Austin Kleon encourages you to steal in the name of art. Not plagiarize — nothing so mundane (or illegal), but steal and remake, to borrow from the greats who’ve gone before, to take their ideas and make them your own. In his TED Talk below, he explains precisely how he steals like an artist, and how you can too. Wonderfully inspiring stuff, especially for anyone facing a bit of writer’s block — the circumstance that first led Kleon to steal like an artist himself. Enjoy!
Last November, Neil Gaiman sat down and had a long chat with author Junot Díaz, one of his final appearances before he takes 2016 off to be just a writer and a father to his new baby with wife Amanda Palmer. This interview kicks off with a great rundown of the history of Sandman, which is well worth watching whether you’re familiar with the comics series or not. If you prefer to just get right to Neil, you can jump to about the 6:30 mark, where the video moves to the interview venue. This is a longish interview — nearly an hour and a half — so be sure to carve out a bit of time to watch.
Remember that list of writing goals you made at the end of 2015? Is it already starting to feel like a long time ago? In reality, it was probably about two weeks, but time flies when you’re facing the realities of a new year. Your shiny goals tend to get put on the back burner when they come up against your boss’s goals for the new year, or your kid’s flu, or the realization that you have no idea where to put all those books you got with your Christmas gift cards. Whether it’s real life or procrastination or a little bit of both, old habits die hard, and the most stubborn is likely your own inclination to put other things before your own ambitions. But only you can make your writing a priority.
So, I’m here to poke you. Check out that list of goals. Choose something. And do a little bit of work on it today. Whether that means making a point of actually writing, researching an agent, finding a short story contest to enter, or submitting your work to an online magazine. Go for it. One thing, one little step. I dare you to make this year different.
I read an interesting article over the weekend that talked about the difference between asking yourself what you want and asking yourself what pain and struggle you’re willing to endure in order to get it. The first question demands you respond with a result, and we all have very similar results on our wish lists: money, health, love, a nice home, wonderful trips for vacation, and so on. The second question demands you think about what level of effort you’re willing to put forth, what struggle is required, what pain you must endure in order to achieve your goal — and it makes you consider whether you want that thing enough to do the hard work necessary.
At the start of the new year, it’s natural to set goals. I’ve discussed them several times here on the blog leading up to the end of 2015, as well as the importance of planning out the steps you need to take in order to achieve those goals. But we rarely discuss what those steps entail.
Most things don’t come easily. It’s a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Whether you want to train to run a marathon or write a novel, you’re going to have to put in hours and hours of effort, and say no to the distractions that might mean putting in less of the time your goal demands. And the reality is that you’ll spend far more time in the lead up to your goal than you will enjoying the goal itself. A marathon requires hours of training and at least a few hours to run the day of the event, but the joy and excitement of crossing the finish line will be brief, and the bragging rights you earn will be temporary (unless you want to drive your friends and family crazy). Likewise, writing a novel and getting it published is a long, difficult road, often with frustrating set backs. At the end, you have a beautiful finished book in your hands, but then comes the concern about sales figures and writing the next book and the entire process starts all over again.
Writing, like certain other careers, has this strange illusion of glamour attached to it. But in truth it is a hard job, one that requires a great deal of time and patience, and that, in most cases, yields a very small financial reward. If you don’t enjoy the process at least part of the time, if your primary motivation is that end result, you might want to consider carefully whether you love writing, or if you love the fantasy of having written. I don’t want to discourage anyone who truly wishes to write; the world would be a smaller, sadder place without all the stories being written each year. But I also want people to find their truest dreams to follow, the ones that light them up every step of the way. Whether that is writing for you or some other thing you’ve yet to discover, I wish you a fascinating and successful journey.
Still here? Then go write.
I’m supposed to be back in California today, but instead I’m sitting cross-legged on the bed in my room at my parents’ house in Connecticut. In a perfect example of a domino effect, my first flight out last night was delayed an hour and a half, which happened to be nearly the precise length of my layover before my second flight out to Los Angeles. When I went to the airline’s desk to get rebooked, I fell victim to a combination of holiday crowds and the economy, meaning there weren’t any available seats on any flights out of the New York/Connecticut area to LA until Friday morning. (Lots of people traveling, fewer total flights on the schedule.) Fortunately I didn’t have any major plans for the next few days, but I did have some things I intended to do, and now they’ve been… preempted.
