The perfect brand is like the perfect pair of jeans.

Last night I came across a wonderful blog post about brand. Can you, the author challenged, sum up your brand in one word? (Check it out here.)

Can we? When I come across people who are skeptical about brand, I tell them that brand isn’t the entire you; it’s a gateway to you and your work. And I don’t care if you say you loathe brand, if you refuse to fit the mold or narrow yourself into a brand. You still have one. You might as well own it.

Brand for authors can be a difficult notion because we’re creative-types, artists, and, often, nonconformists. At one point, I might have been skeptical, too, except that my path as a writer led me to a gig in public relations. Through that job, I met a wonderful group of people—fiercely creative folks who are passionate about their roles in the promotion of our university—and that part-time gig was my gateway drug to brand.

The thing about brands is that they are alive, shifting, and dynamic. Authentic brands feel alive; they writhe with passion and buzz with electricity. Just like us. At our university, we really do live our brand. And no one has to tell anyone to do it. Our brand is not a contrivance, an artifice, or a sales gimmick. It emerges naturally throughout the course of the day, because as a community, it’s who we are.

Like a pair of jeans, your brand should fit like a glove and feel perfectly comfortable.

I insist that a good brand is one that fits like the perfect pair of jeans: snug and comfy. But it’s not so much that we feel comfortable. It’s that we feel confident. We find our stride because it’s just the right fit. Trying to find that “one word” is a great exercise in identifying our brands.

Since we’re writers, I’m going to pull from Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” for an example. Kundera postulates that it’s the things that give our lives weight that make them meaningful. If we strip away those things, life becomes, he suggests, unbearably light. Each of our lives, as individuals and writers, has moments to which we attribute a great deal of meaning: the moment we knew we loved writing, the moment we knew we had to be a writer and damn anyone or anything that stood in our way, the moment we finished our first story. And often times, a theme runs through the milestones of our lives, our stories, and our writing journeys. The moments of our lives shape who we are, personally and creatively.

My word? Soulful. I want to write books with heart, with power, with soul. I believe life and art are a search for meaning. Sometimes I get pissed off at anything that stands in the way of my search for meaning and art. Life means something; art is the search for meaning. And I’m someone with a lot of faith, even if I don’t always know in what.

My blog in many ways is still searching for its shape, its meaning. I hope it helps people, and I’m still finding a way for it to do that. And brand is a part of all that, a taste of who we are, a way to help others understand what we’re all about. Yes, we’re complicated. Much as I enjoy the search for meaning in life, I also enjoy snarky comments, geeky jokes, and the hunt for the perfect pair of shoes. But yes, soulful. The word fits. Life can be hard, lonely, scary, and unfair. It can also be funny, crazy, wonderful, and amazing. I’m all about the journey.

Now, I want to know your word. What word fits you like a comfy pair of jeans? If you were to sum up your brand in one word, what would it be, and why?

A note about an upcoming conference:

In May, I’ll be presenting a workshop called “Your Passion is Your Brand” at the first annual For the Love of Writing Conference, hosted by the Virginia Romance Writers, a wonderful group of fellow writers—some established and bestselling, others, like me, new to the biz—who have helped me find direction in the industry. It’s shaping up to be a great conference, so if you’re a romance writer, I hope you’ll attend. I’m also excited to share my insights into brand, to help fellow authors feel their way out. For many of us, brand is this new, scary thing. For some writers, it feels contrived. My workshop breaks the idea of brand into steps, helping authors create a personalized brand built on their strengths—one that feels comfortable and authentic. If you’re interested in gathering with a great, enthusiastic, and welcoming group of writers for a writing conference at the beach, here’s the link.

