Wednesday, April 18, 2012

one penny at a time: the habit of saving money

It comes as a sweet (and by "sweet" I mean "cruel") coincidence that the third lesson of the Law of Success, the Habit of Saving Money, comes just as taxes have been filed. Let's just say that of all the lessons, this is the one I need to master. Hell, forget master. This is the one I need to pass. And I presume many of us are in the same boat.

The most fascinating part of reading this chapter (remember, this course was published in 1928), was seeing Hill's recommended savings:
"A family consisting of two persons, whose income is $100.00 a month, should manage to set aside at least $10 or $12 a month for the savings account. The cost of shelter, or rent, should not exceed $25 or $30 a month. Food costs should average about $25 to $30. Clothing should be kept within an expenditure or $15 to $20 a month. Recreation and incidentals should be kept down to about $8 to $10 a month."
Apparently there was no Whole Foods back in 1928. Or HMOs. Or gas that cost more than a latte. Or lattes that cost more than an ounce of crack (and delivering the same effect, presumably). Or smart phones, e-readers, cable tv, internet, or Apple. A college education wasn't the norm, nor was it the same cost as, say, a one-bedroom house.

I tried to re-do the math, taking 21st century expenditures into account. I tried to imagine what Hill would recommend. Not an easy task. Many of these things are vital to our existence. But somewhere along the way, the basic need of "clothing" turned into the basic need for "shoes-with-a-heel-that-could-impale-someone's-heart-if-used-as-a-weapon." The basic need for "food" turned into an option between healthier organic food that requires a personal loan every time you buy it, and cheap food so chemically concocted it will outlive the cockroaches during post-apocalypse. "Shelter" included HBO, Netflix, and a package deal with Cable Satan that went up by $50 bucks two weeks after signing.

Of course, there are the guys that tell you to "pay yourself first," to put your latte money into a piggybank and open an IRA at the end of the year, to get rid of all those extravagances and get back in touch with nature and public libraries and (gasp) talking to your loved ones in person, things that don't cost a dime but provide ample pleasure. And this is good advice. Even Hill's advice is both timely and simple: "First, quit the habit of buying on credit, and follow this by gradually paying off the debts you have already incurred." Put another way, "The main prerequisite is a willingness to subordinate the present to the future [italics mine], by eliminating unnecessary expenditures for luxuries."

But I wonder, is this really easier said than done? Is it a reality that what we earn simply can't cover what we need? Or have we become conditioned to believe that what we want and what we need are the same things?

Nevertheless, we've got to save one penny at a time. Not just from a personal perspective, but from a business perspective as well. As writers, we are self-employed. For those who self-publish, we are sole proprietors. We are in business. All business requires working capital. And, according to Hill, "the saving of even a small amount of money places one in a position where, oftentimes, this small sum may enable one to take advantage of business opportunities which lead directly and quite rapidly to financial independence." He's not wrong. An investment in a stock photo, an ISBN, and galley copies of books was the beginning of my self-publishing career. The mistake I made was that I dumped this on an already staggering credit card balance. Fortunately, the opportunity to self-publish became very profitable, but it was a long time before I was able to pay down that debt, and even then I made the mistake of not putting extra aside, both for my business and my savings. It's a tough lesson to learn, because with it comes a sense of embarrassment and shame, not to mention a fear of poverty, of losing everything you worked so hard to get.

But here's what we've got going for us. These lessons, these laws of success, are synergistic. They don't work apart from each other, but are finely woven together. The person who puts all these lessons into practice, makes them habits or principles to live by, will have the mindset to succeed in any financial condition. In other words, truly successful people can lose their fortunes and make them back again. Take Steve Jobs, for example. When Apple, the company he founded, ousted him, rather than curl up into a ball he founded a new company, Pixar. Ok, so Jobs wasn't exactly penniless when he did so. But I would be willing to bet my royalties that even if he was, he still would've made Pixar the company it is today. A definite chief aim, combined with self-confidence, a collaborative alliance with others, combined with the habit of savings and perseverance (and learning from one's mistakes, among other things), can ultimately succeed.

But we've got to start. We've got to make saving a habit, not an afterthought. We have to put it at the top of our list and not at the bottom. We've got to take it off the top of our paycheck, and not what's left over, if anything. We can start small. Pennies a day. 5% of our gross pay. 1% of our gross pay. We can give up one thing each month and put it towards our writing business.

