In The Writer’s Studio – August, The Dead Month

Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.

Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.

The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.

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For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.

This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.

Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.

For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.

I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.

Classes and curriculum, mapped out.

Coaching training, done.

Schedules, made.

Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.

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Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.

Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.

I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.

Finally.

On Writing When You Are “Too Busy”

I swear I will take my night-sweaty peri-menopausal level of rage out on the next person who tells me, “You just have to commit yourself to write every day.”

Stop already, writing gurus.

Those of us working our faces off at trying to live our authentic selves through a devotion to writing get it. The getting-words-down part is crucial to literary success.

Dayjob.jpgHowever, I’m quite committed to attaining success at a few other elements of life as well:

  • Raising woke, healthy kids
  • Investing in my relationship with my husband
  • Nurturing and discovering fulfilling friend and colleague relationships
  • Paying my bills

Let’s be real, paying the bills is probably the top of that list. A lack of financial security puts a real damper on creative genius and that whole zen vibe most of us long to achieve in our personal lives.

We are busy, sometimes too busy, paying those bills to want to come home and write.

While my DH and I have attempted the “You go pursue your creative bliss. No worries about working a day job” thing at different points in our lives, money is a real thing.

We live in Vancouver, Canada—one of the most expensive cities in the world. Leisurely creative genius either comes at a tremendous personal price or is the exclusive purview of the already-wealthy.

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Photo by Harshil Shah via Flickr

 

Since the kids want to go to university, we want to live in Vancouver proper, and staying married is a life goal, we both need to work.

Being busy isn’t going away.

I teach creative writing, which is a true personal investment and labor of love for me because I adore bearing witness to creativity emerging from young people. To me, I have the perfect job, where I never actually stop writing.

I love it.

I’m an introvert who forced herself to become comfortable in extroverted situations. In a perfect universe, I’d roam the Earth searching for stories and bits of information, coaxing people into offering up their family tales and cultural tellings, consulting with elders on how to best share those pieces, alternately hiding away to write and then emerging to learn more before returning to hide again. With teaching, I get to do that.

However, when I settle into my writer’s studio after the week of coaching young people through their own storytelling, I find myself a bit unmotivated to work on my own stuff.

I’m exhausted. Plus, there’s so much to do: book research, website maintenance, social media, querying, working with editors, learning how to write better myself through webinars and sessions with my own coaches.

The list grows.

Balancing that with kids, mundane chores such as laundry, and just catching up with my own energy leaves me struggling to get more than a word or two on a page some days.

I want to give you a peek inside how I organize myself, but efore I lay down my process for staying in the writing flow let me just say this:

Some days, writing just doesn’t happen—and that is OK. My theory is that one lost day is self-care. When it starts to turn into multiple lost days, considering a reset of priorities may be in order. 

Here’s how I keep myself from swirling down the lack-of-progress hole, even when I juggle a billion to-dos and know that reaching for another cup of coffee at 9 p.m. involves dire next-day consequences.

1. Plan Ahead.

Oh crap, here she goes telling us to plan, plan, plan.  I agree this tip is annoying. However, I find nothing more satisfying and empowering than mapping out my days ahead of time, waking up in the morning with clear goals, and getting it all done.

This suits my writing style, as I am a Plotter with a capital P. If I don’t plan, I am unfocused and aimless. This is my devotion to leading a purposeful life. It definitely doesn’t work for everyone.  You’ll also see I don’t really “write” every day in terms of novel work. I will blog, work on short stories, edit. Creating silos for work makes it less overwhelming.

 

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My planning calendar is broken down into purposeful days

2. To-do lists.

Make me a list and I will go slay a day. I’ve even started writing little “Yay!” notes or “You kick ass!” comments when I check things off to remind myself how satisfying it is to take care of my business. A big thing here is that I often have one or two things that just don’t get done. I make it a habit to transfer those to-dos to the next day’s list. No excuses.

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Today’s to-do list

3. Plan for breaks.

I break my day up into the following:

5:30-7:30 a.m. – Me time. Catch up with my brother, my friends, my Instagram, my meditation, my cat, my need to sit in silence.

7:30-8:45 a.m. – the epic chaos of getting the kids off to school.

