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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 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: 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: 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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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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?

 

 

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: Organizing June

In June I took a break from my Writers Five goals so I could concentrate on getting organized.

I recently started using Trello to organize and track freelance editorial projects. And, after having success with that, I decided Trello might be just what I need to organize my writing life. I’ve had a bad habit of amassing ideas I don’t work on, or getting caught up in a detail and abandoning a project for a long time, or coming back to an idea and spending a long time sorting out where I was and what I was doing. Keeping a list of ideas or titles hasn’t been enough. I needed a resource that would allow me to organize thoughts, record information, and remind myself about progress. So far Trello seems to be fitting the bill! (More information about how I’ve done that is available in the June Writing Resources available on my Patreon.)

Part of the reason I’ve been failing my write goal of the Writers Five is that I’ve lacked the kind of structure I now have with Trello. I’m very good at working to deadlines, but if the deadlines are loosey-goosey, I ignore them and just go wherever my attention feels like drifting. Now I have my attention focused on the projects that are Ready to Go and I can make sure I’m moving forward with purpose.

Which brings me back to the Writers Five.

I have really fallen off with keeping up with my goals during the last few months. Some of that is related to the general upheaval and uncertainty that is 2020, but some of that is related to this lack of focus. I’ve been making good progress with my reading goals, but the write, release, and research goals have been… lackluster. During June I decided to give myself a break from my goals to find a little more focus. I’m not sure I feel ready to fully embrace my goals in July, but I’m going to be more honest about what I’m working on and focus on the goals I know I can achieve.

So, here are my Writers Five goals for July:

Read a specific book.
Read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (due to the library) and Network Effect by Martha Wells. I’ve started both, so progress will be made, even if I don’t finish them both this month.

Write a specific story.
Write whatever story makes me happy. Some attention should be paid to anything with a due date! (A lot of attention will be paid to anything with a due date, but I’m still allowed to be a bit willynilly with writing this month.)

Research a specific topic.
Pass for July.

Release a piece of writing.
Pass for July.

Just relax.
Read outside once a week. Take a nap with or cuddle Boogie.

 

 

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: Quarantined April

The second month in quarantine slowly felt more and more normal as new routines settled into habits and new habits became familiar. Some changes, actually, are welcome and have provided more structure to my day and made me more productive. Whereas March saw my motivation and productivity slowly folding like a flan in a cupboard, April built up to impressive amounts of writing (over 25,000 words) and finally getting back to editing projects. (Which, by the way, thank you to everyone sitting static in the queue for most of the month. Your patience has been key to maintaining my mental health.)

One thing that has helped a lot is that six-days a week I run virtual write-ins for Central Florida Inklings. Inklings used to be my face-to-face writing group that met once a week, but since shifting to an online format, I started offering weekday write-ins. We’ve got a couple times that are stable, but the other times shift, allowing different members to participate and allowing me to have a little variation day to day and week to week, which is, let me tell you, something I desperately needed. Working from home—as I’m sure many of you have noticed—has a sameness that can be devastating. It’s all too easy to forget what day it is when there’s so little variation in your life or schedule. But these write-ins have made me work a little harder to remember the day of the week, and that in turn has helped me stay present and active.

Another improvement to quarantine life is that I purchased some noise-cancelling headphones. It’s now much easier for me to get a quiet slice of time to write and edit, and I can listen to some bops whenever I like. (There may have been a marked increase in Dance Party Writing Breaks over the last two weeks.) I’m still searching out the perfect playlist for writing, but for now, being able to dull the random noises around me is working wonderfully.

While many states and cities are planning to open quarantine within the next month, I’m planning to stay isolated through the end of May. As I’ve said before, quarantine life is a lot like my regular life, so staying isolated to keep my household healthy isn’t much of a burden. But, uh, I may have to venture out for tacos or to stand in a library or bookstore. (Browsing my home bookshelves is just not the same.)

 

 

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: Try Anything February

This past month I hit a landmark in my daily writing goal: 1,500 days of writing! I talked about how I started writing daily when I hit 1,000 days back in 2018, so if you want the origins of this obsessive goal, check out the post, 1,000.

While I’d like for this announcement to be filled with positivity and congratulations, that’s not entirely how I feel about it because aside from writing daily, I feel like I don’t have a lot to show for all this hard work.

Since 2016 I’ve finished a novel, revised a novel (thrice), wrote half a draft of two other books, and drafted many other short stories, though I haven’t published any original fiction. In other words, my writing life has been stagnated in the measurable areas “that count.”

Writing 1,000 days provided me with consistency and confidence. It helped shake off some of the doubt I had about my ability to start and keep writing. But writing another 500 days has brought with it different concerns and questions. Most specifically, how do I turn this productivity into published works?

