Archive for 'lessons learned'

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
Successful Character Traits of Writers: Part II

Excerpt from Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author

Patience and Self-Discipline

Too many people rely on the outside world to enforce patience and supply discipline. A successful person internalizes both traits. The Special Forces Qualification Course takes roughly a year. Interestingly, the average time many authors spend on a novel is a year. Neither of these are a recipe for instant gratification. Taking a year to achieve a major goal is something that requires a great deal of patience and discipline.

When I taught martial arts, the majority of the new students quit after the first month. Students came in and wanted to become Bruce Lee rolled into Jackie Chan, all within a couple of weeks. When they realized it would take years of boring, repetitive, very hard work, the majority gave up. It doesn’t take any special skill up front to become a black belt—just a lot of time and effort to develop special skills. The same is true of pretty much anything you want to achieve.

If you are patient enough to do the long-term work, you will pull ahead of the pack and become successful. Which means you must have a long-term perspective of your major goals.

This goes back to what we discussed in the first AREA and the importance of focusing on your strategic goal to help you get through the mundane day-to-day work.


To remain focused on a long-term strategic writing goal, you must accept that the pay-off usually comes later, rather than sooner. Delayed gratification is one of the keys to self-discipline. Self-discipline is one of the keys to developing self-confidence.

One way to make a long-term goal achievable and not overwhelming is to break it down into smaller milestones or goals that are closer and more easily achievable. For example, in the Q-Course there are numerous phases. As a Candidate passes each phase they feel a sense of accomplishment, leading to passing the entire course. Also, if a Candidate has a problem in a particular phase, there is always the option to have them redo just that phase, rather than the entire course. As a writer, I can break a book down to a number of pages to write per day or however many chapters per month.

An Active Imagination

In many ways writing is like a chess game: to be successful, you have to think a half-dozen moves ahead, while considering the impact of your opponent’s decisions (and in life, your environment). This means choosing a successful strategic direction, given a very large number of variables. And as you’ve just learned, your plans must take into account your personality.

Make your creative plans based on acting within your character–much like chess strategy is dependent on a piece being capable of a specific type of move—and then, once you’ve mastered that, press the limits of your character to expand your capabilities—venturing into your Courage Zone. You’ll get an idea of your character template shortly and how to expand on what I call your Comfort Zone so that you are capable of more and more moves.

Set your imagination free to plot numerous paths. From these, based on all the variables facing you, you can choose the one that stands out above the others—the successful or critical path.

As in chess, a successful person in life must be able to see a problem in its entirety, and then be able to break a solution down into manageable steps (moves). You must be able to see beyond the current move, to each move’s implications.

Don’t get tunnel vision. For example, a professor from the Colorado School of Mines, teaching at West Point once presented his students with a problem to test their imaginations.

A two-foot metal pipe is welded vertically to a steel plate. It is just barely wide enough to slide a ping-pong ball into. The class’s job was to get the ball out of the pipe without damaging the ball. The only tools given to the students were a pair of pliers, a coat hanger, a magnet, and a comb.

The professor let the class war-game this problem for a while, and then listened to various proposals; none of which worked. His solution used none of the tools listed—he’d given them as distracters. To get the ball out, simply urinate into the pipe until the ball floated out. But because we’d been given those items, every solution focused on using those items rather than the problem.

Do the same with your plot. All the things you put into a book should serve multiple purposes, not just one.  Do the same with your business plan.

The Ability To Set Goals

In AREA ONE: Wins, you learned the importance of specifying your goals, understanding WHY you want to achieve them, and studying the situation in which you want to become successful.

One thing you can do without is procrastination. It comes from two Latin words:

Pro: For.

Cras: Tomorrow.

Not only must you set your goals (WHAT), you must also set deadlines for your goals. People who form and write down firm deadlines get better results than those without.


As an author and publisher I work in the entertainment business, which is an oxymoron. Entertainment runs on emotion, while business runs on logic. But no matter what business you’re in, emotion plays a significant factor that can’t be quantified.

