Category Archives: Writing Mother

Writing Process: How to Write on the Beach

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

One of the best parts of being a writer is supposed to be our ability to do our job from anywhere.

It’s true: I remember getting an assignment while on vacation with my family at a resort in Mexico. I wrote and submitted the piece while lounging in the most gorgeous cabana beneath bougainvillea overlooking the infinity pool with a swim-up bar.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

My beach writing this summer: 2 novel manuscripts in print, laptop and a pair of flamingos guarding editing supplies.

Likewise, as a mom with sons home from school for the summer, I don’t want to spend all of my novel revision hours holed up beneath my laptop while the boys are stuck watching TV complaining about just what a drag their mom is.

(What unfair irony: I’m researching motorcycle racing in Northern Ireland or writing about a furtive flight into Havana or a photojournalist lost on assignment in Syria… while my boys see just me staring at a laptop. You get my quandary.)

So it is that I spent much of June writing with my boys at the beach.

Today’s post is a pictorial “how-to”, as it turns out there are some tricks to being successful at writing on the beach.

Enjoy your day, wherever you write!

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The Basics

tree topsThe best advice for getting any writing done on the beach is similar to advice I’ve shared in Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation.

It’s a twist on staying focused to write at home: you’re still removing obstacles and distractions, setting goals, and working in a format that keeps you productive.

1) Bring your work in a format that is conducive to actually getting something done.

Just like writing on the subway or anywhere else on the go, you have to think through your current writing goal and the format that makes that goal most portable.

Beach writing is great for generating new work — whether longhand in a journal or on a tablet or laptop. The clarifying environment loosens up many writers’ creativity, as might a run on the beach.

Since my goal this summer is novel revision, I use beach time for read-through revisions. For this, I bring a full, printed, bound copy of the manuscript.  Of course I have a pen for writing edits, but have found a highlighter most useful — I highlight just the words that are working and focus on those when typing revisions. I don’t bring my whole editing kit of colored pens, post-it notes, etc., though. I keep it simple.

My novel, Never Said, was mistaken to think this would be a vacation. c Elissa Field

My novel, Never Said, was mistaken to think this would be a vacation. c Elissa Field

But, whoa — that binder is bulky and messing with my tan lines.

If I weren’t working on a full read-through, I might take a short printed section (or a short story). Or, I’ll address working on a laptop, below.

2) It’s not Survivorman…Take only what you need

You can tell the locals on our beach because they carry the least gear. I know: you’re heading to this exotic workspace and all the “seasonal” aisles at the store suggest you need floaties and an umbrella and special blankets and a cooler and…

Get past the marketing frenzy. It’s the same drill as if you were getting writing done at home: you have to limit obstacles and distractions. The more you schlep to the beach, the longer it takes to just get going.

Option 1:  The calmest form of beach writing is if you’re staying at a resort, in which case: casually walk to the pool or neatly raked private beach with your writing materials. Use the towel they give you, the chair adjusted for you, and drink they bring you. Write your work, then leave everything there; they will clean up after you. Return to your room for a massage and nap, dine in the nice restaurant. Repeat. One added obstacle: time needed to brag and Instagram pictures of the waiter bringing you snacks

Option 2:  Sometimes you’re on vacation or staking space at the beach for an entire day. Fine, then recruit your little minions (aka family) to carry a cooler with drinks, lunch, an umbrella and all you need to be comfortable all day.

office equip bonus shells 2Option 3:  For every other beach trip: take just the basics to be comfortable for 2 hours. Even your beer won’t get hot without a cooler for two hours. Stop complaining, just sip faster.  You need: you, sunscreen already applied, a chair (yes, it keeps you off the sand), a towel, your work, a drink. If you can’t carry it all in one trip, you’re carrying too much.

Okay, fine… Here are a tropical writer’s tricks to take a drink that does not require a cooler. (Some of these assume it’s ok to have adult drinks at your beach. I will not come to bail you out.)

  • That’s what frozen drinks were invented for. Margarita, daiquiri. Mix, then refreeze so they melt more slowly. (Don’t get loopy while writing: frozen margarita mix by itself makes a great beach drink.)
  • Freeze your nonalcoholic beverages (water, lemonade, juices) but make sure to do it in BPA-free bottles.
  • Make a great beach “sangria”: Near fill a water bottle with frozen berries or frozen sliced peaches, mango or papaya. Top with half juice (or even lemonade) and half chardonnay.
  • My favorite beach drink is a 50-50 shandy of Peroni and Pellegrino sparkling limonata. Semi-freeze the limonata to keep it cold, or float with frozen berries or a chill-cube.
  • Freeze grapes to use as ice cubes in nearly any drink. They don’t dilute the drink as they melt. Or, freeze cubes of margarita mix, lemonade, juice or whatever you will be drinking, and use those to cool your drink.

Dealing with glare.

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No so much a selfie as sign of how bad the glare on the laptop screen can be. c Elissa Field

No matter what the ads say, it is harder to read a laptop screen in bright sunlight. But it is manageable. The glare in this selfie of me was cured with a simple tilt of the monitor.

  • Turn up the brightness on your monitor. Most laptops are set to dim brightness when unplugged in order to conserve battery power, so you need to turn this up manually (on my Dell, that’s a combination of Fn+F5). This does reduce your battery life, so close unneeded apps. Save battery power for the manuscript by reading email or Twitter on your phone.
  • Wear sunglasses. Well, duh. Polarizing colors will serve you best. A hat won’t do it.
  • Target what you work on. Glare will be hardest on fine-tune editing work, like commas and spacing.  The least effect will be on typing in new material. Do your fine-tuning at home and use beach time for new writing or read-through’s.
  • Edit in print. Easiest adaptation is to go old school and use beach time for handwritten edits on a printed draft. My best beach work has included rewriting a scene in longhand or highlighting the best text to keep in a novel in process.

Dealing with sand

Despite best efforts, I was typing with sandy hands.

Despite best efforts, I was typing with sandy hands.

Heh. Good luck with that. I distinctly remember the day, my first year in Florida, when I gave up ever having no sand in the carpet in my car. It’s just a reality of the beach.

Some tips for managing sand intrusion into your work:

  • Nothing precious. My print copy of my novel has a bit of permanent sand in its binder. Another draft has a wet splash from a  morning by the pool. They’re working drafts. Honestly: a little water or sand is nothing compared to the red ink, post-it notes and highlighter scarring their pages. I can live with that. Just another badge of courage.
  • Swim last. I don’t swim until after I’m done working, which helps with sand management as my towel and I are dry, attracting less sand.
  • Oops. Flipped my laptop and binder into the sand. No damage though - it dusted off.

    Oops. Flipped my laptop and binder into the sand. No damage though – it dusted off.

    Have a safe seat for your laptop. I carry a separate bag where my laptop stays unless I’m working on it, and an extra towel to rest it on, in a safe place out of direct sun. I don’t leave it unattended while out swimming for hours; I don’t bring a laptop on days I’ll be distracted for long stretches with that kind of activity. (I also don’t leave it in the car as police say beach parking lots can be targeted by thieves who figure beachgoers left purses and wallets in the car.)

  • Only out when you need it. Don’t let sand or water be an obstacle (or you’ll get no work done), but have alternatives so you only need the laptop out for certain work. I leave the laptop in a covered bag while working on a print draft, and use my cell phone rather than the laptop for tasks like checking email, my website or Twitter.
  • Select your seating. While I used to sit picnic-style or lay out on a blanket or towel, a beach chair raises you off the sand. I use a lightweight, adjustable one that folds to carry backpack-style. My boys keep their splashing and gear away from my work area and we don’t settle in right next to someone’s digging dog.
  • Avoid wind. It doesn’t just blow the sand – it makes you squint and wrestle with your work. Enough said.
  • Go resort-style. No one said the beach has to be off-roading. Even if you are not staying at a hotel, resorts often let you rent a cabana or lounge chair for the day, which certainly civilizes the experience. Some of my local friends have paid for a beach/pool membership at local resorts. Sitting poolside gets you off the sand altogether.

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How About You?

What strategies do you use to write in unusual locations? I wrote about the beach, but I’ve heard friends with awesome solutions to writing successfully in traffic, in the grocery store, or… How about you?

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Filed under Motivation to Write, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother, Writing Process & Routine

Finishing the Novel: Daily Task of “Getting it Done”

Celebrating the first days of summer writing at a French café. c. Elissa Field

Celebrating the first days of summer writing at a French café. c. Elissa Field

 

Ah, blissful! After a demanding spring of teaching, summer has arrived — and with it, long days of novel revision. As often as I post about Novel Revision Strategies, one of the biggest strategies is how to manage time to get the most out of time to write.

Today, this had me reflecting on the strategies that help writers work long days on novel writing or revision to successfully reach writing milestones but not burn out or kill energy for the work.

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1)  Purge all those distractions.

If I were only going to write for 30 minutes before going to a day job, this step would be considered a distraction. But, on days when you plan to write or revise all day, there’s only so far you can ignore other tasks (trust me, I’ve pushed it). Here’s a quick cycle I let myself run through to remove distractions before writing:

  • Get refreshed. For me, it’s coffee. For some writers this might be push-ups, a quick run or walking the dog.
  • Keep it clean. Allow a quick 5-15 minutes to make a pass at household tasks. Picking up after the boys, dishes, laundry — whatever handful of things keeps the house going. Generally, this fits in while coffee is brewing. Sometimes I use “count to 10″ for this: pick a random number like 10, 20 or 25 — and quickly knock out that many of something. As a parent, this step usually involves cleaning; another writer might need this time to schedule an oil change or other kind of maintenance. Or be so lucky as to be able to skip this one altogether. Jealous.
  • Follow up for 10. We all hear warnings to stay away from email, social media and other distractions. But look, we take time to build important connections – so while I agree it’s important to write first, I give myself 10 minutes to tend the fires I stoked the day before. I don’t tend client projects here; those I schedule other times in the day.
  • Know your plan. Whether you have a written to-do list or a general idea in your head, have a sense of your writing goals for the day, with all materials on hand.

Everyone good? Kids busy with an activity? Somebody fed the cat? Nothing is on fire? Then hunker down.

2)  Write. One hour (or two). Uninterrupted.

For the work I’m doing today, 1 hour works. You might rather 2 hours. Whatever your number, it’s pure writing time.

Somewhere in the fidgeting above, I will already have in my head what the morning’s work should be. This week, the goal is to get as far through a complete read through (and revision) as possible. I’m working from a printed draft, so I will have shot that print job to the printer in 100-page chunks while checking email or some other menial task prior to writing. Yeah: no “I couldn’t write because I spent my hour fixing a printer jam or replacing print cartridges.”

No chat. No email. No phone or text or social media. No pausing for drinks or bathroom. If you’re a clock-watcher, use the timer on your cell phone to remove that distraction. Fall purely into writing for one straight hour.

Ding.

3)  Time for a break.

When I’m draft-writing, I write for hours on end, as long as the ideas are flowing. For revision: blocks of time. In the breaks in between, I might be revisiting some of those same tasks from morning’s distraction purge. Check the kids. Switch the laundry. Walk the dog. Get a snack. Another coffee. A phone call. Short tasks from other areas of my to-do list.

Again, I’m not a proponent of staying away from social media, so I would check Twitter, Facebook or my blog. I might share an accomplishment from the morning — connecting with other writers working on their goals at the same time is a great way to keep yourself going.

But I aim for a break to be 30 minutes, not longer. Sometimes it’s just a stretch, refill coffee and…

4)  Back to it.

Lots of successful writers will say their complete writing goal for a day might be 2 hours’ work. For me, during summers away from teaching, my aim is 4 hours on a short day, but as long as 8-10 hours for a full day of writing or revision. I get there by repeating these 2 hour blocks of work.

Do I have to stick with the clock? Not precisely.

Using time blocks helps structure the day and keep you honest – both in your discipline and the need to stop for breaks. But the day’s goals may dictate more organic work-blocks: retyping chapters one and two might fit neatly into one hour, or might prompt a sidetrack into research over the actual date the TSA was started. Maybe that block will be 1.5 hours, and maybe another block will be just 30 minutes, since it involves an intensive re-evaluation of my character’s inner motivation that requires a breather for reflection afterward.

I don’t stop to a factory bell if I am in the middle of something. Likewise, sometimes a task goes more quickly — or is more draining, so you need a break sooner than expected.

Having minimum or maximum time blocks can help you stay on track. If I planned to write an hour, I’ll push myself to keep going if it’s been less than 45 minutes. If I planned an hour but keep going off on tangents, I might control this by stopping if it goes past 2 hours.

Are you working at home with family? Honoring time blocks also helps to manage that temptation to get lost in writing and forget a promise you made to take kids to the pool or go out to dinner with your partner.

5)  Break up the work

To achieve 8 and even 10 hour days, I’ll keep repeating breaks and time blocks to stay refreshed but productive throughout the day.

Time blocks also help to create natural shifts in the work.

For me, this might mean 4 hours on the novel, then 2 writing for my blog or clients, or to work on submissions. Or I might break it into hours for revision, versus hours for research or drafting new material. Shifts in work help keep you from burning out.  I use a color-coded Outlook calendar to keep a visual of the time needed and available for each, throughout the week.

Benefit of learning to write on the go: my "office" view for the afternoon.

Benefit of learning to write on the go: my “office” view for the afternoon.

You can also shift location. This morning I have certain work (like this post) that has to be done on household wifi. But I’ve packaged afternoon revisions so I can take them with me to the beach, which allows me to honor time with my boys. Flexibility in where you work is a great strategy for buying time to write.

6)  Celebrate an accomplishment.

Keep yourself going by celebrating a milestone. Intrinsic rewards can be something as simple as flipping through all the editing marks you’ve made on a printed manuscript or reviewing your word count for the day. One friend kept tally of her word count on her mousepad at the end of every day.

Make it social by sharing this. Lots of us keep each other going by posting our day’s milestones to Twitter or a goals group with writing friends online. Some share their word counts on NaNoWriMo software during challenges throughout the year. Tell your partner or your kids. Build in a fun reward, like a festive drink or night out with friends.

Or… yes, there are days when the “celebrate” step is replaced with “chastise.” Do reassess goals for the following day if a milestone wasn’t reached or new issues came up.

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What About You?

What time strategies do you use to reach your writing goals? Am I alone in trying to work 8-hour writing/editing days (I doubt that)? How do you keep yourself both refreshed and moving toward your goals?  Or, post a question if you think readers here could help you solve your writing-schedule challenges.

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(c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

(c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Motivation to Write: Setting New Goals to Move Beyond a Success

c. Elissa Field

c. Elissa Field

It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.

I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on – but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column.  The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake.  I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.

There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.

