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

Don’t Kill Time: 9 Tips for Writing Workplace Organization

I’m trying something different–a guest blog! Freelance writer and blogger, Emily Johnson, shares tips for making your work space efficient. This is an essential tool for writers. (Learn more about Emily and her work in the bio below.) 

Do you want to be more productive with your writing?

A productivity boost could help you work more efficiently and, therefore, complete tasks in less time. It also means having time to spend with family, relatives, and friends. In short, productivity is a key to success.

Even though it’s hard for writers to measure a level of productivity, you should bend over backwards in order not to kill time.

In fact, it is easy to boost productivity. The first thing to do is to organize your workplace.

Here are nine tips for workplace organization. 

  1. Keep your writing desk clean.
  2. Provide a proper illumination.
  3. Use digital gadgets to increase productivity.
  4. Put in live plants to clean the air and boost spirits.
  5. Use stickers to write down useful notes.
  6. Upgrade your computer.
  7. Find an inspirational corner.
  8. Pick up an ergonomic office chair.
  9. Add some comfort and health.

 If you want to change your life once and for all, take a look at this infographic about writing place organization by OmniPapers. It is a step-by-step guide for organizing a workplace, so you can learn more nuances of about this art. Plus, the infographic is easy to save, print, and reveal key moments later. Don’t be greedy; share it with your friends and colleagues, as it might be helpful for all writers (and workers). 

There is no better feeling in the world than living a happy life. It’s not a tricky thing to boost your productivity and start a better life right now.

your writing cabinet organization

 

Bio: Emily Johnson is a passionate blogger and content strategist at OmniPapers blog, who shares tips and tricks with fellows, helping them improve writing skills. You can always find more works of hers on G+.

Writing to Deadline: Theme lists and Contests

deadlineA great way to stay motivated to write regularly is to create deadlines. This gives you a goal or target to reach for in completing a manuscript. It also helps new writers develop the discipline to write regularly. I’ve never been able to fool myself with “false deadlines” but when I was starting out I often wrote to theme lists published by magazines.

Theme lists are exactly that—a list of upcoming themes by issue with a “wish list” of possible stories and articles that fit the theme. Along with the theme is a deadline for receiving queries (pitches) and/or completed manuscripts. Many children’s magazines provide theme lists, but alternatively following editors’ blogs can provide similar info. For example, Fun For Kidz, a popular magazine for children has scheduled a theme around water for the July 2016 issue. Pockets, a Christian children’s magazine published by The Upper Room includes an upcoming theme on friends for the June 2016 issue due 11/1/2015. Find theme lists (and guidelines) by entering a search string of publisher (or magazine) plus “theme list” or “guidelines” into your favorite browser.

writing-a-deadlineAn alternative is to enter contests. Again, the benefit is a goal and deadline to aim for and whether you win or not, you have a manuscript to submit to another market in the future. Many contests include an entry fee, which often includes either a subscription to the publication or a copy of the issue in which the contest winners are published. Still, a few contests are free. You can find upcoming contests for writers at Poet & Writers magazine, The Writer magazine, Ralan.com  and Writers-Editors.com  Please be sure to read and follow the guidelines.

“Quiet Mind” Writing Days

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

I’ve created several creativity programs for writers within the past six months and I’ve noticed something interesting among the participants: they try to jump into the “words on paper” part. Sometimes we need to quiet the mind first to allow ideas to surface.

Why do writers think they aren’t writing if words are not flowing onto the paper? Sometimes we simply need to sit, think about our stories or projects, or even brainstorm with friends. If you’re a writer, it is okay to sit and stare off into the day and consider possibilities for your characters or plot. It’s okay to find the best events in a personal experience you plan to craft. In fact, current neuro-research suggests that quieting the mind is how we allow ideas from our subconscious to surface. (This is why you might get great ideas while you’re doing something monotonous such as washing dishes, gardening, or scrubbing the shower.)

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

Where does this idea come from that writers shouldn’t think about our stories or craft in our heads before heading to the computer? (Even my college students jump to the drafting stage too quickly.) Pre-writing is important, and while students learning how to write are expected to show their pre-writing in the form of mind maps or outlines, professional writers often do all that planning in their heads. I think this idea that we should not sit quietly may come from a need to be taken seriously as writers. If we look busy and are clicking away on the keys, maybe our families will allow us to make progress on our novel or project. If we look busy, maybe life won’t get in the way. Or, perhaps staring into space and thinking about plot events for a work-in-progress doesn’t feel the same as having something to show for the time and so busy work keeps you from actually writing.

I know that my own life gets busy too quickly and then that frantic pace sets in. Sometimes it’s not even frantic action but simply frantic thoughts. I used to clear my mind every morning by dumping all my thoughts and worries every morning. Then I could focus on my project or making progress on contracted work. Some may recognize this as “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I followed that advice when I worked full time and tried breaking into print part-time.

Now that I write full time I need to take breaks to recharge during the day. Sometimes I need to quiet my mind and I use painting or music or cooking, or what I call productive procrastination. People may think the character collages I create are simply a way to avoid writing but I’m making progress on a specific book project. In actuality, these “arts and crafts” activities help me clarify details for my story.

