Table to with a notebook that says 2022 goals surrounded by an envelope on the left, a small holiday gift and sparkly ornament at the top, and a pen on the right.

The Power of Words

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago, but every December since the year 2000, I’ve made a list of goals for the coming year. I used to type them, but beginning in 2009, I started writing the lists down by hand in my “dream journal,” a separate journal that houses my dreams. In addition to my annual lists of goals, I keep other lists in my dream journal, like a list of places I want to visit and an extensive list of all the places I’ve lived since I was three years old. I also jot down little notes in my dream journal: observations, quotes, and things that move me, inspire me, or motivate me.

I’ve written down a list of anywhere from 10 to 25 goals each year for the past 20+ years. I’ve never once accomplished every goal on the list, but I’m okay with that. If I accomplish even half of them, I’ve still gotten somewhere. And over time, I’ve accomplished quite a lot. Some goals make the list for several years before I actually accomplish them. I first wrote “Earn Bachelor’s Degree” on my 2012 list. I didn’t go back to college until 2016, and I didn’t earn my bachelor’s degree until 2018. But I set that intention, and I kept writing it down and putting it into words until it came true. In 2016, I set a goal of submitting 12 short stories to literary journals. I didn’t accomplish that goal until this year. I’m still working on my goals to beat my best 5K time and to watch all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. I’ll get there someday. But the thing is, I’ve steadily made progress, and my life is considerably better than it was before I started writing my goals down.

As I begin to consider my goals for 2022, I find myself thinking about the power words have had in my life. The power of writing my goals down and setting my intentions for the future, yes. But also the power of the words others use to define me, and the power of the words I use to define myself. Like when I was in seventh grade, and I had to stand up in front of my English class and give an oral report on Virginia Dare. I was terrified. I wore a chocolate brown dress my mother made for me. My teacher wrote each of us a handwritten letter giving her feedback on our reports. At the end of mine, she wrote, “Brown is definitely your color!” As I write this nearly 50 years later, I still have that piece of paper tucked away somewhere, and I just realized I’m wearing my favorite chocolate brown sweater. The power of words.

Close up of notebook or journal with heading 2022 goals. A woman in a bulky oatmeal colored sweater and jeans is writing in the notebook.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sent me to the library to help with a kindergarten class. I sat cross-legged on the carpet with some of the children and read to them, then I helped them pick out library books. It wasn’t anything super memorable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t remember that afternoon at all except for two things: (1) It was the day I checked Island of the Blue Dolphins out of the library–I can still picture it displayed on a book easel on top of a shelf; and (2) when I left, the kindergarten teacher thanked me for my help and told me I showed a lot of “initiative.” I didn’t know what the word “initiative” meant. I had to go look it up in the dictionary. When I did, I felt a sense of pride. The kindergarten teacher had seen this awesome personality trait in me that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I possessed.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really showed any initiative in the library that day. I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I don’t remember doing anything other than what I was sent there to do. But between my own teacher choosing me for the job and the kindergarten teacher complimenting me, that day was a boost to my self-esteem and helped to develop my character. If I didn’t have initiative when I left the library that day, I sure do have it now, many years later. I believed I had initiative, and so I displayed it at every opportunity. Today, this is a quality I really do have. That kindergarten teacher gave me a word that changed my life.

As an adult, I worked as a music promoter for a few years. One night, after I insisted a sleazy venue manager give my band the slot he’d promised, a famous rock musician told me I was tenacious. To be honest, up until that night, I hadn’t seen my unwillingness to give up or give in as a positive trait. I often saw it as obstinacy, a dogged and sometimes reckless refusal to get it through my thick skull that something wasn’t meant to be. But that night, when the musician told me I was tenacious and said it in an admiring way, I began to see myself differently. Sure, that kind of stubbornness meant I eventually failed at a lot of things. But it sometimes meant I persisted long enough to succeed, too.