Last Year’s January Challenge

One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid.  On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake.  I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.

I reached goals.  Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.

What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress.  (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)

One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer.  Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live.  But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time.  I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.

It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic.  I made money off my site.  I expanded my writing about education.  I made progress with the family goals.  And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.

The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers

I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.”  For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing.  The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel.  Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.

The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families.  I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.

Success as Hurdle to Motivation

I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it.  Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer.  Things were going well.  There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?

Let Hunger be Your Fuel

I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.

“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.

She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context.  I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it.  I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.

And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend.  To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.

During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach.  If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class.  I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level.  And yes, I still work on the novel when I can.  What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year.  It’s awesome.

But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow.  I needed to re-find that hunger.

Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow

The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.

Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success.  But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.

Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward.  Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for  a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.

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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?

Does any of this ring true with you?  Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below.  If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.

I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, the Bloglovin’ button or via email.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

grasp c Elissa Field

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Motivation to Write: Keep Writing While on Vacation

tree tops.

We talk a lot about prioritizing writing against other claims on our time. Travel has its own challenges for a writer working to maintain daily writing or editing goals.

On one hand, you’re awash in stimulation while away from the usual daily pressures. If it’s a vacation, time is often not an issue.  I say that while luxuriating with the dogs on the quilt covered sofa of my mother’s sunroom, looking out to her gardens. After weeks of 8-hour (or more) writing days, it’s shocking to have this much time on my hands.

On the other hand, travel presents its own set of distractions and obstacles. At home, we don’t mind pushing ourselves to be industrious. But how can you keep productive while surrendering yourself to time off with family or seeing fabulous sites?

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6 Strategies to Keep Writing While on Vacation

1. What Did You Say? 

At my family’s Michigan cottage growing up, we went out to swim at sunrise and came back inside when lightning bugs lit the trees.  As with many vacations, time was not an issue. But conversation is.  I can’t lose myself in novel revisions while in conversation with my mom about a turn in her business, or chatting with the sister-in-law I haven’t seen in 3 years. I might carry my work with me, but it loses out to listening to my niece explain the story behind her doll. For writers traveling with family, my suggestion is to know one activity during every day when no one will be talking, and be sure to have your work with you then. This may be a train ride, lying by the pool or while others are reading or showering.

2.  On the Move.

At home, I was working with a printed copy of my novel in a binder, a kit of colored markers and pens and post it notes, my coffee and a laptop… which covered the better part of my couch and adjoining table. I won’t be successful on vacation if I need to spread out like that. On the other hand, I traded documents by email the other day while 30′ off the ground, harnessed to a tree-side platform between legs of a zipline obstacle course, using the phone in my back pocket (pretty much at the point that picture was taken of my sons, above). I can take either my laptop or binder and write on the train into the city, or sitting on the bent limb of a tree fallen across the hidden tidal beach we hiked to yesterday.  The key to keep working while traveling is to have work in multiple, portable formats. Think ahead to where you will be and make sure you have some portable piece of your work with you to work on. Depending on how much I want to carry, I can take just my binder or laptop, or a smaller printed section with a pen, or just a notebook, and I always have my phone. Don’t overlook photography, which is great for capturing a thought more quickly than writing.

3.  Look, No Hands!tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

You have the time, no one’s talking to you and your ideas are flowing… but one obstacle travel tends to throw at writers is that it keeps eyes and hands unavailable to write. Take the 22 hours I spent with my hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, driving up the east coast last week. Holding hands while leading a kid through New York traffic, climbing rocks, swimming in the pool, cooking dinner… all of these come to mind as activities one just can’t write through. In some cases, like during that drive, audio options help make the most of that time. Use Dragon Dictation app on a smart phone to dictate revisions or new material. The app transcribes your spoken words, then you tap to email it to yourself. Or, use the time for reading by downloading an audiobook or podcasts from literary magazines or NPR.  Just as often, when the interaction with family or ocean dip or simply marveling at the world justifies dropping all thoughts of writing, throw yourself into it whole-heartedly, without guilt or preoccupation with the work. Claim time later to jot your thoughts when the moment is over.

4. Hold That Thought

Travel can be great for writing, as new settings and experiences and overheard conversations can be unique inspiration to start something new. But, wow, that can be a nightmare if you’re working to stay focused in a story you are revising. Last thing I need right now is for my war-toughened main character’s voice to suddenly lapse toward describing gardens and tea and children playing with plastic boats just because that’s my vacation view. To avoid cross-contamination, be flexible about what you work on. Use a notebook to record those new inspirations for later. If you feel like vacation demeanor is shifting your voice, work outside your main document, so you can decide later if the new material or revisions are a fit. Or, make an effort to write only during staked time, so distractions from the vacation world are reduced (see 5 & 6).

5. Stake Your Claim

There are vacations where you really drop everything to surrender yourself to the holiday. Foreign travel can be like that. This last week, I was visiting with my brother and his family after a long time apart. When that’s the case, don’t regret not writing or waste energy struggling to fit it in that would have been better spent experiencing your travel.  But, otherwise, when you have a daily writing goal, let your traveling companions know this and stake the claim for that time. Ask others what the schedule is each day and agree on the time you will spend writing.  If you don’t want to draw attention to the writing, disguise it as a daily trip to the coffee shop.  But you may be surprised to find someone else relieved for quiet time to read or check email. Buddy up with that person to avoid feeling antisocial. I am writing this morning while my mom catches up on business calls and email, and my sons play a game. Claim time and space with minimal distractions, but where you won’t feel like you’re missing out (see 1 or 6).

6. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down

When all else fails, unless it’s your honeymoon, use that last hour of the day when everyone is falling asleep. My first days on this trip, I fell asleep with my laptop on my knees.  It’s prime time: no guilt, no distractions, less influence from the stimulation of the new environment. If this is your plan, watch out for those days when rock climbing or wine tasting might leave you shot by bedtime. If you’re an early riser or it’s not the kind of trip where you have to be out the door early, try writing while everyone else wakes.

That said, I’m due to take my work with me to sit by the pool while my boys swim. One last warning for travelers, to be read in a spectral voice (a la Edgar Allen Poe reciting the Raven): whenever you are traveling with your work, remember to protect against loss by leaving backups behind.

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What About You?

Are you trying to keep up with writing goals while traveling or entertaining company this summer?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

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Or, here is the current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Friday Links for Writers: 07.19.13

summer beach

I think July 15th marks the official day of summer when time seems to accelerate. Back to School ads have the audacity to infringe on summer’s sacred freedom. Slow down, summer.

At our house, it’s been a mixed urge to get in the relaxation the boys waited all year for, while I continue crunching through this novel revision. If you’re also in revisions, commiserate with me by checking out my recent Novel Revision Strategies series (link list below).

Work and relaxation still left time for some great reading this week, and some of the most interesting links are here. As always, feel free to let me know which links resonated with you and what you’d like more of, or share your own links in the comments.

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10 Tips to Avoid Clichés in Writing

If you liked Rebecca Makkai’s “Stealth Clichés” in last week’s Friday Links, you may be wondering more about clichés and how to avoid them. It got me testing to avoid a particular cliché, during which I found this piece by Peter Selgin at Writers Digest. It holds a few eye-opening points, like an activity to slow down rather than impress: “In trying to interest us, most writers abandon sincerity and, with it, authenticity.”

Why Literary Novels Take So Long to Write

This post by author, editor and ghostwriter Roz Morris resonated with me as my work with revisions the last couple weeks seemed to stretch on forever. When you have this much left to go on a book you’ve been working on for a couple years, it’s hard not to wonder, “Am I doing it wrong?” since other books can be written in less time. I had run into Roz on Twitter before finding her site, and recommend following her as she is an engaging and supportive writer: @NailYourNovel.

Introduction to Scrivener for Novelists

For those who are new to Scrivener or wondering what features it offers, this blog post by Kay Hudson is long, but a great comprehensive introduction. She offers a blend of “how to” and reflection on what has worked well for her. (For the official Scrivener site, visit Literature and Latte . You can download a trial version of Scrivener for free, which lets you use it on 30 separate days before needing to purchase.)

Don’t Let Guilt Keep You From Pursuing Your Passion

In college, I remember telling a professor I worried about trying to be a writer. “Why?” she asked. I answered, “Because great writers never have happy families.” It pulled the prof up short and we took turns listing one great writer after another who was divorced, single, without a family or whose family lamented their absence. Funny, as a mom now, um, a few years since that 20-something conversation, to realize how much of writers’ lives involves balancing their need to disappear into work against the needs of the relationships in their lives. Long lead-in to say this post by Jody Hedlund may resonate with writing parents at any point in their career.

Herculean Feat: MFA Day-Job

This piece by Ali Shapiro at Ploughshares addresses a perennially popular topic here: day jobs for writers. While lots of writers work day jobs in any field, specific questions arise for writers finishing an MFA. “There’s a misconception that the MFA is like any other graduate degree—that it automatically allows a certain next step in a particular career path.” Shapiro considers academia, options outside academia, interviewing, ideal job and more.

Book Files Need 4 Crucial Checks to Succeed at Your Printer

Are you involved in the printing end of publication? This article by Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer gives a pro’s pointers of 4 technical details to address to ensure successful printing. This will appeal to those branching into self-publication, but will also be familiar to those of us who have been involved in producing freelance publications for clients or publishing literary magazines, or to anyone developing a small press.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

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More from my Novel Revision Strategies series:

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

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Filed under Friday Links, Writer's Day Jobs, Writing Mother

Living With Books 07: Reading Nooks for Children

This charming book house is in the Iowa Public Library (featured in Flavorwire's "10 Gorgeous Buildings Made Out of Books" by Emily Temple, Apr. 2012), but could be created in a children's room.

This charming book house is in the Iowa Public Library (featured in Flavorwire’s “10 Gorgeous Buildings Made Out of Books” by Emily Temple, Apr. 2012), but could be created in a children’s room.

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It’s January! Everyone is talking “new beginnings” — so what a perfect time for some fabulous children’s reading spaces in this month’s Living With Books!

For those of us who love books, reading is often a charmed and mystical memory from our childhood. We remember the first book we fell in love with, or a favorite place where we loved to read. It was a magical thing to get lost in the other world of a book.  In these pictures, designers, librarians and parents create that sense of fantasy in reading spaces for children.

Is this all just cutesy? Is it just over-the-top catalog art? 

Each month, I work with students on their independent reading goals and can say that, by sixth grade, at least a third of the kids come to me knowing how to read, but telling me they don’t like to read. This will be a challenge, as so much of their learning in the years ahead of them depends on reading. Plus, I can’t help feeling frustrated with them — as a child who doesn’t like reading most likely hasn’t hit on that one magical book, yet. On the other hand, I like to tell kids that famed YA writer Rick Riordan confesses he didn’t like reading until he was 13. For him, discovering mythology was transformative.

My oldest son now falls asleep reading every night — at 11, eager to dive back into the story he left off earlier in the day. But not long ago he hated reading – despised it, fought with tears running. Books were always present in our house, but buddy-reading through a couple great ones (Roland Smith’s Elephant Run was the first slam dunk!) communicated that reading was a shared hobby in the same way we might watch a movie together.

Fostering excitement about books and reading has the power to transform a reluctant reader. For those of us who grew up Living with Books, the presence of books in our homes taught us early to expect them to have value in our lives. The charming spaces pictured  convey that joy to children who are just discovering the magic.

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Idyllic tree-swing reading nook, created by Tracy Rauch in her daughter’s room; find at http://pinterest.com/tracyrauch/ A similar example is on JenWCom‘s flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenwcom/4914477695/in/pool-539895@N24/ Both moms have been gracious in answering questions in how they accomplished the look.Idyllic tree-swing reading nook, created by Tracy Rauch in her daughter's room. (http://pinterest.com/tracyrauch/) A similar example is on JenWCom's flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenwcom/4914477695/in/pool-539895@N24/.  Both moms have been gracious in answering questions in how they accomplished the look.
I first spotted this pic on the pinterest for NYC designers Bob & Cortney Novogratz, with an embedded photo credit to FunkyDowntown.com . The tree bookcase is actually made by Nurserworks, and is available in a darker green than pictured or white, for $850 from Layla Grace at http://www.laylagrayce.com/Products/Nurseryworks-Tree-Bookcase-Forest-Green__NW8126FG.aspx

I first spotted this pic on the pinterest for NYC designers Bob & Cortney Novogratz, with an embedded photo credit to FunkyDowntown.com . The tree bookcase is actually made by Nurseryworks, and is available in a darker green than pictured or white, for $850 from Layla Grace at http://www.laylagrayce.com/Products/Nurseryworks-Tree-Bookcase-Forest-Green__NW8126FG.aspx

This bedroom bookhut (or igloo) was designed by Ben Nagaoka. Topped with a roof of felted tiles, shelves of books form a cozy reading wall around a hidden bed. In a survey titled Hot or Not, Apartment Therapy features more pictures of the book igloo, inside and out.

This bedroom bookhut (or igloo) was designed by Ben Nagaoka. Topped with a roof of felted tiles, shelves of books form a cozy reading wall around a hidden bed. In a survey titled Hot or Not, Apartment Therapy features more pictures of the book igloo, inside and out.

Blogger Carolyn Chrisman shared this DIY project for painting rainbow bookshelves -- perfect for dressing up an ordinary bookcase for a child's playroom.

Blogger Carolyn Chrisman shared this DIY project for painting rainbow bookshelves — perfect for dressing up an ordinary bookcase for a child’s playroom.

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Of course, designing for children’s books need not be anything fancy nor anything permanent. Simply including shelves or baskets of books in a children’s space allows room for their reading interest to grow.

  • For young children or toddlers: baskets or buckets put picture books in easy reach. Favorite board books can be kept by the bed for nighttime reading. Try Goodnight Moon, Goodnight Gorilla, or my favorite: Corgiville Fair.
  • As children grow, share their old favorites. Make room for new reading by gifting their old books to last year’s preschool or kindergarten teacher, or younger cousins.
  • For upper elementary or middle grade students, encourage them to get “great read” recommendations from their friends. If they say, “There are no good reads,” then ask for recommendations from someone excited about middle grade novels, like their teacher, librarian or me!

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For more from my series Living with Books:

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January Challenge: 15 Strategies for Finishing Work

write start badgeOn Thursday, I posted the kick-off for the January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something.

If you’ve missed prior posts: the January Challenge: Finish, Start, Improve, Plan attacks our 2013 goals and resolutions by focusing one week at a time.  Week 1 (that’s now) finish one thingWeek 2 start something, Week 3 improve something and Week 4 evaluate and plan where to go next.  Participate at any time — see the end of this post on how to get started.

