In the midst of this pandemic so many lives have been turned upside down. People have been thrust into new ways of living, existing, coping. I haven’t. My life hasn’t changed much because being home, working from home, homeschooling was my life and to a point, still is. The most I’ve struggled with is finding toilet paper and finding focus. The degree of change has varied with each person, with each family.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I know there are people struggling with getting anything done at all when the house is full of people, when normal routines have been disrupted, when there’s no certainty when things might go back to some semblance of the way they were. I wish I had some tips and tricks to help others figure out how to navigate this, but the way I did it was to just do it. I didn’t have any other choice. I didn’t have the privacy of a home office the way I do now. I didn’t have the dedicated time to do what I wanted to do. I had to make it or I just had to do it in little swatches of time.
And one thing I learned by doing it the way I did is that I’m a high stress person. I’ll stress about the smallest things and I’ll stress about big things and I’ll stress when something impacts my family and I’ll stress when something may impact my ability to get coffee the way I like it… But I’ve found, in general, that I can actually thrive and make progress when there’s a lot of stress, outward stress, at least. Inward stress and I’m done for. But the outward stress… That’s what I thrive in.
I didn’t always believe that and here is what this post is actually about. I thought having a nearly empty nest, and all sorts of time in a day, and a dedicated home office, and a chore schedule, and pretty much zero interruptions that I would be productive as shit, cranking out books left and right and upside down and right-side up… And well, I was wrong.
I can’t speak for anyone else. There are writers who need that, who need to not be on the verge of pulling their hair out. They need dedicated space and quiet and to be left alone. I get that. For instance, when my books are in editing and when I’m formatting them, I am that writer. But otherwise, I am not. I get distracted and unfocused and even…bored. God, I hate that word. So fucking much. And I’ve tried the schedules. The morning routines. The plan everything. The set my intentions.
Maybe the quiet gets to me. Maybe the walls get to me. I don’t know. But I do miss the chaos of all the things happening and going on.
And there’s definitely a piece of this that is mourning the near empty nest. I am in mourning that my kids are grown and don’t need me as much. I am in mourning that those magical years are over. I am in mourning that a new stage of life is here and I wasn’t emotionally or mentally prepared for it. Sometimes I’m not sure what to do with it all and maybe that’s what most of my struggle is. What do I do with it all? The mourning and the new? I spent so many years working and writing and living one way that I’m not sure how not to work and write and live another way. This is the inner stress. This is upheaval of life as it once was but isn’t anymore and I know a lot of people are going through it, just on the other end.
I worked a job. I homeschooled. I did the cooking and cleaning. I wrote in the wee hours.
Then… I homeschooled. I cooked and cleaned. I wrote in the between times and in the wee hours.
Then… I dropped off and picked up. I cooked and cleaned. I wrote less and less and not in the wee hours.
Then… I wandered aimlessly and the concept of time got skewed in my head.
I miss the chaos. I miss the way things were. I miss being pushed against the walls of all the things that needed to be done.
Now, none of that is to say that chaos is the only thing that helped me or that peace and quiet and time are the only things that I’ve struggled with. I’ve struggled jealousy. Envy. Compairisonitis. Too many things. Not enough things. Inconsistency. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Lack of confidence in myself. Lack of belief in my writing and the stories I’m trying to tell. These are all pretty serious things in and of themselves, but put them together and it’s one big fucked up show.
But when there was chaos in my house, when there was normal life in my house, I didn’t have time to think about all those other things that throw wrenches. I could only throw myself into the writing in the windows of time I had at my disposal. I wrote at the kitchen table. On the couch. In bed. At baseball games. At band rehearsals. In the pick-up line at school. In coffee shops. At restaurants. In bookstores. In the middle of the hotel lobby at a conference. Those things worked for me, worked like a fucking charm for me. I can set goals until I’m blue in the face and with the best of intentions and for a couple of days, I’ll get all over them. Then, I’ll fall off. I have time. I can start again later. I can do that tomorrow or next week or whenever. No one is waiting. No one cares. And those things are just fucking lies. People are waiting. People do care. I am waiting. I care.
