The Write Life: Scheduling a Creative Retreat

The idea of a solo writing retreat has always intrigued me. I excel at self-directed work, and I’m fairly productive while working independently, but stripping away all my distractions and responsibilities to focus on creativity felt indulgent. Or more specifically, like something other creatives were allowed to have, and I wasn’t. (Spoilers: that is a lie, creatives are allowed time and space to create.) I also wasn’t entirely convinced I wouldn’t veg out a little too much away from the pressures of my daily life. Given no other responsibilities, would I really choose to buckle down and write?

The answer to that last question is unequivocally yes, but not without a little work.

The trick to making a solo writing retreat a success is absolutely in the preparation.

In early December, as part of UCF’s MFA winter retreat, I headed to the Atlantic Center for the Arts. As I explained previously, the ACA is an artist retreat with creative studios for many different disciplines, including writing. While I was there, I had access to the Writing Studio and Library (pictured), as well as my private room and a cottage with a kitchen and dining area. It turned out that due to the retreat dates conflicting with school schedules, I was the only writer in residence the few days I was there (also pictured). Which worked out well for me! (I enjoy a dollop of solitude and writing in the quiet.)

Anything self-directed needs some, y’know, direction. So, to ensure my solo writing retreat was more than me sitting alone in a room with full autonomy and no one to blame if I didn’t do anything, I made a list of the projects I needed to work on, the projects I wanted to work on, and the status on each project.

I narrowed my focus to three projects: one I needed to work on and that required some research, one that I wanted to work on and was at the planning stage, and another that I wanted to work on and was at the drafting stage. I quickly decided to spend most of my time on the project I needed to work on, but to warm-up or cool-down on the other projects.

Once I had my focus figured out, I made a schedule for each day to determine—realistically—how much time I would have to write. I included everything on my schedule from when I would eat and shower to when I would take a break to read or walk around the campus. Because while this was a writing retreat, it was also meant to give myself time to unwind and refuel, which meant ensuring I had time each day to eat decent meals, get to bed at a reasonable hour, and read a large chunk of a book.

Creating a schedule prevented me from wasting valuable retreat time figuring out when I needed to do something. I’d already made the plan, which meant all I had to do was look at my phone to figure out what to do next. And if a writing session was going great, it was easy for me to extend a half hour and adjust my schedule to accommodate inspiration and motivation. But I never had the stress of feeling like I was running out of time to do everything I wanted because I’d already accounted for my needs and my work time.

Writing sessions were similarly easy because I’d already planned what projects I would work on during each session. It turned out that I wound up mostly working on the needed project—because once I got started, my brain latched on to it and it was easy to work on—but during my morning and evening sessions, I had the option to check in with myself and see if I felt up to the more grueling task or if I wanted to relax with something easier.

Whether you’re heading off for a writing retreat outside the home, or just planning a long weekend focused on your work, I highly recommend taking the time to prioritize and make a schedule beforehand to get the most of your specially focused creative time.

 

 

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The Write Life: Writing Without a Block

Writer’s block is the bane of writers. And even though some people claim it doesn’t exist, it is totally real. It shows up in the wake of poor mental health, exhaustion, overwhelm, doubt, and a hundred other things that can distract and deplete our creative energies and focus.

If you’ve ever stared at a page and didn’t know how to start…

If you’ve ever been unable to decide what a character should do next (or written six versions of what could come next and still aren’t happy)…

If you’ve ever flipped through prompt after prompt with nothing inspiring you…

If you’ve ever deleted everything you wrote immediately after a writing session…

…then you’ve experienced writer’s block.

There is no one, overarching solution to writer’s block. Each kind of writer’s block needs to be treated in a different way, and each writer will respond differently to the possible solutions.

These days, though, I’ve largely been writing without a block, so perhaps I’ve discovered a shield that prevents writer’s block from moving in and taking over. For me, it’s being a daily writer.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

This shield didn’t develop overnight, but in the last six years of writing daily, I’ve gained more confidence in my ability to consistently produce. Because I practice writing every day and constantly reconnect with my creativity (and force myself to connect with my creativity), I have confidence that I know how to use those skills at the drop of a hat and that I can use those skills. A lot of the creative doubt around the question can I? has been alleviated because of that daily habit. (Do I still have doubts about success? Absolutely! Boy howdy, do I.)

The daily practice also has given me more experience figuring out what inspires me and what to do with inspiration. When I’m feeling creatively dry, I have a larger, more specialized well from which to draw new energy and more strategies for combining and developing ideas into stories.