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The goal this week is to finish one thing.  Today’s post trades notes on the successes and challenges we are encountering, as well as 14 key strategies for getting this goal done. (Thursday’s post gave strategies for breaking the project into manageable steps, getting ahold of any missing materials and otherwise addressing obstacles that keep you from getting started — head there if you need help with those first.)

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Week 1: How Are We Doing?

I shared that my “finish one thing” goal for the week is to complete grading from fall semester.  So far, I’m succeeding: I’ve completed one class, jotted notes for Monday meetings for classes that are starting, and organized the papers I’ll finish grading for the other two classes. Not docile, but tamed.

Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum — chances are we are all trying to finish this one thing while other projects compete for attention.  My challenge this week may be grading, but I still have a novel that is my priority and two little boys who’d prefer I not forget about them (“There’s your food, right next to the dog’s kibble…”), and of course all those post-holiday distractions.

In sharing your goals for the week (or the month or, in some cases, for throughout the spring — use this challenge as it works best for you, and do jump in at any time even once the week is done!), many of you have acknowledged being short on time or distracted by other priorities.  I’ve been fighting a cold and struggling with a bratty urge to enjoy my last days of vacation with my kids before classes start again. Every time I sit down to finish grading, it’s not student essays but my current novel draft that fill my thinking. (Sing it folks: should I not be thrilled to be on fire about novel writing in a days I have off from teaching? It’s hard to compete with that.)

Week 1 tackles “unfinished” projects, and so often these old to-do items have a hard time claiming attention against more fun, more glamorous, more interesting, more entrenched or more profitable siblings on the to-do list.

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15 Strategies for Taming Unfinished Projects:

The point of sharing a challenge is to trade the strategies that help us get through the rough spots.  Here are 14 tricks that work to overcome resistance, find discipline and claim time for your project — balancing to finish this one thing while moving on with other priorities in your life.

  1. Get Started. It sounds obvious, but the biggest hurdle is taking the first step. Do it, now.
  2. Draw yourself in with an easy first step. Say, “Write for 15 minutes,” or “Just sort the papers,” or “Type the handwritten scene you wrote last month.” Kick off a day of novel revisions by just running a spell-check, or printing a draft for reading. Get past blank-page reluctance by baiting yourself with something easy — often, that’s enough to get you hooked.
  3. Find something to get out of the way. Scan to see if a “big” project has something simple you can knock off right away. With my grading, half of one stack was already graded– I only had to record the grades and file the papers. Shorter stack already. With my novel draft, I could type some handwritten edits before diving into major shuffling in Scrivener. If you’re tackling a cleaning project like the garage or the playroom, find things to throw away. If it’s cleaning up after the holidays, get that tree to the curb.
  4. Use the rule of 30. Get through large projects by asking yourself to work only 30 (or 20 or 45) minutes at a time. I have 8-12 hours of grading, but asked myself to work on it in 30 minute segments, several times throughout the day.
  5. Map your project in manageable steps. For grading, I divided the papers by assignment, then took them one chunk at a time, with a pad beside me to make notes for semester-start meetings or planning. For unwieldy writing projects, create a to-do list: write a “shopping list” of details that need research or interviewing, list scenes that need to be written or revisions planned. For short story submissions, make a list of 20 magazines to submit to, write a brief cover letter, proofread your story and format it for submitting. For revising a novel draft (say, one written in NaNoWriMo), your list might be: read draft, delete bad material, highlight best text, map plot points, assess word count goals, list missing elements. Then take on one at a time.
  6. Find measurable milestones. Each step should be a mini-success. Check-marks on a list of steps can be affirming.  Take pictures of each step of laying out that garden. Or set arbitrary motivators. In grading, watching columns in the gradebook software fill with grades (and stacks move off my dining table) is visual incentive.
  7. Set daily or weekly writing goals.  All industries set quotas to know, measurably, if a goal will be reached and adjust work when it’s falling behind.  In Friday Links, I shared writer Laura Maylene Walter’s post, which celebrated the milestone of 60,009 words by December, having set herself daily word count goals which she kept as a growing motivational tally.  Writing friends have shared daily goals of 500 or 1,000 words for regular progress, or goals of 2,000 when pushing toward a deadline. Other writers use hourly goals. Writer Ann Hood sets a goal to write 2 hours per day, and starts by revising the prior day’s work. Another option is to set page or chapter goals. Software (Excel, Outlook, or Scrivener) can track your milestones and keep you motivated.
  8. Avoid “wheel-spinning.” When you are starting a project, that’s the time for spit-balling, brainstorming lots of ideas, throwing lots of them at the wall to see what sticks. But when you shift to the goal of finishing, you need to be wary of spending your daily goals (word counts or time for working) on anything that doesn’t take you closer to “done.” Build an internal radar to detect when you are working but it’s wheel-spinning — lots of energy, but not taking you closer to your goal. Respect the energy of those new ideas (jot them down for later), but redirect your work back toward steps that take you directly to your goal.
  9. Balance this project with other priorities using the rule of 30 or the rule of 5′s. The rule of 30 (above) is great for alternating between key projects. Saturday, I wrote for 30 minutes, then sorted papers for 30, then wrote/researched for 30, then graded for 30, then a break and chores, then…   A variation of this is the rule of 5′s: alternate between projects, doing 5 things at each. I got myself started this morning saying, “Just do 5 papers,” then got over a mess my sons made by saying, “Just put away 5 things…” Especially in a week when we’re combatting post-holiday distractions, this counting approach can help you stay productive in competing tasks, like writing thank-you notes or putting away decorations or facing an overflowing email box at work. (I use “do 5″ to get started or during breaks, and “work for 30″ to make real progress.)
  10. Work to a deadline. New writers hate deadlines; seasoned writers love them. They declare a day when the work must be done. I will finish grading, because the deadline is tomorrow. There is no more tinkering with it after that. (Bonus: clears the decks for the next priority.) In creating measurable steps, start at your deadline. Write your list backwards, assigning daily or weekly steps to get there. Divide the work by the number of days to set your daily goals. Adjust daily quotas when these goals aren’t being met.
  11. Block out time-wastes. Especially if you are trying to finish a piece of writing, distraction-free time is a gift you give yourself. Stop in and say hi to us here(!), but otherwise avoid being sucked into email, social media or the latest marathon repeat of Top Chef.
  12. Do this goal first. Borrowed from my daily writing strategy: I drop everything and write before other things take over. Combined with other timing strategies, it’s easy to claim 30 minutes (or do 5 things) toward this goal, before anything else. A variation: work on it while the coffee is brewing.
  13. But build in healthy breaks. Minds go numb without food, and many writers swear by the value of a walk or run to release creative energy. Similarly, connection with family, friends and the outside world keep you inspired — so don’t feel guilty taking time out for these.
  14. Read, or seek experts. Reading triggers inspiration. More focused than that: if you are planning a class or conducting research or rethinking your marketing plan, look for advice that can keep you from reinventing the wheel. Taking time for a twitter search or “shout out” to friends might score time-saving advice.
  15. Talk about it. Especially for a stale project, renew your interest by telling someone you want to finish it this month. Tell us here in the comments, or blog about it, post pictures of your progress, or tell a friend or your family. Get someone else on board.

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What’s Your Challenge — or Favorite Strategy?

Whether applying the January Challenge this week or not… What kinds of projects do you fight to get finished? Is it a struggle to get a novel draft to submission-ready? Are you not sure what to do next, in building your platform or writing your blog?

What unfinished projects make your yearly goals for 2013?

And what strategies have you found for getting things done? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments.  If you blog about your challenge, please share a link to this post and share link to your article so we can visit your site as well!  You can use the January Challenge badge, if you want to be festive.  (I’m sure many will stumble on this post long past this week in January, but all participation is welcome, even once the month is done.)

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January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan

write start badgeNew year, fresh start. After yesterday’s reflection (2013 Day One: Reflections, Goals and a Challenge), it’s time to get to work.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the JanPlan challenge being hosted by writer Christa Desir. Another writing friend, the lovely Khara House, is hosting a challenge for improving your blog or website. (Keep reading – links to both are below.)

As I planned to tackle each of these as well as the to-do list so many of us start the year with, I found that while Christa challenges that we finish one thing and Khara proposes that we improve one thing, I also need to start a major project this month (eek – a literary magazine due by April).  I want to do both Christa and Khara’s challenges but my month was forming into its own January challenge: focusing on one approach for each week of the month.

If you would like to join in, my January Write Start Challenge looks like this:

Each week — starting tomorrow – I’ll post a kick-off challenge, sharing what I will be tackling that week as well as any articles, challenges or steps that will help motivate your own project.

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Here is an overview:

  1. Isn’t it true that Week One of a new year includes finishing old business?  If you have time off for the holidays, maybe you can finish an incomplete story. Maybe there’s an unfinished goal from 2012. TOMORROW will feature the kick-off post for this challenge, but you can get a head-start by checking out Christa Desir’s JanPlan 2013 challenge here.
  2. In Week Two, I will begin a new semester — and production of the literary magazine for my students. New starts involve identifying key steps, scheduling meetings with key players, and setting deadlines. Sad but true, new starts involve a little fear, so we can jointly take a deep breath and plunge in.  While I dedicate the week to this new start, no project happens in a vacuum, and I’ll address how to balance a new start with the “finishing” and “improving” of ongoing projects. (Launch for Week 2 here)
  3. In Week Three, I will focus on improving one aspect of my writing business. Depending on where I am at that point, it will either be submissions or my blog.  **See the note below about Khara House’s challenge , if you think you might want to improve your blog this month.  
  4. Week Four will be the wild-card, to evaluate where you stand and plan goals for the coming months. This might include aspects of all three of the prior weeks, as new beginnings are planned, progress is evaluated for more improvement, and more projects are targeted for finishing. It will be a time to reflect on what is going well and organize for success.

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How to Get Started:

To join in at any time during the month:

  • Jump in with a comment below this post or any later posts in the month.
  • Post your own goals on your website.  Include a link to this post (and links to Christa or Khara’s posts if your goal relates to their challenge). Grab the badge above, if you want to be festive!
  • Come back and share a link to your post here so other readers can see how your January Challenge is going! 

Most of my readers are writers of some sort, but everyone’s goals are welcome – whether finishing painting that living room (a-hem) or starting an acting class or… What will you be up to this month?

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Our Lost Jungle "I <3 My Blog" challenge

Our Lost Jungle Challenge

Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge

If the one thing you want to improve this month will be your blog, I do recommend that you join Khara House’s “I ♥ My Blog” challenge and participate throughout the month. Khara is a fellow member of Wordsmith Studios, a great group of writers, and I can assure that she will host a lively, informative and supportive challenge throughout the month.  She begins the challenge today by tackling editorial calendars — find it at Our Lost Jungle here or join the Facebook “I ♥ My Blog” event here.

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2013 – Day One: Reflections, Goals… and a Challenge

c. Elissa Field - request written permission for use

c. Elissa Field – request written permission for use

You can’t look anywhere among your social media friends without being left with the question: Do I have resolutions for 2013?

Reading a few friends’ blogs had me feeling need to reflect on the state of my own goals — and to-do lists.

2012 was a great year for me, one of successes.  Goals met and some not yet tackled – but a renewed sense of my own abilities, a great sense of perspective and freedom to move forward.  I feel an odd affection for the idea of it being 2013 — not necessarily declaring “resolutions,” but feeling good about the possibilities ahead.

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Reflecting on 2012:

A year ago, around when I took that picture of my sons, I was entering a new year with a lot of old baggage and a lot of opportunities I had created for releasing them.  I was married for more than 15 years, and we had spent the last two years deciding if he was just having a midlife crisis or if he wanted a divorce. I’d been hanging on for my sons’ sake, and also clinging to some other things that weren’t really working.

But I’d finished certification to teach and was hired for a third year at the same fabulous school my boys go to.  I had bones to a novel down.  I had ideas of stories flowing. I’d hit a point where I was (mostly) able to balance writing hours and bringing in income and keeping up with the boys. (Mostly.) And, most interesting for this loyal, sentimental girl: I was ready for whatever changes came into my life to make things work.  Including divorce, job changes, moving — whatever.

You can’t help love a year where you opened your hands to release what didn’t work, willing to catch what does.  And I might not make resolutions, but I’d entered 2012 with a decent plan.

2012 Goals:

  • Daily life: For my boys, I needed income, stability, all that.  I’d finished 2 years completing credentials and started my third year teaching.  I kept the boys together in the same, fabulous school they’ve gone to since preschool. I had quality time with them. We spent a month of summer at my parents’ house in Connecticut. All around, this was a success for the year.  As someone who liked being married, it was a little moment of pride to realize I’d made it two years on my own with the boys and we were doing just fine.  Having fun, actually.
  • Writing hours: Without setting specific word or hour or daily goals, I needed to carve clear, productive writing hours in the face of demands on my time.  During the school year, waves of essay grading can bury me — made worse last fall as I took on another grade and science fair.  Still, I have been astounded how much more easily I can compartmentalize my focus and claim time to write than in other years.  Often, it means stopping whatever I was about to do and saying: write 30 minutes, right now, before you do anything else.  I teach afternoons, so claim undistracted morning hours while the boys are at school.  But I’ve also gotten better at writing with them in the room, so I could work near them while they watched tv or in bed as they did their homework beside me.  Somedays it would only be the 30 minutes, or just in the margins of a book I was reading as I fell asleep or on scratch paper in the car. But I also claimed whole mornings or nights, or whole days.  There’s never enough time. But the success was this: part of teaching is that I have holidays and summer off to write. When I worked freelance in the past, I sometimes had gaps like that but was so preoccupied with marketing or other distractions that writing didn’t happen, so this was my big fear: to have time off, but I’d waste it or ideas would fall flat.  “Success” for 2012 was that every minute I’ve had free time (and even when I didn’t) the ideas were right there, and the writing worked.  Little of it was garbage; most of it went into finished drafts.  Other than having my laptop crash midyear, 2012 was really productive.
  • Short stories: Goal was to finish 2 nearly-done stories, revise an older one with feedback, and submit until published.  Heh heh. Yeah, no.  Not a lick of work on short stories since about January last year. Sorry, half-drafted story. Sorry to the one ready for final rewrite. I’ve written before about not wanting to just be Running on Grass.  I like to keep a couple stories circulating — something done and out the door — while I’m working on a novel. It’s hard to accept zero submissions for the year — but not necessarily a failure, considering other successes.
  • Novel draft: Altogether, I have 3 novel drafts, and the goal for summer was to have one draft revised and first queries submitted by September. It’s supposed to be that I am finishing the first WIP, and only jotted out the bones of the other 2 to get them out of my head while I finish the first. But the newest one (Wake) did not sleep at all in 2012, and has completely taken over.  It developed really fully throughout the year, which is what you most hope for — that resonance that comes when the story lives inside your chest and picks up depth even when you’re not actively writing on it.  That would be useless if the story hadn’t made it to the page, but I had butt-in-chair enough to have finished the first draft in June, with second and third revisions over the summer. The setback of my laptop crash prevented having a draft ready to submit and queries out to agents.  But I’m more sure of Wake now than I was a year ago. It’s hard to resent the delay, as I used the time to finish research and the book has grown from it. My novel projects grew in other ways as well: downloading Scrivener turned out to be a great new tool for revising and, on a very different note, I’ve been debating whether one of the other WIPs might work best as a young adult series, which is an exciting possibility.
  • Reading: Twice during the year I took time to set down my targeted reading list.  I learned a lot from a few of the books I read, and enjoyed the intentional process of blogging about my reading and connecting with other readers.  That was new.
  • Connection: I could have called this goal “social media” or “platform,” but it didn’t start out that way. I started 2012 knowing I missed the old writing group I’d lost touch with during years I wanted to write without feedback.  And, as someone who has worked in PR, I was exploring new marketing avenues — for clients, or for online business ideas my mom and I were weighing. In April, I participated in a platform-building challenge with poet Robert Lee Brewer, which led to a clearer understanding of social media, and several successes developed on the heels of that. Numerically measurable successes included expanding readership on my website by over 400% and connection on Twitter by 1,000% — which well exceeded the growth numbers I set for myself for the year. From a freelancing standpoint, I understand how to help clients use social media in a way I did not previously. But the immeasurable successes are the greatest win. The best intangible has been some of the amazing friendships and professional connections I’ve shared. Anyone in Wordsmith Studio reading this should blush, knowing I count our group as a success for the year.  It’s a great group of generous and talented writers.  Despite the social media impact, as many gains were also in the real world, including participating in a great workshop, local friends, family and travel as well.