That’s the question I’ve been grappling with this past month. I don’t believe there’s an easy answer—and there’s certainly not one answer—but I’ve been throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, and see what sort of drips down the wall because it’s kind of sticky but not fully cooked. (If you’re getting the idea that this has been a messy process, you would be right!)

I still don’t have any answers, but I have a list of things I’ve tried:

  • I set up a new email address and emailed myself like I was a writing coach.

    Sounds goofy, but I figured it was finally time to take advantage of my abilities to analyze other people’s work and my ability to disassociate when I’m speaking to or through a character. Essentially this became a more organized way of talking to myself out loud. (And it was a little more productive, because I’d already written all the ideas in the email!)

  • I wrote a revision plan.

    This is actually an old practice, but something I haven’t done in a while, for whatever reason. I read over a short story and instead of shuffling commas and agonizing over diction, I kept notes on what needed to change and what I needed to review. I translated that into a progress chart so I could work through each item and check it off.

  • I tricked my resistance to specific tasks by making goals of other tasks.

    I admit that I didn’t do this on purpose, but it wound up working, so it’s going on the list. When I was making my Writer’s Five goals for February, there were two projects I was considering focusing on for my write and release goals. The one I picked was a short story I felt some resistance to working on, but felt pretty comfortable about where it was. I avoided working on it by instead working on the project I felt more resistance to completing because it included revising an outline and sample chapters. But, uh, I finished the outline and am into the sample chapters. While avoiding the other task. So… yay?

Do you have any “tricks” you use to get yourself to finish writing things? Mind sharing? I need some help.

Writer Resources: The Writer’s Five Worksheet

I’m great at meeting metric-based goals, but in meeting those goals I sometimes lose sight of the goals driving those metrics. I can write a specific number of words, but those words don’t always resolve into completed works. I know creatives who struggle with figuring out how to break big goals (like “write a novel”) into smaller, more manageable tasks. And I know other creatives who set goals, get distracted, and when they look up again, the whole year is gone!

In an effort to stay focused, this year I decided to break my goals into smaller, targeted tasks that can each be completed in about a month. These are designed to focus my attention, make progress in specific ways, and measure my overall progress with landmarks.

I provided an overview of the Writer’s Five in my January Write Life post, A Contemplative January, but now I’m coming to you with a resource to facilitate writing and tracking your goals.

 

Resource: Writer’s Five Worksheet

The Writer’s Five Worksheet is a blank sheet for you to write and track your goals for the month. Each goal is based around one verb: read, write, research, release, and relax. Basing the goals around a simple verb already tells you a lot about what your goals will be, thus making them easier to compose.

For each goal, name one specific thing you will do. Make sure it’s something you can accomplish in about a month, so “Write a novel” shouldn’t be on your list, but maybe “Write Chapter 1” will be.

 

Read: Name a specific book you will read.

If you have other reading goals and are a regular reader, I encourage you to select a book (or two) you’ve either been struggling to read or putting off for some reason. One of the books I selected for February was a book I started six months ago and just hadn’t finished. You might also select books you “should” be reading, such as a book published in your genre in the last five years.

Write: Name a specific project and the part of the project you will write.

You might focus on a single chapter or section of your novel, or a specific stage of writing, for example, “Revise short story.” Remember, the task doesn’t have to take a month to finish, but should be small enough to complete within a month.

Research: Name a specific subject to research.

Instead of a subject to research, you might decide to read a nonfiction book about a topic that interests you or a writing craft book. If you do select a subject to research, consider listing what research you’re planning to do this month, for example, “Read wikipedia entries about the Golden Age of Piracy.”

Release: Name a piece of writing you will release or submit.

Releasing writing into the world doesn’t always need to be to a potential publisher. Many of my release goals will be about submitting works-in-progress to critique partners. You might even decide your release goal is to send a chapter or story to me!

Relax: Name one thing you will do for yourself and your self-care.

It can be easy to forget that a rested mind works more efficiently and creatively. Picking one thing to do each month that is just for you and your mental (or physical) health is about letting yourself rest and recharge so you can later tackle all your other goals.

 

Download a Writer’s Five Worksheet for yourself. As you set your goals for the next month, consider what you’ve been avoiding, are struggling with, or need some extra motivation to complete. What is the smallest thing you can do to start working on that project? Maybe that’s your first goal.

If you post your goals on Twitter or Instagram, don’t forget to tag @selfwinding so I can cheer you on.

Want a Writer’s Five Worksheet in another color? A whole rainbow is available to patrons pledging $2 or more per month at my Patreon campaign. As a patron you’ll be able to download Bust-Ass Blue, Gangbusters Green, Productive Peach, Vigorous Violet, Can-Do Cranberry, and Successful Steampunk (spoilers: it’s brown), in addition to Tenacious Teal.