The Write Life: Redefining a Failure

Sometimes there is no sugar-coating life, and our best-laid plans crumble into failure. That’s what happened to me this past April after signing up for a writing boot camp at SavvyAuthors called One Scene a Day. I started the month with the best intentions of shoving my way through a huge chunk of my novel, or at least participating in the daily check-ins, and weekly lessons and activities.

On April 1st, I replied to the welcome post, stated my intentions, and did my best to keep up with the daily writing.

Uh, by April 3rd I was struggling to get into my novel and rethinking where I could start and how I could do this—but I was still definitely going to do it!!

And by April 7th I had totally abandoned the check-ins, though I made plans with a friend to send her what I’d written each day. I also finally found a way into my novel (by skipping Chapter 1 entirely).

And then I was distracted by Flights of Foundry and stopped pretending I was going to do that boot camp because I had already fallen far enough behind to understand not that I was a failure, but that this wasn’t a good way for me to work.

Many times when we attempt a routine or schedule as a creative and it fails, we assume there’s something wrong with us and we turn that frustration inward, blaming ourselves. We can walk away with the wrong message, thinking that our failure means we’ll never be able to write a novel or live a creative life or be successful. But a failure at a specific creative process doesn’t mean a failure in creativity, it means that process doesn’t work for you. Speed drafting DOES NOT work for me. I knew that from participating in NaNoWriMo, but thought the structure of this workshop would allow enough breathing space that I could do it. Instead, I learned something else about myself:

It takes me a lot of time to get into a project.

So, starting with Chapter 1 wasn’t working for me. And then expecting myself to sprint through Chapter 2 was also not working for me. You know what is working for me? Writing 100 words or so every day. I’m still in Chapter 2, but I have a start now, and I’ve reconfigured the arrangement with my friend to send her my writing for the week (rather than day by day). When I get into the draft and can go faster, we’ll increase the number of check-ins per week, but for now I’m accepting where I am, redefining this “failure,” and making adjustments to my process so that I can make progress without feeling frustrated.

The key to having a writing life is figuring out what works for you and not comparing yourself to anyone else.

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Speaking of workshops and writing, I’m teaching a free virtual workshop later this month called Write Time Travel Fiction. If you’re interested in writing about time travel, I’ll be exploring both the hand-wavey and theoretical science that sends your characters into the timestream and how you can use time travel to tell a story. You can register (again for FREE) at OCLS. (No library card is needed, just leave that bit blank.)

 

 

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The Write Life: Finding Focus

My writing life has been very scattered of late. While I still have writing time planned daily and I haven’t broken my streak (still at least 250 words a day every day, just like the last several years), what I’ve been working on has been haphazard. After I finished my last writing project in early March, I’ve been struggling to focus on the next project.

  • I’ve started an outline and draft for another writing workshop.
  • I’ve revisited my next novel outline and taken a few notes on what threads I may need to reevaluate as I draft.
  • I’ve dawdled with a new short story.
  • And I’ve drafted the beginnings of a few new blog posts.

But I’ve had a lot of difficulty sticking with anything. (Or finishing anything, as you might have noticed how many times I said “started” or “beginning” in that list.)

The end of last year and beginning of this year has been really rough on my mental health. I’m starting to come out of the worst of it and am reassessing my schedules and routines to find better ways to ground and care for myself. (Sleep. Sleep has been a BIG problem.) But it’s difficult to focus on writing when my mental health is so out of whack. (Not to mention that the lack of sleep finally caught up with me and I’m sick for the first time in two years.)

A writing life is about a lot more than ideas in the brainpan and words on the page. It encompasses a whole lot of other things—priorities, time management, mental and physical health. When one of those things is out of whack, it’s hard to have a bountiful and satisfying writing life. I mean, the mechanical side is there—I’m putting words on the page every day—but the focus to finish and the confidence to keep going through a hiccup? Those are the things I’m struggling with.

When I’m experiencing this kind of struggle, I allow myself a little grace, focusing on just 250 words per day and not pushing beyond that. I also release my grip on “what counts” as writing and am more likely to include stream-of-conscious brainstorming, notes, and questions. (Hey, all those words eventually get me to the finished story, so why not count them?) The last thing I do—and the thing that often helps the most during these times of struggle—is I follow my attention.

