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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: 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.

 

 

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: 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.

 

 

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: May 2019

In the middle of the month, I took a one-day vacation to the OCLS Book Festival. I’m calling this a vacation because even though I absolutely wrote that day, and even though I was taking notes in the pursuit of my writing career, the event, schedule, and whole day was a wonderful pause on my go-go-go anxiety and I was instead able to go-go-go with the flow and ended up listening to some wonderful speakers and renewing my motivation to write. 

The keynote speakers were Daniel José Older and Delilah Dawson, both authors who I’m only tangentially aware of (because they’ve written Star Wars books, ahem). Both keynotes were exceptional (Daniel’s was an especially fantastic way to kick off the day) and both left me jazzed to write. I left the Book Festival feeling recharged, more motivated, and more confident in my ability to do the work. Refilling my motivational and creative wells was exactly the kind of vacation I needed to get myself back to the novel planning I had put aside the week before.

Following the Book Festival, my friend and I decided to stay out longer to write and then get dinner. The continued flow of the day, the easy decisions and laid back attitude reminded me of what writing is like when everything is flowing smoothly. When I’m not worried about where the story will end, how polished it will look, or what I’m going to do when the story is done, everything has room to breathe. It’s a pretty different state of being from my normal setting, so the escape was welcome and, honestly, necessary. Living with anxiety as a writer and freelancer is a pretty harrowing thing (my disorder does not mix well with the uncertain, unstable life I’ve chosen), so having these moments of peace bolstering my career is essential to keeping myself moving forward.

 

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.

I Don’t Feel Like It

Even in the middle of a multi-year streak of writing daily, I sometimes hit walls. The walls aren’t as thick as they used to be, and frequently they’ll appear after I’ve written 100 words (so technically I’ve already written for the day), but there they are, blocking my progress. Sometimes those walls come in the form of being unable to fill in a plot hole, or in difficulty articulating a thought, but often all of those walls manifest in the feeling of not feeling like writing. It’s the ultimate avoidance tactic! I don’t have to deal with my writing problem if I just don’t write.

So, how do you deal with not feeling like writing but needing to write?


Write Something Different

I frequently circumvent this wall by stepping away from what I was planning to write and working on something else. That’s how I started this blog post. I had been struggling to draft a chapter (not “feeling” like working on that novel), so I opened up a new document and asked a question: Do you ever not feel like writing? Suddenly I was on my way writing again.

Switching focus can unclog my brain and give myself the mental boost of having written. Generally if I’ve put some easy words into something else, I’ll be past the hurdle of feeling like I wasn’t performing, and then have the confidence to tackle the task that blocked me. (I may not have resolved the block, but I can start working on the problem again.)


Make Some Tea

Getting up and doing something with a time limit can sometimes unblock my brain. Making a cup of tea takes me seven minutes, which means I can devote seven minutes to thinking about what was blocking me, why it was blocking me, and how I can get around that block. Seven minutes isn’t long, but often by the time I have a cup of hot tea, I have a solution for how I can keep writing. (Even if that solution is figuring out a different, unblocked part of the story I can write.)


Give Up

This may sound counter-intuitive as a strategy to start writing again, but sometimes the only solution is to stop fighting. I have many times gotten so frustrated that I marched away from the keyboard, only to suddenly be slapped with the solution. Walking away was key to my discovery. It wasn’t until I had become so frustrated that I was ready to give up that my brain presented the answer so plainly. Sometimes walking away from your writing is a good thing!

 

Feeling like you don’t want to write doesn’t have to stop you from writing. Lean into the feeling a bit, give yourself a break, and once you come back to it, you just may feel like writing again.

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Hesitant to Finish

I am resistant to finishing things.

It sounds ridiculous typed out like that. I mean, the point of starting a project is to have a finish product. In this case, it’s to have a finished story, and having a finished story is an amazing feeling! But even though I know that, I have a lot of trouble motivating myself to finish one pass and move on to the next. For me that hesitation comes down to three anxious questions:

  • What next?
  • Will I have another good idea?
  • But is it really done?


What Next?

This is a question that isn’t just about what project will I work on next, but how will I structure that project? What will my days be like? What is the routine?

I like ruts. I love working in ruts because I know how much work I’ll get done each day, when I’ll start, and roughly what I’ll do while I work. It’s comfortable and consistent and I am super productive once I have a well-worn rut. But getting that rut going is difficult. Figuring out the best way to work on a project takes time and patience, and often means experimenting with new workflows—new ruts—until I find the right one for the project (or for that stage of the project). As a project winds down, so do I, dragging out the last few tasks in anticipation of having to carve a new rut.