Unwritten Bios: How the Places We Live Shape Us

“These fields stretch out like patchwork on my granny’s quilt. She used to tell me, ‘Life is a series of strange and mysterious things.’” –Jewel, “1,000 Miles Away”

The view from Buffalo Mountain in Southwest Virginia

I’m from western Pennsylvania, a distant and strange land also known as Steelers Country. Two college degrees, countless travels, and a few moves later, those mountains still live inside me. I know people who are ashamed of where they come from. And I can’t be. I’m grateful. My ancestors—who came from Ireland and Germany to settle in Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century—made incredible sacrifices for me to have a shot at my dreams. I’ve always known how hard they worked and how much they gave, and I’ve always given life, love, and art all I’ve got.

My great-grandfather worked in the coal mines; most people in my hometown (which is named after the freakin’ coal company, no lie) can trace their roots to the coal companies in some way. It was a shit job, too. He once walked home on a broken ankle. Another time, his clothes burned off in a fire. He was a coal digger before he finally landed a “safe” job riding the back of the cart that went down into the mines to be loaded up with coal. He had to jump off the cart and flip a switch that determined which set of tracks the cart would go down. One day, not long after landing his “safe” job, he was killed when the cart jumped the tracks and pinned him. He was 40 years old. My grandmother told me, point blank, “He had a horrible, miserable life.” I wish he’d had better. If he sacrificed so his children and children’s children and on down the line could have better, I am eternally grateful for it. I try never to waste a day of it.

Now, I’m glad I don’t live in western PA anymore. There wasn’t anything left for me there. The job market had dried up, and my hometown didn’t have much to offer, not even a bookstore. But I still carry the stories of my ancestors with me. Because of their sacrifices, I’ve had amazing chances. I’ve earned two colleges degrees, taught at a major research university, and, best of all, had the chance to practice the craft of writing. I’m a storyteller, and that is an amazing gift, one for which I am eternally grateful.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly six years since I left my hometown. It feels like so much longer. Today, my life is full of a new place, the beautiful mountains of Virginia and the small town I currently call home. No matter where I go, this place will stay with me.

The places we live, even if we leave them, remain inside us. They get under our skin, shaping us in ways we can’t understand until we’re away. I learned about magic and possibilities in the mountains surrounding my family’s farm. I also saw firsthand how fragile the land is, how irreplaceably precious. I’ve seen slag heaps so high they look like mountains themselves and water permanently tainted sulfuric orange thanks to acid mine drainage. But there are many places where the land is not scarred, and unspeakable beauty dwells there: ferns and grapevines, maple and apple trees, and tiny creeks swollen with clear water in the spring.

Today, nature infuses my stories. I can’t help but let it. In so many ways, my stories are born in the natural world. A full moon, a constellation, morning mist at the brow of the mountain, a tree’s gnarled roots, or the ocean’s lullaby—these are the birthplaces of my stories.

What is your unwritten story? How have the places you’ve lived left their traces on your soul?

Learning from Icarus: A Different Kind of New Year’s Resolution

In 2012, I’m taking a different approach to the ol’ New Year’s resolution. It’s not something concrete, as mine tend to be (write 200,000 words, do yoga twice a week, etc.). I’ve settled on something a little different, but far more practical.

For those of you who follow my blog regularly (an act that I truly appreciate, BTW), you know that I’ve made some changes in the last few months. The biggest change is that I quit my teaching gig to give more attention to other areas of my life, especially writing. I have to admit that I’m not always a risk-taker, and leaving a paying job for a non-paying one was certainly a risk.

It’s part of a new approach I’m taking to my life, one I should have taken a while ago. So please, use my tale as a cautionary one, if you’d like, and learn from my mistakes.

I don’t know why, but somewhere along the way, I developed a negative pattern: the inability to say no. Not “no” to drugs or bad ideas. But “no” to opportunities, to good ideas, to exciting chances. It doesn’t sound like a negative thing. How could drive, determination, and ambition be bad? How could saying yes to opportunities be negative? I learned the answer: when doing so pushes you further away from the path you want to take; when trying to do everything leads you to be overworked, uncreative, and burnt out. All work and no play really does make Janelle a dull girl.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tendency to overreach. Like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and plummeted into the ocean, I’ve tended to push myself too far. I stretched myself too thin, wanting to do and be everything: a PR gal, an editor, a writer, a blogger, a teacher, and so on.  I don’t think even Wonder Woman could pull that off.