Before we can apply organized effort to our definite chief aim (whatever that may be), we have to make the habit of saving our first definite chief aim, and put that into action. This is my greatest challenge. Whattya say we commit to it together.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

self-confidence and the writer: a little affirmation goes a long way

It happens all the time: I see the finished masterpiece, beautifully bound and perfectly published, ready to be read by the masses. My idea, the vision in finished form, has appeared to me during a long walk, a hot shower, a stretch of highway driving. I jot the idea down quickly so as not to forget it. I pat my inner genius on the back. "Well done, Genius," I say. "Aw, shucks," she replies. "I'm just the messenger."

And then I sit down to write it.


The masterpiece? Turns out it was a mirage, and all I'm left with is a blank screen or page. And my genius takes off her mask to reveal a trickster who, in a voice not unlike The Simpsons bully Nelson, just points and says, "Ha ha!"

I'm faced with that moment that all writers face, the source of all writers block: the fear that I am not good enough. That I was never good enough. That what I am about to write is not, was not, never will be good enough.

This might be the greatest obstacle in any writer's success. Napoleon Hill's second lesson in his Law of Success course is Self-Confidence. He says this:
You will find that the one who advances believes in himself [italics Hill's] and herself [I add the feminine pronouns throughout]. You will find that s/he backs this belief with with such dynamic, aggressive action that s/he lets others know that s/he believes in (her)himself. You will also notice that this Self-confidence [capitalization Hill's] is contagious; it is impelling; it is persuasive; it attracts others.

You will also find that the one who does not advance shows clearly, by the look on her/his face, by the posture of her/his body, by the lack of briskness in her/his step, by the uncertainty with which s/he speaks, that s/he lacks Self-confidence. No one is going to pay much attention to the person who has no confidence in her/himself.

S/he does not attract others because her/his mind is a negative force that repels rather than attracts.

I remember years ago, during my very early days teaching composition, when I attended a workshop in which I felt so intimidated by the talent surrounding me, so stupid in their presence, that I kept my mouth shut throughout. Had a camera been on me, I'm sure I would've looked like a deer in the headlights. And I realized that my students probably picked up on this same energy, for this lack of confidence didn't start at the workshop. When I shared this with my mentor, he earnestly assured me that "you belong here" -- in the classroom, the workshop, and the academy. From that day forward, I changed my mindset. I belong here became my mantra. I know this stuff became my follow-up. And, coupled with my taking the initiative to learn as much as I could about teaching composition, the change was instantaneous. Within a year not only was I presenting at workshops (and soon after, conferences), but experienced instructors were astounded to learn that I'd only been teaching for just a few semesters. They would seek advice from me. They would implement my ideas.

A little affirmation goes a long way.

Yes, I had done my homework. I wasn't just faking my way through. But it was the mindset that fueled the initiative, and vice-versa.

This same mindset propelled me to publish Faking It one way or another. Why? Because I believed it was a good novel. I believed it was a well-told story, with good characters and good writing. And yet, when it came to querying agents, I lacked confidence in my ability to write a persuasive query letter, and I'm sure that had something to do with the rejections I received.

However, despite those rejections, I knew I could find an audience for my novel if an agent or traditional publisher couldn't. Or, even better, and audience would find it. Because when it came to networking, I was already confident.

As writers, then, we need to develop self confidence not only in our craft, but in our selling of our product and ourselves. Say it until you know it; loop it in your mind; record and listen to it while you sleep: I am good enough. My writing is good enough. I belong here. How do I know? Because I've written good stuff throughout my life. Because I've sold a lot of books. Because I understand the writing process, and I practice it daily. Because I find joy even amidst the struggle.

Because the trickster, not the genius, is the mirage.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Want writing to be your career? Then treat it as such!

Those who know me well know this: I suck at multi-tasking. Ditto for time management.

Needless to say, I don't get much writing done when the semester shifts into high gear and I'm engrossed in conferencing with students, grading papers, and other teaching-related tasks. As a friend once described it, teaching expends a lot of "psychic energy," and she wasn't talking about fortune tellers. Not just because of the time-consumption, but concentration. I have difficulty focusing on or handling more than one project at a time. Conversely, when I'm engrossed in a novel or under the gun of a writing deadline, my teaching suffers.

It was worse when I had three 4-credit sections, four days a week (50 minutes per session). How would I find time to write? I wondered. And then one day it hit me: I have to make time, not find it. Even if for 10 minutes per day.

But it wasn't just making time to write. I had to make an even greater commitment in that I had to treat writing as a job-- one that paid, came with responsibilities and consequences, a schedule, and accountability. More still, it was a business. If I really wanted to make a living solely as a writer (and it was becoming more evident that I did), then I was going to have to start owning that definite chief aim by giving it the respect it deserved.

