Presentations and Panels

Structuring Life to Support Creativity take 2

A week ago I got to reprise my presentation on Structuring Life to Support Creativity. Unfortunately I heard from people who had to miss it because of conflicts or space issues. So I’m putting up the notes from the presentation here. They are rough notes rather than a fully flowing blog post. If I were to write this out fully, it would need to be 10,000 words or more. I first gave this presentation in 2013. There are some differences in information that I covered, so reading the original version might also be worth your time, you can find it here.

I always begin this presentation by saying that creative pursuits are patient. They will wait for us until we have time to get back to them. It is important to remember this when we are in a period of time where we need to do other things. I’ve had long spaces of time where I had to set aside fiction writing because I needed to focus my creative energy on business, or family, or health management, or grieving, or emotional processing. I lost nothing by taking care of these things first and then coming back to writing. Usually my creative efforts are better for taking time out to manage life events.

Know your goals and priorities
The first task to do when trying to fit a creative pursuit into your life is to step back and examine which things are the most important to you. For me family and loved ones are more important than creating books, even though I love both. This is the major reason that I sometimes spend long stretches without writing fiction: I am spending energy on the hugely creative task of raising children. And any creative task you undertake will interfere with any other creative task you want to do. A lot more occupations are creative than are generally considered creative. We create friendships, orderly homes, art projects, parties, etc. Service that we do for churches, schools, or communities can be hugely creative. Sometimes the work we do for a day job is also very creative. Grieving and emotional processing of life are when we re-create ourselves. Stepping back and analyzing what is most important so you can spend your creativity on that will help you be happier in your life, even if it means you’re spending a bit less time on the thing you thought was your one creative pursuit.

Recognize the pillars of your life.
Many creative people have a day job that literally keeps a roof over their head. Often this day job is viewed as a frustration or a distraction. However the ability to pay bills actually supports creativity. Maslow described this in his hierarchy of needs. We are less able to put energy into creation if we don’t know where our food will come from next week. Household tasks are another pillar that many people resent as a distraction from creativity. However if your surroundings are chaotic, the clutter in your physical space and clutter of undone To Do items in your head may make it difficult to accomplish the creative work you want to do. Social relationships are a third pillar. There is significant variance in the human need for company, but most of us do best, and are most creative, when we have emotional connections with others.

I mentioned before that things like grieving can interfere with creativity. The same is true of frustration or resentment. Any energy we spend on resenting a necessary life task subtracts from the energy available to create new things. Time spent maintaining your pillars creates a space where your writing or art can happen. I become much happier about doing maintenance tasks when I can see how they make the creative tasks possible.

Know your supports and emotional drags
Figuring this out starts with looking at the people in your life. Think about them.
Who supports you in ways that energize you?
Who claims to support you, but somehow you always end up discouraged after being with them?
Who doesn’t support you or actively interferes with your creativity?
You may want to adjust the quantity of time you spend with people who sap your creativity. Or you may want to re-frame that time so that it is further away from your creative spaces. Go to a movie and then talk about that movie instead of going to lunch and end up explaining why you want to be a writer.

Also look at your pillar maintenance tasks. The things that keep your life structure stable. This is when your family/housemates/friends become very important. Because some of those maintenance tasks do drag on your creativity while others are neutral or feed into creativity. If laundry sucks your soul, perhaps make a deal with others in your house so that they manage the laundry while you manage something else. Communication with the people in your support network is crucial. As you are building space in your life for creativity, they also have to give space for that creative effort. Make sure that these discussions include the sacrifices you will make to meet their emotional needs right along side the sacrifices you need them to make for your creative pursuits. (IE, you get one hour of uninterrupted writing time each day, but on Saturdays they get to go out to do their hobby thing.)

Consider what blocks of time and what physical space you can devote to your creative pursuit. Having a physical space can be helpful, even if the space is only contained inside a laptop or notebook. Entering your creative space can teach your brain to open up your creative thoughts, helping you to get in the zone faster. In order to create that space I’ve known people who depend on the smell and flavor of a favorite beverage, others light a candle, or have turned a closet into an office, or have an actual office. Some go to a coffee shop or a library. Some just put on headphones and particular music. The key is that at the schedule time you enter your creative space and train your brain to open up your creative thoughts. Then when you exit you can carry the thoughts with you or close them up as necessary to face the next task of your day. If you haven’t organized a space or made a schedule for time, then that is likely a significant drag on your creative efforts.

Plan your creative effort around your pillars
There are scientific studies done about willpower and how it is a limited resource. Anecdotally, I know this is true for me. Every decision I make is an exercise of willpower and makes following decisions more difficult. This is one of the reasons that decision heavy tasks, such as parenting, can be a huge drain on creative energy. Knowing this can help you as you structure time in your day to make room for creativity. It takes a large amount of willpower to stop playing a video game and go write. It takes less willpower to start writing right after you have finished lunch. In fact if you build a habit of lunch-then-writing the transition to writing takes no willpower at all. And the transition to lunch is helped by the biological imperative of hunger. I call this process setting a trigger.

I rely heavily on triggers. The routine of getting kids off to school in the morning triggers me to get out of bed early. Then once they are out of the house, the quiet reminds me that I need to get to work. Using an externally impose structure like a school schedule is very helpful in scheduling creative time. Our schedules go very mushy in the summer when we don’t have that external structure. In the absence of kids or school structure, I know creatives who sign up for classes, make writing date appointments, use a day job, or use scheduled volunteer work to provide external structure in their day. Using an external structure reduces your willpower load.

It is possible that some of your pillars will absorb creative energy for a time. If you’re struggling to pay bills, then the best use of your creative energy might be to go back to school and get training, so you can get a better job, so that you can be less stressed by bills, so that you have more room in your brain for creative things.

Analyze your blocks
Some things will interrupt your creative time. Other things will prevent you from starting. A challenge I regularly face is that if I know an interrupt is coming, say I have an appointment in an hour, there is part of my brain that doesn’t want to get started on a creative task because I know I’ll be interrupted. To combat this, I had to teach my self that five minutes is enough time to get something done. This is where visualizing my creative thoughts as existing in a cupboard in my brain has been very helpful to me. I open the cupboard and use those thoughts for five minutes then close up the cupboard again and move on with other tasks.

Alternately, you can rearrange the other parts of your life to defend large chunks of creative time. I know many writers who do this. It works best if your support network understands the need for those large blocks of uninterrupted time and participates in helping you defend them. If your support network doesn’t do high-focus creative work, it might be good to spend some time helping them understand creative flow. Because a two minute interrupting half way through an hour of writing time means that you don’t have an hour of writing time, you have two half hour writing times. Minus the time spent putting away whatever thoughts were opened up by the interruption. It often helps to have a visual signal to tell people not to interrupt you. We set up a string of flower lights at the entrance to my office. When the lights are on, my family knows to only interrupt if absolutely necessary.

The list of mental/emotional things that can block creating is a presentation to itself. I called that presentation Breaking through the Blockages and gave it at LTUE in 2015. Clicking this link will lead you to notes from that presentation. In addition to the points covered in that presentation, I add the thought that if you are doing emotional processing of grief or a life change, that emotional process is a creative one. It will absolutely interfere with your other creative efforts. We don’t usually think of grief as creative, but the process of grief is frequently one of letting go an old way of being while creating a new self that no longer centers the object of the grief. Self re-creation and grief are messy processes that slop over into unexpected spaces and pop up at inconvenient times. If at all possible don’t layer guilt for not creating on top of these processes. Remember the very first thing in this post, creativity will wait for you. This can be tricky to remember if one of the things you are grieving is lost creative time.

