Focus on Failure


Rarely will I decline a challenge, especially if that challenge involves something I want to do anyway. On our drive home from the Ozarks Writers League meeting over the weekend, Steve challenged me to do my own NaNoWriMo. Now. Not in November, when the national event takes place. This basically means committing to writing 1667 words per day for the next month.

I agreed to the challenge, with the following caveats:

  1. I’d start today, Monday, 5/18.
  2. I’d do it six days a week. This gives me a day off for any emergencies that might arise.
  3. I’ll do it until June 10, when family will start to arrive from out of town for my sister’s wedding.

Will I have the willpower to achieve this goal? Coincidentally, I recently watched a video on willpower by psychologist, Kelly McGonigal and author of The Willpower Instinct. One of the many interesting things she discussed was that in trying to achieve goals, we should focus on the things that cause may us to fail.

The entire video is interesting, but if you want to see the segment on focusing on failure, go to time stamp 35:30.

McGonigal suggests we ask ourselves, “What will be the obstacles to my success?”

Here are mine, in order of potency of distraction:

  1. Social media–Facebook, emails, texts
  2. Requests by others for my time
  3. Writer’s block

The big, big, big one, and the one that always contributes to my word count failure, is social media. How about you?

Now that we know the negative impact of social media, click HERE to read an excellent Time article on why social media affects our success. It’s titled “Are My Devices Messing with My Brain?” Here are a few excerpts:

  • Combine that sudden beep [ie Facebook alert, incoming text or email] with the implicit promise of new social info, and you have a near-perfect, un-ignorable stimulus that will pull your focus away from whatever task your brain is working on.

  • “Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost,” says Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Your brain stumbles a bit, and it requires time to get back to where it was before it was distracted.”

  • One recent study found it can take your brain 15 to 25 minutes to get back to where it was after stopping to check an email.

  • “You’re not able to think as deeply on something when you’re being distracted every few minutes,” Miller adds. “And thinking deeply is where real insights come from.”

In fact, the “beep” notification of Facebook and incoming emails has distracted me twice while writing this post on obstacles to success!

So, my solution to overcoming all three obstacles during my personal NaNoWriMo session is to remove all social media distractions each day until I accomplish my goal of 1667 words. This means:

  • Logging out of Facebook and Gmail until I accomplish my daily word count. (I need to keep wireless on due to necessary research.)
  • Placing my iPhone somewhere far, far away. This way, I won’t hear texts, yet I will hear any incoming phone calls, which typically is how I get notified of emergencies, since most everyone texts non-emergency greetings these days!

Both of these should help me also with obstacle #3, writer’s block, since, according to Dr. Earl Miller above, social media distractions prevent me from “gaining insights” and “thinking deeply.”

And, if you’re interested, here are a few other interesting little tidbits on your prefrontal cortex:

Dr. Paul Atchley, cognitive psychologist at Kansas University says in the Time article referenced above:

“…more research suggests lots of device use bombards your brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a big role in willpower and decision-making.

According to Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist at Stanford University (YouTube video and via Wikipedia):

The part of the self that enables us to act in a way that is consistent with our long-term goals is based in the prefrontal cortex, and McGonigal advocates body-mind practices that she says prioritize the function of the prefrontal cortex, rather than parts of the brain that are orientated toward instant responses, which is the brain’s default setting when under stress.

Not only is social media a hindrance to the quantity of my writing and especially to my long term goal of finishing the sequel to The Red Kimono, it also impacts the quality of any words I DO manage to get written.

So, starting today, I’m signing off of social media until I attain my word count. I hope to be back in the evenings, but if not, you’ll know I didn’t make my goal for the day.

Feel free to offer kudos or boos as appropriate. :)

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Win a Copy of Creative Characterization!

I’m excited to announce my new workbook, Creative Characterization, is now available on Amazon!

cc2This workbook demonstrates six different methods I’ve taught in workshops over the last few years:

  • Interviewing
  • Describing Photos and Paintings
  • Writing Letters
  • Writing in a Different Point of View
  • Accessing Character’s Inner Child
  • Internalization

It’s filled with exercises to help you create characters that will keep readers turning the pages. Who knows? You might even discover a little something about yourself!

*** GIVEAWAY! ***

To celebrate the release of Creative Characterization, I’ll be giving away a copy of the workbook. All you have to do is complete the following exercise excerpt from the book:

I. Choose one of your characters, and in your character’s voice, answer one of the following questions:

• If you could be a fly on the wall, where would that wall be, and who would be there?
• Who do you need to forgive?
• What do your friends not know about you, and why not?

II. Share as a comment to this blog post, and include the following:

  1. The title of your book or manuscript
  2. A little about the character who will answer
  3. Answer to one of the three questions above
  4. Did you learn anything new about your character?

You must include answers to 1,2 ,3 and 4 to be eligible for the drawing.

III. Comment before Friday, May 22 at noon. (Central Standard Time)

I’ll pick a winner via random drawing following the deadline and will announce the contest winner by Saturday, May 23. (NOTE: Only residents of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia will be eligible to enter.)

