A Writer’s Guide to Self-Care

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website.

Also check out this week’s writing prompt: Why do you write? Challenge yourself to come up with at least 40 reasons why you write.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t give much thought to caring for your mental and physical well-being when you’re caught up in your writing projects. You spend hours at your desk planning blog posts or your novel while you forget to eat right or get the exercise you need. But without a strong foundation of health, you may not have the strength and stamina to withstand the twists and turns, ups and downs of your writing life.

Some writers describe writing as more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to prepare yourself mentally and physically for the long haul. Writing is more demanding than most people think it would be. It can take a lot out of you day in and day out. Further, if you run a writing business where you must meet the demands of clients and work on deadlines, that adds more stress to your day.

It’s important for writers to manage their self-care. There are several simple things you can do every day to make sure you are healthy and strong. Below are my tips for practicing self-care.

1. Get plenty of rest. Sleep is key to restoring your energy levels and mood. I can always tell the difference in my energy levels and motivation when I sleep seven hours compared to only four or five. Sleep really does make a difference. I wrote about sleep and creativity here. But sometimes sleep can be difficult to come by. Experts suggest cutting back on caffeine, shutting off electronic devices a few hours before bedtime and avoid heavy meals before bedtime. If you find yourself routinely waking up at three or four in the morning, rather than fight the sleeplessness, try reading for an hour before trying to go back to sleep.

2. Eat healthy meals and snacks. To maintain your energy throughout the day, make sure you’re eating healthy foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and protein and fiber to keep you feeling fuller longer. Drink plenty of water – at least eight glasses a day – and don’t skip meals. If you feel your energy lagging mid-day, eat healthy snacks to tide you over until dinner time. Try an apple with a handful of nuts or nut butter, veggies and hummus, or cheese and crackers.

3. Get plenty of exercise. Health experts suggest getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. The activity doesn’t have to make you sweat, but you should feel your heart beat faster. Go for a walk, do yoga poses or ride a bike. If you don’t have 30 minutes at one time, break it down into two or three 10-minute breaks during the day. During these mini-workouts, you can dance, jog up the stairs or follow a YouTube fitness video. The fitness breaks will not only help you stay fit and strong, they will give you the energy boost you need to get through the rest of the day.

4. Talk to a friend when you struggle. Sometimes you may feel stuck or lonely during your writing practice. When those situations occur, make sure you call a friend to talk things over, especially if you’re feeling particularly sad about something. Find an outlet for your feelings, and talking with a friend can get you through those rough periods.

5. Curl up with a good book. Sometimes when I’m feeling blue, all I want to do is curl up with a good book. Reading just makes me feel better. Most books end on a positive, happy note, and that makes me believe that happy endings are possible in real life too.

6. Take a long, hot bath. Sometimes just soaking in the tub can ease the tension of the day. There’s something about immersing yourself in warm water that alters your mood. Research shows that warm baths diminish feelings of pessimism and depression because they give bathers a feeling of solitude, comfort and peace. Add scented soap to the water, like lavender which is also soothing and relaxing. Candles are optional.

7. Practice meditation. Sometimes the pace of life moves too fast, faster than we can keep up with. At those times, it helps to practice meditation. Or if you don’t have the patience for meditation, just try to sit alone with your thoughts. Turn off the TV and electronic devices for at least 10 minutes, longer if your schedule allows. Just enjoy the quiet. Sitting quietly helps slow down your breathing and the pace of your life will also seem to slow down.

8. Keep a personal journal. When things get especially emotional and intense, grab a notebook and begin writing. Those thoughts that plague you can interrupt the flow of your work, so you want to find an outlet for them. It helps you make sense of the curve balls that life occasionally throws at you. Once you find an outlet for your personal feelings, you can focus on the tasks at hand.

9. Spend some time with a favorite pet. Most writers I know seem to have a dog or cat as their companion. Many psychologists believe pets are good for your mental health because they help lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety. Pets also make you laugh, and laughing is good for your mental health too. If you’re not convinced, try spending a few minutes a day watching animal videos; they’re sure to put a smile on your face.

10. Get a massage. If you’re like me, you feel most of your tension in the neck and shoulders. A good massage can ease muscle tension and relieve anxiety. But massages can be pricey, so have a friend or significant other give you a good back and shoulder rub.

Self-care is important for your well-being. A healthy mind and body can prepare you to work longer stretches of time. With good health, you can finally finish writing that novel or meet your writing goals.

What do you do to take care of yourself?

Take the “40 Reasons Why I Write” Challenge


Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

“Why do I write?”

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that question? It’s important to think about the ‘why’ of your writing every so often. Whenever you feel lost in your writing journey, go back to your ‘why.’ It will reconnect you to your mission and set you back on your path.