And thus, I made the decision: for the time-being, I was going to have two full-time jobs--teaching, and writing.

I've occasionally used the metaphor of teaching as my spouse, and writing as my lover. And many times it did (does?) feel like I was cheating on my spouse, betraying my students, consuming me with guilt, because I couldn't deny that I wanted to spend more and more time with my lover. But teaching was still the main breadwinner. It paid my bills, gave me stability, health insurance and other benefits. How could I walk away from that security? I've lived without health insurance. It's not fun. I was afraid to go back to that. I was afraid to go back to a lot of spaghetti dinners and buying clothes at thrift stores. I was afraid to live like a grad student again.

But was I really happy in this marriage?

And thus, I made the plan: I would gradually tip the scales in the favor of writing. It took years to happen. First, I went to a 2-day schedule (100-minute sessions) per week. Then, following my ebook success, I took an even bigger risk and reduced my courseload (I was still able to retain my benefits). And then, finally, I decided to completely jump off the cliff: resign from my teaching position.

Scary? Hell, yeah. But it's time.

I realize I have an advantage to being single and childless. Given my suckage for multi-tasking and time management, I can't imagine how writers with children (especially moms) and jobs find the balance. How dare I tell them to make time for their writing! And yet, here I am, telling you. If you have a burning desire to make a career as a writer -- as an author -- then put it in motion. Make a plan. Tip the scales. Treat writing as the job that already pays the big bucks, and watch what happens.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

law of success #1: definite chief aim

Unlike other milestones in my life, the decision to self-publish wasn't a "eureka" moment for me. I'd waffled for months before finally deciding that I had enough networking skills to get Faking It into the hands of readers other than my friends and family (almost a year before ebooks were the hot new thing). Even greater than my faith in my networking skills was faith in Faking It. Despite having once believed that I wasn't a fiction writer and not knowing who would want to read this story other than my rhet-comp friends, I had come to believe that I had told a good story, and told it well. And I believed with all of my heart that there was indeed an audience waiting for it. If the publishers didn't want it, then I'd take it to the streets myself.

So I did some research and decided on I learned how to format a Word document to make it look like a professional book, and edited the manuscript to the best of my ability. I learned how to find stock photos, and used the primitive cover design tools at the time to make a cover. I went through several incarnations and mistakes until I came up with the "official" book.

And, with no working capital, I put all this expense on an already well-worn credit card.

Next, I went to work on getting the word out. I had recently gotten a Facebook page as well as a Twitter account. I blogged about my new novel (although by then it was four years old). I followed the lead of others who were finding success with self-publishing, and learned what I could about book promotion. I approached bookstores and tried to set up readings. It wasn't an organized plan, per se, but every attempt served the same purpose: get Faking It into the hands of readers.

I did something else at this time as well. I kept a vision board. (For those who don't know, a vision board is a tool to help manifest an intention. Want to re-do your kitchen? Tack pictures of your dream kitchen onto a corkboard. Want a house on the beach someday? A new job? A relationship? You get the idea.) My vision board included, among other things, a collage of writers I admired (including a photo of Andre Dubus III and me at Quail Ridge Books), slogans like "Go for it," and two strategically juxtaposed cutouts of "New York Times Bestseller" and my book cover. At night, before going to sleep, I would visualize Faking It on displays in bookstores, customers bringing them up to the cashwrap, sitting in coffeeshops and in airports reading.

Little did I know that that vision was going to be actualized, only the "bookshelf" was virtual, and the bestseller list was Amazon rather than the New York Times. And "getting my book into the hands of readers" surpassed my intention and imagination by leaps and bounds.

When I heard about self-publishing on the Kindle and saw Stacey Cochran's success, I thought, "Why not?" It was one more way to get my novel into the hands of readers. You know the rest of the story. All the pieces fell into place after that.

Here's what I'm getting at: The road to success of any kind begins with what Napoleon Hill calls the Definite Chief Aim, a central purpose or intention. But accompanying that must be "organized effort," a plan to actualize this aim or manifest your intention.

