Building Writing Muscle

Some years ago the doctor was considering surgery on my elbow. Why? Because I had damaged the joint with a weights routine that was too heavy…way too heavy.

I thought I’d make up for a late start and build up my skinny arms overnight. Instead, for a while I couldn’t lift anything as heavy as a coffee cup without pain, and there was no weight lifting for many months.

Why do we do this to ourselves? I do this in my writing too–and I’ll bet you do as well. We get behind, and then set huge goals. We’ll write five hours a day or send out a query a day. And we burn out so that we don’t want to write at all.

A Solution

Building writing muscle isn’t much different than trying to build body muscle. Rather than going gung-ho at a massive goal, start small. Give yourself doable short goals where you can succeed. Success breeds success. Trying to do too much too soon breeds failure.

In Karen Scalf Linamen’s book Only Nuns Change Habits Overnight, she suggested “making up small, attainable goals just so we could practice the art of turning a goal into reality. What if we made the decision to give up coffee for three days? Or stick with a vegetarian diet for twenty-four hours? Or walk around the block every morning for a week?…Pretty soon, all these smaller victories will give us greater confidence, stamina, and experience. Then when we attempt the bigger decisions–we’ve got muscle. We’ve been practicing. We can do it.”

Apply It to Writing

Instead of promising yourself you’ll write two hours every day, blog five times a week, and send out ten queries each month, start small. Set a goal that virtually insures success. That’s how we build momentum–with a series of successful goals.

How about:

  • write for ten minutes every morning for a week
  • read one chapter per day of a current children’s book
  • read email one hour later, three days in a row
  • check out three writing conferences online

Whatever goals you have–or habits you would like to build–give yourself permission to start smaller. Stretch yourself a tiny bit today. Then set a goal to stretch yourself that little bit three days in a row–then reward yourself for that success.

Like the title of the book says, only nuns change their habits overnight. So take things in smaller bites. Build momentum with smaller successes. Develop the writing habits, slowly but surely. You’ll be flexing those muscles in no time!

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Courage and Confidence

When it comes to your writing, do you ever have a crisis of confidence?

It can come from a number of things: destructive (instead of constructive) criticism in your critique group, months and years of rejections (from editors and/or agents), poor reviews or sales when you finally get published, and put-downs from family or friends about your “little hobby.”

A friend of mine who is a published writer, teacher, and writing coach, sent me a quote once. It said, “Courage and confidence come from knowledge and skills–the more you develop knowledge and skills, the more courage and confidence you’ll have.”

Want more writing confidence? This is exactly what happens to us when we buckle down and work on our writing craft.

Buckling Down

Several years ago I embarked on my own self study program when I couldn’t afford to enroll in an MFA program. The study time included a lot more writing and critiquing, plus analyzing successful middle grade novels. I also studied a lot of craft books, tracking the number of hours per week. 

I didn’t meet my goal of 25 study hours per week. In fact, I only logged about 65 hours for a whole month. But that was a lot more study than I had been doing since I started writing many years ago. I am still studying writing craft books, but it’s more like 5-10 hours per week now.

The result? I know my writing is better, which I expected. But the knowledge gave me more courage, more confidence, so when I had a chance to write some adult mysteries for a traditional publisher, I grabbed it. (I just signed a third contract.) Without the studying I’ve done over the last few years, I don’t think I would have even pursued the chance.


Several years ago, I was privileged to attend Jane Yolen’s master novel writing retreat. I still remember her words to us after she’d read and critiqued our manuscripts. She looked around the circle of a dozen writers and said, “Some of you in here are better writers than I am.” She paused while we choked, then added, “But I can guarantee you that none of you write as much as I do.”

At the time, I thought she was telling us that she was much published because she wrote a lot of hours every week. Made sense! Now I wonder if she wasn’t also telling us that writing so many hours was what had honed her skills and knowledge of the language and gave her the courage and confidence to keep submitting things.

Don’t Major on the Minors

If you lack courage and confidence in your writing, try coming at it through the back door. Instead of daily affirmations saying “I’m a GREAT writer,” trying studying your craft to improve your skills.

Sometimes I think we spend too much time analyzing our fears as a way to bolster our courage. Maybe–just maybe–the problem would take care of itself if we planted our seats in our seats and worked harder.

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Rejection Stamina: How Much Can YOU Take?

I was reading an old Writer Magazine yesterday, and the article about best-selling (as in over 15 million copies) Meg Cabot caught my eye. She said you need to block out what you read about “overnight successes” in the publishing business.

She points to her own experience with rejection, and I challenge you to read this without fainting:

  • It took her three years of sending out query letters every day to land an agent.
  • Before publishing she got a rejection letter every day in the mail for four years–over 1,000 rejections.

