Improve Your Focus: Try the Writer’s Magic Bowl

Do you have trouble maintaining your focus while writing? Are you easily distracted by things around you? Do you get up and down to get drinks or snacks? Do you wander over to email or social media? Do you stare out the window every few minutes? I do.

All of these can quickly become built-in habits that are hard to break.

There are many ways writers can improve their focus on writing and break bad habits. You can use timers, turn off notifications, or write on a cleared screen. All of these are great methods. But sometimes those are not enough. You just have to break the habit. And a magic bowl might be the perfect way to do that.

What is a Magic Bowl?

James Clear in Atomic Habits suggests that one of the keys for changing a bad habit is to make the new habit replacing it more attractive. Habits according to him are dopamine-driven feedback loops. Anticipation of a reward will get us to change our habitual pattern, and we will get the same gush of good feeling.

He also suggests that the reward be simple and easy. One of the ideas he suggests is to take a jar and put a paper clip in every time you do not succumb to whatever habit you want to change and instead follow through on your new habit. Over time the jar will fill, and you will gain a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. For example, every time you start to get up and get a snack and you DON’T, you put a paper clip in the jar and then continue on writing.

However, a jar and paperclips are boring and small, and I found after trying this method for a while that I would forget to add the paperclip and eventually the old habit would come back.

That’s when I decided to design my own Magic Bowl. I wanted something that would be easy to see my accomplishments, that was beautiful to look at, and most importantly made a lovely reinforcing sound. After all, we are more likely to do something if it pleasures our senses.

Create Your Magic Bowl

Would you like to try the Magic Bowl trick? Here’s how to make one. You will need a container and some counters. Begin by looking around for a beautiful jar. It doesn’t have to be large. Clear or colored glass is a good choice because it allows you to see your success build up. It also makes a nice sound when you drop in carefully selected counters. Ceramic or metal are other good picks. I chose a low-sided brass incense holder that sits on my desk. I can look down and see my counters inside, and it makes a ringing sound when I drop in my glass beads.

For your counters, select small, attractive objects about an inch in diameter. Do you have a collection of stones or seashells? Natural objects that have a special meaning or unique texture will increase the pleasure of changing your habit. But other objects can work just as well. Perhaps you have a button collection or some colorful marbles. Or try metal wingnuts, LEGO blocks, metal bottle caps, tiny plastic figurines, or whatever strikes your fancy or matches the theme of your writing. The important thing is that they are more visible than paper clips and that the counters make a great sound when dropped into your chosen container.

How to Use Your Magic Jar

Now you are ready to change your writing practice and improve your ability to stay focused. Choose the distraction you want to eliminate and add a counter every time you resist that behavior. Slowly the jar will fill, and you will be able to admire it and know that you are conquering your selected habit.

Decide how long you will fill the jar. It could be done each day or for a week or until the entire writing project is completed. The exciting moment comes when you empty out the jar and feel the satisfaction of knowing you have increased your ability to focus and either broken a bad habit or created a good one.


To learn more about the relationship between maintaining focus and writing creatively see my top-selling writing guide: Fast Draft Your Manuscript And Get It Done Now


What do you do to stay on task?

Why, How, and What Writers Should Read

~ Do you write? Are you a reader? ~

You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

 Stephen King On Writing


I  Love to Read. Do You?

Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. If I had my way, I would send many hours a day immersed in a book. For this reason, being a professional writer makes perfect sense for me. To be a successful writer, I can justify my hours inside a book as a job essential.

Next time someone questions why you have books stacked from floor to ceiling, or why you are too busy reading to pay a social call, use one of these delicious excuses.


carrying books

Why Writers Should Read

  • To be inspired
  • To absorb literary language
  • To learn new words
  • To develop empathy through identification with characters who are not like you
  • To keep your brain active
  • To escape your everyday world
  • To become a better reader
  • To find writers you love.
  • To support fellow writers

books in a basketHow Writers Should Read

Okay. So now you have explained those piles of books. But how should you approach them as a writer?

  • Read for structural ideas
  • Read to discover what will excite readers
  • Read to analyze structure, character, and plot
  • Read to study the voice and pacing of different authors
  • Read to see what works and what doesn’t in storytelling
  • Read to see how theme and motif can be expressed
  • Read to discover writers who write like you do. and those who don’t
  • Read to see what writing techniques work and what ones don’t
  • Read to find comparables to use in your query

 


 

What Writers Should Readwriting books

Do you tend to read the same kinds of books all the time? Branch out and try some of these.

  • Genres and styles you write in
  • Genres and styles you don’t write in
  • Books set in places you write about
  • Books set in places you have never been
  • Nonfiction books about writing
  • Nonfiction books about self-actualization
  • Books about marketing and running a business

AND…

  • Stephen King’s On Writing – the book every writer must read

 

 

 


The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… Constant reading will pull you into a place… where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.

 Stephen King On Writing

 


What are you reading right now?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

3 Steps to Renew Your Writing Life

~Renew Yourself~ 

Are you stuck in a rut? Do you sit down to write and do the same things every time? Turn on the computer? Open your draft? Stare at the page? Then pray the words come? I do. For the past month, I have thought long and hard about ways I can renew myself as a writer.

