Writing Through a Transitional Period

mosaic-3394375_1280

I’ve been at my new job for a month now. I’m working on a different schedule, sleeping on a different schedule. It’s going well, and I’m happy there, but even with my best efforts, my writing output has taken a hit. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Try to make (or keep) your writing a daily habit, but don’t stress if you miss days. That’s solid general advice, but even more important to remember while you’re making big life changes. But if your writing style has never meshed with the “write every day” advice, don’t try to force yourself now while you’re under stress from other sources.
  2. Accept that you’re probably going to be less productive for a while. This will be a harder pill to swallow for some than others. I can crank out thousands of words a day during NaNoWriMo when I’m super motivated, but outside of that I can still usually slap down 500-1000 words on any random day. That’s not happening now, some days because I don’t have time, others because I don’t have energy. It’s okay. I have to remind myself of that often, but it really is okay.
  3. Your writing time frame might change. If you used to have large blocks of time to get a lot of writing done (like the weekend,) maybe you don’t anymore, and you have to become one of those “five minutes whenever I can” writers. Or maybe you suddenly have bigger chunks of time than before, but only on certain days. Prioritize your time, plan for writing sessions if you can, but keep #1 + #2 in mind.
  4. Write everywhere. Also good advice in general, but keep a notebook on you at all times, or write a few lines on the back of your napkin on break, or dictate a snippet into your phone. You can type it up later!
  5. Don’t allow your writing time to cut into your sleep. I’ve said it before in NaNo prep posts, and I’ll keep saying it until the end of time. Healthy sleep is basically the best thing for you, physically, emotionally, and creatively. Burning the midnight oil every once in a while is fine, when you’re inspired (or on a deadline,) but if your solution to a lack of writing time is to get an hour less sleep every night, that’s probably not going to work long-term.
  6. It’s okay to do other things with your free time. I’ve picked up cross-stitch again, and I’m spending more time listening to music (which I don’t generally do while I write, lyrics make me sing along and lose focus.) I need relaxing activities that don’t demand so much creative energy. Part of my brain is always chanting “but you could be writing right now,” and that’s true. But if I let writing stress me out, I’m not going to want to do it at all.

I’m hoping now that I’ve got a better handle on my new, rebooted life, I can be more productive in May, but I’m still keeping my goal pretty small: write for half an hour a day, more days than not. It keeps me writing actively, but it’s doable without a lot of time or stress involved.

Advertisements

Let Me Tell You a Story #30: The Fear of Failure

classroom-1910012_1280

Early yesterday morning, I woke up from a nightmare.

I’d been taking a test. My high school physics teacher paced the front of the room, while all around me, the other students were talking. Nothing my teacher said would quiet them, and he was growing increasingly frustrated.

Behind me, a guy was alternately asking me for answers and mocking me. Beside me, my husband was taking the test as well, and he whispered, “Don’t say anything.”

I didn’t.

But the students had gotten too noisy again, and finally, my teacher snapped. He ordered us all to turn in our tests and he would grade them unfinished. Then he left the room, slamming the door on the way out. (Not very logical on his part, but remember, this is a dream. Mine are rarely even this coherent, narratively speaking.)

Instead of taking mine up to the desk, as the others were doing, I filled in the blank bottom of the page I was on with a combined plea and complaint, that I should be allowed to finish the test or retake it, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, and collective punishment is a war crime.

Then I set my test on the top of the stack on the teacher’s desk and left the empty room.

What happened next is fuzzy, but at some point, I’m walking outside the school with my husband, silently fuming about that class and trying not to cry. Before I reach the school buses, my physics teacher calls out, and I turn, and he’s there. He’s got my test in his hand, and he tells me I can’t retake it. He tells me I was the one talking. He tells me I was the one asking for answers. I turn to my husband, and he nods.

I start to cry, and that’s when I wake up.

I’ve never believed in dream symbolism in any mystical sense. My dreams, weird as they can get, never seem so hard to analyze that I need to rely on something esoteric to understand them, like the idea that seeing a hamster in a dream represents “underdeveloped emotions.” (Yeah, I just googled that. Weird, right?)

When I woke, I took a few moments to examine the nightmare. An authority figure and a loved one conspiring to gaslight me while simultaneously denying me the completion of an accomplishment? I don’t need to dig very deep to see that dream was all about failure. I failed to finish the test, I failed to convince my teacher his treatment of me was unfair, I failed to find the support I needed elsewhere. (No real-life shade thrown at my husband, though–this is my subconscious talking, not at all an accurate depiction of him.)

With it all cut and dried before me, my next thought was, “Ursula would have this dream.”