9:15-10:45 a.m. – Yoga or blogging depending on how much my back and spirit hurt, and whether I can interact with humans on any given day. Today, it’s blogging even though I wanted to go to my fave yoga class because, well, humanity is not happening. 😉

11 a.m.-3 p.m. – Kill that to-do list.

3 p.m.-7p.m. – Kids, non-writing bits of life, and dinner on days I don’t work. Teaching on days I do.

4-8 p.m. – Some days I have long editing sessions.

8-10 p.m. – editing, reading, wishing I had the energy to edit or read.

10 p.m.-5:30 a.m. – I am religious about my sleep. Only if I am moved by serious inspiration or Ken wants to talk do I ever violate the 10 p.m. rule.

4. Set goals and be OK with hitting most of them.

Like I said, I aim high and get most of the way there some days. I’ve had to become comfortable with the ebb and flow of making a good life rather than achieving at all costs.

5. Be OK with pieces of your writing life taking time.

We are such an instant-gratification culture. It’s an epic challenge to understand that creativity must bubble and simmer and set. Pieces take time, and you must commit to the long game. Understanding that this sort of life cannot be conjured, but more chipped away at, gives you the drive to keep going.

However, don’t take so much time that you get lazy. Remain driven and go chase those creative dreams.

6.  Understand there will be sacrifices.

Another UGH in my book of advice, and I think you’ll be surprised by what I recommend sacrificing in this quest for creative living.

Creativity takes energy and time. It requires you to clear yourself out and open up to intuition, imagination, ideas, and perspective. You may think the Hunter S. Thompson facade of hard living makes an amazing writer and is the epic life goal. However, HST shot himself. I’m not down with that sort of end.

It was this year in particular that I realized getting clear with writing also meant getting clear with myself.

I stopped drinking. I don’t eat meat. I exercise every day and am working toward dropping all the weight I put on as a result of sitting and ruminating about writing.

I got into meditation, which is incredible.

I rearranged my work situation for balance.

I quit people who’d I’d allowed too much access to me.

My DH and I made big lifestyle choices that allow both of us to partition off work and creative pursuits despite the wonderful reality that both of our jobs are creative.

I am busier than ever. However, this “sacrifice” and push toward self-care has opened up a crazy ton of creative space I never had access to before.

Do I recommend you take my path? Not really. Go do your own thing that works for you. These are simply ways of doing to consider. My only words of remaining wisdom are to not use the “too busy” excuse for not writing, but consider how writing can find its important place on your daily to-do list.

 

Tech Tools & Resources For Writers

I’ve been writing for something like twenty-five years and the tech tools for bloggers, novelists, poets, screenwriters, people dabbling in self-expression, and any other way one identifies as a word-centered creative type change faster than any of us can keep up.

I can’t stand wasting time fiddling and trying to figure out how to use the alleged latest and greatest tool. Procrastination is the devil of creativity, and nothing gives more permission to a writer to waste valuable creative juice than a tool that is hard to figure out.

In the end, I have a strong attachment to tools that meet my wide-ranging needs in ways that keep the technology portion of the writing and staying connected to the global community as straightforward as possible.

I have a few favorite tech-focused writing resources that I rely on to keep me in the loop with all of the newness and shifts (I’ll add them at the end of this post). However, my loves are my loves. Here are the tech tools I use. All of them are easy, awesome, and effective for me.  Also, let’s just put it out there that I am not being paid to endorse anything. These are entirely my own opinion.