In my first iteration of this presentation I spent an entire segment on biological rhythms. This time I passed over it lightly, mostly because an audience question reminded me. We all have times of day where we’re energetic and times when we feel sluggish. Pay attention to your patterns, and if at all possible, schedule your creativity for the time of day when you feel energetic.

Transformations vs. incremental changes
When people come to a conference or creative retreat, they sometimes leave filled with energy and plans for renovating their entire life. Take a moment to consider how you want to manage that renovation. A massive effort to change everything often fails for several reasons. Habit is strong, and if you want to create a new pattern, you need to create structure that makes falling back into the old habits difficult.

The example I used was deciding that I spend too much time on facebook. If I declare that I’m going to spend no more than an hour per day on facebook, but don’t put any structure around that declaration, I’m likely to fail inside of two days. If I decide that any time I get on facebook I will set a one hour timer, that is better. I have a trigger to remind me to exit facebook. However I have to use willpower to set the timer and then I have to use willpower to turn off facebook when the timer beeps. It is very easy to forget the timer or distract past the alarm. If I install nanny software that automatically limits my facebook time to one hour per day, that has a better chance at working. I only have to decide to install the software once instead of once per day timer setting. And if I want to extend my facebook time it requires a decision and effort to do so. If I wanted to be even more certain that I’ll stay off facebook, I could delete my account entirely. This puts a significant logistical barrier to returning to facebook. An even more thorough method would be to completely cancel my internet. This last option would forcibly change many patterns in my life, and would have a signifcant impact on other members of my household, which brings me to the next reason that huge transformational life renovations often fail: transformation is hard on your support network.

Making sweeping changes all at once will make other people in your life uncomfortable. Because they are uncomfortable they may (consciously or unconsciously) pressure you to “return to normal.” For this reason massive life transformations can seriously disrupt relationships, which is why communication is critical during transformations. Also critical is disrupting old habit paths and putting road blocks to getting back to them. Certain life events make some level of transformation inevitable: Moving, getting married, getting divorced, birth, death, new day job, diagnosis, adoption, etc. These events inherently make some old habits impossible and provide an opportunity to build new habits. Building new habits is a creative process that will interfere with your other creative process until the new habit is established.

In order for a transformation to work, you have to be willing to let go of your old way of doing things. This may mean letting go of things you like in order to fix something you want to change. An example: I’ve long wanted to switch my online store software to a new system because the one I’ve been using is out of date. I began the process and then discovered that the new store system connects smoothly to my accounting software, but only if I switch to the online version of the accounting software. In order to fix my broken store system, I have to let go of an accounting system that was working just fine and re learn how to do my accounting. I have to be willing to change the thing I like to fix the broken thing.

The alternative to massive life transformation is incremental life change. This is transformation in pieces and at a small scale. It allows you to change a portion of your life and to let that change settle in before changing something else. Small changes can have significant ripple effects. For example: setting up a physical space for your creative efforts is not hugely disrupting to your regular life patterns or to your support network, but having it suddenly enables you to signal when you’re busy, allows you to set up creative triggers, and helps you open up your creative thoughts. Small changes can be significant. And accumulation of small significant changes will, over time, result in life transformation.

Health and Spoon Theory
If you have not heard about Spoon Theory, I recommend reading the linked article. It is a handy metaphor for understanding that we are not all granted the same quantity of energy each day. Some people can make 1000 decisions (or exercises of willpower) per day, others can only handle ten. Sometimes just managing ill health uses up 3/4 of your available energy, pillar maintenance uses up almost everything else, leaving only a sliver of energy for creativity. Being a caretaker for someone else can have the same toll. This is hard and not fair.

Unfortunately grieving (or raging) of your limited supply of energy also uses up the supply. Grief is often a necessary process in relation to ill health or caretaking, but pay some attention to moving through those emotions mindfully. Process them with your support network, with a therapist, with the help of books dealing with your issue. It can be easy to just sit with grief instead of moving through it. Resist the urge to shove it aside so you can focus on other things. “Shove aside” can be a necessary short term strategy, but unless you process that emotion, you’re stuck with it. And it accumulates. And it leaks into every aspect of your life.

Be aware that diagnoses almost always trigger grief (and a host of other emotions.) If you or someone you love gets a diagnosis, you’ll need to process it. The amount of processing depends on you, your past experiences, the pervasiveness of life change, how others around you are handling it, and a host of other factors.

If you are a healthy person, be aware that you know someone who isn’t. Take time to be part of a support network for someone who struggles. Solid support makes all the difference in being able to carve out creative time.

Break your patterns / get out of your box
As you are renovating to make room for creativity, be careful not to remove from your life all of the “distractions” that filled up your creative aquifer. Creative minds need rest. They need time to switch off from all the thinking. This is why you often see creative people diving into binge watching TV or playing video games. They need a comfortable retreat. That is important. However be on the alert for dysfunction in your habits. Eight hours of sleep is necessary for health. Fifteen hours of sleep is a sign that something is wrong. Two hours of video game may be refreshing. Ten hours of video game has almost certainly passed the point of diminishing return.

When you discover that your habits keep you contained in the same round of things, take time to do something new. Try a new activity. Go to a new place. Talk to new people. Get outside your comfort zone. Even if the new experience is uncomfortable and/or unpleasant while you’re going through it, you’ve still filled your brain with new material that you can draw on when you’re creating. Also, many times new experiences end up being enjoyable.

As a suggestion: donating time to helping others is a brilliant way to have new experiences and to fill up your creative/emotional energy.


Expect iterations

As you’re making changes whether they be incremental or transformational, you should expect a try/fail cycle in figuring out your life structure. Even if you do figure out the absolute perfect system where all the parts are working smoothly together, something in your life will change and that system will fall apart. If you know in advance that this is inevitable, you make be able to skip the part where system failure feels like a personal failure.

The example I often use for this is laundry. When Howard and I first got married we had one laundry basket. It was simple and effective. Then we had a baby, and another, and another. I discovered that adding a baby managed to triple the amount of laundry. The basket was always mounded and there were mounds on the floor. I always felt buried under laundry and overwhelmed by it. Then one day someone (probably Howard) said “Sandra, you can have more than one basket.” And he was right. Purchasing one basket per person suddenly changed a massive mound into neat baskets where clothes were sorted by person. All it took was recognizing that the system which worked great for two people was a complete failure at trying to handle five people.

When creativity is getting squeezed out of existence, stop and take time to figure out why the system that used to work isn’t working any more. Salvage pieces that are still working and rebuild.

I close the presentation with questions from the audience. Often the answers to specific questions generate some of the best insights of the presentation. Frequently this happens when one audience member has an answer for another audience member’s struggle. So I close with the reminder that if you’re struggling, you’re not the only one. If you ask your support network, online friends, family, odds are good that someone has exactly the words you need to help you move forward.

Best of luck in your creative efforts.

Breaking Through the Blockages

This post is a summary of a presentation I gave at LTUE 2015. I find that posting it right now is particularly apropos because I’ve got two writing projects in process and I’ve made little progress on either one lately.

I am a writer of picture books, blog entries, essays, and children’s fiction. As my day job I run the publishing house for my husband’s comic strip, Schlock Mercenary. This means I do graphic design, marketing, shipping, inventory management, store management, and customer support. I have a house that needs maintenance and I have four children, three of whom are teenagers. My life is busy. In fact when someone who knows me in one of my non-writing capacities finds out that I also write, the question that they ask is “where do you find the time?”

The truth is that I spend a lot of time not writing. Even with my busy life, time is not the problem. I have the hours, I just find myself reaching the end of the week and realizing that I’ve spent them all on non-writing things. This post/presentation lays out some of the reasons writers get blocked, or otherwise don’t write. It also offers some solutions for the problems.

