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De-stressing the Writing Life

Institute of Children's Literature

Interview with the Institute of Children's Literature - November 2011

Jan Fields is the moderator of this interview. The asterisk * indicates names or usernames of people and the questions they asked of our speaker.

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Jan Fields: Welcome to "Destressing the Writing Life" with Kristi Holl. We're all looking forward to absorbing wisdom from the incomparable Kristi Holl, author of WRITER'S FIRST AID and MORE WRITER'S FIRST AID.

Kristi Holl: Thanks, Jan. I look forward to talking about destressing our writing lives. While it's appropriate for the holidays, I have found that these days, with people having such busy schedules (on and offline), that there doesn't seem to be a "slow" period anymore. We need to find ways to destress all year through. Without doing that, our creative sides can wither away.

Jan Fields: I know what you mean about not having any slow periods. I have this list of things to do as soon as I hit a "slow period" and that list is on it's second birthday! I deeply appreciate being able to stay busy in a creative profession...but having this list of things I never seem to get to eensy bit stressful.

Jan Fields: I think one of the most stressful things I've fallen into time and again in writing is the whole mobile notion of "success." It's like I mentally moved the goal each time I met it so I never had a chance to enjoy feeling "successful" because I was always looking to the next thing...and always feeling like I came up short. What do you suggest for helping writers get off the success treadmill?

Kristi Holl: Jan, that's a great question. It's funny, but when we see OTHER people treating us this way--or someone we love--we recognize it as abusive. A parent who isn't satisfied with a child's report card of 3 A's and 2 B's, but raises the bar instead with "you really could have done better" sounds mean. A spouse who doesn't appreciate the great meal you cooked but points out it's 15 minutes later than he wanted it sounds mean. But when we do this to ourselves--when we move the finish line so that we never feel successful--we don't identify it as abusive. But it is--which is why it leaves us feeling depressed and like giving up. Just like the impossible-to-please parent or spouse, we can keep raising the bar BEFORE we stop and applaud and enjoy what we just accomplished.

Kristi Holl: Yes, we want to keep doing better. We want to improve our skills. But that doesn't mean we can't celebrate each success for what it is. I think we keep moving the bar or finish line in an effort to grow and improve, but it rarely works that way. If we were even 25% as kind to ourselves as we are to our children and grandchildren, we wouldn't do this. My youngest granddaughter learned to walk last month, with the usual accompanying falling down repeatedly. But every time she got back up and took another step, we applauded. (I watched her from around the corner one day and noticed that even when alone, she got up, balanced, and since no one was around, she clapped for herself!) This is the attitude we need to have about each writing success. Enjoy it, applaud it, and regardless of deadlines looming, don't rush right off to the next project.

Kristi Holl: Over the years, I re-defined success too. In the early years, success meant bigger advances, better reviews, more rewards, better sales, etc. (Now THAT'S the kind of finish line that is always moving away from you.) One day I realized that I actually FELT successful on days I shut out the world, put in the writing time, and enjoyed it. Period. The other stuff didn't make me feel successful. It made me feel "less than" and opened me up to being jealous of writing friends who were more successful in those areas than I was at any given time. Now I can have daily successes instead of focusing on the finish line as the only time I can allow myself to feel (briefly) successful.

Kristi Holl: But define success for yourself--you might be surprised what you come up with. And be as kind to yourself (I talk out loud to myself) and say the kind of things you would say to someone else about their successes.

*Okami: Thanks for stopping by, Kristi, you've come during a scary plateau junction in my writing world, and I respect that unlike some other blogs I've read, you don't belittle the times when our emotions, however negative, hold us back, or pretend they're not the least bit real. But still tell the hard truths we often need to hear, and even still, there can be a HUGE gap from- "Understanding the advice" to "Executing said advice." As anyone who knows me will tell you, the journey to redefining success for myself has been at best, a slower-than-turtle's pace, and at worst, nightmarishly non-existent. I really don't think it's only an impatience thing, as some feel is the case, because the things I know hold me back (i.e. Query letters and Reading the Competition) are the things I stress over the most. I know from following your blog that you continue to work through this problem of not over-stressing yourself. Thanks for having the courage to share. I know from my own experience just that alone isn't easy for a lot of us.

Kristi Holl:Okami, thanks for sharing. I bet if all writers (from the novice to the much published and even the big award winners) would let us into their psyches that we'd discover that we're all much more alike than not in this area. It's always an adjustment too. Even when you get your priorities in order, life happens!

Kristi Holl:I found it interesting that you said "reading the competition" stresses you out. It has always stressed me out too! It's embarrassing to admit that, but it's true. I read very little of the competition, and I can get stressed out and feel totally unsuccessful just by going to the Juvenile section of Barnes and Noble and seeing all the great looking books there. Even as an ICL student, I had to stop reading the recommended books for long periods of time because all I could think was, "I will NEVER write like this! Who am I kidding?" Or their topics seemed so cool and mine seemed so dull. The whole competition thing that we do to ourselves is rough on a writer's ego!

Kristi Holl:I understand your frustation. To be honest, your fears and frustrations are so very common. I had/have them, and nearly all my students over the course of 25 years had them. That's why I wrote both Writer's First Aid and the new More Writer's First Aid (see I realized that the hardest lessons my students needed to learn weren't about dialogue and characterization--they needed help navigating the emotional and practical life issues that impact our writing lives.

Kristi Holl:I also learned pretty early to give myself the support and pep talks I needed. Not everyone has a family or group of writing friends to be their cheering section. Many of us had to learn to be our own best writing friends early on. No one else--not even the most well-meaning of friends--can do it for you. And you're right--they're not belittling your work. They want to help, but don't know how, so make suggestions about reading other people's work. And don't get me wrong--it can be very helpful to read other people's work. But timing is everything for people like us. I don't read other people's middle grade fiction when writing a rough draft of my own. Early drafts are usually so awful, so the comparisons are pretty extreme!

Kristi Holl:I had a lovely editor at Atheneum for my first eleven books, and once I was talking to her about all this. She said that I was making the mistake of comparing my own not-yet-finished draft with books that were already published, books that had had an editor's input and gone through several revisions with an editor. She reminded me that the books these writers sold did NOT look just like the versions I saw in the bookstore. I was comparing apples and oranges, it seems. You probably do that too.