And she didn’t quit! She went on to write over 50 books for juveniles, teens and adults. Her Princess Diaries series became the basis of two hit Disney films.

Slightly Embarrassed

Reading about Meg Cabot’s stick-to-it-iveness made me rather embarrassed for all the times I’ve (1) moaned and groaned about a couple of rejections, and (2) given up on a manuscript after fewer than five rejections. I have four novels in my closet right now that I gave up on after just a few rejections.

This coming year I will be dusting them off, re-reading them for possible revisions, and sending them out again.

Rejection Stamina

How about you? What is your “rejection stamina”? Are you another Meg Cabot? I hope so! Look how her stamina has served her well.

If you’re brave, share how many rejections you receive before giving up on a piece. Also, what’s your best tip for getting a manuscript back in the mail ASAP?

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Obnoxious Marketing

I sat down last night to finally go through a stack of magazines and other periodicals that had accumulated. I looked forward to flipping leisurely through the pages, stopping when a title caught my eye.

So why was I fuming within thirty seconds? All that infernal marketing done with post card-type inserts stuck inside. I hate them! Instead of the pages fluttering nicely, they jerk by in clumps unless you take the time first to go through and yank the ads out. I ripped out NINE such inserts in one magazine alone. The stack of worthless garbage littered the floor. It makes me want to boycott their products–not buy them.

Viral Marketing?

Hawking wares–telling people about your product repeatedly–never works on me. I’m affected the same way by email campaigns from people I don’t know in newsletters I didn’t sign up for.

I know that when a new book comes out, we’re supposed to blitz people with “see my new book!” and “watch my new trailer!” and “join me for a free teleseminar!” and “view my podcast!” and “meet the author!” and “read my guest blog tour!” and “read my starred (Amazon) review!” Maybe it works for other people, but I just end up feeling nagged and put off by this after a while.

Where’s the Balance?

I know you need to market, and I like to hear good publishing news as much as the next author. It’s important to be willing to help with marketing your books in this publishing day and age. But there’s a big difference between a couple of announcements and ten blasts. You don’t want to cross over from intriguing a buyer into annoying him.

How do you decide where to draw the line? I very much suspect it’s a personal–and personality–thing. How do YOU feel about it?

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Writerholics in Disguise

Did you know that, contrary to popular belief, workaholics (and the sub-group writerholics) don’t work all the time? In fact the term can describe…

“…any person who is driven to do too much, whether that person works sixty hours a week or runs around like a chicken with its head cut off…Some work addicts appear motionless, but their minds are racing.” (Diane Fassel in Working Ourselves to Death.)

Three Faces of Writerholics

While my goal and life-long desire as a writer has been to be consistent with my writing output, it is seldom that way. Sometimes I work long hours with a huge output (like NaNoWriMo month), sometimes it’s in spurts, and sometimes approaching deadlines make me freeze (afraid that I can’t do what I promised in the contract.) I knew my writing output was sporadic, but I thought each style was a problem by itself. I am beginning to see that they’re all just different faces of perfectionism.

Obsessive Writers

This writer works long hours, taking on project after project. She feels compelled to do what she needs to do to keep going. I used to blame it on the financial needs of raising children alone–and that certainly contributed to the pressure–but after the need passed, the behavior remained. According to Joan Webb in her books on perfectionism, “it is a matter of identity for her. If she stopped to rest, it would prove she is inferior, lazy or both–and that would be unthinkable.”

Binge Writers

This writer works in spurts, but with great intensity and energy and focus. These intense bursts of work are sometimes (for the writerholic) ways to avoid dealing with other issues (children’s problems, marital woes, a looming health concern). “Work, projects, tasks and accomplishments become the medication of choice so that she doesn’t have to feel her emotions, deal with her disappointments or ask deep questions,” says Webb. I’m guilty of this one too–maybe not as much as in the past, but it’s definitely a factor.

Anorexic Writers

Deadlines can often turn me into this type of writer. The perfectionist in me isn’t satisfied with writing “sh****” rough drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them in Bird by Bird. After having had 44 books published, you’d think this would no longer be an issue! But it is. Webb contends that the work anorexic is “afraid she’ll do it wrong, so she procrastinates, and the resulting guilt immobilizes her.”

What Type Are You?

Do you identify with any of the above perfectionistic descriptions of writers? (If so, these tendencies probably show up in how you  approach other things in your life, like your fitness efforts and your relationships.) Are you predominantly one type of writerholic or do you wear several writer hats? I hope you’ll leave a comment and share your own experiences in this area.

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