You Cannot Lose in Writing Decisions

1156284_39977081A lot of students and clients come to me for reasons that seem different, but are actually the same problem at their core: These writers are paralyzed with indecision. It’s usually about what to write, but sometimes it’s about how to write something specific. Maybe it’s both, which is really overwhelming. I’m going to go back to my trusty Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway to offer a solution: There are no wrong decisions. Especially here. We aren’t brain surgeons; these aren’t life-and-death circumstances. You’re simply following your creative impulses, and hoping perhaps that someone else will like them enough to publish them. That’s it. No one is going to die here. The worst possible outcome is that you’ll take longer than you had hoped. (You will almost always take longer than you had hoped.) Along the way, you’ll learn a ton about whatever form you’re writing — a nonfiction book, a novel, a screenplay, an article.

Everything is going to be fine. Now a few specifics from Susan Jeffers in Feel the Fear‘s chapter about “How to Make a No-Lose Decision”:

1. Remember that you can’t lose. As I said, this is especially true for us writers; no life-and-death here.

2. Do your homework. Yes, you should make informed decisions, even if they can’t be wrong.

3. Establish your priorities. Again, we’re not trying to make blind decisions. Think about what you want, then make decisions accordingly.

4. In related news … trust your impulses. Listen to yourself. You know what you want and you know what feels right for you. I cannot tell you how many clients come to me wanting me to tell them exactly which novel idea they should choose or article they should write. I can do this to some extent; I can tell you which ones sound the most fleshed-out or which ones sound like they might have pitfalls that I’ve encountered in my own experiences. And I can help you sort out your own feelings, because I can usually tell when people are passionate about an idea, even if they’re feeling unsure. Passion is the number-one element you need to have behind an idea. Even the best idea is nothing in the hands of a non-passionate executor. This is why I stopped worrying about other people stealing my ideas. They don’t want my ideas. They want ideas inspired by their own passions. Trust where yours are leading you.

5. Lighten up. Seriously. Almost nothing is that big a deal. Calm down. It will be fine, even if it’s a “failure.” That’s the whole point.


Find a Writer Tribe

58251_7227I don’t think there’s any better advice for becoming a “real” writer than surrounding yourself with writers. This was definitely the turning point in my career, when I went from seeing myself as just a working journalist to seeing myself as a Writer. I began hanging out with people who inspired me, who wrote novels and essays and other literary things. They treated me like I was one of them, so I started to believe that I was. I started to pursue a real, live literary career, and it worked!

Some ways you can surround yourself with inspiring fellow writers:

1. Go to readings. Like, small literary readings at independent book stores and bars, not Barnes & Noble blockbusters. This is where I got most of the literary friends I still have. Many local publications will list readings in their events sections. Most independent bookstores have bulletins you can pick up, listings on their websites, email lists, or all of the above. Go to readings, chat others up, and go out for drinks afterwards if you’re invited. Authors love when strangers show up to their readings. They’re sick of begging the same 20 friends to come. You’ll meet lots of like-minded people, and maybe even a few good contacts like editors and agents.

2. Take a writing class. Then make friends there.

3. Join or start a writers’ group. This could be a group that meets weekly to exchange and critique work, or it could be an informal happy-hour type thing.

4. Look for online gathering places for writers, and/or just start following fellow writers on Twitter. I’ve made some serious connections online—it really does work.

What Britney and Beyonce Taught Me About Being an Overachiever

In honor of the Skillshare class I just started about Finding Your Writing Voice, which includes Britney- and Beyoncé-related lessons, I’m sharing this little essay I wrote about these two central figures in my life. This also reflects the lessons of voice: I can’t imagine any piece that’s more “me” than this.

beyonce-strutEven though Beyonce and Britney Spears are two of the biggest pop stars of our time—and have been for more than 15 years!—it’s hard to imagine the two of them breathing the same air, or even living on the same planet. Beyonce is an untouchable deity to whom we all aspire, in every aspect of our lives, but do not expect to ever reach; she is the closest thing we have in modern America to ancient Greek goddesses, but with fewer flaws and weaknesses. Britney is the sweet, Southern girl next door who just happened to become a pop star, like an adult Hannah Montana; she is like your high school friend who’s always been kind-of a disaster, but you love her just the same.

And yet, both women clearly know something about major accomplishments. Beyonce has been dominating pop culture since her 2013 Super Bowl performance and proved her power with a surprise album drop that became iTunes’ fastest seller ever. Britney’s Planet Hollywood Las Vegas concert residency, which launched in December 2013, has now been extended another two years to 2017 after helping to boost the hotel’s annual earnings by about $20 million.