Kristi Holl:Remember, negative self-talk is usually a pack of lies we tell ourselves too. We think that "other" writers sit down at the keyboard and the words just flow. We think for some reason they didn't have a lot of help. We think they don't battle writing fears... the lies we can tell ourselves are endless! And definitely not helpful!

Kristi Holl:Also, never underestimate the power of writing practice. It is very much like practicing a musical instrument. Those hours of daily practice, even when you don't see much change or understand that you're getting better, do the trick. I have read in numerous places that it takes about 10,000 hours of intentional practice for a writer to be ready to publish the way you want to. That's practice too--not reading about writing or thinking about writing, but actually writing and doing writing exercises. I count hours spent writing--not words or pages accumulated. That is how I measure a successful writing day. I know if I put in the practice time, the writing is slowing getting better, whether I can see it from week to week or not. And it does. Hang in there! If you take care of the quantity of writing practice you do, the quality will take care of itself.

Jan Fields:We recently added a goal board to the Writer's Retreat and I wonder if you have any tips for goal setting in a way that doesn't lead to over-stressing...or feeling like a failure.

Kristi Holl:Jan, over the years I've noticed that many of us tend to set goals that are bound to add stress to our lives instead of the gentle "spur" we need to get going and keep going. Studies have shown that people tend to wildly over-estimate how much they can accomplish in a year (whether it's writing a book or losing weight) and wildly UNDER-estimate how much they can accomplish in five years. We need to make a shift to being more realistic, for one thing.

Kristi Holl:Also, we tend to jump into the deep end before we can swim. For many reasons, we set writing goals--and then promptly get stuck. The reasons vary: * The goal is overwhelming, and we don't know where to start. * We don't have an hour or two each day to devote to reaching our goal. * We don't really believe you can reach goals "a little bit at a time." * We see others going gung-ho toward similar goals and feel intimidated by their (seemingly) effortless success.

Kristi Holl:Regardless of what your writing goal is, one answer that nearly always works to destress is the concept of "gradual exposure." Certainly gradual exposure can be a negative thing, like the poor frog who is boiled alive when the water temperature gradually rises. But "gradual exposure" can also be a very positive--and easy--concept to work into your writing life. It's a great way to take the stress out of your writing goals.

Kristi Holl:Gradual exposure simply allows you to take actions toward your daily and long-term writing goals little by little. These small actions build on each other over time and form habits (such as daily writing, networking with other writers, writing a novel, etc.) According to Kelly Stone in LIVING WRITE, "This technique [of gradual exposure] is particularly helpful in areas where you have resistance to writing or fear taking some action that is required to attain the success you desire."

Kristi Holl:Stone's recommendation for gradually inching your way into your desired writing habit is to break down the task into tiny baby steps. You take one baby step toward your goal every day for a week. And you try to enhance or increase the action daily until you reach your goal. This is one of the best way I've found to building daily writing habits that will last you all your writing life...and these habits take much of the stress out of reaching goals.

Kristi Holl:Example: Let's say your goal is to eventually write an hour every day. Currently you only write sporadically. Your first week of gradual exposure might look like this: * Monday: write 5 minutes * Tuesday: write 10 minutes * Wednesday: write 15 minutes * Thursday: write 20 minutes and so on until you hit 60 minutes per day.

Kristi Holl:Or maybe you want a production goal that gradually gets you to the point where you can write 2,000 words per day. Start small, and increase daily by small amounts. * Monday: write 200 words * Tuesday: write 250 words * Wednesday: write 300 words * Thursday: write 350 words

Kristi Holl:Each day is a tiny stretch, but with enough tiny stretches, you can soon be writing those 2,000 words per day this way. And there are few goals you can't reach with a writing habit like that one!

Kristi Holl:Other types of writing tasks/goals can also be "destressed" using "gradual exposure." Let's say you want to eventually have a successful social networking group of writer friends. When starting out, it can look overwhelming! But by using gradual exposure, you can get your feet wet and not feel like you're drowning. This can apply to getting involved in Facebook, on Twitter, commenting on blogs, writing a blog, etc. * Monday: subscribe to five writing blogs * Tuesday: read two blog posts and leave one comment * Wednesday: read four blog posts and leave two comments * Thursday: [continue building until you scan perhaps ten blogs daily]

Kristi Holl:When you've met your blogging goal, set up a gradual exposure schedule for creating a Facebook page, inviting friends, commenting on others' posts, etc.

Kristi Holl: For me, I think the "magic" of gradual exposure is that I am not so apt to give up before reaching my goal. My personality tends to want to rush in and do it all RIGHT NOW--or do nothing. (e.g. decide to get in shape and start by running two miles although I haven't run in a year; decide to get serious about studying the writing craft, read for five hours and get a ripping headache) I build the stress into my goals this way.

Kristi Holl: I tend to have rapid burn-out because my enthusiasm takes me where my tired body can't keep me. The technique of gradual exposure prevents you from doing stupid things that lead to early burn-out and quitting. It applies to any goal you have in mind.

*BethC: Thanks, Kristie, for making this seem so...simple! So much of what you have said applies to me. I almost feel like you have watched me in action, and have written your response based on your observations! I really appreciate you sharing about "gradual exposure". That is great advice!

Kristi Holl: Beth, I'm glad my suggestions sound workable for you. I think one of the biggest surprises of being a writer "over the long haul" has been the continual need to work on the emotional side of writing like this. I started reading biographies of famous writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jane Austen and others, and it was fun to read that they had the same issues to deal with that we do now. We truly ARE all in this writing game together. We're all much more alike as writers than we have any idea!

*BethC: Isn't it nice to know that we aren't so different after all?

Kristi Holl: Yes, Beth, that is exactly right. We're not odd or weird--we're writers! And most of us are introverted writers who have so many of the same characteristics, the same battles--and many of the same strengths as well. I'm guessing we're all more ALIKE than different!

*SevenAcreSky: The graduated exposure idea is right on...I guess that's what I am finding myself doing. This site is a great help of course, and getting to hear from writers like you Kristi, and other experienced writers is a bonus that "turns up the heat" to get the water boiling. I'm a very comfortable frog right now, and I guess that is amazing to me because six months ago the whole writing idea was still just a dream. What's come out of my keyboard since I started the ICL courses and since I've been floating around on this forum has surprised and excited me! Thanks again Kristi and others who are willing to contribute to us younger writers warming up to the whole process.