I look forward to reading your answers! Good luck!

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Creative Characterization

CCIt’s been a goal of mine to develop a workbook based on the workshops I’ve taught on creative ways to develop characters. Thanks to nagging motivation by my dear friend, Linda Apple, I’ve been working on that goal for several months now.

The workbook will include 4-5 different methods I’ve used to create characters that are multi-dimensional storytellers, including using the techniques of interviewing, letter-writing and point of view.

My next workshop on Creative Characterization will be at the May 16 Ozarks Writers League Conference. I’d hoped to have my published book finished by then, however, I’m not quite there yet.

However! I just received printed copies of my “interim” workbook that will be available at the conference for $5.00 each.

If you’re able to attend, I look forward to seeing you. AND, I look forward to hearing your comments, critique and ideas on my “interim” workbook. :)

NOTE: Thank you, Stephen Vanek, for the collage design used on the cover. <3


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These Are a Few of My Favorite Words, Part II

I can’t believe it’s been almost five years ago that I wrote a blog post titled “These Are a Few of My Favorite Words.”  I’d say it’s about time I add a few more words to my list!

My thought was inspired this morning when Steve read me a poem titled, “Aubade in Autumn,” by Peter Everwine. I realized I hadn’t heard the word “aubade” before. At first, I thought it might be someone’s name, but then I looked it up and found it’s a noun:

1. a piece sung or played outdoors at dawn, usually as a compliment to someone.

Isn’t that a lovely word?

autumnThe poem includes another favorite word of mine, “autumn.” Usually, I’d rather use the word “autumn” than “fall” in my writing. Maybe it’s because “autumn” is more poetic than “fall.” Or, perhaps the double entendre of the word “fall” makes me sad, especially when autumn is used as a metaphor for the later season of life. Or maybe it’s simply that the mix of letters in “autumn” is so much prettier than the rather dull F-A-L-L. All I know is, I like “autumn” better.

The same with the use of the word “sea” as opposed to “ocean.” Unless I need a two syllable word (as in attaining the proper syllable count in a haiku,) I’ll almost always incorporate the word “sea” rather than “ocean” in my writing:

she stares at the sea
hope washed away with each wave
she should have been there

And speaking of “aubade,” here’s another favorite of mine:

1. a poem or prose composition, usually describing pastoral scenes or events or any charmingly simple episode, appealing incident, or the like.

So here’s my new “Favorite Words” list:


What are some of your favorite words?

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A Letter from Mo

Signing the deal

This afternoon, I’ve been working on putting together a workbook based on my workshop, Creative Characterization.

One of the exercises involves writing a letter from a character to the author. I’ve done this several times in the past, because it’s a better method of drawing out story and character details than staring at a blank screen. However, I wasn’t able to locate any previous letters from my characters to me.

So, I thought I’d write an impromptu letter from a character in a story that I’ve had a hard time returning to, titled Mo’s Shadow. It’s a story I began writing a few years ago, based on tales a good friend used to tell me about his life on the lake.

My friend committed suicide earlier this year, and as you might imagine, writing that story has come to a stand still. I have no doubt that Mo, my twelve-year old character (who was based on a real little girl who also lived by the lake) is wondering if I’ll ever let her finish her story.

So, this afternoon, Mo wrote me a letter:

Dear Miss Morrill,

You probably don’t think I know that Mr. Dean is dead, though you should know that I know, because you made me up. Well, you made up parts of me, anyway. I also know that Mr. Dean used to tell you stories about me.

So, is that why you haven’t written anything since he died–because you can’t decide for yourself how this story ends if he’s not here to tell you?

Didn’t you make up the part about Bigfoot? He didn’t tell you that part. So, why can’t you make up the rest?

You know, Mr. Dean didn’t say goodbye to me either. He moved away from the lake without even letting me know. After all the apple pies we made together, I thought we were better friends than that. So quit feeling sorry for yourself that he didn’t say goodbye.

We will probably never know exactly why he left us. Nor will we ever know his whole story, no matter how much we wonder. So quit wondering and instead, write. I’ll tell you my story. And Miss Morrill, you never know what you might learn.

I have a feeling my story has changed now that Mr. Dean is gone.

Maybe you were afraid of Mr. Dean. I was at first. But my daddy always tells me, “Darlin’, you got to turn around and face your fears. They won’t be near as scary if you turn around and stare them straight in the eyes.”

It’d be a shame if you were too chicken to tell a story that needs to be told.

Your friend, (and Mr. Dean’s, too,)

I learned from this letter that the story will change. Mr. Dean will leave the lake and she will have to cope with that loss. Perhaps this will help her to see other characters in the story differently. Maybe the 800 lb gorilla I’d avoided while “Mr. Dean” was living will surface in the story.

For now, I’d say Mo is pretty smart for a little girl. I’m guessing that’s why Mr. Dean liked her.


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