Becoming a Better Writer

If you write, you’re a writer.

There’s no secret handshake, and no gatekeeper. The only permission slip that matters is the one you give yourself. And while you might choose to get an MFA degree, or to take a class, or get an agent, exactly zero of those things are required.

It’s easy to get lost in the forest of self-doubt! For years, I threw roadblocks into my own path. I told myself that I needed to do X or Y before I could be a Real Writer. And I convinced myself that writing was self-indulgent, not very respectable, and not important enough to spend my time on.

Beginner writers are mean to themselves. Seriously!

Look, most of us go through a beginner-angst-bullshit stage. But if you’re persistent, the day will come when you get over it. You’ll begin respecting your writing goals, and by extension, yourself. And once that happens, you’ll begin thinking about questions like these:

How do I become a better writer?
And how do I get faster?
And is this a hobby, a passion, a career, or something else entirely?

I love these questions! The second two remain a mystery to me, but I’ve been working hard on the first. And I’ll tell you what I’ve figured out so far.

Becoming a Better Writer

When you’re learning something complicated, there exists an awkward stage where you’re no longer a beginner but you’re not yet competent. Unlike a true beginner, you can see your flaws clearly. It can be discouraging, because you’re wise enough to know you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

That’s where I’m at, right now. When I write, I often feel like an untrained swimmer trying to doggy paddle across the pool. There’s a lot of struggle and splash for each small amount of forward motion, and I tire out quickly. I love the work, but I wish it wasn’t so difficult. And I’m often unsatisfied with my progress, even when I do put in maximum effort.

I’ve got some goals for my writing:

  1. I want to improve my storytelling skills. (Pacing, suspense, dialog, character motivation, and language)
  2. I want to produce books more frequently. (One per year is a minimum. But if I stick with short mysteries, 2-3 per year should be doable.)
  3. And I want to have more fun along the way. (Writing is already fun, but it’s also more difficult than I want it to be.)

Those are my goals. Why not take a moment and write down yours? I’ll wait.

Here I am. Waiting.

If you are reading this blog post because you want to write fiction, I’m going to suggest you pause here and order some books, either from a store or from your local library. These five books that will teach you much of what you need to know about authorship:

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

There’s a wealth of information in these books, and I won’t reproduce their wisdom here. But I will offer a spot of advice for you rational types who pick up The Artist’s Way and think it’s too woo-woo. Hey, I get it. It took me three tries to get through that incredible woo-woo book.

Read it anyway. Do the exercises, anyway. Suck it up, left brains, and do the homework.

Think of those five books as your prerequisites for what I’ll outline below.

A Writer’s Development

While I traveled over the winter, I put together a model that I could follow to reach my writing goals. I was tired of flailing, and I wanted a roadmap like those I used to build for my clients, only focused on creative writing instead of leadership skills. What I came up with blends together what I’ve learned from experience, and what I’ve learned from books, and some tips I’ve gotten from other smart writers I know.

As you can see, there are four main elements. They are:

Self-Care means that I’m getting eight hours of sleep each night, I’m eating healthy food, and my stress level is reasonably low. It means I have a positive attitude about my writing, and that I’m being compassionate towards myself. Also in this category, I include financial wellness. I agree with Liz Gilbert’s assessment that you shouldn’t be relying upon your creativity to pay the bills, especially at first. For most writers, that means having a “day job” that can pay the bills, and which doesn’t leave you creatively depleted at the end of the day. When self-care isn’t happening, writing becomes far more difficult than it needs to be.

I want to offer a big “Thank You” to Seattle writing coach Peg Cheng who got me thinking about the importance of self-care!

Daily Practice refers to my habits behind the scenes of my current project. Julia Cameron suggests three pages of longhand journaling every day, which is the kind of thing that sounds like a massive pain in the ass but turns out to be indispensable once you get going. Daily practice also includes setting aside dedicated time to write on your current project, practicing your observational skills, and collecting shiny objects (words, phrases, images) like a crow might collect baubles for her nest. You need to think like a writer, even when you’re not in front of a keyboard, and that takes practice.

Craft is skill development, and for writers this begins with getting quality “intake” into our verbal diets. Stephen King famously said, “read a lot and write a lot” but I’ll expand that to all storytelling mediums, including movies, TV, poetry, and the visual arts. Craft also requires that we develop writing-specific skills, such as description, how to break a story into scenes, and how to create multi-dimensional characters that speak and act in interesting ways. Pacing, dialog, story structure— there’s so much to learn here!

