The New Regimen: Checking In

When my daughter started full-time Kindergarten in September, I celebrated. I was full of plans for how to break out my days and how to balance home-work responsibilities.

So now we’re halfway through October. How’s the new regimen been working for me? Time to check in.

First, I was going to get a lot of writing done. So much writing. I have not gotten as much of that done as I had hoped. I do get my blog post done more quickly, and I have been able to get to other writing in spurts, but not in the focused manner I had envisioned. Part of the problem is that I have taken naps in the afternoon far more than I would like. I’m just not sleeping well at night lately, and if I don’t grab an hour in the afternoon, I am wrecked by the evening.

Second, I was going to get some of these non-writing projects under control and off my To-Do list. I have actually accomplished several of these projects, although, again, not as many as I had hoped. Still, it’s nice to see that To-Do list get smaller!

Third, I wanted to incorporate my exercise routine while my daughter was at school. This I have done fairly well. I generally complete all my walking before I get her from school. In fact, the walk to pick her up usually finishes my step goal for the day. I break up the walking into a few short walks during the day, which gets me out of my chair and gets the blood moving again. So it helps me with the work side of things, too.

Finally, I wanted to try and end the constant push-pull of having to “choose” between working and spending time with my daughter. Whenever I would work while she was home, I would feel guilty. Whenever I would play with her instead of work, I would feel the weight of everything I could be getting done. It was a no-win situation for me—part of my mind was always somewhere else.

In this, at least, I have been pretty successful so far. Because I am able to get the things I must get done finished before I pick my daughter up from school, I can relax into spending the afternoon/evening hours with her until she goes to bed. We can chat or play or go to her extra-curricular events without me feeling pressured by things yet to do. I spent 4 hours at a local farm this weekend going hayriding, pumpkin picking, having lunch, and watching her play, and not once did I stress over things left undone. We had a fun, beautiful day out together.

My relationship with my daughter was the most important part of this new regimen for me, so I feel as if I have made a very successful start. However, I need to address the other parts of the new regimen that are not working so well.

My main problem is focus. The concrete things I know I need to do, I always get done. But then I drift on all the nebulous things I need to do but don’t have to do just yet—with the result that none of them get done. I need to break those things into discreet, concrete pieces and assign them a day. If I can do that, I believe I will find my productivity rising to the level I want. Without a focused, concrete list, my laziness expands to fit my free time.

So overall, my new writing plan is succeeding in the most important parts, but needs some work and adjustment. As is the way of the world, I expect I will finally have my new regimen tweaked and humming along just in time for Christmas break, when it will all fall apart again!

How do you make sure you stick to schedules?

The Black Belt Writer

Writing can be terribly subjective. One reader loves your every word; another reader wants to use your book as kindling. Sometimes I wish writing came with an objective measurement to see how you’re advancing—like Karate.

My daughter took up Karate this summer, and I’ve found myself having conversations with her that I have with other writers. Most recently, we had the “don’t compare yourself to others, just to your own progress” talk. She was worried that she would always be a white belt, because others were better and farther advanced than she.

We writers go through similar feelings. Heck, it’s hard not to compare yourself with other writers, especially when these are other writers that you know personally. It’s easy to think that you’re not succeeding, that you’re never going to get “there” (wherever “there” is for you). That you will be a white belt forever. So the only way not to drive yourself crazy is to stop comparing yourself to other people, and mark your progress against your own past. Is this writing better than what I wrote last week? Last month? Last year?

But how do you mark your career progress in this subjective field? In Karate, moving up to the next belt has two components: physical and mental. It’s not enough to learn the techniques of the moves—you also have to display the right attitude, with discipline, focus, and respect being high on the list.

The same is true of writing. We learn the techniques (save the cat, hero’s journey, kill your darlings, etc.) and work to improve them. We practice and practice until each clumsy new technique becomes a subconscious movement in our work. But that’s not enough to climb the belt ladder. We need to have the right attitude, too. We won’t get far without discipline and focus to get work done and respect for the people we work with—most of all, for our future readers.

So we all start out as white belt writers, and we work and work and finally we feel like we’ve got the craft under control and the attitude is right where it should be. So we’re black belts, right?

Not so much. I’m thinking maybe purple belts—about half way to black.

Because now all the publishing stuff enters into the equation. Now we have a whole new set of techniques to learn (many of them at odds with our temperaments) and a whole new attitude to adjust.

So we dive into marketing and publicity and meeting the public and social media and, oh, yeah, we’re still supposed to be writing somehow, and didn’t I leave my family laying around here somewhere? But slowly we learn the ropes of our new existence, and we adjust our attitude to the professionalism needed to work with agents, publishers, movie/TV producers, other authors, booksellers, and, of course, our readers.