As a result, my health began to suffer. I worked nonstop from morning until my head hit the pillow at night. I was doing things I liked, but I was too busy and worn out to actually enjoy them. And thus, I worked myself to the point that I burnt out.

Greetings from Hilton Head Island, S.C.

I spent the holiday season in gorgeous Hilton Head Island, S.C., combing the beaches, eating at great restaurants, snuggling up with my hubby, flipping through magazines (my dirty little addiction), and getting some much-needed R&R. And after toying with a number of New Year’s resolutions, I came to this conclusion: My resolution? Treat myself better. Say no. No to overdoing it. No to pushing myself to go jogging when I’m already exhausted. No to working around the clock. I don’t have to accept every opportunity that comes my way. So I’m going to say yes to what I really want out of life: a writing life, a life well-lived, happiness, art and creativity, time with family and friends.

Writing books isn’t just what I want to do; it’s my purpose, my calling, and my dharma. I won’t be truly happy unless I make room for storytelling. This blog is part of that journey, because storytelling isn’t something we do in solitude. It’s a collective journey. We have to listen to ourselves, our characters, and each other.

So 2012 is the year of drawing the line, a year of boundaries. I’m not working at 10 o’clock at night. I’m not working through lunch. I’m not neglecting myself, whether that means nurturing my body or my creativity. So a word to the wise: Just because you can push yourself further doesn’t mean you should. Save the cheetah speed for the big deadlines, not the everyday.

Ultimately, New Year’s resolutions only work if they are part of our larger journey. We have to weave our resolution into our overarching goals. And my resolution is to make time for me—mind, body, and soul. So when you make your resolution, whatever it may be, make sure you’re thinking about what you really want, what you really need in life. What’s most important to you? As my father-in-law recently reminded me, we only get one life. We can choose how we live it. Make a resolution that suits you and where you want to be and go.

Author Louise Behiel offers a list of questions that can help you tailor your resolution and make it a perfect fit this year. Check out her tips here. And Martha Beck, life coach, author, and frequent contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine, gives her advice for how to finally keep that resolution.

Do you have a New Year’s Resolution? What are your goals for 2012? And how does your resolution fit into the bigger picture of your life and your journey?

Creative Blocks and Feelin’ Rebellious

For a rebellious person, I am remarkably straight-laced. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t need drugs or alcohol to have a good time, and, as I already can’t run a mile without my lungs burning like Hades, I can’t figure out why anyone would want to make it worse by smoking cigarettes.

No, I’m not a party girl. I go to bed at 10 p.m., though if my insomnia kicks in, I’ll scribble on the yellow legal pad I keep next to my bed or read a book or magazine. I play by the rules, pay all the bills on time, stick to the speed limit, and park only in the designated areas. I am, for all intents and purposes, a good girl.

Yet I am fiercely creative, passionate about my beliefs, and, as an artist and an intellectual, willing to take risks in these arenas. When it comes to the laws of men, I am tame. When it comes to the vast, uncultivated territories of the heart and self, I am a wild pony. To be an artist, we have to be. An artist’s job, whether her medium is canvas, page, clay, or the stage, is to learn all the rules, see how elastic they are, how much they can be bent, and then to twist and weave those rules into all sorts of unusual shapes. In the wild world of creativity, I am a rebel.

the inner rebel

Lately, my inner rebel has reared her fiery head. Her hair changes every time I see her, from pink-streaked to fire-engine red to un-dyed and uncut, her clothes destroyed and paint splattered or sleek and sequined. Do you have a side of you that likes to rock out to Bon Jovi, driving through town blasting “Livin’ on a Prayer” with the windows rolled down?

Lately, my life has been wrapped up in deadlines and rules, and remarkably little writing has been getting done. My day jobs and chores have taken over. I’ve been feeling restless, yearning to uproot myself and do something spontaneous. Crazy for me isn’t what most people think of. I have no desire to go out and get wild and crazy in the typical sense. I can’t imagine why anyone would.