Renewal quote

RENEWAL is not change. Change means to transform or give something a totally new form—like writing my novel in a journal or using a speech-to-type program. But the basic writing process is not one we can totally remake.

I don’t know about you, but no matter what CHANGES I make, I am still going to have to turn on the computer at some point and type words if I want to get my book written in a format I can send to editors.

So how can I bring renewal to this process? The key I have decided is to focus in on that little word inside renewal—new.” Here are three things I came up with to make typing my novel draft new each morning.

ONE

Move the computer to a new location. Find a spot with a view or a different view. Work outside on a nice day. Try another room or a porch. Or even someone else’s porch.

TWO

Invigorate your fingers. Instead of unconsciously dropping your hands on the keyboard and chugging away, take a moment to do a simple set of hand movements. I have a collection of stones from which I pick one and roll between my hands or pinch between my fingers, and rub over my palms.

Or you can do one or two of the many finger exercises found on the web. (Here is a slideshow of six such exercises https://www.sharecare.com/health/bone-joint-muscle-health/slideshow/hand-exercises ) Increase the feeling of typing anew by repeating this finger action every once in a while as you type, perhaps at the end of scene or a chapter and feel your hands and fingers find new life.

THREE

Renew your brain. Instead of diving into your manuscript, take a moment to breathe deeply and oxygenate your brain. Deep breathing has been shown to increase one’s attention span so you will be able to focus on your writing longer. Repeat every time you come to a natural stop or run out of words to write.

Keep the practice simple. Here is the method I use. Sitting straight in my chair, I inhale as deeply as I can through my nose and then exhale as slowly as possible through my mouth. I do this about ten times and then start writing.

Life depends on renewal and change


What do you do to renew your writing process?

Books That Change the World

~ Books and Change ~

The ability to change is essential for survival. Those who refuse to change become dull, boring, and left behind. One force for change is literature. Ever since people learned to write and read, books have had the power to change the reader, and if read by enough people, a community, or even the world.

Chnag

Think of the Bible. The Koran. The Evolution of the Species. Das Kapital. The written word has founded religions, changed how we view the human condition, and has upturned nations.

All of these works embody 5 things

  1. They address something that is important in human lives
  2. They embody great passion and conviction on the part of the authors
  3. They speak directly to their intended audiences in language they can understand.
  4. The ideas are easily understood and enthusiastically spread by their readers
  5. The ideas inspired controversy which also helped them become more widely known.

How about novels?

Can you think of a novel that has had a powerful effect on society or people’s lives? Several writers have attempted to do this.Change Quote

Bookbub lists thirty-two novels starting with To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, 1984, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The World Economic Forum chose nine books, moving Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the top of the list, followed by The Jungle, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Things Fall Apart. The Unpublished Writer Blog lists twenty world-changers which include some of these, and many other classics, but goes on to suggest that maybe we need to give a novel at least fifty years before making a judgement on its influence.

As a writer, I know that writing a world-changing novel is well-beyond my scope in life. But I think it would be amazing to write a novel that changed lives, especially if it is one that makes a positive change.

But is that possible as a writer of genre romance? I think it is.  My stories are meant to be thrilling and rough and realistic. I hope that by writing about characters who are not found in many romance novels and who face situations that take courage and smarts, I am helping readers from different backgrounds to walk in the shoes of others.

In my latest novel, and the last in my Skin Quartet series, my heroine is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was brought here as a child. In the story, I try to show how limited options are for people who live in fear of being deported, and thereby, make the discussions going on in the political world a little more real.


Under the Skin by Zara West

Born poor and raised on the streets, celebrated bridge builder and billionaire, Mic Vargas is knee-deep in the construction of a trouble-plagued bridge from Manhattan to New Jersey. He really can’t afford to take in a stray thief and fall in love with her. But when a beautiful, snappy-tongued, illegal immigrant literally drops at his feet, he becomes consumed with saving her and her family from poverty.

Cat burglar, Lena Correr stopped trusting anyone long ago. Not even a rich, handsome billionaire with good intentions can break through her defenses. At least, not until an East Coast crime boss threatens her family and forces her to steal for him. Mic vows to help her and her family escape the hell they are in. But will the man Lena is coming to love succeed, or will he end up dead at the hands of an old enemy?

“The outstanding thing about Ms. West’s novels is that they take the standard romantic suspense tropes and give them a shake, making them fresh and new.” 5 Star Amazon review


Which novels would you include on a list of earth-changers?

Organize and De-Clutter Your Writing Zone

~ Make it Beautiful !

Organizing is something you do before you do something, so when you do it, it is not all mixed up. ~ A.A. Milne


Oranize and de-clutter your writing zone.

 

Last month, while pondering my Big Word FOCUS, I learned that maintaining one’s focus on one’s writing is a challenge that requires you to become immersed in the creative process. While passion and motivation are high on the list for getting into that state of flow, it is helpful to be in a stress-free, distraction-free writing zone.

So, it seemed serendipitous that the next Big Word I drew was ORGANIZE. I don’t know about you, but while I consider myself to be a fairly organized person, I can quickly build up piles of papers that need attention. I am also prone to saving magazines with writing articles I like, and to printing out helpful writing tips and to collecting research facts for the books I am writing. Then there are all my promo materials and calendars and journals. Add to that all my writing materials – pencils, pens, rulers, stapler, and other stationery supplies, and honestly, my writing zone was a mess. All that mess hovered around my writing area and distracted me before I even started to write.

