A matter of time

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Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash

Sometimes, I really have a difficult time getting work done. I don’t think I have an attention deficiency. I think I’m easily distracted. Maybe, I would be more focused if I didn’t have internet access, but it’s not an experiment I’m willing to run.

 I enjoy writing. In fact, when I leave the house, I tell my kids I’m going to work, but when I write, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like play. Still, despite the enjoyment of it, when I sit down to do it, it takes me a while to get to the point where I’m actually productive. Why? Well, first, I probably need a fresh cup of coffee and then a snack, something sweet to munch on. I tell myself that I’ll use the sweet thing as my reward for hitting writing goals but that doesn’t happen. I don’t have self control. Then, I have to see what’s going on facebook and twitter. Once I pull myself out of that hole, then I usually find myself researching answers to questions I had thought of over the last few days. 

Questions like:

  • Can a person die of a sinus infection?
  • What is the best way to poach an egg?
  • How do I fight the spotted lantern fly invasion?
  • How far can two average sized people ride on one horse?
  • What kind of winter are we going to have this year?

From there, I might segue into some online window shopping, or I might indulge my voyeuristic side by looking at real estate listings. Sometimes, I end up on YouTube watching old SNL skits. The whole time this time suck is happening, I am yelling at myself: Stop doing what you’re doing and get to work!

That’s when I set a timer and start doing sprints. I work in loops of fifteen minute writing sessions interspersed with five minute breaks. Five minutes where I can waste time doing whatever I want as long as when the alarm goes off I jump right back into writing. I learned how to do this because it’s also how I approach exercise. When I exercise, no matter how tired I may be, I always can convince myself to go one more minute. I can really push myself because I know that it’s just a minute and you can survive a lot of things if it only lasts one minute. Incidentally, this was also my approach to childbirth. After all, contractions only last for one minute and surely you can survive that long. To be honest, that approach only worked for about the first ten hours of labor before I decided that no, I absolutely could not survive another minute of pain and begged for an epidural.

I also use timers when I do housework. If I look around my house and it’s trashed and I think there’s no way I can do anything about it, I set a timer for ten minutes and run around to see just how much I can accomplish in that time. Sometimes, my kids help, but their idea of helping is running around frantically trying to look busy while I put everything away. 

With writing, it helps me stay focused. When I find myself drifting away to ask questions or look at house listings, I remember that at the end of fifteen minutes, I have five minutes to do that, but for now I’m going to work on this project. 

I told my husband about it, feeling very clever about my time management.

“Oh,” he said. “Pomodoro timers.

Yeah, apparently I’m not the first person who discovered what timers can do for getting things done. It’s been around since the 1980’s. 

You just haven’t earned it yet, baby

earneditI went through a Smiths phase when I was a teenager. Maybe a lot of people do? Most likely, I have my older sisters to thank for it. If I had been left to my own devices, I probably would have listened to garbage music. I can go a pretty long time without listening to the Smiths, but out of nowhere one of their songs will pop in my head.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of the song, “You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet Baby.

It has become my “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” song. When I feel overwhelmed by editing. When I lose at something I wanted to win. When I want success now, not a year from now. I hear it.

Whatever it is that I may want, I haven’t earned it yet. I haven’t been writing that long, not seriously anyway. I haven’t even begun to suffer through rejection. I’ve managed criticism fairly well, but everyone who has given it has been supportive and constructive. There are trenches where writers spend years, working on their craft and toughening up. I’ve barely put my boots on.

I don’t know how long it will take me to get where I want to be. I don’t know what path will get me there. I’m trying to take every path and road I can without getting lost. The only way I know I won’t get there is if I never try or I just give up. Sometimes, the things we really want are costly. We pay with time and commitment and even disappointment, but I think we can earn it.

Great. That song is stuck in my head again.

Surviving criticism

criticismMy first experience with critiques was when I was going to school for graphic design. They happened regularly and varied in terms of how painful they were. But, they were helpful. There wasn’t a single project that I created that wasn’t made better with the eyes of my classmates. Now that I’ve started working with critique partners on my writing, I’m feeling that familiar pain that comes from criticism. Here are a few things that I try to remember when getting feedback.