Recently I came across a new writing challenge: Jot down 40 responses to that very question – “Why do I write?” When you stop to consider how many reasons you have for writing, you will never feel lost.

For a couple of examples, check out these lists from Marisa Mohi and Bryan Hutchinson at the Positive Writer.  After reading the first few reasons though, you’ll want to create your own list.

I did the challenge too, and I was able to do it in one sitting. Then after letting it sit for a day, I came back to it, and added a few more. Not only did I hit the magic number of 40, I surpassed it — by a good 10 items.

So grab a pen and paper, and find a quiet place to contemplate this question. Ask yourself, “Why do I write?” It might help to set it up as a prompt, such as “I write because…”

Then start filling in the blank. Bonus points if you can do this all in one sitting.

Give yourself a day or so to set the list aside before reviewing it. You might tweak it here and there, and maybe you’ll notice that you have a duplicate answer. You might even think of one or two more responses.

When you’re done, put the list somewhere where you can see it every day – a bathroom mirror, by your work space, the refrigerator or wherever. If you want, share it on social media too. Invite others in your circle to participate in the challenge.

So how did I do with this challenge? Here’s what I came up with. “I write because…”

1. I love working with words.
2. I enjoy story telling.
3. My bosses and teachers always complimented me on my writing.
4. I like sharing positive, uplifting messages to my readers.
5. I like escaping into other worlds I create.
6. I express myself better in writing that I do verbally.
7. I’ve always enjoyed reading, so it only made sense that I would write too. The more I read, the more I want to write.
8. I come from a family of teachers, so I use my writing to teach and motivate others.
9. I was inspired to write by some of my favorite authors, especially the late Mary Higgins Clark.
10. I enjoy using my imagination.
11. I like developing different characters, especially strong female protagonists.
12. I like the challenge of experimenting with different genres.
13. I like the challenge of creating different plots that people may not have seen before.
14. It helps me release my negative emotions, like anger and grief.
15. It helps me document my life experiences
16. It helps me heal from old and new wounds
17. Writing relaxes me.
18. I want to leave a lasting legacy of my existence.
19. I like seeing my work published.
20. Writing has no age limit. I can write well into my 80s and 90s if I want to.
21. I tend to live inside my own head so I might as well make good use of the space there. J
22. I write to make people happy, because I like to see them laugh and smile at my stories.
23. I write because I have more story ideas than I know what to do with.
24. Writing gives me the freedom to choose what to write about. There are no limits to subject matter.
25. Writing helps me describe and make sense of the dreams I have during the night.
26. Writing is portable. I can write anywhere and at any time. All I need is a pen and paper.
27. Writing is a great hobby to have.
28. Writing is a great career to have too.
29. I write because my soul calls me to do so.
30. I write because I like getting a byline.
31. I write because it’s an extension of my identity.  It’s who I am.
32. I write because I feel I’m making a valuable contribution to society.
33. I write because it makes me feel whole and authentic.
34. I write because it makes me forget what is happening in the outside world.
35. I write because I like to entertain myself.
36. I sometimes use writing to create an alter ego and pretend to be someone I’m not.
37. I like to dream up whole new worlds (world building).
38. I write to set an example for young, aspiring writers.
39. The more I write, the better my skills become.
40.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Bonus answers:
41. I write so I can keep my cat company while he sleeps on my desk. J
42. I write because I believe it’s a misunderstood and underutilized skill in the world (especially in the workplace.)
43. I like getting positive feedback about my work.
44. I write because it forces me away from the refrigerator so I’m not constantly snacking.
45. I write because I can’t think of any other way to earn a living
46. I write to get myself out of boredom.
47. Writing gives me a break from watching TV and forces me to turn it off during the day.
48. Writing makes me feel productive.
49. I like the solitary nature of writing.
50. It makes me feel at peace with myself and gives my life meaning and purpose.

Remembering the Authors and Journalists We Lost in 2020

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

Before getting too deeply into the New Year, let’s look back at the year that was to honor the authors and journalists we lost and the literary legacies they left behind.

