Help! What If I Can’t Find Beta Readers?

by Jami Gold on January 17, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Magnifying glass over a blank page with text: Can't Find Beta Readers?

Every writer struggles to get their thoughts onto the page, such as when we think we’ve included more than we actually did. We’ve probably all experienced a head-slap moment where we think something is on the page and we discover it was only ever in our head.

Similarly, every writer struggles to make their ideas make sense to others. Again, because of that “in our head” perspective, something that makes sense to us might not make sense to others.

The typical advice for how to resolve those issues is to use beta readers to get fresh eyes on our writing. Someone unfamiliar with the story will be able to point out when our words don’t make sense or when we’re skipping steps in our storytelling. They won’t have that background information in their head filling in the blanks.

However, the most common request for help I receive from writers is: Help! I can’t find beta readers!

We know how important beta readers are to helping us improve our writing, and yet, what can we do if we don’t have any? We’re not just supposed to sit around powerless, right? So what can we do?

Beta Readers 101

A beta reader is someone who reads our “the best we can make it by ourselves” draft and gives feedback about big picture things: the characters, the plot, the pacing, etc. Beta reading is not about the reader’s knowledge of the craft of writing, but about what works and doesn’t work for them as a reader.

Beta reading typically falls in our editing schedule before submitting our work to agents or publishers so we can make sure our storytelling and characters are solid. For published authors, beta reading typically happens before the nitpickier stages of editing, such as before line or copy editing.

For more information, check out my posts here about beta reading:

How Do Writers Usually Find Beta Readers?

Established authors are often able to tap their reader-fans for feedback. For example, they might simply put out a call on their Facebook reader-fan group.

However, to-be-published authors—and authors still building up their fanbase—often struggle to find feedback sources. Because of that struggle, we usually turn more to fellow writers than non-writer readers. The most common arrangement is to exchange work.

Because of that arrangement, it’s essential that we become good beta readers ourselves if we expect to find others to read for us. (Which is why I have so many posts above about how we can improve our beta reading skills.)

In fact, my number one piece of advice for finding beta readers is to offer to read for others and make sure we’re providing good feedback. (My advice 1.a. is to start with exchanging just a chapter so we’re not wasting too much time with someone who might not be a good match. *smile*)

What If We Can’t Find Beta Readers?

The very first post I mentioned above contains a list of ideas and sources for where we can find beta readers, but even with that list, some writers still run into stumbling blocks. Maybe everyone they try turns out to be a flake or gives bad advice, etc.

So let’s dig deeper into what we can do…

Tip #1: Ensure We’re Taking Advantage of Resources

We can go through that resource list above and make sure we’ve followed up and reached out appropriately. Writers can be introverts and reaching out can be difficult, but help won’t knock on our door.

If none of those resources deal with our genre or are a good fit for us, we can search for other options specific to our situation. Are there Facebook or Goodreads groups of fans of our genre? What about review blogs for our genre—could we reach out to some of the commenters there? Can we broaden our outreach to non-genre readers?

My guest blogger Tamar Hela shared her suggestions for how to connect with the writing community, even in tricky situations. Those connections could be possible readers, or they could point us to other possibilities they know of.

In other words, don’t give up. *smile* Just because some possibilities don’t work out doesn’t mean none of them will. Some resources will likely produce better matching or quality partners for us than others, etc.

Tip#2: Ensure We’re Holding Up Our End of the Bargain

If we found a beta reader we liked but they didn’t want to work with us, make sure we were giving as good as we got. Were we professional with them? Did we meet any agreed-upon deadlines?

What was the quality of our feedback? As we can tell from those links above, we can learn a lot about how to improve our feedback. We need to be insightful but not overly harsh, positive but not shallowly “I liked it,” constructive and not destructive, etc.

Every tip about “what to look for” in beta readers or editors could also apply to the feedback we give. We should give the type of feedback we’d like to receive.

Do we have an encouraging attitude for their potential? We should be humble with our feedback, offer suggestions not obligations, and try not to come across as self-righteous or superior. And we also shouldn’t try to rewrite their story the way we would.

If we’ve had a couple of people back out of a beta-reading exchange, that could just be circumstances or part of the subjective nature of writing in that they might not be a fan of our writing or voice. But if we’ve had a bunch of beta-reading exchanges blow up, the problem might be with us.

Tip #3: Ensure We’re Helping Readers Help Us

If we’ve found a beta reader who’s willing to work with us and sticks to deadlines but their feedback isn’t as helpful as we’d like, we can try to help them provide us better feedback.

We could direct them to some of the posts here with advice. We could direct them to the Beta Reading Worksheet. Or we could be more specific with what type of feedback we need or the questions we have about our work.

Tip #4: Ensure We Express Gratitude for Their Work

Even if we provide good feedback or even if their feedback is subpar, others won’t want to work with us if we complain or strike back at criticism. We have to want to be better.

So no matter what, we should always express thanks for their feedback. They did spend time on it, and that alone deserves our thanks.

At the same time, we shouldn’t attack readers for trying to help. If we don’t like someone’s feedback, simply don’t use them again. Striking back will only make us look like someone who can’t take criticism, and that doesn’t accomplish anything.

Tip #5: Explore Other Ways to Get Feedback

If we still struggle to find beta readers, or if our usual beta readers aren’t available for a project, we can always look at other possibilities for feedback. Unfortunately, these options will cost us money:

Tip #6: Train Ourselves to Improve Our Self-Editing Skills

No matter what, the better we can self-edit, the better writers we’ll become. So I hesitate to call this a “last resort” option.

It’s last resort only in the sense that if we can’t get outside opinion and fresh eyes on our work, we have to fill that role. And especially when we’re new or inexperienced writers, this can be tricky.

However, as we should all want to learn these skills in addition to getting outside help, here are a few pointers for becoming a better self-editor:

  • Books such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King can be great for pointing out common errors. Some workshops focus on self-editing skills as well.
  • Similarly, search out and subscribe to posts from writing-focused blogs that go deep into how to improve our skills. Or follow people on Twitter who share links to posts with good tips. (*cough* such as my blog and Twitter *grin*)
  • Learn how to gain distance from our work so we can make our eyes as “fresh” as possible.
  • Learn how to be our own book doctor, such as with these questions Janice Hardy shares to make our story stronger.
  • Use my worksheet for analyzing our story’s bones.
  • Learn to listen to that inner voice telling us something feels off about our story. Most feedback I receive from beta readers now falls into “yeah, I knew that but couldn’t put my finger on it” category.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to use the vast resources of the internet and writing community to get what we need. But if we struggle with finding beta readers, these tips might help. Good luck to us all! *smile*

Have you struggled to find beta readers? What have you tried and were unsuccessful with? What caused the difficulty? If you’ve succeeded at finding beta readers, what worked for you? Do you have any other tips for dealing with this problem—other resources or things to try?

 

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How to Make Our Story Feel Meaningful

by Jami Gold on January 12, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Three Sister mountain formation with text: Strengthening Our Story's Echoes

We’ve talked before about how story is different from plot. As I mentioned in that post, a story’s plot—the obstacles encountered—is just a tool to reveal a character or a struggle.

The real key to a story is seeing a character change (or potentially, choose not to change, like in some literary fiction) or seeing their struggle to overcome the obstacles (whether they succeed or not).

But sometimes we can have lots of plot ideas, and we might not be sure if—or how—we can pull those together into something that feels like a story. Let’s take a look at how to fix that issue…

What Do We Mean by “Feels Like a Story”?

What makes a story feel like a story? If we took a survey, we’d probably each come up with a different answer. *smile*

Despite that, I’m going to try to identify several “big ideas” behind those potential answers. (Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments too!)

A story will feel like a story if it seems to have meaning.

A sense of meaning can come from any of the following:

  • events lead to something climactic
  • situations or characters change/resolve over the course of a story
  • insights are revealed about deeper social messages or themes
  • events, situations, or characters resonate with us on a deeper level

That last bullet item above is more individual and subjective than the rest because every reader brings different experiences to a story, and what might resonate with one reader won’t necessarily resonate with another. So let’s focus on the first three bullets instead, as those might represent easier tips for us to follow.