  1. Criticism is a gift
    Remember that the person who is looking at your art, or listening to your music or reading your words and giving you feedback is spending their time and energy to do so. I’m sure there might be some people who like to criticize as a way of tearing people down, but I have found that for the most part people want to help you get better. Maybe they believe in what you are doing and they want to be part of making it the best that it can be. Even if they are doing it to be mean, if you are getting something useful out of what they’re saying it’s still helpful.
  2. Look past your own blind spots
    It’s easy to get defensive. When someone doesn’t see something the way we see it, it’s easy to look at them as the problem. What do you mean you don’t understand the symbolism? What do you mean that this paragraph is redundant? What do you mean that the whole thing is too wordy? It’s a book, it’s supposed to be wordy. If your first response to feedback is to explain and argue, you might be letting your own blindness get in the way of improving your craft. That doesn’t mean that you have to take every little piece of advice that you are given, but don’t discount it either. Get another set of eyes. Get another opinion.
  3. It’s okay to feel bad/hurt after receiving criticism
    It can be difficult to hear that something we have worked hard on and have poured our soul into is flawed. The more we love something, the more difficult it is to accept the imperfections. The most painful criticism I have received was when I thought what I was presenting was really good. Nearly perfect even. Every word that said otherwise was like a physical blow. I remember locking myself in a bathroom stall and trying to choke back tears. I hated feeling so emotional, but it was a natural response to a big disappointment. Give yourself permission to feel sad, or hurt, or even angry. But don’t lash out at the person who gave you the criticism. Giving out criticism can be difficult as well. Don’t take it personally.
  4. Find a way to deal with the criticism
    giphyCriticism can sting. What is the balm that you can put on it? I always joke about drinking whiskey after particularly painful feedback is given. Time and space work for me as well. Not too much of either. I may put it away for a few hours. Do something else. Give myself time to process it. I also like to research. I like to find other writers and artists who have been where I’m at and I like to read how they got past it. Find your own way but get to the place where you can most constructively use the feedback.
  5. Don’t give up
    Don’t get discouraged. It wasn’t going to be easy. No one is going to be able to create perfection at the beginning. There are growing pains. But if you stop now, you will never get better than you are right now. What they said about you will always be true. You will never rise above it. You owe it to yourself and your craft to keep moving forward.

On first drafts and the drafts that follow

girl-lostI’ve come to love writing the first draft of a book. It’s the sprint through the letters and the words, a pulling together of paragraphs and pages to get to the end. You’re not required to make every word perfect. You aren’t required to patch up any plot holes. It’s no big deal if your characters need a little work or your dialogue is stilted. All of those things are merely a blur as you rush past.

I’ve written about it before, about how I can’t look for perfection here. If I do, I won’t finish. I’ll be on the first page, agonizing over the first few words.

There’s also the discovery in the first draft. There are two types of writers, the pantser and the plotter. I’ve tried to be a plotter. I’ve tried to outline everything, make notecards, make a detailed map of where my story is going to go from start to finish, but it never works. I feel sort of suffocated by my plans. No, I like to have a couple of characters, a problem that they have and a vague idea of where I want them to end up. It’s a crazy sort of thing, writing something, not always sure how I’m going to get from one space to the next. It can be stressful, but man, it’s fun.

Now, it’s time to pay the piper. I imagine plotters usually have a better handle on what it happening in their books. They’ve done a lot of the hard work up front. I would imagine that at the end of their first draft, they have a pretty tight story. Pantsers have to make up for their fanciful dance through their story, with big changes in the next draft. I’m like the grasshopper that played all summer long and is now facing an uncomfortable winter.

So, onto the next drafts and the edits that come with it.

This doesn’t feel like playing anymore. This feels like work. I’m reading through paragraphs and it all feels clunky and disjointed and a mess. Maybe, the structure of it is good, but I’m going to have to really make the writing better. So, I make notes. I highlight the rough sentences. I think this is just like painting. I’ve roughed in the large swathes of color and now it’s time to really get in with the detail.

I’m ready.

Pen is up.

And go.

Go.

GO.