Authors
Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of “Prozac Nation,” a memoir about her battle with depression
Mary Higgins Clark, queen of suspense fiction
Clive Cussler, author and adventurer
Winston Groom, author of “Forrest Gump”
Terry Goodkind, master of fantasy fiction
John LeCarre, author of Cold War thrillers
Bette Greene, author of “Summer of My German Soldier”
Joanna Cole, children’s book author best known for “The Magic School Bus”
Rudolfo Anaya, considered the “godfather” of Chicano literature who wrote “Bless Me, Ultima”
Charles Webb, author of “The Graduate” which became a hit movie
Donna Kauffman, romance novelist
Tomie de Paola, children’s book author and illustrator
Diana di Prima, poet of the Beat Generation

Journalists
Gail Sheehy, journalist and author of 17 books, including the breakthrough “Passages” published in 1974
Jim Lehrer, host of PBS NewsHour
Bobbie Battista, one of the first anchors for CNN Headline News
Gerald Slater, founding employee of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
Hugh Downs, longtime TV anchor and host of 20/20 from 1978 to 1999
Tony Elliott, founder of Time Out entertainment magazine

Create a vision for your writing practice in 2021

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Happy New Year! I’m pleased to announce the debut of my white paper “Find Motivation to Start Writing — and Keep Writing” which you can find on my website. Also check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

What does your writing life look like a year from now? What kind of writer do you want to be by then? If this was January 2022, what would you have achieved, especially in your writing?

If you’ve been asking yourself these questions lately, then it may be time to create a vision for your writing practice.

Even if you don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, I’m sure you have ideas of what you want for yourself in the coming year. Envisioning your future writing life isn’t easy – too many variables and unknown factors can throw you off your game. But you can use a number of tools to help you clarify your goals and help you envision your writing life for the coming year.

I’ve written in the past about setting a one-year goal. (You can read about it here.) Five years seems too long in the future to plan that far in advance, so I don’t. I only look ahead for one year. Then working backward from that starting point, I set milestone goals for myself on the way to that year-end goal. Make sense?

Visualization is somewhat like goal-setting. It’s a technique for using positive mental images to achieve a particular goal or outcome. It can help you create the future you want. For example, your goal for 2021 might be to write and publish an e-book for your business but visualization can help you imagine the steps you need to take toward that goal and how you will feel when you accomplish it.

Here’s how I once used visualization (and a bit of intuition) in my career. While working at a membership association some years ago, I started out in a lower level position, but I knew I wanted to work my way up into a manager role. However, at that time, I didn’t think I was being taken seriously in my job by some of the directors. So rather than complain, I assessed my own behavior. I asked myself, “How would I act if I already was a manager? How would I dress? How would I interact with people?”  

Over the next few weeks and months, I dressed more professionally and I responded more promptly to phone calls and emails from members and staff. I got to work on time, met my deadlines and proved that I was a reliable worker. I did everything to up my game. Within a year, I had my promotion to manager.

As my case shows, visualization can work. However, as life coach and TV show host Mel Robbins says, it’s doesn’t guarantee success. You might get some version of your goal and it may not happen exactly as you wish or in the time frame you’d like.

Having a vision changes your expectations, Robbins adds. When you alter the expectations of yourself, you alter your behavior accordingly to achieve that goal. Visualization helps you the steps you need to take to get where you want to be. All good things come to those who are willing to work for it.

What tools can help you visualize the future of your writing practice? A few of those below I’ve done on my own; others I’m just learning about. Find one or two that work best for you.

1. Write your vision as if it has already been achieved. Imagine that it is one year from now – January 2022. Describe what your writing practice looks like. Where do you write? Is anyone with you? Are you alone or in a roomful of other people? Remember that it might be different than it is now. What have you accomplished over the past year of 2021? This isn’t about describing what you wish your practice would look like, but putting yourself in a new pair of shoes in January 2022 and looking back at what you have achieved in the previous year. Seeing yourself a year from now can help you reset your goals and expectations for the coming year, as well as the steps to take you there.

2. Create a vision board. This is a fun, creative and personal project that anyone can do. When you have a goal in mind for the year, you create a visual representation of that goal. For example, using the e-book example above, you might cut out pictures from magazines that show someone writing or reading a book, or a laptop and other tools of the writing trade. You can make drawings with markers and add a positive message to keep you motivated. When you’re done, you can set the board somewhere in your office where you can see it every day. For a good example of a vision board and how to create one, check out this post at Mind Body Green. Review and update your vision board at least once a year, more often depending on your goals.

3. Do some heavy-duty soul searching by answering a series of questions. Mel Robbins has a list of questions that can help you visualize your ideal future. The questions can be used whether you’re looking ahead five years or one year. While Robbins’ questions can help you get a handle where your life is right now, I’m not sure how it helps people create their vision for the future. But contemplating your progress so far can be a strong foundation for creating a stronger future.

4. Create a writer’s vision statement. Once you’re done answering the above questions, use the answers to create a writer’s vision statement. Or use the method used by writing coach Marisa Mohi, who says that having a writer’s vision statement can help you stay on track to meet your career goals even as your non-artistic friends don’t understand the path that you’re on.

5. Use visualization exercises. If none of the previous tools work for you, you can always try the traditional visualization exercises, a form of meditation that guides your internal mental images of the life you want to lead. The images are all inside your mind but you can convert them to a visualization board or write an essay about your experience.

