Wednesday, 24 April 2013


I spend a lot of time trying to motivate myself.  I have a perfectionist streak and am convinced that everyone else is working harder and better than me. Every time I read about a writer who has been published and/or had other success before they're 30, I feel like I'm lagging behind. It's time to realise I'm not in a race.

I lost sight of the value of stepping back. When you paint a large canvas, you have to step back at frequent intervals to see how the whole looks. Focusing on the detail makes you lose sight of the bigger picture and you can no longer see the whole. You may have to leave the room and come back later, when you can see the canvas with fresh eyes.

It's the same for writing: stepping back is essential to get a clear view.

It's relatively easy to see the importance of stepping back in the case of individual projects. Most of us learn that setting a draft aside for a length of time, whether it's for several weeks or just several hours, can help our rewriting/editing to be more effective. But how often do we remember to step back from our writing as a whole?

I'd been dashing around trying to write as much I could, making long to-do lists of all the stories I needed to draft or rewrite or edit or enter in a competition. Although I knew my priorities were the two projects that came out of my MA dissertation, a short story collection and a novel, I found myself neglecting them. I was procrastinating by doing work that didn't matter as much as my priorities. I tried putting my priority projects at the top of my to-do lists, but had limited success. I would either work on other projects or not work at all.

So I tried a drastic solution: I gave myself permission to stop writing. No to-do lists, no deadlines, no goals. All I asked of myself was time to consider how I wanted to continue with my writing career.

This time has been invaluable. It's given me the chance to reflect on the kind of writer I want to be and the break from stressing about my (lack of) progress has let me recharge. And the weird thing is, I've done far more work on my novel!

When you have mental health issues, it's essential to place your wellbeing ahead of everything else in life - even writing. If my mental illness worsens, I can't write. However, recharging is beneficial for everyone. It helps realign your priorities and refreshes you. As a result, you find time to do the things that are most important to you. In my case, that's working on my priority projects and letting other writing take a backseat.

It also means accepting that I'm not in a race - it's more of a solo run. Obsessing over my perceived failures and being a perfectionist is detrimental, because there's no one else to compete against. I've tried competing against myself in the past and discovered it gets me nowhere. There's no point in sprinting to the finish line; it's crucial to enjoy the run.

After all, an artist doesn't build a career on exquisite details if the rest of the canvas is a mess: he/she must produce superb paintings, which accumulate to create an exquisite portfolio.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How Kaizen Can Motivate Writers

I wrote an overview of Kaizen in writing a couple of weeks ago. I explained how the concept is about taking small but continuous steps towards improvement. Since I started thinking about kaizen and how it can help writers, I haven't been able to stop! I also thought others might benefit from seeing how I apply kaizen to more specific aspects of writing.

Kaizen gets you past the fear.

That's one of the reasons for its success: big actions tend to be scary and involve a lot of risk and effort, whereas kaizen encourages you to take small, incremental steps that are so easy there's no excuse for not doing the tasks. Dividing what you want to achieve into tiny steps is rather like chunking. When using kaizen, the idea is to make the chunks ludicrously small - whether you feel you need to or not.

Example: you might want to write a short story. The initial kaizen steps could look like this...

1/. Pick a name for your protagonist

2/. Give your protagonist a problem
Any problem that pops into your head. Or pick one from a magazine problem page or website.

3/. Pick a setting
Any setting that works for your character and his/her problem. Stick a pin in a map if you're stuck.

4/. Select a key personality trait
Anything. Even if it sounds silly. Don't worry about how it fits in with your character's problem.

5/. think of what can go wrong
You can do this all in one go, as a brainstorming exercise, or separate into mini-steps and think of each obstacle as a step.

6/. Choose your main obstacle
Don't over-think it. Pick whichever one catches your eye.

7/. Pick a secondary obstacle (or two, or decide you don't need one)

8/. Choose names for the characters who cause problems/obstacles for your protagonist
This might be obvious because of the problem you've chosen - if your character's problem is that her mother is terminally ill and wants to do a skydive that the protagonist thinks is too dangerous and therefore wants to stop, the mother is the main antagonist.

Your obstacles may also create antagonists/mini-antagonists. In the example above, the protagonist's major obstacle might be that her sister thinks it's a great idea and is helping her mother get a lot of sponsorship in aid of a charity that helps the mother.

If your problem and obstacles don't offer an obvious antagonist, brainstorm people who could try to stop the protagonist reaching their goal. Again, you could break this into mini-steps and think of one such character per day.

And so on...

Doesn't this look ludicrously simple? Yes. That's the precise point of kaizen. It's about finding low-key solutions rather than huge innovations. It's much easier to implement and is just as effective as a massive change - if not more effective.

I could go for a walk, for instance, and think of an idea for a short story that comes in one huge blob. Great! Trouble is. I could walk for hours without getting such inspiration. The kaizen approach, on the other hand, ensures results.

I could go for an hour's walk every day for a week and not come up with a story. Or I could follow a few tiny kaizen steps that take a few minutes each day and come up with an outline. For minimal time and effort, I get a tangible result.

Which you can emulate!

Of course, one of the best things about Kaizen is that anyone can do it. I would struggle to explain how I get ideas when I'm in the middle of something else - I could offer theories as to why some of my best ideas come the second I leave the computer and go to the toilet, but I can't describe the process in detail. At best, I could offer vague advice about keeping your mind open to ideas. Kaizen, on the other hand, enables me to show how big changes can be broken down into simple actions. It is highly adaptable and accessible.

