What I Didn’t Say

I’m not sure when I first began abstaining from political or politicized discussions. It might’ve been when I first came home from work, furious with my coworkers for tossing pro-Trump rhetoric around while disparaging the ideals and experience of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton. It might’ve been the first, or the fifth, or the twentieth time this year that a member of the children’s lit community failed to grasp the importance of inclusion and acceptance in their fiction, and lashed out after being called out for it. It might’ve been when I realized that I was spending so much of my time being angry over all of the ignorance and injustice in this world that my happiness was suffering as a result.

I don’t regret the decisions I sometimes made to close my computer and put down my phone. I don’t regret choosing to focus on things that made me happy, and putting everything else out of my mind. What I do regret is not speaking up more when I had the chance.

In the wake of Tuesday’s election results, I’ve read many brilliant, heartfelt, fierce, encouraging blog posts. The vast majority of them were written by women, and the vast majority of those women are far more marginalized than I am.  If the man we’ve elected to lead our country decides to capitalize on a fraction of the promises he’s made during the last two years, those women stand to lose so much more than I ever could.

I am all for self care, and doing what you need to do to maintain your own mental health and happiness. I don’t blame or judge my friends and family who have stayed offline and away from protests because they’re still assessing their own feelings, or unsure about what to say. And yet, I am more aware than ever that being able to turn your focus from injustice or intolerance simply by stepping away from the internet is a mark of incredible privilege. So is being able to walk down the street without fearing for your own safety, or not worrying about which of your civil rights might be infringed upon if Donald Trump is sworn in as president.

As a woman and a person who benefits from the Affordable Care Act, I am definitely afraid for myself. I am not nearly as afraid as my friends who are people of color or religious minorities, whose gender identities and sexualities don’t match society’s norms. Who had to watch on Tuesday night as a significant portion of our country told them with their votes that they aren’t worthy of being protected or valued.

For a long, long time, I’ve felt like a fraud or a white savior every time I stepped into a discussion centered around social justice or minority rights. Not because those issues don’t matter to me, or because those issues aren’t important. Because most of those issues are not going to impact me in the same way that they’re going to impact the people who fight the hardest for them. I thought that I was doing marginalized individuals a favor, by giving them the floor and keeping my own mouth closed. I thought I was being supportive by trying not to step on anyone’s toes.

I was wrong, and I’m ashamed it took me so long to realize it. In choosing to stay silent during some of those discussions online, or biting my tongue when my former coworkers tossed inflammatory language around, I gave up my chance to enact change. Instead of being viewed as supportive, I’m sure I seemed complicit. Unconcerned, the way so many Americans were when they cast their votes on election night.

No more. I doubt that shutting down hate speech in the office, or correcting ignorant people on Twitter would’ve changed the election results, but keeping quiet changed nothing. A disgusting majority of white Americans voted for Trump. It’s time for those of us who didn’t to take action, work toward positive, long-lasting change, and speak up even when it’s hard. Even when we’re tired, or angry, or heartsick.

I’m sure there will still be nights when I’ll choose mental stability over involvement, or short-term happiness over slow-burning anger. But in this new and frightening America, I am certain of one thing. I won’t waste any more time regretting the things that I didn’t say, when I can speak up and speak out instead.

Problematic Tropes that I Don’t (Always) Hate

I’ve had a harder time than usual merely reading for the sake of reading these last few months. My brain keeps chewing up the stories I’m trying to enjoy and spitting them back out, getting stuck on the character cliches and unsurprising plot twists and sometimes ungainly clumps of words.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t read any good books this year, or that I don’t make these exact same mistakes in my own work. I have, and I do. But it’s also easier than ever for me to see through the magical veil that used to come down over me whenever I’d crack open a brand new book, because of the time I’ve spent on my own stories.

That said, I’ve also noticed that there are plenty of problematic elements I’m willing to overlook if a story is done well, and that a lot of those elements are genre specific.

