Posted in Writing

A Summer of Words

Summer

Writing is like exercise, and I am out of shape.

Writing is difficult, at least for me. I’m a perfectionist and a procrastinator, who’s easily distracted by new ideas, cute animals outside my window, and chocolate. None of these qualities do a consistent writer make. I’m also a teacher, and during the school year I’m a slave to my job, spending so much time teaching and grading and planning and collapsing from exhaustion, that a rarely write.

It’s not that I don’t have time to write. I do. I could. Others do it, and I exist in a state of constant awe of those people. But I don’t. Yes, I can pen a poem now and then, blog a couple of times a month, and maybe work on a short story. But the deep dive into novel work? No, I can’t take that plunge. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’ve quickly come up gasping for air.

HABIT

So, yes, writing is hard, and the longer I go without doing it, the harder it becomes. For real writing to happen, it must be a habit, and in order for something to be a habit, you have to start small. Anyone who’s ever tried to sprint without warming up first knows it’s a bad idea. You have to stretch. Build up your muscles.

That’s why I’m back to using 750words.com. This site’s monthly challenge has been the kick I’ve needed in the past, and I hope it will be the habit-builder I need now. On June 1st, I sat down at my computer (which was hard to do) and started typing (also hard). I used a prompt from my Storymatic cards, thought of a random scene in my novel, and wrote, sluggishly, for fifteen minutes or so before running out of steam. By that point, I had 295 words. And they weren’t good. I doubt any of those words will ultimately make it into my novel.

But I wrote them. And when I couldn’t take that scene any further, I stayed in the chair (which was the hardest of all) and kept writing. I wrote some questions about my novel (to be answered later), then I wrote some of this blog post. After an hour and twenty minutes in front of the computer, I finally got to 750 words. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pretty. But I did it. And then I went for a walk, because actual exercise is on my summer list too.

DISCIPLINE

For me, discipline in writing requires discipline in all aspects of life. I’d love to be able to sleep until ten, eat junk food all day, watch some TV, and then sit down and write a couple thousand brilliant words, but that’s not how it works. I need to move, be outside, drink lots of water, and fuel my brain with inspiration if I’m going to bring my best, consistently, to the page. That’s why, in some ways, my summer routine is more vigorous than my school year one. It includes daily walks, yoga, or swimming, as well as a healthy(ish) diet and plenty of reading time, both for fun and for research. Equal amounts of coffee and water. Equal amounts of sitting and stretching. Fewer naps and more walks. No TV during the day and time to read the latest Writer’s Digest.

I will not be perfect. Far from it. But if I don’t even make the effort, I won’t come close to succeeding. Already this summer, I’ve been more active in brain and body than I have in weeks, and it feels good. There will be lazy days and gooey chocolate brownies in my future, but hopefully they will be rewards well-earned.

MOTIVATON

Writing is hard, so writers need motivation to keep going. There’s no point in sprinting if you don’t have a destination or a finish line or something scary chasing you, so it’s important to set goals.

Goal setting is something I enjoy, but I’m not always smart about it. As a teacher who’s also a writer, I put a lot of pressure on my summers. The lists of things I want to accomplish is often enthusiastic to the point of overwhelming. Last year, my summer to-do list was three pages long and included all sorts of unrealistic expectations for someone just coming off her first year back in the classroom. At the end of the summer, I checked off some things, crossed off a lot more, and wrote “Hahahaha!” next to a few lofty objectives I didn’t come close to meeting. Realistic goals are key, and I’m trying to get better about that.

Also, motivation can come in many forms. It doesn’t have to be a finished novel. It can be the stay-in-bed day you promised yourself if you meet your word count for the week, or it can be a submission deadline for a publication you want to send your work to. Whatever it is, most of us perform better with a carrot hanging in front of us, so it’s important to find what motivates you and work toward it.

I was fortunate enough to receive a very nice piece of motivation this week. I’m so proud to announce that my current work-in-progress won first place in the middle grade category of the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest. This honor has earned me entrance to the always-awesome WLT Agents & Editors Conference at the end of this month, as well as a ten-minute consultation with the agent who chose my work as the winning entry. I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity, and now have a LOT of work ahead of me. I want to progress my novel as much as I can before the conference, so that I can (hopefully) speak intelligently about it to editors, agents, and fellow writers. Wish me luck!

