Open Your Eyes & Put Your Blinders On

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join my critique group in a discussion at our local library. At the end, we were asked if we had one final piece of advice. I had the fortune of going last (aka more time to think) and came up with this:

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Open Your Eyes

I’ve been an avid reader my whole life. But there was something strange that was happening when I first started writing: the voice of my adult characters was off. Pacing was off. Development was off. It took me a long time to realize the problem, but it ended up being I was reading lots and lots of YA novels to recommend to my students, and what I was trying to create was mirroring what I was putting into my mind.

I had to open my eyes to the genre I was writing. I had to reach beyond the comfort zone of my reading habits and really learn from the great works of women’s fiction.

As soon as I shifted my reading to be more intentional for what I wanted to accomplish, the difficulty I’d experienced in making my characters sound age appropriate, in making them have unique and individual voices, in hitting the complicated emotional markers all started to fade to the background.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a gazillion million things that I struggle with in my writing. But making sure that I am filling my creative pitcher with words similar to the kind I’d like to pour out into my manuscript makes writing easier. Sure, I still dabble from time to time in different kinds of fiction, like a kind of mental dessert, but I am very mindful that the main course is representative of what I’d like to create.

Put Your Blinders On

If you’ve been writing for very long at all, it’s very likely that you have become incredibly aware of the pacing of other writers – how quickly they create words, how their querying process unfolded, the amount of time spent getting ready for or being on submission, how many “Want to Read” markers they have on Goodreads, how many reviews they have, how many five star reviews they have, etc. etc. etc.

Even the most mentally stable person could lose their sanity foundation if they allowed themselves to take in experiences of others too much. Sure, we may start out by saying it’s educational to know how things work for other people, and to some extent that may be true. But there is a real danger in looking at the experiences of others, the greatest of which is that this is the surest way to welcome in the creative devil himself, Doubt.

Looking at the numbers for someone else does nothing for the work you are trying to create for yourself. Looking at the speed of others success does not strengthen your own writing. Wondering why success hit one person over another provides no benefit to your own craft, characterization, determination, drive, love or passion for what you are trying to create.

When you put blinders on a horse, you are not blinding them. You are simply saying, “I need you to look forward. Don’t get distracted by all the lovely things off to the side because you’ll end up traveling that way and that’s not where we want to go.” This is the same for writers. Ask yourself two questions:

  • What is your goal – for the next month? Six months? Year? Five years? Decade?
  • What is the road you need to be on to get there?

You may hear of things off of your road that are interesting, that try to capture your attention, that may even startle you. You can acknowledge there are things, but keep your eyes looking toward your goal and put a little trust in the people who know where you want to go because they will help you stay on track.

Do you have suggestions on how to improve your writing? How about tips and tricks you utilize to help reach your desired goals?
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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Improve

A few weeks ago, I re-dyed the gray from my hair, got new glasses and a full set of braces, complete with turbos that keep my molars from touching in an effort to correct a pretty strong overbite. I joked with my husband that in my attempt of rocking the mid-life crisis, I’d gone back a decade too far, hanging out around 12-13 instead of 22-23.

None of these things would be categorized by many people as “fun”, but many would agree that the reward will be worth it. My vision prescription had changed a little, but the lenses were no longer able to be all the way clean. The gray will come back, but for a little while, I don’t have to lean in to see how much is present (I know, many people rock their gray. But I got the cross between a brown and gray mouse gray which is NOT CUTE). And in two years, I will have teeth that are straight, secure, and the stress in my jaw that was impacting my neck and giving me headaches will be a thing of the past.

But to have all three things happen in the same week definitely felt like a setback, and it reminded me of when I took my story to my critique partners and they all, hesitantly, told me that the voice and scope of what I was trying to tell didn’t work. I’d started the story too early, which I’d suspected, but 40k in, I didn’t want to think it was all for nothing.

The next day, I’d participated in an online workshop where Donald Maass was giving assignments and then feedback on the assignments. In a comment, he made the point of the suggested age of characters within women’s fiction, and mine were too young, the story too focused on everything that was leading them to where I wanted them to end up. I was telling too much to try and span the time and that’s just one of the places where I was losing my writing voice.

I paced my backyard, mumbled curse words under my breath, and then plopped in the metaphorical physician’s chair and started really looking at my story. The only way to improve what I had was to start over.

All the way over.

I ended up writing the book that allowed me to sign with my agent. I was able to work some of the things I’d written in as flashbacks to showcase character better. It was absolutely a setback, but it was the only way that I was going to be able to improve that story.

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This tends to be the time of year when we are looking back at what happened, looking forward to what we would like to have happen. It’s tempting to focus on setbacks, to think about things that we tried to accomplish but didn’t.

I love Michael Hyatt’s This is Your Life podcast, and in a recent episode, he talked about the necessary quality to achieve goals. One part that stuck with me he borrowed from his own mentor Dan Sullivan who said, “Measure the gain, not the gap.” Instead of focusing on how far we are from achieving what we want, we need to hone in on what we HAVE accomplished. Sure, you may not have acquired that agent you desire, but how did the story improve? Did you add more words? Understand the nuances of writing and craft and marketing better than you did a year ago?

And really? Celebrate those improvements.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says, “You don’t just get to leap from bright moments to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going to great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.”

There are going to be steps back, things that happen in our story, to our character development, in our journey toward publication, in the reception of our work. The creative life isn’t a montage of greatness, but ebbs and flows of progression.

The ultimate goal is to focus on our gains, figure out how we made them happen, and strive to repeat that achievement, to continually and consistently keep improving.

What do you do to keep your eye focused on improvement? 

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

The End and the New Beginning

You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” – Ray Bradbury

“Rejected pieces aren’t failures; unwritten pieces are.” – Greg Daugherty

“It’s okay.” -Me

Well it’s December which means the year is nearly over. For some that brings about panic as they try to get done all they set out to do this year. For others however this is a sigh of relief. I fall into the latter category.

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This year challenged me in a writerly sense (shut up, it’s a word). From my job description changing which deprived me of the normal hours of writing to a mental health crisis that left me devoid of any intention of crawling into my usual safe space of ink and words.

Also at the beginning of the year I was offered a deal to have my book published by a small press. All was looking good and then…well, nothing happened. But to be honest if I had signed a contract there’s no way I would have the book ready.

Writers get used to rejection and heartaches. It’s part of the job requirements. So I decided to take these setbacks and see what I could learn from them.

I learned how to make better use of my time. Spare moments are now my best time to write. Taking notes at a stop light, a few paragraphs at lunch, anywhere and anytime.

I learned to keep writing. Art and writing helped my daughter and me get through her mental health episode. Sharing creativity brought us even closer, and we learned how to speak through our collective creativity no matter how difficult the conversation may be.

Finally I learned that I can forge my own destiny. So much of my time and energy had been placed in the idea of being traditionally published that I was blinded to other avenues to get my story out. From what I heard from agents and publishers they really enjoyed it but had no idea how to sell it. So why can’t I just worry about that part? If I can survive this year then being passionate about my writing and figuring out sales should be easier.

Those are just a few things I’ve learned from this year. Have you learned anything about yourself? Just remember it’s okay. You’ll be okay.
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Matt Williams is an avid reader, a collector of many pens, an ever improving father of two, and an all-around fanboy. When he’s not wrestling with cats or a long commute you can find him hunkered down writing something imaginative. He’s working on publishing his first book Beyond Here, a middle grade story involving a coma and a singing flower with a bent stem sometime in 2016, along with a few projects with his other daughter.

What Is Your Measure of Success? Lessons from Baseball

Our family loves baseball. We like to watch Major League games, and my 13-year-old son played in a local spring league this year.

His team didn’t win a single game.

Still, we cheered him on and celebrated small victories where we could: a walk to get on base; a decent play to make an out at first. We simply had to reevaluate our definition of success.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Writing is much the same. Whether you dream of winning a championship trophy or a writing New York Times bestseller, failure to achieve a lofty—and perhaps unlikely—goal does not mean that the time you spend working toward it is wasted.