Separated by just three months in age, Beyonce and Britney typify every peril and triumph awaiting modern young women who grow up wanting desperately to succeed and willing to make every sacrifice necessary. Their most recent albums both articulate their visions of success. From Beyonce’s “***Flawless”: “I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches.” From Britney’s “Work Bitch”: “You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch.” Beyonce demands respect and knows she deserves it; Britney wants to earn, and believes she’s made her millions by working harder than everyone else.

There’s a reason I respond viscerally to these songs—and sometimes play them just to get psyched up for work: I’m a lifelong overachiever, and I see myself in both of them. At this point, of course, it’s clear that any of us with Type A tendencies would be better off following Beyonce’s lead than Britney’s. But the particulars of Britney’s public struggles—and Beyonce’s lack thereof—illuminate what is to me the most important lesson for any massive overachiever, especially one who’s female: People who benefit from your hard work will always want more from you, but you don’t have to give it to them.

Beyonce figured this out in the last few years to spectacular effect. She fired her own father as her manager so she’d be the only one making decisions about what she would cram onto her packed agenda or what kind of songs she’d write. Starting with her 2011 album 4, the catchy, girl-power radio anthems she could write in her sleep gave way to artistic risks and vulnerable, raw lyrics. Her profile only rose as a result, climaxing in a superior 2013 that started with the Super Bowl and ended with her album Beyonce changing the record industry and being declared a “masterpiece.” I can think of no better idea to aspire to: making a masterpiece. I remind myself of this whenever I’m working on a book now. Someday maybe I’ll get there.

Poor Britney, on the other hand, continues to be run by a management team that has groomed her to behave like a good little money-printing robot. Even as she shattered before our eyes in 2007, shaving her head and swatting at paparazzi with an umbrella and flashing her panty-free crotch, her team propped her up in the music studio long enough to record an album, Blackout. Granted, the result was her riskiest and best record—thanks to some next-level production by Danja and The Neptunes, not due to any efforts of Britney herself. Then her people pushed her into a way-too-soon “comeback” performance at the MTV awards that proved disastrous when she wandered, zombie-like, across the stage, not even bothering to lip sync.

Perhaps most disturbingly, none of this prompted a major change in the way business was done at Britney HQ. They shipped her off to rehab—robot broken, must fix!—but then she was right back into the recording studio and on the road. She’d never again display the same gleam in her eye and primal desire to entertain that had made her instantly famous with her first single, “… Baby One More Time,” and the accompanying video that bled star quality. We all know “Peak Britney” is likely gone for good, but as long as Britney keeps selling, she keeps performing, almost as if she’s unaware that stopping is an option.

I’ve been rewarded a lot in my life for doing what I was told and working hard. I got good grades, went to a fancy college, and worked my way up from an assistant to a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. When asked to take assignments, I said “yes.” I got promoted. I said “yes” some more. I even got my first book deal by saying “yes” when a publisher was looking for someone to write about the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club; I was qualified because I’d written a lot about the Disney Channel boom of the Miley Cyrus era. I’d written a lot about it because I’d been asked to, and I’d said “yes.” The book was a great learning experience, it paid well, and I’m glad I did it. But I eventually realized I was on my way to losing that gleam in my eyes, too, if I didn’t take Beyonce-style control. I got a new agent, proposed my dream book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and quit my job to freelance so I’d have more say in the assignments I took. Even though the income isn’t as steady, it’s way more fun than doing what people want you to, as it turns out.

Being Beyonce is harder—it requires long-term vision and deliberate decision-making, rather than simply saying “yes” until you break. But being Beyonce is worth it, and nowhere was that more clear than in their most recent albums, Beyonce and Britney Jean. Out within a month of each other, they couldn’t have been more different while still competing on the same record charts. Britney Jean was clearly the weakest of all Britney’s releases, with only two memorable songs, “Work Bitch” and “Perfume,” which served as the singles. (At least her debut album had the transcendent smash “… Baby One More Time,” even if it also included first-album duds like “E-mail My Heart.”) Britney Jean smacked of a slapped-together effort, retreading trends (how novel, a rapper cameo!) instead of setting them the way her previous records did. Accordingly, it sold the worst among all of her albums, even though it was hyped as her “most personal” ever. (Why? Because its title contained her middle name?)

