hitting a streak has power – think of the satisfaction of knowing you’ve written fifty days in a row, or posted to your blog thirty-two weeks in a row. The longer your streak, the more motivated you are to continue it.
Stay In Your Lane
The best tracking system is the one you’ll actually use. It’s exciting to buy a fancy planner with coloured pens and stickers, but if you won’t use them they’re useless. Plus you feel like a failure when you see them lying neglected on a shelf.
If you’re comfortable with spreadsheets, they can be organised to give detailed information in as many areas as you want. Many paid and free versions are available such as Excel and Google Docs. A free download for writers is offered by Alan Petersen and he also has a video showing how to use it.
Know yourself and plan around your strengths. If your system doesn’t suit, try another. If your system works keep using it, no matter how low tech it might seem to your accountant spouse or super organised friend.
Keep it really simple, and keep going.
The End Of The Road Is The Beginning
Before setting your writing goals for the new year, look back at last year’s numbers. If you didn’t track your progress, don’t worry. Go back and record what you did each month, whether that’s words written or posts published or something else. Get a feel for which numbers are meaningful to you.
Now, armed with some numbers, think about what you want to achieve this year.
To write 80K words by December 31st, you need to average 220 words per day or 1538 words per week. How does that compare to 2018? If you’re already exceeding this number, great. You have space for more projects, all other things being equal.
If you only managed 1000 words per month, you’ll need to plan how to fill the gap, or modify your target.
If you know you’ll be moving house, having a baby, or changing jobs, then your targets must reflect that. Life may throw these at you – and more – unexpectedly. Your writing doesn’t have to be derailed by these challenges if you have a method to take stock and adjust your trajectory.
Writing goals should be SMART but also flexible, because life happens. Events can alter the definition of achievable or realistic, so don’t be afraid to revisit your goals as time passes, not just at the end of the year.
Doing What Counts
Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted. William Bruce Cameron
Especially if you love data and numbers, it’s easy to be sucked into analysis and forget that you have to do a thing before you can count it. Counting is not working.
The spreadsheet or planner won’t tell you whether you felt inspired or miserable. It can’t tell you that your words resonated with someone. It certainly can’t say whether the 100K words you wrote last year mean more than the 20K you wrote the year before.
These questions are important. They speak to a sense of achievement that isn’t quantifiable, yet determines whether you feel satisfied with your work.
Your journal is the soft counterpart to hard numbers. It’s the place where you can explore the uncounted but vital feelings that drive your life and work, and get to know yourself a little better.
Track your progress and your goals but keep it in proportion.
Remember numbers are visible and concrete, but not the whole story. Like an iceberg, the greater part of writing lies unseen below the surface, beyond the reach of spreadsheets.
Do you really need the elusive 1% of inspiration, or is 99% perspiration enough to get the job done?
Inspiration is one of those ideas people use to separate artists from the rest of the population. Popular culture shows an artist writing or playing or painting like a person possessed, forgetting to eat or wash in the process. They’re overwhelmed by the spirit of creation and must capture it before they lose it.
Perhaps as a reaction to that, many no-nonsense creators simply dismiss it. Show up, do your work, and you don’t need inspiration. Once you start, you’ll find whatever you need along the way. Prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing it as an excuse for failure to produce.
You might share one or other of these views. You may have been inspired and found the experience both thrilling and elusive to repeat, like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Or you get on with hitting your daily word count and find that’s more than enough.
But is it possible that both viewpoints are true?
Seeking The Muse
All the effort in the world won’t matter if you’re not inspired. Chuck Palahniuk, Diary
The Nine Muses of Ancient Greece were goddesses who symbolised arts and sciences such as poetry, singing, astronomy, drama, and so on.
Artists of the time called on their muse to bring forth their best work.
The idea of the muse as inspiration persisted into the last century, often personified as a woman who inspired a male artist. Sometimes an artist in her own right, she embodied an artistic concept for the man whose work often featured her as a model. Dali, Picasso, Rossetti, and Rodin all drew on their significant relationship with a woman, while Francis Bacon’s muse was male.
The muse reflected the artist’s vision while also challenging him. Her presence as model or sounding board encouraged him to push the boundaries, infusing his pieces with more energy and no doubt encouraging him when the results were viewed with confusion or disdain. Every movement that we now accept in art began with artists who dared to go further, risking the scorn of their contemporaries.
The muse shines her light on a new path and whispers in the artist’s ear, “That is your way forward. Be brave.”
Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. Pablo Picasso
Creativity and inspiration are not the same things. They can exist separately or together.We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be perfectly serviceable if you know what you’re doing.
But if you have inspiration, you can create something much more. Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.
Think about the last time you were struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were in the shower or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction, as though a billiard ball collided with you.
It’s impossible to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.