Self Doubt
Pretty much every creative person I know has an inner critic who tells them they are terrible and that there is no point to spending time creating. In my head this voice often tells me that my writing is a waste of time and that I should be spending that time on more important things.

How to counter it: Recognize that the critical thoughts are there. I often personify them a little bit, calling them the voices of self doubt. This small separation is useful, because once I see them as separate from me, it is easier for me to choose to ignore them. Sometimes I even mentally address them. “Yes, I know you think this isn’t worthwhile, I’m going to write anyway.”

Important reminder: These voices of self doubt are lying to you. The act of creation has value, even if the only person who is ever changed by it is the creator.

There may be people in your life who feed the self doubt. They may be deliberately undercutting you for reasons of their own, or they may be doing it unintentionally. It is important to recognize which people make you doubt yourself. If they are unimportant in your life, perhaps remove them from it. If it is a loved one, then spend some time figuring out how they are adding to your self doubt and try to re-structure your relationship so that they have less power to make you doubt yourself. Be aware that this is not simple and the other person may react poorly to the process.

Perfectionism / The editor within
This is also an internal critic, but it is slightly different from the self doubt voices. This internal editor constantly tells you you’re not good enough, but it is more specific. The existence of the internal editor is actually an indicator of writing growth. New writers think everything they write is wonderful. Then they learn more and realize that everything they’ve written is terrible because they’ve acquired knowledge and skill to recognize the flaws in their own writing. Your internal editor is extremely valuable when you need to revise, not so much when you’re trying to draft.

How to counter it: When you’re drafting you have to give yourself permission to write something terrible. You will fix it later. Some people need to have some sort of timer or incentive in order to force themselves to draft quickly without worrying that it is bad. Examples of incentives are Write or Die programs, Written Kitten, or participating in NaNoWriMo. If you are editing you need to distinguish between the useful editor and the mean editor. The useful one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. We need to write it better” The mean one says “Wow that sentence is terrible. You are a terrible writer. Why do you do this anyway?”

Professional Insecurity
When you know other writers or read about how they work, it is very common to come to the conclusion that you’re doing writing wrong. You feel like if your process isn’t like [famous writer] then that explains why you fail to write. I’ve seen people contort their lives and writing trying to be someone else.

How to counter it: There is no wrong way to create. Anything that allows you to get writing done is better than a system that does not. Feel free to learn how other writers approach their writing. Experiment with their methods, but if their methods don’t work for you, discard them. Keep what works for you and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. (If they do, then they fall in the category of people who feed your self doubt.)

Fear of Failure
No one wants to be rejected or to fall short of their dreams. Sometimes writers will subconsciously sabotage their own writing because if they never finish the book, then they never have to face the rejections that come with publication. Rejections and criticisms come not matter what publishing path you choose. Sometimes writers learn too much about publishing before they’ve finished writing. The whole process can feel futile if no one will ever read your work.

How to counter it: First remember the act of creation has intrinsic value no matter what happens to the creation once it is done. Second, focus on the work that is in front of you instead of on your fears about what will come in the future. If you’re drafting, then fully enjoy the process of drafting. No matter what comes afterward no one will ever be able to take away the experience you had with writing your book. Then you can focus on the experience of editing. Then on publishing or submitting. Each step is its own process. Do one at a time. All the other steps will be there later. Worry about them when you get to them.

Time Management
It may be that how you’re managing your time is causing you to be blocked. This is not the same as not having enough time. The time is there, you just need to figure out how to arrange it so that writing fits. You may not have a large block of time or you may be trying to write during the wrong time of day.

How to counter it: Learn to work in small chunks. Sometimes it feels like you can’t accomplish anything unless you can free up an hour or two. But I know writers who create whole books by snatching fifteen minutes here and there. You just have to train your brain to hold the story ideas and percolate them while you’re doing other things so that when you sit down to write you can pour words onto the page. A notebook is a very useful tool for training your brain to do this. Carry one with you. Scribble notes as thoughts come to you. This teaches your brain to hold story thoughts until you need them. Also learn your biorhythms. Some people are most creatively energized first thing in the morning others late at night. I know that my body wants to take a nap around 3pm. I should not attempt to schedule my writing time for when my body wants to nap. My brain is all fuzzy and not good at writing during that time.

The Story is Stuck
Sometimes you’ve arranged the time, cleared everything else from your schedule, but then you sit down to work and you can’t put words down. There are several reasons this can happen. 1. You honestly don’t know what comes next. 2. Your subconscious knows that something is wrong with a thing you wrote previously and is not letting you proceed until you find and fix it. 3. The story needs skills you don’t have yet.

How to counter it: If you don’t know what comes next, then it is time to step back and take a broader look at your story. You may need to brainstorm or re-outline. This is also a solution to the subconscious blocking you problem. You need to recognize where your story deviated from what it needs to be. If the story needs skills you don’t have, then you may need to step away from it an practice that skill. With practice you’ll begin to develop a sense for which sort of problem you’re having. Sometimes the right solution is to plow forward, just keep putting words on the page even if they’re the wrong ones. Other times you have to step backward, get outside your box and look at the whole thing differently.

Distraction
This is particularly a problem for people who have ADHD or similar distractibilities. Sometimes you’ll be writing and then between one sentence and the next your brain says “We should check Twitter!” So you click over and it is twenty minutes before you’re back to writing. Often what is happening here is that your brain is getting micro-tired. Writing is hard work, and the brain wants to jump to something easier or more soothing.

How to counter it: Turn off or remove your typical distractions. At the very least, make them harder to access so that you have time to realize “Oh I’m getting distracted.” The moment you realize you’re distracted, bring yourself back to the writing. Also control your environment. If you sit in a particular place with a particular drink, these things can signal to your brain that you’ve entered writing time. You can train your brain that writing time is for writing and not for Twitter. Some days will still be easier than others, but physical signals and practicing coming back to writing focus will help.

Creative Depletion
Often people have plenty of time to write, but by the time they reach that hour, all they want to do is relax and watch TV. This is usually the case when they’ve used up all of their creative energy on something else. Parenting is a huge cause of this. Daily parenting requires huge reserves of creativity. You’re expending creative energy just keeping little ones alive, teaching them, entertaining them. As they get older, creative energy goes into helping them with projects, helping them problem solve, and figuring out how to effectively communicate. There are also many jobs that use up all the creative energy.

How to counter it: First determine what you are spending your creative energy doing. If that thing is more important to you than writing is, then you don’t actually have a problem. The writing will wait until your life shifts in a way that you have energy for it again. If the other thing is LESS important to you than writing, it is time to take steps to rearrange your life. Most of us can’t afford to quit our jobs and be full-time creative. But we can be budgeting, paying down debts, and saving money so that someday that dream becomes possible. Parents can hire babysitters once per week so that there is a day with some available creative energy. The solutions are as varied as the problems. The key is to analyze why you’re too creatively tapped out to write and make a small change toward fixing that problem.

I know these are not the only things that can cause a writer not to write, but it is a useful jumping off place for writers to figure out what is going on inside their heads that prevents them from reaching their writing goals.

Structuring Life to Make Room for Creativity

This blog post is a write-up from my presentation notes. I’ve given this presentation at LTUE. I’ll be giving it again at LDS Storymakers in May. As I wrote this from my notes, I noticed a major difference in the flow of a presentation and of a blog post. Speaking to a group is more conversational and I included anecdotes and examples that I’m leaving out of this post, because if I were to include them this post would be 15,000 words long. I’ve chosen not to break the presentation into 10 separate posts because I feel like having these abbreviated notes all in one place will be more useful than a blog series. Not included in this post is the discussion that resulted from the question and answer session at the end of the presentation. A recording was made of my LTUE presentation. I’ll link it when it is available on the internet.