Kristi Holl: SevenAcreSky, when I started out thirty years ago, I had the most wonderful ICL instructor, Dorothy Van Woerkom. She died some years ago, but she was the only writer I actually knew for at least ten years. She believed in me when no one else did at all, and I read and re-read her long letters (typed on a non-electric typewriter back then). I remember the excitement taking the course, and seeing a dream open up in front of me that was so appealing to this life-long bookworm. If I've been able to do for any of you what Dorothy did for me in the beginning, I couldn't be happier.

*ColoradoKate: I particularly like what you wrote about starting small--250 words a day, for instance. My problem is that I tend to feel I have to have everything all set and organized and all other business out of the way before I can start writing... sort of like taking the idea of needing a clean desk to the point of absurdity. I'll say to myself, "I'll get organized and on a schedule with my writing... after the holidays. After I've finished cleaning up the yard. After my house guests leave. After I do my taxes. After... After... After... " I still do write anyhow, some, but it's scattered and not very productive. I keep looking for the perfect organization "scheme," but I'm pretty sure what I need is an attitude adjustment, not (just) a Day Planner.... Help?

Kristi Holl: Hi, ColoradoKate! Your problem is one that I deal with several times per week. I was doing that just this morning. We are having our Christmas with the grown kids and grandkids very early this year because of their travel plans, so while trying to write this morning, I had to fight the feeling that I should "just go get the shopping done so I don't have it hanging over my head." Then I remembered the Christmas letter, and looked at Christmas letter templates online for a while. Yes, I DO feel better when things are caught up, but my writing is "tired" at the end of the day when I do everything else first.

Kristi Holl: The standard line I should give you is: WRITE FIRST THING EVERY DAY AND LET EVERYTHING ELSE GO TILL LATER.

Kristi Holl: But to be honest, except for the days when I managed to do all the dishes and clean my office and pay bills and everything else the night before, it's a struggle. I finally made a list of the things I HAD to have done in order to write. It's different for everyone. My friend has to have every dish out of the kitchen sink before she can write. Not me. But my living room has to be all picked up because I see it out my office door. I found that if I actually scheduled chores (like "write from 8-9" and "pay bills at 9") then I could write first, knowing the other stuff would get done.

Kristi Holl: Just know yourself. There are certain things that really bother my writing if they aren't done, so I do those first. But I keep the list very small--just those things that keep coming to my mind while I'm writing. And it isn't always chores. It might be an email I've put off writing where I have to tell someone "no" about something. Anything that is truly bothering me so that my writing mind is all divided--that stuff I stop and deal with. But again, this will all be very individual. I have a writing friend whose house could burn down and she wouldn't notice. I have another friend who can't write if there are leaves that need sweeping off her porch or there is a load of laundry to fold. Until you figure out your own rhythms and needs for orderliness, a new Day Planner won't help a lot. It has more to do with realizing there is no perfect system.

Kristi Holl: Do the best you can to whittle down the "absolutely must do before I can write" list. Always work to make the list shorter. Schedule the other stuff so you can put it on the back burner till later. Also, at tax time and holiday time, I try to schedule one whole day or maybe two and not do any writing at all. I buckled down and do taxes or shopping/wrapping/cards or whatever and wipe out the big things hanging over me.

*Anita3: Thank you Kristi and Kate! You made me feel better knowing I'm not the only one that procrastinates on writing to get other things accomplished.

Kristi Holl: Anita, I did myself a favor and stopped thinking of it as procrastinating because, truly, many times it wasn't. I just needed some order in my private little universe so that I could feel some mental order. My spirit just feels agitated when things are messy and undone. We all have conditions that are more conducive to productive writing. One of mine is quiet. But as ColoradoKate said, we can't put EVERYTHING on the "do first" list. Just the "must haves."

Jan Fields: I had another stresser I've been thinking about lately. When I started in writing professionally, the Internet as a daily information tool just didn't exist. So I flailed around in the dark a lot, figuring things out on my own and making piles of mistakes...then picking myself up and trying again. Or having the happy experience of selling DESPITE how badly I screwed up.

Jan Fields: I used to think how nice it is that so much information exists now for writers...amazing amounts really about submissions, publishers, agents, techniques, genre, etc. And I appreciate being able to access that info, but I'm seeing more and more younger writers (or at least younger in the business) who are completely freaked out and over stressed by the information flood.

Jan Fields: I think one of the biggest problems is that folks can really only speak online from their own experience (or the experience of the x-number of writers/editors/agents/etc they know) and not everyone does things the same way. So advice can seem to be VERY authoritative and VERY conflicting. Now, I've made so many mistakes and ended up fine anyway, that I realize the existance of conflicting info means there's more than one way to do things...but many writers I see post in different boards find the conflicting information paralyzing. They get so afraid of following the wrong "rule" that they get stalled. How do you help folks past this stresser -- cause sometimes I feel like I'm trying to talk them down off the ledge.

Kristi Holl: Jan, even at this stage of my writing career, *I* find all the information too much a good deal of the time. I have seen the same phenomenon you mentioned with newer writers and students. I think all that advice is very paralyzing. When I started writing, I didn't know enough to be afraid. I lived on a farm in Iowa, there was no Internet, and I didn't meet another writer in person until I was speaking at an SCBWI event after I had several books published. Like you, I did a lot "wrong," but I didn't know it wasn't the "prevailing wisdom," so it didn't stop me. I didn't have a critique partner or group, I couldn't afford conferences unless I was speaking and could go for free, and I hadn't heard that you'd get buried in the slush pile and never discovered. (So I got discovered in a slush pile at various publishers.) I hadn't heard from the experts all the awful statistics that said you couldn't make a living as a writer, so I assumed I could if I worked hard enough, and I did. Back then, you trusted your own instincts because that's all you had. I feel a great deal of empathy and sympathy for writers starting out today.

Kristi Holl: My advice for this? I had to do this myself a year or so ago. I cut way, way back on the amount of time I spent online. Usually I stay off until after lunch, and I get off at 5:00. I don't have--and will never have--Internet access on my phone. I unsubscribed from all but my favorite three free writing newsletters. I took real pains to cut back on the overload of information coming in. I chose three or four of my favorite blogs to follow, but that's all. I think most writers would benefit from doing this cutting back. No one out there, including me, has the "magic key" to get someone published. And we won't miss anything too important by cutting back.