Persistence and thick skins are things writers need. To keep writing and rewriting, trying to spill the things in your head out onto paper in such a way that others can see you, in such a way that other human beings know that you see them, is hard on the soul. To continue submitting your stories, little pieces of you, to literary journals day after day, and to be told they’re not wanted the overwhelming majority of the time, is hard on the heart. Out of the 49 submissions I’ve received responses to so far this year, 47 of those responses were rejections. It would be so easy to get discouraged and give up. I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be a relief to give up and do something else. Just about anything else.

But in those moments, I remember that scene in The Notebook when Noah tells Allie she’s a pain in the ass, and I know I’m made of stronger stuff than that. “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings,” he says. “You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.” This is me. I am tenacious. Or stubborn. Either way, literary journals aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings, and sure, it hurts to be rejected—for like two seconds. Then I get over it. I roll up the sleeves of my chocolate brown sweater, and I send them another story. Surely they’ll love this one.

As I put my goals into words this month and set my intentions for 2022, I’m going to keep in mind the power that words have, not only to help me set my course for the coming year, but to encourage me and keep me pushing forward. When it comes to pursuing a writing career, being stubborn is a good thing.

WRITER TIP: Start a dream journal. There is power in setting your intentions for the future, putting your goals into words, and writing your dreams for yourself down in ink. Each year, write your goals for that year in your dream journal. Write down specific, measurable goals, and cross them off as you achieve them. If you don’t reach a goal one year, move it to the next year, and keep setting that intention until you reach the goal. As the years go by and you look back at your lists, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished.
Yosemite National Park Valley and Merced River, California, USA, in autumn. Low clouds at the mountain tops and trees behind the river in shades of green, yellow, and orange, with a gray stone wall in the foreground.

Writers Write About Gratitude

As we head into the winter holidays, I’ve gathered a collection of 31 quotes and passages about gratitude from well-known writers. I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you and your loved ones health and happiness.

“All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.”
—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

“Let all your thinks be thanks.” —W.H. Auden

“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Close-up of wild red poppies on the meadow in sunny day. Decorated with light spots.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me but I find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss.” —Rita Mae Brown

“Don’t let the sun go down without saying thank you to someone, and without admitting to yourself that absolutely no one gets this far alone.” —Stephen King

“Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” —Gertrude Stein

“Rest and be thankful.” —William Wordsworth

Close-up of a dandelion flower in a meadow with mostly brown tall grass and a few sprigs of green grass at its base.

“Thanks for this day, for all birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life.” —Barbara Kingsolver

“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, And thanks, and ever thanks.” —William Shakespeare

“‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme humility, gratitude, understanding.” —Alice Walker

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: It must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” —William Faulkner

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” —Maya AngelouCelebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer

Blooming Lupin wildflowers, close up, bright purple, some blurred, some in focus

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” —Voltaire

“’I am sure they will be very grateful.’ How would you know? I wanted to say. Often those men in most need hate most to be grateful, and will strike at you just to feel whole again.” —Madeline Miller, Circe

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” —Thornton Wilder

“I’m so thankful for friendship. It beautifies life so much.” —L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” —Marcel Proust

WWild California poppies, close up, in the Antelope Valley California poppy reserve.

“There is no better way to thank God for your sight than by giving a helping hand to someone in the dark.” —Helen Keller, Light in My Darkness

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“Here is the world, and you live in it, and are grateful. You try to be grateful.”
—Michael Cunningham, The Hours

“But once you accept the fact that you have always been alone, and will always be, then your perspective can begin to change. You can become aware of the small kindnesses, the little comforts. Be grateful for them.” —Linda Olsson, Astrid and Veronika

Close-up of pink or mauve tulips in a field.

“For a wise man, I have been told, once said, ‘Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate in empty phrases.’ But alas, my lady, I am but a mass of empty phrases, it would seem.”
Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire

“What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.” —Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

“Be grateful in your own hearts. That suffices. Thanksgiving has wings, and flies to its right destination.” —Victor Hugo

“It was gratitude; gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him, and all the unjust accusations accompanying her rejection.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“What an astonishment to breathe on this breathing planet. What a blessing to be Earth loving Earth.” John Green, The Anthropocene Reviewed

Close-up shot of bright orange tiger lilies growing in the wild or in a garden, with blurred background of greenery.