I am a busy person. I have four children who attend three schools, all of which feel like they can email me. The schools have attached PTAs who want pieces of my time. I also share a business with my husband where I do the accounting, order management, shipping, customer support, layout work, art direction, and a host of smaller tasks. I have a house which gets disheveled if I don’t pay attention. I have to eat on a daily basis as do my people and the cat. I am not exaggerating when I say that I am busy. I’m busy even though I am constantly trying to be less busy. In this I’m not unique, because everyone is busy. Life fills to overflowing with things to do. Yet, last year I wrote a novel’s worth of blog entries. I wrote a picture book, Strength of Wild Horses, which I’ll be Kickstarting in a couple of months. I remodeled sections of my house, wrote letters, sewed. The remainder of this presentation gives some principles which allowed me to make space for these creative things. Not included is the advice to set aside time for creative things, which is good advice, however I feel it important to discuss how to structure life so that the time can be made available.

1. Identify Your Support Network
I could not accomplish what I do without the support of those who share my house. My husband could not accomplish what he does without my support. The first step in adjusting your life to make room for your creative pursuits is to talk to the people closest to you. You need to identify what sacrifices they may have to make and whether they are willing to make them. It has to be a conversation and the sacrificing needs to be reciprocal. Sometimes the people around you will not be allies, they will be obstacles or enemies. Then you have some hard decisions to make. You have to decide whether to value the relationships or your creative dream. The answers will be individual. Sometimes the creativity needs to be put down for a while, other times it is necessary to declare a creative space and let everyone be mad about it until they adjust. I recommend sitting down and making a list of who is affected by the creative space you need, how they are affected, what support you hope for from them, and what you might need to give in return to keep the relationship balanced. Making this list will require self awareness about your creative pursuit.

2. Arrange a Physical Space
You need to have a home for your creative pursuit, the space does not have to be large. For the longest time my space for my writing was contained inside my laptop. That worked really well for me because it was portable. I could take it anywhere, open it up and be in my writing space. Once I entered my writing space, the writing thoughts would unfold in my brain. When Howard began cartooning, we put all his cartooning things in a box on the kitchen counter. Then we shifted things around so he had a drawing table in our front room. Right now he has an office with a computer desk, a drawing table, a crafting table, and a second drawing desk at a local comics shop. Creating a physical space for your creative pursuit declares that it matters, it also provides a visual reminder that you might want to do your creative things. For more thoughts on spaces and how they affect us, I recommend reading The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka.

3. Understand Your Biorhythms
Everyone has alert times of day and low energy points. Learning when yours are can make a huge difference in your creative output. Ideally you will put your block of creative time at your most creative time of day. This is not always possible, but knowing when you are most creative gives you something to aim for. A common pattern is to be high energy first thing in the morning with an energy lull in the afternoon and another energy burst in the evening. Some creators are at their best late at night, others before dawn. Find your pattern.

4. Use Supports for Your Schedule
In general, creative people struggle with creating structure for their lives. Howard and I depend heavily on the imposed structure from our kids’ school schedules. It gives is a required time to be up in the morning. We know that we have to do kid stuff until they are out the door. Then we switch to work tasks. Willpower is a limited resource. This is why I try to set up my creative schedule to require as little willpower as possible. I train myself that right after lunch I write for awhile. That way I don’t have to think about if I feel like it. I don’t have to muster the energy to get moving. I’m already moving for lunch, I just let that motion carry me into doing something creative.

5. Master the Small Stretch
Humans have a tendency to get excited and try to overhaul their entire life at once. They want to put writing in the schedule, and start exercising every day, and always have the dishes done. They want to Do All The Things. Then they wear out very quickly. Don’t overhaul your life, make one small change. Give that change time to settle in and become a habit. Once it does, you’ll be able to see what the next small change needs to be. The accumulation of small adjustments will change life dramatically over time. It can also help unsupportive family and friends become accustomed to creative things when they see that supporting creativity does not require a complete overhaul of life.

6. Learn to Work in Fragments
Creative people tend to want to work in big bursts, to immerse themselves for hours, or days, only to emerge when they’ve exhausted their energy. This is extremely disruptive to a busy schedule. Learning how to open up your creative thing and work on it for ten minutes or an hour is an incredibly powerful capability. This is where having a physical space for your creativity can be so very useful. You can train your brain that when you enter your creative space all the thoughts are there waiting for you. Working in fragments is particularly important if you are a parent of young children, because they cut your time into itty bitty fragments.

7. Ponder the Tortoise and the Hare
I used to hate the Aesop fable about the tortoise and the hare. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I hated it because I was a hare, and in the story the hare loses. My natural inclination is to tackle a project and not stop until it is done. Unfortunately most creative projects are too big to be managed in a huge burst of energy. You can write a novel during NaNoWriMo, but at the end you are exhausted and the work on that book has barely begun. But if you learn to work in fragments, you can teach yourself to be like the tortoise. You can just keep stepping forward. It feels like you’re not getting anywhere. You work endlessly for what feels like no result at all, but there will come a moment when you reach the top of a hill and can see how far all those little steps have taken you. I truly admire the natural tortoises of the world. They get stuff done.

8. Health and Spoon Theory.
I began with a brief description of spoon theory, which is that we only have limited amounts of energy available in a given day. For visualization purposes that energy is represented as spoons. Those who are healthy are allotted more spoons than those who struggle with illness. Each task of daily life uses up spoons. There is inherent unfairness in energy distribution and this is hard. Sometimes energy which you wanted to go into creative pursuits will have to be spent on other things. I don’t have good answers for this, but I don’t feel like this presentation is complete without acknowledging that health can be a major difficulty. Also I want those who have good health to be aware that not everyone does, and maybe sometimes they can share some of their energy with those who have much less.

9. Get Outside Your Box
Creativity does not burst into spontaneous existence. I think of it as a deep subconscious aquifer full of all the stuff that accumulates from the places I go and people I talk to. I drill a well down into it and draw from it when I am writing. Sometimes when we are trying to organize life to maximize creative output we make the mistake of removing from the schedule all the things that fill us up. Playing video games or watching television may look like a waste of time, but for some people those things are essential to filling the creative aquifer. Each person will have different things that fill them up. I garden or visit new places. Howard paints and goes to movies. Both of us visit with friends. Find the things that fill you up and know that sometimes you’ll need to choose the filling activities instead of the creation activities.

10. Your System Will Break
You’ve followed all the steps outlined above, you’ve crafted the perfect schedule, everything falls into places and flows, but then suddenly it all falls apart. Something changed, things always change. My kids get older, their needs shift, I shift, we enter a different part of the business cycle, school gets out for the summer, school starts for the fall. The list of ways life can change is innumerable. When your system falls apart, just grab the best pieces from it and build a new schedule. In another few months that one will fall apart too. Having your schedule fall apart can actually be a gift because sometimes it forces us to really look at all the pieces and build something that works even better. When I was a young parent it felt like each overhaul of the schedule made something completely different. Now I can see that patterns emerge. These days I don’t have to overhaul very often, I just have to tweak.

This is when we moved into the Question and Answer portion of the presentation. I remember we talked a little bit about how to handle internet distraction and I recommended taking a break to see which parts of the internet you actually missed. Other excellent questions were asked, but I’m afraid that I can’t remember any more. This presentation was followed by two full days of conversations and they all blend together. Each of the points above could be expanded into a full discussion and blog post of its own. Perhaps someday I’ll do that. For now I hope that this set of notes gives people a place to start as they’re contemplating how to fit creativity in with everything else that they are already doing.