Okay, we’ve done that. So now we’re black belt? Maybe. I’ll leave that up to you. I might consider a true black belt writer to be one who not only lives on their writing but is able to write what they truly want to write. You might choose to award a black belt at publication, or a certain number of books sold, or even when you have written a book that finally matches the vision in your head whether it gets published or not. The definition of success, like so much in the writing world, is personal.

And that is as it should be.

Do you ever wish there was a visible way to tell where you were in your writing career? How do you measure your success?

Where I Write

A little while ago, my writing buddy J. Thomas Ross wrote a post asking authors where they wrote. I didn’t have much to say on the topic at the time. After all, I wrote almost exclusively in my “writing office”—which is a fancy name for one corner of the sofa with the detritus of a three-year-old’s play spread around me in the family room.

Not so anymore. In fact, I am writing this in my car while I wait for the library to open. It is gray and rainy, the sound of the rain on the roof threatening to put me to sleep. Cars are good writing spaces, for short times. I wouldn’t want to spend hours writing in the car, but the hour while waiting for the library is comfortable enough.

But my main writing venue these days is the library. I get a fantastic amount of work done in the 6 hours a week my daughter is in preschool. I made the decision before she even began that I would go to the library to work while she was at school, rather than go home and work.

Why? Because by not going home, I could avoid the distractions that come with home: the laundry waiting to be done, the bathrooms needing washed, the rugs needing vacuumed, etc. Even though I work from home often (and have for 5 years), I cannot FULLY focus—those niggling things nibble at the edges of my mind, taking up energy as I push them away.

So I gained focus by not going home. I also gained more time. Instead of driving an extra half-hour round trip to get home and back to pick up my daughter, I drive a 6-minute round trip to the library and back to her school. That’s a lot of time saved!

More than that, I simply like the atmosphere of the library for writing. Since I write YA and middle grade, I head for the YA & Children’s section and park myself in the lone desk at the very back of the section. The stacks behind me are full of wonderful children’s books and I can practically feel the inspiration wafting from them. Perhaps I’m also hoping that I will gain proficiency and skill by osmosis!

“My” desk sits in front of a large window, so I can enjoy an outside view while inside. It is also for some reason always chilly there, but I don’t mind—it keeps me awake! My desk is far enough away from the children’s area that when they have group activities like Story Time, the noise of the children doesn’t bother me at all. Indeed, the sounds of children enjoying books is like soothing background music.

I know many writers work in coffeehouses or Wegman’s. I could not do that on a regular basis (although I have done it every once in a while). While I don’t need silence to write, I have sharp hearing, so I get distracted by people’s conversations nearby, or as they walk by, or any sudden change in the ambient noise level. I also have anxiety issues, which means that my brain is constantly on alert for danger and tends to see it even when there is none. So a place full of people is a drain on my energy and thus my creativity, because I am constantly having to tell my brain to stop it and focus on the writing.

So the library is perfect for me—quiet but not silent, people there but not on top of me, and no household chores weighing on my mind. I am eager to get to “my” desk every day, and always amaze myself with how much I accomplish.

What about you? Where do you usually write—and where’s the strangest place you have ever written?

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Hanging Pictures in Your Story: Putting the finishing touches on your manuscript

We’ve been in our new home just under a year, and we have finally gotten around to hanging pictures. That’s usually the last piece of the puzzle—that step that makes you feel like you really live in your house.

Hanging pictures is like the final edits of your manuscript. Just like a picture, you make sure each room (chapter or scene) has something colorful in it. A picture is often more than just decoration—it is either a photo of something important in your life or a painting/print depicting something that stirred you emotionally. Every chapter should contain meaning like that—something that forwards the plot and/or shows character development and emotion.

A picture is often a focus point in the room. Every chapter needs focus—a reason for being in your story in the first place. A fun way of ensuring that there is a point to your chapter is to ask yourself, “If I wanted to take a picture in this chapter, what is the best moment to capture?” If the highest moment of your chapter wouldn’t create a meaningful photograph, maybe you need to rethink your chapter.

Another facet of focus is directing people’s attention. Often, the arrangement of pictures on the wall can control how people view a room—the order in which they see objects, and even the overall feel of the room. In your final revisions, you refine where you want your audience to focus their attention. What do you need them to notice in each chapter? Are you purposefully misdirecting? Decide what’s important for the audience to pay attention to in each chapter, and write your prose accordingly.

So when you’re putting those final touches on your manuscript, pay attention to where you hang your pictures. You want your finished manuscript to be pretty, but you also want the pictures to focus attention and convey the deeper meaning of your story.

Hang your pictures with care, and enjoy finally being moved in!

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