No matter what method you use, visualizing your future self as a writer is key to finding success on your terms and building a practice that you can be proud of.

What Are the ‘Silver Linings’ of Your Writing Life in 2020?

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Check out the new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar menu.

“Every cloud has a silver lining.” You might have heard that proverb at one time or another. It means that there’s something good or hopeful to be found in every bad situation.

Dictionary.com has its own definition: “A sign of hope or a positive aspect in an otherwise negative situation.”

The year 2020 has shown us an overabundance of negative situations, from a pandemic of a highly contagious and dangerous disease and social isolation from loved ones to social injustice, civic unrest and political and economic uncertainty. It’s been a difficult year, but somehow we’ve made it to the end with the hope that 2021 will be better. It has to be better, right? We can only go up from here.

Yet despite the turmoil in our world, there is reason to hope. There are silver linings in the year that was. It’s called “counting your blessings.” We all have them if we look close enough.

So what silver linings have I noticed in my world? For one thing, I was highly productive with my writing projects.

* Consistent blogging. I recommitted to my blog, posting stories at least once a week, sometimes two. With this renewed commitment, I am now considering expanding my offerings to include a weekly writing prompt, white papers and e-books.

* Experimentation with writing styles. Without clients to write for, I’ve used my free time to experiment with different writing styles, most notably e-books and novellas. At 30,000 to 50,000 words, novellas are shorter than novels and tend to have only one plot line, but they are longer than short stories.

* Reading challenge. I kept up with my reading challenge throughout the year. Reading provided the needed escape from the darkest moments of the year.

* Professional development. I took advantage of discounted webinars, online workshops and virtual conferences that were offered, which I would not have participated in otherwise. I studied everything from building a freelance business to content marketing and writing holiday romances.

* New technologies. Like many people, I participated in more online meetings than ever before which meant learning new technologies, such as Zoom and Google Duo.

* Expanded offerings. I completed and posted a white paper on my website and plan to do another one in 2021. I also have two e-books in the works.

* Networking. I launched an email networking campaign to one group of contacts to search for new clients. The second phase of that campaign will begin in the New Year.

A writer’s work is never done and it goes beyond just writing stories. There’s the business of running a writing business and all that it entails – accounting, networking, marketing, etc. Despite it all, I feel hopeful and optimistic about the future.

I realize that in the midst of darkness, there is light too, like a rainbow after a storm. We must all learn to adapt to this new reality of ours, because frankly, it’s not going away anytime soon and our lives will be changed. Things won’t be the same as they used to be, even though we may wish them to be  “back to normal.” Each of us will have to redefine what that new normal means for us, and more important, what it looks like for us.

So how has your writing life changed – for better or for worse – because of the upheavals of 2020? What are the silver linings in your year?

How to Craft Stories – the Hallmark Movie Way

Now Available! Download your copy of the new white paper, Find Motivation to Start Writing and Keep Writing. Also check out our new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar!  Happy Holidays!

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I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with Hallmark movies. I’ve been watching that channel on and off now for at least five years. Especially during the holiday season, I am glued to Hallmark and its sister channel, Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, losing more than two months of my life as I immerse myself into their holiday rom-coms.

As I watch their productions, however, I notice a pattern in story telling, which really isn’t hard to do. Hallmark movies follow their own story structure, though it isn’t that different from other types of films or from romance novels. Hallmark gets a bad rap for its formulaic story structure, but that’s what makes them so popular with their viewers, who come to expect those feel-good stories. After you’ve watched as many as I have, one story looks and sounds just like the next.

That said, I enjoy these movies because they make me feel good at the end. As a hopeful romantic (why they call it hopeless, I’ll never understand), I’m always rooting for the couple to get together. I like to see that two people can find happiness despite the obstacles thrown in their path.

I also enjoy these movies for the pure escapism they provide from the everyday world. I suppose if the outside world didn’t seem so dark and hostile at times, Hallmark wouldn’t be as popular. Further, I like what they have done for my imagination, which keeps spilling out a stream of story ideas that may or may not fit the Hallmark structure.

But as a writer, I recognize the pitfalls of these films too, such as the predictable plot structure. I also dislike how they engross me so much that I lose time away from writing. Since Hallmark began showing their annual barrage of Christmas movies in late October (another aspect I dislike — way too early, in my opinion), I’ve made little progress toward my own writing projects. I’m ready for January when I can roll up my sleeves and get back to work.

As I mentioned, there is a set structure to these stories. I’ve outlined the basic elements below, based on my own observations as well as comments from screenwriters and producers who presented at a Story Summit workshop recently.

1. Start with a strong protagonist. Rom-coms feature female leads who enjoy an aspirational career, such as a lawyer, a bakery owner, florist or nurse. While she seems content with her career, she has one great desire to achieve something within her career or outside of it. She feels her life is complete just as it is and is NOT looking for love.