Note: Although, I am just focusing on my writing environment, I am not alone in struggling with cluttered spaces. According to the blog, SimplyOrderly, the average American spends almost 12 days per year, looking for things we own but can’t find. As a writer working to deadline, I cannot afford to lose time searching for papers or waste a half-hour reading an interesting, but irrelevant to my writing, article. But even more importantly, I cannot lose time writing because I am distracted or stressed.

Organizing Reduces Stress

Apparently, cluttered spaces make people feel trapped and anxious and affect our stress levels. For example, researchers at DePaul University found that people who lived in cluttered homes showed more general dissatisfaction and frustration. A 2010 study by Saxbe and Repetti found that women who thought their homes cluttered had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

When I looked around at the papers littering my desk and those poking out of the file box sitting next to my desk, and then at the calendar I could see out of the corner of my eye with all those looming deadlines, I knew just how those women felt.

Every item was pulling my attention away from my creative work, scattering my thinking, and keeping me stressed.  I could feel myself thinking: “Maybe I should stop writing my novel and get that blog post done.” Or “Maybe I should check my calendar to see what is due next week.” No wonder I was having trouble focusing on my novel and finding that all important state of flow.

Setting Out to Organize and De-Clutter a Writing Zone

So to reduce my stress and make myself not only happier but also more productive, I set about creating a distraction and clutter-free zone around my computer where I write.

The idea was not to get rid of all those important papers or journals or calendars. That would be impossible and foolhardy. Instead, I kept my task limited. My goal was to make the area that I could see while writing distraction-free. So I moved my paper piles, magazines, and research notes to storage containers located on shelving behind me where I couldn’t see them while writing, but where they were near at hand for when I needed them outside my dedicated creative writing time.

Using the SORT System to Organize and De-ClutterSORT to Succeed by Darla DeMorrow

In order to accomplish this task, I needed a simple organizing method. There are many approaches to organizing clutter. I looked at a number of blogs and books and settled on using Darla DeMorrow’s simple and logical SORT system (Organizing Your Home With Sort and Succeed). Her very simple advice, in the long run, is the easiest to follow.

The key to her system is having you write down exactly what you plan to accomplish in the time you allot. Having a time frame and a goal keeps you from getting lost in reading an old magazine or wandering off with an item and then ending up reorganizing something else.

1. First, I Sorted my desk zone clutter.

2. Second, I Organized it using various containers and drawers.

3. Next, I Removed and Recycled items that were unnecessary (yes, there were some!).

4. Finally, I Tweaked the space so it became clean and beautiful for me to look at.

How I Organized

Here is some of what I did to give you an example. I sorted through all my excessive pens and pencils and kept only few on my desk. I moved the open file boxes to the counter behind me, and I filed my to-do materials and articles and promo items in those boxes so they were no longer lying in piles. Next, I put my journals and notebooks on shelves under my desk where I can pull them out quickly, but where they are not staring me in the face. I turned my calendar so it faces away, but is easily turned around when I need to see the date, and hung a restful picture on the back. I have to say, no longer having red-marked days staring me in the face while writing has lowered my stress level tremendously.

To make the space welcoming, I cleared away the piles of books blocking my view out the window, added a cactus garden and an ammonite fossil shell, and set out a few of my favorite rocks that I like to hold when thinking.

Now when I sit down to write every morning, all I see is the computer, my beautiful and inspiring objects, and the view through the window. I love it.

 

Making It Work

But it is not enough to just SORT. To succeed, you also have to maintain that space. Now that I have my stress-free writing area, I need to keep it that way. That takes resolve. So far, I have managed it. Every evening before I turn off the office lights, I make sure my writing zone is clear and ready for me in the morning. Now my goal is to keep it that way all year long.

My Organized and De-cluttered DeskReady and Waiting


What do you see when you sit down to write?

How could you make it less distracting and more conducive to fostering your focus and creativity?

How I Learned to Focus

~ Becoming a Focused Writer ~

Being able to focus is always an issue for a creative writer. No one is telling you what story world to invent nor how to get yourself in the seat, start writing, and then keep at it. Somehow, you have to shut out the world around you and zero in on the words boiling up inside and aching to pour out on to the page. That takes FOCUS.

Since my big word for January was FOCUS, I spent the month, thinking about what distracts me from writing, and what methodologies I might use to improve my concentration.

ZARA-West-BIG-Word-FOCUS

How I Write

I have been writing for many, many years. In those years, I have learned that there are some basics that I need in order to write anything. One is a comfortable chair and the computer at the right height. Otherwise, plain physical discomfort will do me in pretty quickly.

Another thing is having everything I need, or think I will need, within arm’s reach. I need my book research a click away – I use OneNote as my digital binder. I need paper and pen for jot notes. I need the little cards that I write my character’s names on and some of their favorite words.

But even with all these practical things in place, focusing on the writing to be done doesn’t always happen. I’d suddenly look at the clock and see that nothing was down on the page or what was there wasn’t what I intended to write. Not to mention, all the times I just wandered off to do something else.

