The New Normal in Pandemic Times: Are You Still Writing?

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time finding my balance these days.

As an essential worker, I spend most days dealing with the usual difficulties of a demanding job while at the same time, I’m in a constant state of vigilance regarding the coronavirus and whether I am doing everything possible to limit my exposure. That means wearing a mask for ten plus hours day, washing my hands after touching anything in a public space and before I touch anything else. Using my sleeves, shirttails, and elbows to open doors, turn off faucets, punch in keycodes. Wearing long sleeves specifically for this purpose, despite the fact external temperatures are beginning to soar. Disinfecting my hands to the point the skin is glassy and taut from the chemicals, and worrying about how I will manage one month, two months, three months from now if hand sanitizer and wipes are no longer available. Recognizing what a privilege it is to have access to soap and water.

Just prior to the stay-at-home orders, I’d begun watching Monk on Amazon Prime. As the pandemic spread, I went from enjoying the quirky show to being annoyed with it in rapid order, to finally accept that I had to be Monk in my daily routine now, with the exception of compulsively touching things. As a matter of fact, this pandemic broke me of a weird habit of my own: the need to place shopping carts in the correct order at grocery stores. Prior to the pandemic, I used to re-order the carts when I put my own up: putting the small carts on one side and the large on the other. It started out as the result of mild annoyance at certain shoppers who couldn’t be bothered to put the carts away properly, and morphed into a desire to make things easier for the kids who had to come out and collect the carts to bring them back into the store. But all that changed with the advent of COVID-19. Now I walk past disordered carts with scarcely a flinch. I’m not touching anything someone else has handled if I don’t have to.

This post started to be about the pros and cons of various masks I’ve tested. As someone who is a non-medical essential, I’ve tried a LOT of different masks. This morning I spent a hour taking selfies of me in various masks, and then another hour playing with filters to give myself different hair and eye colors. I can tell you that flimsy cotton fabric masks without filters probably aren’t doing you much good, but thick fabric masks with filters make it difficult to speak while wearing them because you can’t move enough air and they muffle your voice. And while N95 masks are probably the best thing to wear when you MUST go out in public (mine is one left over from when I was cleaning a mouse-infested garage last year), they suck down to your face like a facehugger from Alien, and though it doesn’t hamper speaking, within minutes of putting one on, I feel as though I’m standing outside in the middle of July in the deep South, where the air is warm and thick and hard to breathe. And this is from someone working in a temperature-controlled environment. Also, even the best fitted mask will fog your glasses at times, but a piece of tape on the top of the mask over the bridge of your nose can help with that. Like I said, originally I’d intended to write about masks, but I realized the selfies and the photoshopping are symptomatic of my pandemic brain right now. It’s easier to make bread, or watch TV, or take photographs (and play around with filters), than to do almost anything I used to do.

One thing I’m not doing much of is writing.

I know many of my fellow authors who say the same. They are finding comfort in other creative activities but not writing. Coloring in books, doing puzzles, decoupaging old bottles, felting, planting a garden. They speak of writing as something that may never come back for them, but I suspect, like me, they will circle back when the time is right. A recent conversation in an indie author Facebook forum seemed to indicate most people are falling into two distinct camps: those that are able to take advantage of the stay-at-home orders to write more and those finding it impossible to muster the energy to do the same, regardless of the demands of their day jobs. Would I be writing more if I could stay-at-home? I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect I’d need at least two weeks to recalibrate my brain and rediscover my balance before I could sit down to write. To get used to the new normal.

It’s not just writing that is affecting me like this. I normally read 2-3 books a week. These days I DNF more books than I finish. It finally dawned on me it’s not the fault of the book itself–I’m just having a hard time concentrating that hard on anything. I’m avoiding my usual comfort reads. Contemporary romances make me want to smack the MCs when they can’t seem to overcome the slight obstacles to their love. Cozy mysteries make me snarl when the amateur detective can leave her own business for hours on end to go sleuthing and yet conveniently fails to share any information gleaned with the police. Science fiction, a lifelong love, has been thrust aside as being too potentially painful. I can watch an old TV show (one that I’m not that emotionally invested in) but I suspect if new episodes of The Mandalorian aired today, I’d have a hard time watching. I stopped watching Picard because I couldn’t bear to be hurt by my entertainment right now and I felt the risk of that show wounding me was high.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my inability to focus right now. There was a recent opinion post in the New York Times about this titled: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving. Makes sense to me. It’s a good post. You should read it. It makes me understand that even if I could stay home, I probably wouldn’t crank out forty-one novels.