It’s fair to say I was pissed off last night. But there’s nothing I can do about the situation, and it’s not like it’s a catastrophe. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to keep an upbeat attitude when fate steps in and messes with your plans, and this is just as true when planning your career as it is when making travel arrangements.
Writing can be a frustrating business, no matter where you are in the process or how long you’ve been at it. Some days it might seem like all you’re asked to do is jump through hoops: Submitting to agents, submitting to editors, doing rounds of revisions, rewriting book proposals, mastering social media. It goes on and on, and in may cases what you do needs to be redone because it didn’t work the first time. Not all manuscripts get published, not all books sell well. Sometimes writers have to start over with a new editor or new publisher, or even a new pen name. It can get discouraging.
You need to get through it. If you want to be a published writer, you’re going to face rejection and frustration. It’s the nature of the business. There is no easy route or guarantee of success, whether you wish to publish traditionally or you give the self-publishing route a try. Either way, you will have to work hard, and there will be days you need to dust yourself off and try again. Occasionally, a bit of luck might rain down on you, and when it does, you should smile and be grateful, because most of the time, writing is a job. It’s an art, and it can be a joy, but it’s also a job, and every job, even the one you adore, has its difficult facets.
But here’s the thing. When you commit to writing, when you decide this is what you want, you become part of a larger world of people who love and appreciate storytelling and words and books. There are rewards along with the frustrations, and not all of them might be initially obvious. So remember you can do this. You just need to get your words down, one at a time, day after day. Write that first draft, then rewrite it again and again until the words sing and your characters pop off the page. Reach out to fellow writers for help and encouragement. Find people who understand your dream and let them give you emotional support. Allow yourself to suck because those lousy sentences and weak paragraphs give you something to revise, a place to start. And when disappointment or frustration strike, take a deep cleansing breath and ask yourself “what next?” because the only way to get to your destination is to keep moving forward. Word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.
Now go write.
A couple of weeks back I suggested you start thinking about your writing goals, both your progress on those set for this year and what you might like to accomplish in the year ahead. Now that 2016 is only a few days away, it’s a great time to get out a notebook or open up a file on your computer and start really shaping and finalizing those goals for the new year.
Whether you’ve got mental notes or written ones regarding your wishes for your writing career, start jotting them down now. Make a list of every goal you have for your writing, from the small things to the truly out-there, oversized dreams. Don’t worry if they’re attainable in the next year. This exercise is just to get an idea of the scope of your ambitions, keeping in mind that some things will likely change in the years ahead.
Once you have a list, go through and note a reasonable time frame to complete each item. Is it something you can manage in a month? Will it take several months of concerted effort? Perhaps an entire year, plugging away a bit each day? Or is it something you’d like to tackle eventually but you know is a bit out of reach for the time being, whether because your skills haven’t quite reached the stage where you’re ready or because there are many things you need to accomplish to prepare for the goal?
Now it’s time to decide what goals you’d actually like to work on in 2016. You probably have a fair idea, if you’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of weeks. There are also going to be things that are prerequisites for others — such as finishing a book before you can submit it, or publishing something before you can achieve any sales goals. But you want to find a balance in your goals; some should be a true challenge that take a good part, if not all of the year, while others should be achievable in one-to-three-month blocks of time.
Once you’ve chosen one or two large goals and a handful of smaller ones, consider any factors that affect when you’ll be able to work on them and when you should work on them. Pencil in a potential time frame for each, such as all year, February/March, June — September, etc. Again, try to balance your schedule. Obviously year-long goals will be a constant, but try not to overlap too many small goals unless they tie together in some way that makes it necessary or you feel like you’ll have extra free time to work on them for some reason. And if a goal is large enough that it will carry into the following year, be sure to space out your efforts so that you make appropriate progress by the end of 2016.
Now that you have a rough idea of when you’ll be working on each goal, you want to come up with a couple of brief bullet points regarding the how. What do you need to do in order to achieve each goal? What steps must you take? What actions? Think about things that might distract you from your goals, and how you can avoid them. For example, if your goal is to write daily all year, but you know you get distracted by interruptions, think of ways to limit them, such as turning your phone off or activating the privacy setting, setting up an internet blocker during your writing time, or hanging a note on your door so your kids know not to interrupt unless there’s an emergency. If self-sabotage is an issue for you, come up with a little pep talk to give yourself when that devil on your shoulder is tempting you to play hooky. You want to determine both the route to your goal and how to dodge the common obstacles along the way.