I still experience creative blocks—an inability to decide what comes next, feeling lackluster about creation, not knowing where to start—but because I’m forming a chain of days of writing, I’m more likely to try, even if I’m feeling very meh about the creative process as a whole. Also, because I write daily, I usually have multiple projects to consider, so I can spend time away from a blocked project and make progress on something else. Being able to switch tasks means the writer’s block never takes control, and I’m able to work through the problem while it’s small rather than scrambling when it’s overwhelming.

Exhaustion is the one thing being a daily writer can’t cure—and in some cases it can create exhaustion and creative burnout more easily. But I can still take a break by writing less to maintain my habit and let myself rest and refuel. Overall, daily writing has helped my creative process and production, and I experience writer’s block much less frequently than I did when I was writing sporadically.

Is writing daily right for you? It may not be, but if you look through the list of benefits, you may figure out how to develop a writer’s block shield for yourself and be as well-equipped as I am while honoring your own creative process.

 

 

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The Write Life: Shaking Loose

Unsurprisingly, I spent the majority of my writing time and thoughts in October looking ahead to National Novel Writing Month. As a municipal liaison (that’s one of the volunteers responsible for creating events at the local level), my focus tends to be on others, rather than on myself. I spend my time scrounging up volunteers, scheduling write-ins and other motivational content for the month, promoting our events and NaNoWriMo as a whole, and encouraging everyone to prep their novels so they can put their best foot forward on November 1st!

But that doesn’t leave a lot of time for my own preparations.

Those responsibilities are collectively one reason I tend to take the rebel route during NaNoWriMo and rarely work on a single project, and never work on a new project. All the projects I tackle during the month of November tend to be an already in-progress novel or a collection of smaller works.

This year I’ll be spending time drafting new scenes and revising old ones in Gay Airship Pirates, continuing to draft a course I’m teaching in February on punk subgenres (links for that as soon as they’re live!), and bouncing around between fanfic, blog posts, and whatever other topics happen to catch my heart strings.

I have been having a lot of difficulty clearing the mental clutter of late, so I’m also going to be working on a semi-daily project where I take a prompt and write for 15 minutes. The prompts I’ll be using will be gathered from a range of places, including some resources I’ve mentioned in Writer Resources posts on Patreon (and a few I will be sharing soon). I’m hoping that engaging creativity in a multitude of ways will keep the prompting fresh and shake loose any mental blocks I’m having around creativity so that when I hit my designated noveling time, I’ll be ready to get to work.

What do you do to get yourself ready to write? Do you have any tips you want to share for anyone tackling NaNoWriMo this year?

 

 

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The Write Life: Outline – Revise – Surprise!

This month my writing life was focused almost exclusively on outlining. (Also on Kate Bishop, since I wrote an article about the other Hawkeye for SlashFilm in anticipation of the Disney+ Hawkeye series debuting Nov 24.)

DragonCon kicked off my September with a workshop by Bethany Kesler called “This Is How We Time/Space Travel and Other Chronological Pitfalls.” Bethany’s session got me thinking about leaning into the alternate history of my Gay Airship Pirates novel, and I started noodling new options for the outline.

How would I emphasize the historical elements when I hadn’t framed the story around history? Does the history complement the story I actually want to tell? Am I putting too much pressure on myself by developing a historically based world?

I put all these questions aside while I worked on a new plot, shifting the antagonist’s focus and grand plan, and retooling the breadcrumbs that would allow the heroes to discover (and be threatened by) this new mystery. Some things didn’t work as neatly as they did in the previous outline, but I figured out a stronger motivation for the opening scene, there weren’t any huge gaps, and I added a longer denouement that more fully resolved one character’s emotional journey.

And then I was selected for a one-on-one with Hannah Kates during the virtual writing retreat Write Hive Lite. (Insert pitch to check out the Write Hive community and all their valuable programming.) Obviously, I needed Hannah to look at my new outline, right?

I submitted my outline for her review and then sat back to think… about those questions I asked myself and then ignored. 😬

Here’s a secret a lot of writers hate to know: when you’re struggling to make a decision, you have the answers, you just want someone else to tell you that you’re right. And that is exactly what my one-on-one with Hannah turned into. I knew what I wanted to do with the story and how I wanted to proceed, but I needed someone enthusiastic about the premise and who had distance from the years-long development process to tell me to trust my instincts.

Which is why I’m revising the outline. Again. To remove the historical elements. 😂

But here’s the awesome thing about doing all that work focused on bringing in more history: I now know that’s not what I want to do. Up until now, I’ve been second-guessing myself and allowing that doubt to hinder my progress. Also, looking at the story from a different angle let me find new solutions to old problems and I’ve got a better outline because I did the work!