Lack of focus means hour long television shows also easier for me to commit to than a movie. I paid the hefty fee to stream the new Emma and despite the apparent delight of my fellow Jane Austen fans out there for this version, I loathed it. Seriously. I. Hated. It. Would I have enjoyed it had it not landed at the same time as the pandemic? I don’t know. Don’t ask me to explain COVID-19 anxiety. It takes different forms for different people.

 

My characters are currently languishing in the 1950s suburban neighborhood where I left them. Instead of solving the mystery they are there to investigate, they are being appallingly domestic. In fanfic, this kind of story is referred to as “curtain fic.” A story essentially about making curtains for the home, if you get my drift. It’s Hurt/Comfort without the Hurt. All Comfort, all the time. I don’t read curtain fic as a rule, and I certainly don’t write it. I’m watching in a kind of horrified fascination as my characters bake bread, wash the dog, mow the lawn, attend cocktail parties, and play tennis at the country club.

That’s not to say stories that center around these kinds of activities are without interest. English author E. F. Benson wrote a lovely series set among the upper middle class in the 1920s and 1930s. The two main ladies of the series, Lucia and Miss Mapp, battle for social prestige with a deadly intensity that is delightful to behold. Like the other members of the community, we watch with avid interest to see which of these two formidable women will get the upper-hand this time.

But that’s not the kind of story I’m supposed to be writing, more’s the pity.

Teaching myself survival skills (such as baking, or making masks, or planting a garden) gives me a constructive outlet for my fears, but at the same time, I’m starting to recognize there are some things I’ll never be good at, and I should farm them out accordingly. I’ve survived the first few weeks of sheer panic and rising anxiety: now I have to figure out what the long haul looks like. Eating my weight in carbs every day is neither healthy nor sustainable. I’m feeling the pull to make better food choices, to get outside and get moving again. I probably will plant a garden (I fully expect it to fail hilariously and catastrophically, with everything being consumed by groundhogs). I probably won’t start making my own clothes, despite the brand new sewing machine mocking me from where it still sits in its packaging.

And I will write again. I haven’t quit entirely, but my output is very low. For now, I’m letting my characters do their thing. If I have to cut out 15 K of curtain fic out of my romantic paranormal suspense story, so be it. But for now, I’m going to leave them alone.

Eventually the novelty of playing house will pall and the mystery will call Bishop and Knight back to their assigned duties. But right now, I have to let them practice self-care too.

To NaNo or Not NaNo: Either Way, It’s Okay

Before I began writing this post, I checked my blog for previous mentions of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Turns out, I have a lot to say on the subject–every November since I started this blog! Most of my posts lean toward why NaNo isn’t a good fit for me. That hasn’t changed, but I’m becoming more comfortable with my decision NOT to do NaNo. 

Most writers are introverts, loving the time we spend alone with our creations, but even the most introverted creator is likely to feel the tug of wanting to participate when there is SO MUCH chatter about NaNoWriMo. People discussing their progress, posting their word counts, sharing their journey and expertise… November abounds with excellent writing information and it’s hard not to feel left out if you decide not to participate in NaNo.

I’m here to tell you not participating is okay.

So is participating and meeting the goal of 50 K words in 30 days.

So is participating and then failing to meet your goals.

It’s all okay.

Because writing is hard work, and the process isn’t the same for everyone, and you shouldn’t force yourself to meet an arbitrary goal if the process doesn’t work for you or if life gets in the way.

Chuck Wendig recently wrote a fabulous post, For National Novel Writing Month, Two Vital Reminders, which reminded me why participation isn’t a good fit for me, yet inspired others to go for it.

For me, it boils down to two things: the NaNo format is inherently contradictory to how I write and the pressure of meeting a specific daily word count is paralyzing to me.

That doesn’t mean I’m not going to take advantage of all the workshops, advice, and information flowing out there.

Here’s an excellent Twitter thread by C.L. Polk, the author of Witchmark (2019 finalist for a Nebula, Aurora, and Lambda Award) on where you should be at certain points in your story. It’s terrific NaNo advice but applicable to any story regardless of how quickly you’re writing it.

That’s the kind of thing I enjoy finding during NaNo time.

This year, I’ve decided to join in the Future, Fantasy, and Paranormal’s Silence Your Inner Critic challenge. This is a low-key challenge in which we’re divided into teams based on what kind of story we’re working on and each week we post our word counts to the team. I figure this will keep me working toward my goals without putting too much pressure on me to write. As any participation in the challenge is better than no participation, it’s a win-win for everyone!