Beyonce, on the other hand, got so personal it would’ve been uncomfortable if the music hadn’t been so good. We got play-by-plays of Beyonce’s every sexual fantasy, from getting it on the back of a limo to receiving cunnilingus to calling her lover “Daddy” to doing it on the kitchen floor to exactly what she does with that ass during foreplay. We learned of postpartum mood swings and jealousy and divorce talks. We heard her declare herself a feminist and tell us, via a Frenchwoman in voiceover, that feminists can love sex. We heard her sing less-than-pretty for effect and get really fucking weird in the best way possible (“surfbort, surfbort …”). It sold great, moving four times as many albums in its first hour than Britney Jean did in its first week. It also turned Beyonce from the pop queen who’s always good for a hook to a respected artist on the order of a Prince or Michael Jackson, an artist whose career outlook is stellar even if she ever wants to give up the dancing in stilettos and wearing fancy leotards on stage.

Despite tabloid rumors that Britney was nearing another epic meltdown after being so soundly trounced by Beyonce on the charts, Britney said in an interview after both albums’ releases that she “looks up to Beyonce.” There’s something so honest, and maybe a little sad, in the wording there: Despite having been a solo artist for longer than Beyonce and selling more solo albums than Beyonce, Britney speaks of Beyonce like a role model. If they were equals, she might say that she “admired” what Beyonce had done with her album, or that she was “impressed” with her.

But Britney should, in fact, look up to Beyonce. They started very similarly, with very similar work ethics, goals, and even entertainment styles. But one figured out how to use her own striving perfectionism to find herself, express herself, and change the world. The other just used hers to please and pay those around her for 15 years running. I can only hope that someday, somehow, Beyonce and Britney end up having a little career chat, and Beyonce drops some serious knowledge. Maybe Britney will read Lean In and invite Beyonce out for coffee to ask for advice? Maybe Beyonce will produce Britney’s next album?

Until then, I’ll be enjoying my Britney playlist as much as ever. But, like Britney, I’ll be looking up to Beyonce.


Finding Your Writing Voice: With Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Beyonce, Britney, and me!

beyonce-knowels-net-worth-1024x768I’ve put together a really fun, short online class — if I do say so myself — about Finding Your Writing Voice for Skillshare. It’s about exactly what it sounds like, focusing just on voice in writing. I often talk about voice in my other classes, and it’s my favorite lesson, so I finally decided to do a self-contained class on just that. In it, I talk about voicey writers like Kerouac and Parker, and I also share my groundbreaking theories about what Beyoncé and Britney can teach us about writing. I also walk you through a final project in which you’ll do your best to write in your very own voice.

Here are the things that are cool about a Skillshare class:

Writers: The Fear Should Never Go Away

Buy it here.

Buy it here.

I’m going to keep sharing little nuggets from Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, as they apply to writing. Today’s thought: As author Susan Jeffers says, THE FEAR WILL NEVER GO AWAY AS LONG AS I CONTINUE TO GROW.

Translation: If you’re never afraid to write, you’re doing it wrong. So it’s a good sign that you’re afraid. Now do it anyway.

You Can Handle It, Writers

In Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, Susan Jeffers says that at the bottom of all fears is the idea that you can’t handle whatever might happen. That means that any fears you have about writing could wash away if you felt that you could handle any of the consequences. And really, what are most fears related to writing? Fear of rejection, of success, of failure, of being vulnerable, of experiencing disapproval.

Come on, people have handled much worse than all of that. You can handle it.

From the Huffington Post.

Writers: What Are You Afraid of … and Why?

58251_7227The first chapter in Susan Jeffers’ self-help classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway is called, “What Are You Afraid of … and Why?” If you’re stuck in your writing, this is a great place to start. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of when it comes to writing … and also, why. If you can answer that, then face down that particular fear, it might just unstick you.

Becoming a Writer Who Writes, Finding Your Voice, Launching Your Career: New Coaching Packages!

1156284_39977081I’ve put together some specific, easy, quick, affordable ways to offer coaching services to writers, based on feedback from my students about the issues plaguing them. I’m really excited to tell you about them and get started. Please note that I’m happy to issue gift certificates for the holidays if you’d like to help another writer reach his or her goals in the New Year. Also: We can do any of these from afar if you’re not in New York — Skype or phone works great.