I know how to work past the paralysis of the first draft. I know how to just zip right along and not take myself too seriously. That time is over. Now, I really do have to do my best to make it perfect. Perfect is paralysis. How do I find the right words? Do I take this out? Should I add this in? Am I taking a piece of writing that had life and spark and movement and am I with every pen stroke murdering it? Am I turning my writing into wood?

It’s just as easy to doubt myself now as it was before. Maybe it’s worse. Now, it’s not just a case of not being able to do something well. It’s about ruining something that might have been good. This may be a little dramatic but it’s like dismantling a bomb and not knowing which wire to cut. Okay, no, that really is too dramatic. Actually, it is just like trying to find your way without a map. You hope that you’re going the right way and you’re using the little you know to orient yourself, but until you get there, you can’t really be sure that you’re heading in the right direction. I don’t have an answer for this. If you’re reading this and you do have the answer, I hope you’ll tell me. I think it must just all be about experience. As I become a more experienced writer, I hope that it will become easier. Of course, something tells me that there will always be space for doubt here, no matter how long I’ve been writing.

I’m just going to keep moving forward. It is the only advice I can give myself and anyone reading this who might find themselves in this place with me. Keep working. Keep moving forward. Let’s hope we’re not lost.

The fraud in the mirror

notes-514998_1280Over the weekend I applied for a mentoring program. It’s for unpublished YA authors with a complete manuscript and it gives them an opportunity to pair with authors who are in the process of publishing a book in the next year or have already published. The published writers will help the unpublished writers polish their manuscripts and help them with their query letters. If I get in, it could be an awesome opportunity for me. If I don’t get in, my plan is to continue moving forward. Work on my book until I have it where I think I need it and start querying for agents on my own.

No big deal.

So, I put together a query letter, and emailed it along with the first ten pages of my book. As soon as I hit send, the anxiety began to build inside of me.

What was I thinking? Why did I think that my book was going to be good enough to submit to this? Why did I let anyone convince me that it was good enough to send? They were probably just being nice. It’s like when your kids draws a picture and you have no idea what it is but you tell them it looks good anyway and you hang it on the fridge. That’s probably what everyone was doing. And I fell for it. I bought into this idea that I was going to be some published writer. What do I know about writing? I have an associate’s degree in graphic design. I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Before a few year ago, I hadn’t written any fiction since high school. And what? Now, I’m a novelist?

Oh my god. Now, they’re going to know. They’re all going to know, what deep down, I’ve always known. I’m a fraud. A fake. There is a part of me that has always known it and has tried desperately to convince me.

It’s that voice in the back of my head. Sometimes, it is friendly. At times when I’ve struggled with writing, it gives me a sort of verbal pat on the shoulder and says, “It’s okay. You tried. Writing probably isn’t your thing.”

Sometimes, it is mean. It mocks. It urges me to give up because I’m just embarrassing myself. “Everyone feels sorry for you. You’re delusional.”

My fear is always based around the fact that I’m never going to be good enough and that everyone is going to find out. I don’t have to listen to that voice in my head when I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table writing. No, I hear it when I hand my manuscript over for someone to read. I hear it every week when I write my blog. When someone tells me that they enjoy my blog or they liked my book, I want to hug them and thank them but I also want to narrow my eyes and let them know that I’m onto whatever scam they’re running.

I find myself wondering when it will go away. Is there any level of success that would make me believe in myself? I was a graphic designer for three years and it never went away. I always felt like a hack. I still contend that I was. Will I always feel that way about my writing and my painting as well?

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024I know what it is. It’s called imposter syndrome and knowing it by name helps. It also helps to know that a lot of people have had it at some point in their careers. I wonder how many people will read this and nod their head. Everyone? It’s prevalent enough that there are tips on how to overcome it. Talking about it is supposed to help. Imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young says, “It’s also a matter of changing your thoughts, slowly over time, and taking risks in spite of the inner voice telling you you’ll fail. Do the thing that scares the heck out of you, realize you survived – or maybe you fell flat on your face. But you gave it your best shot.”