2. Surround the protagonist with a supporting cast. The female protagonist usually has one or two close companions who are her confidants. They provide counsel and advice when they see she needs it, and encourage her when she feels down. In addition, she may be part of a larger group of friends or colleagues at work or in the community.

3. Some incident sets the action into motion. This is true for all stories, not just Hallmark rom-coms. The female lead might get a plum assignment, get engaged or break off a relationship, or maybe she receives an inheritance. Something significant happens that sets her on a course that puts her in the path of her love interest.

4. Create a compelling love interest. No Hallmark rom-com would be complete without the love interest. He may not get along with the female lead at first. They likely clash over conflicting goals or they’re fighting for the same thing but in different ways. However, he complements the female lead in ways that may not be obvious at first. He provides a skill or specialized knowledge that helps her achieve a goal, and occasionally, she does the same for him.

5. Allow the couple to grow together over time. The two leads are thrown together to work toward a common goal – planning a fundraiser, putting on a production, or solving a mystery. The more they work together, the closer they get and the more attracted they become to the other person. They each provide the other with a perspective they’re lacking. They keep fighting the attraction, however. Further, one or the both of them are harboring a secret that could tear them apart.

6. Create confrontation by revealing the protagonist’s secret. Once the secret is revealed, a confrontation ensues and the leads wonder if they can trust the other person. All seems lost. But through the separation, the female lead begins to realize what’s really important to her.

7. Save the kiss for last. They see the fruits of their labors in the final scenes – they reach their fundraising goals, the production takes place and they solve the mystery. The couple reconciles their differences because they each realize they are better together than they are apart. They finally come together for a kiss, which takes place in the very last scene.

A couple of other pointers: For Christmas-themed stories, either the protagonist or love interest lacks the holiday spirit, so the other person helps them regain it by engaging them in Christmas activities. That said, there are so many times I can watch scenes of playful snowball fights, baking cookies or Christmas tree lightings.

I will leave with one more bit of advice, and this stems from a personal pet peeve. Keep the title short and pithy, which will be easier for readers and viewers to remember. I find the longer movie titles are distracting and do nothing to entice me to watch.

As a writer, I’ve begun to look at movies the same way I experience books. I pay more attention to the key elements, like the characters, plot, setting and dialogue. I observe how the story unfolds, the relationship of the characters and I consider different ways I can tell my stories. This can either be helpful to me or a distraction. That said, I notice that when I’m immersed in the movie or book, I don’t pay attention as much attention to those details because the story is too compelling. That means those elements are working well together.

Whether writing a rom-com novel or a film script, these story telling elements will create happy endings that will make readers feel good.

To learn more:
Inside the TV Networks’ Battle for Christmas Movie Supremacy

How to Write Stories That Will Inspire Your Readers

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Now Available! Download your copy of the new white paper, Find Motivation to Start Writing and Keep Writing. Also check out our new weekly writing prompt in the sidebar!  Happy Holidays!

Browse the Internet for “writing inspiration” and you’ll find pages of links to articles that describe how  to find inspiration for writing. But when you put the shoe on the other foot, when you search for articles about writing to inspire others, you’ll find very few articles that address that issue.

How do you create a story that not only engages with your audience, but inspires them? How do you shift the focus from seeking inspiration within yourself to helping others become inspired?

In this season of giving, it seems fitting that we all consider ways to give, share and, yes, inspire others. What better way to do that than through our writing?

If your goal is to share stories of inspiration with readers, here are a few ways to do that.

1. Be authentic. Be real with your readers. Tell personal stories of your own struggles, which makes you relatable. Readers are interested in knowing who you are, your triumphs and challenges, your fears and joys. They want to read about the obstacles you faced in your life and how you overcame them. “All these are common traits in many stories and inspire the reader to do the same with their own lives,” writes Bethany Cadman at Writer’s Life. People want to hear your story because they want to believe that they’re not alone in their experiences.

2. Bring lightness and warmth to your writing. Be personable as if you are having a conversation with a good, close friend. Add humor if it comes naturally to you, but don’t make jokes just because you can, which can come across as forced. It might be helpful for you or someone else to read your story out loud to make sure you’ve captured the right tone.

3. Share a positive message. Think about the message you want to convey, whether it’s hope, love, resilience, self-confidence or courage. Readers want to believe in the goodness in others, and in the goodness of the world at large.

4. Write with emotion. Writing with some emotion – joy or sadness, fear or excitement – can help readers empathize with you because you’ve shown your “realness.” If you’re writing about the death of a dear friend, for example, let readers see and feel your pain and loss. As I mentioned previously, people want to believe that they are not alone in their experiences. The better you are at writing with emotion, the more exciting, exhilarating and inspiring your stories will be to your readers, writes Cadman.

5. Remember why you write. If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to write next or if you’re searching for a story that will make a difference, go back to your “why,” suggests author Julie Petersen at Bang2Write. Think again about why you write and who you write for. Think about what is your passion. When you remember your why, finding the right stories to inspire others will be much easier.

6. Be brave in your writing choices. It’s not always easy to write about deeply personal and meaningful events of your life, but sometimes it’s necessary to heal yourself. Still there’s a lot of emotional pain to muddle through before you can reveal your old wounds. It takes a great deal of courage to step out of your comfort zone to spill your guts on the page, but readers will usually understand that process because they’ve gone through something similar in their own lives. Taking a stand on an issue and speaking your truth can be scary, but despite those fears, it is likely to garner the respect of your readers, more than you know.

Whether you share stories of heartache or of personal triumph, it’s not easy to bare your soul. But when you write those stories with emotion, courage and warmth, readers will respond to you in positive ways. Writing to inspire others is one of the greatest gifts you can share with your readers.

Related Articles:
How to Make Your Writing Inspirational
Breaking Barriers: Inspiring Others, Julia Alvarez

Creating Stories with Child-like Wonder and Delight

Sing like you know the words, dance like no one’s watching, and love like it’s never going to hurt. — Unknown

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 Christmas always makes me feel like a kid again. It’s that time of year when I realize that I really am a kid at heart. I love the decorations, the music, the lights and especially the gift-giving.

It’s especially joyful when I watch children. I see their eyes grow wide with wonder and delight at each new experience, from sitting on Santa’s lap to seeing brightly wrapped presents under the tree. Everywhere they look, they see something fun and interesting to explore.

I call this “Christmas delight.”

Children experience the same delight through the things they create, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a dance. They make things up as they go along, and they don’t worry about editorial guidelines and rules. They just do what they feel in their heart. They only know how to express themselves, to laugh, to have fun, to delight in their own creativity.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all experience this same wonder and delight with our writing?

A recent essay on Brevity’s Nonfiction blog got me thinking about our capacity as writers to delight in our own creativity. The author, L. Roger Owens, described his experience when he lost the joy of writing. Even as he struggled with writer’s block, he admired the unabashed joy his daughter expressed in her own creativity. She proudly read her stories out loud to a roomful of strangers. She spoke enthusiastically about plot points and character motivations. She delighted in her original turns of phrases. Things Owens wasn’t able to do with his own writing.

For Owens, repeated rejections and strict editorial guidelines squashed his creativity. A lack of interest in topics he was assigned to write about through his job killed his enthusiasm too.

Why are we able to experience this delight of creating as children, but lose it as adults?

Whatever we create as adults seems more open to scrutiny, not just our own, but that of editors, publishers and our peers. What we write seemed unique at first but now seems mundane and boring. Too many rejections and negative feedback weighs us down. We worry more about pleasing others than ourselves. All that negative input kills our enthusiasm, our joy.  

It may seem that the child-like wonder and delight for writing is lost forever. But it’s possible to reclaim it. Here’s how:

1. Pretend you are a child again. Do you remember how you felt when you finished writing a story? Did you take pride in your creation? View your writing as a child would. Children have no knowledge of editor’s rules or expert writing advice, so they are not worried about how people might react. They write for themselves, for the pure joy of creating. Perhaps we can learn from children to live in the moment and enjoy the process of creation.

2. Give yourself permission to fall in love with your work. It’s okay to appreciate turns of phrases, story ideas, plot lines, characters, and witty dialogue. So what that it may never be published, that it might land on the cutting room floor at your editor’s office. Even if you don’t use the material, keep it anyway. Create a file of writing that you review periodically to remind yourself that you are capable of writing enjoyable stories, even if they are never published.
 
3. Read your work out loud. It doesn’t have to be a large auditorium. Whether it’s an audience of one or ten, it doesn’t matter. Getting up to read your work takes courage and shows pride in your writing. When you read it out loud, even if it’s a first draft, you may find it isn’t nearly as bad as you think.

4. Don’t take your writing too seriously. Remember that writing is just one aspect of your life, not the only thing. “Writers are entertainers,” writes author Barbara O’Neal in Writer Unboxed blog. “We’re supposed to have fun. If you’re not, it’s probably time to find something else to do for a while.”

5. Allow yourself time to play. Take a break from writing and do something else, advises  O’Neal. Indulge in a favorite hobby, visit a museum, or go for a hike. Bring a small notebook with you and jot down any details you notice in your environment. As writers, we spend a lot of time closed off from the rest of the world. It’s important to get out as much as possible, engage with other people, commune with nature and the world at large. We need to give our brains a break from creating – and to give joy a chance to rise again.

6. Illustrate your story rather than write it. Put away your laptop or your notebook. Instead, take out a piece of paper and draw images to tell your story, writes Ben Soyka at the Writing Cooperative. Readers are more visual and enjoy having visual aids to go along with the stories they read, he explains. Besides, the illustration process forces you to develop new creative skills while you consider different ways to share your stories.

Losing the joy of writing is bound to happen at some point in your practice, especially when you put so much of yourself into it. Have faith that the child-like delight will return. And when it does, imagine how much joy you’ll bring to your readers.

Thank you for reading. Happy Holidays! Don’t forget to check out the weekly writing prompt in the sidebar.

In an Era of Self-Isolation, Christmas Greeting Cards Help You Stay Connected

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Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always liked sending Christmas cards. There is something about sitting down with a stack of cards, a little Christmas music playing in the background or a favorite Christmas movie, and writing heartfelt notes to my closest friends and family members. At a time when most of us are self-isolating and practicing social distancing, however, it may be even more important to send holiday cards to bridge the gap between ourselves and our loved ones.

Christmas cards remain as popular as ever. According to the Greeting Card Association, 6.5 billion greeting cards are sent out every year and 1.6 billion are Christmas cards. Millennials lead the way in buying and sending holiday cards, as many of them marry and start families.

Some would argue that Christmas cards are not cheap and they’re time consuming. “Just connect with people on social media. Or send an email, text message or a greeting from an online service like Blue Mountain or Jacquie Lawson? They’re cheaper and more convenient than snail mail,” others would say.  

One Millennial, in fact, explains why she stopped sending Christmas cards and suggests we should all do the same. She argues that greeting cards are mass produced as boxed sets, so they lack personalization.

Those are all valid points. But I argue that not everyone has email or owns a computer, including members of my own family. Sending email greetings feels too impersonal, and I fear my message might not be viewed as heartfelt arriving via computer.

Further, it’s important to me to reach out to people I don’t see or talk to often to let them know that I am thinking of them. That’s especially true for relatives who aren’t on social media or own a computer. (Not everyone does, you know.) I don’t have email addresses for everyone I know, but I do have a physical address.  

While it might be time-consuming to handwrite notes and put addresses on envelopes, it doesn’t take nearly as long as you think. My 25 cards takes about three hours, the length of a football game, including a personal message. It might take you less time than that. Look at it this way: if you can make time to put up holiday decorations and bake cookies, you can make time to write out Christmas cards.

Handwritten greeting cards have other advantages:

1. Greeting cards can be personalized. I can add personal notes, mention an experience that I shared with the recipient or express optimism about a forthcoming event. With each card I write, I feel a connection to the person I’m sending the card to. To make it truly personal, skip the pre-printed cards and use a blank notecard instead. Write your own message inside. For ideas on what to write, check out these suggestions from Hallmark and Good Housekeeping.

2. Greeting cards provide space for inserts. They allow me to include additional materials, such as photos, an invitation, tickets to an event or gift cards. True, there are ways to include these items to an email, but as I mentioned, some people may not have access to email or a computer to receive them.

3. Greeting cards slows down the pace of life. Writing out greeting cards is not a fast process. It forces me to slow down the pace of my life to think about what I’m writing and to whom. For a few hours in a day, I become wholly present in the moment to prepare personal sentimental messages.

4. Greeting cards are tactile. I like shopping for greeting cards, and feeling them in my hands. They simply feel more real to me than an online version. It’s much like the feeling I get when I hold a book in my hand rather than read it on a computer screen.  When I shop for cards right after Christmas, I can buy them at a steep discount and keep them on hand for the following season.

5. Greeting cards are more memorable. Most people I know display their Christmas cards so they can see them throughout the holiday season. You can’t do that with online greeting cards or email messages, which are transient in nature. I like to display cards around my fireplace so I can see them every day. When I see cards that loved ones have sent me, I get a warm feeling inside knowing that other people are thinking of me.  

In this time of COVID-19 when most of us are socially isolated from our loved ones, Zoom calls and video chats may not be enough to convey holiday cheer. Further, this pandemic has made many of us seek new, meaningful ways of connecting. Sending greeting cards, as old-fashioned as it seems, can cut through the electronic clutter. Sure, there are the costs involved, like the cards themselves, postage and the time spent writing messages, sealing them and stamping them.

It might be easier, cheaper and faster to send online greeting cards, but the online versions lack an emotional connection. Isn’t that emotional connection what we want with our loved ones, especially at Christmas?

So if meaningful connection with loved ones is important to you this Christmas, don’t overlook holiday greeting cards. They just might be worth the extra effort to let someone know you are thinking of them.

