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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.

The Write Life: April 2019

Ever wonder what it takes to be an every day writer? It’s this: planning, determination, and prioritizing writing.

My friends and I decided it was high time we visit the Magic Kingdom for an epic 12-hour theme park day. I write every day and while I want to prioritize having fun with my friends and enjoying the happiest place on Earth, I don’t want to do that at the expense of my 1,200-day writing streak.

I came to Disney prepared to make sure I got my words in while having a rollicking good time. That meant: fully charging my battery, fully charging my back up battery, shifting an in-progress story to GoogleDocs and making it available offline, and brainstorming what happens in the scene I was planning to write.

Finding the time to write while we were in the park was a balance between knowing we’d have long wait times for ride queues and not being rude to my friends. I waited until the conversation lulled, or when everyone else seemed equally distracted (or exhausted) before pulling out my phone to write. Because I had thought about the scene beforehand, it was easier to turn a handful of disjointed minutes into productive writing time. In the end I wrote 387 words while at Disney, which is not a staggering amount—I didn’t even finish writing the scene—but my writing streak is in tact and I like some of the ideas that presented themselves in that land of distraction. (Also I will always think it’s funny to write on theme park rides.)

Many thanks to Lara Eckener for being my in-line and on-ride photographer.

 

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.

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2018 Goals Review

While I hit the majority of my 2018 goals, I’m not entirely satisfied with my progress this year, which is why I’m making some major changes to my writing life for next year. But that topic is next year, and this post is about 2018 and all my success and less-than-success that has come and gone.

Let’s start with the metric-based goals:

I wrote every day in 2018.
I wrote 150 or more words every day.
I wrote 1,000 or more words 33 days out of 40.
I wrote 205,068 words over the year, exceeding my goal by 20,068 words.
I read 53 books, exceeding my goal by 18 books.

Overall, success! I didn’t write 1,000 words in a day as often as I wanted, but after spending three years developing a steady writing habit, I no longer have trouble producing words. Which is a huge success, as anyone who has experienced a second of writer’s block knows well.

While the words flowed easily, I spun my wheels on projects more often than I finished them. I spit out words to write the words, instead of writing to write a story. Writing was a rote process, instead of a creative adventure. Which is why I did not finish a draft of a novel this year.

I made progress on a novel, decided what I was doing wasn’t working, and I scrapped the whole outline. On paper, not finishing a novel draft is a failed goal, but I learned a lot about what wasn’t working in my approach and figured out the novel I want to write (mostly). So even though I didn’t “finish” a novel, I made progress that will help me write that novel in the future.

In general, that’s how I feel about my progress this past year. I spun my wheels, I learned a lot about which pressures and obligations were causing negative results, and reflected on how I want to make changes to my writing life going forward. 2018 was very successful, don’t get me wrong, but I’m looking forward to taking what I learned about my writing life and applying it to my writing future.

 

How did your writing in 2018 go? Did you make progress in your goals?

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Writing on Days When You Feel Drained

If you feel drained of ideas and motivation, that could be a sign that you need to take a writing break and let yourself entirely off the hook. Spend the day reading a book, catching up on TV, or actually, you know, interacting with people. I find that having conversations with other writers and creators is often the best way to find inspiration again.

But let’s assume for a moment that you can’t take a break and you have to write no matter what (ahem, like when you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo). What do you do on those days when you have to force yourself to write?

Maintaining a Streak

If you’re writing to maintain a streak and it doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write, it may be a day to shelve the current work in progress and try something new.

Shift over to your ideas notebook, grab a random prompt from the internet (there are a jillion, so if you don’t have a favorite site bookmarked, Google “creative writing prompts” or “writing prompt generator”), or ask your friends if there’s a story they’d like to be told. I’ve written some fun one-offs about my original characters inspired by things my friends prompted me or scenes they wish they’d read.

If you’re still struggling to get any words on the page, or are generally finding yourself uninspired, it’s time for some free writing. This free writing could eventually evolve into a blog post or story, but it might just be an activity to get you writing again.

Start with a question about what’s bugging you. This could be anything from, “Why am I so tired today?” to “How am I so uninspired?” Once you have that question nailed down, twist it into a question you can analyze and/or give advice about. “Why am I so tired today?” might become “How can you write when you’re tired?” or “What’s the greatest obstacle between a writer and a nap?” or “Why is sleep so important to the creative process?” Once you have a question, and one that is built on a topic that’s currently bugging you, you have something to write about. And turning it into a question that you can either analyze or give advice about lets you turn free writing about your problems into a positive exercise. Too often free writing about problems can turn into negative thoughts and self-immolation, but turning it into a question to be answered lets you think about the same topic in a completely different way and hopefully can inspire you to help yourself!

Writing to a Deadline

If you’re writing for a deadline and you must work on a specific piece, the real problem is that you have to find inspiration in a specific work, so jumping to other pieces isn’t always an option.

But it’s still where I would start.