“For my part, I am almost contented just now, and very thankful. Gratitude is a divine emotion: it fills the heart, but not to bursting; it warms it, but not to fever.” —Charlotte Brontë

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” —Henry David Thoreau

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” —Maya Angelou

Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

On Structuring Your Writing Life

I used to think of structure as the enemy. I believed that, if I tried to impose any kind of structure on my writing life, it would interfere with my creativity. Writers are artists, right? Artists don’t live a boring, rigorously scheduled, 9-5 life. Artists wake up when they please, go out for coffee in cafés where everyone knows them by name, then go for leisurely strolls on windswept beaches or in sun-dappled forests, depending on where they live. In the afternoons, they read and paint and take peaceful naps. In the evenings, they stroll again, this time down to the corner pub. At some point, when inspiration strikes, they sit down at their typewriters and dash off brilliant, bestselling novels.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This romantic notion of writing had me convinced that inspiration would strike when it was good and ready and that I had no control over it. The only thing I could do was answer its call when it did strike. I pictured myself, after a prolonged period of writer’s block, waking suddenly from a sound sleep, dashing to my typewriter, and writing madly for weeks on end, fueled only by coffee freshly ground from the best beans. When they were ready to come, the worlds would flow and take on a life of their own. At the end of that time, utterly exhausted, but glowing with satisfaction, I would pull the final page of my magnificent manuscript from the typewriter.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” –Neil Gaiman

This, unfortunately, is not how it works. For one thing, I don’t own a typewriter. Or a coffee grinder. And I’m actually out of printer paper at the moment and nearly out of ink. I do my writing at a decidedly unromantic computer keyboard. Yes, there are days when the words begin to flow and take on a life of their own, but the funny thing is, this usually happens when I’m already sitting at my keyboard tapping out nonsense. If I wrote only when I felt inspired, I wouldn’t get much writing done. The truth of the matter is, the more I write, the more I’ve written, and the better I get at it.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” –Jack London

The old adage that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration holds true for writing as much as for anything else. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. Write each and every day. Set up a writing schedule, stick to it as best you can, and write, write, write. Don’t pay attention to whether the words are any good or not—that is what interferes with creativity. Filling the blank page with words is the initial goal and all you should think about until you have a complete draft. “Write drunk, edit sober,” Hemingway said. We’ll talk about editing another time, because it’s November, and we’re on a mission to get 50,000 words written.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Brilliance, I have found, is a great deal more the product of arduous work and good editing than it is the product of creative genius. Dedication and persistence will win out over unbridled talent every time. Okay, well most of the time. Yes, those long strolls and those periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential. They have their place, and I’ll write about that soon, too. But in general, if you spend your life waiting for inspiration to strike, you will find yourself waiting for an awfully long time.

WRITER TIP: Author K.M. Weiland wrote: “Inspiration may sometimes fail to show up for work in the morning, but determination never does.” Make determination a part of your writing life. Schedule a dedicated time of day to write, whether you’re feeling inspired or not, and be determined to stick to your schedule.

NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off at midnight, Monday, November 1st.

What Is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge for writers. The goal is to write a novel in one month, or more specifically, to write 50,000 words. 50,000 words isn’t generally enough for a novel. Depending on the genre, most novels are closer to the 90,000-word range, give or take. But 50,000 words is one heck of a great start.

In the past, NaNoWriMo was much more strict—in order to “win,” participants were required to write the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They’ve lightened up on that. Writers now have the option to be “traditional WriMos” or to be “rebels”—rebels are participants who are writing anything but the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. I’ve twice done NaNoWriMo the traditional way, but one year, I wrote the second half of a novel I’d already started, and last year I wrote a bunch of new short stories. A friend worked on her memoir one year and an essay project another year. I like this change—it feels more inclusive and allows us to meet NaNoWriMo where we are at in our writing lives.

Things I Love About NaNoWriMo

There are several things I love about NaNoWriMo:

It helps writers build a writing habit. If a writer isn’t already into the habit of writing daily or regularly, NaNoWriMo is a great way to kickstart that habit.