Kristi Holl: And while this will sound counter-cultural, I stopped sharing my work with a critique group as I was working on it. Everyone has an opinion, usually different, and you're left with so many conflicting opinions. I was taking in all the comments and making changes because, as you said, we writers can come off as sounding like such authorities, when we're only saying what works for US. [And right here I should issue a formal apology to any of my writing students during my first twenty years of teaching. I think I was very "this is the right way to do this" when I should have been "this is what works for me--you might try this and see."]

Kristi Holl: Last year I was sick for a week and also gone for a week where I had no Internet access. They were two of the most peaceful, creative weeks I had! It clued me in on making the above changes.

*Cat: Thank you. That is fabulous advice. (Ahem, can you give me the names of the magazines you subscribe to?)

Kristi Holl: I know that there are many e-newsletters out there that are good, so these are not the "best" ones necessarily, but they are the ones I always read:

Kristi Holl: Jan's newsletter, of course!

Kristi Holl: Randy Ingermanson's newsletter (the snowflake guy). Sign up and see back copies here:

Kristi Holl: I get the Christian Writer's View digest twice a week--I think you have to be invited to the one I belong to, but there is another level of the View (for Christian writers not yet published) that is more basic. Besides those three, I get monthly email newsletters too from organizations I belong to, like SCBWI, and my local SCBWI group also does a newsletter once a month. Hmm, I guess that's five and not three, but it's only about 1/3 of the number I used to try to read!

*SevenAcreSky: this topic is so on target for how I've felt as a new writer. There is so much information I can't digest it all but its all so good I'm gorging myself. I would love go follow every blog out there and take every online workshop but I realized just last week that the online exploration is killing my writing time. Thanks for the advice and encouragement.

Kristi Holl: SevenAcreSky, we're all in the same boat here! I STILL, after thirty years, find myself buying every new writing book that catches my eye, every new book that promises a special "key" to getting organized, to catching an editor's eye, etc. I have had, lately, to put a stop to that. I have enough books to read that will last me through 2012! Maybe someday when we all have ten hours every day to write, we can spend five hours surfing the web and reading blogs, and write for five hours too! Until then, though...balance, balance, balance!

*KatieC: My question is in regards to the writer's social networking scene. My hubby is very supportive of my writing; however, he gets a little tired of giving up our time for "social networking", even the writer-related kind. I don't do much (if any) personal social networking (uh, unless you count this place!). But I do try to follow several blogs, comment on them, keep up my own blog and writer's website, etc. I feel stressed doing this, because I know it's upsetting to him. Can you suggest a method for my madness in this area, because right now it's a very disorganized process, and takes up way too much time. Thanks!

Kristi Holl: Katie, this is a great question. Last year, I had a serious conversation with a fellow writer about quitting writing. This is the first time in 30 years that I actually considered quitting. Why? Because of the pressure to do so much social networking. Like you described, it was taking up my family time. Even though I coupled it with watching a movie with my hubby, I was still working. I had about decided that if all the blogging/tweeting/websites/Facebooking was going to be a requirement that ate up an hour or two every day, I really didn't want to write. It was NOT the writing life of my dreams! Below I'll give you a practical solution that works for me now, and after that I'll give you some thoughts about the importance of the whole social networking thing.

Kristi Holl: FIRST, I found SocialOoomph. Let me copy something from my blog about this here: SocialOomph is the answer I found to how long the social networking was taking me (Facebook, blogging, Twitter, etc.). I couldn't keep up with it all. It was hard enough remembering all the passwords to three websites, three blogs, and three FB accounts. Now I only need to remember one: to SocialOomph, the answer to my griping about this. It's a one-stop place to do your social marketing, and the services it supplies are phenomenal. The first week, just using the free version which is very good, I saved about five hours! And I got MORE social networking accomplished. It literally keeps track of everything for you, gives you a place to schedule your tweets and blogs (you set the schedule and SocialOomph does the rest.) Several times I was gone to a conference or busy with a family matter, but I still had posts going out three times a day to my FB and Twitter pages. I wasn't even online during those times, but by being able to schedule everything in one spot, I generated a lot more traffic to my sites in so much less time. While you are using the free service, you will be given a one-week free trial to their professional service. This is where they hooked me. I have only begun to tap the abilities of this service. [I took on a two-day job for someone in order to pay for a year's worth of this service because it helps me accomplish so much more in so little time.] Check it out. To be honest, the free version would probably work fine for you until you're juggling more social networking.

Kristi Holl: Also, see my post on "Your Best Promotional Tool" here: This prolific and famous author's simple guideline for “how much” self-promotion to do is this: “Do what you can without (a) taking away from the quality of your writing time; (b) taking away from the quality of personal relationships, and (c) taking on debt.” He also said, “The more anxious you are about forcing success through self-promotional effort, the less creative energy you have for the writing itself.” Why? “Because,” Bell says, “the most important promotional tool you have is your best book. Period.”

Kristi Holl: This is just personal to me, but I finally made the decision that social networking for writing was still "work time." I try for health and family reasons to stop work by 5 or 5:30. If the social networking takes away from your actual writing time or your family time, then you might want to cut back on it. While it certainly is the "wave of the future," I still doubt that it's the be-all and end-all it sounds like. I finally decided that on my death bed I probably wouldn't be saying, "Oh I wish I'd spent more of my life doing social networking." Finding the balance is tricky, I admit, but unless you have a publisher pressuring you to do more networking, I would cut back to one or two areas THAT YOU FIND MOST HELPFUL to your own writing life.

Kristi Holl: It always seems to come down to priorities. I've always known that my family came before my writing, and I wouldn't have it any other way. And when social networking interferes with the people in my own home and family circle, it has to go. If only priorities would stay put! They seem to shift when you're not looking, so that you're always needing to put first things first--again!

*Mikki: I have a blog, which I try to post on at least twice a week, but rarely can get there more often. I am on Facebook, but find it boring, and too many changes too often, so I seldom go there. I absolutely refuse to "twitter" or "tweet" or whatever it's called. Again, there's just nothing there that I can relate to. I guess the point is, I'm not much for social networking! Frankly, I really don't like it, in any form other than perhaps my blog.

*Mikki:Yet, everywhere you turn, as you've noted, the entire writing community seems so hung up on this part of writing that it's almost as though one will NEVER get published unless you have an enormous following on at least one blog, one website, and on every social networking avenue that exists. I read one blog from a multi-published writer who said every blog should have at least 60,000 followers. To me, that is totally absurd.