The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says that it happened in your brain. Your brain is a collection of a trillion neurons and a quadrillion synapses, a self-regulating system capable of near-miraculous processing.
Put another way, you can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.
But add a spark and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.
Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill
Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill
Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you, ready and waiting.
The Power of Habit
Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more. Twyla Tharp
Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.
If your spark drifts by and your eyes are closed, you’ll miss it. If you have no materials, or there is no oxygen, you won’t be able to use it. This is where a routine is your friend and constant practice is your teacher.
Forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Put in the work to improve. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.
The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) can be tedious and boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the training miles so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.
Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not. Agnes Martin
Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. You need to clear out the constant chatter of conscious thought. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary. Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.
Some people get their breakthroughs while in the shower. It’s a time for most of us to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, as in the morning pages of The Artist’s Way.
Some people move around. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.
A Chance To Dream
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. Jack London
A tired mind is a slow mind, barely able to cope with the familiar let alone come up with something new. Lack of sleep is so common these days that it’s seen as normal, but to be truly creative you need sufficient rest. The average is six to nine hours, so experiment and find your ideal. Work back from your rising time to find when you need to go to bed.
Find advice about establishing a good sleep habit here or here. It will lengthen your life and make it much more pleasant when awake.
The other reason to sleep more is to get enough REM sleep, the phase during which we dream. Often this phase occurs just before waking naturally, so if your alarm wakes you before you complete your sleep cycle you will miss out.
If you can remember your dreams, keep a notebook by the bed to write them down on waking. Sleep allows the conscious brain to rest and the subconscious to work without distraction. There’s some evidence this can result in more creative insights. Dream recall can be difficult to start but improves with practice.
If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.
Get out from your routine and search out something new.
Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.
Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.
Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.
Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Look up at buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.
A Marriage of Opposites
It’s a dull world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be realised. We need both.
When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, seek inspiration.
Build your skillset, sharpen your tools, challenge your capabilities.
Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it.
If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.
Go to it.
To depend entirely upon inspiration is as bad as waiting for a shipwreck to learn how to swim. To leave everything to natural spontaneity is as bad as to make everything the result of mechanical predetermination… perfection is the harmonious blending of the two. Francois Delsarte
What’s the one thing that you and every other writer want?
You might answer money, fame, critical acclaim, autonomy, or something else. All these boil down to one need: validation. As humans and creatives, we want to feel that we matter, that our work matters, that we have made a mark, no matter how small or fleeting.
Too often you don’t get it.
Your spouse ignores your attempts to find writing time by making endless domestic demands.
Your friend laughs when you confide that you want to see your book made into a movie.
You read over what you wrote, and it’s so far from the standard of your favourite author that you want to toss the laptop out of the window.
You brood, become irritable and defensive and indulge in mindless TV or ice-cream or gin. Anger simmers under skin that seems to get thinner every day. Your writing stumbles and you can’t get going again but what does it matter? It’s not like it means anything to anyone.
Internal validation is rooted in strong self-esteem. You set your own performance standards and you live by them, and the approval of others is less important than your own. While it’s helpful to get support from others, you don’t rely on it completely. You look inwards for the strength to deal with your own issues. You’ll run with the pack if the pack is running your way, but you’re okay with being on the margins sometimes.
External validation is rooted in strong social instincts. Harking back to a time when acceptance by the pack was literally a life or death matter, you seek to conform to what’s expected in your social group. You look outwards and rely on the feedback of others to judge your performance against an accepted standard. You’ll stay in the centre of the pack where it is safest.
Both of these styles can coexist, where they apply to different areas of life. So you might be entirely happy with your professional performance where you have confidence in your abilities, but less certain when it comes to your creative skills.
Sources of validation will vary based on these different styles because what works for one will not suit another.
Few people would turn away from external success, but for some, it comes at too high a cost. The familiar sad sight of a celebrity imploding despite fame and fortune has many causes, but failed internal validation is one. The star has everything she wants except her own approval, and all too often no idea how to get it.
Western society prizes autonomy and a strong sense of self. Look at all the movies with a lone hero, doing what he knows is right and to hell with the system. From John McClane to Jack Reacher to Jason Bourne, they cut through the knot of expectation with their sword of conviction.
But society prizes conformity even more. The social death heralded by no likes on your latest Instagram post is for many people equivalent to the actual death of being banished from the tribe. We are encouraged to post and share, then wait for the dopamine hit from likes, claps, and comments. Since the hit is fleeting we do it again, a never-ending cycle to feed a hunger that can’t be sated.
Whether at high school or work, you know that conforming is generally easier. Nobody will ask you to justify sticking to the status quo. You’ll get along just fine without having to explain why you don’t watch that one show everyone’s talking about, and then why you don’t have a TV…
Media holds up examples of overachieving, internally validated heroes, and at the same time demands worship at the altar of extreme external validation. It’s no wonder we’re confused about what’s important.