My Writing Distractions

So why, when I am dedicated to what I was writing and highly motivated, does my mind wander? Being of a practical nature, I began by looking at the physical things that distracted me from writing. First, there were the sensory distractions. The ticking clock. The itchy sweater. A cold draft.

So focused on being focused, I set out to remove these sensory distractions. I put the clock in another room. I made sure to wear my most comfortable clothes. I found a blanket to wrap around my legs. These changes were easy to make and did help. But only a little.

Pressing Things First

 I still had “To-Do” distractions. The email I was anxiously awaiting. The blog post I was late posting (uh- like this one). The prep for the courses I teach. Reading an interesting blog post or news article. All those things were right there on the computer and oh so easy to just click over and check. To fix these issues, I first tried doing the pressing things first – this got those done, but then I had no energy or writing time left.

Clearing the Screen

So next I tried a suggestion from Johanna Jast’s book Laser-Sharp Focus. I created a separate login identity on my computer—one that didn’t have access to all the files and emails. The interface was a lot cleaner, and the fact that I had to turn off the computer to sign into my main account was a good preventative against those easy slides into digital distractions.

Note: If you don’t want to mess with the computer, there are also programs that turn your computer into a writing area only. Here is a list of distraction freeing digital writing tools you might want to try. https://lifehacker.com/five-best-distraction-free-writing-tools-5689579

Zara West BIG words - FocusClearing the Desk

In addition, I removed all the distractions littering my desk especially those that shouted at me about things I HAD to do. I removed the wall calendar, I tucked my bullet journal out of sight, and last, removed the standing file full of work waiting to be done. I added a plant and pretty pen holder and a display of my favorite rocks.

Setting the Time

I have been using the timer method as a way to both ignore distractions and get things done. The idea is to set a timer for the length of time you want to write and ignore everything else. I had already explored timers for fast drafting for NaNo. Now I tried to figure out the optimum time for me to write. I thought it would be 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off. That’s the time frame I use when sprinting and going through social media.

But I am not sprinting every minute. Most days, I write steadily, but at my own pace, letting the story unfold naturally scene by scene. But with a timer dinging every 15 minutes, it seemed like instead of helping me focus in on the writing, the buzzer was just another annoying distraction pulling me away from moments when the writing was flowing along nicely.

So I tried longer times. Several research studies have indicated that for creative work longer times work better. Nathan Kleitman identified a natural 90 minute rhythm during the day that mirrored the 90 minute sleep cycle. A productivity app found that the highest performing workers focus for an average of 52 minutes and then take about a 17 minute break. I settled on an hour using a physical sand timer that didn’t ding at all.

Those Pesky Writing Problems

So I had a simplified writing site. A distraction-free screen. And a quiet, unobtrusive timer set for an hour. All these changes did help me focus better to the extent that I came back to my writing more quickly. But what I found was the writing issues that stopped me in the first place were still there and still making me lose focus. The more I forced myself to focus on solving a writing problem, the more I became unsettled and distracted. Then off I went to do something else, despite the timer and the distraction free screen and the hidden away task list.

So, I started noting down those times and places I became distracted. There were three main issues that caused me to stop writing.

  1. It was hard to get started on a new scene or chapter or blog post.
  2. I couldn’t think of the perfect word or a way to say what I was thinking or what I was picturing or the right order in which to say it.
  3. My writing was going in the wrong direction for my storyline.

Not Focus…Flow

But how to address these issues? I started searching for more focus tips and I discovered FLOW…

Flow and focus go together. Flow is defined by researchers as a mental state in which time, distractions, and everything around you fall away and all your creative energy is focused on the task. When you are in a state of flow, you are actually using your brain differently. The prefrontal part of the brain that controls critical thinking is deactivated and our sense of self lessens. Instead, norepinephrine and dopamine flood our bodies and time slows, impulse control decreases, and our performance becomes more fluid and creative.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow (1990) characterizes this feeling as a time when you are so engrossed in an activity nothing else matters. My goodness. That sounds exactly how I feel when the writing is going great. (Also when I am doing photography or making a drawing or singing a song). So how do I make that happen all the time?

Csikszentmihalyi says that setting the stage for flow to happen requires:

  1. A clear end goal
  2. Immediate self-feedback that you are moving toward that goal
  3. The task is challenging, but within your capabilities
  4. No worry about failing
  5. You are happy doing it.

Suddenly, my focus problem became clear. I lost focus writing when one of the above five things wasn’t happening.

  1. My end goal (or my character’s end goal) for the scene/chapter/writing piece wasn’t spelled out enough.
  2. I had lost track of what I was writing so I wasn’t getting positive self-feedback that I was doing well.
  3. I didn’t yet have the writing skills need to fix that storyline or paragraph or sentence.
  4. I was on a tight schedule, or I felt my writing had to be perfect so I was afraid of failure.
  5. What I was working on wasn’t what I wanted to be writing at that time. I had another idea or another task to do that I was drawn to more.

Zara West's BIG Words - FocusPutting Flow Into Practice

When I began my investigation into focus at the beginning of January, I thought I would find some simple technique that would increase my ability to write more effectively and smoothly. What I learned is that it is impossible to eliminate all distractions, and that’s okay. When you are in the flow, you can ignore most of them. That when you start to get distracted, re-examine what you were just working on. What can you do to solve the problem?