Crazy for me is a Wiccan ritual under a full moon, a desert yoga retreat in search of serenity, getting my hands dirty in the garden, opening a notebook or blank Word document and following the muses’ furious chatter. Crazy for me is creativity. Creativity is coming alive.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman

Our lives should be a balance of stillness and electricity, yin and yang, the usual and the unusual. When the balance gets thrown off, for me, that’s when the restless rebel rears her head. We all need to play and have fun. When I’m bored and fenced in, the inner artist wonders why I’ve only got two tattoos, why I haven’t lived in Paris, or why I’m ignoring all of the stories and poems that long to fight their way to the surface.

But I know enough now to recognize that I don’t need to hop in my little blue Yaris and drive to Arizona or yank out my passport and catch a plane to London. And I’ve always known that I don’t need parties full of people or glitter in the air. What I need is a blank page, an open mind, and a space for my restless imagination to run wild.

When I’m restless, it’s the wide open space of the page that I’m craving. That’s the artist in me. As long as my creative side has a space of her own, I’m on the right path. Even the quietest, the tamest among us has a rebellious side.

What about you? How do you rebel? What makes you come alive?

Brand Is Not Evil: Learning to be our ‘authentic’ selves

I hear a lot of conversations on the blogosphere and in the Twitterverse about author brand. This is an ongoing dialogue and a topic that won’t go away anytime soon. Maybe in the post-apocalyptic world, we won’t be worried about things like “author brand.” We’ll be too busy pillaging for ammo and trying to take out as many zombies as we can with a single blast from a sawed-off shotgun. But alas, here we are, zombie-free—for now…

I’m currently taking a workshop with the talented and entertaining Kristen Lamb called “Blogging to Build Your Author Brand.” It’s meant to take the fear out of blogging and social media for writers. And you know what? It’s working. Workshop participants are opening up to each other, asking questions and sharing stories and advice. We’re making mistakes, learning, laughing, and creating, just as we do as writers. We’re not learning sales techniques or gimmicks. We’re just being who we are. What we’re learning is how to communicate that more naturally when using technology. We’re learning how to join the conversation.

At my day job, I work in public relations for a large research university. On a daily basis, I weave the university’s brand into my work. I rarely write marketing copy; I mainly write feature articles–narrative journalism. In short, I tell stories.

Now, wait. I know that brand for writers is different than brand for organizations. But at its core, it remains the same. The technique is different, but what brand is doesn’t really change. It changes its shape, but not its essence.

Take, for example, a university. It might have 10,000 students, 100,000 alumni, 1,000 faculty and staff members. It might have sports fans and donors and prospective students and parents of students. And you know what? All of those people have a story. They have a tie–for many of them, a very emotional one–to that school.  And those ties can be powerful things. So what’s a brand? A brand is the common thread that runs through those stories. A brand is the university’s strengths, what it has to offer, what people can expect of it, what it consistently delivers.

People tend to vilify brand or over-complicate it. We think brand is something corporations use to lure in buyers and stay in the black. And maybe sometimes brands are used that way. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only way–or, quite frankly, the right way–to use a brand. The best brands work because they are authentic.

I would argue that a brand is more than just a name + product. At the end of the day, Starbucks isn’t just about coffee, it’s about community. Yasmine Galenorn’s books aren’t just paranormal romance novels, they’re stories about healing, belonging, courage, and seeking meaning and connection in life. They’re about sisterhood and friendship as much as they’re about romantic love. And I love to read her blog because she seems so genuine. She comes off as a very open-minded and compassionate person, but also one who says exactly what’s on her mind.

There are lots of writers out there. But say you write paranormal romance. Well, there are lots of paranormal romance writers out there. So what can we expect of you? Who are you? What do you have to offer? Will you make me laugh? I had to stop reading Jeaniene Frost’s books at night because my laughter roused my husband from a sound sleep. Are you so red-hot we have to take an ice-cold shower after we read your books? Are your books sweet and uplifting? Will you make us cry and then put our hearts back together in the end?