*Mikki:In the long run, does any of this social networking really have anything to do with getting published? What effect does this have on the quality of your writing, the strength of your characters, or the viability of your plot? Except, possibly, to take away from these issues because of all the time you're spending social networking instead of concentrating on your writing.

*Mikki:In other words...if you are a good writer, if everything in your book is exactly as it should be, if it has "reader appeal," and all of the other qualities and elements that a publisher is looking for, will the fact that you are not much of a social networker prevent you from being published by this particular publisher?

*Mikki:And if it will NOT prevent you from being published, because everything else is in your favor, then why the heck are we supposed to spend so much of our time on the Internet, instead of concentrating on perfecting our craft?

Kristi Holl: Before I say anything else, let me be clear: THIS IS JUST MY OPINION. Okay, with that said, I totally agree with you. Everyone seems to be an expert too. One super-published guy says blogs are now out, but Facebook and Google+ are the way of the future. Another says (like you mentioned) that you need thousands and thousands of followers for a blog. Other writers of social networking books say that you only need a small number of very specific followers, the ones actually interested in your work. I just bought an ebook that was favorably reviewed called THE NEW RELATIONSHIP MARKETING by Mari Smith. I will see what this says and pass it along on a future blog.

Kristi Holl: My main beef all along is the time it takes for a very questionable ROI (return on investment). No matter how many writers or editors I ask, no one has a good answer for my question, which is this: "Does all this social marketing have any impact on sales? Does it really boost sales?" So far I have never gotten any response except, "We hope so."

Kristi Holl: What I HAVE noticed--and again, this is personal opinion--is that those people with huge social network followings already had a bestseller or two, they already had a name for themselves, and so people looked for them online. They were ALREADY selling books...I doubt their social networking turned them into bestsellers.

Kristi Holl: There have been a few--very few--exceptions to this rule who made a name for themselves by social networking. One guy I asked about it at a conference, because he had had great success building a name for himself. You know how he found the time? He gave up writing for two years (yes, YEARS!) and lived off his savings (like most of us could do that!) and spent his FULL-TIME hours social networking. Did it increase his sales of his books? Probably. Has he had time to write another book? No. I knew right away that that wasn't what I wanted. I asked several others who had extensive social networking and marketing efforts going, and every single one had hired someone to do it for them because it took too much time. (One lady had FOUR fulltime employees doing her marketing and publicity.) Yes, I'm sure all that publicity helps sell her books, but she was a bestselling author before social networking hit the scene.

Kristi Holl: If you have to choose between writing and social networking--and some of you will have to because you only can scrape together one hour per day for your writing--then WRITE. If you don't have a wonderful story to sell to an editor, all the social networking in the world won't matter.

Kristi Holl: Now...let me say that some social networking things DO seem to matter, and I'll tell you which things I've noticed. Last February I decided to see what all the hoopla was about with self-publishing, so my first copies of More Writer's First Aid were self-published through Amazon's CreateSpace and Kindle (both free services). I offered a free Kindle copy to any writers with blogs who would review it on their blog. Sales went up when they blogged about it, even though many didn't have huge followings, because they were reaching other writers who might be interested. (This is opposed to my 600 Twitter followers of whom a small percentage are writers.) So for social marketing, I would recommend giving free copies to people who have blogs on your topic or who do book reviews on their blogs. (Example: if you wrote a book for homeschooled kids or moms, contact homeschool blogs with your offer. They will reach your targeted audience.) However, I was very glad when ICL picked up my More Writer's First Aid for their Writer's Bookstore because they are much better at marketing than I am! They are well known, they market to students, they market to buyers of my previous Writer's First Aid, etc. No matter what amount of social networking you do--at least right now--it won't be a drop in the bucket toward sales that a traditional publisher can do.

Kristi Holl: I guess what I'm saying is this: if you are going to self-publish, be prepared to spend hours daily on marketing if you expect to have any kind of sales at all. If you hold out for a traditional publisher, they have publicity and promotion departments that you can't come close to. (Yes, it's true that they have had budget cuts and do less, but it's still much more than I can do on my own, even if I wanted to, which I definitely don't.)

Kristi Holl: Setting up a website isn't hard, and once you're ready to submit your book to publishers, that should be done so people can find you. Many people are using free Wordpress blogs as websites, and that works too as a combination blog/website. Editors DO seem to want you, the writer, to have a "social presence," but it doesn't have to be blogs + websites + Twitter + speaking + Facebook + Google+... Choose a couple to do so you have a social presence where fans and editors can find you, but again, spend the vast majority of your writing time on your writing. Your first and most important job is to write a book that someone wants to publish.

*Mikki: Thanks so much for your insightful reply! I've been holding my breath all night ( great job if you can do it ) waiting to see if I was just one of these odd creatures who doesn't like to be social with a couple thousand unknown,unseen BFFs, and I'm very relieved to know I'm not LOL

*Mikki: I'm probably not going to do any self-publishing, but I'm submitting today a manuscript of an historical novel to an ebook publisher. This is a new, smaller publisher but one with already a good reputation, and there are a few writers here on the retreat who have gone with them, and are pleased with the results. I am hopeful

*Mikki: Thanks again for my response, and for all the other great information you are giving us. I do have your first Writer's First Aid, and have ordered your new one. Before I forget, I appreciate the information about contacting homeschooling blogs. Since my historical novel has a boy protagonist, and is an adventurous novel, I'm thinking IF it gets published as an ebook, this is something I can do for the homeschooled kids. And yes, I will turn my blog into a website, again, IF I get published!

Kristi Holl: Yes, I've heard of several fiction and nonfiction writers who generated good sales by giving away free ebooks (either from the author or from the publisher) to bloggers/reviewers connected in any way to the subject matter in the book. When you sell your book, it would be good to brainstorm with your editor or a friend who's read your book and explore all the angles--the characters, the subplots, the themes--to see who might be interested in blogging about it. I knew one gal who sold a lot because her book was set in a southern city, and she found all these bloggers who lived in that city and state to blog about it. Now THIS kind of social marketing makes sense to me--and it appears to show results.

*SevenAcreSky: Wow. What a relief. As I had begun to finally explore the writing and publishing world I felt that increasing anxiety about the apparent necessity of social networking and it grew and grew until it felt like a monkey on my back. I actually wondered how long it would be before it evolved into a gorilla. So I kinda scringed when I had to post my Facebook notice about my Meegenius contest submission. So. I can keep the spidermonkey and not worry about it becoming much more than a chimpanzee. I think that's manageable. Thanks Kristi and Mikki for this discussion.

Kristi Holl: I think we get caught up so much in what "they say" we have to have for social networking and "platform" and an "online presence." I'm not belittling any of it, but we have to have boundaries here, as in everything else. Instead of being coerced into doing much more than we are comfortable with or have time for or want to do, we need to take a big step back, do an overview of what's out there to choose from, see what appeals to us, and start with one (or maybe two) of the social media and see how it goes. I'd recommend monitoring your time, at least at first, to see how much time you're truly spending online so you focus your social marketing time and get it done. Do your own stuff first (your blog post or Twitter tweet or Facebook remark) before you wander off to read everyone else's stuff. Otherwise time gets away from you VERY quickly!

*Fancy: Hi Kristi - there's so much good stuff in here about goals, scheduling and not waiting until everything else is done to write, that I'm going to have to print it all out and frame it when we're done. But meanwhile, I wonder if you have any advice for those of us who love to write but can't afford to give up our "day jobs" ? When I finally do have "writing time", I'm often tempted to take a nap or watch TV instead. Yikes! How lame can you get? Any ideas?

Kristi Holl: Trust me, Fancy, you're not lame. You're tired, physically and/or mentally! Until last fall, I had a day job too, teaching for ICL. The hours varied over the years from full- to very part-time, but even when teaching part-time, I was doing critiques and giving lots of speeches, those necessary moneymaking things that paid the bills. I did have the advantage of working at home throughout most of this time, however, and could do my writing first, if I chose, then do lessons and critiques later.

Kristi Holl: One year I decided that I needed to get out of the house more, so I worked for a dental office as a receptionist for three dentists. That was exhausting. Like you, I was too tired when I got home to write. But I still wanted to, so I ended up writing at work on my two 15-minute breaks and my 30-minute lunch break. You'd be surprised how much I got written in that time while I ate my sandwich. Occasionally I'd get to work early too, if the traffic on the highway wasn't so bad, so I'd grab that extra 10-15 minutes and write in the car. I always kept my notebook with me, and after I got a laptop, I took that with me.

Kristi Holl: Over the years, I have written whole books in bleachers waiting on kids, in doctors' waiting rooms while kids got weekly allergy shots, in hospitals when my preschooler was hospitalized for four days and would doze off, in the car if I didn't have to drive, etc. You name a place, and I've probably written there. I admit that it's a lot nicer to be sitting at home alone in my quiet office to write, but 95% of my writing life wasn't like that. I realized that given our economic condition (we had a farm in Iowa during the farm crisis foreclosures), I wasn't going to be quitting my day job any year soon. And I was a single mom for some time as well, so a day job was a given, mostly because you don't know FOR SURE what your royalties will be in any given year.

Kristi Holl: I know writers now who write during commutes to work if they ride on trains, and those who drive who talk into voice-activated recorders. I know several who get up extra early and write an hour or two before the family gets up because they're too tired or the house is too noisy after work. What I'm saying is that you'll need to study your own schedule and day job, looking with a magnifying glass for all those snippets of time you can grab and write. And then decide to do it!

*BethC: You've talked about goals, but what about deadlines? Both external deadlines (i.e. need to get something to an editor or agent by a date set by him or her) and internal deadlines (i.e., "I would like to finish this by...") can be stressful on us as writers. How do you deal with them, and are there any "tricks" to dealing with deadlines, whether they seem reasonable to you or not?

Kristi Holl: Back when I started writing, I didn't have much trouble with deadlines because I did one small project at a time--one short story till it was finished, or one article till it was finished, and since they were self-imposed deadlines, I didn't feel much pressure. I just broke down each project into tiny "slices" of work, then focused on one "slice" each writing period until it was finished. My goal then was to produce a new story or article each week and submit it on Friday. These were only 500-1200 words for the most part.

Kristi Holl: Things are a bit more complicated now, with deadlines of my own (for fiction not yet sold), and deadlines for other people (nonfiction under contract, manuscript critiques, blogging for ICL). For this answer, I’m going to quote from my More Writer’s First Aid (with permission from ICL’s Writer’s Bookstore.)

Kristi Holl: [from “Focus: the Power of Scheduling] Many times I’ve felt overwhelmed when looking at the various writing projects waiting on my desk. Given a choice, I’m a one-project-at-a-time gal. I’d prefer not to work on a second project until the first one is complete, polished, and submitted.

Kristi Holl: However, more and more in recent years, I find myself in the middle of several projects at once: a nonfiction teen book requested by an editor, a fiction series proposal which needs sample chapters written, a serious middle grade novel that needs revision, and a lot of marketing ideas for my websites. I get “Mexican jumping bean mind” and can’t seem to stick with any project, but bounce from one thing to another. Not only is that very frustrating, it doesn’t produce much work by the end of the day.

Kristi Holl: What’s the Solution? I believe the “Morning Nudge” from Working Writer’s Coach Suzanne Lieurance has the solution. When I read it, I knew I’d hit pay dirt.

Kristi Holl: People always ask me why I’m not stressed out over all the things I have to do every day. My answer is simple. I schedule everything. Once something is on my schedule, I don’t think about it anymore until the scheduled time for it. That way, I’m able to relax and focus on just one thing at a time. I also avoid guilty feelings when I’m enjoying myself because I schedule leisure activities into each day as well as work. Scheduling is very powerful. Try it!

Kristi Holl: So that’s what I did. I sorted notebooks and papers into project piles. Then I tackled one pile at a time, in order of priorities. (A requested book manuscript always takes priority with me.) With calendar and daily planner in hand, I mapped out deadlines, then broke all the projects down into very manageable pieces.

Kristi Holl: Nuts and Bolts of Scheduling I already knew that I could work in 90-minute blocks at the computer before getting neck pain and headaches. So while making the schedule, I penciled in breaks after each 90-minute working segment. For me, it has to be get-away-from-the-computer time, both to rest my eyes and to exercise my back and neck. (Examples: weed a flower bed, water plants, walk, sit in the porch swing, load the dishwasher, watch ten minutes of a favorite movie, listen to ten minutes of a book on tape, etc.)