When feeling totally uninspired on one story, I start by writing on something else. If you have another project in progress, spending some time on that might reinvigorate your motivation for the deadline project. If no other project is available, you can take any of the suggestions above and apply them here—prompts, free writing with a question, etc.

No matter what you’re writing, set a timer to limit how much time you spend working on other activities or projects. I recommend 10–15 minutes for warm-up writing before trying to get back to the project you’re supposed to be working on.

Or, instead of writing something different, you can use prompts that allow you to work with the same characters or the same world, essentially approaching your deadline project from the side instead of head-on. Try posing what-if situations for your characters, alternate scenes/endings, or writing something from the perspective of someone else in your world.

You can use a similar strategy as the suggested free writing activity by answering a question related to the thing you’re stuck on—”How can my character get out of this situation?” or “Who should my character partner with for this mission?” or “How does the world’s society/laws limit my character?” Using the free writing format as an opportunity to organize your thoughts can help you work through the problem in a different way than just thinking about it. (This is why so often solutions might come when we’re talking to someone else, rather than when we’re just thinking to ourselves. Different ways of communication allow us to organize our thoughts differently, so if you don’t have a friend on hand, have a conversation with a blank page!)

If you absolutely must be working on your deadline-driven project and don’t have time for warm-up activities, try reading the last 1-2 pages you’ve written and allow yourself to revise and edit them. One of the best ways for me to get back into a story is by working to flesh out the last thing I wrote. If the last thing I wrote is literally what stumped me—and I had difficulty figuring out where the story goes next—I rewrite from where the story started to derail. Sometimes I might keep all the action and description, but change the dialogue. Sometimes I might move the setting. Sometimes I might scrap the entire idea, or even shift who is in the scene and take the whole thing in a completely different direction! It may not feel like you’re getting anywhere (especially if you end up trashing that version and starting again), but what you’re doing is eliminating the ideas that aren’t working and helping find the idea that does work.

 

No matter what’s going on with you creatively, there are ways to dig deep on those days when you’re feeling drained. And the more often you practice digging deep, the easier it can get. I still sometimes hit days when I’m totally worn out and need a break, and on those days I write my minimum word count using one of the strategies above and call it a day. But because I’ve put in so much effort, it’s easy for me to use one of those strategies and see success. So even if it’s hard now, know that putting in the hard work will help train you as a writer and eventually you’ll be able to sail past those inspiration-less days with no trouble.

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1,000

Tomorrow is my 1,000th consecutive day of writing!

On one hand it is a holy-cannoli moment. Ten years ago, I never would have dreamed of having this kind of regularity in my writing life. Even before I was depressed, I wrote in fits and spurts and when I felt like it, sneaking in a writing life in between work hours, chores, family functions, and everything else. I could commit during NaNoWriMo, or when I had a deadline, but I was wholly unconcerned about when I would write next or what I was building toward. My writing life was an amorphous thing and even though I had goals (get published!) I had no plan. I was basically an underpants gnome where my plan was:

Phase 1: Write

Phase 2: ????

Phase 3: PUBLISH!

I had this idea that I’d like to write every day, but I didn’t understand what it would do for me and I didn’t have the follow-through to make it happen. When I realized I had written every day the first week of 2016, it was a surprise. I haphazardly decided to keep going, but that cavalier decision hardened into resolve and I slowly figured out how to juggle writing and all my other responsibilities. I learned that I had to prioritize writing to make my writing life happen. I learned that I had to tell friends and family things like, “this has been fun, but I have to go write,” even though I felt silly and trivial doing so the first few times. I learned that writing was as important as my job (because I wanted it to be my job), so I had to value it.

All of those little lessons and small goals helped me to get to the other hand of how I feel about this landmark.

On this other hand, this non-holy-cannoli-moment hand, writing 1,000 days seems inevitable. It’s still an achievement, don’t get me wrong, but I see no reason why I won’t write for 1,000 more days. Daily writing is such a part of my life now that I no longer question how I will shuffle my day to include writing. And that’s the real power that comes from building a writing habit. I have confidence that I will write today and from that confidence stems other confidence:

That this won’t be my last great idea.

That I can figure out how to write this scene.

That I can find the right word.

That I can do this.

While I’m proud of having written 1,000 days in a row, I’m most proud of cultivating confidence in my writing life and developing the kind of consistency that makes me certain that, if I want to, I’ll be celebrating 2,000 days of writing in 2021.

 

If you’d like to know more about building a daily writing habit, I’ve written previously on why you should write every day and writing while sick. I’ve also written about apps that can make it easier to build a writing habit. If you’re thinking about or trying to build a writing habit, I’d love to hear how it’s going for you.

Not the Post You’re Looking For

I’m off to DragonCon this week, and while preparing for that adventure is certainly an added distraction this month, it’s not the reason I’m phoning in this blog post. Life has gotten unexpectedly complicated and busy. But that’s one of the most consistent aspects of life, isn’t it? Just when you feel like you have everything under control, something comes along to disrupt the flow.