Kait Nolan gave a commenter on her blog some great advice—advice that helped me too, because, while I work with brand for organizations at my day job, applying brand to myself as an author is a different ballgame. She said:

“YOU are the brand. No matter what you write, YOU and your name are the thing that needs branding. That’s what you have when you don’t have books out. You have YOU and the reputation and relationships you build. Which is really what social media is for. … What blogging and social media does is SELL YOU.”

(Check out Kait’s blog post about “Social media Ennui,” which spurred some really great conversations.)

Can we go from hermit crab to butterfly?

Since we’re writers, we are by nature thinkers. Many of us run the risk of over-thinking. Thanks to Kristen and Team WANA1011, I’m starting to come out of my hermit crab shell and be more of my authentic self. It’s impossible to connect and be yourself when you’re hiding away in your hermit crab cage.

Before we vilify brand, maybe we should think of it this way: At its best, brand is genuinely, authentically, and purely us. What draws us to the page? What do we love? What are we passionate about? If we write what we love, brand should come naturally.

No, you are not just a brand. You are a complicated person. We’re all complicated. But you have a brand, whether you realize it or not.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Am I right? Am I just another PR gal, full of crap? Did I drink the Kool Aid? Seriously, I want to know.

Making Dreams Come True: Are dreams just for fairy tales?

As I venture down the path of my life, I have to wonder if we really can make our dreams come true. How much of life is luck, fate, and serendipity?

Perhaps some of life is luck: being in the right place in the right time, writing the right book at the right time, meeting the man or woman of your dreams when you’re both in the right place in life. Well, when it comes to writing books, I think if the book is good enough, it’s always the right time. Fads—vampires, zombies, tropical settings, or yoga—will come and go, but if a book has heart, it will find its place in the world. Because love, death, grief, sadness, redemption, passion, healing—those things never go out of style; life is always full of them. When our books have heart, they will find their place. I believe that.

So how much of life is luck and how much is hard work? There are musicians with extraordinary talent who haven’t won Grammies or signed deals with major record labels. In my hometown, I met a musician named Rachel whose voice could haunt you or move you to tears, it was so beautiful. And she didn’t just have talent, she also had an incredible heart. Rachel was one of those people with a contagious vibrancy. You couldn’t help but be happy around her. Rachel happily taught drum circles at the local heritage center and performed in small coffee houses. She’d found her calling, her heart, her dream. She ran a small nonprofit for disabled children. I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed to be as much of a fulfilled, self-actualized human being as one can be. I was young when I met her, a college student, and she inspired me. Growing up, I didn’t know any artists, but I knew I wanted to be one. Meeting her helped me become a better writer and a better person.

One thing we rarely say in our driven, ambitious, workaholic society is that it’s okay to not want to be the next biggest thing. In the last few months, I’ve started to step back and realize that I don’t want to work three jobs and eighty hours a week. Even if I love everything I do, doing all of it is killing my health. It’s okay to not be Wonder Woman. That’s a lesson I’m still learning. Saying no and toning down my nonstop activity don’t come easily to me, but I’ll keep trying. I am soooo far from perfect. And I kinda like the freedom to make mistakes, even if I don’t like actually making mistakes.

I do believe that dreams come true, as long as they’re realistic ones. At five-foot, I’ll never be a basketball player. Even if I were taller, I have no athletic talent to speak of (a video of me playing tennis could easily become a YouTube sensation). We all have limitations. There are some dreams we can make come true (penning a memoir) and some that are beyond our ability to accomplish (marrying a prince). Some things, like winning the lotto, are just luck. Many are not.

I believe if we want to be published authors or make a living selling our paintings or direct a documentary or design websites or whatever our hearts desire, we can get there. Maybe not right away. It might take five or 10 or 20 years. We might have to take detours. Life gets in the way.