I’m Team Shifter! 

What are you doing for November? NaNo? Nothing? Or some different challenge, even one of your own making? I want to know!

The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. 🙂

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.

A Good Story vs Good Writing

I learned to love books at a very young age. My mother and grandmother both read to me, and the time spent in their laps, following the words on the page, soon taught me how to interpret those words on my own. Growing up in a house full of books, I was never at a loss for something to read. By the time I was six, I was reading books on the sixth grade level. From loving books, it was only a short step to wanting to tell my own stories.

And I did. I wrote stories similar to those I’d read about things I loved, illustrating them with laboriously colored drawings as well. Well into my teens, going to a library was an exciting event. The Scholastic Book Fair was the best day of the school year. To this day, my idea of a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon is to go to a bookstore.

But somewhere along the line, I gave up on my dream of becoming a writer. It seemed something impossible for the average storyteller to achieve. By the time I left college, I was focused first on my career, and later juggling a family with being a professional. I wrote short stories for fun every now and then, but they were few and far between.

Then one day, I discovered online fanfiction archives. Suddenly I realized there were thousands of people just like me who loved to tell stories about their favorite characters. I became obsessed with fandom, cranking out story after story. After a lifetime of suppressing my creativity, the stories poured out of me in a flood. I wrote for the sheer joy of it and the fun of interacting with like-minded fans. For years I read nothing but fanfic, completely immersed in the delights of finding stories that were tailor made for me.

I never let the fact I was a neophyte storyteller stop me. I wasn’t swayed by the fact there were far better writers in my fandoms. I was in love with my characters, and that joy carried me through any confidence of crisis.

The confidence I learned in fandom gave me the courage to try my hand at original fiction after a lifetime of doubting it was possible to become a writer. It just so happened that this was about the same time when e-readers suddenly made publishing within the reach of a lot of people, and small presses were eager to take a chance on new authors. When I made the transition to writing original stories, I continued writing fanfiction at first, but gradually I began leaving fandom behind. My shows went off the air, and I had trouble finding other shows I wanted to write in. More importantly, however, I became invested in my original characters. I only had so much time to write and it seemed stupid to “waste” good ideas on fanfic when they lent themselves to the original stories bubbling inside of me.

But as I’ve said before, when you’re learning a skill set, every time you move up a level, the work gets harder. There’s less fun, especially when you know things should be done in a specific way and what you did before no longer passes muster. These days I’m working with critique partners and tough editors who push me to write cleaner prose and with more efficient style. Don’t get me wrong; I love the input from these sources. I’m a better writer now than when I started ten years ago.

But those same critical voices, the ones that tell me to eliminate adverbs and cut out unnecessary verbiage, and strive for active constructions in my writing are the same voices that often leave me staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time, struggling to create a sentence that won’t embarrass me. I find myself massaging the same text over and over again because my natural style is wordy and breezy and it needs a fair amount of editing to be presentable to the public at large.

It’s a bit like taking a pony out for a gallop across an open field once you know all the pitfalls and dangers of doing so. When you know about the rabbit holes, and you think about how breaking an arm will mess up your life, it makes it a bit harder to simply clap your heels against your pony’s flanks and let her take the bit in her teeth and run.

Back when I was learning to ride in group lessons at a barn, once a year when we trooped into the arena, we were told it was Broom Polo Day. Instead of trotting sedately around the ring, following one another in line as we popped over a little cross rail or practiced our equitation, we were handed brooms and directed to chase down a large rubber ball, smacking it between goal posts that had been arranged at either end of the arena.

It was insane. We became fiends as we clung to our ponies’ necks, throwing ourselves into a vicious melee, bouncing our ponies off each other as we crowded in for a hit. We chased the ball from one end of the arena to the other, howling like demons. The ponies got into it too, running flat out at our direction, spinning on a dime to make a course change, letting us hang off their sides as we swung down for a stinging hit. I suspect never in a million years would we be allowed to play Broom Polo these days, but back then we loved it. And the best part was we never knew when Broom Polo Day would appear. One day we were practicing our positions, remembering to keep our heels down and shoulders back, and the next, for one glorious hour a year, we rode like we were Centaurs–at one with the horse. It was a sneaky way of teaching us riding wasn’t always about looking pretty.