When I’m reading fantasy or sci-fi, I almost always stumble across a point where I don’t understand the science or the magic, the technology or the weapons or the purpose behind some military or political strategy. Maybe this is because I don’t write these genres, or because I HATE world-building and think it’s a necessary evil at best. As long as the bulk of the story doesn’t leave me feeling lost, I have no problems reading through the confusing bit, accepting that it’s going to go over my head, and moving on.

I’m also not a fan of dubious power dynamics within a couple or potential romantic pairing in contemporary fiction, but if one half of a fantasy couple is human and the other half is super-powered, it bothers me a lot less. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate when both halves of a couple can hold their own in-universe, or when traditionally “male” or “female” skills are subverted. It just isn’t as much of a sticking point for me as it would be if the story was set in our world.

On the other hand, cliched romantic pairings such as the “good” girl and the “bad” boy bother me so much less in contemporary fiction than they should. If the plot of a book is otherwise good and the stakes are high, I won’t get stuck on whether the characters are a little two-dimensional. Similarly, if the characterization throughout a contemporary story is good right up until one of the characters does something unforgivably stupid or out-of-character, I’m a lot more forgiving than if the same thing were to happen in a fantasy or sci-fi setting.

I’m guessing that some of you monitor your reactions to books or other media in much the same way that I do, and I’d be interested to know what some of your peculiar hang-ups are. Leave me a comment and let me know!

Progress and Bootcamp

I’m guessing that some of you probably saw this already, since I was pretty ecstatic about it on Twitter, but after YEARS of stressing and planning, writing and re-writing, I finally have a completed first draft of my mystery WIP. This story has seen a couple different working titles come and go, and more incarnations than I can count, but once I found the right story and the right way to tell it, the drafting process flew. It’s a mess right now, as all of my first drafts are, but it’s a mess I can work with.

I’ve spent most of this summer trying not to talk about what I’ve been working on or how it’s been going for fear of jinxing myself, so I thought I’d take a couple minutes to let you guys know what I’ve been up to.

Back in July, I received the first batch of critical feedback for Facing the Music, and I’m expecting two more batches sometime in the next couple weeks. I’ve had a nice long break from that story, which hopefully means I’ll be able to jump back in and push through this last round of revisions without driving myself insane. Regardless of what critique I have yet to receive, this will be the last time I revise Facing the Music on my own. It has been on my computer or in my brain, kept under lock and key for so long, that I feel it deserves the chance to go out into the (publishing) world and sink or swim on its own merit.

Of course, this means that I’m going to have to revise my query letter and write a synopsis, which I’m trying really hard not to think about right now.

I’m currently participating in the YA Buccaneers Fall Writing Bootcamp, which I’ve done before and very much enjoyed. This time around, I’m trying to be more involved in the online community of participants as a way of holding myself accountable, and I feel like that’s going pretty well.

It also doesn’t hurt that the only thing I’m working on at the moment is brainstorming/planning two different stories that I have in the works. Both stories have the same general premise (friends to lovers romances, weirdly enough), but approach said premise in very different ways. One of them is far more developed than the other, and I already feel like I know the cast of characters pretty well. One of them is much less developed, but I’m a little more excited about it, even though it promises to be a more complicated story.

Last September I would’ve been climbing the walls, desperate to complete a revision or a draft, something tangible enough for me to feel good about crossing it off my to-do list before the clock ran out on the year. This year, I’m honestly enjoying the calm before the heavy storm of more creation. I’m soaking up the perfect Midwestern fall weather, going apple picking, and preparing myself for the chaos of harvest season. I’m excited about the leaves changing, and National Novel Writing Month, and my birthday.  Best of all, I’m excited about the work and writing ahead.

Developing Productivity Strategies

Time management has never been one of my strongest suits. I’m the sort of person who can and will finish something in an hour if I only have an hour to spare. On the flip side, I’m also the sort of person who will take eight hours to finish something that should only take two or three, just because I happen to have eight hours to spare that day.

Perfectionism is a big part of the reason I tend to take longer than necessary to accomplish things. Procrastination is another big part. But not having a solid routine in place, or understanding what sort of conditions I need to replicate in order to be productive and stay productive has also hampered my creative output a ton. At least until recently.

I might not be the most qualified person in the world to offer tips on productivity, but I thought I’d share a few anyway that have worked really well for me. Some are technology-based, some are more old school, and a few have just involved good, old-fashioned changes in routine. In no particular order, here are the strategies I’ve found most effective for improving my own productivity.

1) Downloading a web blocker

I finally broke down and purchased Freedom for Windows a little over a year ago, and oh my God, was that the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s cheap, easy to use, and will lock you out of your internet for a pre-determined length of time that you select before activating it. If you really need to get back online, you have to re-start your computer to do it.

I love Freedom because I can set it to run for an hour, if I want to buckle down and write, or for several hours if I have a bunch of important things to do and I know I’ll be distracted by all the bright, shiny stuff online. There are also a bunch of different web blockers besides Freedom that will just block social media, or that will prevent you from going online on your phone. As far as eliminating distractions goes, this is the single, most useful thing I can recommend.

2) Setting the scene

I’m all for training yourself to write anytime, anyplace, just like I’m all for training your brain to buckle down and focus no matter where you happen to be or what’s happening around you. That said, each person has their own specific conditions that lead to their highest creative output. Determining what those conditions are for me personally, as well as learning how to replicate them, has increased my productivity a ton.

In college, I could write with the TV on, in the middle of conversations my friends were having, in ten minute bursts and two hour stretches. I was used to being surrounded by constant distractions, so I got good at working around them. Now, I work best in a space that’s quiet, or that has low levels of ambient noise. Coffee shops that play music are usually fine. Coffee shops that tend to serve as communal work spaces for other people aren’t always.

I also prefer to have at least an hour or two ahead of me when I’m writing. Any less, and I find myself anticipating whatever I have to do next, instead of really settling in to focus. I do my best work in the mid-mornings and late afternoons, so I also try to sit down and write at those times.

Where, and when, and how long you like to write will obviously be different from person to person. But if you can figure out what your ideal writing conditions are and learn how to re-create those conditions every time, you’re going to see an increase in your productivity.

3) Re-evaluating my priorities

I used to think that if I knocked off all the smaller, less important tasks on my to-do list, I’d have more time for the big, important stuff at the end of the day. Instead, what almost always ended up happening was that I’d get to the end of my day without the time or energy I needed to devote to my project du jour.

It’s okay to jump start your productivity with simpler, easier tasks. I do this a ton, especially when I’m having trouble focusing. But as soon as my brain makes the switch to ‘work’ mode, I make the switch to writing, or blogging, or other similarly thought-intensive stuff.  Prioritizing my writing doesn’t just give me more time to write. It also reduces or eliminates a lot of the stress that results when you try and cram several hours worth of work into the half hour of your day.

Try carving out your ideal block of writing time earlier in the day, and save the stuff that matters less for later. Who knows? Knocking out one or two big tasks ahead of schedule might even motivate you to finish some of those smaller tasks ahead of schedule too.

4) Making a plan

Day planners are my friend. To-do lists, also my friends. I don’t know about you guys, but I wouldn’t remember anything OR get anything done if I didn’t write it down.

At the start of every year, I make a list of goals that I’d like to accomplish–both writing-related and otherwise. I’m not super strict with myself on a month-to-month basis, but I definitely check each month’s progress against those goals to see if I’m doing okay, or if there are ways I can improve. I don’t set a lot of day-by-day goals for myself either, but if I do happen to set a goal for a particular day, you can bet I write it down.

Goals are my map, showing me how far I’ve come and how far I need to go. They keep me motivated and on task. That said, I think too many people–myself included–see their goals as being set in stone. If, during one of my self-evaluations, I realize that a goal I’ve set for myself is no longer realistic for whatever reason, I either alter that goal or eliminate it for the time being. It’s one thing to have a plan and set your own goals and do what you can to stick to them. Berating yourself over a goal that you know you’ve got no chance at achieving isn’t healthy or productive, and you’re better off just adjusting your expectations for yourself before carrying on. 

5) Not working when I know I won’t be able to work

I’ve already mentioned that I was a lot more flexible about my working conditions when I was still in school. And for a long time–like, years–after graduation, I kept trying and trying to be that person who could buckle down and write anywhere, even though I knew I wasn’t anymore.

Now, if I know that I’m going to be spending time with family, or on vacation, or involved in any other activity where my attention will be diverted, I excuse myself from writing completely. I don’t bring my computer along. I don’t set any goals for myself. And without that constant subconscious pressure to get some work done, I’m both a lot more emotionally present and a lot more clear-headed when I do sit down to write again.

When you give yourself some breathing room, the permission to enjoy life away from your work, the work itself becomes a lot more enjoyable too. It’s a big mental shift to make–one I’m still making, honestly–but it makes a big difference.

Feel free to take what might work for you from this list, and ignore the things that don’t catch your eye. And if you find these, or other techniques, especially useful to your productivity, drop me a line and let me know.

Mid-Year Updates

Happy Official Start of Summer, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying the weather where you live, and not suffocating in this terrible Midwestern humidity like I am.

Since it has been over a month since I’ve blogged and I’ve had a super busy spring, I thought I would just do a quick rundown of everything that’s been going on writing wise and otherwise.

I finally finished an extensive rewrite/revision of Facing the Music back in May, and I am super stoked. This story has been such a roller coaster ride for me, but this is the most excited and encouraged I’ve felt about it in a long time. Part of that excitement has to do with finally going back and charting my progress over the years, from initial idea to now, and being amazed at how far I’ve come. When all that you’re focused on are the endless, trying days of revising and rewriting and reworking, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and forget that all your hard work is going to make the story better.

The other thing I’m excited about though, at least as far as Facing the Music goes, is that I am going to start querying soon. No more wimping out, or deciding to rewrite the whole freaking thing another time. I’ll be sending this revised version out for one more look from a couple people I trust, and then I’m going to make the changes and jump in headfirst. I could spend forever striving for perfect, but I’ve finally realized that I’m not striving for perfect. I’m striving for a story that I can be proud of, and ultimately,  a story that’s published. And I’m not going to get there if I never let anyone else read it.

In the interim, I’ve been working on yet another draft of my mystery WIP, which is progressing fairly well. This has been such a tricky project for me–partially because I’m new to mystery writing and partially because I had never quite managed to figure out how I wanted to frame the story. I’d always envisioned something complicated and messy, with multiple POV characters clamoring to share their version of events. And every time I re-started my drafts, I’d be trying to shape the story into something else. Now that I’m letting it be what it wants, and damn the torpedoes, I’m enjoying the drafting process a lot more.

I’ve also been reading like crazy, and reading as widely as I can. I’ve been spending lots of time with friends and visiting with family, planning a vacation, and experimenting madly with smoothie recipes as a way of beating the heat.

I hope you’re enjoying your summer just as much as I am, and that you’ve found plenty of time for writing, relaxing, or whatever else you love to do when it gets warm. 🙂

The Importance of Taking Breaks

I’m an all or nothing kind of person. I like to be busy, I’m always open to learning new skills or trying new things, and I’m usually working one more than one project at a time. Boredom is a rare and unsettling feeling for me, because I always have something that I know I could be working on.

I’m also the kind of person who can over-work myself without even thinking about it, who tackles just about everything with the same intensity and perfectionism, and who really, really sucks at dialing back the work and taking a break.