The planning stages of writing can be frustrating and sometimes un-fun, but it’s important to put in the time thinking about a story and how everything comes together to ensure the story actually works once you get to drafting. Having an impartial person to talk to about that process was exactly what I needed to move forward.

This seems like a good time to mention that while I’m currently closed to new patrons for my editorial tiers, I’ll be opening new Patreon tiers later this month. The best way to get notified of when they’re available is to follow me on Patreon or Twitter.

For full access to The Write Life, sign up on Patreon for $1 or more per month. You’ll also receive a personalized thank you in a future edition of The Write Life.

The Write Life: Routine

I’ve been struggling to figure out what to write about for this post. For this month, my writing life has been mostly routine. Words are being produced, progress is being made, but there’s not really anything for me to talk about. (Correction: actually, there is a project I would love to gush about, but it’s not ready for any announcements yet. Soon. Hopefully.)

When life is settled in the status quo, it’s harder to find something new for an update.

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash

Update: Things are progressing as they should be.

Update: I revised an outline.

Update: I was distracted by something else, but that’s not unusual.

Update: I wrote in my armchair today. Again. As I have been for the last several months.

When my writing life is chugging along as normal, without anything outstanding pulling me forward and nothing terrible weighing me down, I find it harder to talk about my writing. And while it can be pleasant for my writing life to be consistent and unremarkable, the unglamorous, non-newsworthy bits of writing are also frustrating because it’s easy to feel stagnant when every day requires the same input and results in the same output.

So, with this largely non-update, let me include a few things I can talk about that are up-and-coming.

NaNoWriMo 101 Workshop
Oct 19, 7–8pm

NaNoWriMo 2021 is around the corner, and as part of my duties as a Municipal Liaison, I’ll be teaching a NaNoWriMo 101 Workshop on Facebook and YouTube to bring NaNo newbies up to speed and let people know what to expect from the Orlando region this November.

Write a Novel in a Month Conference
Oct 23-24, 1–5pm both days

I’ve also once again organized a writers’ conference for NaNoWriMo prep in conjunction with the Orange County Library. Join us for 2 days of writing workshops focused on writing a novel in a month. The line-up includes fantastic instructors like Karen Osborne, Premee Mohamed, Michael Mammay, Jennie Jarvis, Elle E. Ire, José Pablo Iriarte, Leslie Salas, and Arielle Haughee, along with my writing partner-in-crime KL!, who will be co-teaching a workshop with me called “Transforming an Idea into a Story.”

For both events, listing an Orange County Library card is optional, so if either sounds like something you’d like to attend, feel free to click the link and register! (A full schedule for the conference is available at the link.)

 

You can also catch me in a few upcoming episodes of The 42cast talking about fan conventions, Black Widow, and Loki.

And then hopefully next month (or before) I’ll be able to talk about the thing that actually had my attention most of this month.

 

 

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The Write Life: Getting Scheduled

July began with a desperate plea for help reprioritizing my life. Thankfully, my friend Jennie Jarvis stepped in to provide some structure to my internal flailing and give me a very simple method to prioritize my time and projects: does it make money or not?

I have a generous, but ultimately unhealthy habit of volunteering my time and energy in many unpaid ways. I love helping other writers—and some volunteer opportunities just sound like so much fun—so I’m not surprised I volunteer over and over and over. But when I’ve done that too often, or overlapped projects too much, I end up stretched thin, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Even though I’ve been working to say “yes” less and to only volunteer when I honestly have extra time and energy, I’m still spending more time on unpaid activities than on paid activities and badly bungling my time.

Which, uh, is a problem.

So, Jennie’s earth-shattering reprioritization system is as simple as categorizing projects as to whether or not I’m getting paid for my work, and then making sure I schedule my day to spend more time on paid projects than unpaid projects. Her strategy also allows for projects that are not currently making money but should in the future, such as developing websites, podcasts, workshops, and writer tools.

Writing time on personal projects (which would be projects unrelated to paid work) is kind of a third category, since all short stories, novels, and anything else we write for traditional publication is kind of a question mark as to whether or not (or when) it will sell. I’ve been regularly dedicating an hour and a half daily to writing, so I kept that time set aside (and still sneak in five-minute chunks here and there as time and ideas allow).

Honestly, this whole process is so easy to figure out I don’t know why I didn’t think of it myself. (I mean, I do. It’s something about missing the forest for the trees.)