Dreams, if they’re achievable, can be achieved, but we have to set goals and work toward them. We’ll never get a job in marketing if we don’t apply. And we might apply for a hundred jobs before we get one answering the phones for a marketing director. Our first novel, our opus, might be rejected 40 times. It might never sell. It might sell 200 copies. But there are other stories to tell. It’s a long road. At the end, it won’t look like what we thought it would. Real dreams change along the way.

I’ve wanted to be a published author for as long as I can remember. Ten years ago, it was a distant dream. Today, it’s closer. I work toward it every day. I’m determined to make it happen. I believe in making our dreams come true.

What are your dreams? What goals are helping you to make your dreams come true? What dreams have you made come true, and how did you make those dreams a reality?

Big Decisions: Sitting out a dance

pretty in pink photo from www.sxc.hu.When I was twenty, a journalism professor gave me some of the best career advice I’ve ever received: “You’re the belle of the ball. Dance with everyone.” He meant, “If an opportunity comes up, you take it.” When it comes to your job, take every opportunity you’re given.

And I have. And you know what? It’s served me well in the years since then. So well, in fact, that (*knock wood*) I’m finally in a position I never thought I’d be in. The position to say, “No, I’m gonna sit this one out.” I never thought that day would arrive.

For the time being, I’m putting my teaching career on hold. (For those of you who don’t know, I have taught an advanced PR writing course at a university for the last few years.) I finally told the department yesterday that I wouldn’t be teaching in the spring. This decision has been weighing on me for a while now. I’m making serious progress in my fiction writing career. I’m finding my voice as a blogger, my footing as a social-media user, and revising a few manuscripts to query. I have a plan, specific goals, and a path. And I’m really, really freakin’ happy about it.

ballet dancerBut I had arrived at the point where I was dancing the tarantella instead of waltzing. And long-term tarantella is bad on the body, the mind, and the soul. My brain was turning to mush, which was killing my creativity and taking a toll on my health.

That’s not to say I’ll never teach again. I’m fairly certain that I will, because I consider teaching to be a very fulfilling vocation. Saying no to teaching—even temporarily—was a difficult choice. It’s a short-term sacrifice for a lifelong dream and long-term goal: pursuing my writing career. But there will be other dances.

I can’t help but feel that I’m setting out on a new path, starting a new chapter in my career. New chapters are scary, but also exciting. And I’m excited to see what words I will pen—and oh, yes, the places I will go.

Thanks to all my blogging buddies, Twitter peeps, and Team WANA1011 for sharing your writing experiences, thus helping me screw my courage to the sticking place and make this decision. Y’all rock! 🙂 (And yes, I went from Seuss to Shakespeare in under 10 seconds. Is that a record?)

Have you ever reached such a turning point in your career? What big decisions have you made in order to follow your dreams?

What I’ve learned from love: How to build a writing life—and a life, period.

In 2009, I lost my grandfather to pancreatic cancer. It was a short battle. He was diagnosed a few weeks before my wedding; he died two months later.

In the way he lived his life, he taught me how to love, how to be a good person, how to lead a good life. He wasn’t wealthy or famous. He’d worked in a coal mine, fought and was wounded in WWII, and worked in maintenance at my future alma mater.

But the day of his memorial service, the funeral home was packed with people. Some hadn’t seen him in thirty years, but they remembered when he’d helped them rebuild their house after the flood; they remembered the kind of man he was. He wasn’t perfect, but he was generous, and he had a strength of spirit, a contagious warmth and happiness, and a sense of pride that came from everyday, simple things. No one was ever prouder of their family than he was; no one ever loved deeper than he did.

In life, it’s easy to get caught up in the game. We want to be published writers, achieve some measure of financial success, or save up for a rainy day or our golden years. And those are all important things. But they can’t be end goals.

A year ago, I first started seriously researching my path as a writer. I found out about the indie writer scene via writers like Kait Nolan. I joined Virginia Romance Writers, where I met writers like Shara Lanel and Nara Malone, who taught me about small epubs and the world of digital publishing. I learned about POD, which allows smaller publishers to offer print versions of books without having to do large press runs. I bought a Kindle and got hooked on the digital book scene. I learned more about how the publishing industry works and what I should expect.

