Routines are Made to Be Broken

Like many people, I am a creature of habit. I like things just so at just the right time. Otherwise, I tend to get cranky. And that can negatively impact my work.

I like routines, and I’m a firm believer in making writing time a priority on a regular basis. Quite frankly, there’s too much work involved for me not to. And the more you write, the better you get, the more likely you are to finish what you start, and hopefully, eventually, get faster at writing. Muscle memory and all that.

All this is well and good and has worked for me. But real life is messy, and sometimes routine suffers. Unexpected errands, surprise visits, emergencies…entropy is all around us and doesn’t really care that you planned to draft a new chapter or edit that short story today.

When routines are upended by life, what do you do? There will always be things that happen that you can’t work around. But for everything else, usually there’s some wiggle room to stay productive, even if it’s doing something you didn’t plan on doing.

For example, let’s say I planned to spend the afternoon writing at the coffee shop, but instead I must take my dog to the vet. I still want to stay productive, so maybe instead of writing (which requires a lot of focus), I’ll read something related to my project, like a comparison title or a nonfiction book to help me research a key component, while I’m hanging out in the waiting room. That way I’ll still be moving forward even if I’m not in my ideal work environment.

Usually when my routine is disrupted, it’s a matter of whether there’s time to implement a contingency plan. Sometimes there isn’t and that’s ok. But if there’s a window where I can shift gears, then I try to tailor my writing activities to the new environment I’m required to be in. This is often a function of how much mental headspace I’ll have.

For me, I need a lot of headspace to draft something new. Slightly less to edit something. Less still to read fiction. Even less to read narrative non-fiction. So if I know I’m going to be going from a place with lots of headspace to one with hardly any, I’ll change up my work plans accordingly.

Time is also an important component. Some books are harder to get into than others, and therefore require larger chunks of time to read and absorb. Same with writing and the need to warm up before committing words to a page. Some people swear by 10-minute bursts a day, but I’m just grateful I don’t have to be one of them even if I don’t have an ideal writing schedule everyday.

So when life throw’s you a curve ball, disrupting your orderly life, remember to:

Forgive yourself – It’s ok to take a break every now and again and focus on another aspect of your life. Your writing project will be waiting for you and even benefit from the time you spent away from it.

Change it up – Don’t be afraid to change up your routine and try something new. Not only are you staying productive, but also your brain just might like the new stimuli.

Recharge your routine – Relish routine when you can, but don’t forget to incorporate new discoveries into your ensemble. Especially if it works.

Routines are wonderful, but make sure they are flexible enough to evolve as you do over the course of your writing journey. You never want to get to a point where you can’t write because ideal conditions aren’t met.

Happy writing!  
H
 
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Story Stew

There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
Write a little bit each day.
Butt in chair.

I’m sure we’ve all heard variations on these themes regurgitated online and in craft books and by cranky creative writing professors.

Writers write, right?

Yes, but sometimes such a pace is unsustainable. You don’t want to get so burned out you never want to pick up a pen again. You also don’t want to keep writing just for the sake of writing if there’s something fundamentally wrong with your story. Sometimes you just need to stop and have a think.

This doesn’t mean you have writer’s block or that you aren’t being productive, even if you’re not committing words to a page. Thinking through your story is always time well spent.

The prewriting stage of a project is the most familiar, most obvious, time you spend thinking about a story. Also before launching into a major revision. In both cases it makes sense to give yourself a few days, weeks, even months, depending on story scope, to think over what you want to accomplish, and how that tracks through the narrative.

Recently, particularly for my short stories, I will get a story idea, but wait until the point where I cannot stand not writing the story any longer. I stew and stew and stew, let my story ideas come to a simmer, then a roiling boil, and then and only then do I start to write. I’ve found this leads to more complete first drafts and a better sense of my characters and the overall story arc. High five.

There are also less obvious times when it makes sense to hit the brakes and think on what comes next. For me, I usually pause in my drafting when I approach a major tentpole scene. I also slow down my pace the closer I get to the end of my story. In both cases, I’m usually juggling a lot of characters and plot elements, and it can take time to work my way through these scenes even with an outline. A slow and steady pace, particularly with lots of time built in to stew about the possibilities, usually helps it all come together.

I’ve taken to addressing problem scenes this way too. I’ll take a break, stew a few days, and then come back re-energized to get the story back on track.

How do you stew?

Obligatory Arrested Development Reference (Source)

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Resolve

2012. Another year, still shiny with possibility. What will it bring? What will you make of it? What will you resolve to do to make your goals happen?

Me? Well, I have a couple of ideas.

First, I resolve to write as much as I can.

A no-brainer, right? But this doesn’t mean I’m going to be counting words towards a daily quota. I did that back when I was still relatively new to writing and, although that was a great tool for me then, it’s not so essential for me now because of my interest in producing stories instead of simply generating content to get to my million words.

This is a rather significant shift. Before, I was counting words in my blog posts and writing prompts in addition to work on my actual stories and novels. Looking at my output as a whole in general without any real concern for the words’ purpose.

