Falling off the Wagon

The last couple months my writing world has been sputtering to a halt. I have a lot of excuses, some of them may even be reasons, but the end result is I am getting nothing done. I have a game plan for my revisions, but I’m out of the game.

Let’s examine what’s going wrong:

1) My schedule is out of whack. I used to do my writing in the afternoons when I get home from work. But now, my afternoons have spontaneously filled up with doctor appointments, grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, facebook, and napping. And let’s be honest, facebook and napping are the ones taking up the most time.

2) Exhaustion. At 37 weeks pregnant, I am not sleeping well or thinking clearly. Case in point, not 15 minutes ago I texted my boss that we had a bad expiration date on Facebook, and it turned out the expiration date was fine and I was in the wrong month. He laughed and told me to go have a baby. D’oh! Yeah, okay! I’ll get right on that!

3) Fear of screwing things up. I think it’s pretty normal to be afraid of makings things worse instead of better when you are editing. But add to that being more mentally hazy than usual, and it can be a recipe for disaster. In the last month, I edited three chapters and rewrote the first one three times. I ended up discarding all of my changes because they were more the product of sleep deprivation than good writing. The thought of messing up my story is terrifying.

4) Upcoming life changes. I am afraid that if I start my editing now and have the baby in the middle of it all, I will end up with a different vision for what I’m trying to accomplish pre-baby versus post-baby. This makes me anxious to get it done and terrified of starting all at once.

5) All this terror has made me less inclined to defend my writing time. I let my time get swept away almost every day.

For those of you aren’t due to have a baby in 2.5 weeks ( which means it could happen any time now), here are some things that have helped me keep to a writing schedule in the past–and which I hope will get me back on the wagon again soon.

1) Make a schedule. Write at the same time every day, or if not at the same time, at least in the same order of activities. It doesn’t have to be a long time, just make sure you get your butt in the chair and your keys moving. If you can start with 15-30 minutes a day, that’ll work. Or you can do a word count. 200 words, nothing overwhelming. Anything more is bonus. By being consistent, you will train your mind that this is writing time and after awhile, your muse will start showing up to the party. As you grow accustomed to your new schedule, you can be more ambitious about length or time requirements, but just like going to the gym, you’ll be more successful if you build up to the level you want in stages.

2) Defend your writing time. This is key. No, you cannot take a day off to have your doctor’s appointment at that time. No, you can’t go out for lunch with a friend instead, just for one day or watch a movie with the hubby. You must be dedicated, and you need to let the people around you know that your writing time sacred. People tend to not take writing time seriously, so tell them it’s a work meeting if you have to. Tell then you are managing your finances and can’t be interrupted. Go on “errands” to the library for half an hour. Whatever you have to do. I personally try to get my writing time in before my husband gets home because he can be very distracting (Cindi, where did you go?… Cindi, come see how cute the cat is… Cindi, let’s do something…) and I get frustrated and annoyed. (As I write this, he’s tickling me and making it very hard to remember where I am going with this). Know your distractions. Avoid scheduling writing time when they will be an issue. If that means you just don’t write on Saturdays because you know it won’t work, that’s fine. Make a schedule you can keep, and if occasionally you can sneak in a Saturday session, cool.

3) Keep your muse fresh. This is also really, really important. You are a writer. You have to read. Regularly. I have found that if I haven’t read a book in a month,everything I write will be crap. Reading keeps my vocabulary in shape so I can find the words I want, it makes my wordy ways more agile, it gives me ideas, and it reinforces story structure. It is also fun and opens up new ways of looking at the world, new information and themes for your brain to munch on. Similarly, you have get out of the house, try new things, and talk to people. Writer’s block is simply a lack of an appropriate level of input. Keep reading and experiencing life and you shouldn’t get it too bad.

4) Don’t be too hard on yourself. A day sitting in front of a blank page writing ten words is a successful day. You arrived. You put in the time. Good job. You’re going to have days like that, and you’re going to have days where everything you write is irrelevant crap. It’s expected. You have to write the crap to get to the good stuff. Rough drafts are a mixed bag. Just get it down. Start over when you need to. Outline when you need to. Stream of consciousness through the plot if you need to. Whatever you need to do, just do it, and don’t apologize for it. We are always learning; and there’s always a curve, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

5) Take care of yourself. Eat in all the food groups. Sleep. Take walks (brainstorming walks?) or do something else physical. The more alert and awake and alive you feel, the easier it is to concentrate on your writing when you sit down to work.

6) Twitter. When I first started writing every day, I joined twitter and posted to the #amwriting tag. I found it motivating because it was a public declaration that I was now writing and I could read posts by other people who were also writing at that time. After awhile, twitter became a distraction, and I stopped using it as much, but it is still occasionally helpful to get me on track.

7) Turn off your wifi or unplug your ethernet. You do not need that distraction.

8) Get a writing buddy. Motivate each other. Brainstorm off each other. Have a standing bet going for who can do the most days in a row. Whoever looses takes the other out for coffee. I haven’t done this, but I think it would be awesome.

9) If you need extra encouragement, read Chapter after Chapter by Heather Sellers. This book is awesome. If you’ve never given your writing a priority spot in your life, she will show you how to do it and convince you that it is okay to do it. She gives you permission. She also gives ideas on how to handle things like going on vacation and other life events where you have to break your schedule without loosing your focus. I found this one extremely helpful, and I think I’ll be moving this to the top of my nonfiction to-read pile! Heather, I need you now!

I hope this list helps anyone looking to get their writing life in order. If anyone has any other ideas or even ideas specific to writing while pregnant or while staying home with an infant and nursing, I am all ears! Comments below!

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How to Apply Feedback

So you’ve got some criticism back from your writer’s group or your beta readers, and now you don’t know what to do. How do you know what advice to take and what to leave behind? How do you know what will help and what will harm?

For starters, there are two main flubs you’ll want to consciously avoid making:

  • FLUB #1: IGNORING IMPORTANT CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE
    This can happen if you consciously or subconsciously think you know more than all your reviewers (in which case, why did you choose them?), or if you are too sentimental about your work and just cannot emotionally handle making a needed change. Another possibility is that you’re looking at the changes you need to make and saying to yourself, “It’s too much work. What I have is good enough.” Do you really want it to be good enough, or do you want it to be good? Chances are, you want it to be good.
  • FLUB #2: TRYING TO SATISFY EVERY WHIM OF EVERY REVIEWER
    Giving your work completely over to your reviewers and trusting them over your own sense of the work is going to get you in trouble. Your reviewers bring their own vision to your work, and if their vision doesn’t line up with your vision, you need to recognize that and stay true to what you are trying to accomplish. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can make you happy. YOU have to love your book. You are the one who is going to send it off to agents and fight for it against all the rejection slips that are bound to pile up. You have to believe in your book more than anyone else does. If the changes you are making are going to make you not love your book or not believe in your book, don’t make them.

So how do you walk the line between the two extremes? How do you know which changes will be best for your story? Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. If you never have before, pick up a book on story structure, outlining, story theory, or revisions. There are a lot of them out there. A good understanding of what makes a story appeal to your reader will help you see the ways your novel works and the ways it does not—which will help you interpret the feedback you’ve received.Here are some titles I’ve found helpful.
    Wired for Story by Lisa Crone
    Rock Your Plot or Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley
    Structuring Your Novel or Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
  2. There’s power in numbers. If multiple reviewers are all in agreement that, for example, character Z is unnecessary, then either character Z probably is unnecessary and should be removed OR you have failed to show the significance of character Z and you need to figure out how to do that. Either way something needs to change regarding character Z. The direction you take your changes is up to you, but multiple people saying the same thing is a red flag that there’s something amiss.
  3. One person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion. You should consider these singular insights carefully in case your reviewer noticed something everyone else missed, and you can always poll your other reviewers if something someone said is particularly troublesome… but don’t change everything to please just one person. If you AGREE with the reviewer, maybe she found a gaping plot hole, then you will want do something about that—but a lot of the things that these insights will bring up are just options. Seeing them helps you expand your sense of possibilities, which may help you find the right path when you’re making the truly necessary changes…. but don’t try to turn your book into something you never intended it to be just because one of your reviewers has a different vision than you do.
  4. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your plot? Does it make your protagonist more or less invested in the outcome of the plot? Does it help keep the tension growing throughout your story? Does it make your protagonist’s actions more or less important to outcome of the plot? Overall, is this a change that would benefit your story on a plot-level?
  5. Ask yourself: How would the change you’re considering affect your theme? Does it provide your character with an example that might change the way she thinks about the world and more specifically about her immediate issue? How does that affect your character’s motives? Does this change affect what your story is about overall? Is that what you want? Overall, is this a change that would play into your story’s theme?
  6. A note on grammar. If you’ve got some discrepancies between you and your reviewers about how to punctuate your sentences or the meaning of a word, do yourself a favor and don’t just assume the other person is right (or vice versa). Look it up. There are lots of grammar resources available online, and a quick internet search will tell you what you need to know.