This past weekend, instead of struggling with the barely started WIP that already needed to have a plot hole fixed, I accepted the plea of a friend to pinch hit in a fandom fest. Though rusty as hell and not convinced I could even portray the characters I loved so that a fan would recognize them, I sat down at the laptop to pound out the required word count for the fest, only to end up with twelve times as many words as I needed. I won’t say it was effortless, but it might as well have been compared to the difficulty I’ve had writing lately.

What was the difference?

I was having fun. It was Broom Polo Day, but for writing.

And it taught me something very important. Sometimes it’s okay just to play. To throw off the restrictions of rules and “this is what you should do” and just let ‘er rip. And no, I’m not going to go back to reading and writing fanfic the way I did at the height of my obsession. But I will remember sometimes you need to focus on telling the story first before you worry about how well you’re telling that story. That the first draft is galloping toward the ball and smacking it with glee across the arena. It’s the second, third, and fourth drafts that let us look pretty while sending that ball through the goal posts.

So my advice to myself in these coming weeks? It’s okay to bang the story out sometimes without paying as much attention to the rules. Sometimes it’s the best way to get back in the groove when you’ve lost your mojo. Don’t be afraid to have a little fun and ride like a demon. You can always go back to sitting up and pretty when the time comes.

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

A Cultural Inability to Focus: What it Means for Authors

Lately, I’ve been battling the fear that I’m becoming–I don’t want to say stupid.  Let’s say cognitively impaired. That I’m losing my ability to process a reasonable amount of information. I find myself having difficulty reading a lengthy article, or wading through a basic legal document. Most books fail to hold my attention, and I lay them down never to pick them up again, something that never used to happen to me. When I do read, it’s usually on my Kindle, and I find myself skimming, in part because it’s just so easy to tap, tap, tap and turn the pages.

I’ve been writing the same scene for weeks. I’m lucky if I peck out 300 words in a writing session. I wouldn’t mind if they were 300 fabulous words, but they aren’t. I look at my WIP and think it’s stilted and cliched. Most writers cringe when they look back on their earlier works. I do too, but it’s because part of me believes my earlier work showed more promise. I should be getting better and this, right?

Instead of hashing out the scene and moving on, I find myself picking up my phone and cycling through my various social media sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. When I’m done with that, I scroll through my email, read forum digests, and check out my lists. And when I’m done, I start at the beginning and go through them all again.

My inbox is filled with links to articles on marketing and publishing that I never read. I sign up for online seminars and coursework I never take. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, I delete them all just to whittle my emails down to something less than 400 notifications.

I could blame this on being exhausted most of the time–I am. I work long, hard hours. Chronic pain makes sleeping problematic. Healthy food choices and exercise is always on tomorrow’s To Do list. I can’t keep running on fumes and expect to remember the lyrics to a song I didn’t particularly like that I haven’t heard in twenty years or the name of my next-door neighbor whom I only know to wave to. (I know his dog’s name. I have my priorities right) But I don’t think that’s the biggest factor in my inability to focus.

I think our cell phones are to blame. 

I no longer know anyone’s phone number–I don’t have to–all my contacts are in my phone. Wikipedia is at my fingertips. Google will find me those song lyrics, direct me to that business I went to last year, remind me who said that clever quotation, and more. I don’t have to remember anything.

I’m never without entertainment, either. I can a read one of nearly a thousand books on my TBR list, watch a TV show, see the latest Avengers trailer, laugh over a viral cat video, or check out the latest drama in my writer’s forum. It used to be if I was out walking the dogs or tending to the horses, I used that time brainstorming for my stories. I’d come back from my activity on fire ready to write. Now I check Twitter.

It used to be if I had a few minutes to spare while waiting to do something, I’d open a book. Now I pick up the phone–and it’s not unusual for me and my husband to be sitting across from each other, phones or tablets in hand, concentrating on our screens instead of each other. We’re both introverted, so there was a time when that felt comfortable.

Now it feels like an addiction.

Our attention spans are getting shorter because we are being bombarded with information constantly. We bring it with us wherever we go. Work can reach us 24/7 (that’s another post for another day) and so can any friend or member of our family. Gone is the time when going for a walk meant you were temporarily out of contact. Sure, there are benefits to this–the most important of which is safety–but we’re never unplugged now. It means we can feed the streaming monster: be it TV shows, news feeds, or our Twitter timeline.

And if I struggle to put my phone down–picking it up first thing in the morning, sneaking glances at it at stoplights, opening social media at work when I want a break–if I struggle with the addiction of scrolling, having come to it late in life, what about the generation of people who grew up with a cell phone in their hands from day one? You have to wonder if the plasticity of young minds are being modeled to be incapable of concentrating on anything longer than a three minute video.

