Embracing the Holiday Dash

Southern Christmas decoration

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

It’s that time of year again. Fueled by our Thanksgiving feasts we’re ready to begin the holiday dash. We enter the frenzy of buying, wrapping, shipping, stamping, mailing, cooking, baking, and battling the long To-Do list for preparing a “magical” holiday for family and friends. It seems impossible to find a spare minute to focus on putting words on paper. I’ve discovered that THIS is the time of year to read or plan a project. I feel I’ve accomplished SOMETHING during the holiday season when I focus on WORDS.

Read-magazine

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

It’s not so much about putting words onto paper but on keeping a pulse on the rhythm of words. When I focus on words, I’m able to embrace the holiday dash—and feel I’m made a little progress toward my writing while crossing off items on an ever-growing To-Do list. These tips may help you too:

Tune into language. You can do this two ways. Listen to holiday songs and note the phrases that paint images as well as evoke emotion. Songs and poetry rely on specific word choice to get a meaning/scenario across to the listener very  quickly. Or while reading, notice vivid verbs or phrases that conjure images and/or emotion. For example, while reading a fantasy novel recently I made this list:

  • hulking machines
  • enormous iron beetles
  • stabbed up from the earth
  • billowing smoke
  • snorting steam
  • wreathed in smoke.

In another story, I listed strong, vivid verbs and modifiers:

  • swirled
  • twisted
  • blooming
  • sprouted
  • jagged
  • crumbling
  • loomed.

When you tune into language like this, you’ll soon find yourself reaching for a more vivid and creative phrase, rather than relying on the first word that comes to mind.

Return to the Pre-Writing Phase. As a nonfiction author, I can make progress by reading for research and then planning an article or section of my book project. But fiction writers can also use this time to plan and pace out story scenes. Remember that the phases in the writing process are recursive. This is NOT like baking cookies. (Though I use time spent mixing, rolling out, cutting, and baking sugar cookies to play with story pacing or focusing a nonfiction topic.)

People watch. Rely on a writer’s power of observation by watching people while you’re stuck in line or waiting somewhere. (If you’re not already a keen observer, now is a great time to develop this skill!) Make a mental list of specific actions. What do they reveal about personality? Note outfits and how people interact with those around them. What clues would these provide a reader about a character’s inner workings? How might you spring-board from these observations to enhance your work-in-progress?

All of these things can be done while you’re working on crossing off items on December’s lengthy To-Do list. I’ve found it balances out the frenzy of the holiday dash.

May you cross the “finish line” to happy holidays and make a little progress in the pre-writing phase in the coming month. HappyHoliday

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Make Peace with Holiday Writing Progress

sun tree“Christmas is the season for kindling
the fire of hospitality in the hall,
the genial flame of charity in the heart.”
~Washington Irving

I hope you are giving yourself a gift of time this year: time to spend with family and friends, time to sit and dream (i.e., pre-write & plan), time to be kind to yourself.

Perhaps you’ve been very motivated all year and focused on your writing projects. Now, it may be frustrating to feel you’re making little progress due to the “holiday dash.” Or, perhaps you’ve thrown yourself into the holiday celebrations BECAUSE you’ve made little progress this year. In either case, the following writing-related activities will keep your head in your project with a few snippets of time throughout the week. They are all related to pre-writing, which is an important stage in writing. If you can find time now to do a few of these, you’ll have that pattern established once the holidays end and your time frees up a bit.

1. Back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December and early January. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

2. Select 2 writing-related activities in lieu of adding word count. Items for this list might include:

  • reading (especially in the same genre as your project)
  • exploring publishers
  • finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter)
  • drafting a project summary or cover letter
  • making outline notes (or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle)

These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

The challenge of writing "on demand" pushes beyond the comfort zone.

3. Keep a notebook with you. Jot thoughts about your work-in-progress. (How do your characters celebrate the holidays? Which holidays occur during the course of your story?) While you’re in the holiday crowds (or at family gatherings), note mannerisms and oft repeated phrases. These could become character tags in your story, or provide a detail to make a character come alive. Note memories triggered during holiday activities. Then, journal about them.