 

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

While I am actually making these collages, my mind is quieting and I have time to pre-write or plan plot details and so on in my mind. When I return to the keyboard, I’m mentally refreshed. The progress I make doing this is far exceeds the results when I force myself to sit in front of the computer screen until I reach my “word or page quota.” In the end it’s about making progress toward a completed manuscript. Some days our work is easier to show than on other days, than on the “quiet mind” days.

The next time you hit a wall with your writing, try sitting and quieting your mind. Think about options for your narrative, or how you might shape the story. If you can’t shake the feeling that you aren’t writing if you think about your project, consider it “pre-writing.” Since the writing process is recursive, remind yourself that you’re going back to “stage 1” to develop the idea and settle into the plan for the next chapters or scenes. Project do benefit from “quiet mind” days. You’re still working; you’re still writing.

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\.

Reclaimed Writing Sanctuary

My office is my sanctuary, my refuge. It’s a safe harbor when facts and ideas, when scenes, characters, and plot twists bombard me. It’s where I get to choose which distractions to allow in, where I’m able to sort through the jumble of thoughts and ideas to make sense of them. It’s where I translate it all into black words on white paper with hope my reader is informed and/or entertained.

It’s not only the stuff of imagination I need to corral in order to, as Hemingway said, “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s also the quotes and images I collect to remain inspired. It’s keeping track of the files–research, clippings, or projects. It’s all the paperwork related to the business side of things, from contracts to promo ideas and details for presentations. (Not to mention the research, contracts, and supplies to create and manage those presentations.)

Quotes & photos surround writing space at edge of living room.

Quotes & photos surround writing space at edge of living room.

So, a defined place–a sanctuary–is vital to maintain a writer’s life. As Virginia Woolf called it, “a room of one’s own.” For the past 28 years, as I have devoted whatever free time I could find to learning and practicing my craft, I have had a spot in my home dedicated to my writing. At first it was a cool L-shaped bookshelf desk I had in high school and brought with me to my first apartment. Later, at a bigger apartment, I used a 5-foot space at the edge of my living room partitioned off with that bookshelf desk plus a computer nook. (Remember those?) Each move resulted in more space seized for my writing area. Until this move. It was a big deal. This condo has an extra bedroom that became the office. My office, my sanctuary.

But my writing refuge had become invaded in the past year. It was my fault. A too busy life caused me to dump book bags and art/writing supplies after each teaching gig or presentation. I moved files and clippings into piles for later, when I’d have time to pursue them, and I worked around the clutter. Until a few months ago when I realized I never wrote in my office anymore.

I realized I’d been chiseling out a space in other areas of my condo and writing mostly on my laptop. My office became a dumping ground. When my father passed away, more stuff got dumped there. Each time I decided to get it uncluttered and organized, I would walk in and promptly walk back out. It was too overwhelming.

View behind desk of stacked files and clutter.

View behind desk of stacked files and clutter.

It wasn’t until I decided that I truly missed the reverence I used to have for my writing that I was able to tackle the clutter and get organized. And truly, that’s what it was about. Reverence. My office really was a sanctuary–a chancel, a bema–for both my writing and myself. It was a place to retreat from the distractions of life and get lost in the world of my fiction projects or imagine sharing information with young readers and getting them fired up about a nonfiction topic.

The hard part was how overwhelming it had become. A friend suggested just tossing everything but I knew there were gems hidden among the files. There had to be a way to succeed without feeling I had murdered viable ideas by burying them in the recycle bins. So, I rearranged my office. I moved the file cabinets next to each other and did the same with the bookcases. I had to move the desk and furniture so that meant everything got moved. It took a lot of time. Then it took a few more months to sort through stacked boxes piled in one corner and decide whether to keep the contents, file some, or toss it all.

After sorting and reorganizing. Still a lot of stuff but racks and in-boxes keep it organized.

After sorting and reorganizing. Still a lot of stuff but racks and in-boxes keep it organized.

But the effort was worth it. First, within a few days the furniture was rearranged. Though I still had tons to sort through, the books were all on shelves and the desk and computer were functional. Second, I was immediately able to work again, in part because the piled boxes were behind my line of vision. (There was a lot of junk shoved in the closet, too, but clearing that out came later.) I love looking up, across the top of the monitor and seeing my writing/reference books long with cards, photos, and objects. On a nearby wall I have a cork board–a visual arrangement of inspiring quotes and images. Just beyond that are my character and story collages.

Inspired while writing by "wall of books" and knick-knacks across the room.

Inspired while writing by “wall of books” and knick-knacks across the room.

 

Finally, I spend far more time in my office. I’m happy here, and productive. More importantly, the space is dedicated and “sacred” again. It’s devoted to creativity and writing. Once again, it’s my writing sanctuary.

What’s your space look like? Have you carved out a spot? Have an dedicated room? If so, do you treat it–and your writing–with reverence?

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!