I’m sure when television first came into people’s homes, there were a lot of people who bemoaned the loss of family activities such as puzzle solving or reading aloud. I’m certain there were people who decried the bad influence TV had on young minds then, too. They were probably right to a certain degree, though not all the dire predictions came true. But now we have our TVs with us all the time.

When I was serving as one of my dad’s caretakers, I temporarily developed aphasia. I’d be in the middle of a conversation and start snapping my fingers, unable to think of the word I wanted to say. For someone who’s been an avid reader with a massive vocabulary most of her life, this was kind of terrifying. It didn’t occur to me I was worn out from working 12 hour days and then caring for my dad from six pm to midnight every night. Since he was struggling with dementia, it was no great stretch to fear I was developing serious cognitive dysfunction as well.

Back then, I ran across one of those ‘assess your memory’ tests in a magazine that asked you to look at a list of ten unrelated words for one minute, and then read the rest of the article. At the end of the article, you were unexpectedly asked to list as many of the ten words as you could remember. I could remember all ten because I’d made up a little story about them.

Years later, I still remember eight of those words. So I don’t really think the problem is memory loss or cognitive dysfunction. The aphasia resolved when my life stress improved. I’m under a tremendous amount of stress right now, so that’s probably the reason my eyes glaze over when I try to read something meant to enlighten and educate, right?

But maybe not. Maybe I need to spend less time scrolling on the phone and more time making up stories.

I came across this great post How to Focus on Writing Right Now by Rachel Thompson of BadRedHead Media, and I’m taking it to heart. 

If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on a specific task or simply in general, consider cutting yourself off. Unplug. Put the phone in a drawer or lock out your social media apps while you’re working. Take a walk without talking on the phone, listening to tunes, or playing a game. Put your brain on an information diet.

Your creative side will thank you.

Getting the Most out of NaNoWriMo for Non-Participants

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried in the past, and found the pressure of writing a set amount daily intimidating. Even though you were allowed to have “makeup days” and nothing mattered as long as you met the end goal: 50 K in 30 days, that constant questioning as to whether or not I’d made my daily word count was so unnerving, it sent me into a tailspin of paralysis on the very first day from which I never recovered. And it left me with a lasting case of writer’s block it took me months to get over. Even now, watching the vast proportion of my social media interactions center around this fact can make me hyperventilate a bit.

Then there’s the fact that the NaNo guidelines are the antithesis of how I normally write. Not that I could find any specific guidelines when I searched this morning. So perhaps it’s my own understanding of NaNo that is flawed. For the most part, it seems people planning to participate may or may not make a sketchy outline in September, then sign up and begin tracking their word counts while they bang out their story in 30 days. No editing. No going back and changing things. Just write.

While this appeals to the pantser in me, I’m a big fan of going back and re-reading my WIP, editing as I go. Yes, on some levels this slows me down (and I’ve been known to bog down polishing the same scene over and over again) but this process works for me. Typically when I do this, I can see underlying themes I want to expand upon and weave into future scenes–something that’s far easier for me to do the first time than to go back and add later.

There’s also the fact that I don’t really need the act of completing NaNo to validate my ability to write a complete story in 30 days. When I was heavily invested in fandom, I wrote the equivalent of a novella every month. For four years straight. No, the mechanics of NaNo aren’t beyond me.

I suspect that one of the reasons I find NaNo so stressful is that when I was a child, we used to have timed multiplication tests in school. The teacher would put a recording on, and a flat voice would drone, “Eight times four is—beep!” A tone would sound, and the speaker would move on to the next problem. I’d begin hyperventilating at the sound of the incessant, relentless beeping, and the fact the test was progressing on without me being able to keep up.

NaNo feels a bit like that to me.

So why am I writing this post, then?

Because there is still a lot to be gained from unofficially participating in NaNo. 

For starters, there is the accountability factor. Though you may not be trying to get to that daily word count, perhaps you have other goals. The plethora of articles on writing, on making the best use of your time, and the number of groups outside of NaNo itself, can all be used to your advantage during the month of November. On any given day, you can Google “NaNo” or some variation of such, and come up with a wealth of useful information. Not to mention the Twitter hashtags and chats–some fun, some inspiring, most supportive.

The fact so many people out there are buckling down to their keyboards and making a hard push to complete a novel (or at least a novella) in 30 days means there’s a lot of support out there. Can’t find a group that welcomes non-participants? Start your own! There’s a wealth of collective creative energy out there. Don’t cut yourself off from it.