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“Social Media Tools”by jrhode is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  1. Scrivener: This is my writing software go-to. I’ve been using Scrivener for almost a decade and I have a true personal relationship with it. I love the corkboard and organizational tools. It helps me set goals and revise with ease. It has an auto back-up tool so that I don’t have a complete novel fail and lose everything because I was too lazy or wrapped up to back it up myself.  It is the best investment a writer can make, in my opinion.
  2. Miro: This is an online whiteboard and storyboarding tool that I legit could not live without. While other tools are great for storing photos, I’m big on world development and need a place to lay it all out. Miro lets you flowchart, character chart, slap photos, links, documents, and other goodness up and then arrange them with notes. You can share boards to collaborate (my husband and I do this all the time). It’s not specifically for writers, but it is gold. You can set up a free account and maintain three boards at that level.
  3. Pinterest: If I didn’t have Pinterest, I would never be able to keep track of any of my research. This tool has a reputation for being more of a place for recipes and fashion ideas (I have those too. My family would eat pizza every night without it), but using it as a collection point for articles, photos, etc., is incredible. Take a peek at my boards and you’ll see how I use it. This is, despite the fact that it is the most passive of all of my social media channels in a sense that I don’t really engage with other pinners directly, my most robust channel with thousands of followers and more than 12,000 views a month. Hmmm, did I just tell myself to go leverage Pinterest a bit more?
  4. Instagram: This is my indulgence and my main social media platform. I love Insta so much for a couple of reasons: A. visual loveliness; B. low drama and troll issues; C. I have made and developed amazing connections as a result. Insta has its downside. While my teenager can get 1,000 fans in about 10 minutes, it has taken me years to get close to 600 and I still find it a daily challenge to build the platform and keep away from those people who will follow-unfollow. I want engagement, so I work hard on this channel to develop relationships with people I want to have around.
  5. WordPress: In another iteration of myself, I ran an online family magazine for many years with a WordPress backend and have never stopped loving this amazing platform. The free version is limited and the templates aren’t the best, but writers who have serious career goals need a modern, usable, mobile-friendly platform and this is my go-to.
  6. Creative Commons Search: First rule of writing —don’t steal other people’s art whether it is words, images, music, etc. Creative Commons makes it straightforward to find public domain material. The new search is easy to use.
  7. Canva: Let’s face it, my forte is not in the visual representation of anything. I write, make pretty words. Sometimes I want to share those pretty words or someone else’s. Canva and its free design tools are the only way my graphics don’t look like the 1990s.
  8. Unsplash: Sometimes, Creative Commons is not so quality. I need something a bit more slick and interesting. I’m also not down for paying a premium for stock photography because, well, writing is not a goldmine (yet 🙂 ). Unsplash has gorgeous stock that you can share with attribution. I love it and the photographers are amazing. Thank you for letting those of us who dig beautiful images, but cannot pay for them yet, a chance to show your work to the world.
  9. Twitter:  Want to develop a writer’s network full of agents, book publishers, other writers? Twitter is the go-to. I admit I don’t use it as much as I should. It’s a rabbit hole that, once down it, I can’t get out and I lose entire days in the Twitter-verse. However, it cannot be overlooked as the key connection point for writers and their full tribe.  Twitter is also a terribly challenging place to get people to interact with you at times. However, get in there and interact with the people who already have a tribe and things will shift.
  10. Grammarly Pro: This wee app (the basic is free) will check your writing for you as you go. With the basic, it is a live spell checker, which is awesome. When you have it activated on your phone or computer, it will check everything other than Google Docs. The pro version, however, checks for sentence structure, grammar, word usage, the whole whackadoodle. I love my real, human editors. However, this is a really solid way to keep yourself on track, see where your common writing mistakes are, and have a second set of AI eyeballs making sure your foundations are in order.
  11. Clips: This video maker is about as simple as it gets. There is NOTHING fancy about this app. However, I don’t want fancy. I just want easy. I’ve tried lots of others that have many features and keep coming back to this one because I can’t figure the other ones out.
  12. Camera+2: I love this photo app ($3.99).

 

So, who do I rely on for keeping up on writer tech tools? My fave is Jane Friedman. Her regular e-mail newsletter always has at least one gem and, while I may not be interested in everything she shares, she’s really well-versed in the author universe.

I’m also a big fan of Jenn Hanson-dePaula at Mixtus Media. She’s busy on Instagram and I read her blogs as a part of my regular routine.

What tools do you love? How do you keep up with tech tools? Share your gems so we can all try out your tools or subscribe to newsletters too! 

 

 

 

Day 30 – The Value of Keeping Scenes Simple

Day 28 and 29 got lost somewhere in the morass of trying to set the final scene of The Woman On The Wall.  Forty-eight hours of drop-off in writing output had one evil source—me, trying to overcomplicate things.

The terrible, beautiful part was all I had to do was look at tools I teach other people to realize that simplifying the pre-writing/writing process brings all kinds of clarity.

Take a peek: