Writing with a Full-Time Job

I am a little bit of a productivity addict. I love to make lengthy checklists–at work and at home. It’s partly practical, to keep myself on task, to sort out some sort of priority system when there’s a mountain of stuff to do and I have no idea where to start, but I also really love to admire all the things crossed out, proof of what I’ve accomplished in my day.

To that end, I used to try to keep records of how many words I wrote a day. But as someone who squeezes in moments of inspiration and butt-in-chair time on the half-hour train commute, the narrow window of time between all the daily adulting requirements and bedtime, and on busy weekends, as someone who just cannot, for the life of her, accomplish 50,000 words no matter how hard she tries in November, it became a pretty depressing record. “Only five hundred words today!” I’d scold myself. “Pathetic. You need to do better! You need to prioritize your writing more if you love it as much as you say you do!”

It was a real bummer, to be honest. I felt so unproductive, so unaccomplished. It started to mess with my enthusiasm to sit down and write at all. I felt like a constant failure. And I started sacrificing other important things–going to the gym, cooking healthy meals, hanging out with friends–so I could stack up bigger and bigger word counts, in the hopes I would finally feel productive enough.

After a year or so of just feeling guilty all the time, I stepped back to reframe how I looked at my writing time. I started the one star = one hour system of record keeping. I finally accepted that I honestly have no control over how many words I eek out in a writing session and I needed to stop beating myself for something I couldn’t control. For my process, the only thing I have control over is how many hours I put my butt in the chair and write.

As a result, instead of constantly being disappointed in my progress, I now get to celebrate all the silver stars that stud my calendar, and be so incredibly proud of myself and my dedication.

It was great, until I started critically reviewing the calendar at the end of each month and seeing long empty stretches in-between writing stars. “What were you doing with your time last Tuesday!?” I’d scold. “How could you have just SKIPPED writing four days in a row the second week of the month?! Lazy. Unacceptable.” (We writers are so kind to ourselves, aren’t we?)

Logically, I knew it was ridiculous. I work a full-time job and adulting, as mentioned earlier, has a lot of requirements! Doctors appointments and grocery shopping. Pets and plants to keep alive and happy. Relationships with friends and family and loved ones that need attention. Sleep!

I stepped back to reframe again. Other little symbols got added in to illustrate how I was spending big chunks of my time. Hearts for a workout. Little arrows to indicate travel out of town. Quotation marks for local hangouts with friends. A little camping tent to illustrate overnight-guests. Little skulls and cross-bones for days I was down and out with a head cold. And those “blank” squares M-F? Not for nothing, but those days I still worked a full day at a job I love.

I had to remind myself of this–and maybe, somewhere out there in the Internet, you do too–but it’s okay that I’m not a full-time writer. I’m allowed to have a day-job career I love and dedicate a lot of my energy to which, some days, doesn’t leave any left for writing.

This is the full-picture of a person who works full time and writes on the side. Someone who finally has balance in her life. And at the end of the month, before I flip to a fresh page, I’m pretty darn proud.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re accomplishing, however many hours you manage to dedicate to your stories, I’m pretty darn proud of you too.

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Drafting: False Starts and Knowing When It’s Working

For me, I know for sure whether a new manuscript is working around the 10,000 word mark. That also means sometimes I have to scrap hopeless false starts around 10,000 too.

I’m rewriting an old story–in fact, the manuscript that got me my agent–for the ~fifth (?) time. Every version before it has essentially been a variant on the wrong direction. Practice runs, if I’m being generous to myself.😂

I started in December with confidence. I had notes and an outline and I made it all the way to 10,000 words by January 2nd before it just tanked. I was sitting under the covers in a soft bed with my laptop nearly in tears because I knew it wasn’t working. 😭

I knew I had to toss all 10,000 words–which is not easy for me because drafting is like pulling teeth, especially in the distance from 4,000 to 10,000 words. That first “hump” is an obstacle that can take me weeks or sometimes even months to hammer out. It’s the pivot point (it’s also the inciting incident) that defines the direction of the rest of the story, so it has to be right!