Finally, break down any larger goals that have multiple steps so you have an idea of what sort of progress you’d like to make. Tackle one part of the goal each month or each quarter — whatever feels logical to you based on how intricate and challenging your project is to complete.
Use whatever system you like to organize your goals for the year. Some people simplify and just hang a list on their cork board or refrigerator, others keep detailed notes in a journal or a spread sheet. Goal deadlines and any projected completion dates should be put on your planner or calendar, including due dates for those smaller components that you’ve broken down from your larger goals, and you can set reminders in your phone if you’d like a periodic nudge to keep yourself on track. The important thing is to keep your goals accessible and to check in on them periodically in order to lessen the chance of veering off course. I recommend reviewing your progress at least at the end of each quarter of the year, at which point you can make small adjustments as necessary depending on how things are going.
Be sure to keep your original list of goals — the one that included your big, crazy dreams. It will give you a head start this time next year when you sit down to determine your goals for 2017. Good luck with setting your goals for the year ahead, and happy writing!
Ray Bradbury famously wrote a short story every week, both when he was starting out and still attempting to get published, and later when his work began to be well received. I hope this snippet of a video in which he discusses how his strategy worked will help you face your keyboard today. Happy writing!
We’re heading into the home stretch of the December Writing Challenge. Just five days left. No matter whether you’ve written every day or just pushed yourself to write more frequently than you normally do in this busy month, I hope you’re feeling accomplished and like you have a solid writing foundation to carry you into the new year.
The goal, of course, is to keep writing in January. But that should just be the start of your ambitions. If you haven’t already been thinking about your writing goals for next year, take a look at this post and spend a bit of time doing so over the next couple of days. I’m going to be discussing goal-setting further over the course of the week, including ways to keep your ambitions fresh in your mind all year long instead of allowing them to fade into the background like so many forgotten new year’s resolutions. So get ready to commit to some new challenges.
Meanwhile, get that writing time in today. Sit down at your computer or pick up your notebook and get your words down. Remember, all the words count. Happy writing!
Trying to get back to writing after a day or two off can be a tricky thing. Perhaps you’re excited to write and get right to it, no problem, in which case, have at it and good for you. But you might be feeling a bit of holiday hangover — figurative or literal — that makes even the idea of thinking about your project unappealing. Or you want to write but your brain is still turned off. It happens.
For all of you struggling to get back to it, and to those of you who just would like a little writerly advice, I offer up this video of several writers talking to interviewer Charlie Rose about different aspects of writing. I hope you enjoy and that it sends you back to your desk. And just remember, all the words count. Happy writing!
Those of you participating in the December Writing Challenge are inching into sticky territory. Last minute shopping, cleaning the house, cooking for the holiday dinners. You name it, suddenly you can’t put it off any longer and writing might be looking like something that should take a back seat.
If you’ve saved your two days off for the month, it might be time to use one. But if you’re still trying to squeeze in a little writing and you’re feeling uninspired with the pressures of the holiday bearing down on you, here are a few quick prompts to get the ideas flowing. Don’t forget, you don’t need to write daily on a single project, so maybe a little time to play will get you over the hump.
- Write about the absolute best holiday memory you have, from any holiday. A party, a gift, a trip, a visiting relative. Were you a kid or an adult? Were you awed or surprised by something? Make that memory as vivid as you can and get it down on paper.
- What about your worst holiday memory? Did you ever experience a holiday where something bad superseded the holiday celebration for your family? An ill relative, an accident, some ongoing issue? Or perhaps the holiday itself turned out disastrous. Burned dinner, no-show friends, a blizzard keeping everyone trapped under one roof for too many days. Write about a tragic holiday experience, or take what was a holiday disaster and write it as a farcical experience with the benefit of hindsight.
- How about a character forced to spend a holiday alone? Maybe they’re stuck somewhere without the money to visit family, or they’re in a situation that won’t allow them to travel: prison, quarantine, orbiting Mars. How might they celebrate? Or regret that they can’t? Or, a slightly different take: a character celebrating with a group of total strangers. How or why might that happen?
- Write about a family holiday from the point of view of your pet. What might your dog or cat think of the human holiday traditions? Make it serious or funny, your call.
I hope these give you a little jump start, or at least set your imagination flowing. Have fun and remember that all the words count. Happy writing!