What Gives Our Story a Sense of Meaning?

On some level, each of those first three bullet items are all different ways of expressing how a story can feel like it’s leading to something—that there’s a point to the story.

In the writing world, we have many terms that all refer to this sense of a story leading somewhere:

  • rising stakes
  • narrative drive
  • tension
  • pacing
  • a big climax/showdown
  • epiphanies
  • a big reveal
  • turning points
  • a big monologue/”true feelings” scene
  • conflict and resolution

Those elements mix and interact in different ways to create a sense of meaning for…

  • Plot: Rising stakes, narrative drive, tension, pacing, turning points, etc. can all lead to something climactic.
  • Characters: Rising stakes, showdowns, epiphanies, reveals, monologues, conflicts, etc. can all lead to change and resolution.
  • Subtext: Epiphanies, reveals, monologues, etc. can all lead to insights about deeper social messages and themes.

How Can We Strengthen Our Story’s Sense of Meaning?

Let’s talk about some specific ways we can make those elements stronger or work together better to improve our story’s sense of meaning…

Ensure Our Plot Follows a Cause-Effect Chain

When we’re talking about plot, some of the things we can do are obvious, just by looking at that list of elements above. We can make sure our stakes are rising, that we’ve maintained tension and pacing, and that we have turning points.

Another strengthening tip is less obvious. We can make sure that events, turning points, character choices, scenes, paragraphs, and sentences all follow a cause-and-effect chain. The plot should flow by A causing B, which then causes C, etc.

A cause-and-effect chain automatically helps prevent events from feeling random—and thus, meaningless. (Or at least less meaningful.) Everything that happens in our story happens for a reason…because it was caused by previous events. As we saw in the previous section, each event leads to something.

Ensure We’ve Avoided Episodic Storytelling

Going along with the above point, here’s a way we can double-check that our cause-and-effect chain is solid. We can make sure those events, turning points, character choices, scenes, paragraphs, and sentences all have “therefore” or “but” transitions.

Making sure that aspects of our story are connected—either through a “therefore/so” direct cause or by a “but” setback ensures that our story is building on previous events. It’s leading down a path and not just wandering aimlessly (and without meaning).

Take Advantage of Echoes

I recently encountered this idea in a post about revising by Chuck Wendig. (As always with Chuck, language at that link.)

His post details his thoughts about revising, now that he’s been through the process for his stories many, many times. One of his tips resonated with me because it deepens our understanding of that cause-and-effect chain and therefore/but transitions.

Under item number 18, he says (formatting changed for readability and emphasis):

“I’ve come to realize that a story…is a series of echoes.

Characters do things and say things and it creates consequences. Elements and objects appear, and they have weight and meaning inside the story…

Each piece is a rock thrown into the water and the story is about the ripples — and how ripples reach the shore.

What I mean is, when I write now I look for parts of the story that don’t echo. They have no ripples…

What parts of your story don’t make ripples? What bits fail to reverberate?

These pieces exist on their own. They don’t add to the music.

It’s like the idea of Chekhov’s Gun — the gun that appears in the first act should go off by the third. This isn’t about a gun, not really. It’s about inserting an element that echoes throughout.”

Personally, I’d call a story a tapestry of echoes, because a series implies that one happens after another rather than multiple echoes weaving and overlapping. But that’s a minor quibble with his fantastic insight. *smile*

How Can We Ensure Our Story Has Echoes?

We’re obviously not talking about the annoying kind of word and phrase echoes where we accidentally have our character nodding three times on one page. *grin* Repetition of words, phrases, or even ideas is boring, redundant, and can cause readers to skim.

Rather, “echoes” here refers to how elements of our story should reverberate throughout our story over time or through varied approaches.

Think of how we layer stories. A character who’s claustrophobic might struggle in an enclosed setting, and if we include several scenes showing them go through the same struggle, we’re not adding anything to the story. Those other scenes (even if in different enclosed settings) would feel redundant unless there’s some change in their reaction, consequences, etc.