Many of the things currently disrupting my life are good things (including prepping for my favorite convention of the year and my friend moving back to town), but some of them come with additional emotional complications or stress. Right now I’m reminded to pay additional attention to my work-life balance, to make sure that I’m taking care of myself and my needs, and to cut back on responsibilities where I can. Which is why you’re reading this blog post instead of one of the ones I’ve been working on.

Here’s the take away from this short post: when you’re busy or when life is being unexpectedly complicated, it’s okay to cut back on your responsibilities where you can. This might not be the blog post that you’re looking for, but it’s a reminder I’m happy to share.

2018 Goal Progress #2

It’s been a few months, so I thought it was time to check in on my Writing Goals for 2018. If you haven’t checked in with your own goals for the year, I recommend doing so soon. Mid-year is a great time to see how you’re doing and to make adjustments so you can still finish the year with success.

 

Day Count: 365 days

169/365

On track!

 

Total Word Count: 185,000 words

83,215/185,000

I’m currently at forty-five percent of my goal. With the planned 50K for National Novel Writing Month in November, I’m right on schedule.

Since my last goal progress post in February, my focus has shifted from drafting blog posts to drafting fiction, which is another benefit of reducing my blog schedule.

 

Daily Word Count: 150+ words

169/365

Writing at least 150 words every day hasn’t been difficult, but writing at least 400 words a day (my next tier in this goal) has been more of a challenge. I’ve missed 13 days, usually on days when I haven’t felt well, but it goes to show that I’ll push myself for minimums while letting stretch goals fester.

 

Write 1K+ Words: 40 days

6/40

I’ve made some recent progress on this goal, so even though that’s a low number, I’m feeling good about it. I need about 15 days before November to hit this goal, and with a recent shift in my schedule, I think I’ll be able to get it.

 

Draft a Novel

First drafts are always the most difficult step for me in writing a novel. I like revising so much that I usually start revising before I’ve written the ending. I’m still having some difficulty with forward progression, but I’ve got most of the scenes drafted through chapter 5, with a scattering of scenes in 11 other chapters. At the end of the summer I’m going to reassess my plans for when I think I’ll complete the first draft.

 

Revise/Write a Short Story

I put the short story I was working on in February on hold and have a nearly completed first draft of a different story! I’m excited about this, mostly because it’s a first draft under 2,500 words, which is unheard of for me. I’ll continue working on this story over the summer.

 

Read: 35 Books

23/35

Despite expecting my reading rate to drop off during the year, it’s actually stayed at a brisk pace. The 40-book stretch goal has superseded my original goal, and I may—for the first time since I was about ten years old and tearing my way through Baby-Sitters Club—be looking at reading 50 books in a year. This is an unexpected and very welcome adjustment to make to my goals! I think I have to credit audiobooks for keeping me on such a fast pace.

 

My goal progress overall is looking good. How are your 2018 goals progressing?

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.

The Write Mindset

I recently received a great question* about how I center myself and clear my mind before writing. I think answering this question begins with establishing what “clearing your mind for writing” really means.

For some authors it might mean clearing away distractions to create focus. It might include selecting and molding their physical and mental environments to encourage concentration and creativity. For me it includes knowing what I’m going to write.

I never sit down in front of the computer with a blank page and a blank mind. Today, for example, I came to my writing time with this question in mind, and I had already thought about some things I wanted to say on the subject and how I wanted to organize my response. Tomorrow I will come to my writing time with a draft of this blog post, which I will read before laying fingers on the keyboard. Another day I may seek out a prompt in advance, explore a line of dialogue, or continue a scene on an in-progress story.

All of that thinking and planning and deciding is done before I sit down to write. I do that mental work while I’m in the shower, or eating breakfast, or going to sleep the night before. Basically, I think about writing in my spare minutes, so that when I physically sit down for a ten-minute sprint, I’m ready. This means I spend more of my writing time actually writing, and less of that time staring at a blinking cursor and figuring out what I should be doing.

I still have days when I haven’t adequately planned and I wind up opening and closing several documents, trying to figure out what to work on. Those days of uncertainty and indecision underscore for me how important it is to plan. If I find myself doing that, I stop, get up, and work on something different so I can plan before coming back to the page. (Folding laundry, flossing, and taking a walk are all excellent activities to busy my body while my mind works.)

Planning what I’m going to write doesn’t have to be involved or include outlines, notes, or a chart. The real “plan” comes from eliminating uncertainty. When I come to the page with something in my mind, I can start writing right away and am never stymied by indecision while sitting in front of the keyboard.

Do you have a different strategy for clearing your mind to write? Do you meditate? Use free writing or journaling? What methods work best for you to get yourself into the writing mindset?

 

*This question is actually from a spam bot, but was coherent enough to be useful as inspiration, so you really never know what will inspire you!