So, I think we have to just keep working. Keep moving forward.  My writing isn’t actually some destination that I’m working to get to. It’s the never-ending road, the eternal journey. This feeling that I’m never going to be good enough can be the wind at my back, always pushing me forward, motivating me to do and be better. If I’m going to think of myself as a fraud, then I’m going to put my heart and soul into fooling everyone, especially myself.

For days when I’ve taken the risk and failed, when I’ve fallen flat on my face, there’s whiskey. And after that, a new day to dust myself off and got started again.

Maybe, I’ll get into this mentoring program. Maybe I won’t. Maybe, I’ll have to go a different way. This isn’t that song, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. There isn’t just one shot. We have a lot of chances and a lot of ways to get to the same place. There are also a lot of ways to mess up and a lot of ways to feel rejected. There are countless ways to fail. The only way to avoid that is to never do anything at all. The problem with that is, then you never do anything at all. No dreams. No plans. No goals. I just sit at my kitchen table and write stories that no one reads.

Just like “‘Tis better to have loved and lost: Than never to have loved at all.” Tis better to have tried and failed : Than never to have tried at all.

The siren song of NaNoWriMo

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76This is the fourth year that I’m going to attempt to do NaNoWriMo. To those of you who are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a celebration of National Novel Writing Month where the participant endeavors to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It comes down to writing exactly 1667 words each day, every day. I have been successful one time.

Now, let me give you a couple of excuses for my other failures. One reason is that every November I get some sort of illness. Without fail. It’s usually a cold, something small to just make me tired and lazy. One year I was pregnant but I was in the first trimester and I think we can all agree that pretty much counts as an illness. Getting ill and missing a few days of writing can put you behind pretty quickly on your word counts and if it happens at the beginning of the month it can be pretty discouraging. Also, let’s not forget that there is a rather large holiday that happens in November.  Pre-Christmas. I mean, Thanksgiving. Now that I’m a grown woman, I can no longer just appear at the dinner table, empty-handed and hungover. I have to prepare food. I have to get children ready. It eats up a lot of writing time.

I usually start the month off strong and hit the wall about half way through and then do a sort of limp/crawl to the finish line. And remember, only one time did I actually make it to the finish line.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I have an antagonistic relationship with it. I like it because it helps a writer get into the habit of writing. It gives the writer a goal to work towards. There is also something really nice about sharing the experience of writing with other writers. Instead of plinking away at my keyboard alone, I can go to write-ins. I can talk to people on the forums. I can take what is usually a very solitary experience and make it a social one.

What I don’t like about NaNoWriMo is the push to get words on the page. It can lead to a situation where you are pushing quantity over quality. It can lead to a draft that was rushed through to reach a sort of arbitrary goal, but that is a mess and needs a complete rewrite. I also have a difficult time writing a complete novel in 50,000 words. Depending on what genre you’re writing in, that is going to be a very short novel. The one time that I finished NaNoWriMo, I was only about half way to finishing my book and the first draft was such a disaster that by January I had thrown in the towel.

Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. It wasn’t NaNoWriMo that got me back into writing, but it was the thing that got me used to setting goals and word counts and pushing through each day, even when I would have much rather been taking a nap or watching tv. I don’t try to write a novel in a month but I do try to write one in three months. I don’t like to push my word count about 1500 words a day but I do keep it over 1000. Those have been the rules that I have been using for my work this past year and by the end of this month I should have three complete first drafts for novels.

As much as I don’t love NaNoWriMo and as much as I don’t feel that I need it anymore, I still felt the call as November got closer and closer. Now, here we are. I’m not doing it as a way of writing one novel in a month but I am using it to push myself a little farther. I upped my word counts and I put away my paints for a few weeks. I have a novel that I’m working on. It won’t take that many words to finish it, but I intend to make up the difference with other writing, including blog posts, short stories, and essays. I’m also hoping to begin working on a query letter for the novel I finished writing in July. I have a little more work to do on it. I have friends reading it now and giving my feedback but when I am finished with the next draft, I am going to begin querying for an agent. (Eeeeek)

It’s going to be a busy month and although I’m excited, I’m looking forward to slowing down a little bit in December.

Also, I’m already behind on my word count.