Delivery is about getting your books to the people who will enjoy them. This element is about putting your work out into the world and convincing people to give your work a try. It also includes marketing skills like cover design, metadata, and how to build a mailing list. Ideally these activities will become an ordinary part of your work, and your week, but it will take some time to discover what works and what matters.

Writer, Teach Thyself

What I love about this model is that it’s non-sequential, meaning I can pick and choose activities from all four quadrants, based upon what seems relevant. Here’s what I’ve been up to the last couple months:

Getting enough sleep and improving my wake/sleep routine.
Completing my “morning pages” by hand before doing anything else.
Reading books and watching movies. (This hardly feels like work!)
Learning about story structure – and applying those lessons to my current project.
Learning about marketing elements like covers, blurbs, and metadata, and applying those to my finished projects.
Jotting down details of what I see, hear, and notice when I go someplace new, to hone my descriptive skills.
Setting aside time to work on my current book, at least five days per week.

How It’s Going So Far

These practices have already changed my my writing quality, output, and attitude in positive ways.

First, there was one surprise. Most of this “work” occurs when I’m not writing my novel. Sleep occurs at night, obviously. My morning pages take about thirty minutes upon rising. I read books and watch movies at night, like I always have, only now I do so with a sense of purpose because I’m studying instead of being passively entertained. Observational skills can be practiced anywhere, even in line at the grocery store. And the craft-work occurs as I need it. When I’m getting ready to tackle a piece of description, for example, I’ll do some reading on descriptive techniques before I start.

Second, my writing process has significantly changed. I used to sit down at the computer and feel like I was climbing a tall mountain with my teeth. Now I sit down at my computer with a short list of things I want to accomplish, and I do those things.

Old me: I GOTTA WRITE 1500 WORDS TODAY OR I SUCK AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M GONNA SAY AAAAARRRGGGGHHH…

New me: Okay. Yesterday I sketched out the setting for this murder mystery, including the floor plan of the lodge. Today I’m going to put that information into a scene where my heroine arrives at the retreat. I have two goals for this scene. I want to describe the setting where the story will take place, and introduce CHARACTER as he welcomes the party to the lodge. This scene is part of the setup, meaning it should be descriptive but not too long.

Most importantly, I see a direct connection between my development activities and the quality of my writing time. When I sit down at the keyboard these days, I’m well rested. By the time I wrote that scene, I’d been thinking about it for a few days. When I saw some relevant detail I could use, as I went about my daily life, I jotted it down. All those little things add up, and they’ve made my writing time more productive and more enjoyable.

So far, so good! I’m still slow, only getting between 500-1200 words written in a 2-hour writing session. But I have faith that if I stick with this, my speed will improve in time. My word count per hour is down, but my consistency and my writing quality is up. And I love knowing that I’m moving my story forward in concrete ways each time I work on it.

If any of this sounds good to you, I encourage you to download the writer’s development model and give it a try. And if you have any feedback for me, leave me a note on Twitter or Facebook.

Download the Writer’s Development Model (PDF)

Four Lessons from Writers’ Police Academy

Whew! We’re back in Seattle. And while I’m already looking forward to our next adventure, there’s a certain sweetness to coming home. Before I get sucked back into my normal life, I wanted to pause and tell you all about the writers’ conference I attended this month: Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay Wisconsin.

I wanted to attend a writers’ conference this year, and the WPA looked like the  most fun. And it was! What I hadn’t anticipated was the way it changed my perspective about policing, human nature, and how to write novels. It was quite the experience.

While a blog post is inadequate to cover everything I learned, here are a few highlights:

Lesson #1: Police Work is Difficult and Full of Contradictions

Going into WPA I had mixed feelings about law enforcement. Did I respect them? Sure. Did I trust them? Kinda. Did I think they have a high percentage of bullies? Probably. After this conference, however, I feel quite different about law enforcement officers.

After spending a few days with these folks, ranging from new recruits through retirees, I came away with a deep appreciation for what they do and who they are. Police work aside, on a basic human level these people blew me away with their empathy, professionalism, and dedication to preserving human life. Their attitudes were nothing like the portraits of abuse and arrogance I see painted in the news and on social media. And the more I learned about their work – how complicated and unpredictable and downright scary it can be – the more impressed I became.