Kristi Holl: I came back refreshed, and with my brain ready to switch gears and focus on the next project. Part of the break time was spent thinking about the next project and mentally shifting gears.

Kristi Holl: Scheduling is both powerful and productive. I like being able to focus on one thing at a time, knowing the other projects will get their turn in due time. Slowly but surely, each project will be completed. And it’s amazing how much our concentration improves when we know a reward is coming soon!

Kristi Holl: [from “Course Corrections”] I recently read that the trajectory of the successful Apollo moon rocket was “off course” 90% of its flight—yet it still reached the moon!

Kristi Holl: How did that happen? 1) Scientists acknowledged the deviations from the expected path. 2) They repeatedly made the necessary course corrections. 3) They achieved an adequate (though not perfect) trajectory to the moon.

Kristi Holl: Scientists made a major breakthrough in space exploration by sticking to the mission in spite of numerous and continual setbacks. How’s Your Trajectory? What does the moon mission have to do with writing?

Kristi Holl: Well, I was looking at my yearly goals, and like the Apollo mission, my trajectory is off course for meeting those goals—and has been most of the year. Earlier I made enough course corrections to help, but over the summer my trajectory got way off! In the past, my strategy for reaching goals has been to first make them, then get waaaay behind or detoured, then either (1) give up on the goal, or (2) make drastic course corrections to force myself back in line.

Kristi Holl: The drastic course corrections usually happened when I had a deadline with a publisher. For example, the original goal (or trajectory for “hitting the moon”) might have been to write five pages per day for four months. Not hard. However, after procrastinating for two months, I would panic, course correct my goals, and commit to writing ten pages per day to meet the deadline. That writing schedule worked until Day Four when an interruption kept me from the keyboard.

Kristi Holl: What’s the Answer? Now, right there, an Apollo scientist would have immediately refigured the goal, spreading out that minor missed day of writing over the coming weeks. But I tended instead to let one day of failure slip into two or three. Denial is a great place to live—as long as you can afford to stay there!

Kristi Holl: But eventually panic sets in, and you are forced because of the deadline to refigure your trajectory again. By now, though, you have to write 15-20 pages per day to make it. Every day. No days off. Panic and adrenaline can manage it, to the detriment of your health and the quality of your writing. How much better off I would always be if I followed the successful Apollo mission method instead.

Kristi Holl: Keeping Track Here is where a spreadsheet would help. The very day you fall behind your goal, you could refigure your daily word counts. One day’s lost writing, spread out over the coming weeks, would barely be noticed. Regaining your trajectory (the path to your deadline) would take very little extra daily effort. And if, every single time you got off course, you refigured and kept moving, you’d also hit your target.

Kristi Holl: We need to learn to be resilient instead of panic or live in denial. Every time we have a setback, we need to recalculate. (A setback requiring a course correction might come in the form of being sick yourself, having a child needing extra help, unexpected company arriving, you name it!) Life is full of things that cause setbacks for writers. Any number of things can push you off your trajectory.

Kristi Holl: Monitor Carefully We may not be flying to the moon, but we can learn a lot from this successful Apollo mission that was off course most of its flight. We need to pay attention to our goals and our progress, be aware when we’re off course, and make those corrections quickly.

Kristi Holl: This skill is a part of the successful—and sane—writer’s life. [both excerpts by permission from The Writer’s Bookstore/More Writer’s First Aid at

chippy: So if I may ask, what headings do you use in the spreadsheet, and what information goes into it?

Kristi Holl: The spreadsheet is has headings like today's date, daily goal of words to write, number of actual words written, running total of words written, projected deadline, etc. You can do all that on paper too, but recalculating when you miss a day or even when you go over your goal, is easier with a spreadsheet. But it's very simple, just the free thing on my Microsoft Word Office Excel that came with my computer.

*SevenAcreSky: I guess this is as good a place as any to confess...I joined Nanowrimo the middle of the first week of November, with a great egg of an idea.... that never got hatched. I thought I could handle the 'forced' deadlines of so many words per week. Well...not! I never sat on the nest. The attempt made me realize that writing 'discipline' is a maturing process. Well...the power to schedule will come. Maybe by next November. (At least the novel "idea" is in the incubator!)

Kristi Holl: SevenAcreSky, I did exactly the same thing my first NaNoWriMo! It wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, and as soon as I got behind, I froze. I just wasn't prepared. Your egg that needed incubating is an apt comparison! Well, you learned something valuable about yourself. If you try NaNo again, start about a month earlier to prepare and make notes and "sit on the nest." You might have better luck that way.

*chippy: Kristi, I know you've covered goals and other time related things in some of the other threads, but could you give us an idea of how your day is planned? For example you say you write first thing in the morning, do you do writing related tasks after this or do you just get on with day to day things?

Kristi Holl: After writing thirty years, I'm in the enviable position of being able to plan my days. I know that many (or most) of you still have small children at home or grandchildren every day. I only have my toddler granddaughter one day per week, and usually I schedule my other school-age grandchildren for evenings and overnights on weekends. So my schedule now is quite different from when I had kids at home. [That's primarily why, in the new More Writer's First Aid at I have one whole section on FAMILY MATTERS for writers who are parents of babies, school-age kids, teens and young adults who've moved home. Each of those situations calls for a different kind of schedule, which evolves as kids get older.

Kristi Holl: So with that said...I'm now in the stage where I can plan my day, so this is how it goes usually: 5 or so to 7: hot chocolate and my devotional time 7: walk 8: breakfast/shower 8:30 to noon: write (which may be actual writing, outlining, researching, studying a craft book) 12-1:30: check email, deal with anything real important, then eat. I don't linger over email since I'm starving. Afternoons: a mixture of blogging, review comments, do social networking, answer lots of email, work on any nonfiction projects I have going (usually work-for-hire stuff), do paid critiques, walk or stretch again, have a brief "check-in" phone call with a friend at 3:30, maybe run necessary errands. I take breaks and read a library book during breaks.