For a long time now, by this point in the year, I’d have given up already. The goals long forgotten. The planner collecting dust. And I’d be in the… Well, I’ll try again next year frame of mind and beating myself up. I had time. What’s wrong with me? But this year… through the writing of blog posts and journaling and not giving up and plugging along and trying to learn about myself as I am now, as life is now, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t do well with a planner (that post is HERE), and I don’t do well with word count goals (that post is HERE). I need pressure and a little chaos, even if it’s manufactured. And when it comes to my writing, a deadline does that. It gives me an end. It gives me an ultimatum. And I will thrive in that. Telling myself that I need to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month does absolute shit for me. I’ll let the end come and go, and I’ll wave as it passes. Set up a pre-order and have a deadline… Dude, I’ll get that done. I’ve let one lapse over the years, but my mindset game wasn’t strong at all. It’s stronger now. It’s better now. It’s not to be fucked with now.
It’s kind of like when my mom is coming for a visit and my house is a wreck the way it always is… I’ll start off doing little things here and there a few days before she’s due to arrive. Then, the day she is supposed to get here, I’ll talk to her throughout the day to find out where she is and how much longer it’ll be until she pulls into the driveway… When she’s an hour to an hour and a half out, my ass is in high gear and this place is spotless and things are put away and the toilets are cleaned and the floors are mopped and the clothes are hung and the surfaces dusted and the kitchen is gleaming.
The writing for me, with a deadline, is like that. The writing for me, in small pockets of time with all the things going on around me, is like that.
The writing with all the time in the world to get it done, is not like that for me.
The writing with peace and quiet and time, is not like that for me.
It’s probably why I also like and need and have conditioned myself to use a timer when I write. Not blog posts, obviously, but my books, definitely.
Life is a bit of a struggle for me. I’m not ready for all the changes that are here now or that have been coming. I can’t control any of it and I can’t stop it. I can’t make my life go back 10-20 years even though I wish I could. I’m jealous of all the people who are homeschooling now and who have all their kids around because I miss mine. Because I miss those years. And I know some people are jealous of the situation I find myself in…kids pretty much gone and time is now my own. The only things I can control right now is my writing and my output and I’ve not done well with it. I’ve lost a lot of time trying to find what box I fit into now.
How do you cope with changes in life and stress? Does your writing soar or suffer? Let me know. I’m curious. Always.
…but I’ve learned that planners don’t work for me.
I read a book recently, Dear Writer, You Need To Quit by Becca Syme. It was great and it gave me a lot to think about. One of the things was a process the author calls QTP or Question The Premise. This is a tool to use when you need to question something, perhaps when something isn’t working the way you think it should or when you start to adopt a thought process because it works for everyone else and you believe it should work for you, too. For instance:
Planners make people more productive. But…do they?
Everyone should write every day. But…should they?
Procrastination is bad. But…is it?
Becca suggests questioning the premise of the thought, idea, statement, belief, etc… And it can work with anything. She has a whole series of QTP videos on various things regarding writing and I haven’t watched them all yet, but I will because I’m learning a lot. She has one about planning the year out and I did plan my year out because everyone says you should and I fell off that wagon before January was finished and now I’m curious about her QTP video about the subject.
Anyway, so yesterday I found Becca’s video about planners on YouTube and I’ll link it at the end for you to watch if you’re interested. Basically, I fit what she describes.
I buy the planner. I use it for a bit. Then I don’t.
And then I see all the writers who use planners, who swear they’re more productive because of the planners, who spend hours and small fortunes on decorations and stickers for the planners…
Inevitably, I think that I just haven’t found the right planner yet. I haven’t found the right system or method or layout or collection yet. So, I’ll waste time searching online, going to the stores (when they were open for us to do that), spend money I don’t need to spend on yet another planner that should work because it worked for this or that writer.
When I get home, I’ll lay it all out and fill it in and check the boxes when I’ve done the things, all proud of myself for about 3 days or 10 days or a month, sometimes I can stretch the feeling for 2 months, and then… I don’t use it again for weeks and weeks.
Then… Because I’m hella behind, I’ll feel a surge of ‘boy, I was more productive when I used the planner’ and I’ll open it up, skipping ahead to the current date and start again only to fall off even faster. Pretty soon, I’ll start beating myself up because I’m not productive at all, planner or no. I’ll go right for the I’m just too damn lazy spin and I’ll stay here for a while, then dust myself off and just go about life without a planner. But the cycle will start all over again. It always does. Because there’s something wrong with me. I have a defect. It’s me. Not the planner. Not the system or method or anything else. It’s me.
