4 Strategies to Examine Your Life and Work Priorities

At times, I get exhausted chasing all of my writing ideas and plans.

I’m tempted to give up when I look at my “to do” list. But after examining the lessons I learned about rearranging furniture, I realized I needed to reposition a few things in my writing life, too.

This process included examining my priorities, resolving some internal and external conflicts, developing a strategy, and asking for help.

1.  Examine your priorities. Right now, I’m overwhelmed with many of the projects I face. So, I decided to visit my priorities again in all of my writing, blogging, and speaking commitments.

I also know that I need to be willing to make changes. Last week’s priority may not even be in the top ten on my “to do” list today. But often it takes a conflict or a stumble to get my attention.

2. Resolve internal and external conflicts. I often take on more commitments than I can handle. Do you? And this causes me humiliation and embarrassment as I’m faced with making choices that others won’t understand.

For instance, a few weeks ago, I traveled out of town to speak at two separate events, leaving only one day to prepare for my next event. Although I had prepared most of my materials, I became overwhelmed as I sorted through the last minute details.

Then, the day after I returned home, I drove a couple of hours to spend a few days at my daughter’s home. She needed a little moral support, preparing to send her four young children back to school and tackling some household projects.

When I returned home again, not only did I need some rest, I needed to sort a few things in my own house, including my writing life.

3.  Develop a strategy. I asked myself, What should I do to meet my writing needs right now? 

I knew I needed to develop a new strategy. Writing down all of my commitments helped me examine them, so I could get a more objective view of my writing decisions.

So, as I reviewed my calendar and my “to do” list, I also asked myself some hard questions. Why did I commit to this endeavor? Am I passionate about this?

Often, I can’t see my own life objectively until I examine it on paper. And sometimes, that process doesn’t even work. So, that’s when I call in the troops.

4.  Recruit a friend for help. I’m grateful for a few family members and writing friends who will be honest with me when I ask for their input about my schedule.

Sometimes the looks on their faces say it all, “What were you thinking?”

At other times, they encourage me, “Don’t give up! You can do this thing!”

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Eccl. 4:12 NIV)

If you’re overwhelmed in your life—whether you’re a writer or not—don’t give up!

I encourage you to examine your priorities, resolve those internal and external conflicts, develop a strategy, and maybe even call in the troops for some help.

What strategies have helped you as you examine your life and work priorities?

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Six Hurdles to Becoming an Author

When I attended my first writer’s conference in 2006, I thought I’d pitch an agent or editor and sell my book on the spot. After all, my college professor used my papers as good examples for her class, so these writing professionals were sure to read my work and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, right? Interviews on Good Morning America, Oprah’s Book Club, and a Pulitzer Prize would be sure to follow. Money would rain from the heavens. I was 28.

I’ll be 40 this year. I’m older, wiser, more experienced, and yet I’ve never met Oprah.

So let me step in as your coach and tell you how this really works.

  1. You have to write a book. I started many books before I finished one. And I probably only finished because I’d paid for a conference and needed something to sell to all those editors who I thought would come knocking. Editors or not, this is probably the hardest hurdle to clear. You don’t know you can leap over it until you do. So set that deadline for yourself, make the time, and feel free to write crap. Because this manuscript will likely be considered a false start anyway.I Got Nothin'
  2. Find a critique partner. Now because I’m the kind of person who takes off before the pistol is fired, I did have an editor request my manuscript after this conference and an agent sign me on the basis that I had an editor interested. This story didn’t get published though (thank goodness), and the most valuable thing that came out of my first conference was my critique partner. She got me back on track and trained with me. We moved at about the same pace and agreed to read each other’s manuscript. I not only learned a lot from her, but she ended up starting a publishing company which eventually published my Fun4Hire series. This is one of the coolest things about the writing community. Meeting all those famous authors is exciting, but it’s even more exciting to help your friends succeed.

    20170824_154228

    I named characters Christina and Dave after my first critique partner and her husband.

  3. Enter contests. Christina and I both finaled in contests. This is great encouragement to keep going when it feels like your words will never see the ink of a printing press. It also looks good in a cover letter and can include great feedback. Often these contests are judged by your dream editor. You’ll be scored on exactly what they like or don’t like about your work. And sometimes, if they like your work enough, as in the case of the Harlequin contest I entered, they’ll give you a contract and publish it.

    Book Signing

    Almost all of Team Love on the Run sold manuscripts through a Harlequin contest!

  4. Submit. Now I didn’t include “reading” as one of the six hurdles because normally if you want to be a writer, reading is no hurdle. It’s more like cheering from the stands. That being said, READ and research your favorite books to find out who sold and edited them. That’s probably who you should to submit your work to. Agents and editors know what they want, and you are wasting time if you send them something outside their interests.

    Angela and Editor

    My editor Miralee Ferrell is hard to keep up with.

  5. Get rejected. This is like shin splints. You don’t feel the pain unless you push yourself. Now you can commiserate with the rest of us. Feel free to keep count of your rejection letters or recycle them so your next rejection letter can possibly be written on the same fibers. Whatever you do, be proud. You’re writing isn’t perfect, but that’s okay. It’ll never be perfect. What matters is you’re working hard to beat your last time. Get up and keep going.

    Me and Mark Twain

    Even Mark Twain’s WAR PRAYER was rejected. He said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”

  6. Network. To some of you, this hurdle might be even harder than getting rejected. It’s like being interviewed after you lost a race on television. But you have to get in front of an audience to build what editors like to call a platform. It can be through social media, blogs, websites, radio, magazines, or newspaper. You are your own front man. You exude the the passion that pours into each of your stories. People want to read what you have to say because you inspire them.

    Why Christian romance- (2)

    People who know me know I’m passionate about healthy relationships and that I believe love can change lives. Also, it’s fun.

If you continue to improve your performance and don’t give up, you increase your chance of crossing the finish line into publication. All I’m going to say here is that selling your first manuscript won’t be anything like you imagine it to be. It will be better.

There you have it. Though you should also know that on average it takes seven years to win a book contract. And then you face a whole new set of hurdles.

Is it worth it? Only if you can relate to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire when he says, “I feel God’s pleasure when I run.”

He never met Oprah either.

Oprah

Photoshop is probably the closest I’ll ever get.

Behind every writer…

I used to think that successful novelists and writers did all their own work; from conception to final manuscript, the individual author did it all, including research, editing, writing coach, spiritual director, personal trainer (writing a book is like a marathon in many ways!) and project manager. Then I started reading author acknowledgments at the ends of books and realized that it took almost a whole village of assistants for an author to be successful!

And so, since I am committed to transparency in my career, I confess that I, too, rely on a staff to help me produce books. Let me introduce you to Team Jan:

Eddy is my editor. His sharp eyes don’t miss much. In fact, he may be the most demanding editor I’ve ever had. After I’ve slogged and wrestled with a heartfelt devotional or a chapter of plot twists, he often wipes out what I have done with one (paw)stroke on the keyboard, requiring me to attack the material again. And without fail, I have to admit, the second version is always better. He teaches me that patience, diligence, and revision make a better writer out of a good one. I just wish he’d stop shedding so much on the keyboard.

Michael is my personal trainer. He knows that too much sitting stagnates the body and mind, so he insists on frequent breaks from writing to both tone my muscles and clear my thoughts. There’s nothing like a competitive game of tug-of-war with a 75-pound dog to take your mind off character development, and Michael makes sure I sweat through several rounds every day. Afterwards, I’m more than ready to bring a focused mind to my writing project. Or else I take a nap.

Gracie is my spiritual director. We start every day with a walking meditation and prayer that helps set my priorities for the day. Many of my best pieces of writing result from the inspiration I find while in her company; her ability to live intensely in the moment motivates me to pay attention to details in the world around me. Sometimes, she points me to hidden pathways, inviting me to stretch my horizons of experience, which then influence my writing. I try to be open to those new directions, although the one that unexpectedly dumped me into a muddy gully was not one of her better ideas.

And finally, there’s Otis, the perfect project manager. When I’m stressing about a deadline, he calms me down by modeling relaxed behavior, reminding me that too often, I’m the one putting pressure on myself to perform. His easy-going nature encourages me to take my career with a proverbial grain of salt – or in his case, with a couple of Purina Kitty Treats – because in the big scheme of things, writing is just one facet of my life. Like every good project manager, Otis knows the value of balance…and the value of a good belly rub every now and then.

Who’s on your team?

Sifting and Winnowing

Photo/KatenJordanMy heart pounded as I braved my re-entry into my writing space. I simply did not want to work on another uninspired blog post. Why, I didn’t know. But I knew I needed to identify the source of my resistance to what I’m passionate about—writing.

From my office chair, I scribbled a few forced phrases—those anticipated first and necessary words. The ones I demanded myself to write. It was a painful hour.

Even though they were interesting, they weren’t satisfying. And I grieved once again for inspiration that would give me life—meaningful thoughts flowing from a grateful heart. But the words I produced were stale and stodgy. Would anyone be blessed by reading them? I thought not.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of blank pages. So I confessed to my husband, Dan, “I’m really struggling with the blog posts I should have already written.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“I routinely commit to writing about things others have requested, and I never get to work on things that really matter to me.”

“Like what? Give me an example,” he asked.

Dan listened carefully as I voiced a litany of excuses. Then, he responded, “Maybe you need to do some ‘winnowing.’”

“Tell me what you mean.” I knew what the word “winnowing” meant, but I wanted to hear his thoughts.

“Have you ever seen an illustration of someone threshing wheat?” He shared several photos after searching the Internet.

“You mean, like sifting?” I knew Dan was right, but I hadn’t figured out how to climb out of my writing rut.

He said, “All words are not equal. And like grain, where the husks have to be separated and discarded. To produce the best dialogue and story, the worthless ideas must be winnowed out.”

Sifting. I listened to the Daily Audio Bible during my morning walk. From the book of Judges, I listened how God gave Gideon instructions for choosing warriors to fight with him.

You have too many warriors for Me to allow you to defeat the Midianites. As it is now, the people of Israel would just deny Me the credit and claim they had won the victory on their own. So go out and tell your army, “Any of you who are afraid and trembling are free to leave Mount Gilead.” (Judges 7:2-3 VOICE)

The scripture reminded me of my earlier conversation with Dan.

After Gideon reduced his army, the Lord told him. “You still have too many warriors. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you. When I say, ‘This one will fight for you,’ he will go with you; but when I say, ‘This one will not fight for you,’ then he will not go’” (Judges 7:4 VOICE).

As I listened to the passage being read, the word “sift” took on new meaning for me. I knew the Lord was teaching me about “winnowing” and “sifting.” I also recognized I could take my notebook “down to the water” and ask the Lord to help me “sift” through all of my writing and speaking commitments. The neighborhood lake was the perfect place for solitude.

Winnowing. After lunch, I took a brisk walk to Lake Cortez with my pen and paper, with my heart prepared for “winnowing” my writing options, sifting and discarding those that didn’t seem right for me.

One-by-one, I reviewed my current writing commitments, praying what was most important would emerge as my next writing effort.

Recently, I read this encouraging word from the book of James:

If you don’t have all the wisdom needed for this journey, then all you have to do is ask God for it; and God will grant all that you need. He gives lavishly and never scolds you for asking.

The key is that your request be anchored by your single-minded commitment to God. Those who depend only on their own judgment are like those lost on the seas, carried away by any wave or picked up by any wind. (James 1:5-6 VOICE)

I’m so grateful when God gives me his guidance and help. Some days I make decisions and commitments without even considering Him. But as I listed all of my plans that day, it became clear which projects and events I needed to abandon and pursue.

I instinctively knew which stories mattered most. And I also understood what genre of writing I wanted to pursue. So, I had the courage to resign from writing about things and issues that undermine my creativity and leave out elements of my faith.

I’m not sure what I will write next. But for now, I will continue to ask the Lord to help me sift through all of my projects and plans and allow him to impress my soul about what choices to make.

How do you “winnow” through your life and work? What sifters do you use when choosing what matters most to you and is worthy of your time and energy?

Scripture taken from The Voice™. Copyright © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Why designing a website will make you a better writer

Would you like to have an editor on hand 24/7 for all your blog posts? Does the idea that you could make every post a writing gem (even those you compose at 2 am as you desperately try to meet a deadline) appeal to you?

No, I’m not launching myself as a post editor trying to drum up business, nor am I encouraging you to sign up for yet another writing workshop.

I have a different suggestion: teach yourself to build a website.

I don’t have time! I don’t know how! I’m a technology idiot!

I know that’s what you’re saying because that’s exactly what I said a month ago, before I finally knuckled down and did it: I taught myself how to build a website without learning any coding. Today, I’m no expert at it, but I do have a simple website that meets my needs. Most importantly, though, the experience of building it helped me do four things:

  1. finally understand and apply some of those elusive internet concepts (like SEO)
  2. fully utilize blog tools like tags and readability
  3. boost immediacy and responsiveness of my site through personal administration
  4. eliminate fees to another party to maintain/update my website
You are not alone

The best news about achieving these things is that I had free help. You don’t have to struggle through the learning part alone. Videos walking you through setting up a website abound on the internet. Since my old website was already WordPress, using WordPress was an easy choice for my new site. After sampling a few videos, I settled on this one, because it has a companion site with the whole set of instructions printed out! (No more panicking because I couldn’t keep up with the video! Yay!) Likewise, as I learned about plug-ins, I watched additional videos to guide me. Trust me, if you want to do something on your site, there’s a video for it.

24/7 blog editing

This is one of the coolest things I’ve learned to apply. Because I uploaded Yoast SEO plug-in, I get a readability analysis as I write blogs. This handy program tells me when my sentences are too long, when I need to break up paragraphs, and when my vocabulary is too difficult for most readers. It even reminds me to use active, instead of passive, voice, and encourages the use of transition words for smoother writing. By heeding the readability ratings, I improve my writing skills (no matter what time of the night/early morning it may be!). Who knew that cranking out blogs could actually make substantive changes in the way you write?

Granted, building your own website isn’t for everyone, and I won’t hold it against you if you prefer to pay someone to take on the headache of creating your internet storefront. If you’re willing to give it a try, though, I know you’ll find a new perspective on how you write and how your website works.

Anybody want to share your own website designing experience?

What Writers Want

Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt

Photo Credit: YesMovies

In December 2000, Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt starred in the movie What Women Want. Like many women, I appreciated the sensitivity displayed by Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, when he finally connected with the  female lead’s innermost desires. Reflecting on this chick flick, I think we writers share similar longings — in our relationships with readers.

For instance, most of the non-fiction writers I know want the following:Henry Van Dyke

  • To be heard. Non-fiction writers want to know readers are not only listening to what we are saying through the written word, but are finding our content valuable enough to actually apply to their lives.
  • To be accepted and understood. Non-fiction writers want to gather readers who are unified in their search for answers, support, and encouragement.
  • To be desired. Non-fiction writers want readers to want our books, our messages, and the unique way we express ourselves.
  • To make a difference. Non-fiction writers want to know readers are influenced to spread their words so that more people are impacted in positive ways.