In our heads, we understand this. It makes sense. But our hearts are not always on board. I can’t tell you how many times I sat behind the dugout in my folding chair, praying every time my son was up to bat that he would get a hit. “Please,” I would whisper, “just let him get a hit. Just one little hit.” The one time he did hit the ball this year, it was a solid double witnessed by his grandpa, because my husband and I were out of town.

Most of the time I managed to chill out and just enjoy watching my son play. But a few times I remember getting so angry. Why couldn’t I see him get just one hit? Why couldn’t his team win just one game? Was it really too much to ask to see him experience that little bit of success?

When the season ended I asked my son if he wanted to play again next year. He sort of shrugged and said that as long as he didn’t get stuck in the outfield every game, he’d probably want to play.

Amazing, right? The losses didn’t deprive him of the will to live. The lack of hits didn’t crush his soul. He figured, okay, I’ll get back out there next year and try again. Why not?
Why not?

Too often during my career I’ve been caught in the endless logic loop of, “Why can’t I just get a partial request from an agent, or a full? That’s all I want. Don’t I at least deserve that little bit of success?” And then, “I have an agent, but I still can’t sell a book. Why can’t I sell just one little book?” And then, “Why isn’t my book selling a zillion copies? Why can’t I sell a second book?”

It’s exhausting. It’s a waste of energy and focus. And it never, ever ends unless you consciously remove yourself from the game.

You, as a writer—as a human—have the power to shape your own definition of success, and it need not conform to anyone else’s expectations. Sitting down and putting words on the page is a win. Finishing a first draft is a win. Finding joy or enlightenment or peace through a creative outlet? Win, win, win.

Life is not a competition.

Baseball (in my humble opinion) is about the beauty and simplicity of the game.

Writing, in all its forms, is about the effort to be more tomorrow than you are today. Also simple; also beautiful. Your goals may drive you, but they do not define you.

Your failures may hurt you, but they do not define you.

You define you. It helps to have people who love you cheering from the sidelines. But only you can decide to step out onto that field…

…and play.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Be The Exception

Last week, the gym was slow again. Though my fitness center attendance has been sporadic at best over the last few months, I have had a membership long enough to know that the three day weekend in the middle of January is often when the New Year’s Resolutioners all but fizzle out. Then, the people who are there at 5:00 am M-F can go back to their routine.

A mere 22 days into the 365 that everyone promised was going to be their best year ever, how are your writing goals coming? Did you decide that trying was too hard, that you got caught up in the January enthusiasm and made a commitment that you really didn’t mean to? Maybe snow days, sick kids (or self), cold weather or winter blues have led you to believe that one more week of doing things as you’ve always done won’t really make that much difference, that you were pretty productive last year, and it turned out alright.

I’m convinced that the greatest plague of our society is apathy. Apathy for what we can be, for what we can achieve, for the places we can go. We celebrate the accomplishments of graduates and start-ups and people who finish something hard, but in the back of our minds, we admit that they will probably not do what they wanted. It’s hard, after all, and hard is hard. It’s easy to binge-watch Netflix. It’s easy to get caught in the habit of busyness at the cost of productivity. It’s easy to put things off because we don’t know how to make it perfect, and if it isn’t perfect, well, then people will know that we aren’t perfect and man, that would be EMBARRASSING.

So instead of just writing the book, we go back and go back. Instead of sending our work off for critique, we revise and revise and revise, not knowing whether we are making it better or worse, but that’s okay because at least we aren’t embarrassed about what we don’t know. We keep studying plot points and character development and ways to convey setting and the just right emotional cues and and and

We tell ourselves it’s too hard, that we don’t have a right to be exceptional, that the kinds of things that happen to other people could never happen to us. After all, we were born in (insert stereotypical location here) and people from (location) don’t ever (insert goal, dream, ambition).

Except.

There was that one who…
Everyone remembers when…
Of course, we can’t forget…

Our books, our creative work, our passion sits in us, fermenting because of prolonged preservation. And now something DOES start to stink and now we really are embarrassed so we toss it, never knowing if it was good or bad or anything and we are left with nothing but nodding and smiling and saying we are still “working on it.”

And when December 31st rolls around again, we make a resolution that next year will be our year, that we will really write that book, that we will really get our agent, that we will really hit publish.

Yes, there are people at the gym who are ridiculously healthy. Yes, there are people who have muscle definition that I didn’t even know was possible. Yes, it can be frustrating to be the person trudging along on a treadmill at something that is a hybrid between walking and jogging when the numbers next to you indicate six or seven or eight miles per hour.

Yes, there are people who have had incredible publishing luck. Yes, there are people who release best seller after best seller after best seller, who seem to make meager words on a page emerge like actual gold. Yes, there are people who release two, three, four books a year and it takes you months and months and months just to write one.

But here’s what I know. I’ve never met an “EXCEPT” who didn’t work. Hard. I’ve never met a success that simply manifested itself before me. I’ve never had a victory that wasn’t super balanced with defeat, discouragement and disappointment.

And when that victory was finally achieved, there was never a time when I said I wished it had come some other way.

Find the writing goals you made for this year. Read them OUT LOUD to yourself. Imagine what it will look like, feel like, when you achieve that. Then get to work.

Every day.

EVERY. DAY.

Because there is no reason you can’t be the most exceptional person in your own life.

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member.

Setting Realistic, Attainable Goals

Okay, so it’s almost the new year, and I’m sure many of you spend some time setting goals. I think it’s a great idea to constantly be evaluating your writing journey and making decisions about how to get where you want to go.

I do think, however, that sometimes, we as writers tend to set goals that we don’t have control over. I think it’s much better to follow a few simple steps before making goals that will help set yourself up for success in the coming year.

1. Look back at what you did this year. How many words did you write? How many manuscripts? What life events kept you from writing–a move, a new job, a baby, etc. Which of those life events are you anticipating for the coming year?

2. Only choose goals you can control. For example, you might have a goal to get an agent this year. But you actually don’t have any control over that. I know, I know. I may have just dashed all your hopes! Not really, I hope. But honestly, you can submit to every agent that accepts your genre, and they might not have room for your title on their list. They may have clients that write too similar things. They might be in a bad mood when they read your submission. This is a goal you actually have no control over.

3. After evaluating your past year and looking forward as much as possible — no one can predict a job loss, an illness, etc. — then you’re ready to start setting attainable goals.

My suggestions:

  • Word count goal per month — these are great, because you can actually control them. And you feel a measure of control over your journey, as well as a sense of accomplishment when you meet the goals. Be sure to evaluate as you go. If you set a goal for January for 25,000 words, and you can only do 20,000, don’t beat yourself up about that! That’s a lot of words in a month. Reset your goal for February. Just because you made a goal doesn’t mean it can’t change.
  • Manuscripts to write — do you have deadlines this year? Which MS’s need attention first? I make a monthly schedule for four months at a time. Sometimes I stay right on track, and sometimes I have to change things up every few weeks.
  • Publishing schedule (if self-publishing) — how many titles and when will you publish them? Be sure to give time for editing, cover design, etc.
  • Craft/workshop classes — again, something you can control. Sign up for in-person or online classes, work with a critique group, anything you can do to improve your craft. How many of these can you do/afford? Be sure to plan your production and publishing schedule around these times, as you generally won’t get as much writing/editing done at a conference. 

Things to avoid:

  • Sales goals — besides buying your own books, you really have no control over this. Sure, you can do marketing and whatnot, but again, it’s about as easy to predict what marketing tactics will work as it is to find a unicorn.
  • Book deal goals — I don’t think aspiring to have a book deal is a bad thing. But I do think it’s dangerous to consider your year a success or a failure based on something you can’t control. 

Now go forth and set those goals!

What are you aspiring to do this year with your writing?

Liz Isaacson writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Wyoming, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romance, SECOND CHANCE RANCH, as is THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM, the second book in the series.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency. Find her on Facebook, twitter, and her blog.