And truthfully, it is me, to a point.
I’m not a planner person.
I’m not a planner. Not like that.
I’m what Becca describes as a Data Responsive person… And I fit her definition of If I see it, I’ll do it.
She uses another term… Data Controlling. If I plan it, I’ll do it. That’s not me. Planning three months, six months… Hell, planning one month in advance or even a week in advance doesn’t work for me.
I do like getting all the shit out of my head because it will help me focus to brain dump. And I do like seeing the list. I do like crossing things off the list. But I’ve tried three different planning methods this year so far and it’s only the middle of April.
So, what does this mean for me? Well, it means, I need to resist the temptation to buy planners. I need to unsubscribe to all the planner newsletters I receive. It also means I need to stick to that which does make me more productive and what does keep me on top of all the things. I need to be able to see things. I tend to look up more than I tend to look down and when I look up, I see the whiteboard and the calendars on the wall. Everything is written out in bright colors and catches my eye and triggers something in my brain. I know these things work for me, but damn, I wanted the planners to work because the planners work for everyone else! Or…do they? (See what I did there? LOL)
Another thing that works for me is not getting up from my desk. Once I get up from my desk, I don’t want to come back to it, so my list of get-to-do’s needs to be short and sweet and only comprised of the top things I want to get done that day. I plan to try the index card or post-it note method to see if either of those will work for me along with writing things up on the calendars.
I have three calendars on the wall…
One is yearly. I put releases up on that one.
Another is monthly. I add my daily word count on that one.
The last one is weekly. I haven’t used it much, but the idea is to take what’s on my index card/post-it note and add it to the calendar each day so by the end of the week, I can see progress being made. I’m one of those people who needs something enforced multiple times and in multiple places so it gets into my head.
I also have a large, plain whiteboard where I keep plot points or other books ideas so I don’t forget them, or things I might need to work out, or the direction I want to take a book in. I have a OneNote account where I keep this information, too, but if it’s not IN FRONT OF MY FACE like the whiteboard, I won’t open it up, I won’t look at it. I will, in fact, forget that it exists most of the time even though the folder is on the desktop.
I need to see it in order to do it. It doesn’t need to have an extra step like open or find under a stack or clear the desk so I can use it.
I’ll miss looking for the pretty planners and seeing all the cool things that people do with them, but planners don’t make me more productive and therefore are a waste of time for me.
Another thing about me…
I’m an all in person. If I see one part of thing needs to be done, I’ll do all of it. For instance, laundry… If I see one group of things needs to be washed, I’ll decide there and then that it all needs to be done and I’ll just do it. I was trying the house cleaning method of this room this day and that room another day and nope. I would rather do it all and get it finished. That kind of lends itself to the If I see it, I’ll do it mindset as well. I don’t want to have to drag cleaning supplies out multiple times a week or fold laundry every day of the week. I’d rather just do it and get it done.
Same with reading a new book. I want to read it all. Either the whole book or the whole series. I want to spend every waking moment reading until finished.
And the same with television shows. I’d rather binge and finish, than to start and stop and start and stop. I’ll lose interest, even if it’s something I love.
If I see it, I’ll do it. If not, I won’t do it at all, or I’ll forget about it for a while until something triggers my brain about it.
So, I’m going to link the video from Becca here about planners and let me know which type of person you are… Does a planner work for you and help you be more productive or are you more like me in that you need to see it and then you’ll do it?
I wanted to be. I still do want to be. But the honest truth, y’all? I’m not.
And it’s not because I set unrealistic word count goals. At least, not anymore. I used to. But then I’d fall off the wagon a week in and I’d be running to catch up, only to be left in the dust because I didn’t run fast enough or hard enough or consistently enough.
Being a consistent writer… Well, what do I consider consistent? Every day? Yeah, sure. I’d love that, but again, that whole honesty thing and no. I’m not an every day writer. This is something I’m still coming to terms with. I’d like to think that I will one day be an every day writer, but… Now, some people consider any writing, writing… Journals, blogs, books, short stories, essays. And if that’s something I adopt as a truism, then I am an every day writer because I journal, whether it be my regular empty my head of the shit journal or my gratitude journal daily.