4. Journal. If you don’t normally journal, now is a great time to begin. Journaling is a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if it’s only a few paragraphs or a summary of your busy days. (These details can come in handy when you return to your regularly scheduled writing routine.) Journaling can also help clear your mind and allow you to focus on tackling the holiday to-do list.

Think of the above as similar to working out. It’s much easier to get back into full swing after the holidays when you’ve kept the writing muscles warmed up with writing-related activities.

WhitePineSeason’s Greetings, and happy writing!

This is my wish for you:
peace of mind, prosperity through the year,
happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours,
fun around every corner, energy to chase
your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!
~D.M. Dellinger

Write Through the Holidays

The holidays have arrived. Allow me to wish you a most merry holiday dash! For many people, CharlieBrownTreemyself included, the holidays herald the added stress of a longer to-do list, too little time, and frustration at fitting in writing time. When I was still working full-time and freelancing (instead of writing full-time), it was even more stressful because I’d offer myself an early gift of making more time to write. Disaster. Over the years, and especially since transitioning to full-time writing, I’ve learned to balance writing and all the holiday prep using four guidelines:

broken-orn First, back off on your expectations (and this applies to non-writing parts of life, too). This is NOT the time to set outrageous goals to get your family to support or encourage you as a writer. Be realistic. If you normally make time to write four days a week, aim instead for two or three days per week during December. You have twice the work load with holiday shopping and prep (especially if you’re hosting family for dinner or celebrations).

Second, make a list of writing-related activities and target achieving those instead of adding word count to your work-in-progress. What is one thing you can do daily (or four times a week, or whatever your goal) to make progress with your writing? Items for this list might include, reading, exploring publishers, finding authors similar to your project (for the pitch letter), drafting a project summary or cover letter, making outline notes, or even thinking about how your character will face the next obstacle. These are all related to writing and your current project, even if some do not include putting words to paper. For example, reading articles about writing craft in a magazine or on a website about will help you with your writing after the holiday prep is completed.

Third, keep a notebook with you. When I was starting out, I wrote magazine articles so I kept a notebook with me at all times, making notes and jotting ideas based on my experiences with family and friends. An article about what women do while men watch football? Tips for faster clean up to get out of the kitchen and back to the gathering? Ideas for occupying little ones during “boring grown-up talk”? I recorded them all, without judging the quality or feasibility. (Those decisions were made later.)journal Likewise, I noted mannerisms and details that could be used to make fiction characters come alive.

Four, journal more frequently. This is still my trick for making writing progress during the holidays. I faithfully wrote daily in my journal (though I frequently skip days at others times of the year). This gave me the chance to clear ideas from my head and record plot and scene summaries for current writing projects. It also served as a way to put words to paper on a regular basis, even if I only wrote a few paragraphs. After the holidays it’s easy to look at these summaries and plan, then get back to a regular writing routine. Like working out, it was easier to get back into full swing because I kept the muscles warmed up with daily short writing.

If you do not normally journal, now is a great time to take it up. At the very least, jot thoughts and ideas in a notebook for use later. It may provide an added “gift” of creating a regular writing routine to build from after the holidays.

HappyHoliday

Set Boundaries to Limit Distractions

“I enjoy writing in the desert. There are no distractions

such as telephones, theaters, opera houses, and gardens.”

~Agatha Christie

Boy can I relate to Agatha! “Life gets in the way” moments are overflowing the brim on my cup of life this month. Emails from former workshop students looking for quick answers, neighbors wanting to meet for coffee, community and building maintenance that either create excessive noise or inconveniences (such as needing to move vehicles or preparing for a water shut-off all morning), phone calls to change scheduled appointments (which disrupts everything else). The list goes on, but we all have these problems to deal with. Life happens.

Set boundaries and stick to them.

Set boundaries and stick to them.

The trick is in setting boundaries. This is difficult for writers, whether you are working your craft on a part-time, full-time, or “whenever I can grab the time” basis. If, like Agatha, you know you’re going to be distracted, then go somewhere to minimize those distractions. Okay, most of us don’t have the luxury of retreating to a second house or a hotel, especially for an extended stay. So, the answer lies in setting boundaries at home. This is as simple as carving out an hour or two of time to dedicate to writing. Depending on how you work, these don’t need to be back-to-back hours. Progress is progress and it adds up over time. I recently declared Mondays my “writing days” and I now focus first on my own project (before shifting gears to work on client projects). I allow no meetings or appointments on Mondays. When someone tries to set appointments for Mondays I apologize and inform him or her that the “slots are filled.” They are. By my projects.