Special: $399 for six hour-long sessions in the following subject areas:

  • Becoming a Writer … Who Writes: You know you want to be some sort of writer, but have no idea where to begin. I’ll walk you through the early stages in easy, clear steps until you’ve got a concrete plan and routine for moving forward. I’ll help you figure out what you want to write, or at least start with—an obviously critical step. We’ll work together to draft a writing routine that works for your life and even a reading list to keep that important part of being a writer on track. We’ll talk about how to incorporate basics like character, scene, and structure into whatever you hope to write. And we’ll talk about living the “writer lifestyle” on your own.
  • Finding Your Writing Voice: I love talking about voice in writing! In these six weeks, I’ll help you get in touch with the essence of your personality that should come through in your writing. (Yeah, it’s a little shrink-y and Oprah-y, in the best possible way.) We’ll talk about voice from every angle: the lit-geeky (Kerouac, Salinger, The New Yorker) and the pop-star-ish (Beyoncé and Britney might come up). There will be weekly exercises designed to help you find your writing voice (no dancing required, though if you’re feeling it, by all means …). We’ll explore ways to get comfortable with being vulnerable and how motivation strengthens your writing. We’ll also talk about karaoke or opera, if the mood strikes.
  • Launching Your Blog: A complete how-to, from drafting your plans and finding your target audience to setting up and writing. I’ll walk you through the basics of choosing a platform and design, then work with you to fine-tune the writing before you go live. You’ll have a chance to workshop blog posts and ideas, get critiques, and make a blogging schedule. By the final session, we’ll launch your blog with five posts up and another five ready to go.
  • Launching Your Writing Career: You want to be a writer — a published one — but you don’t know where to begin. With this package, you’ll find your writing niche and learn how to get published. I’ll guide you through coming up with specific, attainable writing career goals and drafting plans to accomplish them. By the final section, you will have made progress on — and perhaps even accomplished — three specific writing and publishing goals. And you’ll have action plans for completing all of them.
  • Writing a Nonfiction Book: In this package, I’ll help you figure out your nonfiction book from start to finish: from what your book is about and why anyone would want to read it to researching it to getting an agent.  During the six weeks, we’ll work on your sample chapters, your proposal, your title, and what to do next.
  • Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal in Six Steps: I will walk you through the entire process of writing a nonfiction book proposal in six sessions. We’ll assess your idea, then work on a section of the proposal at each meeting, honing your material and allowing you to get feedback on every part of the proposal. This is for students who have an idea, know they want to write a proposal, and are ready to get it done.

If you’re interested, please email me: JMKArmstrong (at) gmail (dot) com

More affordable options are available as well: Training materials, without the one-on-one consultations, for just $99. (Not available for Launching Your Writing Career, which is a customized program.)


One Quick Way to Refine Your Writing Voice

from iClipArt

from iClipArt

Describe yourself in three (or four, tops) adjectives. Now, make sure those qualities are coming through in what you write. If you’re funny, your writing should be (at times, at least) funny. If you’re erudite, that should be there. If you love pop culture, that should be apparent.

If those qualities are not coming through in what you write, start working to make sure they do. Use what makes you special and weird. Be you. As Dolly Parton said, “Figure out who you are, then do it on purpose.”

Workouts for Writers

You can totally do this 7-minute workout in the middle of your writing day.

You can totally do this 7-minute workout (from the New York Timesin the middle of your writing day.

Yes, I mean actual physical workouts for writers, not writing exercises. Some physical movement almost always comes up when writers discuss their daily routines, and for good reason: Otherwise, writing involves sitting your ass in a chair for hours on end. We all know this basically means we’re going to die of over-sedentary-ness. That’s why everyone’s getting treadmill desks. On the other hand, there are plenty of ways for writers to take a break for some physical activity — while still, in some ways, also contributing to their writing work:

Walking: If you read the great book Daily Rituals, you’ll see that many, many creative people have worked walks into their routines throughout the ages. You’ll almost always come back from a walk inspired, either because you solved a specific writing problem — everyone knows that doing something other than writing is often just the thing for solving problems — or because you saw something interesting on your walk.

Yoga: Many writers I know do yoga. Myself included. It helps calm down the kind of overactive mind writers tend to have; it also has meditative qualities that can help when writing. I’ve written before about how meditation can help your writing as well.

Playing music: Yes, I’m including this in “exercise,” because it has similar benefits — some musical instruments, like the drums, really are quite physically demanding, and all music engages different parts of your brain that can help your writing. Here’s a great piece about how playing the drums can help writers. Listening to music while doing a real workout can help, too; it implants rhythms into your head and allows you to listen to lyrics.

Running, strength, etc.: Really any kind of workout can wake your brain up, either in the morning as a signal that it’s time to work, or in the afternoon when you’re slumping.