2013 – the year ahead:

There’s lots of messy stuff left from 2012′s list. I intended to apply for grad school by November, but turned deer-in-the-headlights mid-October and will likely soon regret not having gotten that done. I need to file for divorce (does the attorney not know the irony that his fee is equal to what I want to spend on grad school?).  In teaching, I tripled my salary (which speaks more of how little I was paid the year before), was given more classes and am leading the literary magazine now, although this still leaves me up in the air about where I’ll work next year.  A move is possible, as our house is our last remnant of 2008-bad-economy.

But mostly, there are new beginnings to look forward to.

  • I have a litmag to assemble by April.
  • Finish the novel and get queries out by summer.
  • Short stories. Repeat 2012 intention. Don’t cry if it doesn’t happen, as long as the novel does.  No.  Take that back.  Get your butt in gear and get these submitted.  Mom says.
  • Grad school.  Apply.  While waiting, take a course.
  • Write more for online.  Respond to requests for submissions and guest blogging.  Move forward with more additions to my own editorial calendar, here.  Submit proposals for paid articles. Part of teaching is having the credentials for some of the articles I’ve been jotting for parenting and other how-to sites.
  • Another workshop or maybe Grub Street in May.
  • Summer.  There’s always summer off to write.
  • And connections.  People like my friends at Wordsmith Studios, writing friends, visitors to this blog.

Thanks for being part of what made 2012 great, and 2013 great to look forward to!

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Want a challenge?

Picture 6In tomorrow’s post (January Challenge: Finish, Begin, Improve, Plan), I introduce my January Write Start Challenge, in which I kick off my goals for 2013.  The first week of the challenge was inspired by YA author Christa Desir, who posted 2013 the JanPlan on her site — a lovely, unstructured challenge to complete one thing in January.

My short stories eye me accusingly.  My grad school apps.  Or…?

I would love for you to join me in the January Write Start Challenge — or just tackle one unfinished thing!

Are you up for the challenge?  I’ll post more about it later (or click the link to read it on Christa’s site)… but for now, let’s get targeting: what one thing would you take on?

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Christmas Shopping for the Writer in Your Life: 40 Top Gift Ideas Writers Really Love

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At birthdays and holidays, how great is it when friends or family try to find just the right gift to honor the recipient’s interests? Since writers often work alone, it is especially touching when family try to affirm their work with what seem to be “writing” gifts.

But, wow. Looking at the feathered pens and pewter bookmarks and dolled up journals in the “gifts for writers” display at a bookstore the other day, I couldn’t help feeling protective of the well-intended money lost on such things.  At the same time, a real list of “gifts writers could really use” began playing in my head.

This feeling was furthered Tuesday when editor Jane Friedman tweeted: “Advice, please: How do you deal w/family who buys you stuff, even though you lead a minimalist life & hate accumulating things?”

In this economy, no one wants to see their loved ones wasting money. For every writer in your life, there are actual things they would love to have or maybe even need for their writing. Writers care deeply when you seek to honor how important their writing is. But, family and friends: your writer would love for you to not be tricked into that $25 pewter bookmark that could only dent pages and make books weigh a ton.

The list below highlights writing-related gifts that writers would genuinely appreciate, with guidelines for any shopper to make the best use of their money.

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Resist those cutesy kiosks by the bookstore cashier — we don’t all write with feathered pens in angel-covered journals.

1) Journal — or no? Over the years, I’ve been given some really thoughtful journals from friends, which have gone to good use. But know your writer. In the age of laptops and smart phones, it is common for writers to rarely use pen or paper. Tricks for guessing if your writer would like a journal: if your writer never carries a bag bigger than their cell phone and car keys, then they are unlikely to carry a journal with them for writing out in the world. If they make all notes and keep their calendar electronically, they are unlikely to use a handwritten journal. However, if they do use a journal, ask or notice the type they tend to prefer. Some writers really do like a luxurious leather one or artfully decorative one — while others prefer the stark usefulness of a Moleskin or even old school composition notebooks. If you can’t ask, use the accessories they wear or carry as measure of how elaborate or plain their tastes are. Cost (& where to buy):  $1-2 for composition books (try Target); $5-15 for Moleskin or other midrange journals (try your local bookseller or office supply store); or $30-45 for leather (finer stationers or booksellers).

2) Quill or… cheap ballpoint? I once wrote with only fountain pens and was thrilled to be given an expensive one. Then I had a few too many leaks. Same advice about journals goes for pens: some writers love paper and ink; others are nearly all digital. In most cases, a writer has use for pens, but not all will appreciate an expensive pen, so know your writer. Personally, I always appreciate when my sons put pens in my stocking that write well but are only midrange in price. Pilot V-Ball or Pentel gel are decent. If you live with your writer, try to see which type of pen they prefer.

Other “jotting” alternatives to journals:

2) Diver down!  Is your writer a shower thinker? Surprise them with a humorous — but genuinely clever — solution to help them remember their showertime brilliance, and avoid that dripping dash to write things down on paper.

  • Underwater writing slates, originally designed for scuba diving, are a great solution to hang in the shower for recording ideas. They come in standard (5 x 6″) or instructor (8 x 10″) sizes, and I’ve heard writers appreciating either. The smaller size is convenient and unobtrusive, but with room for short thoughts only. The larger size allows room for an entire paragraph or for several thoughts to accumulate without needing to be transferred right away. Both types have rings or hooks for hanging.  If space is not an issue, I’d go for the larger one.  Cost & where to buy: $6-14; available at a local dive or sporting shop, or here are 2 on Amazon:   smaller slate or larger slate.
  • Aquanotes: like the dive slate, this is a notepad for wet writing, specifically designed for the shower. Deciding between this or a slate, consider: as a wipe-off format, the slate is permanently available, although with the inconvenience that notes need to be transferred.  The notepad offers the convenience of tear-off sheets, although this makes it a disposable solution, needing to be repurchased again in the future.   Cost & where to buy: $9, offered by Your Shop via Amazon at this link.
  • Bath Crayons. What the heck — go for the laugh. This idea comes courtesy of the year my husband was taking organic chemistry and stole our son’s bathtub crayons to scribble chemical formulas all over the tile wall while showering before a major exam. The crayons are intended for toddlers’ bath time artwork, but work equally well for scribbling that brilliant bit of dialogue.  They wash off. They are cheap, easy to replace and easily stored. Best yet, they’ll provoke a laugh as your oh-so-serious writer gives you an odd look while unwrapping. Cost & where to buy: Crayola or Alex brands are $5. Try independent toy/children’s shops, Toys R Us, Target, some grocery stores, or here is a link to find them via Amazon.

3) Writing while driving. One of the funniest “you are a writer if…” pictures I ever saw was of a writer’s arm after having scribbled a scene up and down her forearm out of desperation while driving. Others confess the desperate grab for a receipt, napkin or anything else within reach to write on. Yes, we are a dangerous driving mess.  Here are a couple options to capture those genius insights behind the wheel:

  • Dragon Dictation smart phone app.  Love this one.  You download the app onto your phone.  When an idea hits you, click the app, then it records whatever ideas you dictate.  When done, it processes your words to text which it will then email to you.  It jumbles some words, but is enough to get the idea down while leaving your hands free for safe driving. It’s saved me many times. Cost & where to buy: The app is FREE, downloaded via itunes or other app stores (within the phone).
  • Evernote smart phone app. Popular with many writers, this allows a writer to type their ideas (pull over, please — not as readily used as Dragonware). Cost & where to buy: sample app is free; available via the smart phone app stores (within the phone); for complete app, gift an itunes gift card or purchase and email the app.
  • Car accessories. Try an auto supply store, office supply store or the auto supply aisle at Target, for various note-taking accessories available for business people who spend hours on the road. Options include dashmounted notepads or Post-It holders, or pen and pad options for the console.

The real basics — paper, ink & other office supplies:

4) Printer paper. Most of the time, your writer will be submitting their work electronically, so there is not the constant need for printing and mailing stories that there used to be — but paper is still a mainstay. Rather than fancy journals, a ream of printer/copier paper is a nonglamorous but useful gift for writers on limited resources. (Read: your wife will not find it romantic, but your grad student nephew might appreciate it.)  Hint: this gift will be less appreciated by people who are able to print for free in an office. Consider combining with ink, below.  Cost & where to buy: $4-7 for a 500-count ream; try any office supply store, or even Target or your grocery store, or order HP Multipurpose paper online here.

5) Ink. For writers who have to pay for their own printing, those ink cartridges are a constant and invisible expense. Cost & where to buy: single cartridges are $10-20 for black, and $10-20 for each of the colors, in an ink printer (laser cartridges are more expensive, but less common in home printers). Know the proper model for their ink cartridges, or give an office supply, Target or Costco gift card.

6) Other practical office supplies:

  • Standard stapler.For a young writer starting out or a writer who used supplies from their office before working from home, a good stapler is a basic.  Hint in choosing between a cute stapler or a sturdy one: writers’ stories can be 20 pages or more, and a sturdy, office-grade stapler by Swingline or Bostitch is less likely to break or jam.  Cost & where to buy: $5-20; buy at office supply stores or general stores like Target. Office Depot or Staples tend to have one stapler “on special.” For shopping online, here a Swingline classic at Amazon.
  • Heavy duty or automatic stapler. If your writer is submitting print copies of manuscripts, theses or grant applications, only a heavy duty stapler can clamp those documents more than 25 pages. I loved my automatic heavy duty stapler (up to 80 sheets), but had to borrow the manual one from my office for longer documents. Hint — knowing your writer: this will be very appreciated by a writer printing long documents, and meaningless to a writer who works only via computer. Be sure to include a box of staples.  Cost & where to buy: non-electronic ranges from $25-60; electronic ranges from $50-80. Try office supply stores, and aim for weekly sales. Here is link to a good manual stapler by Swingline  currently at a great discount price via Amazon.
  • Staples. If buying a stapler, include a box of staples — and be sure they are the correct size for the stapler.  Cost: $2-4, depending on type; buy where staplers are sold.
  • Post It notes or flags. If your writer is working on revising a print copy of their work, various PI notes or colored flags are great for tracking revision comments — and just expensive enough to be an appreciated stocking stuffer.
  • 3-ring Binder. Best practices for most novel writers includes printing a draft for read-through during the editing process, which happens several times.  A thoughtful gift for a writer at this stage would be an editing kit: a ream of paper, black printer cartridge, post it notes, highlighters, a pen and a 3-ring binder. How do you know if your writer would like this? If they have just completed a draft or if they’ve just finished a first draft through NaNoWriMo (you would have heard the cursing/boasting of word counts throughout November).  Cost & where to buy: Recommend Avery Durable View Binders. White is best, unless you know how to fit a theme to their novel or style.  The clear cover pocket allows them to slip in a “title page” if they want. For average novel size, 2″ binder will hold the pages without being unwieldy.  $3-10; office supply stores or Target, or here is one on Amazon.
  • Portable memory stick. These are the thumb-sized, mini memory drives for moving documents from one computer to another.  Cost & where to buy: $5-15, available nearly everywhere, including office supply stores, Target and even grocery stores. For fun, they now range in silly designs, including animals, toy cars and more.

Our real “office” is usually our computer:

7) “You had me at 4 GB.” If your writer is your significant other or someone else you’re likely to lavish, then know the main gear most writers live for are a laptop, wireless internet access (at home: a router; away: portable hotspot), and a printer . As a girl who’s gone 3 months with a favorite laptop out of commission, let me tell you how easy it is to romance a writer with efficient computer processing. Cost & where to buy: my #1 suggestion for buying laptops or printers is Costco. They have great prices for laptop packages and they double the manufacturer’s warranty with Costco Concierge service, which is the best tech support I’ve used. For routers or wireless service, go with your cable/phone service provider.

8) Software or updates. The key software for writers is a wordprocessing software and a backup or security software. For PC users, most use Microsoft Office-based Word; for a new computer, that would be helpful. But here are some more novel suggestions:

  • Scrivener software. If your writer is working on book-length fiction or nonfiction, Scrivener is a software that helps them organize the complexity of multi-scene, multi-chapter works.  Originally designed for Macs, a PC version came available in 2011 — so that it has been a “new discovery” for many writers in the past year.  I was a fast convert.  Days off during the holidays are a great time to get to learn and play with all the software’s functions.  Cost & where to buy: $40; the software is purchased directly from the vendor at this link Literature and Latte; if you are unsure if your writer will like it, you can download a trial first.
  • Quicken. We don’t go into writing poetry because we’re awesome at accounting. But writers accrue lots of expenses that can be tax write-offs. The day a fiction writer earns their first publication check, they should be able to see how much they’d spent in submission fees or research to get that piece written and published.  Writers who are freelancing need help managing not only expenses, but client accounts and invoicing and self-employment taxes.  Especially if you have a recent graduate or job-changer getting started as a freelancer, this is a great way to say you believe in the business they are starting.  Cost & where to buy: Quicken Home & Business 2014 retails $115; can be purchased as a download from various online sites including the manufacturer’s site, or at a range of stores including Best Buy, Costco or Target. It is currently on discount for $62 at this Amazon link, or check for discounting at other sellers.
  • PhotoShop or PaintShop Pro. Truth: many writers are photographers, bloggers or researchers, and a good photo software comes in handy. I prefer Corel’s PaintShop. Cost & where to buy: PaintShop Pro is $79 (on sale now for $59) via Corel’s website; or current sale price $41  via Amazon.

9) Upgraded battery. No matter what laptop stats brag, those batteries don’t keep a charge long when the computer is processing large documents with demanding software. It takes an upgraded battery to get beyond an hour or 2. Hint: you must know your writer’s computer model and DO seek a brand-name battery vs. a cheap one. I was slipped a mickey once, and it does not latch properly and performed inconsistently. Cost & where to buy: $90-150; try local electronic stores and battery retailers; or accessories sold on the laptop manufacturer’s website. Be cautious of fly-by-night discount websites.

10) I love you enough to guard your manuscript. Have you ever heard the echoing scream of a writer whose computer crashed while containing the only existing copy of what was certain to be the greatest novel ever written? Then you understand. Give the gift of a reliable back up.

  • Carbonite or Norton 360. Carbonite is an online backup service, provided for an annual fee. If you’d rather give security in a wrappable box, try buying Norton 360 (includes all around security), which includes a minimal amount of memory in online backup, and the option to upgrade for a comparable annual fee. Cost & where to buy: Carbonite is $59/year; free trial or download of Carbonite at this link . Buy Norton 360 for $33-60 (depending on sale prices) at office supply stores, Costco, or discounted at Amazon here; option to buy additional backup space when setting up account online.
  • Portable back up drive. (Also called an external hard drive.) A professional grade external hard drive copies the computer’s contents to a separate drive. Cost & where to buy: drives are available at office supply stores like Staples, for as little as $20-120. Price range corresponds to storage capacity.

11) Surge protector. That scream you heard from the writer whose computer crashed could have been at our house, where 2 computers died within weeks of each other after summer power spikes. Plugging equipment into surge protectors guards against such damage. Cost & where to buy: minimal protection is available for $20-30; higher quality provides greater “clamping” of spikes. Try office supply stores, or the electronics section at Target, where average Joes demand them for protecting tvs and video equipment.

Writers are readers – and no writer can afford all the reading they want to buy!

12) Literary magazines. If your writer writes short stories or poetry, their main targets for publication are literary magazines. Your writer needs to read what is being published to know what is out there, and those magazines need subscribers to stay alive. It is a great place to spend your money. Cost & where to buy: single issues are $5-20; subscriptions are $10-60/year. Eeshh… but which publication? There are hundreds out there, so here are some hints:

  • Single issues.  Single issues of literary magazines can be bought on the shelves of many independent and chain booksellers, and gifted the same as you would a book.  While there are hundreds of litmags out there, it is unusual to see more than half a dozen on the shelf, which narrows your confusion. How to select: a safe bet are the glossier, famed mags like Granta, The Paris Review, The New Yorker or Tin House. Literary writers may appreciate more the lesser-known regional publications, which vary by store. Flip through a magazine, maybe skim a few pieces, or select a publication that has more of the kind of writing (fiction or poetry) that your writer writes. Cost & where to buy: $5-20 per issue. Buying options: 1) Try your local independent bookseller (find one using indiebound.org). If your local bookstore is Barnes & Noble, they carry several. 2) Or, see links in “subscription” below — single issues can be ordered directly from the magazines. or 3) Order through the website New Pages, which sells sample issues of many literary magazines.
  • Subscriptions. The most cost effective and convenient option for you (and best for the publication) is to order a subscription. This is a luxury most poetry or short story writers would appreciate all year long. Hints for picking a magazine: 1) Ask your writer what magazines they submit to or which ones they would want to be published in. Those are your prime targets.  2) If you can’t ask, then check bookshelves to see publications they’ve bought before. 3) Or just pick a good one. Cost & where to buy: most are $10-20/year, some are up to $60/year. Find the magazine online and order through the website. Here are a few suggestions:  internationally respected publications that anyone might appreciate: Granta, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House and The New Yorker.  As a fiction writer, a few of my favorites:  The Southern Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review and Fiction. Right now, most are offering holiday promotions or “gift one, get one” offers.

13) Subscript to Poets & Writers. Over the years, this one publication has impressed me more than any other with the concrete professional advice it offers writers, including everything from submission practices to success stories to calendars and lists of submission deadlines. Cost & where to buy: order through this link to the site for $14.95/year (or $24.95 for 2 years); or, purchase a single copy at a bricks and mortar bookstore, and order using a subscription card.

14) Never enough books. If you have a book that was your favorite read, it can be a meaningful gift. But sometimes what a writer wants most is permission to buy a title that has been on their reading list, so a book store gift card is like gold.

  • Gift cards. Where to buy: To get gift cards from independent booksellers, try indiebound.org (can purchase via the website or find an independent near you) or try Powells in Seattle. If no indie is available, Barnes & Noble is good for gift cards, as they have bricks & mortar stores near most shoppers.
  • Find the book they want.  Hints to shopping, sneaky as an elf: social media makes it very easy to know the books your writer wants to read. If they blog, see if they posted a recent “must reads” list. Otherwise, see if they have a “to read” list on Goodreads or wish list via an online bookseller (Amazon has one here). Want other book suggestions? Here is a list of recommended reading: My Reading List Winter 2013.

Writing away from home:

15) Cafe gift card. Some writers actually do most of their writing in a cafe, and “rent” for that chair is paid in purchased scones and lattes.  If this is true for your writer, a gift card to their cafe would show you get it.

 16) Workshops, conferences or retreats. At the same time we’re sweating gift lists and holiday cards, many writers are already wrestling with whether they can afford to enroll in writers’ workshops and conferences in throughout the spring. Associated Writing Programs and Grub Street both hold fabulous long weekends that draw writers from throughout the country. Several other regional conferences last long weekends or full weeks in January. Other writers may be looking ahead to workshops at Iowa, Bread Loaf, Tin House or Sewanee in the summer. You can check out my post reviewing several famous workshops in this post: 2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops, which includes links to their sites.  But know your writer: unless you have overheard them talking about one, you’d need to ask your writer if they have such workshops in their goals for next year. Many workshops involve an application process, so you cannot just sign them up. Cost & where to buy: workshop fees and tuition can range from $150-1,500, depending on the program. You could sponsor tuition, or offer to pay for one option in the program (such as a private meeting with an agent, or manuscript review with an editor). Other costs include travel to the conference or housing.

17) Support that MFA candidate. If your writer is considering applying for an MFA program, you could sponsor the application fees. Entry into graduate programs is competitive, and it’s not unusual for writers to apply to 6-10 separate programs to get accepted. Cost & where to buy: application fees range $60-100; the student pays the fee directly to the school with their application. Another alternative: if your writer is already accepted, and attends a “low residence” program, then they have twice yearly expenses to travel to the school. Have accumulated frequent flyer miles? Consider sponsoring their next ticket to write.

Writers are researchers – do you know their current project?

18) Support their research. When I was writing Breathing Water, I learned Spanish, listened to Cuban music, cooked Cuban food and bought every coffee table book of Cuban photography I could find. I’ve done the same with Ireland and India. Here are ways you can support your writer’s current work-in-process, if it involves research:

  • Cookbooks, travel guides or music. For researching a foreign culture, books rich in photography of the architecture and common people are great. Cookbooks are great for this, and offer the added bonus of cooking the meals that provide the smells of a culture.  Illustrated travel guides or even maps are also useful.  Cost & where to buy: Look in travel, cooking, culture or art sections, as well as discounted sections, where books are sometimes available for $5-7.
  • Rosetta Stone, tapes or language classes. Are characters traveling through France? Is one character a soldier attempting the rudiments of Farsi? Do they have relatives from South America? Often, writers are trying to quickly learn the rudiments of a new language to write dialogue, or even just to describe the sounds of a location. Cost & where to buy:  English conversion dictionaries are available in most bookstores ($7-20). In the same section, book & CD sets are available beginning at $40.  Rosetta Stone is available for $200 through its own site, or via Barnes & Noble or Amazon. A foreign language course at a community college ranges $90-200, plus book.
  • Bang! Bang! Get your writer to ‘fess up: are they writing a thriller? The sweetest granny goes gritty when researching for the perfect murder weapon. Try Gun: A Visual History or The Illustrated Guide to Rifles. Or give real action by giving a day out at a shooting range.
  • Travel for research. How much do you love that writer? I’m sure there are statistics out there somewhere to show just how many writers have a fantasy destination they would nearly die to travel to, in order to get perfect research for their work-in-progress. That might sound over-the-top — but selecting that destination might be a thoughtful gift if you’d planned traveling this year anyway or, say, had a proposal to plan.

If only you could wrap up writing hours – give the gift of time:

19) Actual time.  Especially if writer has a separate job or children or family to care for, time is the greatest gift every writer needs to get work done. Surprisingly, there are ways to accomplish this:

  • House cleaning. The best baby shower gift I ever got was a gift certificate to a local maid service. Key is to use a service that is licensed and insured (or loan your own maid, if you use one). You can prepay the service, bill it, or see if they offer gift certificates. Cost & where to buy: assume $80-140 for a single visit, although a gift certificate for any amount could be an option. Merry Maids is a national service. Check local listings for one in your area, or get a word of mouth referral.
  • Child care. Personally, I’d rather the housekeeper — but a babysitter would be a tremendous gift to many writers. Cost & where to buy: DIY: one option is to babysit, yourself. Otherwise, pay the writer’s own sitter, or sponsor a day, weekend or week of camp ($20-50/day, or $50-300/week per child).

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What do you think is the perfect gift for a writer — or reader?  Let me know what you think in the Comments below.  I love to connect with my readers!

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Writers’ Day Jobs 01: Balancing the Time, Money & Credit Trifecta

Summer hours spent revising Wake. c. Elissa Field

In the years I’ve been participating in social media with other writers — beginning on early boards at Poets & Writers Speakeasy – one of the most common discussions to arise among writers was over “day jobs.” Like superheroes not yet fully embraced by Gotham, so many writers work on their fiction but pay bills with another job.

Today’s post is part 1 of a series sharing my experience with day jobs.

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Day Job Balance: Money vs. Time

The repeated refrain in evaluating the perfect day job is the need to earn a living against a writer’s hunger to preserve time and creative energy for writing.

Camp counselors, bartenders, odd jobs, temps. Writers are mercenary in their willingness to fill a resume with a string of odd jobs that load the refrigerator while buying time. Writers’ parents may roll eyes over what seems a stubborn inability to assemble a genuine career — while the writer squirrels away hidden hours that mean not thousands in income but, if well-played, thousands of words toward a polished manuscript.

Of course some day jobs include professional titles or even high paying roles, but often writers are willing to take less income in order to avoid overtime hours or retain more braincells undrained at the end of the day.

The Trifecta: Time, Money & Street Cred

In a perfect world, a writer’s day job produces the trifecta: money to pay the bills, time and energy to write, and street cred.

Street cred, in this case, would be jobs that earn a writer credit for experience in the writing or publishing world. It could be a legitimizing title, it could be professional interaction within the publishing world. Booksellers, business writers, journalists, freelance PR or social media consultants, agents, teachers.

In our less perfect world, writers often trade time or money to gain recognition: write for free or trade lower pay to chock up a byline or tear sheet. I say this while spending hours blogging income-free, and having published my short stories without payment.

What is less obvious are those who went into becoming editors or agents out of their own writing aspirations, only to achieve the money and professional accomplishment but surrender all free time and creative energy so their own writing never occurs.

The Goal: Balance

It might seem that all writers would seek the trifecta. Yet, really, the key is for each writer to balance money, time and credit as fit the writer’s current goals. For example, there are times when a writer couldn’t care less about street credit, because all that matters is time to get that novel draft written. At the same time, having all the time to write can be meaningless to a writer who is unemployed and preoccupied with how to feed their kids. And street credit can be shiny but meaningless if the industry continues pushing writers to be unpaid for their work, or if the attention becomes a distraction that keeps an accomplished writer from writing new work.

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Evaluating Your Day Job

Today’s post is motivated, in part, by what all writers need to do from time to time: I’m evaluating my current day job.  There are times — no matter where we are in our career — when things are out of balance, and I’ve been feeling a significant imbalance over here for the past couple months. At the moment, my job is earning me street cred, but not sufficient income to minimize distractions, and with what feels like suffocating demands on my time.

In evaluating what change is needed, I’ll ask myself these questions:

  • Is it temporary? As a part-time teacher, overwhelming demands on my time from grading should be temporary — limited to the school seasons. The key is for me to evaluate if it is balanced by coming free time, and if that time can be used adequately to accomplish my writing goals. So far, each time I reach a vacation break I find myself writing like crazy, addressing those goals that have been on hold.  If not, I need to adjust — and adjustment, in most cases, comes through discipline.
  • Am I using my free time well? This is where discipline comes in. My litmus test on how well I am using my free time is reminder that Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye while working full time as a single mother to two young boys. She wrote before they woke in the morning and after they went to bed at night. Um-hmph. My arms cross in accusation over some unused hours I’ve let slip. The key is to know your goals, seek out your writing hours and get your butt in the seat, writing.
  • Are there alternatives? Last Sunday, I spent 8-9 hours cleaning house. It would take me 4 hours to earn the money to pay someone to do that. Is that an alternative that would remove a distraction? I could leave my current job and get a different job, possibly doubling my income, but would work longer hours and not have summers free. Which option would be more liberating? Are there alternatives to bring in income with less demand on time? In some cases, there are no alternatives. If that is true, go back to the two points above to find your writing time.
  • Are my priorities aligned with my current writing goals? Right now, I have two novels drafted that need substantial hours for editing — but either one would then be ready to query an agent. For this reason, it works that I kept a part-time writing position this year, as it buys me holidays off and the potential for writing mornings. In another year, if I were working on short stories or just blogging, it might make more sense for me to give up time to increase income. It’s also been a year where I wanted more writing connections, so it has made sense for me to take more time with social media and workshops than in other years where I just wanted time on my own to write. It’s important to respect your own current projects and goals when applying any writing advice. What is great for one writer may not be for you — at least, not at this moment.

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Coming Next: 

How About You?

What experience can you share about day jobs that worked well for your writing, or those that didn’t? Can anyone share experience working at a publishing house or agent, to say if this helped advance your writing or took over your time? Or have you held a profession completely outside of writing that made it easier to write? It would be great to hear readers’ insights.

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October Fiction Challenge 4: Where and How Do You Write? – Part 1

A perfectly good workspace: the desk in my office (notably, with a box open for shipping off my fried laptop). To my Hawaiian friends or fans of The Descendents, the print on the wall, bought by my parents in DC 20 years ago, hung on the wall in the family’s HI house in the movie.

Today’s post continues a series of responses to October Writing Challenges posed by fellow bloggers.

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To catch up on October’s Writing Challenges:

If you join in, post your links in the comments!

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Today’s post returns to the great 30-question list featured in Herding the Dragon’s 30-day challenge, to address Part 1 of the theme, “Where and How Do You Write?”

Day 5.) Where are you most comfortable writing? At what time of day? Computer or good ol’ pen and paper?

We have an expression in our family — “Don’t poke a sleeping bear” — and this question is provoking me to rant over how frustrated I’ve been without a laptop since its meltdown in July. I am an adamant laptop writer.

Pen and paper is fine. Early on, my first mode of writing was a fountain pen and a cheap composition book (I’ve had tons of “fine” leather journals, but find something freeing about not having to live up to the cover). I liked fountain pens because they flow quickly, removing one more level of resistance — but over time (and surely in response to all the complications parenthood adds), I’ve simplified to “any pen on hand.”

Two interesting observations about writing by hand:

  • I learned in education classes that the physiology of writing something by hand records it more deeply in your memory. In this sense, if I’m in the car or on the run, the simple process of dashing something down (even if I never read it later) makes me more likely to remember the idea when I am back to a computer. Brain research shows this is particular to the wiring of eye-hand coordination and handwriting; typing and dictating do not have the same effect.
  • I was mortified as a teenager to have one of my writing notebooks passed around between tittering family members. Perfect cure to this is that my handwriting has evolved to something nearly illegible, as if only I have the spy decoder for transcribing it.

I have two main complaints about writing by hand. One is that I have come to hate paper in general, as it piles in drifts that are hard to relocate, get damaged or lost, and no one seems to read. Spoken as someone who once knocked a cup of coffee into my notes drawer while vacuuming.

Worse than this is the inefficiency of it. I was able to continue full days of revising my WIP over the summer, while traveling after my laptop died. I marked editing notes on a print copy, wrote new sections in a notebook, used flags and highlighters and… yes, I got a lot done. The wastefulness is that I now have to double that effort, as all those notations have to be typed in.  The greatest limit most of us have is time, and I’d rather type something once than have the same effort take my attention twice.  It’s hard to be stuck typing last month’s changes when you want to move on to the new thoughts in your head.

Overall, the computer is more organized and faster. When drafting, I work rapidly in what I call an “add on” document, writing sections out of order, not worrying about spelling, capitalization or punctuation. Quick keystrokes fix the conventions.  I then work with two documents open at once: I copy draft sections from the “add on” document, pasting only those I want to use into the actual draft document, fixing order, chapter/section breaks, etc. as I go.  To keep orderly, I switch the text I’ve used to blue in my add on document, so I know what I’ve used.  I’ve started using Scrivener, which is fabulous for tracking themes, getting perspective, reorganizing, and making revisions.

Where I am adamant about using a laptop is that a desktop computer is frustrating in allowing you to work in only one place. I have an actual office in the house — with a computer on a real desk, with files, bookcases and everything — but it kills productivity to only work there.

I write at all hours of the day and especially like being able to sit next to my boys, wherever they are, and not have my writing keep me isolated from our daily life. I don’t mind the desktop during my disciplined work time (in the morning after the boys are at school, before leaving to teach my afternoon classes), but prefer the lucid flow of ideas I get late at night, when I don’t want to be here at the desk. My favorite place to write, at any hour, is sitting in bed, as the light and energy in my room are like an airy treehouse.

When traveling, I write anywhere — but I am not generally a cafe writer.  I’m too curious for that. When I’m out, I’m watching and listening, not writing. That’s actually one of my greatest weaknesses when attending conferences or workshops: I’m easily distracted. Look! Squirrel! Yeah.

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Where and how do you write? Have you tried Scrivener, or have you wondered if it is an effective tool for novel writing?  Share your experience — or links to your own responses to October challenges — in the comments.

If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like minded bloggers!

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From my Parenting Blog: Parenting Gets Existential

I’ve never loved candy-stripe carnations as much as these that my sons gave to me to celebrate the end of our school year. (That great vase is a bar glass that makes me crave a trip back to Mama Kwan’s bar in Kill Devil Hills, NC.) c Elissa Field

Because it is summer, and because summer has me of the mind of young children, free for long days of unscheduled abandon, today seemed a good day to share an essay I posted originally on my old parenting blog. As I enjoy long days with my boys, I was reminded of this one day with them that so captures how non-writing days serve as inspiration.

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I was the first one pregnant in our generation, on either side of our family.  From those first weeks of confessing it, I ran the steep hill of all the things I would learn about what it took to parent.  Diapers, pack and plays, how to know if it’s sick.  And then they grow up a little.

You work on which vacuum has large enough bore to suck up Cheerios without clogging, teaching yourself to say sugar! instead of shit, and truisms like “hands are not for hitting.”

Mysteriously, I discovered I absolutely love parenting.

Not the least of which is the way its existential challenges never cease to amaze.

This month’s challenge: answering the question, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

My five-year-old said, “It means ‘an old man’.”

His eight-year-old brother corrected him:  “No, it’s a teenager with long hair…  and funny clothes… and…”  He accurately described Shaggy, from Scooby Do, then faltered, breaking down to ask, “Mom, what is a hippie?”

And here parenting becomes existential – because even in their little boy way, they were grasping at something they could not articulate but could sense.  They got that there was some socio-political, socio-historical implication behind the meaning.  That it signified something they did not understand for there to be a hippie in their cartoon.

I begin to answer, but it’s the ubiquitous sound of one hand clapping.  Any explanation of what a hippie is means nothing without understanding the context of the culture they were rebelling against.  In our current environment where the two long-haired boys on my sons’ baseball teams are the sons of fashionista mamas, not grunge, how can they get what a statement it was for a guy to let his hair and beard grow shaggy in an era where hair didn’t touch one’s collar?  Where men and women still wore hats in public, and my grandmother and even my mother still carried spotless white gloves?   Our kids know hippie images as neon flowers on paper cups and napkins at the party store, or the peace signs in rhinestones on the neighbor’s jeans, without seeing them as re-imagined icons of what was once a radical attempt to move toward a gentler, more natural way of being, at a time of corporatization and war.  How do you explain the experience that I remember intangibly as paper butterflies on my young aunt’s wall, fanning out above her black and white poster of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

In attempting to find simple words to explain it, my understanding grows expansive in memory of history lessons and personal experience growing up in the 70s, touched with hindsight and the newer context of the world we have become since then.  I was not a hippie or flower child or child of hippies; my parents were primly republican.  As a child, I associated hippies with broken bottles on the pavement at our playground.  Yet here I am, forty, riding along in my SUV with little boys rattling about in the back (who are fascinated we did not have to wear seatbelts as kids), and feeling a wan tenderness in memory of avocado kitchen appliances and trying to remember what the whole affection for rainbows was about.

My world becomes larger with children.  Not just because more square-footage is required to be able to move around highchairs and train tables and strewn Legos, but because the whole expanse of the universe is new again in their eyes.

Soil that clearly belongs nowhere but between the roots of the hedges and flowers outside is now meant to be dug up, spread apart, carried about and stored in little containers that just would not have occurred to you as meant for analyzing dirt.  That is, not until you have a playdate with brightly dressed, neat little girls who open the little play kitchen and find it caked with dried spattered mud and your son smiles and explains it to her – proudly pointing out how when he shook the soil in a jar with water, the mulch, peat and sand separated into layers, creating a distinct grey, tan and brown rainbow that he’d just been dying to show someone.  He discovered density, you think with pride, at the same time you apologetically wash away the filth and reassure the little girls that there are clean toys here somewhere.

Life is a mystery.  Full of dark turns and surprises and joys and tragedies and things so beautiful and amazing.  You go on vacation and see a sunset or painting or giant gorge in the earth so startlingly beautiful that you honestly could not have borne seeing it without someone meaningful beside you to touch and say, “Look at that!”

Children find this not only on vacation, but in the mundane, the sagging days of life that might otherwise be only about when to fit in grocery shopping and whether a successful day at work was enough to qualify for bonus and if you will be able to sleep soundly tonight.

“Look!” they say, all the time.  “What is that?  Look!”  They pick out the plainest flower at the market and fall in love.  You find rocks in the bottom of your purse, a wilted  feather left for you beside your bed, stray bits of hardware clanking in your dryer.

And they take what we have known always in our lives – something as irrelevant and silly as a hippie – and hand us a whole cosmos of depth and meaning to wrestle with.

“What is a hippie?” I repeated, ready to say something about how people sometimes choose their clothes to express their feelings about the world, or maybe share something about what it was like to be a child in the 70s, or how the times then were or weren’t like our times now.

But they were laughing at something.

Just at the point they had me thoroughly wrapped up in the riddle of it, the boys moved on.

In the same effortless way they expand our lives with depth and complexity, they model for us simplicity.  My boys decided, simply, that “hippie” will be their favorite new word for anything weird… whether or not they really get what it means.

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Related Posts:

More on finding inspiration when least expected: Writing Life: Today’s Job – Non-writing Days

Reading this summer, including with my boys: Summer Reading List 2012

Another post on challenging conversations with kids: Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Are you a writing parent? Where do you find inspiration or challenge in balancing family with work?

 

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Enjoy your summer day, all!

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Filed under Culture + World, Inspiration, Setting Place Roots, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Writing Life: Today’s Job – Nonwriting Days

Considering my last two posts had to do with managing time and keeping the writing work moving forward, I shift gears today.

For me, today’s writing job, no exaggeration, is to sleep.

A week ago, I had been driving back and forth to Miami for three days to complete a writing workshop with Ann Hood. If you live outside a major city (think: New York, LA, Chicago, even DC), you know what that means. I live 60 miles north of Miami: the drive there is bearable; the drive out at rush hour is stop and go for two hours. Add to that, my son was home sick the whole time and we had family in town, so it was an exhausting few days.

My writing job in the week(s) leading up to the workshop had included preparing and sending a manuscript for the workshop, then reading and commenting on the 15 manuscripts for the other writers in the workshop. I mixed that in between commenting on student essays for classes I teach, and responding to submissions to the literary magazine I read for. This was in addition to regular daily writing, which included new material for Wake, a brief interview, and a couple blogs you’ve seen here.

The workshop then provoked new writing tasks. While the workshop was to focus on beginnings (making the first 250 words work), Ann Hood mentioned at one point how, in draft, characters most like the writer are often the flattest (Note: I blog about this advice later, here and here). Her advice inspired new insights into a main character I hadn’t spent much time with yet, so last weekend was spent writing two important new scenes. Also, the main response Ann had to my manuscript was a comment that it had reminded her of writer Alice McDermott. I knew the name, but had not read McDermott’s work, so a new writing task was to find and begin reading Charming Billy (which later made my annual best-reads list).

Round about then, the inevitable happened: mom caught the 8 year old’s cold.

This is how the week played:  I teach, and am in the last month of the year. My house looks like sheep have moved through.  Not hyperbole.  As a single mother, I have been done in by my house. The disposal died, causing the dishwasher not to work, and I won’t have time to get a repairman in until next week, which means I’m washing dishes.  I have student essays to read, which are completely disorganized after leaving all the drafts for them to work on with a sub while I was in Miami.  I spent Sunday teaching my son how to restore the research project he’d gone off-road with at school, helping him select a new topic, and directing him through online research.  Monday: student work and teaching, and helping the son who’d missed school all last week catch up. Tuesday: called in to sub for a colleague, so missed my planning time, which got shifted to the evening.  Wednesday, slept as late as possible.  Wednesday night: out with my college boyfriend, who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade and happened to be passing through town on business.  Thursday: shot.  Teach, then out late for son’s spring musical.  Friday, teach early, all day, then out all night to deliver and pick up son from his first middle school dance.

Today’s job: sleep.  Do not yet open eyes to the housekeeping and laundry put off through this week, waiting for you to wake up.

None of those things seem to have anything to do with writing.  They sound like the writer’s nemesis: a list of all the things that kept me from writing today.

I don’t see it that way.

To me, when I’ve just posted two articles on how to make the most of your writing time, it seems only fitting for the third to be about all the things that happen in the rest of our time, and the fact that some days your job is really just to sleep.  Some days, it is to mend house, or to jockey for strategic seating at your 8-year-old’s spring musical, or to go to work early to cover a friend’s class or to assist with the school Eucharist where the mayor shows up to honor your retiring head of school.  Other days it is to sit shoulder-to-shoulder as your son struggles through his first research project or be on hand as he dresses for his first dance.  Some nights it is to sit at a table along the sidewalk at Rocco’s Tacos with an old friend who has come to town, laughing and talking until the busboy says he needs to carry in the table and chairs because the bar is closed.

Strategize your writing time, yes.  But there are days when a writer’s life is about the living of life, the connections with others.  When insight and understanding comes from having lived through the weakness of sickness or broken appliances or bad schedules and struggling children.

So today’s post is in honor of those days – recognizing that today’s writing chore really is to sleep, recovering from the week’s experience so I’ll have it in me to write tomorrow.

An observation I would offer is that much of this week I was pushed out of my comfort zone.  Things did not go the way I wanted. I had to put my intentional schedules aside to do things I hadn’t planned on doing. I even managed to back into my ex’s car in my driveway – while leaving him to watch our kids so I could go out to meet the boyfriend I’d dated before marriage. Crunch.

As writers, we don’t write “screw up” as a to-do item on our calendar, but isn’t the imperfection of life where much of inspiration comes from? Awkwardness, inconvenience, failures, crossed wires, confusion.  The realistic brokenness of life happens out there — not in all our planning while sitting at the computer or our writing desk or wherever we work — but sometimes in those hookie moments when we needed to be working but life intervened.  It’s just worth saying, to all of us struggling to work writing hours into our days, there are times to embrace the chaos of life, wecome it in and even count it as part of your writing goal.

I wish you all a productive week — in the hours things go as you planned, and when they don’t!

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Writing Life: A Zen Prompt for Writing Past Blocks

My car’s view while I’m in a fiction workshop today (Freedom Tower, overlooking Biscayne Bay, Miami)

I wasn’t planning to post today, as I have about an hour to get ready to head to Miami for the last day of a writing workshop I’m doing with Ann Hood, on beginnings.  It has been a fabulous workshop, astounding in the depth of advice Ann has offered, and I’ll be putting together posts about this in the coming week.

Although I’m in a rush this morning, in responding to reader comments about managing writing time on my last post (What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here & 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time), I was struck by Eden’s comment:

“As my husband always says, ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.’”

For many writers who are getting started, or those beginning to have successes but still balancing day-jobs, family and other priorities with their writing goals, simply doing something is at the heart of making any progress.

Do something, write something – even if it’s wrong. Claim the time, get something done.

Two other commenters on the same post spoke of the times they finally have the time, but not the inspiration or (heaven forbid) forgot what they had been planning to sit and write.  This made me think of advice I read in one of Natalie Goldberg’s books (either Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life).

Common writing advice is to write every day and, when writing, to keep the pen or keyboard moving.  As Eden’s husband encouraged, do something.  Write something.  It is also common advice to not be afraid to write something bad, or at least not good.  Frequently I hear writers say, there’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration.  You write anyway.  Write something, even if it is wrong.

What is different in Natalie Goldberg’s advice is her use of Zen principles, and the concept of positive and negative space.  Writers waiting to write the right thing, the inspired thing, insist on that positive space: the thing they want pictured, described, acted out.  Writing negative space is to acknowledge the non-thing.  To write what is not there, not happening, not inspired, not the focus of the story.

Goldberg offered this daily prompt, as a way to get writers past fear of the blank page.  When you don’t know what you want to write, then start by finishing the sentence, “I’m not going to write about…”

Try it.  I know it is strange, but it is oddly freeing.  The first time I did it, I remember the first line that came out was, “I’m not going to write about the blinds.”  How mundane.  But the riff that followed (I’m not going to write about the cat quacking at my feet, I’m not going to write about the growl of the trash truck and silence of the trees, with no wind.  I’m not going to write about the main character who is stuck sitting in that cafe…) revealed entire reams of detail and even a scene I hadn’t thought of before.

It’s an odd little practice, but sometimes flips energy just enough to loosen your voice.

There are two ways to use this activity.

1)  In the example above, I wasn’t even trying to go head-on at writing something I would use in existing work.  It might only shake loose distractions, quiet a preoccupied mind, and mess up that pristine white page enough to get past writers block for the moment.  It might free you enough to move on with more effective writing for the day, or might just be an activity in creative practice, maybe percolating some interesting details that might at some point be useful, or maybe just dormant or even discarded journal entry.

2)  Where Goldberg’s Zen approaches have been more meaningful to me, is her entire approach of thinking of negative space can be liberating and eye-opening in imagining story.  So often we are focused on inventing what is happening in the story, but what about what is not happening?  We focus on our main character’s experience, but what did those same scenes look like from a fringe character’s point of view?  Generally speaking, when we take our focus off the main attraction and take in the negative space, we understand (and can write) the story more fully.  We begin to notice the blank space around the story we wrote, and realize what might have been happening in the world around our character.  New “what if’s” begin to come to mind.  In using this practice, I’ve written scenes from another character’s perspective, which might lead to more insightful dialogue.  I’ve realized entire scenes or tensions, or outcomes of the conflict that hadn’t otherwise occurred to me.

That said, this girl needs to get in motion or I’ll miss Ann Hood’s reading during lunch today.  Since I won’t take time to edit this post as carefully as usual, do let me know in the comments I’ve left it unclear — or let me know if resonates with you.  Have a great day!

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Update 10/8/12: I have to share with you all a link to this beautiful post by fellow Florida writer, Kelly Turnbull, from her blog Parsley and Pumpkins on “writing what you don’t see”: Change with Color.

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Writing Life: What I’m Looking for Isn’t Here (& 5 Tips for Managing Writing Time)

Northwest 200 1993 – R. Dunlop

Have you ever had days you moved through furtively restless, with the certain impatience there was something you needed to do?  A pressure that meant you could not go outside to trim the bougainvillea that nearly clotheslined the UPS man (in all its bloody thorniness), could not (as you had promised) take the boys to the movies, could not spare the hour to catch up with your dear friend in LA (even though, for once, the time diff was in your favor), could not do laundry or dishes or even think of writing…but couldn’t name source of the urge?

I spent today in the tufted leather chair my boys expect me to sit in when I work (I work better sitting on my bed, but look so much lazier there, so that the leather chair claims me).  I had the laptop in my lap.  I had lists of things to do, and those that had been accomplished to check off.  I’d written three blogs this week, which needed proofing before posting.  I’d gathered more pictures for another Living with Books.  I’d traded notes with staff at a TT race in Ireland, that gave me just the detail to write an inner monologue for Wake‘s mose elusive character (where he dreamed himself the race marshall responsible for warning approaching racers of a hazard in the road, but somehow failed, as the character does ultimately, in preventing a family member’s death).  I had 14 brief manuscripts to read and comment on for a workshop with Ann Hood starting Wednesday, and three more litmag submissions to read and respond to.

More urgently, 69 student essays and 17 preliminary research packets await comments for classes this week, with mid-period grades due tomorrow.

I assumed that was source of the restlessness: resentment at spending my Sunday grading, guilt not to be with the boys.  I love teaching writing but have to confess myself worse than the students this year in having early-onset of summer fever.  As much as I’ll miss this fabulous year when it ends, right this moment I want nothing more than hours alone to myself to read and write and play with my boys and maybe, if I have to, get the house clean.  Or go on a date.  Student papers drag their toes in self-conscious awareness there’s no competing with all that. Together, the weighty bag of papers and I went through the day watching guilty marathon episodes of Miami Towing on tru.tv (yeah, that bad) knowing I was clearly in a state of avoidance.

The boys went out to let me work but the urgent impatience continued.  With the irritable absentmindedness of a nervous tick, I flicked back and forth through software on my computer and online.  Metaphorically pacing.  Searching.  Waiting for something.  Every twenty minutes or so, a tweet would come through, an email would come through, friendly comments and connections from my friends in the ether.  A good article to read, an interesting piece of news.  I’d be sated, momentarily, like easing a junkie’s craving, so that yes, it seemed, maybe that was it: just boredom.  Avoiding the essays.  Loving the connection of fellow writers.  Avoiding the essays.

Just as quickly, the craving would be back, the pacing, the constant flickering hunt through the buttons on screen.

But, whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t here.

The boys came home, breaking my trance.  I broke free of the leather chair (who may find itself summarily dismissed for its continued failure to aid in productivity), went upstairs to where the beginning of twilight lit the bay window of my room like a treehouse.

Sitting here reminded me of the hour stolen before teaching last Thursday: writing the scene where this elusive character revealed himself, pulling the long unused key to his parents’ house from his wallet, his men turning away in denial of how his hand shook, scraping the brass face of the lock before he could turn the key.  The house of the death he’d caused, the main character still thinking him a victim while the shear act of turning away had revealed to him that his closest friends had thought him at fault all along.

Where all day there had been restlessness, I am now there in that novel — in the scene just written, in the race getting ready to be underway in Northern Ireland (in the real world) which the elusive character’s father was famed for winning before his death (in the novel).  In the scene still in my head, wanting my attention.  Awareness fills me, as it does, with the engulfing physical and emotional presence a work in progress can have.

I realize with a mix of frustration and relief this is the answer I looked for all day.  The novel.  I want everything else — the grading, the cleaning, the movie, the duties — to fall away and leave me dozens of hours to disappear into finishing this story.  It’s frustrating because the timing is off.  I budget time for fiction, but today’s hours were allotted to getting grades entered and I’m being bratty to complain about it.  I’m lucky enough to be working only part-time this year, to have 3 days off for a workshop this week, to have 2 months home this summer between teaching.  Wait, impatient novel.  Your turn is coming.

But, even with the limited time, I pause to enter this post to say one thing: what a relief it is, and a joy, to know the writing I am doing has this powerful a pull on me.  To know that, even when it has to wait its turn, it is strong enough to leave me pacing and craving the work.  Relentless: that’s the nickname of the motorcycle race coming up in Northern Ireland this month.  I like that, as it fits the relentlessness of this urge I have to get this story down.

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5 Things I Could Have Done to Make Today More Successful:

Yeah, I know better.

1.  Write first.  What relief I would have felt, had I given myself an hour, even, to get that one scene down before trying to work on other things.

2. Not let interruptions begin, in the first placeBad, leather chair, bad.   Sounds like I’m kidding, but fact is, this chair is aimed at the tv, in a room crowded with the boys’ toys, causing stifling chi even when the tv is off.  I know this to be true.  The trick is to know yourself and not invite the disaster in to begin with.  I should have begun the day in the room where I knew I worked more productively.

3. Don’t worry what other people think.  I started my day in the family room because I was waiting for the boys’ dad to pick them up. He would have taunted me for “sitting in bed all day” if I’d been working in my room when he got there.  So what?  I should have done what I knew to be best, regardless.

4. When you get in a rut, break it right away. Okay, so yeah, it was hysterical seeing the crazed big man stuck in the passenger window of his car, fighting to keep the tow truck driver from pulling away.  But, yo.  As I procrastinated into the third episode of Miami Towing?  Take a hint.  Break the trance.  Go for a run.  Go to that movie with the boys.  Do anything — but don’t let the procrastination take over.

5.  In avoidance mode? Use a timer and break work into 15 or 30 minute increments. Grade 30 minutes, then give 10 to something rewarding, whether that be a break with friends online or reading for the workshop later in the week, or a turn with fiction, getting that new scene down.  Several 30 minute increments would have left me much more productive than the day turned out.

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Worth Reading:  For friends who have been participating in Robert Lee Brewer’s Social Media Platform challenge this month (#mninb on twitter), I’ll end with a link to a great article by Jane Friedman: read this for the great checklist, providing an interesting approach for deciding how to balance time between writing and building platform. Comments following the article are just as insightful.

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Best to all of you, who struggle with the ongoing need to balance writing with the other demands of life.  If you have similar challenges, or insights for what works well for you, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Reminders of What We Wished Lost

Chellberg barn, Indiana

A couple years ago, reading to kindergarteners, I had to pause and explain a barn to them. Red building, animals, in the picture in their storybook — they got that. They didn’t know the essence of driving down roads where barns stood on duty behind hundred year old family farmhouses. Didn’t know the gaps of daylight between rough-hewn siding, the smell of hay and manure and sweat, the forbidden dangerous glee of daring to jump from hayloft to floor. Didn’t know what it was to be absent all day, unaccounted for, only coming in for dinner smelling faintly of puppy and horse, hands and face smeared, hay jutting from loosened braids.

There comes a point where things that once had meaning no longer make sense.

We can’t cling to this or mourn it; it just is.

Yet it is a daily part of conversation.  “Ebook or print book?” hashtags debate all over twitter. Do we despise the ability to zap books instantly to our palm, if their existence eradicates the crisp smell of printed pages? Do we eye-roll at students who bypass libraries, assuming anything worth knowing has its own site?

This week I was reminded of another side to this: what of things we wanted gone? Do we bemoan these, as well, once they’ve left us?

Yes, in their own way. Drive out evil, but record it, turn a light on it, that it should not be repeated.

Arundhati Roy turns attention on child molestation, Toni Morrison on abuses against African-Americans, Lisa See on Chinese foot binding, Michael Cunningham on the AIDS epidemic, Jane Austen on gender bias in landholding rights, Jay Asher on suicide. German occupation, 9/11, drug and alcohol abuse, slavery, child neglect, fear of the wild, poverty. Those examples, just from the shelf in front of me, fall short of all literature seeks to record of what we wanted purged.

What is interesting is the feared void that follows such a purge: First the purge, then the teaching — the books, the movies, the retelling — to keep what was purged alive in our minds.

Much like needing to explain a barn, as mother to two young boys, I’ve had this thought close at mind over the past weeks, on heels of the controversy over the headline about Jeremy Lin, so stupidly published as “A Chink in the Armor.”

Author Matthew Salesses has come to my attention over the past year for his insight and intelligence, in writings I’ve followed through Twitter. He is someone I can identify with, as a sensitive parent, thinking ahead to the world his daughter will grow up in, but reflecting back, also, on the opportunities and exposure of his childhood. What I learned about him today is his perspective as an Asian American, which he reflects with exceptional candor and sensitivity in his essay, “Different Racisms…the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” on the Rumpus.

After reading it, I tweeted my appreciation to him.

Seconds later, I couldn’t help adding: “FWIW, if I heard the word chink, an Asian slur would be the hundredth+ meaning I would think of. Dumb? Or just not my thinking?”

Tweets are limited in dimension. Even as I clicked to send this to him, I worried, considering the heart he bravely peeled open in his essay, would he think I was arguing, that I was trying to minimize or dispute the cruel things said?  So I later clarified with him: really, for better or worse, I hadn’t heard someone use “chink” to describe a person since I was in high school.  (Which was, um, not last year.)

In fact, in describing the barn, above, I began to say “chinks of light” come through the planks, an accurate representation of what I meant — but was suddenly disproportionately conscious of the word’s double-meaning, from reading his essay.

It’s not that Matthew’s essay was the first time this has occurred to me.

I spent my early childhood in Detroit, in a mixed race, mixed religion neighborhood. I’ve lived in homogenous, protestant white communities, but at the moment live in a neighborhood where we are the white minority, in race and culture. In Charlotte, North Carolina, I was bussed into the inner city and taught by a teacher who’d marched with Martin Luther King. I crave diversity in my friends and cultural interests, and tend to be a little hyper-sensitive about racism and other forms of bigotry.

But what happens, 20 years into “political correctness,” when we have lived so long shunning slurs?

In the first years, like me avoiding “chink” in describing the barn, we are hypersensitive of the Words We Must Not Say. We know these words. We catch them before they escape lips. We flinch when we hear them said. If we’re good, we roll eyes or even yell when friends try to slip them in as humor. (Equally, we know there are those who savor saying them in badness.)

Now comes the weakness. When do we become like kindergarteners, not knowing a barn?

Even for point of illustrating, I refuse to type a list of slur examples to make the point. I. will. not. type. those. words.

So how do we continue to know them and the impact they have?  How do my sons know I’d skin them alive for saying the n-word if I’ve purged it so fully that such conversation never comes up?

In this, do we reach a point where we don’t remember the words we were to avoid?

Quite fairly, Matthew challenged me. Would I really not think chink was a slur “even if [I] heard it addressed to an Asian person?”

Have I really never heard “chink” said of an Asian? Have I never witnessed an Asian friend feel marginalized? Shine a light on something and you see — or remember — what did not otherwise come readily to mind.  In North Carolina, in the all-white neighborhood where we lived one year, my girlfriend from the Philippines shared her immense pain and rejection over how different her family was from the families around us — no matter that I loved her family and remember her grandmother’s fish and rice (bane of her existence), affectionately, to this day. I went to high school outside of DC, where Asians made up 20-30% of our school (some born in the US, some whose parents were working temporarily in government agencies, a few who spoke little English). I read Matthew’s essay now and remember — in nauseous horror — that a beautiful friend of mine, who all my friends thought very highly of, was nicknamed Chinky. Did she like it? Did she accept it and say nothing? Did we ignore it blindly? Does she avoid being facebook friends now out of long ingrained pain caused by it?

Matthew’s essay raises the point that racism toward Asians is often dismissed as being flattering, as if that made it okay.

There’s another truth. Within the first chapter of the textbook for my education course on Diversity, I read one sentence that struck me as very powerful. Statistics proving bias were not disputed. But surveys reveal that the race(s) and gender favored by the biases do not associate themselves with originating the bias.  In the survey, it was white males saying they don’t think of themselves as wanting to perpetuate stereotypes that held others down, and saw themselves as products of the bias as much as those hurt by it. (I can’t help add that the grass isn’t greener: As a teacher, I’ve witnessed significant prejudice and judgment of white boys from teachers and peers, who blatantly judge them lazy, disruptive, trouble makers, etc. But that’s very different trend.)

The point of the survey grabbed me because I think the disassociation from responsibility goes further than just those at the top of the hierarchy. Take someone like me. I am a writer, well educated, particularly focused on understanding diverse cultures worldwide. I personally feel no prejudices against races or genders or religions. Know myself, rather, to crave differing perspectives.

Do I then become part of the problem? Because a person like me — a person who wants us all to get along and not re-engage prior offenses — isn’t going to take the preemptive step of saying, “Remind me of all the things I want to avoid doing.” I’m going to assume, just because my heart is in the right place, my words and actions will be without barbs. This isn’t just random theorizing. For years, I’ve called my boys my “monkeys.” I’m a friendly teacher and sometimes nicknames slip out when talking to a student. I came up cold one day, having just called a boy in my class monkey and wondering, “Wait. Is he going to think, ‘Aw, she likes me as much as her son’? Or is that a slur for something?”

Before teaching, I worked years in the courts, where political correctness was all consuming. No Christmas tree without a menorah beside it. No menorah or Christmas tree the year no one could figure out what to do about Kwanza or Ramadan. Race, disability, religion, gender, nationality, native language – we danced to be fair and equal with all, to the point even friends weren’t sure how to talk to one another any more.

But here I am, now dumb in my blindness to what might hurt others, bleached beyond sensitivity, back into dangerous territory.

Working to avoid pitfalls doesn’t mean they are no longer there. The fact we haven’t said a word or heard it lately doesn’t means bigotry isn’t alive and well — in memory or continuing experience.

It is a curious thing to wonder, are we at the point where remedial vocab training is needed? Do I teach my sons the words, the prior hurts, the things done wrong in the past, just to say, “Don’t do that”?

In literature, at least, we have the treatment, if not the cure. I told Matthew I thought his essay important. As happens throughout literature, he shines a light on one experience so that we can’t ignore the hurting that goes on, despite any best intentions.

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If you could see inside my head…

writing fiction museums researchFinish that sentence: If you could see inside my head… you’d find my silence much less dull.  You’d forgive the time I spent with my laptop in the leather chair.  You’d buckle your seatbelt, too.

I recently read Heather O’Neill’s clever article revealing why writers make such challenging partners (Canada Writes: 10 Things to Know — How to Date a Writer). Within a single day, it was one of the most retweeted articles among writing friends on twitter.  Because we know it’s true, don’t we?

I can dismiss most dating complaints.  I’m not a good enough housekeeper to be a nag.  I find most of his quirks too interesting to not have supported him.  But I have to confess: if he had anything to complain about, it would be the time and attention it takes when I’m writing.  For that, I have to tell him, “You have my undying gratitude and awe.”

And then there’s my boys.  Today we have off from school.  I have spent my day in twenty of the country’s most fascinating museums.  I’ve learned about the Qtips and cosmetic sponges used to clean wax figures and taxidermied animals.  Learned the provenance of animals and T-rex skeletons on display. I’ve buffed T-rex teeth to a burnished glow.  I’ve experienced the shock and awe on arrival of one of the world’s most startling traveling exhibits.

The boys? Sat on the couch, back and forth between cartoons and the wii, trying to outwait me as I got sucked into research for this story that has taken over my whole focus.  My oldest is learning to cook — don’t call DCF; it’s not the best parenting sign when he decides it’s easier to cook, himself, than wait for me to stop what I’m doing and feed him.

They catch glimmers, now and then, glancing over my shoulder.  They see the research.  They went with me to the Natural History Museum, Florida boys enrapt with having to wear fleece hats to keep them warm on a cold New York day, doubled over from a high window to watch cabs circling Central Park.  They get it — sometimes — that there’s something fascinating mom sees in the world.  They like the parts I can share with them, or translate for them.  They try, in their own way, to see what’s in my head.

I wish they could.

If I do my job well (and there’s such pressure to do that, isn’t there, if I’m going to lose this time with them in order to do it), readers will at some point see exactly that: the story that has gripped me over the past several months — the mother, the daughter, the hidden world inside the museum where the mother works, the secrets the museum allows the mother to hide from until the one day it pushes her over the edge.  If you could see inside my head, you could see the mother in those dioramas, see her conflict.  See the tufted pelts of the mountain gorilla and the gnu, see the first kernel of idea that got it started, then the research, and then the words spinning out across the screen — not done yet, but an exciting draft.

I only hope I get there soon.  I love the time I spend, lost in my own stories, but how much better it will be when others can see all I’m seeing, too.

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Mother, Writer… the house is a mess but no one’s died yet

I did not write or revise as much as I should have last week. I had one of those weeks where we get overly preoccupied with waiting for responses.

Unfortunately, I’ve arrived at summer ready to rock at the same time the rest of the world (myself included, in many ways) is embracing summer’s doldrums. In our own ways, all of us are lolling by the pool with a mojito, or floating in the lake, minted ice tea in one hand, other dragging in marvel at the cool swirling water.

As restful as it is, summer is key work time for me, with fewer expectations on my hours than any other time in the year. I’ve been thrilled to feel my novel in progress vividly playing out in my mind, coming to the page as it needs to, as are revisions to previous works in the wings.

But I’ve been impatient, jumpy with that unnamed energy you get when you’ve put work out there and are waiting to hear back. Normal submission replies, sure, and then there’s the story out to an editor who has always praised my work, which, according to Duotrope, is lingering a good 40 days longer than other replies are taking. Yeah, I’m sure. I’ve checked the submission managers once or twice.

Clearly, last week’s impatience had to find direction.

I put the energy to use by playing with online resources. I’ve been a twitter skeptic, but found it useful, clicking links or following threads which unearthed articles and resources I’d have had no reason to discover otherwise. (I also find it amusing to feed twitter random lines from my work, eerily disembodied or meaning even changed, once reduced to 140 characters.)

I followed leads that helped me discover new publications or update information on ones I’d fallen out of touch with. I read some great work, and enjoyed sharing links for a few of these, and downloaded a couple writers’ books via Kindle. I submitted work to a couple of the magazines I’d discovered/rediscovered, and calendared reading dates for those I want to submit to when reading opens again in August or September. Yeah, I rechecked submission managers a few more times, but enjoyed more connecting with writers, editors, agents and others in the business, in that water cooler way that twitter and facebook afford, that is nearly impossible without the virtual world.

But… at a certain point, I was still hyper puppy.

I wrote a blog, which I’d lapsed doing since December. I wrote a new story start while at the pool with my boys. But new starts are another distraction when you have work to finish. We’d been at my dad’s for father’s day which had me off-line, but also no writing while we visited.

Coming back Monday, it was time to declare a no-interruptions mode.

The meditative hour of driving back from my dad’s, through grazing lands and orchards beneath that broad, blue Florida sky, had loosened thoughts I’d not yet developed about the main character in the main novel I’ve been working on, the one whose characters tended to lean against the counters, arms crossed in an attempt at patience when my morning or evening were taken over with cooking for my sons.  (The mother character might get on quietly with her own business, in her silent way, but he would be unbending. Did I really need to marinate before grilling? Did I need to make spaghetti from scratch; did I not know these things were available in pre-made forms? Had I not considered take out? Better yet, fast food? He is an impatient soul, fuming, but I forgive him considering the answer of his life or death awaits my piecing together those patches of draft saved in multiple Word docs. Get on with it, he rightfully urges.)

It was the mother I’d written least about, and on my drive home, a single image was surfacing of her waiting for the mail, then switching to a new hobby at the point she believed her lover dead and no longer able to write.

“Give me one hour,” I told my sons, when we arrived home.

I set a timer, threatened the pain of no trip to a store they’d asked to go to if they spoke to me once before it went off: “Don’t interrupt unless you’re bleeding or on fire.”

I put on headphones and music to block distraction.

I opened my add-on draft and let her speak to me. The mother wanted to tell me about the meaning of waiting for flowers to bloom. To get there, that one hour gave me 1700 words about the months after her son was born, an odd fog of experience that put on paper things I’d never thought how to express before.

There would be a need, later in the novel, for some justification of her actions, but this little chunk of text accomplished authentically, with one short revelation, what might otherwise have taken reams of less effective explanation. I love that kind of writing more than any other.

I claimed another hour later to expand on it. My mind was again wholeheartedly present in the novel, her dreams and nightwaking thoughts appearing a vivid blue-green haze so that I understood fully how the final bridge would take place, from that moment of action, to this of reflection, to how they were about to play out. Netflix, you’re no competition to watching a novel spin out in my mind.

Kudos go in part to last week’s internet distractions.

That surfing has its place, as do all the administrative distractions, in the overall business of writing. Motivation to claim that hour to write was actually spurred by an article I came across during my hyper-twit hours: Novelist Mary McNamara’s A working mother’s guide to writing a novel (LA Times). As a mom with sons home for the summer during my key writing months, her advice hit home.

Disciplined hours here and there have given me 9,700 words that needed to be written in the past two weeks. Hopefully the boys will not be bleeding or on fire any time soon, as it’s nearly time to lace all these bits of draft together, and see how close this new novel is to done.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother

Running on the Grass

I’ve been happy to say I had a short story accepted for publication, coming out later this month.  Not only was it accepted, but it was accepted by an editor whose accomplishments and taste I admire.  Short of quoting his actual email, I can say I could not have asked for higher praise in the words he used to express pride in publishing the story.

You must understand the relative isolation and uncertainty in which most writers work.  The accepted story was written in parts over a period of nearly ten years.  It is a story of singular intensity — a story I initially wrote in response to the challenge: “Write something that scares you to put on paper.  Write something one would not say out loud.”  I did.  I wrote something that scared me.  And I did it in a way that was unapologetic in not hiding behind any narrative artifice — no gentle introductions, no fluffy segues. (Inspiration for story mentioned here.) It came together as an act of artistry and bravery, but also as a piece that would not fit the needs of all editors as they allocated the limited space in their literary journals.  In its first forays out for publication, it drew praise and near misses, but also confusion over a hurdle I could not at that time see the solution to.

I was a young parent by then.  My husband spent three years slashing his way into a higher paying job in order to support our little family so I could stay home most hours with our son.  Babies take more hours than one might think.  By the second son, I’d given up a freelance gig because of its unpredictable demands.

After years of telling myself that being a professional writer required my willingness to make sacrifices to dedicate myself to my work, I was suddenly feeling guilty over the time and expense the writing had cost — and still no bestseller on the shelf.  This fierce story brought home a near miss from Paris Review and The Sun, praise from Esquire.  But most readers have no idea the number of submissions a work might take to find the right editor, the right publication, at the right time.  The numbers game can become wearying.

At a point, I chastised myself over the near misses.  I assumed those close to me were wearying as well, and began to say: “If I were a football player, no matter how close I’d gotten to the end zone, at a certain point, if I’d never crossed the goal line, it was just a lot of running around on grass.”

Sharing this the other day, a writing colleague said that if they’d had near misses at publications like Paris Review, they couldn’t imagine doubting their abilities.  But it felt like time for some professional humility.  If I sold TVs, my shop would not be in business if sets never left the store with paying customers.  I was willing to consider maybe I was more suited to novel length, and just not a short story writer.   No question, it was a little personal trash talk.  The Army goads, “Go big or go home.”  I goaded myself to either be a writer who crosses that endzone, or own up that I might be just running on grass.

My aunt had a national champion quarter horse when I was young.  Gorgeous, gorgeous mare.  As her trophies mounted, they chose to breed her with an equally gorgeous and accomplished stallion, named Robert Redford.  The filly born was a spectacular, glowing chestnut with a perfect star on her forehead.  Next to her chocolate bay mother, she drew gasps.  She would be a star.  Yet, as time came for her to be saddle-trained, turned out there was something off in her fore-cannons (shins, for non-horsefolk).  They’d work her and fail, and have to take a break, a few months off, then try again.  Try and try again.  My aunt stood beside her, this gorgeous horse she couldn’t ride, and struggled with frustration.

Solution?  Turn the filly to pasture, let her legs strengthen.  Turn her out to run on the grass.

In writing communities, how often we run into young writers seeking advice because they are so desperate to have success now – today, on the day and time they scheduled it, within a framework their questioning families can accept.

But it’s sometimes like that filly.

I was thrilled the day it clicked in my head: the ironic parallel between the football metaphor I used to insult my efforts and the memory of that filly out kicking her heels in the thick grass of a Michigan hillside.

Sometimes writing is all about running on the grass.

We schedule our hours to work.  We hone our skills.  We read and write with professional determination.  We push ourselves to reach that completed draft, then whip ourselves all over again through the real work of revision.  We force ourselves to be humble and brave, at once.  But, in the end, as with life itself, a-ha’s and true insight and seeing the forest despite the trees don’t always arrive on a schedule.

I ran on the grass for three or four years while raising tiny babies, steeping in the mortal life’s experience that parenthood is, without scheduling time to write about it.  And one morning woke up with a full novel spilling out so voraciously that I could type fourteen hours a day and still take months to get it down.  A second novel came nearly as easily.  And one day, a short story.

It reminded me I like writing short stories and I went back to them — no longer with the drudgery of one fatigued by unmet expectations, but with the liveliness of one fresh from a wild gallop in the grass.

I understood clear as day, for the first time, why I had named a character Nixon and how a certain meaning I’d always felt about this one story had never made it onto the page.  I rewrote it.  I sent it out.  Acceptance came in a phone message I received while standing in a circle of my writing students, unable at first to explain my sudden emotion.

So publication this month comes with its own double reward.  This story crossed the end zone, but with the refreshed appreciation that there is something to be said for running on the grass.  There would be no game without it and – whether a running back, a red filly or a writer – that time on the grass is when so much of the thrill and accomplishment take place.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother