How to Sidestep Perfectionism and Rediscover Joy in Writing

I haven’t worked seriously on a picture book for years.

Although I do fine during the planning and conceptualization phases, perfectionism kicks in as soon as I actually start to try to write the text. My inner critic gets a front row seat, where she can peer over my shoulder, megaphone in hand, and shout warnings at me. “That rhyme is boring!” “The rhythm’s shaky!” “Your word choice isn’t original or evocative!” –and so on and so on.

If I slip up and give her any attention at all, my inner critic starts in on the big picture criticisms. Your story concept is unoriginal—you’re not really a picture book writer—you freeze up when you try to write poetry—so why are you wasting time here?


But I figured out how to sidestep my inner critic and her megaphone. I don’t try to shut her out or argue or contradict her — I just smile and nod and keep on writing, because none of the criticisms actually apply. You see, I’m writing in pretty colors on unlined paper, which isn’t really writing. And I’m not writing a PICTURE BOOK; I’m simply playing with words, creating long lists and fitting together lines like so many puzzle pieces.

Besides, half the time I’m “working” in my PJs, curled up in bed with a cup of hot chai. How serious can it be?

By using this technique, and limiting the amount of time I’m “allowed” to work on my story, I’ve made it so that my mind can’t stop playing around with ideas. Phrases pop into my head while I’m walking the dog or relaxing in the hot tub. And despite two days when a virus pretty much knocked me out of commission, I’ve drafted half the story in the past week. Is it perfect? No! But it’s a solid start, the sort I might be able to revise into something actually worth submitting someday.

Does perfectionism get in your way when you’re trying to write?

It’s tempting to tackle perfectionism head on. We become self-analytical, searching for cognitive distortions and, when we find them, arguing about them with our perfectionistic alter egos.

I think that this sort of self-analysis and deep thinking can be helpful—but it can also create an unwanted distraction that prevents you from writing.

After all, if you’re journaling about cognitive distortions, black-and-white thinking, and unrealistic expectations, you’re not writing your story. If the “goal” of perfectionism is to avoid criticism or rejection, then doesn’t that mean perfectionism wins?

The unwritten story can’t be rejected…but it can’t be read, either.

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How to Actually Stay Inspired and Energized AFTER Your Conference

First, I have to apologize for last week’s lack of posts. Our regional SCBWI fall conference (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators, for the uninitiated) was this past weekend, and somehow my normal blogging time disappeared in printing, packing, checking lists…You get the picture!

But the conference went off with nary a hitch. IMHO, this was the best lineup of authors, editors, and agents our conference has hosted in years–and I have permission from several speakers to share my sketchnotes from their sessions! Expect to see them in the coming weeks.*

Now it’s 6:22 PM Sunday night and I’ve only been home for an hour or so. I’m simultaneously

  • exhausted from a weekend of being “on” (always an energy drain for an introvert!) and
  • energized by the connections with new and existing writer friends and
  • exhilarated by all the fantabulous new ideas for stories, articles, characters, and rewrites bouncing around in my head.

Oh yeah–I’m also a little overwhelmed, because where the heck do I start with all of that?

From experience, that feeling of overwhelm will increase. Also from experience, that feeling of exhilaration and the sense of being full-to-bursting with fantastic ideas will also fade.

From speaking with other writers, I know I’m not the only one to go through this disheartening progression. Don’t worry, though–I’m not writing to discourage you! Au contraire, I’m writing to share with you my tried-and-true, step-by-step plan for How to Actually Stay Energized and Inspired After Your Conference forward through the coming weeks and months. In other words, I want to share how you can get the most from your conference experience over the long term!

During the Conference

Already finished with your conference? Read this section anyway. These steps can still be implemented after you return home.

Step 1. Reflect on each day

I’ve found it helpful to set aside a few minutes at the end of each day–or during an afternoon break–to review the day’s notes. This is when you can start adding items to your master Inspiration List (below) or To-Do list. You might jot down things you found especially meaningful, things you want to make sure you remember.

It’s also helpful to glance over your notes from presentations, critiques, and other conference sessions. Check to see if someone would understand their meaning if they hadn’t attended the same session. No? Then you probably won’t understand your notes, either, after a month or so has passed. Take time to clarify what you’ve written. If you come up with questions, you still have time to track down the speaker and ask!

Step 2. Keep a master “Inspiration List”.

Conferences tend to be highly inspirational. I came home with several ideas for new picture books plus renewed vision for some old manuscripts currently sitting on my shelf. However, those ideas ended up as jotted notes in the margins of various pages of my notebook. After the first day, I created a “Master Inspiration List” and collected the various tidbits of creativity in one location. That way, I’m far more likely to remember them and put them to use.

Step 3. Keep track of names and contact info for new writer, editor, and agent connections.

After last year’s conference, I had a list of names and emails for people I wanted to keep in touch with. People I was sure I would remember…but then I didn’t do anything with that list for weeks. By the time I pulled it out and dusted it off again, I couldn’t recall where I’d met some of those people or what we’d had in common.

Fortunately, I learned my lesson before the conference I attended this past June. I collected names and addresses, but didn’t let them languish unattended until I forgot about them. This time, I consolidated them on a single notebook page, which I stored with my conference notes. I sent emails to remind people of how we’d connected and saved their responses to a special “Personal Connections” folder.

It’s up to you to decide what information you want to save and where. Perhaps you want to stay connected to a fabulous author you heard speak–then send a quick email message to let them know how much you enjoyed their presentation, or simply to say “thanks” for the opportunity to get to know them. Save your messages in a folder dedicated to writing related friends and contacts. Or maybe you want to remember a particular editor you think might be a good fit for your work someday–you could create a spreadsheet, Word document, or Evernote notebook to store that editor’s name, house, where you met, and a few notes about them.

The key here? Keep it simple! Make sure that you create a system that’s

  1. easy enough to use that you’ll actually use it, and
  2. intuitive enough that you won’t forget how it works when the next conference rolls around.

After the Conference

Step 1. Review Your Notes

  • Make sure your notes make sense. In your rush to copy down information, did you leave out any key words? Essential transitions? Try to reread your notes with a fresh eye to make sure they will make sense later, when you’ve forgotten the context. (If you went through step 3 of “During the Conference,” you’ve got a head start on this process!
  • Highlight or star key information. What ideas did you find especially helpful? What information do you want to be able to find easily 6 months down the road? Judicious use of colored pens or highlighters can make your notes easy to scan–helping you create a fabulous source of future inspiration.
  • Record your insights. Any insights into your writing projects? These might arise from writing exercises you did during a workshop, or from a speaker’s words that really hit home, or from a critique. Don’t let those flashes of insight go to waste. Definitely don’t trust yourself to “just remember” them! Instead, record the key information someplace where you’ll see it the next time you work on that project.

Step 2. Get Organized

This step is easier if you start during the conference. Even if you did get a head start, though, it’s important to spend some time organizing your stuff after your return home. I guarantee you’ll find things you missed!

  • Record deadlines. Do you plan to submit to any of those wonderful industry professionals you met during the conference? Many editors and agents allow attendees to submit to them post-conference, even if they normally accept submissions only from agents or by referral. However, some only do so during a limited window available of time–in which case, you need to get their deadlines on your calendar and get to work.
  • Add items to your to-do list. What action did the conference inspire you to take? What deadlines do you need to remember? Put them on your calendar, your to-list, your wall–whatever you use to stay inspired and focused day-to-day.

Step 3. Add to Your Inspiration List

The evening or day after the conference is a great time to review your notes and ideas and use them to help you brainstorm more ideas. The truth is that you probably didn’t have time to pursue every idea sparked by every session while you were at the conference. Take time to follow up on those stray thoughts before their trail grows cold!

Step 4. Track Your Peeps

Did you meet any amazing authors or illustrators you want to remember or keep in touch with? Any agents or editors you think might be perfect for your work–even if you don’t plan to submit to them right away? Create a single place where you can record names and information to help you to remember

  1. WHO these cool people are and
  2. WHY you want to remember them.

Sales reps use CRM (customer relations management) software to help them track contacts, but you probably don’t need expensive software. Consider using an email folder, MS Word document, Evernote notebook, or whatever else feels most comfortable.

Step 5. Follow Up

Did any authors offer to email their slides to attendees–like the fabulous Jen Halligan did after her 2014 presentation on book promotion? Or did a speaker volunteer to create a handout of key points–like the illustrious author/speaker Erin Dealey, at this year’s conference? Make sure you send your follow-up email ASAP!

I've put together a handy checklist that sums up these steps for you--sign up now to access, and prepare to be inspired!

*Unfamiliar with the concept of sketch notes? Then go IMMEDIATELY and read about how sketchnotes can “level up” your creative process. And read about practical ways writers can use sketchnotes. Go on, shoo! Sketchnotes will help you pay attention, organize your notes in a way that’s meaningful to you, create notes that are easy to scan for information after the fact–plus they’re plain old fun! You get to use pretty colored pens and everything :D.

