Five Structures to Help You Achieve Your Writing Goal

“Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

My memoir, formerly titled Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two: How a Sedentary, Middle-Aged Manic Depressive Became a Marathoner (with the help of her dog) has a new working title: Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink.

But that’s beside the point.

The real news is that the manuscript (whatever you want to call it) earned a spot as a finalist in the 2018 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in Nonfiction. The winner will be announced in September at the conference in New Orleans.

How in the heck did that happen?

It happened because I followed the instructions of my writing coaches, the award-winning authors Tania Casselle and Sean Murphy. Among other things, they advised me to enter every single contest for which the book was eligible.

Every! Single! One!

Still, how does someone who continues to have depressive episodes so crippling they make it difficult to get out of bed some days achieve such a goal? My secret? Structure.

The following five structures work for me:

1) Classes and Workshops.

The idea of entering every contest (or submitting to every publisher) that fit my book came from two extremely qualified writing instructors. Suggestions might come from other students as well. In either case, these people could help you do what might not occur to you, what might seem too difficult, or what you might think is a waste of time and money.

2) A deadline.

The final days of a contest or publisher’s reading period usually is enough to spark me into action. It’s that pressure cooker effect. There’s no time for perfectionism. I just have to get it done.

3) Tracking Tools.

I love querytracker.net and Submittable. Real numbers don’t lie. I can see my submissions and percentages. The geeky part of me loves this. Plus, Submittable recognizes people who collect the most rejections in a month. Anything like that helps.

4) Accountability Partners.

I tell a friend I’m going to do something. I tell my little writing group. I tell my husband or my neighbor. I tell the regulars at the coffeeshop where I write. Eventually, one of them will ask about my goal. I don’t want to let either of us down.

5) Online Groups.

These are a different breed of accountability partners. But be careful with this. Choose wisely. I’m in a secret Facebook group for artists collecting rejection letters. If I’m not entering, I have no rejections to report. Telling these kind strangers is oddly satisfying.

But here’s the true secret. At some point, these external structures become internal. They light a fire inside me and I’m surprised to find myself motivated to attempt things I would never have done before. Magic? Perhaps. But I’ll take it.

What kind of structure do you need to meet your goal? What will help you not give up? I’d love to hear about it.

Marathoning

If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” — Fred DeVito

I’d been running for five and a half hours through the rural countryside surrounding Xenia, Ohio. My tired legs were intermittently cramping and the bottoms of my feet ached. I’d run out of catchy songs to sing to myself and all the mantras I’d been chanting sounded stale. The trees lining the rails to trails which had looked beautiful earlier that morning were now closing in and I thought I might suffocate. I was right on schedule, twenty-three miles into my third full marathon. “I really want this to be over,” I thought. “But it’s not and I still have to get back to the car.”

My next thought made me laugh, “This is just like trying to get a book published!”

Throwing in the towel would be a relief – for a while. I could simply stop at the next water station and ask the EMTs to haul me back to town. I could simply start fresh on a new, more interesting, more marketable writing project. That’s what I’ve done with every other book I’ve begun. I never called it quitting, but I never saw those books to fruition either.

While I still don’t have a publisher for my memoir, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I have some great prospects. And even if none of those pan out, I can still self-publish. It is exhausting, but also exciting – just like the final miles of a very long race. It’s no time to quit even though I’m really really tired and everything hurts.

So I remember what I know how to do: continue. Just now. Just here. This moment. Feel your feet (even if they hurt). Do one thing and then the next. Right foot. Left foot. With writing, prepare the newsletter. Send it out. Wait to hear back from publishers. With running, just keep going.

I finished that marathon and I will finish this book. You have my promise.

What is your marathon? I want to cheer you to the finish.

Hope and Work

“As far as I’m concerned, the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.” — Neil Gaiman

I’ve got it again. You know, that thing you get when things are going well and people ask for stuff and if you give it to them your dreams might come true? Yes. Imposter syndrome. I’ve got it in spades.

It took a friend to diagnose it. All I knew was that I felt like crap. I felt like there was sludge in my veins and no ideas would come. I felt scattered too all at the same time. I was a spinning slug. Tears filled my eyes as I told my friend that a publisher had expressed interest in my book, Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two. But I had to send an email with additional marketing information and I had to send it that day. And my mind said, “Nope. You can’t do this. It’s too hard.” And worse, “You’re not worthy. Why would they want your work?” I felt like a fraud.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered imposter syndrome. The entire decade I practiced law, despite having huge successes in many cases, bringing in lots of money for the firm, and eventually being asked to become a partner, I kept waiting for them to figure out I had no idea what I was doing. And even though the feeling is familiar once I recognize it, that initial jolt always blindsides me.

I wonder if imposter syndrome is peculiar to women or perhaps to writers or artists in general. I wonder if it’s worse when you’re already bipolar with a general slant toward the depressive mindset. But this newsletter has to go out today. I’ll let you research those things.

Thankfully, once I knew what it was, the solution was obvious. Suit up and show up. Bring the body and the mind will follow. Do the work.

And so I did.

And now the email has been sent and the newsletter (including this essay) is in process and tomorrow there will be the monthly bills and the rest of the taxes and whatever reminders come up on the manuscript submission tickler system and more of the same on the next day and the next.

Meanwhile, I wait. I hope, and always, I work.

Not Failure

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

Outwardly, December looks like a failure. I hoped to revise Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, the running memoir, and submit it to additional independent publishers. I also wanted to follow up on some of the submissions I’d already sent. And I’d hoped to finish the first draft of Eat Your Toast, the daily meditation and practice book. But December got away from me.

Let’s blame it on Scarlet, the immensely adorable yellow Labrador puppy we got shortly after Morgan, my co-star in Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, died. In addition to her actual care and training, Scarlet takes a lot of mental energy. I feel exhausted a lot of the time.

Even before Scarlet arrived, November had already worn me down. National Novel Writing Month which I love, drained me this year. Beneath my desire to achieve my daily word count was the sadness of Morgan’s final decline from congestive heart failure. We turned our house into a doggy hospice reminiscent of the final days with my father and it brought up emotions I hadn’t felt since I’d written about that several years ago.

And then Morgan actually died. Man. That’s such a punch in the gut even when you know it’s coming. I didn’t realize how sad I’d been until that happened. So when Scarlet entered our world two days later, I was already worn down and reeling. She’s a gem, but such a distraction.

As a result, I spent much of December staring blankly into the middle distance unable to find the mental space to do the work. I did a few things, but nothing near what I’d hoped and I feel disappointed.

I refuse to beat myself up for this however. It is a new year. Scarlet is nearly potty trained! (Yay us!) And one month will not make or break the submission process. So here’s to not giving up. Let’s move forward and continue courageously toward our goals.

Balancing Act, Not!

“Balance is not always obtainable in every situation, however, we have the option to surrender our control over the desired outcome and live more easily in the present moment. This will result in greater peace of mind.” – Nanette Mathews

Last month, I intended to work on two projects. First, I wanted to complete last year’s National Novel Writing Month project, a book of daily meditations about living in the moment called Eat Your Toast. I would be a NaNoWriMo “rebel” on two counts. First, by working on nonfiction and not a novel and second by completing an existing work instead of starting a novel from scratch. I would use the NaNoWriMo structure, attend the write-ins, and participate in the forums. My goal would be to write 50,000 words during the month of November or 1,667 per day.

Second, while doing NaNoWriMo, I’d hoped to continue submitting Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two to independent presses and contests. Although several editors have requested either the full manuscript or chapters, I wanted to keep marketing the manuscript while I waited on word from them.

But life throws curves. First, I got sick and wound up in bed for several days. Then we traveled for a weekend to a conference we had committed to months before. And just before we got home, our ancient dog died. Mr. Dawg, my running sidekick and co-star of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, had been sick with heart problems for nearly two years and we knew he was near the end, but the reality of his death broke my heart. The house felt like a tomb and I fell into a depression.

Then, one afternoon while I was writing, Ed texted me a photo of a 14-week old yellow Labrador puppy, the same breed as Mr. Dawg. Ed was smitten. I knew how hard puppies can be, but Ed and I both needed the canine energy. “Scarlet” joined our family and chaos became the new norm!

Bottom line? I was able to complete 50,000 words of Eat Your Toast, but I did nothing with Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two all month.

From this experience I learned a few things. First, I’m not good at working on more than one project at a time. Once I’d gotten my head back into Eat your Toast, I couldn’t switch back to Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two. I’m hyperfocused, but only on one thing at a time. Eat your Toast took all my energy.

Second, to meet my NaNoWriMo goal, I had to go with the flow and find time whenever I could. This meant writing in hotel rooms and, after Scarlet arrived, working around her sleep schedule so I could focus without a puppy chewing on my shoelaces or the furniture.

And third, I had to celebrate my victory without beating myself up for not meeting my overall goal. I could not change circumstances; I had to adapt to them.

Now that November is through, I will return to Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two with new energy. I’m very excited about this prospect.

Are you able to work on more than one project at a time? If so, how do you manage it?