Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Confidence-Building: Avoiding writing mistakes that kill confidence

Many months ago, fabulously successful writer Alisa Bowman wrote on this blog that revisions still spike her insecurity. I believe her exact words were:
Lots of revisions generally cause me to blame myself. I think, "I really screwed that up. That editor hates me."
Amen, sister! I feel that, too. In fact, I think we all feel that. Of course, Alisa goes on to say that's not true, that it's an editor's job to, well, edit your work. But it's also true that making small mistakes over and over again for the same editor can be demoralizing--both for you and for your editor. There's a simple way to address this: First, slow down. Second, make a list.

Slow Down
This is not my first impulse with revisions. Often I feel such a stew of emotions when I get heavy revisions back--embarrassment, shame, anger at myself and sometimes my editor, defensiveness, anxiety--that I want to get the edits done with as quickly as possible. On the outside, this is a good thing. Being prompt with edits will make you your editor's darling. I worked for a year as an editor for a trade magazine in 2010 and 2011, and I can tell you that professionalism is sometimes hard to come by.Writers who take the editor's timeline into account--basically, writers who prioritize making their editors' jobs easier--make you want to work with them again. Period.

But it's often our haste to get edits off our desks--and to wipe away what we think of as the stain of our mistakes--that cause our simplest and most embarrassing mistakes.

So take a page from the editor's handbook: Slow down. If you have the time, walk away from it and come back to it an hour or a day or two later. Then, read through it three ways:

First, read through it on screen, looking for content mistakes.

  • Any weird word choices? 
  • Any transitions that don't work?
  • Any dropped source names or titles? 
Second, have your assignment letter and whatever style guide your client uses handy. Review the story for common errors. Big ones for me are:
  • Says or said: Every client differs on tense for this.
  • Starting paragraphs with the word "And."
  • Small style peccadillos you know your client has. I have some clients who hate short transitions sentences that end in a question mark. Others hate em dashes. Whatever your particular style (and I'll admit to using both those things more than I probably ought to), check to make sure it conforms with your client's preferences. That way, you can feel free to write in your style while also meeting your client's needs.
  • Special capitalization or terms of art specific to the client or industry.
Finally, print out the story and do what editors do right before final publication. Read only the most outstanding bits:
  • Titles;
  • Headlines;
  • Source names and titles; and 
  • Sidebars.
This way, you'll catch any glaring mistakes that might catch your editor's eye right away. I always use this as an opportunity to follow my gut as a writer. If I'm a little unsure of a statistic or a quote, this is my chance to check it one final time. At the very least, I'll feel confident in the work if I root out those niggling doubts early.

Make a List
Once the story is filed, don't move on just yet. Take whatever style guide the publication uses (or if it doesn't, create a Word doc or write on a sheet of paper to be displayed prominently) and write on it your common mistakes:
  • Do they always ask for additional sources? What type?
  • What are their style peccadillos? Record them so you'll remember next time.
  • What common mistakes do you make?
Get a Reality Check
Finally, take a moment to compare what you're worried about to reality. I, for instance, often feel like I'm failing if I can't get edits in by a certain date. Sometimes it's a date set by the editor. Sometimes it's an internal deadline. I have one of those right now. Tomorrow I have edits due back, and need to find a difficult-to-track-down "real person" source. I feel the pressure mounting to get it all in--and perfect--by tomorrow. 

But the reality is my editor told me he has some wiggle room and, knowing that he's asked something difficult of me, is willing to extend the deadline. So am I--are you--creating pressure and problems that aren't real?

This is another great opportunity to enlist your editor onto Team You and to ask for help--both of which boost confidence and serenity.

The Upshot
The bottom line is that we all want to feel good about our work, and our relationships with our editors. Taking a few minutes to do these edits is not only our obligation as professionals, it's a gift. It's a chance to acknowledge that mistakes and indeed growth as a writer is part of our journey. 