Here’s what I came up with.

  1. Stuck on a start? Write a place holder sentence at the start of a difficult scene or chapter to be revised later, that simply states who, where and when.
  2. Need positive feedback? Note down what I have accomplished – word count, scenes completed, etc.
  3. Don’t have the skill yet? Make a note to find a writing blog or workshop or critique partner to help me improve my writing and leave that spot a blank or highlighted to come back to.
  4. Face the fact that sometimes the flow just doesn’t happen. Then it is time to go do something else. But the important thing is to come back and dive into that writing again.

PS – I love my new distraction-free writing zone too.

 


I love to hear from my followers. 

What distracts you from writing or some other favorite creative pursuit?

 

My 2019 New Year Resolutions

~A Dozen Hopes for 2019 ~

Time to make those 2019 New Year Resolutions. I have a long tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions. I bet many of you do too. After all, we only get a chance to revisit our hopes and dreams every 365 days.

Usually, I make a list and stuff it away. This year, inspired by my Hearts Through History Romance Writing Chapter, I decided to write my resolutions as a word cloud.

Making My 2019 New Year Resolutions Word Cloud

First I needed to choose my words. There were so many wonderful words that I wanted to pursue that I had trouble picking only a few. I ended up with twelve words that were meaningful to me and that I thought I could pursue successfully. Twelve – a dozen seemed like a nice even, easy-to-handle number, and to my surprise, mirrored the twelve months too. (Be looking for blog posts focusing on one of these words in each of the coming months.)

Next, I took my words and using Word Art Creator, turned them into a beautiful graphic that I can hang on my bulletin board or paste in my journal. This cool little website is pretty intuitive to use. You can choose the size, color, and font for your words and then a shape to fit them into. You can even upload your own shape.

Here’s how my 2019 New Year Resolutions Word Cloud turned out:

Zara West2019 New Year's Resolutions

 


Using Word Art to Picture a Novel

Pretty cool, don’t you think? This gave me another idea. What if I created  a word art design for the romantic comedy I am currently writing? So I did. The novel is tentatively named Hooked on Love, and here is the word art version. Looks like a fun read, right?

Hooked on Love Word Art by Zara West

 


What are some of your 2019 resolution words?

Put them in a word art design of your creating.

Share how it works for you.

 

12 things I am Thankful for: A Writer’s List of Thankfuls

~ What I am Thankful For ~

On this Thanksgiving Day, I thought I would make a list of all the things I am thankful for as a writer. Most of the things are simple. It doesn’t take much to make me happy as long as I can write.Cat and Computer

  1. Time to write
  2. A computer to write on
  3. A beautiful view out my window
  4. A comfortable chair
  5. A warm, furry cat to keep me company
  6. A working Internet (most of the time)
  7. A family that honors my writing
  8. An ever-constant flow of ideas
  9. A terrific romance writers chapter
  10. Years and years of inspiring teachers
  11. A wonderful agent, editor, and publisher
  12. AND YOU—My wonderful, supportive readers

Are you more likely to read a book that has won an award?

~ Book Awards ~

This week my romantic suspense Close to the Skin is in a competition to win a Rone Award from InD’Tale Magazine– a beautiful and well-known e-magazine dedicated to romance writing.

This award is one in which readers vote for their favorite book or author. This process is similar to a number of Reader Award contests for published books such as Reader’s Favorites. The judges are readers and librarians and booksellers. I have entered several in the past, but as of yet have not won one.

Then, of course, there is the queen of awards – the RITA . This award is given for published books by Romance Writers of America. This contest is judged by fellow published romance writers. Corinna Lawson has written numerous blog posts about the award, and the books that have won.

Writing Contests & Awards

There are also smaller contests one can enter.  I have won several contests offered by RWA Romance Writing Chapters. These contests are judged in the first round by fellow romance writers, and in the second round, by agents and editors in the romance field. My feeling is that this type of contest offers more to the writer who wants to improve their writing as you usually do get very useful feedback, even if you don’t win.

Close to the Skin won first place in the 2016 Pages from the Heart Award. I am very appreciative of that honor.

2016 Pages from the Heart Award for Close to the Skin

Bestseller Awards

The third type of accolade a book can earn is to be a bestseller. There are all types of best sellers. Being on the NY Times list is, of course, the end goal for many writers. But there are also the USA Today listings and the rankings on Amazon. Authors usually put this achievement not only on the cover of the book that earned the ranking, but also on every book they write.

So how effective is winning an award for a writer?

Research reported in the Guardian on prestigious literary awards shows that reader ratings go down after a book wins a prize. Perhaps, people who might not ordinarily choose that type of book read a book because of the hype and then are disappointed and write bad reviews.

One thing that is true is that winning an award definitely gets a book more attention whether good or bad. Here is a list of award-winning books as listed on Goodreads. I bet you will find some you have read.

Being influenced by an awardClose to the Skin by Zara West

I know that while I am very open in my reading choices, seeing award or bestseller on a book cover makes me feel more confident I will like the book. nevertheless, I also read the opening pages before I buy. Not every award-winning book or bestseller is my cup of excitement.