An Evening of Discussing Blogging at the Orem Library

Funny how I can attend a great event where people had good questions, where my co-panelist was excellent, where I sometimes had exactly the right words to say, and yet on the drive home the critic crawls out of the back of my brain to attempt to convince me that I did a horrible job and everyone else at the event was just humoring me. It is fortunate that I recognize this for a pattern and I am self aware enough to be able to combat it with specific instances that demonstrate at least rudimentary competence. What really makes the voice shut up is coming home. The kitchen was a mess of cold pizza and various other snacks mixed in with school papers, notebooks, writing implements, and toys. Gleek had a pile of new stuff to show me, because while I was off at the library talking about blogging, she went to the New Beginnings program which tells all the teenage girls what sort of fun things will be coming in the next year. Gleek is very excited that she will now be part of the youth program instead of the kids’ program. Patch wanted to show me the new game he found on the internet, something to do with plumbers. Link was happy to see me home and Kiki needed to bend my ear to tell me all about how Gleek interacted with the other teenage girls. Howard texted me to see how the event had gone. I called and we chatted for a few minutes before he went back to work. Even the cat had things to say to me. It all washed over me like a warm tide and that critical voice faded to a whisper.

I come away from the event impressed with the Orem Library and their staff. They put together excellent free events all the time and I was happy to get to participate in this one. The library has a brand new blog which keeps people informed of happenings at the library and its collections.

The difficulty in talking about blogging is that there are so many different ways to go about it and people have so many different goals that they hope to achieve from it. From the questions I could tell that we had people just aching for a way to tell their stories, others who wanted to approach blogging as a business, some whose first interest was in how to attract readers en masse, others who wanted technical guidance, and those who wanted to learn how to pour their hearts into words. We would answer questions and I could tell that the answer which was perfect for one person was not for another one. More than being “not useful” I know that at least some of the things I said were exactly opposite what some of those audience members need to do to achieve their goals. I tried to express that during the discussion. I hope it came across, because there is no wrong way to approach blogging so long as your means are suited to your goals.

C. Jane Kendrick was a wonderful co-panelist. She spoke from her experiences as a professional blogger with a readership far larger than mine. The thing that impressed me most about her is the way that she listens. She goes quiet in her whole body, completely attentive to the person before her. She listens, she thinks, then she changes. I counted three people in the audience I knew were there for me. The rest came for C. Jane, but like her, they were gracious and smart. They asked interesting questions. One of the things I love about giving presentations is that I learn things. I learn from my co-panelists and sometimes I learn from my own answers.

I wish I could give a coherent point-by-point summary of all that we discussed, but the question and answer format bounced the topic around so much that I can’t use flow to help me remember it.

The time went by quickly. We could have continued talking for another hour I think. In fact many of us did linger and talk for a while afterward. That is one of my favorite parts, when I get to talk one on one with a person who has a question. I can listen to them and see if I have something useful to say in return. Often it is the listening which matters more than anything I say. Most people have the answers they need already if they are free to talk until the answer tumbles out and surprises them. I love being present for that moment.

The library was closing as the last few of us wandered out to our cars. We picked our way carefully through the clumps of slush and snow. It made me even more grateful to those in the audience who’d traveled far distances to join in the discussion. Then came the voice of self doubt, then the tide of reassurance at home, and now my thoughts unspool through my fingers and into my blog as I unpack and store this experience. This is one of the purposes that blogging serves for me. Through the words I write, I sort my life experiences and try to make sense out of them. Sometimes I succeed, others not so much, but the practice makes my life better.

Events I’m Excited About

I’ve kept my events for 2013 close to home and fairly sparse. Home is where I want to be this year and I have plenty of projects to keep me busy all year long. However there are a few events coming up that I’m excited to be involved with.

Orem Writes: Talking about Blogging
January 30 7pm Orem Library.
For this event C. Jane Kendrick and I will be talking about our experiences with blogging and answering audience questions. I’ve never met Ms. Kendrick before, but I’m very excited to get a chance to talk to her because she blogs like I do, where telling stories on the blog is the point of writing rather than using the blog as a promotional tool. I’ve been reading her blog regularly for the last month (ever since I discovered it) and thoroughly enjoy it.

Life, The Universe, and Everything Symposium
February 14-16 Downtown Provo Marriott
This is an event that Howard and I enjoy every year. If you are interested in writing genre fiction or in talking about it, you simply can not get a better event for the price. I haven’t seen an official schedule yet, but Howard and I are usually teaching something interesting during the event. When we’re not teaching, you’ll be able to find us in the dealer’s room where we’ll have set up shop under the big Schlock Mercenary sign. I’ll definitely have copies of Hold on to Your Horses and Cobble Stones available. Depending on how quickly I work I may even have the 2012 edition of Cobble Stones. Please stop by and say hello.

LDS Storymakers Conference
May 10-11 Downtown Provo Marriott and Conference Center
I’m really excited about this conference. They’ve given me an entire hour to talk about blogging, why I love it, and how a blog can be more than just a marketing tool for authors. I expect this presentation will be greatly shaped by my conversation with Ms. Kendrick in January. I’m also teaching a class on structuring your life to support creativity. Howard is teaching World Building and Focused Practice. The conference is more expensive and it definitely teaches from and to and LDS viewpoint, but it offers a world of education to anyone seeking to write as a career. Well worth the time and expense.

Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat
June 10-16 Chattanooga TN
Registration for this event is full this year. Though you can still apply for a scholarship spot until January 15th. Howard, Brandon, Dan, and Mary will all be there running the event. My attendance is probable, but there are some family commitments which are in direct conflict and I can’t say for certain how I’ll be able to resolve those conflicts. Hopefully this retreat will be such a huge success that they’ll schedule another one.

In the second six months of the year, I don’t have any professional appearances scheduled. Which is fine, because that seems pretty far away.

Presentation List

The following is a list of presentations that I love to give. Some of them I’ve already done several times in different forms. A couple are things I have not yet had the chance to do. If your organization would like me to present, please contact me sandra.tayler at gmail.com. Please be aware that I’m local in Orem, UT. In order to schedule an event more than an hour away, I’ll need several months advance notice and travel expenses paid.

Blogs are More Than Marketing: Learning to put your heart into your writing both online and in your fiction.
This presentation focuses on using blogging to practice writing fiction and creative nonfiction. I’ll provide various examples of what a blog can be, speak about the emotional learning stages involved in maintaining a blog, and discuss how to handle it when people are mean on the internet. I’ll speak about all of this from my 8 years experience of blogging almost daily and from the collected experience of other writers that I know.

Writing Realistic Children
A toddler is not an accessory for your protagonist. This presentation will spend some time talking about stages of human development to discuss things that are typical for children at various ages. But mostly it will talk about the priorities and individualities of children and how those priorities should affect your plot.

Finances for Creative People 201
We’ll cover basic business structure, taxes, and incorporation. More importantly we’ll talk about the ways that running a creative business will affect your daily life and family. Some time will also be spent talking about how to transition from traditional employment to a creative career, how to make a business plan, and how to know when to call it quits. I’ll use illustrative anecdotes from 15 years experience of running a creative business and a family side by side.

Finances for Creative People 101
This presentation covers basic budgeting and money management strategies. Attention will be paid to common pitfalls and simple things people can do to make financial management less frightening. Managing money is a skill that anyone can learn, even those who are “bad at math.”