The key word in definite chief aim is definite. There can be no second-guessing when it comes to a DCA, no waffling or hemming or hawing. And without organized effort, the aim becomes aimless. Says Hill:
The habit of working with a definite chief aim [italics his] will breed in you the habit of prompt decision, and this habit will come to your aid in all that you do. Moreover, the habit of working with a definite chief aim will help you to concentrate all your attention on any given task until you have mastered it.
It took approximately two years from the time I made the decision to self-publish to the actualization of that vision board. Around that same time I had also made the decision to make writing my primary source of income (a story I will save for a follow-up post). That took even longer. There's no law that says your goals must be actualized in a manner of days or weeks. In fact, persistence is key. And the picture of what you want might morph over time, as mine did. Circumstances or events might cause you to alter the game plan, and that's ok. But your definite chief aim must remain intact.

A nonfiction book proposal is a great example of definite chief aim and organized effort in motion. An author gets an idea for a book. She then systematically presents the idea, the need, the audience, the market, and the plan of completion to an agent or editor. In addition, she provides an outline and sample chapters. In essence, she has just completed a blueprint of her brainchild, and a plan to manifest it. She has set the universal wheels in motion. Some fiction writers work in a similar manner, extensively outlining their novel before beginning to write it.

When I am asked how an aspiring author decides whether to traditionally or self-publish, my first response is, "Know what you want."As an author, set your intention: Do you want to supplement your income? Do you want the prestige of a traditional publisher? (Although some will challenge that such a thing no longer exists, or that the playing field has leveled.) Do you want to be the next Stephen King, or Amanda Hocking? Do you want to simply write your books and not get caught up in all that online social networking and promotion? Are you willing to wear so many hats of a self-publisher? Do you want writing to be your only source of income? Et cetera.

There's nothing wrong with aspiring to have the success of Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyer or Stephen King. There's nothing wrong with saying "I want to make a ton of money from my books. I want to be a mega-bestselling author." There's nothing wrong with a definite chief aim of joining the Kindle Million Club (selling one million Kindle copies). All too often writers are discouraged from having such lofty goals. They're immediately shut down by being told that such successes are the exception, not the norm (not to say that that's not true, but that shouldn't be a reason not to pursue it for yourself), and that wanting that kind of success somehow defiles the art and craft of literature ("real writers aren't rich"). And while I absolutely encourage writers to write what they love rather than what they think is a bestseller, there's no reason that they can't aspire for their book to be one and the same. And although there's always an X-factor to why books become successful, persistence and a plan (as well as creative visualization) go a long way.

I can hear skeptics tell me that I'm selling false hope to my readers right now. But I have too many examples of these practices in my own life (a definite chief aim backed by organized effort) to know that success happens on any scale. The trick is not to attach yourself to the picture as much as to the process.

Other tips:
Make a decision. There's nothing worse than waffling. I know. I've done it. Waffling is the result of fear--fear of failing, fear of poverty, you name it. Sometimes you just have to take the risk and make the leap. And sometimes that's easier said than done. I know that, too. But the very act of deciding brings with it its own special kind of power and energy.

And while you're at it, know why you want what you want.

Make a plan. This is something I'm learning to do in a more specific way, instead of making it up as I go along. Lately I've been really into the idea of the proposal. Write your own proposal, be it for a house or a book or to meet someone you admire. Write it for you, and show no one else, but keep it somewhere you'll see it, and read it often. It's ok if you don't follow the plan precisely, and it doesn't need to be so uber-organized that every moment is accounted for, but it should have some focus.

Tell as few people as possible. I am very secretive when it comes to novel ideas and works in progress. I also keep my vision boards private, and don't share my affirmations or talk a lot about my DCAs of any kind. I find that when I inadvertently announce my plans for something, I'm met with some kind of negative response (also inadvertent sometimes), be it laughing or discouragement or skepticism. Nothing will sap your momentum quicker. No one needs to know. The definite chief aim is yours and yours alone.

Be persistent, yet flexible. Your DCA may take years to actualize. That's ok. Stephen King got countless rejections before he sold Carrie (and were it not for his wife fishing it out of the trash, it wouldn't have been published at all!) The Help got something like 200 rejections. A Pixar film is years in the making. Setbacks happen along the way. Make adjustments, but don't give up, and don't let anyone sway you. If you believe in your book, or your business idea, or your Beetle, you'll find a way to birth it.

Be responsible. Mortgaging your house or going further into credit card debt probably isn't a good plan, especially if you have a family (yes, this is the "do as I say, not as I did" part of the program; but in my defense, I was willing to take the risk -- and responsibility for my actions -- given that I only had myself to support). And competition is a good thing, but unethically sabotaging someone in the process (like stealing someone's great idea) will only bring you trouble.

Know what you want and why you want it, make a plan to get it, and rather than adopting the attitude of "I won't believe it until I see it," make it a practice to "see it when I believe it."

Happy writing.