Remember that when you set boundaries, you do not need to provide an explanation. Have the PTA president asking you to help with an event? Great, but as a parent you have a job to take care of your family along with whatever other hats you may wear. Simply say, “Oh, I’d love to but I’m not free at that time.” Yes, I’ve known some pushy people who might ask, “Really? Doing what?” Very rude, but you still do not owe any explanation (even if you were simply planning on taking a long soak in the tub)!

Consider your choices and choose a path.

Consider your choices and choose a path.

If you feel guilty, first remember that they want you to accommodate them, and second, what you have planned is important too. It’s about choices and you need to choose to take your writing seriously. You can always say you have an assignment to complete or a project to finish (because you do; your writing project). I had one pushy client who hinted many times that I should make her project a priority and even suggested I work on her computer at her house! I restated my unavailability until she asked to know about my other clients. I smiled, and said, “Now that’s not fair.” I paused and then jokingly added, “I mean, I suppose I could tell you, but then I’d have to . . .” (I didn’t need to finish that old cliché. She got the hint that it was none of her business!)

Guard the time you set aside.

Guard the time you set aside.

When setting boundaries, people often get upset that they are not getting their own way. This is okay. It’s part of the power struggle in maintaining boundaries. Their hope is that you will bend your boundaries to accommodate them. Think of young children who push to the limit to see how much they can get away with. As parents, we stand firm. As business people (and yes, you should think of your writing as a business), we need to stand firm, too. I have never made appointments with dentists or repair people when I could “nudge” them into a time that was the better for me. Whoever makes the schedule suggests the closest open time slot: “I have an 11:30 a.m. or, the next time on that date is 3:30 p.m.” I choose the time based on what’s available. We need to work with all the people in our lives to do the same and guard what little time we manage to set aside for our writing projects.

The effort you put into maintaining boundaries will pay off. During the guarded hours you create for your writing, you can ignore potential distractions, just as Agatha Christie did in writing in the desert. Over time, those distractions that are part of daily life will feel less invasive because you will see progress on your writing, and page by page you move closer to your goal\.

Freedom Friday

Happy 4th of July to my American friends and followers!

LadyLiberty

I’m glad Independence Day falls on a Friday this year. I needed the reminder to guard my freedom to write every Friday. It’s long been my “free” writing day. It’s not that I needed to be reminded that Fridays are (and have been for nearly 20 years) my dedicated writing time. It’s that I needed the reminder that saying “no” for a Friday commitment is okay.

Though I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years now, it’s only been about 12 that I have freelanced full time. In my early writing career, I worked full-time and struggled to carve out writing time. After selling regularly for about 5 years, I sought out jobs that would allow me Fridays off. This way I had a long weekend every weekend to focus on my writing business. At first it was a company that allowed me to work 40 hours during 4 days (or sometimes work only a half-day on Friday). Later, I took a 32-hour-a-week job and then a half-time (20 hours per week) job.

freedomFridays have been “sacred” writing time to me. Even now, when I’m working on a client project or have a deadline, Fridays are still my “free” day. I choose the project to focus on, even if it’s only for part of the day. It’s often one of my newer projects. This keeps me motivated. (There’s something about a project in the early stages of planning and character development that recharges both my creativity and my energy.)

Recently, I’ve had a several requests to either teach or meet a client or commit to some writing-related event on a Friday. Inwardly I blanched. Outwardly I said, “I’m so sorry. That day is already booked.” But, I felt guilty. Really guilty. It’s so easy to feel the guilt trips from others weighing heavily on my shoulders. I mean, I work at home. My time is flexible. What’s the big deal about accommodating someone else’s schedule and helping him or her out?

The big deal is that if this were a job in which I had to leave my house, go to an employer’s place of business to complete my tasks, then no one would question my inability to meet with them on Fridays. This is one of the toughest things about committing to a freelance career—even from family. It seems to them so flexible, so filled with freedom to set one’s own schedule (meaning, fitting into their schedules). There are plenty of other things that are hard about freelancing. Guarding the time we work to carve out and commit to our writing goals shouldn’t be one of them.