However, for an example of how we could change approaches, we could show other ways of how claustrophobia affects them—such as how it affects their relationships, changes their language or word choice, or impacts their world view—we’re layering different aspects of their claustrophobia throughout their characterization.

We also frequently talk about threads that we carry through a story—touching on ideas from different directions or calling back to previous mentions—and this concept of echoes is the same (or at least a similar) idea.

Several ways the elements of our story can echo and reverberate include:

  • Consequences from events and choices could continue affecting the story in later scenes, rather than just the immediate following scene. (That is, rather than A affecting only B, A can affect B, G, and Z.)
  • Issues, dialogue, and situations can go through a setup and payoff cycle to call back to earlier mentions or foreshadow later mentions.
  • Layers of depth or understanding could be added to character traits, conflicts, motivations, etc.
  • Contrast can be drawn between characters or situations, such as the hero and villain sharing the same flaw, but the hero is shown overcoming theirs on some level.
  • Ideas, character growth, stakes, and situations can be revisited and woven throughout a story, growing and changing each time.

Here’s just one example I posted before about how we could develop a theme of trust over the turning points of a story:

  • The Inciting Incident introduces the heroine to the hero, and boy, she does not trust him, or anyone for that matter.
  • At the End of the Beginning (First Plot Point), she has to work with him, and her distrust causes conflict that prevents them from making progress toward the story goal.
  • The Pinch Points make her trust him about minor things, forcing her out of her comfort zone.
  • At the Midpoint, the hero calls her out on her trust issues and points out how they’re doomed to fail because of it.
  • In the Crisis of the Black Moment, she has an epiphany about her trust issues, but now it’s too late to fix things.
  • The stakes of the Climax rip her comfort zone to shreds and she takes a leap of faith, which involves trust in some way, to overcome the conflict.
  • In the Resolution, we see her interacting with the hero (and maybe with others) with her new-found trust on display.

In that example, we see the idea of trust echoing in both time—continuing over the course of a story—and approaches—adding layers along with growing and changing.

Why Are Echoes Important for Creating Meaning?

In the end, maybe the easiest way to understand the concept of echoes is to return to Chuck’s analogy of Chekhov’s Gun: Everything in our story should be there for a reason.

Do we need a scene that makes the heroine feel secure with the hero? Great. There are a million-and-one options to create that scenario, so let’s choose one that creates an echo to something else in the story.

Maybe it’s a scene similar to an earlier one, but her reaction is different now, demonstrating growth and change. Maybe she has an epiphany triggered by an earlier event. Or maybe it’s foreshadowing a future event in the story.

Whatever the technique we choose, the fact that an echo exists makes the scene feel more meaningful. As Chuck said, echoes of story elements take on weight and meaning within the story.

They feel like they have a purpose and aren’t just plucked randomly from a hat. They’re there for a reason. They belong.

That sense of purpose, meaning, and belonging carries over into our story. Stories always add up to more than the sum of their parts, and this is one way a little aspect of our story creates a greater sense of meaning for our story. *smile*

Can you think of other big ideas behind what can create a sense of meaning in a story? What other story elements can contribute to a sense of meaning? Can you think of other ways we can strengthen our story’s sense of meaning? Have you considered the echo idea before? What do you think of it?

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Writing Goals: Discovering What Works for Us

by Jami Gold on January 10, 2017

in Writing Stuff

Dirt path through trees and ferns with text: Discovering Our Path

In the years that I’ve been writing, I’ve seen several debates come and go on the publishing landscape. Plotters vs. pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Self-published vs. traditionally published. Etc., etc.

As many of my posts here can attest, I’ve never been a fan of those debates. I’ve always said that people should find whatever works for them.

A good friend of mine jokingly worried how I’d react to her experiments with outlining. Now granted, I’m a pantser for the most part (some of my projects are pants-ier than others), but that doesn’t mean that I think one way is superior.

I started off as a plotter but learned that a different process for discovering a story worked better for me. That’s all.

Others’ brains don’t work the same as mine. (Lucky for you. *grin*) So what works best for anyone is going to be individual and unique—and that means we each have to go through the work of discovering what works best for us.

Every Aspect of Publishing Is Unique for Us

Just as how there’s no “one right answer” for the plotting vs. pantsing question, the same goes for non-craft-related debates too, such as self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. As I mentioned last week, writing is a mental game, which means our comfort level with situations is important.

If we’re struggling with our publishing schedule or our editors—or feel uninspired by the cover or marketing for our books—that can affect our motivation for promoting our work or for writing in general. So no matter what aspect of the writing and publishing process we’re talking about, we still need to think about what will work best for our needs.

Figuring Out What We Need

Yet it’s often difficult to figure out what’s best for us. As my Fiction University guest post touched on, a big part of deciding on our publishing path comes down to making sure that our decisions match our goals.

So I want to touch on this issue from a philosophical point of view to get across just how important it is to truly understand ourselves.

Only by understanding ourselves
can we really know
whether our goals are right for us
and not just something we’re copying
from someone else because they sound good.

Do You Know Your Worldview?

A few years ago, I wrote about identifying our worldview. The context of that post was about knowing our worldview so we could recognize it in our stories and write stronger themes.

However, a similar idea applies to our worldview and the publishing industry in general. Our worldview applies to everything, our careers, our relationships, our goals, etc.

“Certain ideas and beliefs resonate deep inside us. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is so deeply a part of us that we might not consciously recognize it as a construct of our mind.”

What Resonates with You?

In Step 2 of that post, I pointed out how we can identify our core beliefs from a story perspective:

  1. Think about what stories—especially the specific scenes, reveals, or turning points—have felt the most powerful to you. Really powerful, not because they were surprising, but because they “spoke” to you. Books, TV, movies, whatever, they all count.
  2. Now think about what those scenes have in common. Are they all about love, loyalty, betrayal, friendship, loss, etc.? Do they share a theme? Do they share a certain perspective? Do they share a type of twist?

“The commonalities between elements that speak to us—that resonate deeply within us—can reveal our core beliefs. Our favorite stories will often have themes in common with each other and with our world view.”

When we’re talking about our worldview outside of stories, we can think about what ideas or thoughts resonate with us, even in circumstances unrelated to storytelling.

For example, years ago romance author Carolyn Jewel tweeted something that resonated with me. (And I apologize for not being able to quote it directly, but this was years ago.)

She said something to the effect of:

My goal is to make it easy for my books to get into the hands of readers. I don’t care if they’re boycotting Amazon or only check out books from the library. I don’t care about print vs. ebook. I don’t care about judging reader preferences. My job is to deliver my books into my readers’ hands.

Again, that’s not anywhere close to an actual quote, but that’s the gist of what resonated with me. *smile*

What Can Those Resonances Teach Us about Ourselves?

Recognizing how much that perspective resonated taught me about myself:

  • What matters to me
  • What doesn’t matter to me
  • How I might define success
  • How I won’t define success
  • What shape my goals might take
  • What shape my goals wouldn’t take

In other words, even if we can’t see how a resonating idea teaches us anything directly about what we should do, we’ll likely still learn about what paths we should avoid.

Apply the Ideas that Resonate to Publishing

Because Carolyn’s idea of being delivery-agnostic resonated with me, that led to me understanding some of my core beliefs as far as publishing…

For example, readers’ preferences weren’t to be judged, so I wasn’t going to avoid Amazon or make it hard for my readers to avoid Amazon. That is, regardless of the effect on my income, I wanted to keep my books highly available at multiple retailers and not enroll in Amazon’s exclusive Select program, thus leaving out non-Amazon customers.

I also offer my books in every version I can afford. For now, that means ebook and print, but I hope to offer my books in audiobook or in libraries eventually.

There’s nothing special or enlightened about those decisions, however. Those are just what work for my worldview in how publishing should work: putting readers first.

Just like with my view of pantsing vs. plotting, that opinion about readers’ place in the publishing landscape isn’t sacrosanct. It’s perfectly valid to have other opinions.

Also, others might have the same opinion and yet reach different conclusions about what that means for their publishing path. There’s no one approach for how to reach a goal.

My point here isn’t to convince anyone that my way or opinion is best (actually it’s the opposite) but to emphasize that paying attention to what resonates can teach us about ourselves. With that information, we can then better develop our measures of success and what goals will help us reach that success.

Use Our Core Beliefs as an Anchor

Just as I mentioned in that post years ago about how those resonating ideas can point to our core beliefs and act as an anchor during revisions, they can also act as an anchor when determining the path of our career.

In addition to our beliefs potentially illuminating how we might approach self-publishing versus traditional publishing, truly knowing our core can help us with our branding, our social media usage, and our marketing as well. In other words, knowing ourselves can help us with every aspect of our career.

The internet can be a great source of information, sharing tips and advice about writing and publishing, but it can also be an overwhelming flood of information. Knowing ourselves better—what really matters to us—can help us tune out the messages that won’t get us closer to happiness.

So here’s hoping that a little self-understanding will help us find our happiness in this career. With a little luck, that happiness will give us strength for the mental game of writing. *smile*

Do you know what matters to you in your writing career? Or are you still struggling to figure out what your goals are? Have you encountered ideas that resonate deeply? What ideas seem to resonate with your worldview? How might those ideas apply to publishing?

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Stick figure at a chalkboard with text: What's Your Publishing Plan?

It’s time once again for my monthly guest post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. My series about Indie Publishing Paths at Fiction University has highlighted some of the choices we have to make as self-published authors and also given us a few guidelines.

We first discussed how we need to know our goals because that will help us make the best decisions for us. Depending on how we measure success, our priorities will vary, and we might make different choices for distribution, release schedules, pricing, etc.

The second segment of my series focused on how to keep our readers after they finish our book. And then we dug deeper into newsletters, as that’s one of the best ways to communicate with readers.

In other words, we’ve covered a lot of background information about the choices that self-publishers have to make (far more than we usually realize), and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with so much uncertainty. So let’s talk about: Where do we start?

Janice Hardy's Fiction University banner

When we brainstorm a story, we often start with ideas for where the story is going to end up. I have posts here on my blog about creating a story by figuring out the end of the character arc or by figuring out the end of the plot.

Similarly, when making decisions about where to start for our self-publishing career, it can make sense to ask ourselves: Where do we want to end up?

  • What does success look like to us?
  • What are our goals?
  • How we will accomplish those goals?
  • Will those goals get us to success (however we measure it)?

There’s a reason that my very first post in this series focused on knowing our goals and thinking about how we measure success. *smile* With that information, we can ensure that the choices we’re making for our self-publishing career match those goals and measures of success.

So for the next few months of my Fiction University series, I’m offering my own decision process as an example of how we can use knowledge of our goals to figure out the self-publishing paths that make sense for us. My explanations aren’t meant to convince anyone that “my way” is the “right way.”

(Trust me, I’m a nobody in the self-publishing-author world as far as sales figures. My choices are not the “secret” to bestseller status or any other traditional signs of success, but they are right for my measures of success, which is my point. *smile*)

Rather, I hope that by leading you through my decision process, everyone will be able to see how they might figure out which choices will be best for them and their situation, goals, and success measurements. I’m sharing my experience merely to demonstrate how I used those goals to make my choices.

This month, I’m sharing how my goals influenced the choices I made for how to sell my books: the where, when, and how much. In future months, I’ll talk more about how my goals influenced my choices for where to put my energy in attracting and keeping readers, as well as how to communicate with those readers.

I hope that by walking through my thought process, others can see where they might decide similarly or differently for their situation. Where it makes sense, I’m also going to share how those choices worked for me (or how they didn’t work).

I hope you’ll join me at Fiction University for this month’s post!

Have you been surprised by how many decisions we have to make as authors? What choices that we face have surprised you the most? Do you find it overwhelming to have to make so many decisions? Does it help to have a buddy or mentor walk you through the thought process? What decisions paralyze you the most?

 

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Chess board at checkmate with text: Setting Up for a Win

Happy New Year! I won’t share any “begin as you mean to go on” tips because everyone in my house came down with a cold late last week, so we were all sick for New Year’s Eve, and that is definitely not how I “mean to go on.” *smile*

But in a strange way, that brings me to my point for this post. The best intentions don’t always work out.

Whenever people talk about setting goals, the usual advice is to make SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound) goals. Or to make realistic goals. Or to make goals that we have control over.

But 2016 proved to me that what we think is realistic or what we think we have control over…isn’t necessarily the case.

When “Realistic” Doesn’t Work

By most measures, my 2016 goal of editing and releasing a previously completed draft—as well as writing (or at least starting) another book—would seem reasonable.

Based on my previous experience, I should have been able to edit and release that completed story by late spring or summer, especially as it didn’t need major revisions. The rest of the year could have been spent on writing the next book, just as planned.

To my mind, those events were mostly under my control. I had editors and my cover artist lined up. I just needed to do my part. I’m the only one who could have screwed up the plan.

However, the first bad sign for me appeared right away in January of 2016 with health issues that kept getting more and more complicated and difficult. A known issue with my toe (which was suspected to be broken) turned out to be a far more complex problem of nerves and tendons affecting both feet and both ankles that still isn’t fixed.

A simple dental procedure turned out to be complicated by a rare bone infection that required emergency surgery and harsh medications with negative side effects and lots of extra surgeries. And once again, it still isn’t fixed.

That’s not even counting the vision issues I started suffering from due to stress, medication, and lack of sleep. When a writer can’t read her computer monitor, that’s a problem.

Those complications did more than interrupt my writing schedule. They drained my energy and left me feeling burned out, even though I also felt like I was slacking off and not getting anything done.

How Do We Define “Realistic”?

Years ago, I wrote about how to make sure our expectations are realistic, and I pointed out several ways to check. Here are just a few I came up with at the time:

  • Goals: Are they really doable? For us? What are we willing to do to meet those goals?
  • Priorities: Which activities will best help us with our goals?
  • Time: What can we really accomplish during X amount of time? What trade-offs are we willing to make?
  • Control: Do we have a Plan B for things outside our control?
  • Energy: What if we have work-life or family-life emergencies? Would we have to push ourselves to the point of sickness to meet those goals?
  • Life Balance: Will we still have time for family, friends, and hobbies? If not, will reaching our goals really make us happy?

In hindsight, several of the points I made in that post stand out as things that I didn’t plan very well for in 2016. I pushed myself too hard in 2015, suffered for it in 2016, and then had all the complications on top of the initial issues.

In thinking through everything that drained my energy last year—from multiple surgeries to destructive medications that caused bad reactions (I’m allergic to almost every treatment for both the foot/ankle and mouth issues…oh yay!)—I came up with another area we have to take into consideration when establishing our goals. We also need to keep in mind the mental aspect.

Writing Is a Mental Game

A conversation yesterday with Angela Quarles, my writing bestie, reminded me of how much writing is a mental challenge.

Many of us have needed to be “talked off the ledge” when it comes to our story, characters, career, critiques, rejections, reviews, contests, etc. Self-doubt is a strong antagonist in our writing life.

I saw this common problem take over even more when my health issues dragged out my editing over months and months, which kept me in nitpicky editing mode far longer than healthy for my mental state. Focusing only on problems for months at a time didn’t help my enthusiasm for writing either.

As Angela pointed out, I felt guilt and burnout and energy-draining health issues all wrapped up in crazy (meaning: no longer realistic) expectations. Or in her words:

“A big guilty burrito that’s smothering you inside it…”

That’s me. *smile*

Sure, my goals were reasonable…at first. But then I never really changed my expectations and goals for my new situation. On the surface, I accepted the reality, but deeper down, I still felt like I was screwing up.

None of that helps the mental aspect of writing. If we’re not feeling our story during drafting, our word count will suffer. If we’re not feeling our story during revisions and editing, our motivation will suffer. If we’re not enjoying the process of writing and publishing, we contemplate giving up.

Are We Setting Ourselves Up to Win?

So that brings us back to needing to take our mental health into account when establishing goals. And I’m talking about far more than just our energy level.

For example, yes, I was listening to the advice to take it easy and let myself heal, but that should have taken…what? A week or two, right? *smile*

With expectations like that, each push-back of my deadlines felt like a failure, and when I missed the new deadline a month or two later, that was another failure, and so on. Over the course of the year, I succeeded in cobbling together only a few productive days here and there, making every deadline a miss—and stringing together a whole year of failures.

In other words, when my whole year was eaten up by non-writing monsters, I should have reassessed my goals in the big picture, not just pushed them back a month or two.

Goals—no matter what they are—are a mental game, and that goes double for writing goals. So I should have set up other goals in the interim that I could win to get back to a healthier mental state.

What Does It Mean to Set Up Winning Goals?

Some people like to use to-do lists or checklists for their daily goals. Many of those types will go so far as to write something down—that they didn’t have on the list—after they finish it, just so they can feel the sense of accomplishment. *raises hand*

That’s creating a win. They’re adding something to their list of goals that they know they can count as a win (because they already finished it). But we can do the same whether we use lists or have already finished something or not.

To interrupt that cycle of short-term deadline thinking that gave me a string a “failures,” I should have added some goals to my list that would give me a few wins in there too.

I could have formally added a goal to set up guest posts during NaNoWriMo, for example. Or a goal of reading through my story—without editing in mind—just to recapture the enjoyment of writing.

How to Ensure Our Expectations Are Realistic, Part Two

Let’s go back to my list of realistic expectations and add a category with thoughts of how we can find successes for a healthier mental state:

Mental:

  • Have we added goals we know we’ll succeed at to give us a few wins? Being kind to our mental health is important too.
  • Have we added “fun” goals that will remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing? For example, reading our story for enjoyment, or spending a day imagining scenes or characters that excite us.
  • Have we built in time/expectations to revisit the big picture of our goals if emergencies crop up? Pushing back deadlines that we’ll miss again if the emergencies aren’t solved yet can just lead to a series of “failures.”
  • Have we analyzed our goals for which ones will require more mental energy? Have we built in time to replenish our mental energy after those tasks?
  • If we decide we’ve sacrificed too much or are asking too much of ourselves, have we given ourselves permission to adjust our expectations?

Several of those reminders would have helped me last year, so I’ll try to keep them in mind as we step into the new year. For me, the most important one is feeling that I have permission to change my goals and priorities if things aren’t working so I can experience a sense of accomplishment from successes too.

Whether we’re talking about our stories and characters or finding the best writing-life balance, we’re all making this up as we go along. Hopefully, by sharing my struggles over the past year, we can all learn how to give ourselves more successes. *smile*

Do you set up writing goals or a yearly writing plan? Do you struggle to complete that plan or are you usually successful? Have you ever dealt with setbacks beyond your control? How did you handle those setbacks as far as your plan? Will this reminder to take our mental health into consideration with our goals help with a better balance?

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Picking Editors: Tips for Finding a Developmental Editor

December 29, 2016 Writing Stuff
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When trying to find the best editor for us, we might struggle more with developmental editors because the usual technique of asking for sample edits doesn’t work. So how should we find a developmental editor who’s a good match for us?

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Writing Coaches: What Are They and Do We Need One?

December 27, 2016 Writing Stuff
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A question over at my guest post at Writers Helping Writers asked what a writing coach was, but there’s no definitive answer. On some level, a coach is anyone who gives advice, so before asking ourselves if we need or want a writing coach, we’d first have to dig into what we mean by the term.

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How Does Our Writing Affect Readers?

December 22, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Given world events, many people want an escape right now. Our writing—our stories—can give readers a breather, a chance to recover, an opportunity to regroup and build up strength or defenses. The crazier the world, the more the world needs our stories.

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Book Marketing: How to Get Feedback — Guest: Jefferson Smith

December 20, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Marketing a book—including its cover, title, tagline, and blurb—to appeal to readers is a different skill set from writing a book, and getting feedback on those elements can be tricky. Today Jefferson Smith shares a resource for improving those critical aspects of our writing.

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Make Settings Come to Life with Sensory Details — Guest: Christina Delay

December 15, 2016 Writing Stuff
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We’ve talked before about adding depth to our settings, but there’s another way to bring our settings to life and immersing readers in our story: layering unique details and sensory information. Today, Christina Delay to shows us how.

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