Thursday, February 28, 2013

Frances: Writing a Novel One Bite at a Time



            For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a novelist.  I wrote my first real short story in third grade:  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the kitchen table where I wrote it, page after page of laborious cursive that miraculously brought my ideas to life.  I wrote a novel as my college thesis, and after college, I got an MFA in fiction writing.  For many years, I wrote nearly every day. 
            And then in my mid-thirties, I got lost.  I had two small children, and I was determined to be the best mother possible.  I was working part-time as an editor; I had a sick family member to take care of; I had a marriage that was slowly starting to fall apart.  Writing got further and further away from me.  And as my friends published award-winning books, won prestigious fellowships, and got impressive teaching jobs, I felt more and more like a failure, which made it increasingly hard to sit down to write.
            Here’s the story of how that changed.  It’s all because I bought yoga lessons at my son’s preschool’s annual auction.
            I bought the yoga lessons because (a) nobody had bid on them; (b) I wanted to support our school financially; and (c) I thought that doing yoga would be a good way to start taking care of myself after years of taking care of other people.  This hypothetically sounded like a good idea—except that when the school auction rolled around again a year later, I still hadn’t used the yoga lessons.  Taking care of myself?  Are you kidding?  I had no idea how to do that.
            So I called the yoga teacher to see if I could give the lessons back to the preschool to be auctioned off again.  She said that she would be happy to donate new lessons to the school, but that she’d love to have me use what I’d bought the year before.  Only she suggested that instead of yoga, I try a new service she was offering:  wellness coaching.  She was very nice on the phone, and I agreed mostly because I didn’t want to be rude and say no.  We scheduled a time to talk about my goals for my life and come up with a plan for me to reach those goals.
            Here’s a short version of the beginning of that conversation:
            Her:  “So Frances, what do you want for yourself long term?  Say, over the next five years?”  (Note:  I’m pretty sure she expected me to say I wanted to exercise more, improve my diet, something like this—I realized later that these were the sorts of issues her clients usually brought to the table.)
            Me:  “Well, I want to publish a book.”
            Her:  “Oh.  Okay.  It’s usually helpful to try to visualize what you want.  Can you tell me what it might look like if you publish a book?”
            Me (trying desperately to think of what it might look like):  “Uhh…”
            Her:  “What does the book look like in your head?”
            Me:  “It’s, umm, green.”  (Yes. This is literally what I said.  This was the ONLY detail I could imagine at that particular moment.)
            It was an inauspicious beginning.  But it turned out that although the wellness coach didn’t know much about writing, she knew everything about how to set goals that you can actually reach.  This was the point she hammered home to me over and over in that initial conversation.  For years, I had been setting goals for myself:  Write every day.  Get an agent.  Publish a book.  Quit my day job.  Heck, why not win some big awards at the same time?  But I didn’t realize how crippling it can be to set big goals that you don’t yet know how to achieve—goals that overwhelm you and inherently reinforce your sense of your own failure.         
            Instead, the wellness coach asked me to set a goal for six months in the future.  “I want to have written a hundred pages of my book,” I said.
            Her:  “Okay, now set a goal for three months from now.”
            Me:  “I want to know what my novel will be about.  I want to have forty pages written.”
            Her:  “Now set a goal for one month from now.”
            Me:  “I want to have fifteen pages written.  I want to be writing on regular basis every week.”
            Her:  “Okay, now, what sort of realistic goals can you set for this week in order to meet that one-month goal?”
            Me:  “Well, I could try to have five pages written.”
            Her:  “So what would it take for you to do that?” 
            Me:  “I’d have to write maybe three times this week.  For at least an hour each time.”
            Her:  “What sort of obstacles might keep you from doing that?”
            I listed the obstacles.  There were a lot.  I remember that one was that my desk chair hurt my back—so she suggested that getting a new chair might be one of my goals for the week.  I also said that I was spending way too much time reading the news.  So we decided that for some very specific parts of the week—one day and two evenings, I think—I wouldn’t allow myself to go online.  By the end of the session, I had a list of my goals, a list of the potential obstacles, and a list of my strategies for overcoming those obstacles.  I also had an appointment to talk to her again the following week.
            And within a year, I had completed a draft of the The Misadventures of the Magician’s Dog, which will be coming out this fall from Holiday House.
            I wanted to share this story because I think too often we make the mistake of setting goals for ourselves that we can’t realistically achieve.  We read about a writer who produces 5000 words a day, and think:  I should be able to do that!  A friend tells us she’s publishing her fifth book in five years, and we think:  I could have done that if I’d just worked harder! 
            It may be helpful to dream big, but to reach those big dreams, we often have to think small, setting goals for today and tomorrow, and recognizing the often prosaic or mundane barriers that may stop us from getting what we want.  For instance, when I was working with my wellness coach, I realized that one of the things stopping me from finishing my novel was the self-critical voice in my head that belittled my efforts when I sat down to write.  I was comparing my first draft to all the wonderful children’s books I’d ever read and thinking mine was never going to be that good.  I needed a strategy to deal with that self-criticism, and I came up with one.  I decided that it was my job to love my book, imperfections and all, just like I loved my children even when their diapers were dirty or they were crying in the middle of the night.  And just saying this to myself every time I sat down to write helped turn off that self-critical voice long enough that I could move forward.
            So the following is my advice to writers who are struggling to reach their visions:
1.      Know what you want.  Figure out your “dream” as clearly as you can. The more you can see where you’re headed, the more likely you are to get there.
2.      Set goals based on reasonable time increments.  Figure out what you want to have accomplished in six months, three months, and one month.  Then figure out what you want to accomplish this week in order to move toward those goals.
3.      Be specific and realistic.  Maybe your goal is to write for ten minutes a day for three days this week.  Maybe your goal is to write for an hour on Sunday.  If you know you’re struggling to make yourself write at all, don’t start off planning to write for three hours a day every day.
4.      Figure out the obstacles that may stop you.  Come up with strategies to overcome these obstacles.  And if you don’t meet your goals at the end the week, don’t beat yourself up.  Figure out what stopped you and come up with new strategies.
5.      Be proud of reaching your own goals.  Don’t compare yourself to everybody else.  Maybe you have three pages and somebody else has a six-figure advance.  It doesn’t matter.  You’re on your own path:  you’ve figured out what you want to achieve, and when you do it, congratulate yourself.  Few of us are lucky enough to have others who will cheerlead our daily efforts and spur us on.  So learn to be your own cheerleader, noting when you’ve created small changes in your life, because large changes are always born of the small ones.  That six-figure advance?  Well, that writer started with three pages too.
And here’s one more thing: ask for help without shame.  Set up a writing group if you can, structuring it in the way that will best enable you reach your goals.  Maybe you need to turn in pages to others to read on a regular basis.  Maybe you need weekly writing dates at a cafĂ© or library.  Or maybe you just need to report back to someone on your progress, so that you feel accountable for actually doing what you’ve said you want to do.  For instance, when I decided I was ready to start writing every day, I found two other writers who had the same goal.  We set it up that each evening we would email each other how much we’d written that day.  Now I write every day without this sort of support, but I needed it when I was changing habits.  If you can’t find a writing group, or if having a writing group isn’t helping you enough, consider hiring someone like a wellness coach. 
Seizing control of your writing—and your life—is never easy, but breaking your goals into small steps can make change more manageable.  When I think about writing, I often think about the old saying:
Question:  How do you eat an elephant? 
Answer:  One bite at a time.
No one knows who first said that quote, but I’m convinced it must have been a novelist.

23 comments:

  1. Wow. Thank you.

    I think #5 is what I struggle with the most. Comparing myself to others who are successful usually discourages me from writing, but I have a difficult time avoiding it. It's what makes me depressed even after writing something about which I'm exceptionally proud.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    Here's to one bite at a time!

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    1. April, I just read your blog post about setting goals for your novel. It was terrific!

      Number five is the biggest challenge for me too. But I find that the real problem for me isn't comparing myself to others but rather having faith in myself and in my ability to achieve the things I want to achieve. To deal with this, last year I decided I was going to have a "fearless" year: I decided to spend a year believing in myself, no matter what. It was the hardest thing I've ever done--but it's amazing what you can do when you let go of your fears of failing.

      I hope things go well with your second draft of your book. I look forward to buying it someday.

      Yours,
      Frances

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    2. Frances,

      I love your idea of having a "fearless" year. The fear of failing is right alongside spiders and being alone in the dark. It causes anxiety even when I know it is irrational. Anytime I feel myself being overcome by it, I will need to remind myself of your words.

      Kindly,
      April

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  2. Wow, this must be the most important advice I've ever read as a struggling writer. Thank you very much. I've set out goals before, but realize I need to do more to overcome obstacles that come in the way. I'll take this one bite at a time!

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    1. Hi Callie,

      I never thought of identifying obstacles before I worked with the wellness coach either... and it made a world of difference to me when I stopped thinking in terms of "failure" and instead tried to figure out what had stopped me from reaching my goals and how to overcome those obstacles. I hope it helps you too!

      Yours,
      Frances

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  3. There are times when your chidren surprise you with how they turned out to be such thoughtful, articulate people. Frances, this is one of those times. I am so proud of who you are. I am happy that you are going to be a published author, but the process you have gone through is what I am most proud of.

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  4. * Thanks loads for this awesome post! Your strong words made me realize that I've always expect too much of myself, thinking that my writing efforts weren't good enough. Your statement, you're on your own path, actually took a lot of weight off my shoulders.

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    1. Hi Gerri,

      Those are words I repeat to myself all the time -- that I'm on my own path. I'm glad they resonated for you too. It's way too easy to mistake life for a race, when there really isn't anyone we're competing with.

      Good luck with your book!

      Yours,
      Frances

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  5. Lovely inspiration! Congratulations on your book and all it represents.

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    1. Thank you so much, Sarah!

      Yours,
      Frances

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  6. Such wise words of wisdom, Frances, and exactly what I needed to hear. Thanks you! I can't wait to read your book!

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    1. Karol, I can't wait to read yours!

      Yours,
      Frances

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  7. Frances, you rock bigtime!!! What a wise way to approach life and writing. Thanks!!!

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    1. I've been waiting all my life for someone to say I rocked bigtime! Will you tell my kids? : )

      Seriously, thank you.

      Yours,
      Frances

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  8. A great post with my favorite bit of advice being - "I decided that it was my job to love my book, imperfections and all, just like I loved my children even when their diapers were dirty or they were crying in the middle of the night." - You can't believe how much this helps me. Thank you. Rob

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    1. Rob, I'm really happy to read this -- thank you. It was definitely an epiphany for me to realize that I didn't love my fledgling, flawed draft that was trying to grown into novel, it didn't stand a chance of becoming the book I wanted it to be.

      Good luck with your writing!

      Yours,
      Frances

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  9. This is a fabulous post, Frances! I'm so lucky to have you in my life. ;) Can't wait to read your book!!

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  10. Edith, I feel exactly the same way! And I'm going to put your book next to mine on the bookshelf: I think the dogs will enjoy keeping each other company.

    Yours,
    Frances

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  11. This is the most useful piece of advice about writing I've read in a long, long time. Often what stands in our way is not lack of talent or time but those obstacles you talk about....and I love your upbeat strategies for dealing with them.

    Some are not as easy to to solve as getting a new chair, but they're ALL solvable and I like the way you did it.

    When you talk about how you broke it down, it sounds so OBVIOUS -- but I'd never thought of doing it that way before! Yearly goals, yes; to do lists, yes; but taking a big goal and breaking it down that way? I've never done that and it's so clearly the way to go!

    Thank you, Frances, for this frank, helpful but not preachy post! And I hope lots of other people love your book, too!

    libby

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  12. Libby, thanks so much for this! The biggest benefit for me to breaking my goals into steps is that it gives me a way to get past the voice in my head that wants me to be further along on projects than I am. That voice never thinks I've done enough -- but it helps when I can tell myself that I'm actually on track for my goals for the week.

    I just ordered Blow Out the Moon: it sounds amazing!

    Yours,
    Frances

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  13. Frances,
    Thanks for the great story, the great advice, and for striking a blow for all of us Mills MFA alums who have day jobs but keep on writing! Kudos!

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  14. Thanks, Eleanor! I still find balancing writing, work, parenthood, and life a constant juggling act, but it's worth it. And as one of my friends recently said to me, dropping balls may be inevitable, but you can almost always pick them back up.

    Good luck with your writing!

    Yours,
    Frances

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