Ursula is a minor character in the novel I’m failing to rewrite. Every day I should be working on it–every day, something prevents me. Not enough time. Not in the mood. A mountain of dishes, a string of errands that needs to be run, staying late at work, meaning to set aside half an hour to sit down and write but never quite getting to it.

Yes, Ursula would have this dream, and in a flash, I knew exactly why. I had already imagined her struggling with inadequacy issues because of her family, because of her mundane line of work clashing with her lofty ambitions of power and influence.

This dream I had, this nightmare of failure, has connected me to a character who otherwise is wholly unlike me. This is the small piece of my soul and my self that Ursula will inherit when I write her story. Because every character of mine gets at least one.

Having a revelation like this doesn’t entirely erase the underlying fear I have of failure. I’m not sure that anything ever will. But finding this small spark of inspiration has already pushed me to work again, when I had temporarily misplaced my motivation. It’s a small silver lining from a pretty big cloud, but you’ve got to take what you can get, however it shows up.

 

Writing Homework #19: Tear Apart a Chapter

mistakes-1756958_1280

I’m struggling right now with rewriting my current project. It’s a more focused process than the word-vomit stage of the first draft, but not the highly targeted, technical work of line editing. It’s something in between, with elements of both, and my brain, so used to critical analysis of the works of others, just won’t apply it to my own writing at the moment.

So I thought of a way to use my strengths to solve my (hopefully temporary) weakness.

I’m not going to rewrite my writing–I’m going to practice on someone else!

For this exercise, take a book you don’t like. Don’t have any sitting around, because you keep your shelves clean? Pick something up cheap at a used book sale. For this, I’d recommend something physical you can mark up–but if that’s not an option, you could download something free from sites like Project Gutenberg.

Read a chapter or two or three, as much or as little as you need to get a sense of the style without getting too bogged down with the plot.

Pick one of those chapters (or half of one, if they’re very long) and go to town with your weapon of choice, be it the classic red pen, or a highlighter, whatever you like. (Or make your notes digitally on the ebook; if you’re not a fan of that, write them longhand on a separate sheet of paper.)

Kill those darlings. Nitpick. Question everything. Cut words. Change ones you don’t like. Make notes on what’s vague or unexplained.

All done?

Now fix it. Rewrite that chapter or scene to suit your style.

Open up a new document or turn to a fresh page in your writing journal, and rewrite what you just tore apart. Since this is an exercise, and just for you, feel absolutely free to make any changes without worrying about if they’d make sense later in the book (if it’s one you’ve already read, anyway.)

Change a character’s name or gender or race or orientation–don’t we all love head-canoning those bland characters into something new? How does it change the story, or does it? Write it all down.

Is the setting present enough for you? Does it need to be fleshed out, or changed entirely? Switch the scene to a different location. A different season. A different country. Set it on the moon, if you like–just make your changes consistent and believable throughout the whole scene. Change everything you need to change to make it feel natural, like it was always meant to happen there.

Does the author use more adverbs than you prefer? Cut them. Make the verbs stronger. Do they not use enough for your taste? Throw some in where they can make an impact.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea–and a great deal of the specific work will depend on the text you choose, and how you write your own work.

But I’ve always found it’s much easier to be critical (in the classic sense, not the derogatory one) of another’s work, rather than my own. Looking at your own work the same way requires practice, and I’ve just given you a way to get that practice, so get to it!


Need to catch up on your assignments?

Organizing Your TBR: Make a Reading Cycle List

books-2085587_1280

I have a lot of books, and sometimes, trying to choose what to read next feels overwhelming. I will get in a rut where I only want to read romances; or I’ll be in a book hangover because whatever I just read was so good; or I’ll read three or five or seven books in a row that all end up being terrible, and that makes every book like a potential waste of my reading time.

But picking out a specific set of books to read next, such as a monthly TBR, has never seemed to work for me. Sure, I’ll read a few of them while I’m excited about the pile, but getting down to the last one or two, I’m often feeling an itch to pick out something else.

This year, though, I’m juggling quite a few goals, and I wanted to spend less time wondering what to read next, so I created the Reading Cycle List. It’s not for specific books–its for categories of books!

I’ll be up front: this isn’t going to work for everyone, especially people who identify strongly as mood readers, ie, they have to be in the right mood to read something and/or they choose their next book based on their mood. This is going to be much too structured for you guys, mood readers. Keep doing your thing.

For others, this is going to seem like a fair bit of hassle, and up front, yeah, it’s heavy on organization. But I’m into that. I love checklists. I love the feeling of accomplishment, that little zing, when I mark something off.