Maybe you aren’t officially participating–but there’s no reason you can’t set your own goals. Challenge yourself to read a set number of articles on marketing, or take a course on improving your craft. The principles are the same: if you tell yourself you don’t have the time, you’ll never make the time.

My plans for NaNo are to finish a stalled WIP. It was going like gangbusters until my mother died last year, and it has been languishing ever since. I want to push through to the end now–and a NaNo-style approach seems to be the best way to break through this block. I’m hoping to get it into a semi-decent form for a December submission.

Which means, I need to go get cracking on it. What are you doing for November?

Creativity, Gratitude, and Self-Care in a Dumpster-Fire World

I’ve been finding it very difficult to write lately.

I know I’m not alone in this–it’s a refrain I hear from many creative types right now. It has less to do with my personal battles with depression and more to do with the constant bombardment of horrific news–especially the mounting tension as we move steadily toward the US mid-term elections. These elections are going to prove to be a referendum on so many things: where we stand as a nation on democracy, diversity, climate change, health care, decency, equality, and compassion. The stakes have never been higher.

As such, I find myself creatively holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the WIP despite a looming deadline. It feels too damn frivolous to be carving out a HEA right now, even though readers probably need the stress-relief, temporary escape, and emotional encouragement more than ever.

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

For a while now, Supergirl has been accurately needling social issues of the day in its writing. On the surface, the show is nothing more than a little escapist superhero television action, but at the end of season 2, Cat Grant makes an amazing speech on resistance and courage in the face of fearful times, and I fistpump the air every time I watch it.

 

It’s a powerful scene that fits seamlessly with the the plot without overtly hammering the viewer over the head with the message. It’s brilliant.

But the writers of Supergirl haven’t stopped there. In another episode, James Olsen shares an experience of being accosted and accused of a crime as young black child–an experience Mehcad Brooks had in real life when he was only seven years old.

And this season, the show’s opening montage openly describes Supergirl as a refugee on our planet–and the first couple of episodes have dealt with the growing hostility and suspicion of “aliens” living on Earth and a rising “Earth First” movement. Yes, it’s a somewhat cheesy CW show–but it’s tackling real issues and I applaud them for it. I was particularly struck in this past week’s episode when the AI’s shield that allows him to look human fails while he’s ordering pizza–and the resulting hostility on the part of the restaurant owner takes Brainy completely by surprise. He keeps saying, “But you know me…” while the pizza guy calls out workers with baseball bats to beat the AI to a pulp.

The imminent violence was stopped because one person stood up–a person, it turned out, who also had a lot to lose if her own secrets were publicly known. Who wouldn’t have been spared from the same violence. That’s courage. As is telling your boss that he needs to do more than ‘tell both sides of the story’, that he needs to take a stand.

And that’s what makes storytelling compelling. It’s what moves a program beyond the realm of ‘cheesy superhero TV show’ into something worth watching.

This is the kind of writing I want to do myself. I want to bring that kind of layering and introspection to a story that is meant for entertaining consumption. Because when we start to have compassion for the Brainys and Nias of this world, then we can see them as people in our neighborhood, and not enemies to be hated. 

But it’s hard when your creative well is dry. When fear and anxiety dominate your thoughts. I’ve recently come to the realization that I can no longer support this sustained level of outrage and horror. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful to anyone, let alone me.

In some ways, it means I’m still speaking from a place of privilege, that I can even say I need to distance myself from current events. There are so many who can’t, who are living the very events I find so appalling. But self-care and distancing is not the same as turning a blind eye. It’s saying that a warrior needs to sleep before a battle. That an army must be well-fed and rested before an incursion. That this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there must be breaks along the way.

So I purchased the little notebook pictured above. I can’t say that I really believe its sentiments, but I’m making a concentrated effort to find something each day that makes me happy–something for which I’m grateful–and jot it down in this little book. I’m cultivating a sense of gratitude in a field sowed with fear and poisoned with anxiety.

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

No one would expect you to eat tainted food day after day without making any effort to clean it up and make it healthier. No one would demand you willingly consume poison in sublethal levels when it’s possible to filter it (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, apparently). Yes, we should be outraged at what’s happening in our country and our world. But outrage alone is ineffective. And a steady diet of outrage will kill us as surely as the things we’re outraged about.

So I’m reading more and watching the news less. Taking a little break from writing and playing around with other forms of artistic expression, such as painting. I’m having my nails done, despite the fact it’s an expensive luxury. Having nice nails makes me feel good at a time when precious little else does. As coping mechanisms go, it’s probably one of the less destructive ones.