Then again, as a writer, there is great pleasure in being selected for an award. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down nor would I be upset for my book to be a bestseller, even for a just a day.

Hint: I’d appreciate your vote for that Rone Award. Vote here. Voting goes from April 23 to April 29th 2018. I’ll let you know how I do!

InD'Tale Rone Awards


How about you?

Do you select books that say bestselling author or award-winning author on the cover?

Or do you have a better way to find great books?

I’d love to hear from you.

Fifteen Minutes Writing – The Book Factory Method

~ Life in Fifteen Minutes ~

Do you know how much time you spend on daily activities like reading e-mail and perusing Facebook? Do you struggle to reach your daily word count? I know that I do.

A while back, I took a workshop with USA best-selling author Kerri Nelson, which she has recently published in book form: The Book Factory Method: Your Guide to Producing Multiple Novels in One Year.

Fifteen Minutes CountThe Book Factory by Kerri Nelson Reviewed by Zara West

Kerri makes the point that in the scheme of things fifteen minutes is not very much of one’s time. In fifteen minutes, we can accomplish tasks like wash the dishes or fold the laundry. Why not spend fifteen minutes writing too?

In The Book Factory Method, Kerri explains how thinking in fifteen-minute time blocks is a sneaky way to find time to write.

Where are Those Fifteen Minutes Hiding?

Finding fifteen minutes is a lot less daunting than finding an hour or three for writing. Kerri suggests analyzing how you spend every fifteen-minute block of your work day and searching out those spaces where you can sit down to write.

Taking her advice, I kept track of how I spent my time over a three-day period (Here’s a 15 incredible minutes you can use to track your day) and discovered she was right.

Sure, I had all my daily tasks—like cleaning, washing, cooking, going to work, working, and so on. But there were also large blocks of time spent lost on Facebook and answering e-mail, time spent straightening my writing zone and getting ready to write, and time spent on rereading what I had already written—time that could be better spent just plain writing. In fact, I actually found three fifteen-minute blocks that could be better spent writing everyday.

Using Those Fifteen Minutes Effectively

Once you have your slots, Kerri suggests you get a timer. Using a timer and shutting down e-mail and the Internet is essential for this to work.

A note on timers: The timer I like the most is Hourglass. But I have also used my phone timer and an old-fashioned cooking timer just as effectively.

Now you are ready

  • Sit down.
  • Set the timer.
  • Start writing.
  • Do not stop till that timer dings.

Give it a Try

If you fast draft, you can actually produce quite a few words on the page in fifteen minutes, and in Kerri’s case, those dedicated fifteen minutes has produced a passel of published books. Will this work for everyone? I have no idea. But it worked for me.

I quickly found that sitting down and fast drafting (Kerri makes a particular point about applying this method only to new writing, not revision or editing) even for as little as fifteen minutes a day put words on the page for me.  Working with the time limit also trained me to be more focused. Knowing I was being times, I learned to ignore distractions. After all, there are very few things you can’t let slide for a few minutes.

In addition to the fifteen-minute writing method, Kerri provides many hints and helps for becoming more productive. She examines goal setting, motivation, and some writerly tricks for plotting (she’s a pantser), writing pitches and queries, and maintaining one’s physical and mental health as a writer. I strongly recommend The Book Factory Method for anyone who wants to become a more productive writer.


What method do you use to find writing time?

I love hearing from my readers!

Writing Visionary Goals

~ Why I Start with Visionary Goals ~

In my last post, I talked about how I set up my writing journal. In this post I will explain how I set my visionary goals.

Designing Visionary Goals

When designing goals, there are three things we are advised that make a good goal. The first is it should be specific with a clear definition and a recorded start and end time. Second, the goal should be measurable so you know if you achieved it. Third, the goal needs to be achievable i.e. it is something you have the skills or can get the skills to accomplish. A visionary goal is different. It encompasses something we feel deeply about- something that may not be measurable.


Why Visionary Goals?Tips and tricks for keeping a journal by Zara West

As an educator, I have written and been guided by thousands of measurable goals and objectives. So why do I start off my writing journal with my rather nebulous five-year visionary goals?

I do so because while being practical is a sure way to get work done, they do not inspire. And if there is something a writer needs to have tucked into their psyche, it is inspiration.

So this year, I have set myself the following five-year goals.

  1. Write more books and stories from my heart
  2. Discover readers who love my books
  3. Be happy writing and not feel stressed

As you can see these are definitely not measurable objectives nor well-defined. I don’t specify a set number of books and stories. I don’t name the genre or the topics, and five years is pretty broad range in terms of a time-frame.

These are goals that come from my hopes and dreams. I talk about love, heart, and happiness– very general words that we can all argue about. What does it mean for a reader to love a book? What does happiness feel like to a writer? What is a story from the heart?

Working with Visionary Goals

Despite their nebulousness, these are definitely goals I want to attain. What writer doesn’t want to keep writing more and more wonderful books and stories? What writer doesn’t want their stories read by appreciative readers? Why write at all if it makes you feel stressed and unhappy?

However, just because these are visionary, doesn’t mean that we can’t use them to delineate our writing career path.


Turning Visionary Goals into Measurable Ones

So the next step is to take each visionary goal and place it in this sentence, and voila, you will have a nicely packaged measurable goal to guide you – but one that has heart at its core.

In order to _________________ (visionary goal), I will ______________ (your activity) for ____________ (time-frame).

An example:

In order to write more heartfelt books, I will write at least 2 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Now that is definitely something that will keep me on track, but also incorporates my dream of writing more stories from my heart.

I also use my visionary goals to come up with a slogan to hang over my computer. Here is this year’s.

Work hard. Work happy. Work inspired.


From Visionary Goals to Success

Setting goals is key to feeling successful. When you can track your progress, when you can count the number of words or pages written, and the number of stories sent out into the world, you know you have accomplished something. But if that leaves you stressed or you do not love what you have written, then it is all for nothing.

That is why for me starting with visionary goals is more fulfilling and, in the long run, leaves me happier as a writer.


Do you set visionary or practical goals for yourself?

How do you use them?

I welcome your thoughts and comments.


 

My Writing Journal – Tips and Tricks

~ Start with a Journal ~

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to review what one has accomplished and to look forward to what might be one’s goals for the new year. A journal is a great place to start.


My JournalZara West journal tricks and tips

There are many different ways to do this. Since I am a long time journaler, I like to begin the year by starting a new journal (made of recycled paper, of course) and listing my goals and plans at the front.

Throughout the year, I use the journal to jot notes about my current writing projects and accomplishments, my ad campaigns, and character and plot development for my current writing projects.


Making My Journal Useful

Using a trick I learned from bullet journaling, I number the pages so I can create an index at the back. To create the index, I start on the last page and work backwards. That way I can quickly find the information I need.

journal-indexAnother trick I use is to fold over the upper right-hand corner for each new writing project. I color-code the tab to make it easy to find. I also use sticky notes to mark the place I am at in the journal.

Dating everything and recording everything in time order is also journal-tabimportant. Not only does this show me what progress I am making, but later if I am having trouble finding a data file or remembering when I did something I can check my journal.

I Don’t Care How My Journal Looks

What I don’t do is try to make the journal pretty. Time is limited, and I want to spend as much of it as I can on writing. For me, the important thing is to get the information recorded in whatever way I can.

So while I occasionally mark a page with highlight markers, I do not add drawings or journal-indexfancy colors unless I am sketching something to help me picture something in my writing such as a building, an interior, or a map.

I don’t worry about my handwriting. As long as it is legible, that’s all that matters. I cross out, insert, and don’t worry if I am not writing on the lines. It is my journal, and no one else needs to see it.


Advantages of a Handwritten Journal

Now, you are probably wondering why, with all the digital organizers out there, anyone would resort to handwritten notes? I do so for two reasons:

  1. It is much faster to scribble something down on the pad next to my computer or flip through the pages when I am in middle of writing than it is to open a new document, save it, and then find it again.
  2. At the end of December I can look back and have a cohesive picture of my writing year. I can see my struggles and my successes. From there I can easily transfer any important information or knowledge to my computer files or use it to plan my next year’s writing. To make it easy, I often just take a photograph of an important page or drawing and save that as a jpg file.

Learn more

Find more more about my journaling see: Zara West’s Writing Journal

I also offer Bullet Journal Workshops for Readers and Writers. I do not have one currently scheduled, but if you are interested, contact me and I can set one up. For an individual, the cost is $15 for a two-week totally online workshop. You will learn how to set up and organize your journal and make it uniquely your own.


Do you keep a journal? Is it handwritten or digital?

Do you have any tips for keeping a journal?

I love to hear from my readers and fellow writers.

Favorite Places to Read

Where do you like to read? I’m a compulsive reader so I enjoy reading anywhere. I have been known to read while stirring the stew and in the few seconds it takes to microwave my tea. One of the reasons I like to read paperback books as opposed to e-books is that it is actually quicker to find and turn the pages in a paperback. Then again, e-books are a little more waterproof if you’re cooking. But I do think a paperback is safer when reading in the tub.

In honor of the release of Beneath the Skin, I will be posting suggested places to read  on Facebook and Twitter and this web page on a regular basis. I invite you to join in and post your favorite place to read, including a photo if you wish, in the comment section below or Tweet them to me at @zarawestauthor.

All those who comment or tweet will have their names put in a hat and a winner, chosen at random will receive an e-copy of Beneath the Skin. The winning Readers Club member will receive a basket of Beneath the Skin soap & lotion custom crafted by Laurel’s Garden. If you include a photo of Beneath the Skin in your tweet or comment, you will also get a $5 Amazon gift card.

Places to Read Beneath the Skin

In the Kitchen

Places to read - in the kitchen

In the Vineyard
Places to Read - in the vineyard
In Your Rocking Chair
Places to read - in a rocking chair
In an Apple Tree

Places to Read - in an apple tree

Don’t forget! Post your favorite place to read below or tweet it @zarawestauthor

Graffiti Art in Beneath the Skin

 

graffiti artist spraying a wall“Traditionally artists have been considered soft and mellow people, a little bit kooky. Maybe we’re a little bit more like pirates that way. We defend our territory, whatever space we steal to paint on, we defend it fiercely.”
Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara in Chang, Jeff (2005). Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press. p. 124.

Anyone who has visited Williamsburg, Brooklyn knows that graffiti art is a notable feature of the environment. Whether you consider it vandalism or art, graffiti has been around a long time. Ancient graffiti has been found on Egyptian monuments,  at Pompeii, at the citadel of Sigirlya in Sri Lanka, at Tikal, and in the Catacombs of Rome.

Most ancient graffiti was scratched into the surface. Today most urban graffiti is done with marker and spray paint. In most countries, it is considered vandalism if done to public or private property without permission. Graffiti is often used to mark territory or make a social statement.

Graffiti art plays an important role in my upcoming novel Beneath the Skin. Near the beginning of the story, Aristides Stavros, a renowned fine artist,  meets a young graffiti artist who challenges him to an art contest. El Toro is the leader of a graffiti “crew” called T-Crew. Here is an excerpt from that scene:

Twenty some odd blocks south, Ari found himself in graffiti wonderland. Plywood fences covered in Full Monty murals stretched block after block. He stopped and reread the note El Toro stuck to his door.

“Right place, hombre,” El Toro said, slipping up beside him. He waved his hand. “Meet the judges.”

 Ari stared at the bunch of young men wearing baggy pants, sweatshirts, and multi-pocketed vests. There were four of them. A tall black kid, skinny as a lamp post, with a shaved head, called Fur Tree; two mixed-race twins with Hispanic accents and matching black T-shirts reading “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” who went by Neto and Solo;  and someone’s hyperactive teenage brother. The kid, introduced as Hanger On, swung back and forth from a stair railing, his too-large pants threatening to slip off at any second.

 Ari gave them his best scowl, and when they didn’t flinch, turned it to a smile. “So where’s the wall?”        

Try creating your own unique tag here.

Zaea West Suspense in graffiti

   How do you feel about graffiti? Is it vandalism? Is it art?

Please share your thoughts
below.

 

Food Moments in Fiction

Characters have to eat too. Today is National Pizza Day so I thought I would give a plug for Fornino in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is where my romantic suspense hero in Beneath the Skin likes to eat. Aristides Stavros might be a famous artist, but he’s not much of a cook. It also proves a great place to escape to with his graffiti crew when an unexpected visitor gets too friendly.

Read more….

Do you have a favorite Brooklyn pizza place?

Give me your suggestions and I’ll check them out and include the one I like the best in my sequel Close to the Skin.

 

Let Them Wear Red: Ethical Clothing for My Characters

Today is National Wear Red Day in honor of women. So I thought that I would share some red outfits my characters might enjoy wearing on this day. Note: In keeping with my new awareness of ethically made clothing, all the gorgeous garments featured here are made in conscience to worker’s rights and the environment or from recycled finds. Learn more about the ethical clothing movement here.

Melissa Dermott: The petite Asian-American heroine of Beneath the Skin is not a fancy dresser. She’s a debt-ridden graduate student. Most of her clothing is purchased in thrift stores and flea markets. But she has good taste and likes good design and simple lines. Her favorite go-to jacket is a boiled wool bolero with embroidery. Here are two jackets she might love.

Boiled Wool bolero jacket www.zarawestsuspense.com

Vintage Lord & Taylor jacket ETSY

Bolero jacket www.zarawestsuspense.com

Recycled Chico’s bolero jacket  e-bay

Bella Bell: Flamboyant and outspoken, tattoo artist Bella Bell dresses to match her personality. She loves flowing skirts and revealing cuts that show off her glorious tattoos. Here are two wonderful red dresses for her.

Avery Dress by Reformation Ethical clothing www.zarawestsuspense.com

The Avery Dress by Reformation

Fair Indigo organic fair trade dress www.zarawestsuspense.com

Fair Indigo organic fair trade dress

Jana Firth: Snarky, sexy, Jana dresses for success in expensive suits that say “Look at me. I’m on my way to the top, and I don’t care who gets trampled on my way up.” I think I found the perfect upscale outfit for her to wear on a night on the city, and it’s even vintage.

So what red outfit are you wearing today?

When You Are a New Romantic Suspense Writer

Beneath the Skin is my first romantic suspense. This is a genre that I have always enjoyed reading. A romantic suspense has two interlocking plot lines. There is the love story which wends it way through the novel, pulling the protagonists together and apart until they meet their Happy Ever After or Happy for Now ending.

Then there is the suspense plot which is a combination of thriller and mystery with always murder or the threat of murder hanging over the protagonists or someone they love.

The challenge for the new author of romantic suspense is to twist these two plot lines together so tightly that if one were removed the other would fall flat.  Think of movie Romancing the Stone without the love story, and you get the idea.

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing a number of my favorite contemporary romantic suspense novels and comparing them to my own. I will even be giving copies away to readers who make comments on my posts. Some of the authors I will be reviewing are: Marie Force, Nora Roberts, Laura Kaye, Karen Rose, Lauren Layne and many more. Do you have some favorites?

Please send me your suggestions for romantic suspense authors I should review!

Coming soon…

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

– A curious anthropologist

– A scarred Olympic wrestler

– A kidnapped tattoo artist

 

A recipe for disaster