If I want to capture the ideas for a presentation on writing time travel fiction (slotted for May with the Orange County Public Library, register here for the virtual workshop), I work on that instead of the project I’m “supposed” to be working on. That allows me to capture some of the excess thoughts cluttering my head and reduces the number of things distracting me. Hopefully I only need to do this for a day or two, and then I can resume my regularly scheduled writing. (But sometimes it takes more time to get a brain back on track.)

These little “vacations” are what I do instead of taking a break from my words, but for anyone not chaining together a consecutive streak of thousands of days of writing—a break is probably a really good idea!

Mostly this month I’ve been working on ways to bring my physical and mental health in line, including drinking more water, making more time for mindfulness, and doing my very best to accept that some days any effort is my best effort.

What have you been doing to care for yourself in your writing life?

 

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The Write Life: Time for a Break

Sometimes you just have to admit you’ve reached the end of your rope. Which is where I am right now (and why this post is much shorter than usual). I’ve been pushing myself through deadlines, frustrations, responsibilities, dropped balls, anxiety attacks, creative blocks, and every kind of doubt known to writers. It’s not healthy! And I need a break from all that.

Rather than continue to push myself and draft a lackluster post that makes little sense, I’m taking a break and I invite you to do the same.

If you’d like a suggestion for what to do with your new-found break time, I recommend taking a walk. A couple weekends ago I wandered around a local cemetery (as any good vampire-steampunk should do on occasion) and took pictures of the water features. What might you find when you go exploring?

 

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The Write Life: Writing from a Dry Well

Woof. As far as months go, this one has been stressful.

I’d like to claim it was good stress, the kind that causes me to dig deep and get things done, but mostly it was the kind that drains my energy and leaves writing time as struggle time.

Boats on a dry river.

Photo by Chester Ho on Unsplash

Other responsibilities, lots of piling work, emotional decisions, health concerns, invitations to socialize, and an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion all left me with a case of creative burnout. I struggled to translate thoughts into words. I felt like I didn’t have the time to devote to complicated projects. I was easily distracted and found making narrative decisions a challenge. Some days I looked at the open document and just sighed heavily and felt a gigantic “no” welling in my chest.

Those are tough feelings to carry as a creative, especially one working on their seventh consecutive year of daily writing!

But I am still working on that streak, so I was able to write, despite drawing from a creative well that felt scraped clean.

  • One of my tried-and-true methods of writing when I’m feeling drained is to work on something easier. “Easier” for me often means blog and Patreon posts or other nonfiction writing. Sometimes it also means planning a novel, rather than drafting one. (Writing a synopsis that can meander and have terrible ideas is a lot easier than crafting scenes that have to connect.)

    Frequently if I can get 10 or 20 minutes of the easier project done, I’ll feel warmed up enough to tackle the more complicated project, or I’ll have hit a word count that makes me feel comfortable spending time on a project that involves thought more than words. (This is the trade-off for having yearly and monthly word count goals, by the way.)

  • Another method that frequently works is to grab a writing prompt and start something new. A writing prompt is a fresh start with no baggage. That level of freedom can be easier to interact with than a project I’ve been contemplating or working on for a long time. Sometimes those doors opening to an empty space feel more inviting than a half-decorated room, and it’s easier to put pen to page and draft some words to warm up for the day.

    I admit, when I first started using prompts this way, I struggled with feeling like I was wasting my time because not all of those starts turn into finished stories. It required a shift in my thinking to allow myself room for creative play and to accept that sometimes what I need is free range across a blank page with no expectations—including no expectations of producing finished work. (That said, I have turned at least one prompt into a finished story in the last year, and there are a few others I’m still thinking about, so that’s not a waste at all!)

  • Writing long-hand instead of working on my computer is another way of freeing myself. My computer is where so many of my responsibilities live, so sometimes it’s distracting to use as my main writing tool. (That’s also why I try to do tasks in specific locations—editing at my desk, writing in my bedroom, etc.) Switching my writing tool can unlock the part of my brain held captive by my exhaustion and other responsibilities. A notebook, or sometimes my iPad, can offer a different view on what writing looks like and provide the fresh water I need to refill my creative cup.

It’s been a struggle to write daily this month with everything else going on, but day by day I’ve been getting it done by using one of these tools when things got a little tough and I needed to rely on something more than my own stubbornness.

 

 

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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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