The internally validated person is more in control. They weather the ups and downs of life better, not because they have fewer storms, but because they trust their ability to survive them.
The externally validated person, however, has a shaky sense of self-worth. All is fine until they don’t get the answer they expect and need. A negative or missing answer leads to feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, anxiety and so on. Managing these feelings leads to dysfunctional behaviour, and their weak boundaries result in a spectrum of responses ranging from extreme people-pleasing to narcissism.
Of course, we don’t live in a vacuum and we write to connect. There’s nothing wrong with wanting praise and positive reactions from others sometimes. But if that’s your only way to feel good about yourself, then you need to work on gaining approval from the one person who truly matters.
Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. Louise L. Hay, You Can Heal Your Life
Writing is a solitary business until we look for external acclaim, and then we feel exposed and vulnerable. But it’s possible to get what we need without being completely overwhelmed by forces we can’t control.
To escape the trap of external validation, you need to pay attention. Instead of simply reacting to events, start to notice your inner world and slowly refocus your response.
Notice your body
It’s easy to get caught up in sensations of stress: racing heart, dry mouth, nausea, shaky hands, and tight chest. Stress hormones coursing through your veins distract you from thinking clearly, instead flooding your lizard brain with three options; fight, flight or freeze. None of these are helpful in modern life.
Before you distract yourself from how you feel physically or try to make the sensations go away, take a deep breath, and another. You might feel threatened, but the cause isn’t an actual threat to your immediate survival. Slow down, allow your thinking brain to regain control.
Notice your achievements
Many of us go through life still looking for a pat on the head and a cookie from some parental figure. Part of growing up is realising that we have to be both parent and child, and award ourselves our own approval.
You probably have no difficulty beating yourself up over imagined shortcomings. What if you gave yourself praise too? Stick to those things within your control. Acknowledge that you hit your word count or finished a task. Let go of the external response to those tasks for now, because that’s not under your control.
Without being arrogant, give yourself credit for what you’ve done well. Write it down, give yourself a gold star.
Notice your emotions
Properly channeled emotion can inform your writing and give it power. Unregulated emotion, however, is the enemy of creativity.
Take a moment to recognise your feelings. Try not to judge by saying that feeling angry is bad, for example. Each emotion has its place, and it’s how you choose to respond that defines your experience of the world.
You might just feel ‘bad’. Sit with that feeling until it becomes more defined. Bad as in angry, lonely, hurt, anxious? They aren’t interchangeable, and neither are the solutions. Ask yourself questions until you’re certain of the feeling. Write about it in your journal.
Then ask yourself, “what do I need?” Treat yourself as gently as you would a child. You deserve no less. If your instinct is to run away from difficult emotions and numb them, sit with them longer. Work it out in your art, take a walk, pray, meditate, give yourself time.
The next step is to find a way to give yourself what you ask for, whether that is attention, positive affirmations, or simple recognition.
Notice what you give away
If you’re a caregiver by nature or training, you may be out of touch with your own emotions. You’ve learned to react to other people’s feelings and ignore yours. Notice what you offer people because that is very often what you need for yourself.
You offer to be a beta reader, give thoughtful comments, and write a nice review on every book, all the while waiting for others to do the same for your story. You’re friendly to that person hovering on the margins of the writing group because you hope someone will give you acceptance in return.
You’re generous with your time and knowledge, and you swallow the disappointment of finding that people take without giving back. Recovering from this feels a lot like selfishness. But remember the airline safety briefing?
Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
In fact caring for yourself first allows you to offer more service without becoming exhausted. The more you have, the more you can give others. You don’t become selfish: you simply put yourself on equal footing with others.
When anyone starts out to do something creative – especially if it seems a little unusual – they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on. Will Self
You write and you want to get better, so you seek feedback and hope for a positive response to your writing. That’s a proper route to improvement but should form only a part of your validation process.
When you grow used to the idea and practice of self-approval, a strange thing happens. As you become more comfortable in your own skin, others start to give what you once yearned for. You’re less needy and less inclined to fish for compliments. When you get one, you can accept it gracefully because it aligns with your internal map. And if you don’t get one, that’s okay too.
Family members can be the worst for refusing to give up their idea of you as a child, or a beginner, or something else. A person with self-approval accepts that and goes on their way. Maybe your mother doesn’t think art is a suitable pursuit for you. Maybe your friend thinks writing is not for people like you.
When you are internally validated, you accept their views without letting them derail you. It can feel strange to receive something you dreamed of yet truly not need it for your peace of mind. The freedom that comes from being independent of external opinion is intoxicating.
As long as you remain open-minded and avoid arrogance, you’ll find that your approval is the only thing you need to keep walking your path, sharing what only you can give to the world.