I’ve been using this new system to restructure my time and reprioritize my projects for the last month, and while I had some difficulty adjusting (and had to make some tweaks for real-world application), I’d say overall I feel more confident in my ability to keep up with my workload and more balanced in the choices I’m making. For someone who struggles so much with mental health, getting my schedule under control has been a HUGE help. So, thanks, Jennie!

If you are struggling with your projects, responsibilities, and how to prioritize your time, I recommend taking a look at your list to see if anything I’ve described here might help get your life under control.

 

 

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The Write Life: Writing Retreat

During May when I was busily seizing opportunities, I decided it was finally time to take advantage of my alumni status and join the UCF MFA writers at the annual writing retreat at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.

I had been to the ACA previously for another event, so I was already familiar with the facility, the general layout, and how the local Florida wildlife wraps each studio, building, and walking path. I knew the ACA was the sort of place I would enjoy visiting for an extended period and that it had the sort of things I find valuable and necessary for my creativity: seats and desks, quiet and solitude, sunlight.

Also, wi-fi, if I’m being entirely honest.

The UCF MFA’s retreat is entirely self-driven, so after I confirmed I could bring my writing partner, we packed up for the weekend with a plan to work on our latest brainchild.

We split our time between our room and two of the communal spaces we were given access to, the writing studio and the library. Both facilities have a long table that seats 6–10 people and a lofted reading nook with some additional seating. The writing studio has desks along the wall as well as a printer and mini kitchen so you can easily store some snacks and drinks and hang out for a long while. Every space has enormous windows letting in beautiful Florida sunshine and displaying all the wonderful greenery that surrounds and winds through the grounds. You like palm trees and lizards? There are so many. (Also a tortoise, who I found lurking by the stairs that clearly lead to an adventure… and also spiders, which is why I didn’t descend any further.)

Sunday afternoon, the sky turned stormy, and clouds obscured the sunlight, creating a murky half-light that is my preferred lighting for creation. Florida rains tend to hang around and drip for hours, so we were able to wait out the rainiest bit and get back to our room and umbrellas without getting too damp along the way.

All in all, we made great progress organizing, planning, and filling out some of the backend content of our new project, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone. I want to wait until we’re a little deeper into production to announce it, but assuming things stay on track, I’ll be launching something exciting in the Fall. Many thanks to the UCF MFA writers retreat and the Atlantic Center for the Arts for giving us the time and space to work on our project without distractions.

(I mean, there were distractions, but those distractions were entirely on us and our need to walk through the woods and tell ghost stories about sharks. Because that is the scariest place to tell stories about sharks. You never know where that shark could be.)

 

 

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The Write Life: A Full Plate

This month has been built on seizing opportunities. Which is not a mode I’ve been operating in for some time. My recent modus operandi has been:

  • See opportunity.
  • Want opportunity.
  • Assume I am fit for opportunity.
  • Question all of my qualifications and abilities to fulfill opportunity.
  • Assume someone else wants or needs opportunity more than me or will do better with opportunity.
  • Oops, the time in which I should have replied for opportunity has probably passed, guess I shouldn’t bother.

Some of that downward spiral is about protecting myself—not just from rejection but protecting my time. I am spread fairly thin between all the hats I wear as a writer, editor, and volunteer (and all the things I write, edit, and volunteer for), so passing on opportunities can be a form of self-care and self-preservation.

Photo by Casey James on Unsplash

But passing on those opportunities also means I haven’t been putting myself out there to take on responsibilities I really want. Those responsibilities that, if I had them, I would figure out how to rearrange my plate or scrape away the least tasty responsibilities to make room for the new delicious serving. (I started visualizing mashed potatoes in the middle of writing that and now I’m just hungry.)

But I’ve been feeling a lot better this last month—a lot more positive and a lot more in control of my anxiety and other mental health issues—so I skipped the last three spiraling bullet points and, after I assumed I was fit for an opportunity, I actually went for it!

That means if you’re interested in learning how to write steampunk, cyberpunk, solarpunk, or another punk genre, I’ll be teaching a workshop about it in February 2022. I’ll post more details when registration is available, but it will be a four-week course covering eight punk subgenres to hit topics of worldbuilding, tropes, themes, and conflicts. I’ve been thinking about teaching this workshop for years, so I’m very excited to finally be doing it.

 

 

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The Write Life: The Mountain Is So Tall

When you’re starting out in a writing career, it’s easy to look and see what’s at the top of the mountain. Publication! That goal is easy to see, and the path to that goal is easy to figure out: write a book, get an agent, get published. So, you start walking that path by working on a book.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Writing a book isn’t easy, and you knew it wasn’t easy, and that’s okay. This is the first step to the long-term goal and even this is a long-term goal because it can take a long time to write a book. Or rewrite a book. Or rewrite a book again. (And again.) But that’s okay, it’s all okay, because you knew what you were getting into.