Kristi Holl: I do laundry/cooking in the evenings and weekends--I am a HUGE fan of leftovers and making huge meals to save or cooking double. Thursday I babysit my granddaughter, and I don't work unless she's napping. I could--I used to when my own kids were small--but that's one of the big perks of being a Nana--just sitting down to play with her. 8-)

*chippy: Thanks Kristi. I have both your books and have found them very helpful. Talking planning a day, I am also in the enviable position of not having children to see to everyday. But I have only recently got to this position, I was a fulltime carer to my disabled/autistic adult son. So I found that writing took second place to him. Now I find I'm trying to split my time between my writing and trying to catch up on years of undone housework and other chores. I am going to try your planning and see if I can get my day better organised.

Kristi Holl: Chippy, you have definitely had a big life change recently. I know when I stopped teaching a year ago for ICL, after teaching or being their web editor for 27 years, it was wonderful to have time to do some things in the house and yard that had been totally neglected. While I still volunteer too much probably, I definitely have more time to write.

Kristi Holl: While my personality would prefer to do all my chores and errands in the morning, then settle down and write all afternoon, I've had to accept that my brain and body aren't that efficient or alert after lunch. It only made sense to switch it around and give my "tired brain" time to other (less taxing) things in the afternoon. I'm not sure why, but writing nonfiction doesn't stress me out at all--no trouble getting started or thinking of things to say. But writing fiction (my morning writing) takes a lot more energy and concentration. I guess we all have to know our own biorhythms. Age is a factor too. When my kids were babies, I wrote during afternoon naps with great energy. Now when my granddaughter naps, I fight to stay awake myself!

*SevenAcreSky: I too have an advantage--semi-retired, work maybe 5-7 days a month average, and we keep our granddaughter three mornings a week. But one of those morning she's at BSF with my wife, and that is my writing morning. BUT, one difference--when Bethany naps....POPPI naps too!! I hope to morph my schedule into more writing days...usually research and read forums at night, and explore (as in previous post) but will do so now without the trepidation that I was feeling about TMI.

Kristi Holl: I had to smile at your napping schedule matching your granddaughter's now. Yes, things definitely slow down, don't they? I'm glad you're able to carve out some quiet writing time on a weekly schedule. I swear that I get twice as much done in a morning hour than an afternoon or evening hour. But then, I have writing friends who say exactly the opposite. As long as we schedule around our own rhythms, we'll do fine. Best to you!

*chippy: In one of the other threads you mentioned that you don't use a critique group while you're working on something. I think some of us feel that a critique group can show us where we're going wrong on a WIP, making for less stress when it comes to the submitting process. So my questions are: Do you use a critique group, or get any feedback at all before submitting? Do you have any suggestions for making the WIP to submission process less daunting and stressful for those of us who are just starting out and finding our feet in this world called writing?

Kristi Holl: Chippy, if I could create my "ideal" writing group, it would be one that is more of a weekly writer's support group, where you share marketing news and good ideas and spur each other on not to quit! I loved the social aspects of my past critique groups, but for some reason [it must be just me], I don't get much writing help that way. (And this is NOT a criticism of my groups--I felt exactly the same way about every editor's critique I have paid for at a writer's conference.)

Kristi Holl: I finally figured out why--and this may or may not apply to any of you. I started writing years ago when I didn't know any other writers. Until I sold the books and got some input from an editor, it was just me. I think, because of that, it was way easier to find my own voice back then, and my own material that was unique to me. There weren't any voices in my head except mine--just me and my story. So partly I just like writing that way.

Kristi Holl: I also think [for me again] that there is a big difference between a critique of a work in progress, like a book you have critiqued a chapter at a time, and having your whole book critiqued when you've done all that you can with it. I DO the whole book critique swaps with a writer friend of mine. I finish a book to the best of my ability, then give it to her (and she does the same thing.) And she finds all kinds of flaws in it and asks good questions etc. that are very helpful. The kind of WIP critiques that I have found personally UNhelpful were critiques of a book I was just working on, and you get all kinds of feedback that says, "I don't really like your heroine" or "I don't get why she's doing that--you need to explain" or "you should make her --- instead of ----." I am apparently too susceptible to suggestions, because I would go home and make all these changes and end up not liking my story or heroine anymore. Until I have revised a novel several times without input, I'm not even sure what my theme is or what I'm trying to say sometimes. Criticism (no matter how constructive) too early doesn't help me.

Kristi Holl: Know yourself, and know your project. Know when criticism is helpful--and when it will only kill your enthusiasm for your story. You learn this by trial and error mostly. And know who is critiquing you. If your critique group isn't very published yet, their opinions are just opinions to be considered. But go with your gut if someone's suggestion doesn't ring true for YOUR story. You are the only one who knows what you're trying to say.

*chippy: Thanks again Kristi. I have a critique website and always want to ensure that people who use it get what they need (constructive comment) from comments made. I can't speak for others here, but I find it sometimes helps to have another pair or more of eyes looking over my ms during the WIP stage. So really what you're saying is its personal preference as to whether you use a critique group or not?

Kristi Holl: Chippy, to answer your question, yes, it's a personal preference. That said, I DO think that writers should try a critique group (in person or online) and see how it works for them. I think I was in four critique groups before I realized that the weekly critiques of chapters of a work in progress were doing me more harm than good. ON THE OTHER HAND, I have found GREAT help doing whole manuscript critique swaps with writers AFTER I finish a project to the best of my ability.

Kristi Holl: We are all different in how we respond to this issue. You won't know what helps you until you try. If I had had a critique group back when I was writing short material, that would have been wonderful. I could have brought a whole short story (or picture book) to have critiqued. It was the critiquing pieces of an unfinished novel that didn't help me.

Kristi Holl: I should also say that I may well be in the minority here. I know many writers who meet weekly with critique groups, including the likes of Jane Yolen! So I know it is of tremendous help to many, if not most, writers. That "quirk" in me may be why I enjoy doing critiques of whole books for people too--not pieces or outlines. I really like to see a whole project at one time.

*Mikki: Thanks so much for all of your comments, thoughts, wisdom, and suggestions. I'm sure everyone here is very appreciative. I hope you come back soon.

*Anita3: Kristi, You are a great writer and I thank you for helping us manage our writing lives with less stress. You've shared invaluable information through your books and this Workshop.

Kristi Holl: You are all more than welcome. I'm glad if I've shared some things you can use in a practical way to make your writing lives more enjoyable. Our lives are always changing, and we need all the tools in our writing toolbox that we can get to navigate those changes and keep writing.

~ Back to writing page. ~
~ Read another interview: "Writing Mysteries" ~

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