What I’ve learned from my family is that work is important, but it’s only one part of our lives. We have to choose the writing path that works for us as individuals, one that allows us to meet our personal and professional goals. I’ve put in some long, hard hours of introspection. I’m still finding my path, and I know that my journey will be full of changes and surprises I didn’t anticipate.

Whether my book sells a hundred copies or a million, my grandfather would’ve been equally proud. I know my husband will rejoice for me the day I sell my first book, but my worth in his eyes and in that of my friends’ and family’s is not based on my rank in sales.

Author Michelle Davidson Argyle wrote in a blog post entitled “Publishing is Like a Hot Love Affair”:

In the end it all depends on what you want as an author. Don’t kid yourself thinking there’s only one way to publish or that any path is easier than another. And don’t jump into that hot love affair with your eyes closed. It’s a wild ride and one that could end really ugly if you don’t research, gain a great amount of patience, and work hard every single day. Luck only happens to those who put themselves in its path.

Art matters. Writing matters. Craft matters. But we write about life. That’s why having options as writers is so important. Whether you go Big Six, small press, indie, or a combination thereof, your path will be the one that you feel is right for you.

It’s not about doing what’s the easiest or hardest, what’s most ambitious or most comfortable. Your writing goals have to align with your personal goals. If the rebel in you screams indie and you believe you can pull it off, go for it. If you say it’s Big Six or bust, pursue it. We have to be true to ourselves and our values. We have to know what’s truly important to us or else risk getting caught up in the rat race and losing ourselves.

Accessed at stock xchng.Springsteen was born to run; I was born to write. But I live for late-night laugh fests with my best friends, for Saturday morning family breakfasts, for kisses and stargazing, and for the tiny moments that bring me happiness or deeper awareness. My stories and publishing journey will always incorporate those things.

And what about you? What’s your path? How does it align with your personal goals? What guides your footsteps on your writing journey? And how have the ones you love inspired you?

The trouble with being a perfectionist

Are you a writer-perfectionist? Here are some ways that I knew I was:

  • I had to ask one of my bridesmaids for a pen five minutes before I walked down the aisle because two sentences in my wedding vows were “redundant.”
  • I once copyedited the text on a napkin. That’s right, a napkin. (I resisted the urge to tell the waitress, “Do you know there’s a typo on your napkins?” But just barely.)
  • I develop facial tics when I find errors or formatting inconsistencies in my work post-publication.
  • I have trouble letting go of work because it’s not as good as it can be. Nothing is ever “done.”

It’s almost a joke that, when asked by an interviewer what we consider to be our greatest weakness, many of us respond, “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” That’s usually followed by a laugh and a look from the prospective boss that says, “No, seriously.”

We often equate being a perfectionist with being a hard worker and having high standards. Neither of the latter two is a bad thing. Making a career as a writer, deciding that, in fact, this isn’t a hobby but a genuine and feasible vocation, is hard work. It’s not for the faint of heart. And readers, editors, and agents will have high expectations for our work, so we need to hold ourselves to those same standards.

But sometimes perfectionism is an excuse. We keep piddling with a work revising and revising and revising, until our brains seem to be made of Jell-O or we feel like a dog chasing its tail. We don’t query agents, submit to editors, or even send work to beta readers or critique partners because the WIP isn’t the best it can be. Or maybe we do share it with our trusted critiquers, but hold off on sharing it with the larger world. Is it really perfectionism that’s holding us back? Or is being a perfectionist really a stand-in for fear: fear of success, of failure, of being judge?

WARNING: Unnecessary, crazy-making perfectionism can lead to hair-pulling, premature wrinkles, and a general sense of angst.

Here are two scenarios in which perfectionism stood in the way:

One of my friends is working on her thesis. She spent years working on it before finally sharing it with her thesis committee, holding off until the very last minute. Why? Because when she writes something, she wants it to be perfect. I urged her to just write a crappy first draft and then revise, but every page she wrote, she revised as she went. It took her longer to write this way, in my opinion, because she constantly had to switch roles from writer to editor, back and forth. Being a perfectionist meant she took the long route.

I was once charged with writing an article about our university’s role in the wine industry. A lot of higher ups were very excited about the article and had high expectations. I’d written for a few issues of the magazine, but this was the biggest project I’d worked on to date. Deadline arrived and I had a ton of quotes and background research, but no finished product. I was frozen, paralyzed by the thought of disappointing readers and my bosses. Finally, a friend told me, “I think if you settled for what you consider to be mediocre, your standards would still be five times higher than most people’s.” Huh. Her words allowed me to let go of expectations and just write. And you know what? To this day, I’m proud of that article and consider it one of my best. I gave myself creative freedom and wrote a strong, engaging article. My department VP even gave a rave review—and he’s not someone who doles out compliments easily.

Perfectionism can be the mask worn by plenty of other creatures. It can really be self-doubt, or it can be that we’re not sure how to proceed. We allow ourselves to get lost muddling through details because the big picture or the next step overwhelms us. In short, perfectionism can be procrastination. And procrastination can be fear in disguise because, let’s face it, it’s easier to admit that we’re lazy than it is to admit that we’re scared.

Overachievers will always be overachievers. And there’s nothing wrong with high standards–as long as they don’t prevent us from writing, finishing a manuscript, sending it to agents/editors, or even posting on our blogs. Not even the best book is “perfect.” A book can be riveting, suspenseful, well-crafted, engaging, provocative, excellent–an all-around great read–but it can never be perfect.

Somewhere inside of us lurks a a perfectionism beast. If it escapes from its cage, it can slow us down or, even worse, derail us. I’m starting to learn that if left untamed, this creature can, at the very least, be a one-way ticket premature wrinkles and stomach ulcers.

How do you confront your inner perfectionist?

Yet another confession from a lifelong paranormal junkie: I used to be a vampire slayer.

This is how much of a dork I am: When my brother, cousin, and I were younger (I’d so, oh, about ages 10-11), we started our own vampire-slaying business.

Buffy

Okay, so I was no Buffy...

The trouble had started long before then. It started as an innocent interest in fireside ghost stories and Are You Afraid of the Dark? and progressed to an addiction to R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. In the years to come, I’d discover his Fear Street series and the works of L.J. Smith, and my obsession would be solidified for life. But once my brother and I started buying up books about vampires, zombies, and other bump-in-the-night phantasms and creatures, we knew that there was only one solution. Vampires couldn’t just roam the streets of our town, preying on unsuspecting old ladies who mistook them for encyclopedia salesmen or on giggling teenagers completely unaware of the dangers that lurked in the dark recesses of the high school gymnasium. Did I mention we were Buffy fans? (The movie, that is. My addiction to Joss Whedon’s works for television came later.)

And so Vampires Inc. was born. Armed with freshly gathered stakes, cloves of garlic, and jars of “holy water,” we were at your service, ready to meet any and all of your vampire-slaying needs. We even wrote a manifesto including tips for how to protect oneself against the pale-skinned, smooth-talking undead. (In my defense, we didn’t have cable, and this was in the days before Internet. We had to do something to keep ourselves entertained.)

Eventually, our mother made us take down the “vampires not invited” sign from the front door, our dog chewed up all of our stakes, and we moved on to less lofty endeavors. But I can’t help but think that somehow, it’s all my brother and cousin’s fault that I became an incurable geek with an insatiable interest in the strange and unusual. Thanks, guys.

Are you a writer or fan of the paranormal or fantastic? When did this interest take hold for you? Please share your story below.

Side note: Free stuff! Something about autumn makes me feel generous. Must be all the candied apples. 🙂 I’m giving away a $10 Amazon gift card. Click here to enter. And my crit partner Kathleen Foucart is offering two chances to win a free first-chapter critique. Click here to find out how to enter.