The Write Life: Hello, Wrench

Sometimes life throws a wrench into everything.

That happened to me at the beginning of August with several family emergencies and health problems colliding at the same time. We weathered a multi-day struggle of figuring out which able-bodied adult was taking care of who and trying our best to not simultaneously burnout.

During the worst days, I shifted into Minimal Work Mode, which includes writing 250 words per day, responding only to burning questions, and checking in to confirm deadlines won’t be missed. All other work had to sit! It takes me a solid day to recover from this level of emotional stress, so after the first full day of rest, I was able to start shifting into a slightly more regular workflow, just keeping lighter hours and ensuring flexibility in case something else popped up. (Which, uh, it did.)

While you can’t plan for life’s wrenches, you can make generic plans for how those wrenches can affect your writing life. Are you someone who feels comfortable throwing in the towel on writing and taking a break until life settles down again? Or are you like me and you need to write daily (even if it’s not on your main project)? Knowing which you’re comfortable doing, and then creating a plan around your work can save a lot of pain in making that decision while you’re already in the midst of distress.

Here’s My Minimal Writing Mode in full:

  • Check To-Do List for Burning Items
    Is there a project that
    has to have attention today? Usually my writing life isn’t deadline oriented, but when it is, I may have to ensure I can get a submission posted. Many times if I send an email to the stakeholders and explain the situation, they can accept the submission late. (I’m talking about people who I already have a relationship with, not the last day to submit a short story to a magazine—that opportunity might just have to be missed.)

  • 250 Words Per Day
    This is a number I set after many years of practice and a realization that even when I’m very sick, I can put together 250 words reliably and quickly. (This has been tested through intense colds and food poisoning, so I feel confident about it.)

  • Plan to Write a Blog Post
    Blog posts are easier for me to write quickly when I’m under stress. If I have one in progress that doesn’t require research, I can add 250 words to it. But if I need to start something new, I have a pre-written list of topics I can choose from. The pre-written list means I’m not wasting mental energy thinking up something, I just have to choose.

Keeping up my daily writing practice in the middle of family emergencies and health chaos may seem inconsequential, but for me it’s a chance for self-care. Whether I’m writing a blog post or spending time in a fictional world, it’s a chance for me to take a beat, sit with my thoughts, and organize something. (When the rest of my world feels disorganized, that feeling becomes even more important!) Knowing what my “easy” mode is and being able to set the boundaries for the minimal effort to keep me happy means I’m always prepared when life throws a wrench in all my plans.

That said, some of the health chaos will be continuing through the coming months, so I’m placing this blog along with some other monthly responsibilities on hiatus through the end of 2022. Keep up a healthy work-life balance in my absence and feel free to say hello and check in with me on Twitter!

 

 

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The Write Life: The Juggling Act

While writing is never an easy undertaking, I’ve been struggling more this year. Focus has been difficult, as has maintaining priorities. “Eyes on the prize” is a mantra I’ve been repeating as I continue to become distracted by other responsibilities and projects and things that Sound Cool but have been stealing my attention and energy. It’s been frustrating to be forced into choosing and being unable to do everything when I’m used to being an ace at my juggling act. But it’s time I accept a truth: when I keep dropping a ball, it’s time to leave the ball on the floor.

Dropping an activity—or even deprioritizing it for a limited time—is difficult for me. I feel the pressure from other people (someone was expecting or looking forward to my contributions!), the pressure from consistency (doing something regularly is more likely to draw and maintain an audience), and the pressure from myself.

Screaming woman with multi-colored balls falling around her.

Photo by Zak Neilson on Unsplash

Admittedly the pressure from myself is the dumbest reason and the one I should be able to let go of easily, and yet…

I have a lot of expectations regarding what I should be able to do. While that usually matches reality, it sometimes comes with a steep cost (especially when I’m looking at a year of increased mental and emotional burden). I was talking to a friend about a deadline recently and said, “Can I make it? Of course. Because I will literally kill myself before missing deadlines.” Friends, that is not a healthy way to be. Especially if what I’m striving to meet doesn’t have a career, mental, or emotional payoff that will support refueling the inevitable burnout.

One of the reasons I need to step away from some of the things I’ve been doing is because they don’t support my career path and goals. (This is a good starting place if you need to reassess your own responsibilities, by the way.) As I was making a list of what I need to work on for the second half of this year, I realized how many of the things on that list weren’t writing a novel or writing articles for pay or writing workshops. When I started fitting those things in around the other responsibilities, it became obvious what was choking my goals and where I needed to step back.

I’ve already trimmed some responsibilities and am taking a hard look at the other jobs on my to-do list. It’s difficult to say “no” when something sounds cool or fun, or when I can see how it might fit into Alli’s Puzzle of Freelancing & Writing. But I can’t let Cool and Fun outweigh Time, Energy, and Mental Health. It hurts to let go of opportunities in the short term, but in the long term, my future (and my writing life) will thank me for leaving the dropped ball on the floor.