I’m also making a determined effort not to spread fear and hate. I’m of two minds over this–I think we should be outraged. I think we should be making our voices heard. To say nothing is to be complicit. But I also fear by pointing fingers at it, we’re also fanning the flames over it and keeping it alive.

Vote. Donate your time or money, whichever you might have. Overcome your fears and participate in the process. But don’t let the fear consume you.

Remember it’s okay to tell stories that are simply pure escapism. What may be a light fluffy story to you is what gets someone else through a dark time. It’s not a crime to be proud of your successes, and share your happy news. We need more happy in this world. 

On the back of my little “Okay” notebook is an awesome quote from Jane Austen. I leave you with that thought now.

The Mature Writer: Accepting What You Don’t Want to Hear

There’s an adage for lawyers that goes something like this: Don’t ask a question in court you don’t already know the answer to.

The idea being that if you don’t know how the witness is likely to respond, you may have just opened up a whole can of worms you now have to deal with.

The same holds true for getting an opinion on your WIP. If you’re not prepared to deal with worms, perhaps you should refrain from seeking that opinion.

Last year I began a WIP (actually the origin story for the Redclaw series) and was writing gangbusters on it until a series of family tragedies derailed my writing for most of the last fifteen months. Before I’d abandoned the story, my critique group had loved it–they thought it was the best thing I’d written so far. I kind of liked it myself, and yet when I tried to go back to working on it again, I seemed to be stuck. Part of the problem was that my vision of the story had changed significantly from when I first began working on it–and the new beginning no longer fit well with older material. Part of the problem was that having just finished writing another story that had been difficult for me to complete for the same reasons as I mentioned before, I was having a hard time getting back into this older story. But I suspected I wasn’t being objective, so I asked my editor to read over what I had from a developmental standpoint.

Now mind you, I almost never let anyone read an unfinished draft. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of having my critique group read drafts as they were being written. So it was a great act of trust to turn over this fledgling story to my new editor, but she’d done such a great job helping me get the last book to market that I decided her input was worth potentially hurting my feelings.

Here’s the feedback I got–and my reaction–more or less… (Go to the link if you want to see the crying GIF).

Developmental Editor: I love your WIP! The characters, the dialogue, the pacing–all fantastic! There’s just one thing… a small plot point that will require you to rewrite the first third of the story to fix. No biggie.

Me: Okay. I think I’ll go clean litterboxes now. Thanks.

Generally speaking, I’m usually my own harshest critic. I’m the one who thinks the story sucks, that I’ll never be as good a writer as I want to be. It’s not that I don’t want to hear that something is wrong with a story in progress–it’s just that I’ve probably already realized it and am beating myself up about fixing it. It’s one of the reasons I rarely share WIPs with anyone–I have to make sure the story has a strong enough foundation before I begin tearing it down.

That said, I’m usually an adult about criticism. If the recommended changes are something I vehemently disagree with (on the lines of “Oh, hell no!”), I’m comfortable saying so and ignoring the advice. More often than not, the critique suggests altering something relatively minor–playing up one plot point over another, or doing away with an unnecessary subplot. I’m not so precious about my work that I dig my heels in when advised to cut out two pages of pretty-but-useless exposition because it is slowing down the story, and I have a pretty darn good grasp of who my characters are and what they want in that first draft. Most of my failings as a writer are more from lack of quality to the execution than a misunderstanding of what the story needs.

But I’ll admit a little shock of dismay when I got back my editor’s critique. 

Unfortunately, she was right. The things she pointed out as flaws definitely need to be addressed–and I can’t move forward with the story until I do. She was also wrong–in that to her, this would be a relatively simple thing to fix. I don’t think so. I think it will require rewriting nearly every line from the beginning to where I am now. The changes she’s suggested can’t just be slapped on top of the existing story. Threads must be pulled, traced back to the source, and rewoven along the way. The recommended changes will alter the very fabric of the story by fundamentally altering the heroine herself.

And I really regretted opening that can of worms.

I resisted her recommendations. I made excuses as to why it couldn’t be done. I was on a deadline–granted, self-imposed, but on one just the same. This was the third time I’d started this story–did I really want to re-write it again from the beginning? Could I do it without irrevocably changing the tone of the story? Did I have enough room to tell the new and improved story within the scope of one book? 