Anxiety, Depression, and Insecurity: Staying Mentally Healthy While Pursuing a Creative Career
I struggle with anxiety. Howard manages his depression. We both suffer from attacks of insecurity. Using our experiences and extensive research into psychology this presentation will focus on concrete things that a creative person can do to stay healthy. I’ll also discuss how to know when you’ve crossed the line into a clinical condition which needs medical intervention.

Structuring Life to Support Creativity
The way that you schedule your days can squash your creativity if you are not careful. I’ll discuss using biorhythms to your advantage, how physical spaces can affect you psychologically, and why you really do need to have time to play video games or watch movies. These concepts will be illustrated with anecdotes from the lives of artists and writers.

Cover Design Basics
This class focuses on giving writers a grasp on some basic cover design principles so that they can decide if designing their own covers is something that they really want to do.

Schmoozing 101
This class covers introductions, how to begin and end conversations, smooth delivery of pitches, how to seem interesting, how to prop up a flagging conversation, and how to read simple body language.

Successful Collaboration
I’ll discuss the important elements of a successful collaboration and the particular challenges that occur when collaborators are friends or family members.

Using Books to Help Kids Who are ADHD, Autistic, or Learning Disabled.
This will begin with a presentation, but will focus on a discussion of specific challenges and solutions. Best in groups smaller than thirty.

Storymakers Conference Day 1

Fragments of thoughts bounce around in my brain, but they are slippery – like fish. Just as I think I’ve got a grip on one that might be the beginning of a coherent blog post, my hands close on nothing and I’m left with a blankness which I’m sure was filled with brilliance only a minute ago. (Obviously my thought fish are brightly colored koi.) I shall stop trying to catch them and instead just follow where they swim.

I’ve spent the day at Storymakers Conference. I taught a class solo, using only my voice to convey information about managing finances. Only when the class was over did I realize that we’d been using powerpoint lighting instead of the bright light which was available. In hindsight I’m glad. The dimmer light was more soothing and perhaps made the contemplation of accounting feel less daunting. At some point accounting stopped daunting me. I wonder when that happened.

I was nervous before the presentation, but not during it. Once the words begin to flow, I’m solid and know exactly what to say. Sometimes it ends up being things that I didn’t put into my speaker notes. But the best moment of any presentation is when I say something and I see one of the faces in front of me change. In that moment I know that whatever my words were, they were exactly what they needed to be. A lecture on accounting is short on emotional bonding moments, but hopefully filled with usefulness.

As I walked the halls of the conference, I saw dozens of familiar faces. As I scanned badges I saw dozens of familiar names. This year I’m making an extra effort to attach the names and faces to each other. I’m trying to imprint them into my tired brain so that I’ll be able to recall them when I meet these people again in a context sans name badges. There are so many marvelous people. I want to sit down and talk with all of them for hours. I suppose this is why I spent a large portion of my day sitting in the green room. People filtered in and out and I got to have quick conversations with many of them.

The mass signing was a dismaying event at first, a room packed with tables and people. Gradually they sorted themselves into seated authors and standing attendees. Though often authors would jump up and stand in line to get their books signed. My spot in the room was unfortunately poorly suited for people watching, but I had excellent neighbors. One attendee sought me out with Cobble Stones in hand for me to sign. Another viewed Hold on to Your Horses with such awe, that it revived in me my own love of the book and made me want to finally finish writing the follow up book. More thoughts on that are necessary. I’ve also emerged from today’s conversations with three places to query and a reminder that a friend really would like me to write an article for the magazine where he works. I was also able to gift copies of Cobble Stones to a pair of book bloggers, and they lit up with delight at the gift. Being able to end the day with concrete evidence that my presence improved someone else’s day, that’s a good thing.

And all the thoughts have darted into hiding. Time to sleep now. Another conference day is ahead of me tomorrow.

LTUE Panel notes: Schmoozing 101 / Learning skills for networking, blogging, social media, and self-promotion

In writing up my panel notes for LTUE I become very aware of how much simply can not be conveyed in a text-only medium. This panel was a two-hour interactive lecture run by Mary Robinette Kowal and me. There is real power in a live lecture. It allows a group of people to build a shared context about a topic. A stray comment at the beginning of the panel would be referred to later in a way that would illustrate a point or provoke shared laughter. Trying to capture that would require paragraphs of exposition to describe exactly how tone of voice, facial expression, and body language conveyed a message which is not at all apparent in the words alone. This is particularly true of the segment of lecture where we were discussing body language. Demonstration can show in seconds what description takes a long time to say. All of which illustrates exactly why having in-person meetings with other professionals in your field can be so incredibly valuable. Most of the information here was gleaned from other professionals in conversations both on and offline.

In our presentation Mary and I began by talking about the skills necessary to help these in-person interactions go smoothly. We are both of the opinion that these skills can be learned by anyone at any stage of life. Mary picked up many of them from her mother as a child since her mother worked in a field where schmoozing was necessary. I carefully went out an acquired them when I finally realized that depending upon my husband Howard in all social situations would sometimes leave me floating in deep water without a life preserver. I chose to learn how to make conversation with strangers rather than to stay safe at home. In the second half of the discussion, Mary and I talked about how these same skills translate online and into deliberately self-promotional venues.

Because I can’t properly convey the flow of conversation and story which wrapped around these topics, I’m going to have to resort to a bullet-pointed list. I’ll put in illustrative stories where I can remember them and where I can make them short. I fear this post is doomed to be long. Each section ended with a Q&A session. I don’t have a record of those questions and answers.

Conversations and Introductions

  • Remember that everyone is interesting. More importantly, the person you are talking to is more interesting than you are. Try to make sure that the bulk of a conversation is focused on other people, their interests, their work, etc. The sneaky truth about this is that people love to talk about their interests, which means conversing with you will make them happy and will make them believe you to be interesting. It is perfectly acceptable to try to steer a discussion of the other person’s interests into an area where you can also be interested. IE: If the person you are talking about loves cars and you love design, steer the conversation into the aesthetic design of cars.
  • Have some standard conversation openers. Asking someone where they are from can be too personal, asking them where they arrived from opens up a conversation about travel. If you’re at a shared event like a convention, ask them about panels they’ve seen. Ask them what they’ve been working on lately. Complement an article of clothing such as a watch or jacket. Many of these things have stories attached. As the conversation continues, pay attention to small details which can be used to redirect a conversation or to fill a lull. IE: The person says they got their bracelet in New Mexico, you can jump back to that to mention that you’ve also been to New Mexico and found the weather there stunningly hot, but the landscape gorgeous. And the conversation can continue from there.
  • Rehearsed stories. Just as there are standard conversation openers, there are some fairly standard questions you can expect to be asked. Know what you answers are going to be ahead of time. In particular, be prepared to answer the question “what have you be working on.” (I’ll admit to a massive fail here. I arrived at LTUE, was asked that question and completely blanked on what to say.) It is okay to even prepare an amusing anecdote, just be aware that you may not get to deliver it if the conversation goes a different way. Also be aware that because the same questions get asked over and over, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing if you’ve already told this story to this group of people.
  • Provide context. It is a great kindness to others if you manage to include in the first few sentences of conversation where you’ve met before and when. “Hi Mary, it is good to see you. I haven’t seen you since Worldcon last August when we talked about wombats.” This provides enough memory tags for Mary to locate the memory of you. Alternately, if Mary does not remember you, it provides enough information for the two of you to have a lovely conversation anyway.
  • Have a change of topic prepared. If you’ve been talking about your own work, be ready to change the topic off of yourself. This is where that attention to the bracelet purchased in New Mexico gives you a chance to redirect the conversation. Being prepared to change the subject means that you are ready to come to the rescue should something awkward happen.
  • Performing introductions. When introducing two people you know, it is a kindness to them to include, along with their names, two pieces of information which either provide context or potential points of common interest.
  • Tag Teaming. Having a wing-man at professional events is incredibly helpful. You can introduce each other, speak glowingly of each other’s work (thus dodging the “don’t talk too much about yourself” stricture), and help each other escape should a social escape become necessary.
  • Promote the work of others. It gives you wonderful topics of conversation. It is a gift to those whose work you’re promoting. It makes you classy.
  • Be yourself. It may take you a while to figure out who “yourself” is in a professional setting, that is okay. The key is to find your own way of relating rather than believing you have to do things the way someone else does.
  • The conversational dismount. This is a close relative to having a change of subject prepared. Be ready to close a conversation and walk away. If the other person does not want the conversation to end, they will ask a question, make a comment, or otherwise extend the conversation. It is better to leave them wanting more. This is particularly true of agents and editors with whom you hope to someday work. Some good dismounts: “It was lovely seeing you, I hope we run into each other again.” “Thank you for your time, I enjoyed talking with you.”

