5 Ways to Keep Your Writing Momentum

If you’re like me (and if you are, I pity you), then your writing flow is full of stops and starts. Just when you get into the writing groove, the world (or worse, yourself) conspires to interrupt you and break this –

– hold on, bathroom break –

Where were we? Oh yeah.

– break this sublime streak of productivity. That’s not good for your word count. Nor is it good for whatever you’re writing, because you’re going to lose your train of thought and risk going off on tangents that are totally irrelevant because that’s what tangents do and…

(deep breath)

Sorry. Anyway.

There is help for us, my friends. There are ways to keep you in your seat and pounding happily (or unhappily, for some of you) away at the keyboard. And not all of them require cattle prods and electrified fencing. In fact, most are quite pleasant.

Image by Caitlinator from Flickr

1. Write to a goal

This is the tip that seems to work best for me. Your goal can either be word count, a number of chapters, or a set time period. The point is to have something to shoot for: small manageable goals that you can repeat on a regular basis.

2. Psych yourself out

It’s not just for athletes. Getting in some serious mental mojo can really get you pumped up to write. Meditation might work, if you’re into that. But egging yourself on works too (just don’t believe your own hype.)

3. Get a cheerleader

If cheering yourself on seems to weird for you, then you might consider having someone else be your cheerleader. This person will hold you accountable for the goals you set, and if they do their job right it can really push you to be productive – especially if there’s a reward, like a round of drinks or something. Your cheerleader can be your spouse, your friend, or even a fellow/rival writer (for some people, it’s competition that brings out the best in them.)

4. Remove unsafe distractions

Notice I said unsafe distractions. There’s no way to completely remove yourself from distractions if you really can’t concentrate. The key here is to know which distractions are the most debilitating to you – like the Internet, in my case, or noise for others. Then you can use safe distractions like music to shut out the outside world.

5. Move somewhere else

Most writers work at home, and the problem with working at home is that sooner or later a family member is going to ask you to do something. I go through this with Flossie sometimes, and I do admit that it’s hard to say no. The solution? Remove yourself entirely and work somewhere else. The library. The coffee shop. Anywhere you can work comfortably and not be disturbed.

Fool Me Once, Shame On Me

I had mentioned in a previous blog post that I had a certain delinquent payment that I was trying to resolve. I wouldn’t say I was chasing the editor down. Rather, I was just emailing every single person on the magazine’s contact page until I found one that would respond. Very reasonable, right? No cuss words or stalker-ish phone calls or anything. And it just so happened that the person who responded was their publisher!

Perfect! Attention from the top!

This person was very polite, even after I sent her the delinquent invoice of $80, and said the payment would be taken care of in short order. Sure enough, after an hour, I received a payment in Paypal. But it was only for $25. Huh?

I was by turns confused, concerned, insulted, confused again, and finally curious. There had to be a mistake somewhere.

And there was. Just not where I was expecting.

I mentioned (in very polite terms) the agreement that the editor and I had at the start of the project. I referenced the amount in the job ad they’d posted, which was the same amount the editor and I discussed over the phone. $80. The publisher politely but firmly instructed me that there must’ve been some confusion, and to consult the contract I’d signed at the start of the project.

Uh oh.

Did you read?

I checked. And there it was, in black and white. $25.

Now, I could’ve gone ballistic and yelled my head off about not getting the agreed upon amount. I could’ve sent a nasty email about the bait and switch that these people were pulling on contributors who work in good faith. But really, all I could muster was a resigned thought: They got me.

1st rule of freelancing is to always check your contract. Always. Golden rule. So this situation is really my own fault. The magazine may have been sneaky and underhanded, but they did nothing illegal. I signed a contract that I didn’t read. Lesson learned, watch out next time.

And honestly? I’m just glad I got paid at all.

Slush Surfing: Crying Hard

Crying baby

Yes, you CAN overdo it.

As authors, we’re always trying to make an emotional connection to our readers. You could argue that emotion is the real driving force of any story. Plot may get your characters from A to B, but emotion is what makes us care.

But you can’t be too heavy-handed. People are smart. They know when someone is trying to play on their emotions.

Most of the stories I voted down had that kind of problem. One story was about a husband dealing with his wife’s death. The father’s grief was written in such grueling, meticulous, painstaking detail that after the third paragraph I was rolling my eyes and skimming the page (This may seem hard-hearted, but remember these are fictional characters we’re talking about).

You can direct emotions the wrong way, too, which ruins a story just as much. One “motherhood” story had the main character actually treating each of her child’s milestones as if they were funerals! She even used the words “death” and “die” at several points, to emphasize the loss of her child-that-was. I would never think of Avi’s milestones that way, and it offended me that the author would even say something like that! I didn’t even need to think about rejecting that one.

Approach the reader’s heart properly, and you can tell him anything. Case in point: one submission’s plot revolved around a middle school girl coming home every day with multiple stab wounds. Brutal and graphic, I know. But the emotion was handled so artfully that it won over most of the staff.

Even though I read a lot of stories that didn’t make it off the runway of emotional connection (and some that took a dive straight into the ocean), I’m not condemning their efforts. I’m trying to find that same balance in my own writing, and I know exactly how hard that is.