It’s strange. My default state definitely tends toward laziness in a few important ways. I’d rather lie on the couch with a book than get up and go to the gym. I sometimes cancel plans or refrain from making them in the first place because the logistics of said plans–who I’m meeting, and where, and how long it takes me to get there, and how much effort the trip will be–are too exhausting to bother with. When I was in school, I loved the freedom of empty summer days stretching ahead of me. I’ve always enjoyed travel because leaving my responsibilities and my stress at home is intoxicating.

But in my day-to-day life, I’m terrible about penciling in time off or giving myself permission to leave empty days on my planner and just not DO so much. And that really needs to change.

I’ve gotten a lot of my energy and motivation back in the last year or so, and the place where those changes are most noticeable to me is in my writing. I still struggle with turning off my inner editor, and I still have to give myself a good, solid kick in the pants before I can sit down and start drafting anything. But the words are flowing more easily than they have in ages, and I’m flush with too many new ideas and possible projects to juggle at once. It feels great to see progress in my work, and great to be working, but progress also makes it really hard for me to stop.

Many of you know that I’ve been revising Facing the Music, my YA contemporary MS, for a number of years now. I’ve seen more high points and low points, productive spells and dry spells than I can even keep track of in the story, but more and more often I’m noticing that the dry spells appear because I’m burnt out. I’m either doing too much or pushing too hard, or trying to meet impossible goals because I feel like I have to. And all of those things make it hard for me to stay engaged and motivated.

So, what’s the solution here? For me, it was making the decision to only work on any of my projects as much as I feel like working on them. If I can’t stomach revising, I’ll draft. If I’m struggling with drafting, I’ll revise. If I need inspiration, I’ll read a book or watch a movie or listen to some really excellent music. Occasionally, I’ll unplug all together and let my stories rest while I do something else.

Last week, my BF and I took a long weekend trip to a place we both loved as kids. I left my laptop at home and I didn’t write for four straight days. I hiked and played games and got outdoors, and I came back refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to get back to work.

Knowing that I’m allowed to take days off is one thing. But feeling like I can take days off and that everything will be okay has made all the difference in the world.

What about you? Are you good at taking breaks, or do you struggle? How do you make the most of your down time?

 

Wordsmith Workshops Recap

Although I already blogged about my initial introduction to Wordsmith Workshops and Retreat here, I believe I owe you all an update on the experience itself. 🙂

(Spoiler alert: It was AWESOME.)

I’ve only been back in my real life for a little over a week now, but I am more inspired and energized by my writing than I have been in a long time. My motivation is back with a vengeance, I’ve already come up with a couple new potential story ideas, AND I’m excited about my revisions again for the first time in months.

There was something about sharing the same space with so many other talented YA and MG writers that really got my creative juices flowing. It was so refreshing to have other people around to brainstorm with or bounce ideas off of, or help troubleshoot potential problems. And of course, being able to pick Beth’s and Cristin’s brains was invaluable to me. They were both so much more generous with their time than I could’ve predicted going in, and their commentary was both insightful and incredibly appreciated.

I really enjoyed the workshop elements of the whole affair as well–from the discussions about craft and querying, to our Skype session with literary agent Eric Smith. We were also given the opportunity to pick bestselling author Jennifer Armentrout’s brain about writing and publishing, which was both hilarious and enlightening.

Out of everything I enjoyed about Wordsmith, the hours of uninterrupted writing time (or talk about books time, or game-playing time) were what really made the whole experience for me. Having nothing to do but write, revise, and hang out with other writers spoiled me so much. Not to mention the complete novelty of being able to bring up just about any published YA novel and have someone nearby exclaim, “Ooh! I loved that!” Or, “I can’t wait to read that!

Basically, the experience was worth every dollar spent and every mile traveled, and I’m so glad that I managed to go. If you’re at all interested in Wordsmith Workshops, you should definitely pop on over to their website and check things out for yourself.

(Warning: Side effects of attendance may include difficulty returning to work or school, an increased appetite for stories and writing, and dissatisfaction with your own cooking abilities.)

Have questions? Ever been on a retreat of your own before? Leave a comment and let me know!