The initial motivation comes from the steps being so small that there's no excuse not to do them. The steps then spark ideas that may motivate you - but even if they don't, it doesn't matter! You just continue doing each small step because there's no excuse not to. Having said that, in my experience, small kaizen actions lead to a plethora of ideas that renew your motivation.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Writing Our Own Narratives

What do you want your life story to be

I remind myself of this question during tough times. I want to be a successful writer, of course, but I can't control exactly how that will happen - assuming it does. Framing the hard times in the context of what I hope will be my life story can be comforting and motivating. Put simply, my narrative would read "despite struggling with mental illness, Hayley persevered and her first novel was published in year X." If this does happen, I hope it will inspire other people who face mental illness or similar obstacles.

But what if I never find success?

Leaving aside the question of how to define success (for now), the unsuccessful life story has two main narratives:
a). I let myself get discouraged and abandon my dreams. I may, against the odds, be content. I may do other important things with my life. However, my unpursued ambitions will hang over my head and I doubt I would be truly happy.
b). I continue to find pleasure in writing, despite never getting published. I do other work in order to earn a living, but writing is still my main passion. No amount of rejection can dissuade me and as long as I continue to write, there's always the possibility of success.

The second option sounds much better, right? Doing something you love is never a waste of time. 

A narrative of meaning is available to everybody.

I read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl this week. It's a rich, inspiring book about Frankl's experience of the holocaust and his survival. Through this narrative, he explains the school of psychology he developed, logotherapy. Logotherapy explores the ways people can find meaning in their lives and pinpoints three major areas:
1/. Finding meaning through work
2/. Finding meaning through love
3/. Finding meaning through suffering

We can't control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions. We can accept a difficult situation with grace, rather than riling against it or living in denial. We can focus our attention on what provides us with meaning and pleasure, rather than obsessing about the bad stuff. We can wallow in our misfortunes, or we can strive to understand ourselves better through the challenges we face.

We can see that option b). mentioned above contains the opportunity to find meaning in all the areas outlined by Frankl. Writing is work, so continuing to write allows me to find meaning regardless of its outcome. Writing is also one of the great loves of my life. And in the suffering of rejection, there is an opportunity to keep trying and learn from this resilience. Yes, I want to be successful, but I choose this narrative for myself, for my life, regardless.

Defining success

I have ignored the precise definition of success so far, since it differs so much from person to person -  and is liable to change over time. However, I think it's vital to address the fact that success comes in many forms. Making a living from writing is one type of success, but simply making time to write is another. There are a range of inbetween stages too, such as making enough money through writing to allow you to work part time at the day job or earning enough through writing non-fiction to subsidise your fiction writing. A Booker Prize winner may influence a huge number of people, but telling your stories in a local school or nursing home also provides people with pleasure. I want my narrative to embrace all forms of success.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Kaizen in Writing

I first came across kaizen over a decade ago, when I was at college and doing a Business Studies A level: it was described as a style of business management that involved continuously making small changes. This philosophy appealed to me. I have always tended to be goal-orientated and results-driven (often to my detriment!), so monitoring what works is something I do automatically. However, I also have a strong perfectionist streak that screams 'why make small changes when you can make big changes?'

Kaizen is much more effective when you overcome such perfectionism. The point of making small changes is that they are achievable, which is also motivating. The point of them being continuous is that you build momentum and the small changes accumulate into big changes.

Kaizen is also marvellously flexible. You can apply the principles to pretty much anything, in every area of your life. There are lots of ways writers can use kaizen; far too many for me to mention in one blog post. Besides, part of the fun is in adapting these ideas for yourself!

Here are some examples to get you started:

1/. Kaizen Editing
Focus on changing one tiny aspect of your draft at a time. This could be anything from flagging up clich├ęs to spotting spelling mistakes. Conveying a character's mean streak or checking punctuation. Finding plot holes or removing excess adverbs. You get the idea!

2/. Kaizen in your Routine
Think of small changes that will make it easier for you to write. Many people have a coffee before they think about writing to perk them up, for instance, whereas coffee gives me gastritis so I warm up my brain by checking emails, online banking, editing my Amazon wishlist, etc. if you feel tired mid-afternoon, would you benefit from a power nap or a power walk? How do certain foods affect you? A chocolate bar may sound like a good idea for a late morning energy boost, but not once the sugar high wears off. How could you make your writing area more comfortable or inspirational?

You may need to think a lot about what is preventing your routine from being more effective, but once you pinpoint the problem and make small changes, you can make a big difference to your productivity.

3/. Kaizen for your Submissions Process
Or, in my case, lack of submission process! Again, you might need to address some major issues, such as confidence, but kaizen is about making things generally easier - you don't necessarily need to tackle an issue head-on to yield results. So, you may be reluctant to submit short stories because you lack confidence, but making submitting easier and more convenient could lead to you submitting more stories. I find it hard to work up the confidence to submit to competitions, but most of the competitions I enter are ones I can pay for and enter online. Why? Because once I find that iota of confidence, it takes 2 minutes to submit! I don't have to sustain my confidence as I print the story, fill in an entry form, write a check, find an envelope, take it to the post office...

And just by writing this, I can think of many more things that would make it easier for me to submit: I could buy a load of stamps at the postage price of my average submission, make a list of free competitions and/or journals accepting online entries, get critique partners to tell me which stories are good enough to submit and which need work. Of course, I should also work on building my confidence, but I wanted to show that kaizen can offer simple solutions in complex situations!

And once you start making changes, continue...

Kaizen can be used in such a range of applications related to writing that it's impossible to mention them all in a single post. It's a topic I will experiment with and revisit in future. Meanwhile, have fun conducting your own experiments and let me know the results!