I am always thinking about writing, whatever book or books that I’m working on, how to re-write a blurb, what’s coming, what plot point needs fixing… An author I love, V.E. Schwab considers these ruminations writing and well, who am I to argue?
So, if I’m not a word count writer, what am I? And can I aspire to certain word counts?
The answer to the second question is yes. A group on Facebook that I’ve joined has a 10K Words in a Day challenge. I have tried it once. The other days they did it, didn’t work for me as I was either on the road or had family things come up. But I did try it and I did do well. Not 10K well, but over 6K that day and it was good. Of course, my brain was fried afterward and I didn’t write for several days.
Not being a word count writer I think is also why I don’t win NaNoWriMo, even though I try every year. But if I approach it differently this year, maybe… If I approach it the way I plan to approach Camp NaNoWriMo, I should be able to pull it off. We’ll see. (I did not pull off Camp NaNoWriMo, this year.)
I tried doing 10K Weekends and I loved this idea so much, but I couldn’t seem to get my ass in gear consistently enough to do it. I’d put it off on Thursday, and say that I’d make it up on Friday, and then oh look! it’s Saturday and then Sunday and well, I’ll try next weekend. Yeah, that sucked. It sucked hard. I haven’t attempted it in a long time.
Now, the answer to the first question… I’m a deadline writer. I think I’ve always known it, at least always as far as my decade+ long writing career has been going on. When I wrote just for me, or for Literotica, or whatnot, I wrote until I was finished. I wrote a lot in a short span of time. There were no expectations. No one cared. It was just me. And often in the middle of the night after the family was asleep. Once I began pursuing publishing and writing as a career, I wrote my own way. A lot here. A little there. A lot more somewhere else. So on and so forth until the book was finished. If there was a deadline, I rarely missed it. Except when it came to self publishing. I could move that date around all I wanted. And that’s pretty much what I did.
When 2020 began, I took author Sarah Cannon’s writing plan workbook and worked up a plan for releases, word counts, days off, etc… And within a couple of weeks, I’d once again fallen off the wagon. I raced to catch up. I modified my route to make it easier, but it didn’t work. By the end of January, I’d only written 24,448 words. I was 40,000+ words behind where I’d planned to be. I was discouraged. I was sad. And I wrote all of 1444 words in February.
I spent most of February depressed and aimless. I was falling back into this pattern that I have every single time I’d set word count goals. I tried to fight through it because my plan for 2020 was bigger than a single month. And then… I ended up spending 10 days in Florida. I wasn’t on vacation. My time wasn’t my own. My mom had knee replacement surgery the day before my 49th birthday and got out of the hospital on my birthday. That same day, my grandmother came down with the flu. Was taking care of two of the most stubborn women I know, alone. I didn’t get to celebrate my birthday and that kind of depressed me, too. I spent very little time doing anything but seeing to their needs and running errands they couldn’t. But it did offer me some moments to think…especially in the car on the drive down and back home. I wondered what I could do differently than I had been. What could I change? What inside my head would make any sense? That’s when it kind of hit me. I’m a deadline writer. And I didn’t know why I couldn’t see it before.
1K1Hr… That was the standard word sprint. For others. Give me an hour to write 1000 words and I’ll waste time until the last 30min. Give me a deadline and I’ll typically write a little here, and a little more there, and bust my ass the last two weeks to get it finished. I usually have multiple projects going, too. This is how I wrote as much as I did when I first started out in 2008/2009.
I kept telling myself that I couldn’t write that way anymore, and yet… Why not? Cleary the way I wanted to write wasn’t working for me, so why couldn’t I try going back to what I know did work?
I’m currently working on 5 different books. 3 new ones and 2 re-releases, along with re-writing 2 blurbs. I know what I’ll work on next month because it has a pretty immediate deadline. But the ones I’m working on right now, have later in the year deadlines. I’ll be putting things up for pre-order to seal in the deadlines from Amazon and that will help me out a lot. And yes, I could do the same thing and set daily word count goals, but that’s never been me as a writer. Facing the truth of how I write is not fun or easy. Not when I want to be some other way. But it’s also kind of freeing. I’ll enjoy it more if I don’t force myself into a hole I don’t fit in.
I think we all have them. Even those who don’t think so, I believe all writers have them. I do. I’ve had several over the years that worked well for me and that at the time, I wasn’t aware of their significance. It was only after a certain point that I realized, hey, this is something, this is necessary for my brain to focus. I had trained my brain to recognize certain things and turn on writing mode.
I won’t lie, either. I needed writing rituals. Sure, I could sit down and crank out words, usually with very little prior thought, but there’s something special and zen-like if the ritual is followed, if the ritual is observed.
For me, it was more than one thing…
Coffee. I needed to have a cup of coffee sitting on the table/desk. And no, water in a coffee mug or anything else in a coffee mug, didn’t work. It had to be coffee, and often it had to be hot coffee. Regular, a latte, a macchiato, a cappuccino… Whatever it was, it needed to be coffee of some sort. I mean, why do y’all think I have such a huge mug collection?
Hoodie. I had a Kyle Busch hoodie that I bought one year after the season had ended and I wore that thing All. The. Time. It was comfy, oversized, and I loved it. It currently has rips and threads and holes and a rather interesting smell to it. However, if I were to wash it, it would likely disintegrate. I no longer use it, but for many years, it was a necessary part of my writing life. No matter the season, I wore it if I was writing.
Music. I need music to write with. I need songs that I know by heart, that I can sing along with. You know, the kind like… Well, for me, it’s 80’s music. I can sing along without giving it any thought whatsoever. I hear the music and the words just come out. It’s that type of mindless mindfulness that I need when I write. Writing in silence doesn’t work for me for the most part. In silence, I struggle with my editor brain, my floundering self-esteem and self confidence as a writer, and I second guess every single word, phrase, fragment, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, until I’ve second guessed the whole book and figure it’s the worst thing ever written and I hate it. Music in my ears keeps that shit at bay. Music in my ears calms me and allows me to get down to it. But like I said, it has to be music and songs I know by heart. I have to be able to sing along or tune it out while I’ve tuned it in.
Writing movies. It’s no secret that if you’ve followed me for some time now, that you know I have several go-to movies when I’m in a writing slump. When I need to be reminded that writers of other books, and screenplays, and even songs understand that writing is not a straight line from A to B. It’s not something that goes away. It’s not something that always flows or is the best combination of words ever put down on paper or screen. Writing is HARD. Writing may come easier for some at any given time, but every writer feels and experiences the struggle and sometimes I need to be reminded of this by way of Michael Douglas in his pink bathrobe in Wonder Boys or Emma Thompson standing on top of her desk as she’s trying to figure out how to kill Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction or Diane Keaton trying to write her latest play and struggling with it until she falls in love and gets her heart broken and then the words come pouring out in Something’s Gotta Give. These movies do something for me that help me get through, that help me see how much I love writing…when it’s going well, and how much I love that there are others who know the struggle when it’s not.
Those things were part of what I needed to write all the books I did when I first began writing. After a while, when I began struggling with the words, those rituals… Well, they didn’t help. My issues went far deeper and I’m still trying to claw my way back out of the darkness.
I’ve begun trying to develop better writing habits and honoring writing rituals that help me keep those habits alive and well.
I can now write without coffee on my desk. I prefer to have it rather than not, but a glass of water will often do the trick.
My hoodie has been relegated to the coat rack. I like to be cozy still and sometimes I’ll put on a cardigan or use another hoodie, but mostly I’ll just wear long sleeves and only use something else if I get cold, which is often. But I don’t need anything like it to write anymore. I think I find that rather sad.
Music is still and likely will always be a MUST.
Writing movies… I still love them so much and I always find something new in them. I won’t be giving them up any time soon, either.
I recently read a book called Finish by Jon Acuff. I loved it. And one of the things he talks about is having these little habits or rituals that help trigger the brain, to tell it that it’s time to write and get down to business. I understood this for myself as stated in the previous rituals, but I understand it more now because I struggle more and more with staying focused, and so, I’ve incorporated a few things…
A dedicated workspace. I used to roam the house or wherever to write and no doubt I can still write in coffee shops or in hotels or on the couch or at the kitchen table or even up in the bed… Nope. Scratch that last one. I’m too sleepy all the time to try to write in bed. But I’ve found that having a home office, a desk that I picked out and bought along with a chair, a computer set-up I like and some things on my desk that make me happy or feel productive or just because helps me center and somewhat tap into that focus.
Music. The constant. Always. I have lovely pink over the ear headphones and I have a fantastic JBL speaker. I use them both. Obviously not at the same time. But they pump the music to me and that’s what I need. Also, a subscription to Spotify Premium. I know some think it’s a waste of money, but I have to say, it’s been an amazing tool for me for not only music, but for podcasts, too. And I’ll talk about those another time.
A candle. Jon Acuff says he lights a balsam candle or fir candle and the scent triggers his brain that it’s time to work. I love candles, especially the ones with wood wicks because I love listening to the crackle as they burn. I love a good balsam candle, but a good pumpkin spice one is nice, along with cinnamon. I like strong, warm scented candles that I associate with cozy thoughts and feelings. Seeing that flame flickering helps my brain calm and start to focus, as well.
A timer. One on my phone or on my fitness band or even one I’ve downloaded to the computer. I write best with sprints. I focus better if I do sprints, so I set a timer each time I sit down to write and it helps narrow my focus. I need words during a set amount of time and the shorter the period the better for me. Some do 30min, 60min, even 90min writing sprints. Those are too long for me. I have done as short as 5min and cranked out 200 words. 10min is between 300-400. 20min is between 600-700 (on a good day). But the writing sprints have saved me so many times when it comes to needing words. When I think, ‘ugh, I still need to write’, it’s a feeling that is stressful and daunting. But… when I look at it from the view of 10min. That’s it. I can write for 10min without breaking a sweat and then I don’t think about it. I just write. And before I know it, I’m on my 3rd sprint and nearing 1000-1200 words.
And nature. This is one that is becoming more of a thing for me. I like looking out at the sky, the green of the grass, the magnolia tree, the bushes around the deck. I like looking outside when I write. It’s not necessary for me, but I love it and the more I can do it, the more at peace I feel.
All writers have things that work or don’t work for them. All writers struggle from time to time and the systems that we put in place, either consciously or unconsciously, help us get the words in so that you can have books to read one day. Habits and rituals don’t always remain the same. They shift and change as we shift and change as human beings, as writers. I am constantly learning this.
I’m working to develop writing habits that help me be much more consistent than I’ve been in a number of years and it’s not been as painful as I expected. I’m working with much more love and grace for myself and for whatever process it is that I am working at any given moment. But if I do keep to the things above, I’ve learned that I am more successful in my endeavors than when I try to go off script and free-wheel my way though the fog.
…I did write throughout the month of November. And for the first time in all the years I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo, I am not beating myself up for not winning. I am not talking bad about myself to myself for not reaching 50,000 words. I started 3 different stories in November. Two of them I’m not sure they’ll go anywhere, but the third one…? That one has some serious promise. It’s the one I started writing while I was over in Birmingham a few weeks ago. It’s the one story that has the least number of words on it, but it has more heart in it in those 6000 words that it does have.
One of the things that I have done, since I haven’t beat myself up about not winning, is I have applauded myself for writing consistently throughout the month of November. it was something I hadn’t done in a really fucking long time. I mean A Really Fucking Long Time! And writing like that felt good. Even on the days I didn’t write more than 300 words, it still felt good to write them.
I’ve been listening to different podcasts and have seen for a while now about writers who write anywhere from 5000 words a day to 10,000 words a day…every day. Those who are 6-8 months ahead of their latest release. And let me tell you, seeing that so much, seeing so many writers claiming that and proving it…It’s incredibly disheartening when I’m sitting here trying to be proud of my 300 words that felt like I had to carve up my insides to get out. Especially when I used to be one of those who could write 3000 words a days with relative ease and have books coming out on a consistent basis. But proud of my 300 bleeding words I am. We all start or in my case start over somewhere.
So, while I didn’t officially win, to me, I won by virtue of the fact that I started writing and have kept writing and will continue to write until something or several somethings are finished.
I hope you’re having a good week so far and I hope that you’re proud of yourself for being consistent in something, for starting something, for pushing forward and never giving up, for showing up for whatever you need to show up for that sets you on fire because I’m proud of you.