What I learned was this: law enforcement officers are required to make quick decisions, and those decisions can have life-altering consequences for everyone involved. Something as common as a traffic stop is far more complex and dangerous than I could have guessed.

protective gear

Gear “Show and Tell” on Day One

As they talked about the importance of preserving human life, and they showcased the tools they use are designed to maintain social order and safety, I came away surprised! They discussed the importance of control over the situation, and I began to see that often what looks like arrogance from the outside perspective is a specific verbal tactic used with a virtuous motive. I had no idea! I’m not saying that “bad cops” don’t exist, because police officers are human and there will always be outliers. But I no longer associate a raised voice with bullying behavior.

The contradictions in police work made my head spin.  Take for example a police officer interrogating someone. They are allowed to deceive, within certain limits. And they are adept at using conversation to “box someone in” to a position, revealing their guilt. Observing the technique put a chill up my spine! I do not want to be questioned by a police officer. And that’s a problem, right? Because if you are an officer, you need people to talk to you. So how do you do a job where on the one hand you need to be trusted, and on the other hand you exhibit behaviors (dominance, deceit) that forbid trust?

When they arrive at a scene, they never know what to expect. Will someone have a gun?

When they arrive at a scene, they never know what to expect. Will someone have a gun?

Build trust. Maintain order. Stay alive. Serve and protect. Catch the bad guys. Find the truth. Communicate effectively and respectfully to people in a wide variety of emotional states. Help people feel safe. The work seems to be, by necessity, a complex mix of aggressiveness and trust-building, and those two things don’t fit neatly together. I started to wonder if we (the people) are asking them to do the impossible, and perfectly.

What I can say is this: If most law enforcement officers are like the people I met at WPA, I feel a lot better about the state of policing in our country. Big-hearted people, with a tough exterior, doing a job that is dangerous, difficult, and often at odds with the people they are serving. I admire the hell out of them, having gotten a closer view.

Lesson #2: Evil Walks The Earth

I was a bit naive going into this writers’ conference. For me a murder mystery is a kind of puzzle. It’s fun! And when I signed up for a class on death scene investigation, I was envisioning a tidy lecture about the steps an investigator goes through. “First you secure the scene, then…”

No. That’s not what happened.

Instead, our class was shown photo after photo of actual dead bodies. Mostly murder victims. And our instructor laid out how you can look at a dead body and begin to figure out what happened. “This is how decomposition works. This is what the body looks like when the blood pools. When a person is hung, here is what happens… Here is a gunshot wound. Do you think the gun was held against the head? No, let me show you what that looks like…”

Our instructor took very good care of us! He warned us about what was coming, told us to step outside if we wanted to, and every photo was shown for a very specific purpose. I was taking notes so fast my hand probably became a blur at one point! Towards the end of class we examined a few photos of women who had been butchered by their killers. I won’t describe those images, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget them either. What they showed was inhuman. A kind of act I didn’t even realize was possible, no matter how many murder mysteries I’ve read and how many movies I’ve seen.  And I don’t think I’ll ever look at humanity in quite the same way, coming from that classroom. It’s as if what I saw tainted all of us, forever. Some things you can’t unsee, like evil. (not a story)

I was going to attend a class on blood spatter that afternoon, but I couldn’t do it. I walked into a class that was far more tame (How Cops Walk and Talk), and I spent the next hour unsuccessfully trying to scrub those photos from my brain. At WPA, I learned that crimes are often motivated by stupid reasons, such as when a man is humiliated in front of strangers and comes back to torch his ex-girlfriend’s workplace. These kind of “short fuse” crimes seem to be common, easily solved, and initiated by someone who had the means to do harm, and the emotional intelligence of a three year old.

Then there are the other kinds of crimes. Those crimes that make you wonder if human souls are optional equipment. And I began to think about the impact that seeing such crimes would have on an investigator. Seeing what people are capable of… over and over again, it’s gotta’ leave a mark.

I think I’ll stick with the cozy side of mystery writing. Realism is a bit too real for this writer. When I came back to the hotel room that night, I curled up under P’s arm and stayed there for a while. He held me tight. I could never be a cop, I thought to myself. I don’t know how they do it.

Guns are scary. Just as scary? Wild mushrooms.