Your NaNoWriMo First Draft is Done. What’s Next?

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Congratulations! You’ve just completed your first NaNoWriMo challenge (or maybe it’s your third or your tenth), and your novel is nearly complete. Take a moment to savor your accomplishment. Finishing a first draft is hard work, so celebrate this important milestone.

Once you catch your breath, you’ll probably wonder “What do I do next?” You know your draft isn’t perfect—yet. You know you have work to do. Remember that the first draft is only a rough draft, like doing a practice run of a marathon or doing a sound check before the live performance.

If you thought writing the first draft was hard, brace yourself for the next phase. That’s the revision stage—the process of rewriting, editing, adding, subtracting, switching scenes around and creating new dialogue or eliminating characters.

“Rough drafts can be overwhelming,” writes Emily Wenstrom at The Write Practice. “Your first instinct might be to never look at that hot mess again.”

But you will need to look at it again, whether it’s a hot mess or not. Usually, it’s not nearly as bad as you think it will be. Still, be prepared to do a lot more work on your manuscript to make it publishable.

As the experts at Scribendi write, “the first draft is about telling a story; the second draft is about writing a novel.”

To take the intimidation factor out of the rewriting process, it might be helpful to plan how to go about your revision process. To get a good inside look into one author’s revision process, check out Joanna Penn’s explanation in this blog post.

Here are some steps that can help you answer the question, “What’s Next?  

Step 1: Give your manuscript a rest. Set it aside for a few days or weeks to “cool off” as if it were a freshly baked pie. This waiting time allows the story to settle a bit. When you allow enough time to pass before looking at it again, you can review it with a fresh eye. A week or two might be enough time or it might be several months. That all depends on your desire to rework your draft.

Step 2: Print out a copy of the manuscript and review it from start to finish. It might help to read the story out loud, which might help you catch sticking points in dialogue or narrative. Don’t revise just yet. Instead, jot down notes in the margins for the changes you want to make. The first pass of review can take a week or longer, and the edits tend to be more substantial than later passes.  During this first review pass, pay attention to the scenes that need to be developed more fully. There’s plenty of room to develop the setting, characters and plot. Understanding these elements will serve as a foundation as you work though the rest of the story.

Step 3: Return to the beginning and make the changes you noted in the margins. This can be a painstaking process, so be patient. There will be a lot of notes and tons of rewriting. But that’s all part of the revision process. When you are done with the rewrite, print it out again and read it through. Do the same process of note-taking. You might have several review passes before you are satisfied with your manuscript enough to send it to an editor.

Wenstrom suggests focusing on the biggest issues first and work your way down to smaller details. It might be tempting to run spell check first or correct little inconsistencies, but Wenstrom warns against it. These are purely cosmetic changes and a form of procrastination to avoid having to deal with the larger aspects that make the story hum.

Step 4. Remember there’s a difference between editing and revising. According to Scribendi, editing is concerned with the technical aspects of language, while revising tackles the larger issues of storytelling, such as plot structure, dialogue, character development and pacing.

Here are some of the key areas that will need the most attention.  

1. Plot. Does the story start in the right place? Is the plot interesting and does it follow a strong time line? You may have to add or delete scenes. In any case, problems with plot will require the most rewriting work.

2. Character. Pay special attention to your protagonist. Does he/she change over the course of the story? Are characters believable? Are their actions consistent with their personalities? Make sure your story shows how the protagonist changes over time, for better or worse, which makes the story more compelling. Also consider if any characters are forgotten. For example, do they appear once early in the story only to disappear as the story progresses?

3. Language. Now that you’ve written your 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo (give or take a few thousand), pay attention to extra padding in the copy—useless words like really, very, and just. Avoid dialogue tags, (he said/she said) and pay attention to any language quirks of your own–wordiness, redundancies and other empty phrases that don’t move the story along.

4. Dialogue. Does the dialogue flow naturally? Is it authentic? Read the dialogue out loud and note the rhythm of the conversation and whether it’s believable and natural.

5. Sensory descriptions. Make sure to include sensory descriptions and imagery in your novel which depicts a sense of place, time and theme. Keep descriptions simple and concise, and avoid flowery, extravagant language that may sound nice but don’t add anything to the story.

6. Inconsistent details. Watch for changes in details throughout the story. For example, at the start, your protagonist might have had long, straight blonde hair and by chapter seven, she had shoulder-length auburn waves.

Because there are many things to take note of in your novel, it may take several review and revision passes to catch all of them. The last thing you want to do is submit a manuscript to an editor filled with errors and inconsistencies.

“Every rough draft is ugly. That’s because it’s a first draft, not a final draft,” writes Wenstrom at The Write Practice. “Use it for what it is – a foundation – and build from it to get your story to its full potential.”