Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Practice Man, Practice

There's an old joke about a tourist who stopped a musician on the street.

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The tourist asked.
Photo by Princess Ruto

The musician's reply?

"Practice, man. Practice."

Success at any skill REQUIRES practice. I emphasized the word requires because there are many things in writing that are not fixed. How one plans a novel, whether one writes in the morning or evening, editing techniques, when to use passive voice, and the list goes on. However, some things are not a matter of individual style. This is one of them.

I have been a teacher for more than 30 years. I've studied the art of learning, the research behind creative thinking and the development of creative skills. The one consistency in the whole study is that to become better at something, like our musician said, you have to "practice, man, practice."

Musicians understand this. Just try and get a practice room in a college or university music department. A professional musician plays every day. They don't make excuses about "family time," "needing" to watch the game, their day job or anything else. They find that time to practice. The ones who don't quite simply are not professionals or even very skilled.

The same is true of athletes. I lived close to the University of Oregon in the 1980s. World class runners attended U of O at the time and I would see them every day, rain or shine, running past my apartment. If they were not consistent, they would not be world class athletes.

So, why do we believe that we can become world class writers if we don't practice our craft EVERY DAY?

You can't.

Alexander Pope put it this way:

True ease in writing comes through art not chance
Those move best who first learned how to dance
Can you imagine learning to dance by only doing it whenever nothing else is happening in your life?

The problem is we don't want to accept that there are trade-offs in life. We want to believe that somehow we can fit writing in around the rest of our lives. Consequently, whether we say it or not, everything else takes priority over writing. The family says, come watch this movie with us, we shut the computer and go. We'll get back to it later. The cell phone rings and instead of letting it go to voice mail and calling back at the end of your writing session, you pick it up and suddenly you are in a conversation and no more writing gets done that day. There's a sale on at the mall, the Dodgers are playing, there's a great video on YouTube, and writing keeps getting pushed further and further back.

Nothing is worth much to you, if you are not willing to give up something for it. Yet, when I suggest giving something up for one's writing, I get responses that range from profound sadness to anger. It's as if I have asked them to do something impossible. But it's quite simple. If you have 13 eggs and an egg carton with 12 spaces, something has got to be left outside.

I guess most of us never quite think in terms of relative importance. Even when we talk about priorities was say things like, "Is that a priority for you?" That's the wrong question. Everything on your list is a priority. The question is how high on your list of priorities is it? Even high priority items must sometimes compete for attention. It's not whether writing is a priority, but whether writing 30 minutes a day is a high enough priority to let something else in your busy life go.

It's okay, if writing is not a high priority. There may be higher priorities right now. Just like some promising musicians discovered that there were other priorities that were more important for them and put away their instrument and their music. That doesn't mean it wasn't important to them. Just not as important as the other things they wanted in their lives.

However, if you do that, then you can't expect to improve your writing or get published. If you don't practice, you'll never get to Carnegie Hall.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Quitting Time

For a time when we had only one car in the family, I had to pick up my Dad at the sawmill where he worked. I'd sit in the parking lost a good two blocks away from the mill, but I could still hear the whistle blow even in the car with the windows rolled up. Not long afterward, my Dad appeared weary from a long, hard day's work, but certain of one thing: He was through for the day.

When I retired from teaching and began writing full-time, I thought I was ready for another job without
Photo by Alan Cleaver
a nine-to-five schedule like teaching. I taught at a college, my classes changed every semester and the job was just starting when the students left the classroom with papers to grade, lessons to prepare and committee meetings to attend.

However, I found I wasn't prepared at all. My Dad knew that when he had completed eight hours of work, he could go home. I knew if I completed grading the papers for Interpersonal Communication by April 30, I had done my job. There was a very clear benchmark that said, you are finished for the day.

Writing had no such benchmark. Oh for some private jobs I had deadlines to meet, but for my bread and butter work of writing novels, Bible studies, short nonfiction books, things were open, and I was always wondering if I had done enough. In other words, had the whistle blown?

This has led me to do some very foolish things. I've been known to work 16-18 hours with just a short break for lunch, working all night and day. Going 24-hours without sleep and then crashing for three days afterwards.

It came home to me last week when I took on too much work including a rush private job. I ended up overtaxing myself (I have health issues which mean I only really have five or six healthy hours a day so working beyond that is going to create some payback later on) and was too sick to go to church Easter sunday.

I took some time to discuss the problem with some other writers. Many had good ideas, but not ones that would work for me. However, those ideas did spawn other ideas. Most importantly, it helped me clarify what I really needed.

What I needed was a way to be sure that I could make a certain amount of money from my books and grow that at a certain rate over the next five years.

So, here's the plan I came up with. Maybe some ideas in it may help you as well if you struggle with the question of when to quit. I've been working this plan for a week and I've never been more productive or more rested.

First I asked myself, what do I want to accomplish by the end of the year?

I came up with a list:

10 Bible Studies edited, formatted and published on Kindle (They are already written first draft)
3 New novels written
2 of the above novels edited and published
2 Novels already written edited and published
5 New Bible Studies written, edited and published
6 Mini courses with 8-12 lessons each written and distributed to students

If I do that, my income is where I want it to be.

My next job was to figure out how long each would take. Now, if you don't know how long it takes to do basic writing activities, then you need to find out. It really helps in managing your time. If you are doing long term planning like I am it's even more helpful. Now, you might say, but some days I can do 1000 words an hour other days I'm good if I write 700 in the same time. I'm talking about averages here. Yes, it will vary from day to day, but over time you will discover an average. On a good day I can write rough draft speed at about 1500 words an hour. Other days I'm closer to 1000. So that averages out to about 1200. The same goes for other activities as well. So for each of these activities I figured out how many hours it would take. Let's use the Bible study editing and publishing as an example. I have already completed three of these so that left seven for the year. It takes me about 10 hours to edit and format. So, that's 70 hours.

Now I need to figure out the number of days. It's 37 weeks or 185 work days (M-F)

But there are upcoming holidays I want to take off. Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving (2 days), Christmas (2 days). So, let's take eight days off that total. That's 177 days.

But I also want to take a three-day weekend or its equivalent every other week. So let's take off another 16 days. Now we are left with 161 days.

Now, all that is left is to divide 70 hours by 161 days thats .43 hours a day or about 26 minutes. So I round it off to 30 minutes a day.

I repeated that with the rest of the items on my list and added three: Blog writing, posting a daily devotion (which are already written) and marketing activities. Blog writing is a low priority, so I set it at 5 minutes a day (this post will take almost a week); devotion is just cut, paste and publish, so that was just 10 minutes; marketing is important but can be done in 30 minutes a day.

What I ended up with was this schedule

Lesson writing: 30 minutes
Novel editing: 30 minutes
Bible study editing: 30 minutes
Novel writing: 40 minutes
Blog: 5 minutes
Devotion: 10 minutes
Writing new Bible Studies/Nonfiction Books 15 minutes
Marketing 30 minutes.

So, now I have a schedule where I work 3 hours and 10 minutes a day. I don't do them in the same order every day and I take long breaks between each one. But I set a timer on each one and when it rings, I stop without guilt, without concern that I might not be doing enough to ensure my financial future or to accomplish all I need to accomplish by the end of the year.

I worried a bit that I might lose the flow of the writing stopping right in the middle of something. But I find if I just finish that sentence or paragraph and stop, and come back to it the next day, I can pick it up without any problem because I'm fresh and not worn out because I was overworking the day before.

This last week has been my most productive in a long time. I wrote 5000 words on my novel, edited 8000 words, wrote 4000 on my lessons, outlined a nonficton book, completed a blog post and published 5 devotions, and uploaded one new Bible Study to Kindle.

Again, this might not work for you, but I do think that making long term goals and turning them into daily action plans could be valuable regardless of how you do it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why you shouldn't read your Five Star Review!!

My fellow author Randy Ingermanson just wrote an article about why you shouldn't read your one star reviews. I agree with him up to a point. If you can read them and not let them affect you, they can sometimes be comical. Some one gets their kicks thinking they are Rogers and Ebert of the literary
Neal Fowler Photo Credit
world and usually failing miserably.

If you let the criticisms get under your skin and cause you to doubt your abilities in spite of all the 4-5 star reviews, then by all means don't read them. However, I would suggest that 5 star reviews, especially the gushy, this author is wonderful and can do nothing wrong reviews can be equally harmful, but in a different way.

The Bible observes that "Pride goes before a fall." Nothing can inflate your pride like a really effusive five star review.

So, you ask, what's wrong with being proud of your work. If you mean taking satisfaction from a job well done independent of anyone else's evaluation of that job and without considering yourself better than anyone else because of the work you did, nothing. Unfortunately, most of our pride doesn't come near that definition.

Too often we require some sort of external validation of our work and the belief that we are in some way better than "the average bear" because of it. Herein lies the danger of the five-star review. It feeds that need for validation and inflates our egos to a place where we consider ourselves better than others.

However, and this is something we must remember, in most cases, it is no more valid in any objective way in evaluating your book than the one star review.

:::Sound of needle popping balloon.:::

Isn't it interesting how easily we can dismiss the unsupported criticisms of a one-star while basking in the glory of an equally unsupported critique of a five star. The core of the problem lies in giving any credence at all to customer reveiws individually because, regardless of the name on the page, they are rarely reviews. They are just reactions.

There is a difference. If I tell you I like Broccoli and Cheese soup at a certain restaurant, that's a reaction. I'm simply stating my experience and my feeling about that soup. My evaluation of the soup is based entirely on my personal likes and dislikes.  However, if I tell you that the Broccoli and Cheese soup is excellent, the broccoli is cooked to a consistency that is still a bit al dente and has a bit of a snap to it and the blend of cheddar with just a hint of mozzerella creates an unusually rich sauce, but the soup was served a bit cooler than it should be for this particular soup, then I have done a review.

I am giving more than my reaction, I am giving you the reasons behind that reaction, I'm appealing to something other than my preferences, I'm being objective about the factual material presented, I'm given examples, and I'm giving a mix of what was good and what might have been improved. I'm doing a reasoned evaluation of the soup.

That's a review. How many of those do we actually see under "customer reviews"? A five-star review, therefore, is rarely any more valid than a one-star in learning anything that will help you become a better writer. It is based entirely on the enjoyment of a single individual. You can feel good that you brought joy to that individual, but the review itself, by itself, tells you very little about your writing ability or the quality of the book itself.

The problem with paying attention to any individual review (good or bad) is that we are confusing the opinion of one person with that of all our readers. Worse, we are judging our own capabilities as a writer based on the opinion of someone who may have no understanding of literature and may be an anomaly among those reading your book.

So, what does this have to do with reading 5-Star reviews. After all, they are good reviews and make you feel good. Well, therein lies the danger. You can see a bunch of 5-Star reviews and think, "Hey, I'm pretty hot stuff." They can lead you to believe that you will always produce top notch writing regardless of how hard you try.

Here's the problem with customer reviews, they tend to skew to the high and low ends. Usually, you are only receiving reviews from those who really, really, really liked the book or those who really, really, really hated the book. In the first case, you find nothing but glowing comments without any suggestion that the book was not perfect. In the latter, the implication is that it had no redeeming value at all. In other words, you learned nothing of value from either one that can help you improve.

If you feel you MUST read reviews, then read the three and four star ones. They are more likely to have specific reasons why they like or dislike something without the adoration of a fan or the vitriol of a troll. But even then, don't get fixated on a single review or a single criticism. Look for trends. Don't pay attention to a criticism (good or bad) unless it appears at least three times. One time is that person's opinion. Two times could be a coincidence. The third time is the beginning of a trend.

Look at both the negative and the positive things. You don't only want to correct what you did not do so well, but you also want to continue to do things people seem to like. However, there is a danger there as well. Giving people what they want is a good thing, but, as with any other art, becoming  predictable or formulaic can lead to popular, but stale writing.

In short, whether it is a good review or a bad review, regardless of star count, there is one piece of advice I can give.