Criminals are scary. So are wild mushrooms.

Lesson #3: Real Investigations are Tedious

We all know that CSI is bullshit. An the bottom line seems to be that television is fake and unrealistic because the real work of investigation is tedious and slow. Fingerprinting is a good example of this. I learned how difficult it is to learn how to pull good prints, and apparently fingerprinting a room or a house can take weeks. You need to get exclusion prints from everyone who has been there, before you can do comparisons. That might mean tracking down Grandma five states away and getting her prints, along with everyone who came to the barbecue last month. They carefully pull and photograph each print, while taking measurements. Computers have made the print comparison process much faster, sure, but processing still takes a very long time and a highly experienced team.

Lifting prints is harder than it looks.

Lifting prints is harder than it looks.

Author Lee Goldberg advised us not to let the tedious truth get in the way of a perfectly entertaining story. TV investigations are unrealistic because the goal is entertainment, and watching a team methodically gather prints for three weeks then wait eighteen months for a DNA test to be returned isn’t going to make for good television, or a good book for that matter. He reminded us that we are entertainers too.

So the next time I watch Bones and I see Hodgins plug some bit of dust into his “Mass Spectrometer” and pinpoint the crime within a mile, I won’t shout at the screen about how unrealistic that is. Instead I’ll say to myself “Thanks, writers. You saved us a lot of time by sticking to the interesting parts of the story.”

So why attend WPA at all? A sprinkle of realism helps the reader suspend their disbelief, Goldberg said. Accurate details are a kind of literary Mrs. Dash. A little bit is good! But empty the whole bottle down someone’s gullet and they won’t thank you for it.

Lesson #4: Writers Need Community

Holy hell was WPA fun! I’ve attended plenty of business conferences but during none of them was I permitted to shoot a rifle or practice swinging a battering ram. In addition to the enjoyment of the subject matter, it was also wonderful to meet the other writers. This was my first time hanging out with other mystery writers specifically, as my writers group is a mixed bunch. And to my delight, others were very generous with sharing their advice and lessons learned. And besides, there’s something wonderful about being around people who enjoy the same things you do. Motives! Subplots! Story Beats! Inciting Incidents! We all spoke the same language.

Two successful mystery writers took me under their wings, and told me stories about their careers. They also patiently answered my questions about how they go through the writing process. Probably my biggest “aha” was that there are writers out there who write … organically … by writing down snippets of the story, entirely out of order, based upon what’s interesting and what comes to mind. Then they wait until they have a nice big mass of “story pieces” and then they shape it into something great, by pruning what’s not good and adding in what’s missing. And my heart leapt up and said, “What? You’re *allowed* to do it that way?”

You see, I’ve been an outliner (plotter), mostly because I believed that a mystery novel MUST have an outline because you are creating a puzzle with a solution. And yet I do tend to get ideas all out of order, and I struggle to wrangle my ideas back into THE PLAN like I am stuffing my book’s fat ass into a girdle. This results in a decent story, but it tends to sap some of the fun and unexpectedness away, both from the story itself and from the process of writing. As one writer, Anna, told me, “If I outline everything in advance, the fun is gone for me.”

I couldn't resist.

Me, having fun.

The writers I met encouraged me to throw all “the rules” out the window, keep messing around until I found what worked for me. That includes embracing the fun of being creative, even if it feels messy and out-of-order in the moment. Superstar author Tami Hoag reinforced that point. She said that she often doesn’t know who the killer is until the book is nearly finished!

What I learned is this: I’ve been writing novels like I’m following a recipe book, and I needed a nudge to try it another way. Consider me nudged!

In Conclusion…

It might be bad to admit this, but as a professional trainer I usually hate going to training. I find most classes to be bloated, poorly organized, and full of information I could have gotten by reading an article or a book. WPA was one of those rare experiences where I not only got everything I had hoped for (knowledge, and a fun time) but also far more than I could have anticipated. And I believe my writing is going to be stronger as a result.

Big kudos to Lee Lofland and the incredible instructors at Northeast Wisconsin Technical Academy for putting it all together. And if you are a mystery writer – check it out!

The Voices of Self-Doubt

Let’s talk about courage, shall we?

I’m thinking about it because I need my courage right about now. I’m getting ready to publish my second book and that means the voices of self-doubt are whispering in my ear on a regular basis. They say: Give up this silly dream, girl. The best thing you can do right now is stop, before you embarrass yourself even further. Everyone knows your books are shit, they are just too nice to say it to your face. You know it too. You just don’t want to admit it.

View post on imgur.com

I hate self-doubt, not because it’s cruel, but because it’s damn persuasive. Self-doubt takes what I believe and twists it until it feels like despair. 

Things I believe: When it comes to writing fiction, I’m still a beginner. I have a lot to learn. Plenty of authors are better at this than me. My books are not yet as good as I want them to be.

Self doubt replies: Yes. Therefore you suck and you should quit.

I know self-doubt is wrong. But that doesn’t stop me from wincing when she talks.

What Courage Is

Thankfully I have some experience with being an enthusiastic beginner. I remember self-doubt trying to kick my ass when I started consulting. I kept telling myself I was too young, too inexperienced, and that no one would ever hire me because I was a fraud. I felt like a child playing dress-up in mommy’s shoes. It took a a good three years for my imposter syndrome to fade.

I kept going despite self-doubt. And perhaps that’s what courage is. Being stubborn enough to keep putting yourself out there when you are all awkward and beginnery. Being willing to trudge through all that uncertainty while having faith you’ll find your footing, given enough time and practice.

Courage has a voice too, I think. I want to be my best self, courage says. And the only way to get better is to keep on going, even when I’m scared. 

Ira Glass, the host of the podcast This American Life, put it this way:

Creator: Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

It’s Okay to be Afraid

I guess I wanted to say a few things with this post:

  • Putting something you made out into the world is scary.
  • Even though I love my second book, I’m nervous about sharing it.
  • People who seem confident on the outside are often quaking on the inside.
  • Being a beginner is hard.

Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t be writing this blog post. After all, if I am full of doubt, why should anyone else read my book? If I were a smart marketer I should be telling you how awesome my story is, and how it’s going to make you laugh so hard your buttocks fall right out of your pants.

But can’t both things be true?

  1. Yes, Orientation to Murder is tremendously fun. I’m proud of it!
  2. Yes, I am full of self-doubt. I’m constantly worried I’m not good enough, not talented enough, not skilled enough.

The voice of self-doubt was there when I published my first book. It’s still there as I get ready to publish my second. All I can do is choose to ignore it.

I hear you, self-doubt, but you’re not helping! Go eat a taco and leave me alone. I’ve got better things to do than put up with your nonsense.

Onward!

My Projects for April 2016

It’s time for another monthly project update. Huzzah for personal accountability!

Writing (Current)

Orientation to Murder (Katherine Voyzey #2) – I can see the finish line! I’ve got about 2000 words left to edit, meaning I’ll be done by the end of this week. All that’s left is copyediting, formatting, and finalizing the cover art.

I know I’ve been slow, but I’m quite pleased with how the story has turned out.

leela

Writing (Pending)

DBT (Katherine Voyzey #3)  – No change. I have a preliminary outline and will begin the first draft once book 2 is out.

Consulting (Current)

Leadership Coaching – One coaching project is wrapping up. A second one is moving along at a good pace. (one-on-one sessions)

Strategic Planning – The project is underway! It’s a fun one and it’ll run through the end of June.

Consulting (Pending)

Supervisor Classes – I’m facilitating supervisor/mentor classes for a client in May and early June.

Travel & Fun

For April the “fun agenda” includes Emerald City Comicon, a trip to Vegas with our dear friend E, and some time with the parental units.  Plus the ongoing fun of my time with P, hanging out with friends, and attendance at my writers’ group.

Work/life balance is pretty sweet right now. I hope that I can maintain it!

My Projects for March 2016

Following in the example of Seanan McGuire I’ve been thinking about posting monthly about my projects.

I figure it’s a good way to keep myself accountable, to see trends, and it might be interesting to those of you who like updates. Here’s what I’m currently working on:

Writing (Current)

Involuntary Turnover (Katherine Voyzey #1) –  I recently dropped the price for digital to 99 cents as a promo.

Orientation to Murder (Katherine Voyzey #2) – I’m editing the book and I’ve got until May 1st to get that done. I had a great week last week where I edited over 10k words but this week I have more consulting work so it’s been slower. But I’ll meet that deadline. Ayers Edits will do the copyediting and I plan to release the book in June or July.

catedit

Writing (Pending)

DBT (Katherine Voyzey #3)  – I have a preliminary outline and will begin the first draft once book 2 is out.