I haven’t figured out how to battle this question. The simple solution seems to be to develop a rut for each stage of writing, but every book I’ve worked on has been different, so that means the process isn’t cookie-cutter. For some books I’ve followed a structured outline, and for others I wrote scenes out of order. Perhaps one day I’ll have enough experience with each kind of workflow to immediately know how I’ll attack it, but for now I have to find other methods to banish my worries about what happens next.


Will I Have Another Good Idea?

Well. Will I???

The idea that what I’m writing will be the last thing I ever write is one of the most ridiculous anxious thoughts I could have, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking it nearly every time I near the end of a project. Obviously I’m going to write something else. Even through periods when I wasn’t as creative or productive, I never stopped getting ideas for stories. But this is anxiety talking and anxiety doesn’t have a firm grip on reality, so it throws out fearful doubts like this.

There’s no real defense against an anxious thought, except to not entertain it. I’ve gotten better at ignoring this question over the years, but sometimes it still catches me off guard and slows down my progress, keeping me from crossing the finish line so I can linger in my “last” good idea.


But Is It Really Done?

Of all the anxious questions I have that disrupt my productivity, this is the one that I actually have to answer. Figuring out if a project is actually finished is key to, you know, finishing the project. The problem is when this idea turns from productive checking in with the story to obsessing over commas, prepositions, and if I should start swapping around scenes just to see what it looks like.

I typically use revision checklists to keep myself on track and to eventually identify a stopping point. Sometimes I need to add things to the list—maybe during copyediting I uncover another crutch phrase, so I want to double back to search for that phrase, or I might finally figure out how to condense two scenes—but mostly I stick to the list and when the list is done, I’m done. Having that list as a definitive end point helps stop me from obsessing because I have something tangible to point to that says the story is done.

 

Knowing my weaknesses and having strategies to overcome them certainly helps, but it doesn’t stop me from struggling with finishing projects. Hopefully with continued practice it will get easier as time goes on.

Are there any aspects of finishing writing projects that stymie you? How do you over come those obstacles?

First Drafts Suck

Sometimes one of the hardest things to do is to keep writing through your first draft. Ideas can feel flat and uninspired. Characters might not meet the expectations you set out for them. Obstacles wind up being easier to overcome than you imagined, or, the opposite, you find yourself written into a corner. It is frustrating and infuriating and quitting starts looking better and better because, let’s face it, your first draft sucks.

But the good news is that all first drafts suck. No matter how much planning you do in advance, there’s a big difference between an idea and a story. A story requires details and specifics and everything has to work together. Sentences have to be crafted, motivations have to be honed, choices have to be made, and consequences have to be realized. Moving from an idea to a final product takes a lot of work, and the first draft is the first step. And the first draft is always a messy step.

First drafts don’t just suck because they are the messy beginnings of a novel. They suck because they’re difficult to write and they’re difficult to stick with. But the reason you must keep writing through a terrible first draft is simple: blank pages can’t be revised. In order to make the book better, something needs to be on the page. Revising is like sculpting, and the first draft is how you make the clay.

Sculptures can’t be made without material to sculpt, and the same works for stories. The first draft has to be written so the writer has something to revise and craft into the finished work. It may be tempting to stop in the middle and start revising, but not finishing your first draft is a disservice to your story and sometimes a waste of your time. Even the most organized planners can discover things about their characters, plot, and world through writing the first draft. Ideas develop organically—it becomes clear that the character should turn left instead of right, a sub-plot more fully develops, one idea spawns another and a new area of the world is fleshed out. You might discover that a scene you wrote well and loved doesn’t belong in your novel any more—and if you spent your time honing it instead of writing to the end of your first draft, you would have wasted that time.

So push through your first draft. Even when it sucks, try your best to love the experience and motivate yourself to continue. Reward yourself for writing. Tell your friends what you’ve completed. Write the scenes that excite you. Write out of order. Leave gaping holes that just have notes like “battle scene” or “much smooching” or “Kate and Joe need to talk.” Leave notes to yourself about ideas you get as you’re drafting or revisions you want to make, but keep writing forward. You’ll have a mess by the end. You’ll have a draft that sucks, but you’ll have a draft that you can craft, make better, and sculpt into the story you were always meant to write. As much as writing is about revising, revising can’t happen if you don’t have a first draft.