It’s empowering. By the end of November, so many writers are going to learn that they can do something they never thought they could do before.

It offers writers community, support, and encouragement. Writing is a solitary life for the most part, and I love the community spirit of support and encouragement that NaNoWriMo creates.

It applies game theory to writing. NaNoWriMo brings out my competitive spirit—it “gamifies” writing in a way that is fun and encouraging. The rest of the year, when I finish a morning of writing, there is no one here to give me a colorful badge or a shout out. But during the month of November, I’m a superhero.

Things That Aren’t My Favorite

There are some things about NaNoWriMo that aren’t my favorite. Or rather, things that are outside my comfort zone. For one thing, it’s a lot more social than an introverted writer might be comfortable with. Writers can socialize, share progress and tips, and motivate one another on the website’s forums, both local and worldwide. Social media offers opportunities for “word sprints”—timed segments of speed writing, maybe 15 minutes at a time, sometimes with writing prompts, to help writers reach their daily word counts. F

Pre-pandemic, I participated in a couple of in-person “write-ins”—local groups usually meet at midnight the first night for a kick-off event, then meet on other occasions throughout the month, at a coffee shop or some other community space, to write together. I’m more of a solitary writer, get distracted easily, and don’t find group writing conducive to my best work, but I did enjoy meeting local writers in person. I’m still friends with someone I met at my very first write-in back in 2013.

I’m easily distracted. Writing is hard work, and it’s sometimes more fun to talk about writing with my peers than it is to keep my ass in the seat. So for me, these social tools can easily become ways to avoid writing–I already have enough of those. But write-ins, forums, and other social outlets may be great motivators for others. Peer pressure works. I mean, you can’t show up to a write-in and then goof off on social media, or wander into the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal, or cozy up on the couch to watch Ted Lasso. You’re kinda forced to write, right? And of course, the social aspects are all optional.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

Something I’ve learned about myself over the past nine years is that, unless I want to come out of NaNoWriMo with a sloppy mess that is in such bad shape that I may as well start over, it’s a good idea to do at least some preparation ahead of time. Some WriMos are “pantsers”—they belly up to their keyboards on November 1st with nothing more than a vague idea floating around in their heads. Others are “planners”—they come into NaNoWriMo armed with a detailed outline of their novel, and when it comes time to write, all they have to do is flesh it out. A hybrid has evolved called a “plantser”—this is a WriMo who starts with a loose structure for their novel, but not a detailed outline. A comfortable mix of planning and spontaneity. I’m more of a plantser. By November 1st, I’ll have a loose and flexible outline. Pantsing feels like chaos to me, while over-planning doesn’t leave me with the room I like for my story to evolve and change course. The Goldilocks in me has found plantsing to be just right.

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

Sign up and check out the website’s tools and resources. The first thing to do is head over to the NaNoWriMo website, register, and set up your profile and this year’s project. You can find and join your local forum and browse some of the other forums. The NaNoWriMo website has a planning handbook to help you get ready: NaNo Prep 101. You can also read some of the encouraging “pep talks” by successful writers: NaNo Pep Talks. These are super motivating and encouraging.

Get yourself a calendar to track your progress. The Official NaNoWriMo Calendar lists important dates and events, but I also love this free downloadable and printable calendar that David Seah created to help writers track their word counts and stay motivated: NaNoWriMo Word Calendar. I love adding up my word count on the NaNoWriMo website every day and earning those badges, but I also love having something on the wall near my computer where I can visually see the progress I’m making.

Clear the decks. Writing an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days straight can be challenging. It’s helpful to go into it prepared. On top of creating a loose outline, I try to clear the decks a little before November 1st rolls around. I’ve deep-cleaned my house, caught up on laundry, stocked up on some groceries, and written ahead so I have the blog posts and book reviews I need for the month of November.

Give yourself some downtime to do the thinking part of writing. Once I start writing in November, at the end of each day, I’ll try to plan ahead a little bit for the next day. For me, this will probably mean going for a walk and thinking about where I left off and where I want to pick up when I’m back at my keyboard the next morning. When I get too busy to take breaks, daydream, and let my mind wander for a little while every day, my writing suffers.