In the end, though, none of that hard work will matter much in June if I don’t keep writing in July. And July’s work won’t mean much if I give up in August. So I must find new motivation and maintain discipline and keep getting to the page. Maybe, just maybe, if I fill my summer with words and truly make writing a habit, I can keep it up come September.

One can hope.

Posted in Life, Writing

Tip #8: Share Carefully

A couple of weeks ago, I posted seven Tips for Taking the Stress Out of New Year’s Resolutions, and today I want to add one bonus piece of advice.

At this point, you’ve celebrated your accomplishments from last year and have made a list of balanced, attainable goals/resolutions/intentions/wishes for 2015. (Right? If not, there’s still time. After all, Tip #3 is Ignore the Calendar.)

Now what?

MyList

Tip #8 = Share Carefully

In life, there’s a fine line between sharing too much and sharing too little and I’m usually on the TMI side of it. I’ve learned the hard way that sharing my resolutions with everybody is a bad idea. After all, it’s possible that you won’t accomplish all of your goals this year, especially if you end up accomplishing new things that you didn’t even set out to do. It happens, and being flexible is okay. But it’s hard to remember that when people keep asking you about x and you’ve already moved on to y. It can lead to some awkward conversations. So remember that it’s okay to keep some things to yourself.

Then again, if you don’t share your resolutions with anybody, it becomes pretty easy to pretend they don’t exist, and that’s not good either. You need to have someone in your life who asks how things are going once in a while and helps keep you accountable.

My advice is share, but share carefully. The exact formula is up to you, but I like to share all my resolutions with one person (my husband gets to be the lucky recipient of the full list) and I choose a few select goals to share with the world. (Click here to see the ones I shared last year. I get three checks and a check-minus for that list. Not too shabby.)

Here are the resolutions I want everybody to know about for 2015:

* I will complete my first poetry manuscript and submit it to a contest.
* I will read at least 50 books. Some of the titles on my must-read list are:

The Shining by Stephen King
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Song of Myself by Walt Whitman
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Marvin Kaye
(I’ve been picking my way through this anthology for a couple of years now. It’s time to finish it.)

* I will participate in the World Horror Convention in Atlanta in May. (Note: This does not say I will “go” to the convention. I’m already going. I’ve got tickets and plane reservations and a hotel room and a posse of two writer friends to travel with. It’s a done deal. My resolution is to participate. When you fly across the country to hang out with other lovers of horror, that’s no time to be shy. I plan to be present every second of the weekend and soak up as much inspiration as possible.)
* I will continue to monitor my use of have to, need to, and want to. (<– This is the best resolution I’ve ever made, and I make it again every year. Read about how it started here.)

Feel free to check in now and then and ask me how things are going. And if you have a resolution you want to share with the world, post it in the comments below!

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NOTE: This blog turns one year old this weekend! To celebrate, I updated the About page and added a FAQ tab. Head over there to find out if you’ve been pronouncing my last name correctly in your head. Chances are, you haven’t. 🙂

Posted in Life, Writing

7 Tips for Taking the Stress Out of New Year’s Resolutions

Resolutions

To Resolve or Not to Resolve, That is the Question 

It’s that time of year again, the time of looking ahead, writing lists, setting goals, making resolutions. At least for some people. For others, the mere mention of the R word brings them stress.

If you’re one of those reluctant resolvers, jaded from past experiences, you should know you’re not alone. The fear of not being able to put a checkmark next to each goal at the end of the year keeps many people from making a list at all.

But, despite the possibility of disappointment, I still say resolve. Setting goals and working toward positive changes in your life and your work is good for you. Just do it in a way that allows for success without setting yourself up for failure. Here are some things that have worked for me.

Tips for Taking the Stress Out of New Year’s Resolutions

Celebrate

1. Celebrate Your Accomplishments

Before you make plans for 2015, take some time to celebrate the good stuff from this year. Whether you made resolutions for 2014 or not, make a list of 10 things you accomplished during the year. Then go look at your goals (if you had any) and compare. Even if there aren’t many checkmarks on the initial list, you now have a new one to be proud of. Keep it next to the one you make for the new year.

Some of my 2014 accomplishments were…

* According to Goodreads, I read 80 books this year, a personal record.
* I finished the first draft of my novel and pitched it to agents at my first writing conference.
* I learned to cook six new vegetarian dishes, including Rumbledethumps.
* I started this blog. (Click here to read my first post.)

