Friday, May 15, 2009

Let's Try Something



I was thinking of bringing back the Friday 20 once a month, and I'm curious to see if you guys would find it of any value. I know in the past I covered a lot of questions (see the Index for the old Q&A's) but we have some new people who have joined our merry irreverent band since I discontinued it, and maybe they'd like to give it a go.

Okay, I miss it, too. That was one of my favorite days of the week.

I don't know if it's worth resurrecting, but at the very least we'll have a trial run today and see how many folks participate. So, anyone have any writing- or publishing-related questions you'd like me to answer? Post them in comments.

Graphic credit: © Yellowj | Dreamstime.com

35 comments:

  1. Once we get through the index, chances are we'll find plenty to ask.

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  2. What do you do to keep writing fun?

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  3. revalkorn wrote: Once we get through the index, chances are we'll find plenty to ask.

    I don't guess age, weight or birthdays, though. :)

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  4. What do you do to recover from Burn Out?

    I know you're a plotter by nature, but here's one: Have you ever had a character that did something completely surprising? If so, what did you do about it?

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  5. Loyd wrote: What do you do to keep writing fun?

    I try to do two things with every book I write: I experiment with some element in the story (characterization, structure, plotline, setting, etc.); mostly to write it or work it in a way I haven't before attempted, and I try to learn something new with every book. The latter often means studying a subject that before the book I wasn't too familiar with, like fencing or mining or the properties of crystals. When my new subject involves a trade, a few times I've taking lessons to learn the basics, which is also a great deal of fun (although I've discovered I'll never be a potter, I did find out I'm a halfway decent weaver.)

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  6. Writing a novel a first novel can be a very intimidating monster to attempt. How do you overcome the initial fear and creatively deafening anxiety to actually write and make a first novel work?

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  7. Why did that story write itself, whereas this one won't go on the page?

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  8. This is one of those hypothetical what-if scenarios. :D

    I've heard a lot of horror stories about the publishing industry--small writer advances, the shrinking midlist, books being orphaned, so on and so forth.

    Now, suppose, that you were a never-been-published author right now, and you wanted to bypass the big publishing houses entirely. You didn't care about the money too much (because you have a rich spouse or a trust fund or some other form of financial security), but you wanted to get your work into the hands of as large of an audience as possible. What would you personally do to accomplish that? You have some interesting ideas about promoting books, so I'm curious to see what kind of marketing and distribution campaign you'd come up with.

    (Erm, I hope this is not too long for a friday 20 question!).

    Thanks.

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  9. Keita Haruka9:20 AM

    Ohhhh! This sounds interesting! :D I'm in!

    Q: How do you keep yourself "on track"? I find it very hard to write just one story and stick with it. How do you keep yourself interested in writing ONE story from start to finish?

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  10. Assuming you're writing toward publication - How early should you worry about categorizing your work?

    Basically, should you write whatever you want and worry about who'll buy it and where it will show up on a shelf when you're done? Or should you always keep an eye toward what's (potentially) salable?

    Hopefully that question makes sense!

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  11. How have you stayed sane since publishing your first book? Sometimes I think this business is designed to make us all crazy.

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  12. Dawn wrote: What do you do to recover from Burn Out?

    I don't seem to get massive burn-out, but after I finish a grueling project I have a couple of tricks I use to recharge my energy and my creative batteries.

    First, I give myself a day off from Everything Publishing, and do something I love that has nothing to do with them or writing. It can be going to an art museum, a concert, working on a quilt, or just listening to NPR while I paint. I also unplug the internet and the phone to keep people from getting at me.


    I cook for the therapeutic benefits as much as for feeding the crew, so if I'm feeling blue I might try a new recipe or a new spin on an old classic. I also find baking is wonderful; I love the smell and baking has always been my favorite thing to do in the kitchen. Aside from that other thing my guy and I used to do before the kids were born. :)

    If I just don't want to face the WIP or something I need to work on, I'll write something for pleasure. A real letter to a friend, a special journal entry, a poem, or something that has meaning only to me and nothing to do with the commercial side of my writing life. I find most of the satires I write help a lot when I feel like this; they invite me to laugh at myself and whatever else is making me brood or drag my heels.