Future Projects – I have THREE (count em!) new mystery series floating around in my head. That means three new protagonists, three new settings, and three new twists. I’ll pick one of them to work on next, after I finish Kat’s third book. It’s going to be hard to choose!

Consulting

Leadership Coaching – I’m coaching two leaders at the moment. (one-on-one sessions)

Strategic Planning – I’m kicking off a strategic planning project for a nonprofit that will run through the end of June.

Travel & Fun

March is a homebody month but we’re lining up some adventures for April. We’ll spend four days at Emerald City Comicon and four days in Las Vegas.

I’m smiling as I type up this update. Lots of good stuff in here.

What Blogging Does For Me

When I made this blog I wasn’t thinking like a business person.

I was thinking about having fun. But as I’ve gotten more serious (whatever that means) about my writing I’ve been reading about what authors are supposed to do with their websites. And I really hate the advice I’ve been reading.

I don’t want to pick one or two narrow topics and stick with them. I’ll get bored.
I don’t want to create a recipe of the week blog. I don’t write cupcake mysteries.
I don’t want to do only book reviews, or only blog posts about my own books.
I don’t want to write posts full of SEO keywords or marketing bullshit.

Instead of worrying about what all the experts are saying I decided to think about the author blogs that I actually enjoy. They tend to be the ones where you’ve got a writer acting like an actual human being and not like a marketing robot. I’m talking about blogs like Whatever and WilWheaton.net and TerribleMinds. Also the LiveJournals run by George R.R. Martin and Seanan McGuire.

Most of the time these authors are writing about their lives. And when they aren’t writing about their lives they are talking about their passions. Books and movies and politics and creativity and a million other things. And I get the sense that most of us are blogging for the same reasons.

  • Daily or weekly writing is fun for us and a blog gives us a place to do it.
  • We like connecting with people (both friends and strangers) and a blog makes that possible.
  • As writers, writing is one of the ways we make sense of our lives and the world we live in. Writing = organized thinking.
  • We write because it’s what we feel compelled to do – we probably couldn’t stop even if we tried.  And all those words need to go somewhere, right?

Blogging as A Place to Take Risks

I blog for all those reasons and also because blogging pushes me outside my comfort zone. I’ve shared personal essays on this site that have left me feeling anxious because I worried that I shared too much and I was making a fool out of myself in a public forum. P asked me recently why I chose to put myself in such an uncomfortable position on purpose, and I had think really hard because I didn’t have a ready answer for him.

What I’ve figured out is that writing honestly and without concealment is a way for me to work on becoming the kind of writer I’d like to be. Writing about my insecurities and my family history has been a way for me to practice vulnerability and emotional courage. Whenever I write about “the hard stuff” what I’m really doing is bringing a wider range of emotions and experiences into my writing. That’s hard for me, yes, but it’s ultimately rewarding.

Taking risks in my writing.
Finding the courage to share a piece of writing when I fear being judged.
Writing about subjects that are emotionally difficult.
Exploring my personal history. (source material for any artist)

Blogging allows me to do all of these things.

Still a Playground

I’ve been thinking long and hard about whether or not I should change this blog in order to make it better. Or more professional at least. Should I listen to the advice of the experts and turn this blog into “an author platform” to “drive clicks” and “build my empire” or what-not?

Nah. I think I’d rather keep having fun. This blog is my little playground.

My intent moving forward is to continue to write about my life, my interests, and what I’m learning. If that makes me a bad marketer I can live with that. And to my readers I can promise you this: while the blog may be unfocused I will do my best to keep it interesting. Let’s swing from the monkey bars. Let’s have some fun, read some books, and talk about our lives.

Blog Status: Still a Playground.

Photo by DrPavloff (CC)

Photo by DrPavloff (Creative Commons)

My Project Based Schedule for 2016

One of the things that being an OD consultant has taught me is that planning isn’t sufficient on its own.  There’s a world of difference between deciding to run a marathon and finding a way to lace up your shoes and do your daily mileage. The former is pretty easy. The latter can be really difficult.

So here’s the question I’ve been wrestling with: If I want to live a more balanced life where my writing and consulting and personal projects get equal weight, how on earth do I implement that?