2. Use a Thesaurus

If you’ve had bad experiences in your past with New Year’s resolutions, then it’s possible the word itself makes your skin crawl. So don’t use it. Set goals instead. Or intentions. Or plans. Or wishes even. That’s not exactly the same thing, but who cares? Think about how psyched you’ll be at the end of 2015 if you can tell people that some of your wishes came true this year. Pretty cool, right?

3. Ignore the Calendar

There is no day of the year with more pressure on its poor shoulders than December 31st. Think about it: Christmas was just a few days ago and you’re still full of pecan pie and gingerbread cookies, so you’re trying to function through a sugar haze. It’s possible you’ve been traveling and have just arrived home to an empty fridge and a full laundry basket. Or maybe you’re still on vacation and just now realizing that you didn’t pack enough underwear. If you’re young and single, December 31st means figuring out which party to go to, determining what to wear, and wondering whom you might kiss. If you’re not so young and married like me, it means figuring out what movie to watch on Netflix, determining exactly how many minutes you have to stay up after midnight before you can go to bed, and wondering if it’s okay to put on your pjs before the ball drops in New York. And somewhere in this champagne-addled state, you’re supposed to be thinking about New Year’s resolutions.

It’s just too much.

So forget it. Enjoy your New Year’s Eve. Drink champagne and kiss people and watch bad movies and fall asleep on the couch and be merry and stay safe. The resolutions can wait. Make them whenever you want. There’s not really an expiration date. For a few years in a row I found January 8th to be an auspicious day for goal-setting. Last year I went traditional and made my list on the first, but then I added a few more things on the twelfth and lightning didn’t strike me down or anything. So take your time. It’s okay.

4. Stack the Deck in Your Favor

You may not accomplish all of your goals. It’s true, and it’s something you should accept from the start. If it happens, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, just that you need more time or more practice or a more appropriate objective. But you can give yourself a better chance of succeeding by making your goals attainable.

For instance, if you’re a writer, don’t resolve to publish a certain number of poems or stories. That’s not really something you have control over. Instead, resolve to submit a certain number. That keeps the reins in your hands.

5. Balance the Scales

Let your resolutions (or intentions or wishes) reflect all aspects of your life. Don’t just set goals about your health or your work or your relationship. Your life is a combination of all of those things and more. If you’re a writer and your goal list is full of nothing but drafts and pages and submissions, then there’s a good chance that every time you do anything else, you’re going to feel guilty about it. Then again, if your resolutions are full of places you want to travel and exotic foods you want to eat, you may be setting yourself up for an unproductive year. Find a balance in your to-do list so that no matter what aspect of your life you’re focusing on at the moment, you can still be working toward your goals.

6. Give Yourself Some Space

Some people keep their resolutions in plain sight—on the fridge or over their workspace—as a constant reminder of their priorities. I do not. I don’t like my goals staring me in the face every day, making me feel guilty about taking a nap or checking Facebook. I need a little distance between my list and my life. But not too much. Sticking your resolutions on a shelf and ignoring them until next December won’t work either. I suggest keeping them at arm’s reach, literally. Mine are in a closed journal on my desk, so they’re not glaring at me when I first walk in the room, but they’re close enough for me to reach over and check on them anytime I want. They’re out of sight, but not out of mind.

7. Embrace the Present Moment

During all the looking forward and looking back that happens at this time of year, don’t forget to stop once in a while and just look around you. What are you doing? Who are you with? How do you feel?

Right now, it’s 11:45pm on December 30th. I’m drinking a cup of decaf coffee out of my new Christmas mug and listening to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” while I type this blog post at my desk. My blinds are open despite the late hour and I can see the colored lights on the bushes outside, swaying slightly in the cold wind. My cat is taking a bath on the bed behind me and I know that any minute now he’s going to jump in my lap and try to edit what I’m writing. I just heard my husband sneeze. This is my present moment. No matter what I accomplished this year, no matter what might happen when I change the calendar to January, right now I’m at home and I’m writing and I’m happy.

What’s happening right now is just as important as anything on your list. After all, those goals won’t accomplish themselves. In order to earn some checkmarks at the end of the year, you’re going to have to spend some of your present moments working toward them. You can do it.

RightNow

Good Luck and Happy New Year!