So, we’re going to use me as an example, but the point of this is that it’s totally customizable to your personal goals; you just have to think about what you want to prioritize.

I started with my two numerical goals: Mount TBR, for books I own, at 100 for the year, and Virtual Mount TBR, for library books, at 48. The ratio is conveniently close to 2:1, so I started my cycle list like this:

  1. A book I own
  2. Another book I own
  3. A library book

But that’s really vague, and it doesn’t factor in my more specific goals–the PopSugar Reading Challenge, wanting to finish all the books I got in 2016, a strong desire to start knocking old books off the top of my TBR, working on the many series I’m in the middle of, and reading/reviewing all the indie books I have.

To give myself room, I doubled the cycle list to six, and slotted in more specific goals.

  1. The next book on my TBR that I own
  2. Something from 2016
  3. A library book
  4. The next book from a series I’ve started
  5. An indie book
  6. Another library book

I’ve kept the 2:1 owned/library ratio, and the categories that obviously came from books I own already got slotted in place. I’m still missing a spot for PSRC, and I’ve picked out a lot of those tasks already from the books I own. So let’s add another three to the list.

  1. The next book on my TBR that I own
  2. Something from 2016
  3. A library book
  4. The next book from a series I’ve started
  5. An indie book
  6. Another library book
  7. A book for PSRC
  8. Another book from 2016
  9. Another library book

Since I had a free spot, and a lot of books still to go through from the massive amount of freebies I picked up when I discovered the “free” bestseller lists on Amazon that year, I doubled up on that one, but later in the year when I run out, those spots can disappear, taking the third library book with them, and I’ll go down to a six-category cycle.

When I’m starting the cycle, it’s easy. I look at my nearly 800-book master TBR on Goodreads, and I start at the top and go down until I find the first book on it I own. Then I read it.

Next, I look at my acquired-in-2016 shelf, and I pick something. Yeah, okay, I have to decide on a book there, but from a much smaller pool than simply all the books I own. And if I really don’t want to have to choose, I can apply the same principle and take the first on the list.

After that, it’s a library book. I’m working my way down my master TBR for those, as well, subject to their availability from my library–I’ve been utilizing both the county- and state-wide inter-library loan systems more so far this year than I did in all of 2018. If I have more than one library book out? I read the one I have to return first, because that’s just sensible.

For the fourth category, I’ve got more than a couple series going, but once I decide which one to work on next, the book’s chosen for me.

And so on.

By doing some prep work, I can make steady progress on my reading goals and never feel the crushing weight of choice paralysis.

Let me reiterate: this is not going to work for everyone. Some readers are probably going to look at this and think I’ve gone off the deep end, micro-managing my reading to the nth degree. And even the ones who want to try it probably aren’t going to build themselves a nine-book cycle like I did; that depends on how many reading goals they have and how neatly they can work them all together.

But it’s done wonders for me in the six weeks I’ve been using it–I read twenty books in January! (Yeah, I did finish one after I posted my wrap-up for the month. I should have waited.) Part of that was foul weather giving me a lot of reading time, but part of it was definitely my lack of waffling about what to read next.

Sound interesting? Give it a try, see how it goes.

 

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

160 - The Telling

I read The Telling last year, and I loved it. But there was one thing about it, so small it isn’t even a nitpick, that bothered me.

Sutty, the main character, constantly chastised herself internally whenever she made a gaffe. Seeing as how she was embedded in a culture entirely unlike her own, one in which simple politeness was labelled as “unnecessary” and thus semi-taboo, she had to remind herself often of her mistakes. As a piece of characterization, her narrative tic of saying to herself things like “No. Wrong.” or “Bad. Bad.” was brilliant–two single words, sometimes different, sometimes one repeated, always negative. It was a strong thread stitching the tale together and emphasizing Sutty’s utter alienness along with her attempts to lessen it.

But over the last year, as part of my therapy for anxiety, I’ve been actively moving away from self-criticism, so this character-building stuck out to me, not as evidence of bad writing, but of how accepted it is to be down on ourselves.

Instead of being harsh with myself when I do something “wrong,” like have a snack I probably shouldn’t, I let it go. When I do something “good,” like resisting that piece of chocolate and eating fruit instead, or not snacking at all, I congratulate myself. I’m rewarding myself for positive behavior while not penalizing myself for slipping.

I talked a little with a coworker about this, and she wondered if that wouldn’t lead to bad habits quickly. After all, if there’s no penalty for it, why not? But first, I’m not perfect at this new skill yet, and the “guilt” part of guilty pleasures hasn’t been completely erased. The mood boost from patting myself on the back for doing something right completely outweighs it, though. So if we stick with the food example, will I go for the delicious but vaguely “bad” chocolate candy with no feeling of accomplishment, or the clementine, also delicious, far healthier, and paired with permission to feel great about myself for choosing it?

Clementines all the way, baby.

The moral of the story: in 2019, try rewarding yourself for good choices, while not punishing yourself for bad. Train yourself into positive habits.

Writing Homework #14 – Freewriting

pencil-1758276_1280

Don’t think–just write. Ray Bradbury

My writing hasn’t been going as well as I’d like lately, and part of it is not knowing how to begin. I need to rework the beginning of my novel draft, which includes adding a new first chapter (or two) before the original draft picks up the story…and I’m just not liking how it’s going.

I’ve got myself a block, and when that happens, I like trying new techniques to get past it. Hence, freewriting.

If this isn’t something you already do, you may want to try it. Not just to unblock yourself, like I am–many writers like to start a session with a few minutes of freewriting, to limber up their fingers and unknot their brains.

How do you do it? Set a timer, open a document, and just write. Sounds simple, yeah?

It’s not. “Just write” means don’t edit. Don’t fix typos. Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or where it’s headed or if it’s at all related to the story you’re trying to tell in your “real” work–just write.

Will anything you get down in those five or ten or twenty minutes be usable? Bits and pieces, at best, sometimes. But it isn’t the content of your freewriting that’s meant to be useful–it’s the act of it. The cathartic release of your emotions, if you use the exercise like a journal to clear out your head. The warming-up of your hands and brain to the task of working on your project, if you use the exercise as an opening to your regular writing session. The disabling of your internal editor, who is forbidden to care how badly you mangle the words and sentences that tumble from your fingertips.

If any of that sounds like something you need for yourself, here’s your assignment: try five minutes of freewriting, now, or whenever you sit down to write next. Turn on the timer and turn off your self-criticism.

If you feel better afterward, use that, and work on your real writing. If you don’t yet, try another five or ten minutes to see if that gets some of the kinks out. And if it doesn’t? If you’re just frustrated at the end? Maybe freewriting isn’t for you, but now you know.

 

2018 Writing Goals: Wait, I’m An Author?

What We Need Covers

Faithful readers may have noticed I neglected to do an End of the Year wrap-up post.

That’s because, for all intents and purposes, 2017 sucked and I don’t want to revisit it.

But a few good things did happen, the most major of which (for my career) is that I completed my third book and first series. Which is a huge accomplishment, and I’m wrenching my shoulder patting myself on the back, still.

But between that, and the bad things that 2017 brought me, I’ve definitely slid into a writing slump. Yes, I did NaNo and “won,” but even telling myself to keep working on the draft in December until it was done, I didn’t complete it. I wrote a measly (for me) 12K the whole month.

I cannot find the motivation to continue that project right now. It’s not just a matter of self-doubt, though I don’t have a lot of confidence in the idea any more. I feel as if the uncertainty and depression of this year has infected that project.

I’m going to shelve the unfinished draft to (maybe, someday) come back to. After all, I did a fair bit of work on the worldbuilding for it, and even if I don’t finish that story, I may want to try a different one in the same world. Or I may get new inspiration that helps me bend that story into something worth continuing.

So where does that leave me now, at the start of a new year? I’d still like to put out a book this year, and I do have a completed first draft (from NaNo ’16) that I’ve been sitting on. I wasn’t sure I was up to tackling the rewrite last year, and I know the story has deep issues that need addressing–but don’t they all? Who turns out a perfect first draft?

The core of the reason that the NaNo ’17 story failed was that I was forcing myself to write something I wasn’t passionate about. And while that’s a good way to build discipline for less experienced writers, in my case, it was a recipe for burnout.

I am passionate about my beloved-but-flawed RockStar novel–but I was almost scared to try to keep going with it, it’s so big and unwieldy and different from What We Need. I hadn’t planned on writing post-apoc forever (oh, god, no) but I’ve always been more of a fantasy/sci-fi person, and jumping genres to contemporary? What if I’m terrible at it? What if the “real” world I create feels wrong?

But I still hear new songs and think about whether or not they’re something my characters would have written for their band, or if they’d cover it, or if it describes some aspect of their relationships.

I think it’s clear what I need to be working on, this year.

I’ve started the draft reread and am taking copious notes on what needs fixing. If all goes well, I’ll have a contemporary, rock-band romance novel out by next year.

Wish me luck, my lovelies. I think I’ll need it.