Why is a certain book a bestseller and another not? Why does one movie break box office records and another doesn’t? If the answers to these questions could be put into a formula, then everyone would be following the formula. Then every book would be a bestseller and every movie a blockbuster.

Why do we do things that ultimately hurt ourselves? In lucid moments we know they make no sense. But then we go out and do whatever it is anyway. In these situations, emotion is overwhelming your logic.

Many individuals and organizations don’t value the power of emotion.

It is important to realize there are two sets of norms in your life: Social Norms and Market Norms. Understand clearly the line between the two and don’t blur them. Your personal relationships belong in the realm of social norms. Your business relationships are usually in the realm of market norms.

When a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm is the loser. Conversely, social norms are more powerful than market norms. This comes into play in WHO DARES WINS, because, interestingly enough, Special Forces and writing operate more on Social Norms than Market Norms. Jobs where one is asked to put his or her life on the line can’t function well under Markets Norms—how much can you pay someone for their life? Thus police, firefighters and military tend to operate under Social Norms where pride in profession, teamwork, care for comrades, and a sense of duty are more important than money. Publishing also works more on social norms, because people are willing to spend a year writing a book with no guarantee of publication or success. Why do you think we have bestseller lists? Why do we have author photos and bios? It’s not just marketing. It’s similar to the way the military has medals.
In your life, recognize that the way you interact with other people emotionally—social norms—is much more important than any market norms interaction.

Anger and Guilt

Two emotional blind spots for many people are anger and guilt. These emotions are often indicators of a weakness you need to deal with. And until you do, that weakness can keep you from exploring your full potential, and can derail you from achieving your goals.

Whenever you experience anger or guilt, focus on what is going on. Figure out when the emotion is appropriate, and understand when it isn’t.

Anger and guilt are often brought about by things that shouldn’t trigger these emotions. Frequently, these emotions are responses that became a habit in childhood. While both are necessary at times, many people are so consumed by these negative emotions that they become shackles around their lives.

When a person gets angry about something someone else is doing, it is often a sign of a flaw in the angry person’s character. When a person feels guilty about something happening in another person’s reality or even their own, it is often an inappropriate response to reality. We use these two in Special Forces training as an indicator to build a person’s character.

Flash Points

During prisoner of war (SERE-survival, evasion, resistance and escape) training run by Special Forces at Camp Mackall, outside of Fort Bragg, one thing the instructors do to participants is try to find their flash points—what makes a prisoner react angrily or with guilt.

If captors can find a prisoner’s flash point and exploit it, they can delve deeper and find the prisoner’s greatest fears. This allows the captors to break the prisoner much more quickly. Left unchallenged, your mind can become its own kind of prison, where your flash points and greatest fears will work against you with increasing frequency.

The key to the training is that once the candidate goes through this experience and is aware of his or her flash point, they can strengthen themselves in those areas and are less likely to react in the future and in a real SERE situation.

Anger and guilt spring out of fear, usually on a subconscious level. You’ll learn later that working through your mind’s defense barriers is the second step of emotional change.

Monday, August 29th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Recovery Mode

I’m back home from 12 days of traveling:  two conventions, two signings, and many late nights in the bar talking until my voice gave out.  I now have four days to get my voice back online before the next convention.  Then, I can take a break.  I think…

Anyway, I’d meant to post something last night and failed utterly.  So this morning, I’m going to make you all do the work for me by asking a couple of questions:

What are you working on now? (writing-wise)  What has surprised you about your current project?

I’ll start:  I’m working on Kitty 11 (along with a couple of other things, but this is the big one), and I’ve been surprised at how going back to some of my original source material (notes and inspirations for the very first book in the series) has helped me solve a couple of plot problems.