Ultimately, my decision to capitulate was based on the irrefutable fact that she was right–and also on a scene between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane in Have His Carcase. I’m going to have to paraphrase, as all my books are packed for the upcoming renovations, but the gist of it is this: Harriet, struggling with the current mystery she’s writing, complains to Peter about the motives of her murderer. Peter tosses out a couple of suggestions, making Harriet realize that while he is right, changing the murderer’s motivations will be a painful process for her, both personally and as a writer, and she says so.

Peter’s reaction is somewhat brutal. “What difference does that make, if it makes for a better story?”

Ultimately, Lord Peter is right. And so is my editor. And whether it takes me another six months or a year to make things right with my current story, I need to do so. Because bottom line, what matters most to me is telling the best story I possibly can.

Emotional Writer’s Block: Get Real or Go Home

I’ve been struggling with a WIP for over a year now, while at the same time dealing with a great deal of personal loss. For some time, I thought my inability to punch my way through the barriers in the story had to do with the initial set up: I took two strangers and isolated them on a farm in a snowstorm. For much of the story, it’s just the two of them, with no other characters for interaction.

Now, I confess, that kind of scenario is one of my favorites. Show me a story with ‘snowed in’ as a premise, and I’m one-clicking that baby. It was only a matter of time before I wrote one myself. And I’ve written novels before in which the two main characters were the only speakers onstage for much of the story. So I couldn’t understand why this story felt so wooden and dull, why the protagonists seemed to have little chemistry or sparkage.

I knew my creative energy was down because my emotional well was depleted. But I’ve written in those circumstances before, so I just didn’t get it. Why was this story being so difficult?

It finally dawned on me that the problem was I had two characters that were walled-off emotionally and unwilling to communicate. Well, let me tell you having one such character is pretty standard in romances. It’s usually the hero with the stiff upper lip,  who doesn’t share anything with the heroine until she breaks down his emotional barriers. It’s my favorite kind of hero, to be honest. But you can’t have both main characters walking around with a stick up their ass, saying “I’m fine” whenever someone asks how they are doing. Two taciturn and uncommunicative characters isn’t just difficult to write, but they’re boring to read as well.

My critique group tried to point this out early on, but I wasn’t having any of it. I was defensive of my characters and their inability to vent their emotions. I had my reasons for why they behaved in a certain way–and yet I felt the lack of connection and complained about the dullness of their interactions. Now, I don’t confuse bantering with bickering. The first is a witty, sometimes playful back and forth between the two main characters. Think Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies or the early days of Castle. Banter isn’t mean. It doesn’t snipe at one another, taking nasty potshots along the way. I don’t want my hero to be a jerk–especially if he and the heroine are trapped together in the same house for a while. But there has to be that spark between them. And with both of my characters being tight-lipped and suffering-in-silence, that wasn’t happening.

I frequently joke that when I don’t know what to do with the plot, I blow something up or burn it down. It’s a great way of getting unstuck from a plot point, or when your characters are wasting time getting coffee or putting on makeup instead of moving on with the story. I was pounding my head on the desk trying to figure out how to get my characters to engage without turning one of them into someone I didn’t want to be around, when it suddenly hit me.

I needed an emotional fire. I needed for them to get real or go home.

There’s a lovely scene in Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers, in which Lord Peter and Harriet Vane are discussing this very same problem with one of her stories–and Lord Peter’s suggestion is to get real with the murderer–give him a true reason for committing the crime as opposed to being a vehicle for posing a pretty mystery puzzle. Give depth to the story beyond what the genre called for. Harriet, having just been acquitted of murder recently (thanks to Lord Peter), is reluctant to do this because it may hurt too much. Lord Peter essentially says, “What difference does that make if it makes for a better story?”

(Lord Peter really gets Harriet on a fundamental level. My goal is to one day create a romantic couple with that kind of dynamic in their relationship.)

In many ways, I believe writer’s block can be boiled down to this: an inability or unwillingness to get real with the characters. For the writer to strip themselves naked and stand on display in the form of their fictional creations. Not that characters are necessarily stand-ins for authors, but when you read that one sentence that utterly rings true for you, when someone details an experience, and you nod knowingly because you’ve had that experience yourself–that’s getting real.

And that was what was wrong with my WIP. To fix it, I went back and re-wrote all the dialog and interactions, taking out the silent, simmering refusal to emote and putting back in the emotions I’d been afraid to experience myself. 

So far, early word from my beta readers is promising. They love the WIP and think it’s better than my previous book, which is a relief, let me tell you.

So much so, it’s going to be my new motto: Get Real or Go Home.