But fiction authors want these same things in their own right: A Reader Finishes Books

  • To be heard. Fiction writers want to know readers are drawn into our worlds, where conflict, setting, dialogue, intrigue, and resolution come from the depth of our imaginations and transform into a tale we tell.
  • To be accepted and understood. Fiction writers want to gather readers who are unified in their search for escape, entertainment, and thought-provoking plots.
  • To be desired. Fiction writers want readers who fall in love with our characters, our creative environments, and our page-turning stories.
  • To make a difference. Fiction writers want to know readers are influenced by the nuances of our novels, allowing educational tidbits to seep organically into their brains as they devour each page of our prose.

But regardless of our preferred writing genre, we writers must guard ourselves against wanting so much that we allow the joy of our chosen craft to be stolen away. In a single word, we must protect ourselves against dissatisfaction.

Any of us can fall into the trap of feeling dissatisfied, no matter what we’ve achieved.

  • There are authors who make bestseller lists who feel disappointed and frustrated because they don’t receive literary prizes.
  • Some achieve great commercial success, only to pine over a lack of respect from professional critics and other publishing insiders.
  • While others are appreciated all around the country, but not in their own home communities.
  • Most feel as if what they’ve written is never quite good enough.

Forget All the RulesNo matter what we accomplish, many in the writing profession cannot help hoping for more. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting more — within reason. But if we aren’t careful, we will miss out on the best of our own experiences if we focus solely on what we don’t have, versus celebrating what we do.

I imagine any writer would agree that our ultimate desire is not only to achieve, but as we walk the writing path, to milk every ounce of pleasure from the journey. If we allow ourselves, we might even dance in celebration. That’s what I want.

How do you exercise intentional appreciation for your writing successes?

 

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What authors need to know: a view from the reviewer’s desk

© Royalty-Free/Corbis

I’ve recently been reviewing books on Netgalley. To my surprise, it’s been an educational experience for me as an author; by putting myself on the reader’s/critic’s side of the equation, I’ve learned a few truths that every author should know about 1) writing books, and 2) receiving book reviews.

Truth #1: Not every book is for every person. No matter how important your message or story, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. I keep thinking of the key question every writer gets when pitching a book for publication: who will want to read this book? Many of us (myself included when I began writing) believe that EVERYONE should read our books, that there is value in our work for every reader. But the truth is that people have different interests, and not everyone will want to read your book; that’s why the precise identification of those readers most likely to read your book is so critical to publishing your work. Authors MUST know their specific audience.

As a reviewer, I can choose from a multitude of topics, which means there are many excellent books I don’t choose to review for the simple reason that I’m not interested in the topic. Don’t take it personally when reviewers don’t rave about your book – it may be that your topic just didn’t hit a home run with that individual. Remember always that reading and reviewing is subjective, so while authors want and need reviews, you’re at the mercy of individual preference.

Truth #2: Not every writing style will appeal to every reader. Part of the joy of writing is to find your own voice, and when it resonates with your readers, it’s like winning the lottery. From a reviewer’s perspective, however, some writing styles are irritating, which then often result in poor reviews. (Case in point: as a former teacher of English composition, I can’t get through a book filled with incomplete sentences. When I find that in a book I want to review, I return the book rather than penalize the writer for her own voice. I’ve made that my rule based on my experience of receiving a poor review for one of my books wherein the reviewer said he didn’t read the book because he didn’t like my style in the first chapter! Again, it’s subjective, so don’t panic when you receive a review like that; if you know your audience, you can let that bad review roll off your shoulders, because you know something your reviewer doesn’t: your audience likes your style.)

Truth #3:  Your writing will improve by reading and reviewing other books. As a writer, every learning opportunity you take – even reviewing others’ books – will contribute to your store of ideas, craft, and understanding. Besides reminding me of the importance of audience, reviewing has reassured me that there is room in the publishing and reading world for many voices and many topics. As long as you continue to polish your craft and write engaging books, there’s room for you, too!