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

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

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