The lesson here? Don’t be afraid to dial it back.

Countdown to Success

Coundown timer

If this doesn't get you off your butt, nothing will.

Did you know that the way you count can affect your productivity and morale? I didn’t!

I learned this little tip in a product training session at my new job. The trainer was one of the company’s top sales people, who also happened to be ex-military. More specifically, an explosives expert. Yep, that’s right. Bombs and such.

The first thing he was trained to do was to change the way he counted. Instead of counting up from 1 like normal people, he and his team had to learn to count down to 1. If you had a 15-second fuse, for example, you shouldn’t count 1, 2, 3. You should count 3, 2, 1. You see this all the time in the movies and such, where the timer is ticking down and the heroes are rushing to beat the clock. Counting down was meant to be a way of keeping the technician focused on the urgency of the situation (as if being inches from an explosive device wasn’t enough).

But what did that have to do with productivity?

It all has to do with mindset.

Say for example you have a goal of writing 1000 words. When you count up, you’re looking back at what you already did. This is an invitation for your brain to get lazy and say “you know what, I think we’ve gone far enough today, maybe we can cut this short”. Even more damaging is when you look up at that number, think “that number is way too high. I don’t think I can reach that,” and then give up. When you count down, however, you’re looking forward to how many more you have left to do. And the further you go, the more that number shrinks down, and the more motivated you are to get that number to 0.

I can see this working for a number of things, not just writing. When you exercise, count down the number of reps in a set. When you’re clearing your email inbox, pay attention to that “Unread” number and watch it shrink. When you’re doing cold calls, set a reasonable target and count down to that goal.

I’ve only just started trying this new method out, so I can’t tell you if it actually works for me. But please feel free to try it out for yourselves and let me know how you do!

5 Hints on How Not To Sell

I can understand how salesmen and business owners LOVE to use every available opportunity to pimp their company and products. Who doesn’t want to be a success, right? But there are certain tactics that just don’t work. Take a hint. Take 5.

Don’t #1: Don’t ambush your potential customer as he emerges from the bathroom.

Don’t #2: Don’t pitch when you’re in a public corridor, and not in an office of any kind.

Don’t #3: Don’t just shove a business card in the face of your potential customer (really a victim now, at this point) and expect him to take it well.

Don’t #4: Don’t launch straight into your spiel: “We’re xxxx. We can do xxxx for a great price.” Not even a faux conversation to pretend you find me interesting? For shame.

 Don’t #5: Don’t drop the bomb and move on to the next guy. It’s not “efficiency”, it’s rude. But then again, you won’t have to watch victim #1 toss your card into the garbage.

This morning I experienced all five in the space of five seconds, and five hours later I’m still annoyed as hell.

I call this the “Pop, Drop, and Flop”.

Freelance Writing: 3 Tips to Starting from Scratch

I was recently asked about my experiences as a freelance writer, how to get started, and where to go to get freelancing jobs. While there are plenty of web resources available for aspiring freelancers to learn from pros with plenty more experience than me–like here and here, and here too– I also want to share some of the things I’ve learned, in the hopes of helping those whose situation isn’t so different from how I used to be.

So without further ado:

1. It’s possible to start from nothing.

One of the biggest challenges for me when I started out was my portfolio. It wasn’t necessarily empty, but close enough to it. I always dreaded the question “can I see more of your work”, because I simply didn’t have anything else to show. This was also a problem in that I sometimes wouldn’t have anything relevant to the project for which I was bidding (only having magazine articles when the client wanted website copy, for example). This closed a lot of doors for me; it also became a psychological block that kept me from aggressively hunting projects.

But there are clients who are willing to take on new writers if they show a good command of the language (whether you’re writing in English or otherwise), and if the writers can show they understand the clients’ needs. You may have to work for free (or close to it), but at this point in your career you should be focusing on building your resume.

Think portfolio, not profit.

2. If you don’t have clients, be your own.

No need to cool your heels in front of the keyboard if nobody’s awarding you any work. If you don’t have any active projects, this is a good chance to work on your own. I recommend you spend time working on your writing skills by practicing the kind of writing you want to sell. Are you planning on writing websites? Practice writing for an imaginary client and see how your work stands up to similar, existing websites. If it’s good enough, you may even be able to show it as a part of your portfolio.

And just because you’re practicing it doesn’t mean you can’t get paid for it. You can submit articles to sites like Constant Content and get paid a (very) small commission for either page views or for sold articles (method of compensation depends on the site). Some sites only pay to U.S. or North American writers, though, so read their T&Cs carefully. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family if they need any writing/editing work done for their businesses. If you’re feeling brave, you can pitch your articles to magazines and ezines (MOTL).

Practice makes profit.

3. Grow slow.

Developing a creative freelancing business is very tricky. Here, you are the factory.

At first, you will have no idea how long it will take to create the product your client ordered. It’s all too easy to bite off more than you can chew and take on too many jobs or over-promise on a deadline. Job sites like eLance let clients review their contractors, so doing a bad job will mar your record and make it harder for you to get more work.

Until you have a better idea of your own work process, and how much time you need to finish a piece, play it safe. I suggest you do it one project at a time. Give yourself enough breathing room to finish the work properly. Only then should you move on to the next.

Work before you run.