So, with Independence Day falling on my “free” day to write, it reminded me to make a new choice. I choose not to feel guilty about guarding my freedom to write. What choices will you make? Will you carve out writing time too—and guard your freedom to write? I hope so!

Anticipating . . . a Day of Writing

Children’s writers learn to look back on their childhoods to develop stories young people can relate to. It’s not looking back just for the memories but for the emotion too. For example, do you recall being in elementary school and looking forward to a new day because something good was about to happen? Maybe it was the first day of summer break. Maybe it was the start to a family vacation. Maybe it was your birthday. Or, maybe it was a simple as going to a movie, getting a book you’d been looking forward to, or the new Saturday cartoon line up every autumn.

When was the last time you, as an adult, looked forward to a weekend day with that same sense of anticipation as a long-planned for vacation? When was the last time you, as a writer, looked forward to crafting the next scene in your story or starting a new novel? I’ve thought about this sense of anticipation a lot during the past three months. It reminded me that when I still worked full time, I wrote in every spare minute I could find. To add to my writing time, I used to plan a long weekend with the intent of writing for 3 days straight.

The joy of making serious progress as I focused on a specific writing project provided the same break as a weekend getaway. At some jobs I had to use vacation days but at others they allowed personal days scheduled a week or so ahead. Whatever those circumstances at my job, I planned for my long writing weekend with the same attention I spent planning a vacation. I made decisions about which project I’d focus on and whether I’d stay home or turn it into a “private retreat” by reserving a motel room. I planned nutritious snacks to keep the creative juices flowing, and I scheduled my time–complete with exercise breaks and time for reading writing books or magazines and to connect with other writers (or get some feedback on my writing).  The progress I made on my project buoyed me through my day job.

Now that I write full time, I juggle a lot of projects and balance teaching writing workshops with client work and contracted writing (mostly nonfiction). During scheduling turmoil in the past year, I realized I was missing that sense of anticipation in my writing. So, I designated Fridays as my “writing” days, meaning I work on only my projects. Client deadlines infringed and again I realized I was lacking that sense of anticipation. During this year I’ve designated Wednesdays and Fridays as “my projects” days. It doesn’t always work out the way I planned (and “my projects” has broadened in scope) but I’m happy with the sense of accomplishment at the end of those days. I haven’t felt that since my weekend “writing vacations” of the past.

So, are you feeling that sense of anticipation in your writing life? Do you awake happy that at some point that day you’ll get to focus on your story, book, or article? If not, consider proclaiming one day (or even a half day) as your “my writing project” day. Mark your calendar. Plan what you’ll do. Let your family know and ask for their support. Then, wake up with anticipation . . . to write!

One Step Closer

This has been an overwhelming year. The month of November was especially challenging, but I got through it with the help of friends and family . I’m grateful to them. But I’m also thankful that I learned something years ago that has helped me navigate the rough waters of life. While working for a company that held yearly “Make It Happen” goal-setting days, we also received Franklin-Covey planners and learned about creating action steps and prioritizing every item on our To-Do lists.

Out of this evolved a process to juggle a variety of projects — I’ve always thrived on having a lot of irons in the fire. But the idea is so simple most people disregard it.

The key is actually two parts that work together. The first part is to remain positive. The second is to break every task and goal into smaller pieces. The pieces help you feel you’re accomplishing something, which makes it easier to remain positive. With this in mind, break everything into as small a piece as necessary to 1) move toward completion, and 2) feel as if you’re making progress.

So, every word builds a sentence. Every sentence a paragraph. Every paragraph a page. Page after page builds a chapter and so on until the manuscript is complete. Now you’re moving forward and making progress.

During the last few months I’ve focused on “just one more” of whatever I’ve been facing. One more class meeting toward completing a workshop. One more meeting toward completing a project for a client. One more manuscript to read. One more student to critique. One more course proposal submitted. One more box toward packing away my father’s possessions. One more load to donation. One more room emptied and cleaned. One more day toward a fresh start in a new year.

And now, one more blog toward getting back on track. Try it for yourself. Just one more step takes you closer to your goal. And as you get through each task, you’re have one more thing to feel good about.