We don't get better without recognizing the places where we're weak. But we also don't get better by believing that weakness is all we are. To quote a very wise friend: We can cease believing that because we make mistakes we are a mistake. 

And then something amazing and lovely happens: We are more in our bodies. We are more present for our work. We discover we are capable of growing and, just maybe, capable of becoming the writers we always wanted to be.

How do you approach revisions?

Photo by dingler1109

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday Mantra: Start

Hello all. I'm back again, and thrilled to be. Perhaps another time, I'll give reasons for my absence. But for now, let's get centered for our week.

Monday's Mantra: Start, Don't Finish.

I know what you're thinking: What? Isn't this blog about getting things done? Well, not precisely. This blog is about staying serene despite what's happening in your business. While getting things done can contribute to serenity, an obsession with getting things done often has the opposite effect: It makes us rigid and harsh, focused on the thing we can't control (when we finish an article, an edit, when someone will call us back, etc.) rather than what we can (scheduling the next interview, spending 30 minutes on writing).

The fact is, the finishing will take care of itself. It's the starting (or continuing) that's hard. I know this personally. This week I have two rewrites, a long reported feature to write, a fellowship to apply for, pitches to send, and four stories to set up and do interviews for. It's enough to make me throw up my hands and decide my bed--and those books on my Kindle--really need my attention.

This was driven home to me recently by a coaching session with an energetic and prolific client. Like everyone else, she's had her go-around the ring with procrastination. We were talking about the problem and I noticed the way she was talking about it:

"I was supposed to write this story yesterday, but then I wasted two hours paying a bill."

"Then I was going to do it today, but this other thing came up and I let it get in the way."

"And tomorrow I have five interviews, and I'm just going to have to make time for it."

Wasted. Let it get in the way. Forcing it. Pressure. Stress. They create an urgency to finish something--anything--even if it's not the thing we're worried about in the back of our minds. So, not surprisingly, we focus on the things we can get done, not the things we need to do. The bills get paid. The email gets responded to. And the article (or edits, rewrites, interviews, drafts) go undone. Rinse. Repeat.

Now, time management is an issue for all of us, and we could always probably be more efficient. And let's be honest: Starting to write a story can feel like clawing yourself out of a pit. But it's this kind of pressure that stops us in our tracks. Because every day we put it off, every day we excoriate ourselves for delaying and delaying, we hunker into a stance of having to make it up to ourselves. We imagine our clients standing there and tapping their toes in impatience. We tell ourselves over and over again that we are letting ourselves down. We dread work. We get that sick feeling of just wanting it to be over with.

And finishing becomes more important than ever.

What we forget--and what my client and I discussed--is that amid all this chatter about get-it-done and make-it-up-to-me, we forget to get started. Because getting started is insufficient. But it's also the only thing that will bring us back to our center and give us the priceless sense of serenity.

So here's what I intend to do this week: Rather than focusing on the deadlines bearing down on me, I am going to remember just to start. Just make a list and do the first thing on it. When I begin to feel that keening impatience and that feeling of inadequacy attempts to pull me under, I will start again. I will just set the timer for 30 minutes and write. I will set the timer for 30 minutes and contact sources. I will set the timer and spend a few minutes working on the revisions. I will just do the next right thing.

As E.L. Doctorow says, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night: You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

So get started today. Pick up the phone. Open a Word document. Read a few paragraphs in a book. Believe it or not, persistence will get you all the way there, if you just keep starting again and again.

And, when you do finish, you may just find that you've arrived with your serenity in tact.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Alisa Bowman faces the fear of the downturn

Alisa Bowman's website says it all: Pull it up and the tab will read "Alisa Bowman: Creates bestselling books." New York Times Bestsellers. Major national magazines. She knows what she's doing. And I don't mind saying that she's thoughtful, kind and helpful.

But is she confident? Alisa answered a few questions to explain how she got where she is now and where confidence plays a role there.

When you started freelancing, where would you place your professional confidence level, on a range of 1 (who me? I'll fade into the wallpaper over here) to 5 (I'm great! Let me tell you more!)? Why?

I started freelancing in 1990 and I didn't even think about my confidence or my writing abilities back then. I freelanced after a few years with a newspaper, a few years in book publishing and a few years at a magazine. Initially, I freelanced for people I knew--all of whom I'd worked with before. I knew exactly what they wanted, so the relationships were easy. Boy, I yearn for those days again! Anyway, I've never been one of those full-of-myself people. The day I tell someone that "I rock" will be the day the day I'm on some sort of wonder drug. So I won't give myself a 5, but I definitely didn't have as much to worry about back then. I'll say I was a 3.5.

Where would you place your professional confidence now, on the same scale?

Now I'm a 4, but for different reasons. My career is a lot more demanding now than it was 10 years ago. The freelance climate has changed. Editors have higher expectations of freelancers than ever before. I'm at a point in my career, too, when people have very high expectations of me. I've been a part of 6 best selling books, so authors come to me expecting miracles. Ten years ago, people just wanted me to put words together. Now they want me to make them rich, famous and happy. It's a tall order.

I'm also pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I'm writing on topics -- especially memoir -- that I am not as familiar with. So I feel shaky for the first time in years. I'm also learning how to promote myself, understand technology, and so on. These are things that writers didn't need to worry about 10 years ago. Now, though, I don't just write. I market. I maintain a blog. I delve into photography and photo editing. I'm learning video. I've posed for photos. I've been interviewed on TV. I'm giving speeches. I'm becoming a brand. That's all new to me, so the insecurity factor is higher.

If your confidence level has improved, what do you think made the difference? How did your confidence grow?

Confidence does not grow by staying safe and only writing about what you know. It grows when you push yourself, a little at a time, beyond your comfort zone. Whenever I've stretched in a new direction and did not die as a result, I got stronger and more confident. I was then able to look back on that experience and say, "If I could do ____, then I can do ____." There have been plenty of times in my career when I've wanted to hide under my bed. Whenever I've had that sensation, I've used it as a sign that I needed to face on what scared me JUST FOR THE PRACTICE of facing my fear.

What parts of your professional life still cause you the most insecurity? You told me about a recent bout of bad news that affected your professional confidence. How do you cope when those things happen?

Rejection and revisions still get to me. I am very good at taking feedback and I'm always looking to improve my writing. But lots of revisions generally cause me to blame myself. I think, "I really screwed that up. That editor hates me." In reality, we all get rewritten and edited. If we didn't, the job of "editor" would become obsolete. Also, as my good friend Julie Sturgeon says, we all get tossed into the toilet for a swirly every so often--even the best of us. It doesn't mean that we suck as writers. It means that the situation sucks. I know that, but I don't always feel that.

This may be another way of asking the same question but: Tell me about your demon. You mentioned him privately. What does he say, how does he say it and how do you wrangle him to the ground so you can get up and work again?

My demon says: "You always sucked at writing and you always will. You are a fraud. I can't believe you are still in this business. For Criss Sakes, why do you list those best sellers on your website? You know each and every single one of them was a fluke. You just got lucky. That's all. You suck. You can't write. You are a loser. Pretty soon every editor will know this and no one will hire you and you will eventually starve to death and so will your family."

He's pretty blunt. He's a real swell guy, eh?

How do you cope with those feelings of insecurity?

I write about them. When I am feeling really sucky, I'll post something about it on a writer's discussion board. Or I'll email a friend or post it as a Facebook status update. Or I'll blog about it. I try to use the insecurity as a lesson that can somehow help others. In this case, writing about my demon helps others feel normal and less alone. It also allows me to take the the focus off myself and put it on others. As soon as I do that, I feel better.

Plus, other writers are so supportive and can come up with the perfect pick-me-up. They are writers after all!

There was a time in my life when I did not do this--when I held it all inside. That was during my 20s and I ended up very depressed and in therapy. I've found that being frank, open and transparent has helped tremendously with all of life's little demons.

My premise for this challenge is that all creative people are insecure at some level. Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Yes, right on. All people are insecure in some way, but creative types even more so. In creative careers, what counts as "good" is so subjective. Edison knew he succeeded in inventing a light bulb when the dang light bulb lit up. But we writers never know for sure if our writing rocks. It's not as if a little computer bell goes off, "ding, ding ding!" to tell us that our work is awesome and that people are going to respond to it. We have to experiment. One way to do this is to blog. The communal nature of blogging gives you instantaneous feedback. You can learn, in real time, how your writing affected those who read it. It's quite powerful.

If you could offer any two suggestions for beginning writers on how to increase their self confidence, what would they be?

Blog. It's the best way to test your writing skills and see if your writing resonates with others.

Practice. I look at life as one huge practice rehearsal. That way, when I screw up, it's not a big deal. I was just practicing. Now I can use the screw up and I can learn from it and become a better writer. When you think of it that way, nothing seems terminal. All writers get better over time. Some of writing is talent, but a lot of it is skill--a skill that can be improved upon with practice.

Monday, May 24, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Kelly James-Enger is a Five!

Kelly James-Enger's name ought to be familiar to most freelancers. She's the author of the freelancing bible Six-Figure Freelancing and a prolific freelancer in her own right. She's been a full-time freelancer since Jan 1, 1997 and is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, in addition to Six-Figure Freelancing.

She also blogs about making more as a freelancer at Deadlines and Dollars. I asked her to talk about her own path to professional confidence. Here's what she had to say.

When you started freelancing, where would you place your professional confidence level, on a range of 1 (who me? I'll fade into the wallpaper over here) to 5 (I'm great! Let me tell you more!)? Why?

I’d say it depended on the day. I was fairly confident starting out, but that was because I’d had early success early on, selling my first two articles to national magazines. I had *no clue* about how challenging full-time freelancing would be, and even less of a clue (if that’s possible) about how I would actually approach it. I’d say, though, that I was a 3 or 4 most days, 1 on plenty of others…usually coinciding with receiving more than 1 rejection on that particular day.

Where would you place your professional confidence now, on the same scale?

With all modesty, I’d say 5 simply because I’ve encountered and overcome multiple challenges (e.g. having stories killed, losing steady clients, dealing with an unstable economy, having books going out of print). I really believe surviving those kinds of things has made me much more confident. For example, if a query gets rejected, I never think it’s because my query isn’t good enough (something I would have automatically thought early on). Now I just figure the editor didn’t like it, had something similar in inventory, or just isn’t smart enough to work with me. (Kidding!)

What parts of your professional life still cause you the most insecurity?

I think it’s having the time and drive to keep up with our changing industry. I’d resisted jumping on the social media bandwagon until quite recently… simply because I didn’t want to take the time to learn how to do it. Setting up my blog took me about 10 minutes. I’m not joking. I’m a luddite at heart but I know that to thrive as a freelancer, I have to embrace technology and know how it impacts my business and the publishing industry as a whole. And that’s always something I’m working on.

My premise for this challenge is that all creative people are insecure at some level. Agree or disagree?

I totally agree…and actually I think probably all people are insecure at some level. I think being a creative person, however, you’re taking a risk of putting yourself out there, whether it’s through a painting or short story or photographs, whatever. I can say that I am much more insecure (and take criticism much more personally) with work that I wrote for myself (I’m a published novelist and have published essays as well) compared to the work I do on assignment for editors. The latter is what I do to pay my bills. I’m much more attached to, for lack of a better word, the former.

If you could offer any two suggestions for beginning writers on how to increase their self confidence, what would they be?

Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. When you act confident, people think you are confident. Even when I’ve had my biggest slumps career-wise, I didn’t post on message boards or blogs bemoaning my existence. (I did vent to my husband and close friends, but I didn’t put it “out there.”) It’s really important for freelancers to remember that they’re running their own businesses, and clients want to work with people who are confident and successful.
Oh, and another tip—keep an “inspiration file.” That’s what I call a folder I have of happy notes from editors (e.g, “you did a great job on this piece"), “fan mail” from readers, awards, whatever. It’s a reminder that I am good at what I do, even when I doubt myself (which again everyone does sometimes!)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: When you are not the genius

And just for a fun Sunday afternoon, enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant take on genius. It has everything to do with confidence. After all, we put pressure on ourselves to be the genius. But what if we weren't. Gilbert is amazingly articulate and compassionate. That's reason enough for a revisit of this post.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Practice, practice, practice

Yesterday, novelist and writing craft coach Elizabeth Stark shared the basics of her creative and professional confidence. Today, she'll share the ways she teaches her clients to build confidence.

It's my theory that all creative people are insecure--it's the nature of putting something that really matters with you out into the world. How do you feel about that? Is that true for you, and if so, how?

Yes--I think you are right. It's amazing to work with successful writers. Of course, success as a label is so whimsical, so dependent on a bit of a particular kind of luck: Your film gets picked for a festival, your book gets published, reviewed, noticed . . .

The recent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to a book which could not find a mainstream publisher is a perfect example. Paul Harding is categorically a success--even though many folks reading this blog probably still haven't heard his name. But who cares? He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book! Yet no writer says to herself, I just wrote and published this great book. I can really trust myself going forward.

Instead, writers are constantly reinventing themselves, imagining ways to change themselves into something better.

When you're working with writing students, what are the areas in which most people lack creative confidence?

People lack confidence every step of the way:
  • How do I begin?
  • Is what I have to say worthwhile?
  • How to I organize a bunch of ideas, images, characters into something as large as a book?
  • How do I write it?
  • How do I silence the critic who keeps telling me how bad every sentence is?
  • How do I know if the book is good enough?
  • How do I approach agents and editors?
Even after a book is accepted for publication:
  • How will I make sure my book is noticed?
  • Will it sell?
  • What's next?
This is why I've created The Book Writing World. We all need a team. Olympic athletes have a team and coaches. No need to go it alone.

Setting goals publicly is a key to success. Deadlines. Guidance. A feeling that practicing is worthwhile. Writers are the only artists or athletes who think everything we do should be the show-stopping performance. What about rehearsals? Muscle-building? Of course, I tell brilliant writers these things every day, and then when I sit down to my own work, it's hard to remember them . . .

What would you say are the biggest barriers to creative confidence in the craft of writing?
How do you help your students face and overcome them?

The biggest barriers to creative confidence in writing are the blank page and the fact that we are not taught to enter the void and fill it. It never gets easier, in certain ways. Our job as writers is to ask ourselves questions whose answers we do not know--questions that matter to us deeply--and then to answer them. That's it! Who wouldn't be terrified?

In a way, if you are not terrified, you probably aren't tapping a vein. Conversely, you have to take these brave and daring actions not when the mood hits you, but habitually, every day. It's hard enough to jump blindfolded into your own imagination. And it's hard enough to commit to a daily practice. But a daily practice of jumping blindfolded into your own imagination? That's a lot to ask of yourself.

On the other hand, (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) what else do you want to do with your one and only life?

Friday, May 14, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Are you faking it or are you giving up?

It's one thing for me to tell you that all successful journalists and writers are insecure. It's another to hear it from their high-achieving mouths yourself. So I've asked some writers I love and whose work inspires me to answer some questions about professional confidence. We start with Elizabeth Stark, a novelist and writing craft coach whose online writers community, Book Writing World, just launched. This is just a preview. Elizabeth had such amazing things to say that I'll continue her Q&A tomorrow.

I chose you for this q&a because you are a successful novelist--or at least I would qualify you as such: You've written a book,
Shy Girl, that I loved and that was nominated for two book awards. You have an MFA from Columbia and have taught writing and continue to teach creative writing through your site, Write Angles. From the outside, I'd guess that you're very confident in your craft and your career. How true is that?

This is going to be a more challenging interview than I originally thought. My public persona (authentic but only one part of a contradictory whole) is confident. And I would say that I am most confident as a teacher. I've practiced editing, responding to and guiding writers more extensively than I've practiced my own writing, and as a result, I've become most confident in those areas.

No matter what, creative practices are harder to master. I strongly feel that I am always a beginning writer. When I wrote my first book, the novel Shy Girl, I told myself that this was my "learning-to-write-a-novel novel." Imagine my surprise when it turned out that each book must be imagined from scratch, and learned from the beginning.

This is the curse (and blessing!) of creativity: you can't rest on your laurels, your experience or your knowledge. You have to flail around. So just like everyone else, each day I face the blank page, I face the terror that I do not know what I'm doing, that I will fail. And in a way, a first draft must fail, so there is no escape, no reassurance. You build upon the failure, improve the mess . . .

I find that I am less confident when I am in the middle of writing--but I am happier. The distance provides a veil; I can remember a set of skills without putting them to the test.

What parts of your career are you most confident in?

See above: I feel good about my ethics and principles in how I respond to others' work and guide them through the process of writing a book. Of course, even here I have moments of doubt, because, again, the creative process requires adherence to a set of guidelines ultimately created from within. I cannot dictate these for other people. With publishing in crisis and a million writing courses out there, I want to be sure I am offering something valuable and meaningful to my clients and students.

Where do you feel like you need more confidence professionally?

I've just undergone a radical shift. For a long time, I would say, "I don't want to be a Julia Cameron." She's the author of The Artist's Way and many other books to guide creative folks along the path. I had this idea that to be known as a teacher rather than as a creator was a sort of failure or carried some sort of shame associated with the crass world of popular success. Hmmm . . .

At any rate, I looked more deeply and learned that Julia Cameron is actually a very productive writer of plays, fiction, screenplays. It's the fault of the market that her teaching books are more widely read than her other work--but she is living a balanced life. And also, now that I have kids, a family to support, I feel like I'd be incredibly lucky to make an impact like Julia Cameron has made.

This shifted my confidence. I used to feel impatient that my work as a writer seemed to inspire others to jump into the fray. Now I acknowledge that this is a gift. And I am learning more about outreach, about marketing--for my own business and to help all my writers to promote their books. My biggest challenge is fitting in my own writing with the nurturing of The Book Writing World (my business) and taking care of my kids. Juggling. I need confidence to say I am doing enough in each area, when each one could happily demand all my time and attention.

What has increased your confidence as a writer and an instructor?

Practice, practice, practice. You really do have to do anything that's important to you every day. Writing. Reading. Teaching. Being with your kids. There are successful writers who do not write daily--but very few.

I think it was easier for me to take myself seriously as an instructor much earlier than I took myself seriously as a writer. When you take yourself seriously, you make time and put in the practice.

You take the next step--practice and promotion.

You ask to be taken seriously, by people in power, by your family and, most importantly, by yourself.

You ask not only in words but in actions.

Now I'm creating an online membership site for writers: coaching and craft for folks writing book-length narratives (fiction, non-fiction, memoir). This is a giant step. I am also writing what my writing group (and secretly, I, too) thinks will be a "break-out" book. It's big and ambitious and risky and exciting. I have had the idea in mind for fifteen years! I've been too scared to just do it. Now I've committed to write this big book.

It's not so much that I have more confidence--I'm just committing to take myself and my occupations seriously, to "fake it until I make it." I think even people with a ton of success have that feeling of faking it often. The difference is: are you faking it or are you giving up?

More tomorrow!