Use that extra hour. Keep in mind we’ll set our clocks back an hour on November 7th. You can take advantage of that to get up at the same time of the morning you usually would, which will be an hour early, and use that extra hour to write.

In Closing

I’m about to participate in NaNoWriMo for the fifth time. I’ve participated four of the last eight years, and I’ve skipped four of the last eight years. Each of the four years I’ve participated, I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. There are so many reasons I should not be doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got a lot going on, and I’m sure you do, too. But then I think about the fact that writing is the most important thing to me, and I think about how empowering it is to prove to myself that I can do this. That enthusiasm carries over into the following months, something that’s helpful because, thanks to imposter syndrome, I have to keep proving to myself that I can do hard things over and over again. And I get excited thinking about what I’m going to have at the end of November. I’ve sometimes regretted not doing it, but I’ve never once regretted doing it.

WRITER TIP: Take the plunge! Make the commitment to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November 2021.

Game Theory and Writing

During a recent workshop, some friends were discussing “gamifying” or counting submissions—keeping track of the number of times a writer has submitted something for publication or has had a piece accepted or rejected. The consensus among my friends was that it isn’t truly being a creative person or a writer to keep track of the numbers like that. I think I understand where they are coming from, and I’ll clarify that in a moment. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But keeping track works for me, and so I wanted to write about why it works for me.

What is Gamifying?

When it comes to writing, gamifying is basically applying “game theory” to your writing or submission goals by making a game out of achieving those goals.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a perfect example of gamifying writing goals. Participants set a goal to write 50,000 words during the month of November. They receive support, encouragement, and colorful badges along the way. If they finish, they end up with a 50,000-word novel or start to a novel, are awarded a certificate, and get some cool little prizes–win, win!

Many of us gamify writing without realizing it, e.g., by setting daily wordcount, page number, or timed writing goals. I don’t gamify my writing, but I gamify my submission process. My game is a simple one: reach 100 submissions in 2021 and I win.

There are a number of different writing and submitting “games” out there, as well as Facebook groups dedicated to racking up as many submissions or rejections as one can in a year’s time. I’ll link to a few articles that address specific games at the end of the post.

For now, here’s a great TED Talk by Jane McGonigal on applying game theory to improving mental health:

 

Why Gamifying Submissions Works For Me

Gamifying submissions works for me because I have a goal-oriented (and perhaps rather obsessive) personality. Without a goal in mind, it’s easy for me to push submitting my stories—something that is just for me and something that is, frankly, a lot of hard work—to the backburner, in favor of the things I should be doing or would rather be doing.

On the other hand, if I set a goal, I’m probably going to reach it because it will frustrate me not to. In 2020, I set a goal of reaching 100 rejections. That goal did not work for me because “rejections” has a negative versus a positive connotation. Also, I like to have some control over things, and rejections aren’t something I can control. (Nor do I want to—if I had my druthers, I’d prefer zero rejections, thank you very much.) What I can control is how many things I send out. So for 2021, I set a goal of reaching 100 submissions. That works better for me, but reaching for 100 rejections might work better for someone else.

How to Make Gamifying Submissions Work for You

If you think game theory might help you reach your submission goals, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Only submit work that is ready.

I gave this a lot of thought, and I think I get what my friends meant when they said submitting and keeping score is not writing. What I think this assumes is that a writer is cranking out work in order to try to reach those numbers. That is definitely not the way to go. Setting a submission goal only works if we submit work that is ready to submit. People are out there reading our writing (most of them volunteers), and we don’t want to get a reputation for wasting their time by sending them stuff that isn’t our best work. Most of the stories and essays I’m submitting in 2021 are stories and essays I spent one or two years or more writing and rewriting.

2. Submit with care and consideration.

Take the time to read and research the markets to which you’re submitting your work, and do your best to submit to the places you think are best suited to the particular story or essay. Don’t submit work willy nilly just to reach numbers.

I’ve submitted my work 97 times so far this year. I was able to reach 97 submissions because, after writing and not submitting work for many years, I had enough finished, ready work to send out to 97 journals. And it’s not 97 separate pieces, mind you. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. It’s maybe a dozen pieces that I’ve submitted to a few places at a time. If they’re rejected, I submit them somewhere else.

In fact, in planning for this blog post, I thought I’d go ahead and submit three more times and get to 100 submissions so I could share with you that I’d reached my goal. But to do so, I would have had to send stories out to journals that weren’t a good fit or that I am not ready to submit to. Don’t do that to reach a number.

3. Keep your writing time separate and sacred.

Live a writing life and make writing and creating a priority, even if that sometimes means not writing and taking a walk on the beach to clear your head and think about your story. I write many hours each week. But I set aside time each week to submit work, too. I consider this a part of the business side of being a writer. I have a short list of pieces that are ready to submit, and I’m working on getting those published. Getting stories and essays published will help me reach my longer-term writing goals. But I have a much longer list of work that is not ready, and that creative work gets the lion’s share of my time. I am not rushing that work in order to reach 100 submissions.

Here are some articles you might find interesting as you set your own writing and submission goals:

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Career Bingo (Christie Yant, linked to by David Steffen in his Game Theory articles)

The Race (Dean Wesley Smith)

WRITER TIP: If your writing or publishing goals keep getting pushed aside in favor of dumb things like feeding the kids or doing the dishes, consider whether setting specific, reachable goals for 2022 might help you to keep your eyes on the prize.

The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.

Writer, Interrupted

A writer’s day is filled with interruptions, and to be honest, most of them are welcome. I’m lured by social media and the pings that alert me to text messages from my squad (messages that always make me laugh). I daydream about what I’m going to do over the weekend. I suddenly realize I need to run to the post office or the grocery store. The interruptions can be constant and, let’s face it, way more alluring than the blank page that’s taunting me. (Excuse me while I check my email just one more time for that acceptance that is surely coming from The Paris Review today.)

When we’re interrupted, it’s not just the moment of the interruption that is at stake. Studies have shown that, after an interruption, it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get our heads fully back into the game.1 Every time we stop writing to check email or social media, we lose not only the five minutes or so we spend browsing our Instagram feeds, but that additional 23:15 minutes. This is the time needed to remember where we were in our story, to pick up where we left off, to get our minds back to that magical place, and to be as deeply focused as we were before we took that break.

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I write mostly in the early mornings, before most people are awake. Me and Walter Mosley. I imagine Mr. Mosley a few hours south of me typing away while it’s still dark outside, just like me. It’s comforting. Writing so early in the morning helps. There are less distractions, but in the modern tech era, distractions are always at my fingertips. When it’s light out and weather permits, I take my laptop out onto the deck in my backyard, away from the intoxicating lure of furniture that needs dusting and dishes that need doing. For someone who loves to write, I am so often tempted by anything but. Because writing is hard.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Ernest Hemingway

So my suggestion today is to not only give yourself the first and the best part of your day, before you get caught up in your daily life, but to rid yourself of distractions. Close yourself off from the rest of the world, just for an hour or two, and give yourself the undivided attention you deserve. I find my writing time is much more satisfying when I turn on the Do Not Disturb feature on my cell phone, give social media a break, and let messages pile up in my inbox for just a bit. I sometimes use a kitchen timer for this purpose–no break until that timer goes off. When I’m fully in it, that’s when the magic happens and the words begin to flow.

WRITER TIP: Set aside a certain period every day for uninterrupted writing time, even if it’s only ten or fifteen minutes to start. Set the timer on your phone, block out the rest of the world, and write until the timer goes off. Better yet, turn your phone’s ringer off, put your phone away, and use an old-fashioned kitchen timer.

Plan A

About ten years ago, I asked myself, “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to give up, to create the life you’ve always dreamed for yourself?” The answer, in the past, appeared to have been, “Not much.”

I was a writer who never made time to write. I was a book lover who rarely found time to read. I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat many vegetables–I’d given up meat, but had devolved into much more of a carbohydrate-arian than anything else. I wasn’t happy.

Inside of me, there lurked an artist, but I didn’t create. I was too busy trying to set my life up perfectly so that I’d have the time and money to create. I worked full-time, and in my spare time, I went to school–always for things that didn’t float my boat, but that seemed practical. I started side businesses I didn’t much enjoy, but that I thought would eventually buy me the freedom to live the life of my dreams. Then I could write. I abandoned new projects as quickly as I started them, jumping from one thing to another, never taking anything all the way through to its completion.

Above all, I always had a Plan B. A plan for when I failed as a writer. I started law school three times, but not because I wanted to be an attorney. I didn’t. But I’d worked as a paralegal for many years, and the law was something I was good at. Although I suspected I would be miserable as an attorney, it seemed a good back-up career should I fail to make it as a writer. Once I was making a comfortable living as an attorney, then I could write.

I’d failed as an entrepreneur, failed as a music promoter, failed as a beerista–you name it, I’d tried it and given up on it. But in the back of my mind, there was this notion that, once I’d found and settled into a great Plan B, I’d have the freedom to proceed with Plan A and do what I really wanted to do.

The trouble is, as they say, life very easily becomes all the things that happen while you are making other plans. Everything I’d done in my life, all of my time, money, and effort, had been in support of having a back-up plan should my imagined writing career not work out. In the process, I not only lost myself, but my enthusiasm for living. Living a Plan B life is definitely not where it’s at.

And so I arrived at that place ten years ago when I asked myself, “Where would I be if I had instead put all that time and effort into writing?” And then I asked myself that next big question: “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to let go of, to have the life you were meant to live?”

The answer I came up with is this:  Anything and everything.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling

And so, ten years ago, I dropped out of law school for the third time. I deleted my Facebook account and temporarily left social media behind. I let go of a side business that wasn’t giving me joy. I canceled my daily DVR recordings of my favorite television shows.

I searched my mind and my day planner for all the things I did to waste time or to avoid living my dream life, and I ruthlessly and fearlessly ripped those things from my schedule. I was merciless and unrelenting. For this woman who felt like she never had time to write or to enjoy her life, a woman who routinely faced each weekend armed with a to-do list of 25-plus items, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out in front of me. It felt freeing and frightening all at once. The truth was, I realized, I’d busied myself with everything else in order to avoid taking the chance that I would fail as a writer. Now, ten years later, that looms in front of me as a very real possibility. Because I’m writing, and I’m submitting my stories and my essays to journals, and I’m getting rejections. And the occasional acceptance. I’m polishing the manuscript on my first novel and working on a second. I’m putting myself out there.

When I fear I will fail as a writer and long for the old, cold comfort of my Plan B life, I remember these words spoken by J.K. Rowling:  “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”1 I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out like that. If I’m going to fail as a writer, it won’t be by default. It will be in a blaze of glory, in the wake of the best and most heroic effort I can make.

WRITER TIP: I spent many years living my life in the cracks–squeezing the things I loved into the tiny cracks of time and space left over after all the have-to’s and should’s. When I began living as if writing and the other things I love were just as important as anything else, my life began to change. The best advice I can give you is to give yourself the best part of your day: If you’re a morning person, give yourself the first hour of your day–get up early and write before the day gets away from you. If you’re a night person, give the best part of your night to yourself–the time when you feel most energetic and alive–and write. Whether you’re a night person or a morning person, don’t fill the best part of your day with chores or billpaying or working toward a Plan B you don’t even want. Your Plan A life is happening right now.

Time Is on My Side

People often ask me how I find time to write. The truth is, for most of my life, I didn’t. I’m a busy person who, like most writers, works a day job for a living. For most of my life, I looked at writing as dessert–a reward for finishing all the other things. It was something I tried to fit into the cracks of my life. It was the thing I most wanted to be doing, but it was my very last priority. I wrote in the little spare time I had leftover after I’d done everything else. I wrote with whatever remaining energy I had at the end of the day, assuming I had any energy left. I often didn’t. So, needless to say, I didn’t write much.

I used to spend a lot of time researching ways to squeeze writing into my life. (Time I could have spent writing, actually.) There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. During my research, I came across unhelpful adages, like reminders that I have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé Knowles. No pressure.

In the end, some of the best advice I ever got was more about mindset than anything else: (1) give yourself the first and best hour of your day; and (2) stop making time to write–make your life a writing life, and put all the other stuff on the back burner.

I have found some helpful advice over the years, though, and I’d like to share my three favorite pieces of advice with you. These are the ones that actually worked for me.

Turn the Beat Around

The trick that has without a doubt increased my writing productivity the most came from my son, Robert, who is also a writer. After I began giving myself the first and best part of my day, my favorite time of day to write quickly became first thing in the morning. I often get up at 5 a.m. or even 4 a.m. to get some writing done before work. It used to be stressful time, though. I was mindful of the clock, and it seemed that just about the time I hit my stride, it was time to stop writing, make breakfast, and get ready for work. Sometimes I wrote beyond the time I should, and then I found myself skipping breakfast and racing out the door.

My son Robert’s tip: Get ready for work before you start writing. I can’t believe what a difference this has made. It’s been life-changing. I don’t write in the evenings–I’m an early riser, and I’m wiped out by the end of the day. If I save it for the evening, I generally won’t do it. But mindless tasks–those I can do in the evening. So I started doing a lot of my prep work for the next day at night. I shower, decide what I’ll wear the next day, pack a lunch, etc. The next morning, I still get up early, but I’ve reversed my routine. I get ready for work, make coffee, and then sit down at my keyboard without anything hanging over my head. I write until it’s time for work. I no longer feel rushed, because when I shut off my computer, all I have to do is pick up my bag and head out the front door. This advice alone has made an incredible difference.

Big, Big Plans

Believe it or not, I got this tip from a book I read in the ‘70s called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. It turned out to be a guide for wives on how to make your home a happy one by catering to and manipulating your husband and by suppressing your own opinions and emotions. Needless to say, if you know me, this book was not my cup of tea. (Ms. Morgan would probably point out that I’m sitting here single as I write this.) But I have long said I can find something useful in any book, and this was no exception.

In one chapter of her book, Ms. Morgan outlines a “Million-Dollar Plan” she got from some CEO of a big company–the best way to accomplish the most you can possibly accomplish in a day. Here is the basic plan: Make a list of the things you need to do that day, put them in order of priority, start working on the first task, and work your way down the list. Don’t move down the list to the second task until you’ve finished the first, and so on. Don’t allow distractions, just keep moving down the list in order. You may not finish everything on the list, but by the end of the day, you will have finished the most important tasks and will have accomplished as much as was possible in the time you had. It’s a simple idea, but it works like a charm. As a writer, this idea is helpful in a couple of ways: first, make sure writing is at the top of your list every day, and second, working this way will help free up more time in your life for writing and other pleasurable activities.

“Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.” –Jerry Seinfeld

The Chain

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses the power of visualization to reach his goals. He hangs a big, year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall, sets a daily writing goal for himself, and marks off each day on the calendar with a big “X” when he reaches that day’s goal. The calendar becomes a chain, each “X” is a link in the chain, and his desire not to have a broken link keeps him going.1 I’ve started doing this, too. My daily goal is to write for a certain amount of time each morning. I mark the days off on my calendar with a red Sharpie, just like Jerry. What keeps me going is imagining Jerry yelling at me, “Don’t break the chain!” (You heard that in his voice, right?”)

WRITER TIP: Be like Jerry. Get yourself a big wall calendar where you can track your writing progress. Set a daily writing goal using whatever works for you. Some writers set a daily word-count goal, for example, 500-1,000 words a day. Others set a daily page-count goal, maybe two or three pages. I use a daily time goal: no matter what, I write for at least ten minutes every morning. I can always convince myself to write for ten minutes, and if I only write for ten minutes, that’s okay. But once I get going, I almost always write for much longer, usually two to four hours every morning. Whether it’s ten minutes or six hours, I mark the day off with a big “X” on my wall calendar. Seeing that unbroken chain of progress motivates me to keep going.