Body Language

This is the section that suffers most from translation to text. Mary used her puppeteer training to explain and demonstrate. I’ll just give some generalized information.

  • Aggressive movement. This is any movement toward something. It can include turning to face something. It indicates engagement or interest.
  • Regressive movement. This is any movement away. It indicates that the person wants to detach or distance.
  • There is also open posture, which indicates engagement and closed posture which indicates disengagement.

The key here is to pay attention to the body expressions of the people you are talking to. If you see regressive movements or closed posture, dismount the conversation gracefully. It may have nothing at all to do with you or with what you were saying. They may have an appointment, need to go to the bathroom, or just feel tired. By walking away you indicated respect and that person will be quite willing to talk to you again at some other time.

This section included a lot of discussion and demonstration about how to enter a conversation, what to do about those who lurk physically, and solutions to the invasion of personal space. It is okay to lie if someone breaks the social compact. If you’ve indicated both by body motion and by conversational dismount phrases that you’re ready to be done talking, but the other person still is not letting go, then make something up and exit. “I’m sorry. I have an appointment.”

Personal Presentation and Basic Marketing

  • Dress for the job you want. This includes both your actual dress and grooming and your web presence. If you want to be a full-time writer then your personal presentation both online and in person should indicate that you are professional. This does not exclude quirkiness and individuality. Some writers dress in costumes, have pink hair, or wear Hawaiian shirts. Just be aware of the impression you are giving. You do not want to seem clueless or unreliable.
  • Express confidence and remember the wonder. When conversation does turn to a point where you are describing your own work, make sure you talk about it with enthusiasm. This is hard. Very often writers will offer up their work as if it is a dead mouse, or something else embarrassing. “I have a story in Asimov’s, but it isn’t very good. I made a mistake in the math.” Stop and remember how you felt writing the story. Think of the cool central idea. Then create a rehearsed conversational statement about that. “I have a story in Asimov’s! It is about living rainbows.” Sharing your excitement and enthusiasm allows your listeners to feel sympathy and interest. It is hard for someone else to be interested in something which you are treating as embarrassing.
  • Tailor your message to your audience. Agents have different interests than readers. For both you’re hoping to convince them to read your work. The agent wants indications of solid writing and marketability. A reader you’ll wants to know what kind of a reading experience they’ll have. An editor wants to know all the twists and turns. A reader doesn’t want spoilers.
  • Repeat your marketing. People need to see something three times before they remember it. They need to see it seven times before they’ll buy. This is true both when you have a physical object to sell, or just if you want to be remembered by your dream agent. So if you’re at an event and want to leave with an agent or editor remembering you, you’re better served by three brief conversations than a single long one. (From a marketing perspective, it would make much more sense for me to break this giant post into a dozen small ones. It would probably be easier for readers to absorb information and it would keep them coming back to my site. I’ve decided not to do that because I want to clear my mind for other things.)
  • Give out useful information. This goes along with praising the work of others and making sure not to talk about yourself too much. It is also particularly true online. When you give out useful information, people link to you. Mary wrote an excellent post about this exact topic. In fact it was the post from which we drew lots of the topics discussed during the presentation. Linked from that post are all of Mary’s Debut Author lessons, which are also worth a read. (I know that after reading 1800 words of panel notes you totally wanted MORE reading, but there you go. Enough to keep you busy for quite a while.)
  • It is okay to have multiple motivations. When attending a conference and meeting people, or joining a forum online, it is okay if part of your motivation for doing so is to promote your work. This is actually expected. The key is to make sure that it is not your only motivation. You should also expect other people to have multiple motivations for wanting to talk with you.

Socializing online.

  • Know the community. There are dozens of social media sites out there and they all have their hidden rules and social norms. Posting ten times in an hour is expected on twitter, it is annoying in facebook or Google+. Each community has its strengths and weaknesses. Each has a different appeal. Use the ones which feel comfortable to you, skip the ones that don’t. Give popular social media a fair shot before deciding they are not useful to you. Twitter seemed ridiculous at first glance and has turned out to be a social media powerhouse.
  • Share wisely. When you share things with your social media streams be sure to put something of yourself into the things you send. Make sure that your social media stream does not turn into noise for the people reading it. You can not fascinate everyone. People will follow and unfollow, don’t take it personally.

All of the social skills discussed in the first three sections can be applied online. The conversations are just virtual instead of in person. As a fun exercise you can pick a skill and pick a venue on the internet and then think how the two relate to each other.

Running a Promotional Push

We reached this topic with a mere ten minutes left to our two hours. It is a topic large enough to be a class all by itself. Perhaps I’ll write up a blog post devoted specifically to it, but not today. Instead I’ll just reiterate what I told the class:

The most important thing you can know about promoting your work is to alternate periods of push with lulls. Link your push to an event, a sale, an award season. Send out your message 3-7 times in 3-7 ways, then give it a rest. The rest is critical. It means that you do not turn into noise for everyone around you. More important it gives you space to relax, write more things, and rediscover your life balance.

With that, our time was up and Mary had to dash away for a reading. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this class. The audience was great. As a result of Mary’s knowledge, and audience questions, I learned a lot. Which brings up a last point I want to make to those who feel overwhelmed by everything above.

We’re all still learning. Even people who have been schmoozing for decades are still learning and adapting. You don’t have to get everything right all at once. Just pick one or two things to practice until they become as natural as walking. Then you can work on something else. Bit by bit we are all becoming who we want to be.

LTUE Panel Notes: Little Stories Everywhere / Blogging

There were five of us on this panel:
Shelly Brown of Writing With Shelly and Chad was our lovely moderator
Peggy Eddleman of Will Write for Cookies
Jenni James of Author Jenni James
Jessica Harmon of Writing Legends
and me.

Shelly opened the panel for audience questions right away. This approach made most of the panel a question and answer session. It meant that we were able to focus our discussion on topics of immediate interest to the audience. I’ll admit that I did not do as good a job taking notes during this panel. I’m afraid I was a little afflicted by a “one of these things is not like the others” feeling. In the end that may have strengthened the panel because it is important to have a counterpoint opinion. I have to remind myself that though my approach to blogging is different, this does not make it inherently better or worse. I choose the path that is suited to me. I guess it comes down to a question of genre. Blogging is a form of writing, not a genre. My blog tends to be long and thinky. Jessica’s blog is story and geek focused. Shelly, Jenni, and Peggy all write blogs that are upbeat, short, and extremely social. They interacted with other blogs and with their audience far more than I tend to do. There benefits to each style of blogging. In fact Jenni runs multiple blogs to address different parts of what she does.