 

 

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The Write Life: The Qualitative Side of Writing

This month has been a lot of Overworked, Stressed Out, and Too Much. All those things in combination make it very difficult to have a productive creative life. Most days this month I met my minimum writing practice by the skin of my teeth, but I met it and, even on the days when I wrote the least, I still felt proud of what I accomplished.

Taking satisfaction in my creative work is often more useful and positive than writing a couple thousand words. Writing 250 words that progresses the story, develops a difficult to articulate idea, or gets me closer to the version of the scene I want to convey often feels more productive than anything else I’ll work on in a week. And that feeling is one of the things I have to hold on to when I take stock of my progress over this month because word count wise? I did not have a stellar month.

I’ve found a lot of usefulness in quantifying my writing by tracking word count. It’s helped me understand my process and take comfort when it feels like I’m spinning my wheels. I know it takes me about three times as many words to get to the finished product, and that’s normal for me (which also helps me identify how much time it might take to finish a project). I know how many words I can write in a year and what’s pushing my limits. I know reasonable expectations versus delusions of grandeur.

And all that’s useful information to have!

But with so much focus on quantity, I’ve missed recording the qualitative side of writing. Keeping in touch with how I feel about a good writing day—focusing on building confidence and positive feelings associated with my writing—is what can balance out a rough, unfocused day. (Or a busy and exhausting month.)

I’d love to tell you I already came up with a clever tracking system and have been using it all month, but I didn’t realize I needed it until I started writing this post! (I guess that’s on deck coming up, huh?) Right now I feel good about my progress, even if I haven’t been tracking my feelings and am behind in my yearly word count goals. I’m keeping my head above water (even though I am seriously treading at the moment). I’m proud that despite how Overworked, Stressed Out, and Too Much my life has been, I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t skipped a day. I haven’t lost my focus. (Well, longer than a temporary loss.)

Hopefully you’ve been able to stay positive in whatever it is you’re doing (and are a little less Overworked, Stressed Out, and Too Much than I am).

 

 

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The Write Life: Writing in Community

I’ve recently been focused on mental health, and since I write all the time, how mental health relates to—and sometimes hinders—writing. While I’ve discussed many methods I use to maintain productivity and focus (and will be doing so again in a workshop on June 12), and ways to repackage and reevaluate my goals to keep my outlook positive, one thing I haven’t talked much about is community.

Writing is most often a solo pursuit. Unless you’re working with a co-author, writers spend a lot of time engaged in the solitary activity of translating thoughts into words. (And even if you do work with a co-author, your process still might involve a lot of independent writing.) Writers can spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and revising without input from anyone else—let alone input from colleagues who understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, or how to do it better.

Without that outside input—without a community of other people who “get” it—writing can be very lonely.

Which is one reason I rely on and love creative writing communities. (And, okay, may be one reason I wind up running far too many of them, too.)

While the big communities of hundreds of people can be great for pooling resources and finding out what’s going on in publishing or best practices for querying, self-publishing, or any other writing topic, it’s easy to get lost in all those posts and walk away with knowledge but no connection. So, the type of community I think is most helpful from a writing and mental health perspective is a small community in which you’re expected to get to know and interact with other writers on a more personal level.

The community that’s been the best for me is my local, in-person writing group Central Florida Inklings. Pre-pandemic, we met once a week at Starbucks for two to three hours of writing. Being in person and having a flexible routine meant there was a lot of cross-chatter and friendship. During the pandemic, we switched to an online format, which thinned our ranks a bit as some writers need the in-person push and others had to increase their self-care, but it also allowed me to increase the number of weekly meetings. We currently have four regular meeting times with sporadic others, providing consistent check-ins with other writers.

We talk about our current writing (and publishing) struggles, assist with brainstorming, and offer much needed support and confidence boosting. Being around and having access to other people who understand how it feels when I can’t get a sentence right, or who can offer a new resource for inspiration helps keep me writing on tough days. And having that nearly daily writing session set up in advance? There’s no question about when I’ll write because I need to show up for my community.

We had an in-person gathering last month, which was the first time we’ve been together since last August. Being face to face with these writers and friends eased my heart and bolstered my mental health. We, uh, didn’t actually do much writing, but being with my community again helped in a different way, and the next time we’re together, I’m sure we’ll all write more.

If you’ve been struggling to write in isolation—or if you’ve been moderately successful but are not yet where you want to be—I recommend finding a writing group. You can check out the big communities on Facebook or Twitter and see who you gel with, or just look around your writer friends and see if you can pull together a support group. Whatever you do, find some writer friends! It just might change your writing life. (I know it changed mine.)

 

 

If you haven’t seen it elsewhere, I started a podcast! My writing partner KL! and I are hosting a podcast about writing and inspiration called Story Kernels. In each episode, we take a writing prompt and develop it into a story, walking you through the process of creation (and working in collaboration). New episodes upload on Thursdays throughout the summer.

You can catch episodes on our website, Patreon, or by subscribing on your favorite podcatcher.

 

 

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: 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.

&

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.

 

 

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.