Over the holidays I sat down and tried to identify what an ideal day would look like for a project-based chick like me. The end result was something like this:

Wake up well-rested between 8 and 9am.
Write until lunchtime.
Exercise mid-day
Work on consulting projects in the afternoon.
Run a few errands or take a walk before dinner.
Relax in the evening. (Books, Time with P, Netflix, etc)

After a few iterations (and a couple conversations with P) what I came up with this:

My Project Based Schedule

Project-Based-Schedule

I’ve set aside three “project blocks” each day. For the moment my three projects are writing, consulting, and a catch-all category I’m calling errands. The latter is for those odds-and-ends tasks that come up during the week, ranging from grocery shopping to letter writing and taking photographs for the blog.

And while I’ve assigned certain times to certain projects, I view this as more as a template than as a fixed schedule. For example, there will be a few days each month when I’m out all day with clients, so those days won’t follow this pattern. Outlier days are no biggie because afterwards I’ll return to my “ideal day” as a way of re-centering myself in the life I’d like to have.

The trick will be not allowing outlier days to become the norm, unless I want them to.

What I’ve Learned So Far

In my first two weeks with this schedule I’ve made some discoveries:

  1. My ambient stress level is lower when I sleep the hours my body wants to sleep.
  2. Morning is my prime writing time. I write best when I hit the keyboard within 6o minutes of waking.
  3. Exercise is excellent for “clearing my head” between projects.
  4. Checking email first thing in the morning totally murders my writing mood.
  5. I crave social interaction, but 2-3 times per week is sufficient to keep me happy.

It’s still early days and so I expect that my schedule will continue to evolve as my projects evolve. But for the moment it’s producing a kind of mellow productivity that feels really nice.

So far so good.

How Not to Revise a Manuscript

Manuscript revisions have been kicking my ass for the last two years.

Up until recently my editorial process went something like this:

  1. Write Book.
  2. Read Book.
  3. Realize it needs work.
  4. Go to page one and start re-writing from the first page.
  5. Lose track of where you were (because you get distracted, take a week or a month off, or can’t hold the whole story in your head).
  6. Go back to page one and start re-writing again.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 for a couple years, feeling defeated.

insert the desperate gurgling sound of someone drowning in their own stupidity

I was making my manuscript slightly worse with each pass. The front section was getting over-edited and the things that actually needed fixed weren’t getting any attention.

What snapped me out of it was listening to the outstanding Writing Excuses podcast, particularly the recent episodes on revision.  They suggested printing the damn manuscript out so you can write down all the changes before you actually change things.  And they suggested looking at structure before you start fiddling with things like word choice. And I wanted to smack my head and say “Well Duh!” because it was so right and so obvious.

I talked to P about it and we agreed that that editing a book is a bit like editing a piece of software.  You can’t just change sentences (or lines of code for that matter) willy-nilly because there are cause-and-effect links with what happens later. You keep slicing up your book without a plan and you’ll end up with a big ball of nonsense.

Editing is going more smoothly this time. I printed the whole thing out, and I’ve been making a list of all the things that need to be changed, moved, or clarified.

The good news is that I really like the story and it’s going to be great when it’s done. Although I seem to have written the thing half out-of-order so I’m reshuffling a lot of the scenes.

Here are a few things that I’m keeping track of as I edit:

Story Chronology:
A list of the events in chronological order, by day and time.

Word Penalty Box:
When I use a word too much it goes in the penalty box so I can hunt it down later on.

List of things to Fix:
This is where I write down general stuff that needs to be fixed. With page numbers so I can go back and find what I was referring to.

My paper edits are nearly complete and it feels mighty fine. If it always felt this easy and this fun I’d be putting out two or three books a year.

IMG_1240

Hey, a girl can dream, right?

Resolutions for a Creative New Year

The week before Christmas I took a trip to Washington D.C. to visit my friend E and take in some of our nation’s finest monuments. During the flight there and back I read the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  And it got me thinking about how I’d like to make the most out of the new year.

Creative New Year

Gilbert’s advice is deceptively simple. If you have a dream, go after it. If you want to make something, go make it. Don’t ask for permission and don’t obsess over perfection. Be creative because making things is fun to do and part of our human birthright – it’s important not to get your head stuck up your own ass along the way.

Most importantly she tells us not to expect our creativity to pay the bills. If your book, painting, music, or whatever surprises you by throwing some dough your way – hey that’s swell.  But don’t go expecting it and don’t quit your job because an artist’s gotta eat.

Big Magic couldn’t have come at a better time for me because I’m still struggling with the financial aspects of being a writer. Specifically I find it damn tempting to judge the worthiness of my writing based upon the income it throws off.

Every time I try to spend long luxurious hours writing stories my business brain starts laying into me:

You wanna spend a bunch of time writing? What’s your return on investment for those hours? How will you justify taking that time away from your business? 

My business-brain can be such a buzzkill sometimes. But yeah, I agree, a book is a pretty lousy business opportunity. You don’t see the guys on Shark Tank offering to invest in the next vampire romance trilogy.  Why? Because it would be a stupid investment.

And yet here I am deciding to do this thing anyway. I’ve decided to live that snazzy creative life that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her book. Writing is important to me and I’d like to give myself permission to do even more of it. So where does that leave me?

With a few resolutions for 2016:

To write for the sheer enjoyment of it.
To stop confusing creative success with financial success.
To leave my business-brain where it belongs, which is overseeing my business.

This is the year I resolve to get out of my own way. No more telling myself I can’t do this. No more kicking my  manuscript beneath the couch every time someone wiggles a consulting project in front of my nose.

I think it’s time to finish the book. And I plan to enjoy every minute of it.

Writing and Having a Career Part II

Last year I wrote about my inability write books and have a career at the same time. I figure it’s time for an update.

Reducing my work hours to make more space for writing has been a positive step. But doing so didn’t instantly make me prolific. If you put the last year on a timeline it would look something like this:

Endings (Oct14-Mar15): Finish the work that I had already committed to doing.
Middle (Apr15-July15): Decompress! I got lots of sleep but didn’t feel creative at all.
Beginnings (Aug15-now): Reconnect to my creativity by reading a lot and writing every day.

The good news is that I’m writing (almost) every day. But I’m not producing shareable work yet. I feel like a piano player practicing the scales or a marathon runner doing slow warm ups after recovering from a broken foot.

And while I’ve picked up my manuscript a half-dozen times I always end up putting it back down again. There’s a gap between the story I want to to write and my ability to do so. So I’ve backed off from “the book” to spend some time honing my skills.

Editing

It’s a big beautiful mess right now.

I feel guilty when people ask me about my next book because I feel accountable to finish it and it’s already been in the hopper for two years already. But I’d rather do it well than do it quickly. So I’m trying to be patient with myself.

Where I’m Struggling

It’s hard for me to shift between consulting-mode and writing-mode. I feel like I need to dedicate the entire day to either one or the other even though I don’t want to feel that way. Something as small as a couple emails or writing a consulting proposal can gunk up my creative flow and make it difficult for me to write at all that day. It’s damn frustrating.

It’s especially tough this time of year because I spend 3-4 days per week on the road consulting. I never really get into that state of creative flow.

As I flip back and forth between writing and facilitating I feel like I’m driving a car that is breaking down every couple blocks. And it’s tiring to constantly jump the thing when all I want to do is keep rolling.

I need a rhythm and I haven’t found it yet.

What’s Working Well

Reading (almost) a book per week has been great. It’s loosening me up creatively. And I’m gaining a better appreciation for what does and does not work in a story.

Journaling daily has also been productive. It’s helping me develop the habit of writing less self-consciously and turning off my inner editor. In the past I’ve mostly written for public consumption (blogs, articles, books) and having a place to write with no one watching is important.

And lastly I’ve purchased a few intelligent books on the craft of writing and I’m slowly making my way through the exercises. The best texts I’ve found so far are The Writer’s Portable Mentor and Steering the Craft. They dispense with the pep-talks that most books on writing seem to specialize in and instead focus on technique.

My Hopes for the Future

My dreams haven’t changed too much over the last year although I think I’ve gotten more realistic about what it’s going to take to get there.

My first book was a way to to prove to myself that I could finish a mystery novel and find the courage to share it with other people. But  I think the bar needs to be higher. My first book was good, especially for a first novel. I want my future books to be good, period.

Kat Voyzey has two more stories to tell and then there are a couple other characters waiting impatiently for me to write their books too.  I can sense them in the back of my brain, lined up like customers at the DMV, waiting for me to get my shit together and call out their number.

Hang in there, I’m saying to them.  I’m on my way.