    Nature walks help, as do trips to the dog park. I guess the main thing is to find something you really enjoy and indulge a bit until you feel better. A rested and happy writer tends to be more productive.

    I know you're a plotter by nature, but here's one: Have you ever had a character that did something completely surprising? If so, what did you do about it?

    This happens to me occasionally, and it's usually when I've not been true to the character. I had once scene at the end of Rebel Ice where Reever and Jarn were supposed to fight each other. Had it all figured out, choereographed it, plotted, nailed down, ready to go. But when I wrote up to the point of where the fight was supposed to start, Reever wouldn't do it (or, to be more precise, Reever came across like an inanimate puppet on the page.)

    I wrote the scene three times until I realized that I couldn't get Reever to do what I wanted on the page because my subconscious was fighting me. I knew Reever wouldn't do it; it was not in his nature or character -- even when he had the best reasons in the world to fight. So I tried for a fourth time, and let my mental characterization of Reever (I don't know how else to say this -- it's when you put yourself deep into the character's perspective, like intense role-playing) take over the scene and run the show. He handled it completely different that I had plotted, but it rang true. And it was better than my idea, so even though it ticked me off, I went with his version.

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  13. Do you know of any guidelines for streamlining sentences? I've been told that my writing style is "wordy". I've tried to learn from suggestions that people have made for tightening my sentences, but I still feel like I'm just randomly fixing things. I want a system, something that I can focus on while writing and know that I'm writing tighter to begin with.

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  14. How do you know what works and what doesn't? For ex. in my mss, I have changed the first chapter several times. At one point, all the crit partners loved it, but all the agents I sent it out to didn't. Now I've a new version and the crit partners are split down the middle --some love it and some hate it.
    So how do I know what works?

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  15. Friday Q&A! This was a God-send when I first found you.

    My question is simple: when you've just finished writing the ten most intense pages of your life, do you reward yourself with a big ole peanut butter chocolate chip cookie, or a new book? Can I have both? *G*

    (I worry having anything will make the heart in my throat sink a little as though the rest of the book weren't waiting to be written, actually.)

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  16. Yay!

    What is the most important/relevant piece of advice -- with respects to writing -- that you received? Either when you were first starting out or even now?
    Thanks so much!

    Cheers,
    Kate

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  17. William wrote: How do you overcome the initial fear and creatively deafening anxiety to actually write and make a first novel work?

    Author and therapist Karen E. Peterson has an interesting theory about the ghosts of past rejections haunting some writers when they contemplate the first novel. Parents who suffer from feelings of inadequacy and rejection often take them out on their children by demanding perfection from them -- the kids have to get straight A's, be first in their class, always look immaculate and well-dressed, keep their rooms spotless, you name it, and give them grief when they don't live up to those impossible standards, which makes the kids feel inadequate. They carry the burden of these feelings into adult life, and whenever they face something difficult, they're so afraid of screwing it up that it can paralyze them (The Write Type, Chapter Three.)


    Whatever is the reason for the first-novel jitters, I think the most basic way to handle it is to set aside your feelings, and simply give yourself permission to write a book, no matter how great or awful it turns out. Make your only goal to be a finished book -- a hundred thousand words or however many you want that tell a story. When the book is finished, edit, look at what you did, learn from it, find ways to address those problems, and then write another one.


    The act of writing a book teaches you more than any shelf of how-to manuals, because it's hands-on, on-the-job training. Nothing can really prepare you for it; it's an intensely personal and individual experience. People laugh when I compare it to having sex, but it's basically the same thing. You can educate yourself on the finer points, study the art of doing it well, and talk about it until you're blue in the face, but until you jump in and do it, you'll never know -- and you'll never improve unless you keep doing it.