But then you’ve got a book, and it’s good, so you start querying agents. And there’s not a problem with the book, there’s a problem with the timing, specifically in that the market isn’t ripe to support your book. Which means you’ll need to write a different book to get an agent. But you can still do something with this current book because self-publishing is an option.

Now the path up the mountain includes writing a new novel to get an agent and self-publishing a book. You’ll need to write (and rewrite) the next book. You’ll need to learn more about self-publishing, including the technical aspects of putting the files together and marketing a book. But it’s okay, you can do this. You already had an idea for another book and have some resources to tap about self-publishing. You knew the path up the mountain wasn’t necessarily straight and there would be deviations along the way, that’s fine. It’s fine.

But now that you’ve started up the mountain, it’s harder to see the top because you’re on the mountain. The easiest things to see are the path ahead of you and that it’s much farther to the top than it looked from the bottom. The mountain is so tall, and it’s going to take longer to reach the top than you thought it would.

 

This is the analogy I used recently to describe how I was feeling to my therapist. The mountain is just so tall, and right now I’m feeling overwhelmed and tired. Those are hard feelings to manage in a creative career because there is so much pressure to keep creating. I feel like I don’t have time to be overwhelmed or tired, and I have to keep going. If I crawl, I’m still making progress, right?

Ha. I’m fairly certain my therapist doesn’t think that’s the healthiest mind set. She frequently reminds me that I have to make room for self-care, which, for a writer, that includes refueling the creative well and leaving time for my brain to rest and cogitate on new ideas. It might mean not writing for a while, or not writing the thing I’m “supposed” to write. Even though I know this, and even though I repeat these reminders to myself, it’s hard to remember because the mountain is just so tall.

 

 

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The Write Life: Self-Care March

My mental health plummeted over the month, so I’ve been concentrating on self-care, including what I can do to diminish the impact of the stressful, productivity-focused, anxiety- and rejection-filled life of being a writer.

Here are a few ways I’ve changed behaviors to be a little kinder to myself:

 

1. Pass, Not Rejection

Whether you’re querying agents, submitting to magazines, or just posting stories and not getting sales or hits, the writer’s life has many opportunities for people to tell you no or to not even look your way.

One thing I’ve done is change all the language in my submission tracking from “rejection” to “pass.” While being kinder to myself mentally—the story wasn’t rejected, they just passed on it—this is also more accurate in a general sense. Often there are reasons beyond the quality of the execution why an agent or editor might pass on a submission (or why a reader doesn’t click “buy”). And often times a pass means “not this time,” not “never,” so changing the language I use to reflect this from “rejected” to “pass” is one simple way to shift my thinking about submissions and come back to myself with a little more kindness about the process.

 

2. Change What Productive Means

If you’ve looked through my goals and blog posts for ten minutes, you’ve probably noticed I’m focused on metrics and productivity. I write every day. I count the number of hours I write. I count the number of words I write daily, monthly, and yearly. It’s hard for me to watch my daily word counts diminish from regularly surpassing 750 words per day to barely scraping 250 words. But does that mean I wasn’t productive?

When my word count is suffering as much as it is now, I turn to other metrics in which to find success. How many hours did I spend this week on writing tasks? If I wasn’t able to put words on the page, was I able to untangle a plot point in an outline? Did I finally name the character in that novel I haven’t finished outlining? What things was I able to achieve because I wasn’t spending all my time putting words on the page or revising those words?

Shifting the focus of what productivity means isn’t always easy, but one way I do it is with a daily goal called “Write something you like.” Maybe I couldn’t write 500 words, and maybe I’m 5,000 words behind my goal for the month, but was I able to write something that made me happy? All right, that’s a win.

 

3. Write Outside

While I’m used to taking writing excursions to coffee shops and bookstores, I forgot how invigorating it is to write outside. Late in the month, I started taking my iPad outside to write on the porch. Using a different tool to write and getting some fresh air helped release me from some of the burdens I felt being trapped indoors and surrounded by my usual work environment. (It doesn’t hurt that writing on the screen porch usually means Boogie will join me, offering either a grounding purr or the diversion of rescuing a lizard from the jaws of cat-death.)

I’ve been finding more focus writing outside, and getting a little sun in my face and wind in my hair certainly doesn’t hurt my mood either.

 

I hope you’re being kind to yourself when you need to. What do you do in your writing life to take care of your mental health?

 

 

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