Powerful Ways to Counter Perfection’s 7 Most Common Lies

With the holiday weekend, I’m taking a break from blogging this week…but don’t worry! I’ve got a great post that will probably be new to most of you. Check out this post over at the Wild Writers, where I blog with my critique group.Use What Talent1

There should be a support group…

…for perfectionist writers. We’d all start off by introducing ourselves: “My name is Cheryl, and I’m a perfectionist” and then go on to share our stories of identifying, struggling against, and, perhaps, overcoming perfectionism.

I like this idea because perfectionists have a surprising number of traits in common with addicts.

  • We’re good at denying we have a problem
  • We often misdiagnose the problem (eg, thinking we’re lazy or disorganized)

Perhaps most important, perfectionists and addicts share many of the same cognitive distortions.
Head on over to the Wild Writers blog to learn more about perfectionism–and how to keep it from holding you back as a writer!

5 Weird Ways to Delight Your Readers with Interactivity

want to engage readers_When you hear the word “interactivity,” what pops into your mind? Probably ebooks with linked content or apps with built-in games and personalization features. Your mind probably turns to digital solutions and transmedia storytelling–which are great, but might not be your cup of tea.

But did you know that you can make your writing interactive without adding digital bells and whistles? This post takes a look at five weird and wonderful ways that you can bring interactivity to your writing. Enjoy!

Technique #1: Repetition, Rhyme, and Rhythm

brown bearAs any parent of small children knows, little kids love to listen to the same story over and over and over. Many picture book authors use elements such as rhyme and repetition to connect with their young audience. Little kids love the opportunity to recognize patterns and join in on the “chorus”.

Bill Martin‘s classic children’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, provides a great example. The question “Brown bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” is repeated throughout the story, with modifications for each new animal and each new color. The repetition encourages young readers to join in for each question and answer.

2. Provide an Activity

ActivityAuthors can encourage readers to interact with the story by including activities that complement the text. That’s what Steve (the Dirtmeister) Tomecek does with several  “Try This!” sidebars in his new title Dirtmeister’s Nitty Gritty Planet Earth. The simple experiments demonstrate key concepts in the book. They’re also lots of fun, like the “Layers of Time” experiment–in which readers create a science experiment they can eat!

Author/illustrator Roxie Munro invites younger readers to help delivery vehicles find their way through eleven intricately drawn mazes in her picture book Market Maze. Each illustrated spread also includes hidden objects for readers to find.

3. Talk Directly to the Reader

PigeonBustMo Willems’ classic Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus begins with the bus driver speaking directly to readers.

“Hi! I’m the bus driver. Listen, I’ve got to leave for a little while, so can you watch things for me until I get back? Thanks. Oh, and remember: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”.

In the next spread, the pigeon arrives on the scene… and proceeds to try to talk the reader into letting him (of course!) drive the bus.

What better way to delight young readers than to invite them to tell a story character “no!”

B. J. Novak similarly invites reader participation in his hilarious read-aloud, The Book with No Pictures. It begins:

BookWithNoPictures_3D-300x423“You might think a book with no pictures seems boring and serious. Except . . . here’s how books work. Everything written on the page has to be said by the person reading it aloud. Even if the words say . . .


“Even if the words are a preposterous song about eating ants for breakfast, or just a list of astonishingly goofy sounds like BLAGGITY BLAGGITY and GLIBBITY GLOBBITY.”

As the text becomes more and more ridiculous, the author encourages the child–who’s presumably listening to the story–to make sure the adult reader is actually saying all those crazy words!

4. Provide a Puzzle.

WildDiscoveriesFrontCoverKids love to figure things out for themselves, so you can practically guarantee reader engagement by giving them a puzzle to solve. That’s what Heather L. Montgomery does when writing about the wildly striped psychedelic frogfish in her book Wild Discoveries: Wacky New Animals.

Just like you are the only person with your FINGERPRINT pattern, each frogfish has its own set of stripes. If the fish to the left committed a crime… Could you pick it out of this lineup?”

She doesn’t underestimate her readers, either. This is no easy puzzle to solve!

5. Ask Questions.

101questionsAlice Jablonsky’s 101 Questions About Desert Life is written as a list of questions and answers. Its format encourages the reader to page through and find her own question rather than reading the book from start to finish—especially because many of the questions sound like they arose directly from a school classroom!

Heather Montgomery also invites readers to think like a scientist by sharing unanswered questions with them. For example, when she introduces the giant stick insect known as Chan’s Megastick, she asks readers,

Are these facts true for Chan’s megastick? Since ONLY THREE have been found so far, we’ll have to wait to find out!”

Interactivity Encourages Readers to Engage

You can use interactive elements to help illustrate a tricky concept; to spark questions and discussion; or simply invite kids to play in your story world. Whatever type of interactivity you bring to your writing, though, it can help you get–and keep!–your readers’ attention.

So what are you waiting for? Give it a try!