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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.

 

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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!

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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?

2018 Goal Progress

Since I wrote last week about making adjustments to yearly goals, I wanted to check in on my progress and take stock of how some of these challenges are going (and see if I can convince myself to focus more explicitly on a few of them). So here is my current progress on my Writing Goals for 2018.


Day Count: 365 days

57/365

No days missed and I’m on track for writing 365 days in 2018.

 

Total Word Count: 185,000 words

27,203/185,000

I’m currently at 27,203 words, which is fifteen percent of my goal. Technically I’m a hair behind the daily average to reach this goal, but since I’m already planning a 50K month for November, it’s perfectly fine to be a little behind pace the rest of the year.

I’ve spent most of my writing time drafting blog posts, but my fiction word counts are starting to rise as I get back to work on my second novel.

 

Daily Word Count: 150+ words

57/365

No misses so far on writing at least 150 words every day. I’m actually doing fairly well on the next tier, which is 400 words every day. I’ve only missed 4 days so far! The slow and steady method of small regular word counts continues to be the most successful way for me to keep a writing habit and stay in practice when starting bigger projects.

 

Write 1K+ Words: 40 days

1/40

As I said in my goal setting, I expect to get most of my 1K-word days during NaNoWriMo, but with only one under my belt I feel a little behind. That should change soon, though, because I’m going to be getting back to drafting a novel, and even with a slow and steady pace, I know some scenes will hook me in and I’ll look up 1,500 words later.

 

Draft a Novel

I’ve made some progress toward this goal, picking up what’s already written and beginning the process of sorting out what to keep, what’s missing, and what needs to be reimagined. I’m a little behind the schedule I originally planned, so I’m readjusting my expectations to finish this pass by mid-March and then begin drafting again.

 

Revise/Write a Short Story

Similar to the novel draft, I’ve done a little bit of work on a short story. While I wanted to write it in order, the end was one of the first scenes that came to me, so I finally decided to draft a version of it so maybe I can concentrate on the rest of the story.

 

Read: 35 Books

8/35

I worked through four books in each month and I’m currently deep into one other book and starting three more. That progress tells me I might have underestimated this goal, but I will concede that two of those eight books were graphic novels (therefore, short) and two of the books I started in December 2017, so I expect this finishing speed to drop off throughout the year. Even so, I think by mid-year I’ll be looking ahead to my stretch goal of reading 40 books.

 

It’s nice to be able to report that I’m on target or ahead for most of my goals. How are your 2018 goals progressing?