The first question was how to find an audience. Shelly, Peggy, and Jenni all spoke of the benefits of doing blog hops. Peggy runs them fairly regularly and says they are a great way to get visitors. They also suggested seeking out blogs similar to the one you write and commenting on those blogs. This may prompt reciprocal visits and comments. I agree that this can be a good way to get started. Reading other blogs helps you figure out what you want to be. Commenting and receiving comments can help you build a writing community for yourself. This is also valuable. However what is really necessary to gain readers is to create links between your blog and other places. I’ve never spent much energy deliberately trying to grow the audience of my blog. This means that the readership grows very slowly. This is fine because I’ve never used readership to measure the value of my blogging.

Another urgency that new bloggers feel is getting comments. This only came up tangentially during the panel. There was some direct discussion about keeping things light, positive, and short. Jenni told how her funny stories about kids will always get piles of comments, but that any time she writes longer or more serious topics there is less response. My thinking on comments has shifted in the last six months. I’ve read lots of advice on how to engage readers and encourage them to comment. There are specific techniques that bloggers can apply which will cause readers to engage and leave a comment. Sometimes I use them. For the most part I find the words to express what I meant and am happy if those words inspire a comment. However I know it is possible for my words to be incredibly valuable without inspiring a blog comment. Just yesterday I read a blog post that moved me to tears. I excerpted a section to put in my journal, yet I did not leave a comment on the blog. Just as the value of a blog is not measured in readership, the value of a post can not be measured in comments.

Jessica supported this by pointing out that for every person who comments there are lots of lurkers who say nothing. But they are still there, reading and enjoying.

However, the picture is vastly different if the primary purpose of a blog is to provide a marketing platform for something else. Jenni’s blog is an excellent example of this. She enjoys blogging because of the interactions with readers. She uses it to draw readers to her books. Then her books draw readers to her blog. Other authors, such as Brandon Sanderson, use their blogs primarily as news feeds to update people about what they’re working on or where they are traveling. One of the ladies, I think it was Peggy, told how she was talking to a marketing director in a publishing house. When an author’s book is under consideration all the people at the meeting will flip open their laptops and google the author. They look for readership, followers, friends, and what they find will affect the purchasing decision for that book. This assertion was backed up for me in a completely different panel when Mary Robinette Kowal underlined the absolute necessity of some sort of web presence, though Mary pointed out that it doesn’t have to be a blog.

One thing that all the women on the panel agreed about is that we all feel boring sometimes. It is a miracle of the human brain that we can get bored with anything. The truth is that everyone is interesting because we are all different. Don’t be afraid to keep a blog because you think you have nothing to say. The practice of blogging can teach you what you have to say. Blogging gave writing back to me after I had lost track of it.

Another thing we were all agreed upon is how much we enjoy blogging. Each of us has her own reasons and rewards.

I wish I’d kept better notes of the questions that were asked and answered. If you were there, feel free to leave a comment to remind me. (Look at me deliberately engaging with an audience. Let’s all talk about blogging together.)

Panel Notes: Feeling Fake (Imposter Syndrome)

Sometimes a panel discussion is tightly focused on topic. All the panelists are energetic and engaged. Sometimes there are even vehement arguments as different points of view are represented. This was a more relaxed panel. It was a panel packed with intelligent and articulate people: Ami Chopine of Geek at Play, Chris Weston who has several books (Alas I do not have a link), Stacy Whitman of Tu Books, and me. We all had really useful things to say, but somehow the stories and conversation kept drifting away from a tight focus on Feeling Fake / Imposter Syndrome. I know I was guilty of this. I’d get halfway through the story and realize I was no longer sure how I meant to bring the story around and relate it to the topic at hand. Yet over the next two days I had many people saying that they found the whole discussion very useful, so we must have managed something right. I suppose in a way this actually relates to the panel topic. All during the panel I felt like I wasn’t doing a very good job as a panelist, but the audience perceived things very differently.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that one is unqualified or a fraud. The most important point made in this panel is this: everyone feels this way at some point in their lives. Stacy told us the story of how she started up a small press, ran a kickstarter that funded completely, had her press picked up as an imprint, and has now released the first three books. Yet she still has days when she wonders how she got where she is. She often feels small or unqualified. Chris told us about the moment when he truly took up the label of writer and applied it to himself. That moment was long after he’d already begun writing.

I know that imposter syndrome is rampant in my own life. I constantly feel like I’m throwing up a professional facade while behind stage it is all scrambling and tears. Then I remember what Tracy Hickman once told me. It was on the day when he arrived at our house to hammer out a contract for the XDM project. Tracy wanted us to be the publishers and Howard to illustrate the book. I was going to have to do significant layout and design for a 180 page book with actual text. The only training I had for this task was a copy of InDesign for Dummies. I was terrified. We were also going to have to write a contract for a man who had signed hundreds of publishing contracts in his life. I was sure that he would be able to see right through us. He did. But what he saw was not what I thought was there. Tracy launched into a rambling story filled with laughable anecdotes, the point of it was to tell us that in fact everyone in publishing is making it up as they go. Everyone is scrambling behind the scenes. Everyone feels like they’re unqualified and is afraid they’ll be discovered. Feeling unqualified is normal. You just have to put on the clothes of the job you want and wear them until they’re comfortable.

As the panel discussion progressed, we gleaned some useful information about how to manage imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome is primarily driven by fear of exposure. If you can figure out what you’re afraid to expose and to whom you’re afraid it will be exposed, this gives you power. You can take steps to defuse the fear. On the day of that contract with Tracy, Howard and I told him that we’d never written a contract before and asked for his help in getting it right. Instead of despising us for our ignorance, Tracy graciously provided the help we needed.

Perfectionism is also a driving force behind imposter syndrome. Stacy spoke about trying to get every single detail right in the books she edits. Getting everything right is impossible. When she acknowledges this, she can focus on what she does well. As a supporting point to Stacy’s story, I told the story of my son, Patch, and getting things wrong.

To battle imposter syndrome, you need to check the evidence around you. Stacy may feel like she’s an imposter sometimes, but the books which Tu produces are evidence of actual ability. People can sense fakes. If they’re treating you like you have expertise, it is likely that you actually do. It is easy to devalue knowledge we have while valuing what we don’t. Amy pointed out that a light case of imposter syndrome can actually spur a person onward to the acquisition of more knowledge and expertise.

Chris spoke a warm and eloquent reminder that often the answer is to just get back to writing. Write words because that is what writers do. Worry less about whether they’re good and trust yourself to learn as you go. He cautioned against comparing yourself to others. Comparisons lead to insecurity, jealousy, and raging imposter syndrome. Stacy backed up this thought by saying “remember your goals.” Tu Books is not likely to spawn a best seller, but that is not its focus. Instead it is promoting diversity in literature through creating excellent books. When Stacy is focused on her goals she feels happy and accomplished rather than insecure.

My advice was to spectate the imposter feelings. Where do they come from? What situations trigger them? What drives the fear? Keep digging for motivations and answering questions. Those answers are information that you can use to restructure your thinking and possibly your life. I’m in the middle of this process. I am trying to re-shape my life so that I am naturally facing my goals instead of my failures. I’ll never get it figured out completely because life keeps shifting, but even the effort quiets the voices of imposter syndrome.

The thing is, we are all more competent than we believe ourselves to be. I didn’t use this quotation from Mark Twain in the panel, but I wish I had.

We are always more anxious to be distinguished for a talent which we do not posses than to be praised for the fifteen which we do possess.
–Mark Twain.

Whatever it is that you feel a fraud while doing, you are certainly better at it than you feel yourself to be.