    Don't give up if you can't sell the book, either. The first book I got published was actually my twenty-ninth finished novel. :)

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  18. BuffySquirrel wrote: Why did that story write itself, whereas this one won't go on the page?

    You never ask the easy question! Ha.

    For me, the story that writes itself is the one that I feel strongly about and that came direct from that nameless place or source in me that drives me to write and provides all these lovely ideas. The story that is more difficult to get on the page is the one that I really want to write more than I think I can write, and so I wrestle with it because one part of me is already doubting I can pull it off. The first is a rush and lovely fun and I have a great time, and I think they tend to be my best stuff. At the same time, I'm prouder of the stories that didn't come easily, wouldn't write themselves and demanded so much from me, because those are the ones that made me work for it.

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  19. Rabia wrote: This is one of those hypothetical what-if scenarios.

    Of course (it goes without saying that they all are, lol.)

    I've heard a lot of horror stories about the publishing industry--small writer advances, the shrinking midlist, books being orphaned, so on and so forth.

    I heard the same ones ten years ago. Know them well.


    Now, suppose, that you were a never-been-published author right now, and you wanted to bypass the big publishing houses entirely. You didn't care about the money too much (because you have a rich spouse or a trust fund or some other form of financial security), but you wanted to get your work into the hands of as large of an audience as possible. What would you personally do to accomplish that? You have some interesting ideas about promoting books, so I'm curious to see what kind of marketing and distribution campaign you'd come up with.

    Your first problem is distribution. I'll assume your trust fund or slush money will allow you to foot the bill for self-publishing the book, which can be quite expensive, btw, so my first suggestion would be to price out exactly how much this book is going to cost you to produce.

    Your other problem is distribution. The one advantage major publishers have over small presses, e-books, and self-publishing is that they can get the books into the major chain stores and listed by the major online booksellers. They can also purchase co-op for the book (which gets it put into a very favorable spot in the store) and offer discounts and special pricing and packaging and so forth. Unless you're writing an attention-getter like "Barack Obama's Secret Love Child" or "How to Lose Seventy-Five Pounds in One Week, Guaranteed" your book will join the (approximately) eight thousand other new titles, reprints and editions being released in the U.S. -- that week. To presume the major chains and online booksellers will even be aware of it -- much less order it -- is unlikely. So you need an alternative distribution system already in place that is ammenable to the idea of selling your novel.

    Churches and religious organizations are probably the most powerful alternative distribution system outside the major publishers. Two examples of faith-based distribution miracles would be Rev. Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life and William Young's The Shack, both of which have been international bestsellers (and I believe The Shack was self-published at first, although don't quote me on that.)

    If your book has enormous appeal to an established organization or other large entity, they can become an alternative distribution system for your book. Once the book sells enough copies, the major publishers will come to you to see if they can acquire the rights and rake in some of that money for themselves.

    Another alternative distribution system is the internet, of course. If your book has the potential to grab the attention of the millions of internet users who log on every day, and you're willing to spend some of that trust fund on creative ways to advertise it (the most successful online advertising vehicles I've seen so far are the fun, fabulous advergame, an inventive and hilarious YouTube video, or a highly entertaining website) that somehow convince users to purchase the book. You have to think about how fickle mass appeal is, and what the book has that might earn it, and even then there are no guarantees.

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  20. I was thinking about your post on genreality about how much money you made from a NYT besteller, and I got to thinking about how hard it is to make a living writing.

    For writers just getting started, is it worth it to get an agent and publisher, or would it be just as feasible to do something self-published or print on demand? Assuming, of course, that you do get the novel professionally edited, typeset, etc.

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  21. Nassifeh1:45 PM

    I have great ideas. The trouble is, I don't have any mediocre ideas, and I'm having a lot of trouble using up my great ideas on my currently-mediocre prose. How do I come up with stuff to practice on that *isn't* my great epic work? I can't seem to come up with a short story idea to save my life, no matter how much I'd love to write some to improve my prose before attempting the Big One.

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  22. (You can ignore my question. I bought a cookie AND a book)

    The second part is valid though. How do I discipline myself not to ask, oh, just one person, to look at, oh, just this difficult scene before the whole draft is done? I know I can't, but the internal censor is witch who doesn't play fair. How do you shut off her noise?

    I find not sharing to be my greatest motivation these days. I want desperately to show it to someone, but if I can't do that until it's done, I must write faster! Which I suppose is answering my own question in a way.

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  23. Keita wrote: How do you keep yourself "on track"? I find it very hard to write just one story and stick with it. How do you keep yourself interested in writing ONE story from start to finish?

    Looking at the bills helps a lot. :) Honestly, I hardly ever write one story or book at a time anymore; over the years I learned a multi-task style of working and now I prefer to be writing three to five projects at the same time. Paying work gets the lion's share of my schedule, but I also work on personal projects and freebies to keep it fun. I don't recommend trying this all at once if you've never done it; it's best to experiment with working on two stories first and then build as you feel more confident about writing on multiple projects.

    Whatever I'm writing, I promise myself a significant reward when it's finished, and use that as a carrot to dangle in front of my muse whenever I feel my interest waning. It doesn't have to be something expensive; sometimes it's just a book I've been wanting to read, a nature walk with my guy, or a trip to a quilt show in the region, or something along those lines. The key is to promise myself something that I really want.

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  24. I always exhaust the possible answers of a website before I ask the question and it has always been the correct thing to do because I either find an answer-to-my-question that is similar to the answer that I was looking for or, in rare cases, ask a genuinely unique question.

    William asked: "How do you overcome the initial fear and creatively deafening anxiety to actually write and make a first novel work?," which wasn't the question I would have asked. "I love to read and write about how to write and love the pre-story writing, but how do I make the leap from that to actually writing a story?" would be my question. The answer to William's question sounded like it would be hauntingly familiar if you had answered his question and mine. If not, please enlighten me (I am in desperate need of enlightening).

    Thanks for reviving the Friday 20, even if it's on a monthly basis.

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  25. Matt wrote: Assuming you're writing toward publication - How early should you worry about categorizing your work?
    I think you should write what you love, always. Why write something you don't love? That said, if you're going to do this professionally, you should also decide where your book will best fit in the market, learn what your primary competition is doing in that category, and identify what you're bringing to the reader of the category that is original, fresh, different, and will help you stand out from other writers.

    Basically, should you write whatever you want and worry about who'll buy it and where it will show up on a shelf when you're done? Or should you always keep an eye toward what's (potentially) salable?
    To sell books, you have to produce a marketable product that publishers can deliver to the appropriate readership -- which requires some form of categorization. Even if you believe your work doesn't fit into any specific category or genre, you need to eliminate the categories where it doesn't belong, if only to keep from pitching it to the wrong publishers.

    I got into the biz with a five-year plan in place, and backup plans if that didn't work out. And from there whenever I needed to adjust my plans, I did. I'm very fortunate that I'm multi-genre writer, because it gave me a lot of room to work in. Also, when I needed to reinvent myself and do something else, I had plenty of different ideas to try.

    I'd love to write whatever I want and have it be a bestseller, but I know from experience that paying attention to the market and selecting a place for your work in it increases the odds of success. It sounds cold and calculating, but I think of it as being practical. Generally you can't pay the bills with a hope-for-the-best attitude.

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  26. Charlene wrote: How have you stayed sane since publishing your first book?

    Sane? Me? Perhaps you have me confused with another novelist. Ha.

    Sometimes I think this business is designed to make us all crazy.

    Seems that way, but in reality it can't do anything to you without your permission -- and your cooperation.

    I had an epiphany back in 2003; I realized that everything about Publishing that was making me crazy had nothing to do with me or my work. It was already there, well-established, and should have stayed beyond my writing space. I gave it permission to get between me and the work. I cooperated and did things that personally disgusted me because I thought there was no other way. At the breaking point -- that moment when I seriously considered tearing up my contracts and walking away from it forever -- the internal lightbulb finally came on.

    I realized the only way I'd stay marginally sane in this biz was to become the writer I had always wanted to be instead of the writer they were telling me to be. I went back to the quiet writing life I had before I turned pro -- I unplugged, I wrote books, I enjoyed my life, and that was it. No more conferences, no more booksignings, no more dealing with people I didn't want to deal with. No more hoopla or bullshit or pretense. No more Publishing in my writing space. I wrote, I pitched, I sold or I didn't, and I repeated the process.

    After a year of being unable to sell anything, divorcing myself from all things Publishing that didn't matter to me worked. I got my game back. I reinvented myself. I rediscovered myself. And I sold eight books in eight weeks.

    After a time I knew I could allow a little of the Publishing world back into my life (that would be this blog and you guys) because I was better equipped to handle the price tag it comes with. What I write here, what we talk about here is an integral part of me being the writer I want to be now. If that changes, or it starts damaging me or the work again, I'll shut this down, too.

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  27. Amelie wrote: Do you know of any guidelines for streamlining sentences?

    The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin has an excellent page on writing clear, concise sentences that I think might help you, the portal page is here and you can also download it.

    Also, Professor Richard Lanham of UCLA has a simple 4-step method here for active sentences that might be what you're looking for.

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  28. RK wrote: How do you know what works and what doesn't? For ex. in my mss, I have changed the first chapter several times. At one point, all the crit partners loved it, but all the agents I sent it out to didn't. Now I've a new version and the crit partners are split down the middle --some love it and some hate it. So how do I know what works?

    I don't know who your crit partners are, so I can't gauge their expertise level. They could be right or wrong or somewhere in between. I can tell you that if agents are collectively rejected your manuscript pitch, it isn't working for them.

    My advice would be to send out the revised version to some agents and editors and see what happens. If it doesn't sell, I would consider putting it aside and writing something new, and pitching that.

    I know the critique process is helpful to many writers, but be careful not to become dependent on it. You don't want to end up writing by committee. To effectively edit and polish your work, you have to learn to look at it objectively and see your weaknesses and trouble spots. It's difficult, and often takes time to develop your internal editor, but if you can read a book and pick out the flaws, you can learn to do the same with your own work.

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  29. Jess wrote: My question is simple: when you've just finished writing the ten most intense pages of your life, do you reward yourself with a big ole peanut butter chocolate chip cookie, or a new book? Can I have both? *G*

    If it were me, I'd vote for new book. But I bet you're allowed to have peanut butter and chocolate, so you can go for both. :)

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  30. Kate wrote: What is the most important/relevant piece of advice -- with respects to writing -- that you received? Either when you were first starting out or even now?

    I think I've probably harped on the most important advice I was given when I started out (Whatever happens, protect the work -- Susan Elizabeth Phillips.)

    I don't know if this qualifies as advice or even wisdom, but I read this the other day at the bottom of an e-mail from a friend: "If you are going to walk on thin ice, you might as well dance."

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  31. Folks, I have an early appointment in the morning and need to get some sleep, so I'll answer the remaining questions tomorrow. Good night. :)

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  32. Jo wrote: For writers just getting started, is it worth it to get an agent and publisher, or would it be just as feasible to do something self-published or print on demand? Assuming, of course, that you do get the novel professionally edited, typeset, etc.I think this is a decision every writer has to make according to what they're willing to do, how much money they can invest, and what they expect in return.

    In addition to the distribution problems (which I talked about in my answer to Rabia's question) it's very rare for a self-published book to earn back the money, time and effort the author invests in publishing it, marketing it and selling it, much less for it to become an enormously successful bestseller. Don't get me wrong, it has happened, and it's always possible your book will be the next self-published success story. But the odds are against you.

    They're not much better when you publish with a major publisher, but there are some distinct advantages: they shoulder the burden of the expense of producing the book and distributing it (which is why they take 94% of the profits, too.) They generally will pay you some kind of advance, which while often minimal for first-time writers, is something you can't get when you self-publish. Publishing with a major house is an accomplishment in itself because it is so difficult to achieve; self-published authors don't have to go through the same process, and this may be why they don't get a lot of respect in the industry.

    I do believe as a pro writer that you should start out as you mean to go on. If it's your ambition to be successful, then you should think carefully about how you want to achieve that goal, what you're able to do, and select the appropriate course.

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  33. Nassifeh wrote: How do I come up with stuff to practice on that *isn't* my great epic work? I can't seem to come up with a short story idea to save my life, no matter how much I'd love to write some to improve my prose before attempting the Big One.

    There are a couple of things you can try to give you an opportunity to practice. Guided writing, like using the prompts from a book like Bonnie Neubauer's The Write-Brain workbook (which I wrote about here) can give you the ideas and direction while allowing you to provide the writing in response. Another book with simply writing prompts in it that is really terrifice is The Writer's Book of Matches. Also, there are some writing prompt generators online you can use for free, like this one at WritingFix.com.

    Another technique you might try is to write random scenes based on your ideas. They don't have to be finished stories; just single scenes from the story -- whatever you can envision clearly from your idea. I do that when I want to see how the characters work on the page, because what I see in my head often doesn't work as well when I put it down in words.

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  34. Jess wrote: How do I discipline myself not to ask, oh, just one person, to look at, oh, just this difficult scene before the whole draft is done? I know I can't, but the internal censor is witch who doesn't play fair. How do you shut off her noise?

    I think you have to bargain with her. The arrangement I have with mine is that she shuts up until I'm finished writing for the day. Then in the evening I let her out of her cage to edit the day's work (disclaimer: my internal editor never wants anyone to see the work until the entire book is finished; it's the only thing we agree on.)

    For your troublesome witch, I'd offer her a similar deal -- let you finish the book, then she can show anything she wants to anyone. When she whines about how unfair that is, remind her that no one is going to read an unfinished book, and that has to be the first priority.

    I find not sharing to be my greatest motivation these days. I want desperately to show it to someone, but if I can't do that until it's done, I must write faster! Which I suppose is answering my own question in a way.

    Exactly. If you know you can't appease the witch until you finish the book, you will work more steadily. But you have to stick to the bargain -- don't let her wheedle you into showing anyone a single page until it's done.

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  35. JM wrote: "I love to read and write about how to write and love the pre-story writing, but how do I make the leap from that to actually writing a story?" would be my question. The answer to William's question sounded like it would be hauntingly familiar if you had answered his question and mine. If not, please enlighten me (I am in desperate need of enlightening).
    I think the advice I gave to William holds true for you, too, but there are some other things you can try to help you make that final leap from preparation to writing:

    1) Choose to enter a contest for a short piece like flash fiction or a short-length short story (or any other form that doesn't require a huge amount of writing.) Then give yourself a deadline according to the entry cut-off date for the contest.

    2) Write a story strictly to publish for free online (you can post it on your web site, blog, writing community or a place like Scribd.com. Again, give yourself a deadline to work toward.

    3) If you want to try a bigger project, you might consider joining in one of the online writing challenges, like NaNoWriMo or Alison Kent's Seventy Days of Sweat, or Script Frenzy.

    4) For something smaller and more private, you can ask a group of writer friends to join you for your own challenge. Have everyone agree to write a short story (or other form you all agree on) to be exchanged between you via e-mail by a certain date (which would be your deadline.) You can provide a theme, and even turn it into a round-robin critique if you like.

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