That will be different now, since my goals are now story goals instead of word count goals. I want to submit to at least two calls for short stories this year, and have two novel projects I want in reasonable shape come December. No matter how many words it takes to make that happen.

On a related note, I resolve to do a better job of taking advantage of the quiet moments that can pop up unexpectedly in life. I also need to be less self-conscious about writing in public places that aren’t libraries or coffee shops. There will always be something to distract me. I need to buckle down and stop making excuses. No matter how much the Wii games I got for Christmas are calling.

Finally, I resolve to find the best place possible for my work. Sure, I still want an agent, a book deal, a sale to a pro market. That hasn’t changed. But publishing is/has been/will be ever-changing, and I need to be open to all publishing avenues for my work and decide which one is best for it.

Sometimes, the best place is the only place that will publish it. Enough said. But sometimes it’s the token market with great distribution (for exposure) or the semi-pro market that has a podcast archive (for different delivery) or a non-paying market like Luna Station Quarterly with a small focus like female science fiction writers that fosters their community of authors.

Fit trumps pay in my mind, and looking back at the acceptances I’ve had, I owe a lot to the right fit.

What do you resolve to do this year for your craft? What are your writing resolutions?
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Write. Revise. Rest. Repeat.

The four “R’s” of writing. Well, five if you count “rejection,” but let’s not go there today. Instead, we’ll focus only on the creative process.

WRITE

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But sometimes this can be the hardest thing to do. Butt in chair and all that. Dig in and draft, even if you are convinced that your story is crap. You must not only be willing to spend the time getting your story down but also find the clarity of thought that generates the words in the first place. Some writers love this phase, others don’t. Here are some links to help you make that oh-so-important first draft happen:

Love to write but don’t have ideas?

Don’t have time to write?

Get stuck at key points in your manuscript?

REVISE

Unless you are practically perfect in every way, chances are you will need to revise your work. Spelling- and grammar-check can catch a lot of sins (and introduce new ones), but most stories need polish at the story-level as well. Things like structure, character arc, the mix of external and internal conflict. Although revising is a topic worthy of its own Resource Roundup post, here are some links to get you started:

REST

Now that you’ve revised your story to the best of your ability, let it rest. This is always hardest for me – I’m usually so eager to send my story out into the world, convinced it’s as good as it can get. Whether this impulse is out of confidence or impatience, it’s almost always a bad idea. Set it aside, work on something else, send it to a trusted reader. But avoid the temptation to keep tinkering. Come to it with fresh eyes. Your story will thank you.

REPEAT

After you’ve taken a break and are ready to sink your teeth back into your story, you will be better able to objectively evaluate it. Maybe you’ll need to rewrite some sections or start over entirely. Maybe you need to revise some story aspects or revert to older versions. Make the changes. And then (and this is important) let it rest again.

This cycle can repeat indefinitely, but at some point you will either give up or decide you are done. Here are some resources to help you decide when you can put a project to rest:

Happy Writing (or Revising, or Resting, or Repeating…)!
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Social Media Guilt

Last week I did something I don’t usually like to do. I posted a book review on Wednesday – the day I tend to post more craft- or writing life-related content.

Things like book reviews, awards, internet memes I try to keep to other days of the week. Especially because Wednesday is the day for this blog, ever since I decided slow blogging works for me.

But last week I didn’t, and now I feel guilty.

I had good reasons of course (it was the last day of the month to post an August review; no other content was readily available) but I still feel like I punted.

Social media is flexible, but sometimes that flexibility can bite you in the ass. That’s why we are told to have a blog, post regularly, and no matter what, don’t stop.

Other writers, far more successful in both blogging and publishing than me, like Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jody Hedlund, and Roni Loren have all talked about the demands of social media and ways they’ve balanced promotion, writing, family, and (gasp!) personal time.

Elizabeth Craig had a post today on this very topic, Juggling Social Media and Writing, about how she balances her social media demands, with some helpful tips we can all use.

Jody Hedlund also offers up some ways to protect your writing time in When Social Media Becomes a Time Suck. She also has examined the amount of involvement writers at all levels should have in How Much Time Should Writers Devote to Social Media? – I’m probably in the B-C range, based on her definitions.

Roni Loren uses blogging and other social media obligations as her version of Julia Cameron’s morning pages. And in fact, this is often something I do too, where I’ll draft a blog post before starting my real writing or editing work for the day.

The good news — there are ways to harness social media to your advantage and keep it from taking over your life completely. The bad new is social media will take as much energy as you give it and still want more from you. Which makes it that much harder to walk away from it sometimes.

If I’m feeling the pressure now, I can only imagine how it will increase if/when I transition from an apprenticing to a professional writer. When platform building transitions into promotion. And what of the spread of social media outlets? Facebook and blogs, and Twitter and Tumblr, and then Goodreads, and now Google+… There’s pressure to have some sort of presence on all these sites (and more still to come). When will enough be enough?

I still feel guilty — about something that means only as much as I’m willing to let it, as much as I’m willing to buy into it. I think this dynamic is worth puzzling out – but that’s a post for another day.

What ways have you found to banish social media guilt? How do you balance your social media demands?

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