Monday, August 22nd, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going (Or, I engage in a bit of time travel)

By now, I know whether or not my short story “Amaryllis” won a Hugo.  But since I’m posting this a week in advance, I really don’t know.  I probably won’t be able to update with the news because I’ll be flying to Michigan for a signing.  Whichever way it goes — went, rather — I’m incredibly happy about the nomination.  It’s one of those external benchmarks that ends up meaning a lot because this is such a crazy business that doesn’t always give us concrete feedback.  I think this is one of the reasons we have so many writing and book awards: it’s a way to provide concrete feedback, or to impose some kind of order on the mass of books and writing that appears every year.  That may be a discussion for another time.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on my writing and the progress I’ve made in the 22 years since I sent out my first short stories.  Because I think “Amaryllis” is the kind of story I tried to write in high school and college and couldn’t.  A thoughtful, solid science fiction story like the kind I grew up reading.  As a teenager, I didn’t have the experience  — the emotional experience, the raw life experience to draw on (John Scalzi touches on this in in his advice to teenage writers).  I didn’t have the ability to write about several threads and plotlines at once, which is one of the things that makes for good stories.  (I could barely write one at a time then.)  I didn’t have the ability to craft, to take the feedback I got on the story from a very trusted reader and use it to shape the story into something more powerful.

It’s been a startling revelation, that I actually seem to have learned something, or internalized something.  I mean, of course I have, I should hope one wouldn’t work at an art or craft for twenty years and not learn something.  But I felt a strange time dilation, considering that I have written something, without really realizing it, that my teenage self aspired to write.

Whichever way the award goes — or went — I got a great dress for the ceremony, which is/was co-hosted by our own Ken Scholes, and plan(ned) on making an event of it.  If I get internet access I’ll try to pop in and say how it went.

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
Know Your Intent for your Writing Goals

Know Your Why (Intent)  Excerpt from Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author

The first thing we do in Write It Forward is set goals, from the single strategic writing goal to all supporting tactical goal.

For every WHAT (goal) you have, you need to know and understand its corresponding WHY (your intent).  A goal is usually factual and external, while your Why’s are emotional, internal things.

When you want to change something, there is always a reason WHY you want to change.  For many writers, the WHY remains buried in their subconscious and does them little good. It’s critical to not only bring your WHY to your conscious mind, but to write it down to make it real. You also have a WHY for every book you write. Consider the WHY your motivation.

The intent (WHY) and goal (WHAT) should be mutually supportive. Like the goal, the intent should be a positive statement, because we want positive emotions.

When You State Your Goal’s Intent, Follow This Format

I am doing X (goal) for reason Y (intent).

When I first entered the army, the key portion of the operations order was the mission statement, which detailed WHAT the unit and members were to accomplish. About five years later, someone came up with the idea of adding the Commander’s Intent to the mission statement. This considerably improved the effectiveness of an operations order. Since you are the commander of your life (TOOL EIGHT—COMMAND), you must know your intent.

Like the goal, the intent should be stated positively. Remember, you will respond better to positive emotions than negative.

Most writers I know want to make money writing so that they can keep writing.  So sometimes you can come up with goals by reversing WHAT and WHY.  If your goal is to make a living as a self-published writer, how much money do you need to make a month?  Let’s say it’s $5,000.  You have one book.  You price it at $2.99.  This means you must sell 2,500 eBooks a month to hit your income goal.

Thus your goal becomes: I will sell 2,500 eBooks a month. Why? So I can make a living writing. Why?  So I can continue writing.

Intent helps you innovate and motivate. Because intent gives direction but not specific instructions, it allows a large degree of latitude as you further develop your goals and decide how you are going to achieve them.

But how do you innovate?

Try the following processes:

Ask yourself—What if?

Project out courses of actions, much like a chess master, trying to see how they will play out. Enlist the aid of others in doing this. Particularly focus on suggestions that you have a strong initial negative reaction to. Our greatest weaknesses have our greatest emotional defenses built around them and that extends to WHAT and WHY.

Study and Research

You are not the first one to face whatever challenges, that are ahead of you. Study how others did it. We’ll discuss this more in the next TOOL when we cover the Special Forces Area Study.

Take It One Step Further

Yes, maybe you can achieve your goal by doing A. But what about if you go beyond A? What if what appears to be isn’t what is really there? For example, I’m selling quite well on US and UK Kindle.  But, taking it one step further, I’m starting to have my books translated into German of DE Amazon and also into Spanish as that’s a world wide market.  I’m trying to stay ahead of what’s happening and constantly look to the future for the next way to succeed.

Reverse Your Thinking

Stop beating your head against the wall. Back off, and walk around the wall and look at it from the other side. Change your perspective and stop having tunnel vision.

What If You’re Wrong?

What if your blind spot is controlling you (something we’ll cover in TOOL FOUR: CHARACTER)? Sometimes, if things don’t feel right, you need to stop and pay attention to those feelings.  As a writer, I’m not a big fan of the concept of writer’s block—I usually call it laziness. However, if for several days in a row I feel disquiet inside about what I’m writing, I take that as a warning that I’m going in the wrong direction. At times like that I put the brakes on and step back from what I’m working on. Drop my preconceived notions.

Keep It Simple

This seems to contradict some of the earlier techniques such as take it one-step further. However, when you are doing something completely new to you, it’s often best to keep things as simple as possible so that you can focus on the goal and not get bogged down in the process. For the first book I sold, the only advice my agent gave me on rewriting before he marketed it was to simplify it. He said I had too much going on. He mentioned Hunt For Red October. He said that was a rather simple story if you really look at it. I simplified the book and we sold it.

Clear intent helps you stay consistently motivated. When you use your initiative, your morale inevitably goes up. For example, if your WHY for writing is to make a living, knowing you have to pay the mortgage via your writing can be rather motivating.

Sometimes you can use negative emotions as motivations. Many successful people have become successful to prove something to their families. But I think it can be stated in a positive way.

backgroundI will become a USA Today best-selling author of cat mysteries, because I want to prove to my family that I am a smart, talented and driven person. Is a positive way of saying I want to do that so I prove to them I’m not a loser, incompetent, pathetic slug.

But you know what? They aren’t going to change their opinion of you. But you will change your opinion of yourself and that’s all that matters. And when you do that, then, surprisingly, their opinion will slowly begin to change.   A tenet of Write It Forward is that we teach people how to treat us.

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
What To Write? Was Mark Twain correct?

Key Supporting Goal—WHAT to Write (from Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author)

At the core of being a writer is the writing. Everything else is secondary to that. So this is the most critical supporting goal you need to define.

Mark Twain said, “write what you know.” This makes sense. Your platform is based on your experiences. However, there is a danger to this as you might be too close to reality and not be able to achieve the suspension of disbelief that fiction requires.

What is your platform? What unique experiences have you had in your life? What could your publisher put on the back inside flap of your hardcover that would make readers think you knew something about what you are writing?

Write what you want to know. My friend Elizabeth George writes literary British mysteries. She was a schoolteacher in Orange County, CA. But she traveled to England and became fascinated with it, particularly the class structure. So she invented two characters, one a handsome rich nobleman, the other a plain, lower class woman and teamed them together as detectives.

Write what you are passionate about. Study writers. Some writers focus on a specific locale that they are passionate about: Dennis Lehane and Boston; Michael Connelly and LA. Others a specific topic: Stephen Pressfield and ancient battles. Others a specific character: Sue Grafton and Kinsey Milhone.

Write to fulfill a need. Sometimes you just have to say something. Be careful, though. Make sure you aren’t lecturing the reader. The primary reason people read fiction is for entertainment. So what makes a consumer want to read it? How does your story connect emotionally with the reader?

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” Virginia Woolf.

This is a FEAR many writers have. They feel they are revealing too much of themselves in their writing and exposing themselves to the world.

You are.

But don’t sweat it. How many authors would you recognize if you saw them?

And even if you put your mother in the book as a character, it’s probably not a problem because:

  • You have to write the book.
  • You have to sell the book.
  • Your mother has to read the book.
  • Your mother has to recognize herself in the book. Most won’t.

People are going to know things about you from what you write. You can’t let that inhibit you. Remember, you always have the excuse it’s fiction. I start many of my presentations by reminding people I’m a professional liar. I get paid to make things up.

No matter what, once you are published, someone is not going to like what you wrote. And they will feel it’s their solemn duty to let you know that. It’s part of the job.

Out of every 100 emails I get about my books, 99 are nice. That 1 that isn’t used to really bum me out until I adjusted my attitude. Now I do the following:

If it’s nasty email (not a thoughtful critical one), I immediately stop reading and hit delete. I don’t need to pollute my mind with such thoughts. Then I smile and think, that book really must have affected that person to get them so angry. I’d rather have anger, than apathy.

A question that always comes up at conferences is: “What’s hot?”

The answer:  Who cares?

I’m not saying you should ignore the market. Indeed, you have to study and follow the market, because it’s the business and it’s important to profile your readers so you know how to best reach them when your book is published. However, there is such a time-lag in publishing that what’s hot now, might not be hot three years from now (year to write book, year to sell it, year in production).

That timeline is changing, but so far, not that much for traditional publishers. For self-publishers, we can have a book up in a day on electronic platforms. But I doubt you can write a book in a day based on what’s hot.

Writing about something you don’t care about, but are doing it simply to try to ride the latest vampire/steampunk/lawyer/serial killer wave, will show up in the writing.

You don’t control the market. Sometimes you hit things at the right times, sometimes you aren’t lucky. I wrote a suspense novel (Bodyguard of Lies) with two female leads: one an assassin, the other a housewife. I received little interest in it during the 90s. Now female leads in a thriller are hot.

BOL_smallestMy vampire book (Area 51 Nosferatu) came out before vampires were hot.

I recently wrote historical fiction with the first book covering 1840 until the battle of Shiloh in the Civil War (DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War). I was working on it for a while before someone pointed out to me that 2011 is the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That was just a coincidence.  I wrote that book because I’m passionate about the subject matter and the people involved.

Monday, August 8th, 2011 by Carrie Vaughn
State of the Writer Report

Here’s a snapshot of what I’ve been up to, my current state of work, and how my time management is going.

It’s been another massively busy summer with extensive travel.  I went to BEA and the ALA conference for the first time as a writer, as well as a number of small conventions and workshops.  Oh, and Comic Con.  Still recovering from that one.  These are all great opportunities to meet readers, editors, publicists, booksellers, librarians, and convert many of them to my cause.  I always have a good time.  But this much traveling, this much being “on,” wreaks havoc on my writing schedule.  It seems to take me a day or so to spin back up to writing speed — and by then I’m leaving on the next trip.

This summer especially has been complicated by my moving house at the beginning of June.  I had hoped to be all moved in before the traveling started, but that didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling to get the new house set up and unpacked between trips.  Unfortunately, after four days of something like ComicCon, the last thing I want to do is unpack.  I want to relax.  The house is great, but I’ve felt half-moved for about three months now.  I did get the desk and office set up second thing (after the bedroom), so I’ve been working fairly steadily from my first day in the new place.  Win!  Lily has not appreciated the unsettled life.  She’s getting better, but she had a few days of hiding in the closet, there.

Fortunately, my next novel deadline isn’t until December.  I’m at the halfway point on Kitty 11, so I have plenty of time to finish.  Which is good, because right now it’s at the “Oh crap, how am I going to tie this mess together?” stage of the draft.

I’m still working on my goal of learning to say no.  To projects, to invitations, to requests, to inquiries.  My hustling-to-break-in days are recent enough that I still have an instinct to grab at every opportunity I can.  Over the last few years, I’ve realized I just can’t do that.  Not if I want to maintain some of my own space for working on what I want to do.  Not to mention my sanity.  So I’ve been turning down a lot more guest blogging invitations, anthology invitations, convention appearances, and so on.  I just can’t do it all.  Even though I have a little voice in me that keeps telling me I ought to be doing it all.  The thing is, I’m happier when I say “no,” because it’s usually the right call.  I’m still doing too much, so obviously this is something I need to work on.

Though it occurred to me this week, after years and years of collecting rejection slips, I’m now the one doing the rejecting, which is kind of funny.

I’ve been a little more successful on keeping my fiction commitments under control.  I just signed a new contract for four more books in the Kitty series, and on this one I set up deadlines every ten months instead of every six months.  An extra four months per novel may not sound like much, but it feels huge.  I’m going to be able to take a little more time, and have more freedom to work on other projects in the meantime.

For example, the other big project I’m working on this year is a young adult novel that I don’t currently have a contract for.  I haven’t worked on a novel that I didn’t have a contract for since 2005.  It’s making me a bit giddy.  I can work on it when I want to, or not, with no stress that it has to be finished now.  That one is also about halfway finished, and I set it aside in order to start on the next Kitty novel, but I’m hoping to finish it by the end of the year as well.  This is something I really want to do more of — work on completely new, different projects that don’t necessarily have a specific market in mind.  I have a whole list of non-Kitty novels I want to write, and they’re only ever going to get written if I give my imagination room to cook.

Besides Kitty 11, I’ve committed to write exactly two short stories over the next six months.  This is a big difference between the five or six at a time I’ve been committed to over the last few years.  Again, I want to have more time to work on my own projects, and not on a specific assignment.  I want a chance to stretch and play with my fiction.  I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve got a relatively stable gig with the series, at least for the next few years.  I need to take advantage of the freedom that gives me to not hustle.  I don’t think of it as resting so much as experimenting.  I’ve leveled up, and I need to figure out what I can do with the skills I’ve learned over the last few years.

I’ve got Worldcon in a couple of weeks, where I’ll get to hang out with our very own Ken and many other writers.  I’m up for a Hugo, and that’ll be a new adventure.  I’ve got conventions the following two weekends as well.  After that, I’ll be able to stay home for more than a couple of weeks at a stretch.  Finish putting the house together — like installing the floor to ceiling bookshelves so I can finally get my books out of boxes.  And then write.  Ah. . . .

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by Bob Mayer
Rule Breaking and a Career Plan for Writers

This is an excerpt from my newly updated and published book:  Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author

Rule Breaking

To be successful, you are going to have to break some rules. If you do the same as everyone else, you’re the same as everyone else. In Special Forces our unofficial motto was If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.

But beware you don’t break the three rules of Rule Breaking:

The paradoxical rules of rule breaking.

  1. 1. Know the rule (breaking a rule because you don’t know or understand it, is just being dumb)
  2. 2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule (I ask WHY a lot in my workshops. I don’t believe there are any rules of writing—you just need a good reason why you are doing something)
  3. 3. Accept the consequences of breaking the rule (if it worked, you’re a genius. If it didn’t, figure out what went wrong, reboot and restart)

background A Career Plan

A while ago I asked Susan Wiggs for some career advice. We’d taught together for seven straight years at the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference. She also lives one island south of me. I noticed the other day while driving through the rain, and then when I looked south, the sun was shining on her island for some reason. A conspiracy perhaps.

Anyway, she emailed me back within 20 minutes of my query with a very detailed explanation of the route she followed for success.

First, Susan said she studied successful authors in her genre. This is the author dissection we discussed earlier. She looked for the patterns.

Second, what she came up with was a plan to write three books. Since they were romances, she couldn’t use the same protagonist in every book; so she looked at a unifying concept. She decided on a fictional town. Suzanne Brockman uses a Navy SEAL team. This gives reader continuity. I’m using West Point as my unifying concept in my current series.

Third, you need a unifying theme. In romance, well, it’s usually some form of romance. I’m using the theme of loyalty versus honor. I’m applying that theme on two levels: personal for the characters; and also in the big picture because my focus is on the Civil War.

Fourth, the goal is then to sell the heck out of the first book and get a commitment from the publisher to push the numbers on the three books. Now that is out of your control. Both Susan and I have experienced publishers that didn’t push a series.

I think though, if you approach agents and publishers with a plan, you have a much better success of the plan working than not having a plan.

In fact, I was on an agent panel at Pacific Northwest Writers (no idea why I was on panel—guess because my agent was sitting next to me). And I mentioned the idea of having a plan. After the panel was over, one of the agents told me in all the years he’d been agenting, no one had ever approached him with a plan. He said he’d love it if writers had one.

I think that is the Catch-22 that a lot of agents and editors can’t get past, they would love a new author to have a plan, but they don’t have the time or energy to teach you how to develop one. So we’re still working on the throw 100 new books against the wall and hope 1 sticks paradigm. I really think we need to get smarter.