But I suppose tossing 10,000 is better than tossing an entire draft and starting from scratch. I used to plow through to the bitter end, forcing 60,000-80,000 words even when it didn’t feel right, sure it was just the weird feeling of drafting and not a more serious red flag.

And that’s how I have two first drafts of two different stories on my hard drive that I shelved as soon as I reread them. Because they’re completely wrong, pivot point/incident to end. 🤷🏻‍♀️

It’s funny, because that first hump is only roughly a span of 6,000 words. At any other spot in the manuscript, if I have the writing flow going on, I can easily write 6,000 words over the course of one breezy weekend and a few low-intensity writing sessions.

So, going back to the drawing board in January, I read some craft books (the most helpful being STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron, seriously, 💯💯 READ THIS if you need plot/structure help!), filled the well by reading an entire stack (and rereading a few favorite) middle grade books in search of inspiration/comps, and made a new outline. Honestly, it took nearly two months to work out an outline that I didn’t hate or tear apart with logic every time I reread it. And then I let it sit for a month to simmer. I reread it a couple weeks ago and…I still didn’t hate it. In fact, I sort of liked it, which seemed promising!

So I’ve started over again. Page one. And it’s been slowly growing, the word count ticking up steadily, but I was still wary. Was this a false positive? Was I going to have to toss this too and restart again?

[pulls out hair]

. . .

. . .

Happy to report that I made it past the 10,000 word mark this weekend and I’m still going! It feels right, past that hump, I know the direction is solid. Sure, it’s still a terrible “zero draft” as I like to call it, that I won’t ever share with another soul, but it’s the bones, the foundation of a only mildly less terrible first draft I can share with CPs someday.

I’m just going to relish this hard-earned moment for a bit, being in the post-10,000-word drafting sweet spot. Not only because it’s the green light to keep drafting using this outline, but because every session added to it feels like the best number! Today, I squeezed in 1,400 words on lunch break at a cute coffee shop in the city and now it’s a whopping 14,000 words! That’s, like, a real on-it’s-way-to-book-shaped size! Five-digit word count numbers feel good. 😎

How the Writing is Going

A thing that I’ve heard many writers say many times before is that every book you write teaches you something. I like that idea. It’s a concept that’s always appealed to me. For a long time, though, I was having trouble figuring out what, exactly, each of my failed manuscripts was trying to teach me. There was a lesson there, somewhere–there had to be!–but I just couldn’t find it.

Now that I can look back on a sequence of several shelved manuscripts, tucked away in the dark corners of various flash drives hidden in dark desk drawers, I’ve realized that they were mostly just teaching me the same thing: You’re not ready, not yet. I’d write this pile of words that had a few glimmers–some good writing, a few characters I became particularly fond of, a place definitely worth setting a story in–and I’d look at it once I had typed “The End” and just know with this heart-sinking feeling that this wasn’t it. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t a story–just a few random events with the same cast of characters strung together in chronological order–and I wasn’t capable of making it into something book-shaped. I would think on it for months and wouldn’t be able to think of a single idea that would salvage this not-book-shaped thing I had worked on for months, maybe a year. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t there yet. So I’d start again.

With each passing failed manuscript, it was getting harder and harder to admit that I still wasn’t ready, this still wasn’t the book that was worth showing to beta readers, would get me an agent, would make it on bookshelves. It was particularly hard for me to admit that fact with the last manuscript, the one I spent all of 2013 writing. My writing was definitely getting better. There were some fleshed out scenes I could see so vividly, certain snatches of dialogue (and let me tell you, dialogue for me is HARD!) that would catch me on a reread. It sounded, a little, like a book. And the characters were the most real human creations I had ever been able to make with my own words. I wanted this book to work. I needed it to work. So, for the first time ever, I went back into a manuscript and tried to revise it–not petty line edits and sentence restructuring, not just adding flowering words here and there–real revision, moving around events and adding things and changing motivations. I spent months trying to revise that could-maybe-be-book-shaped thing and I was frustrated to the point of tears. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t enjoying writing. I hadn’t enjoyed drafting the book–I’m just not the type of writer who enjoys drafting–but I had assumed all those years that I would really like revising, once I finally got to experience it. It was the polishing point of the process, where all the good ideas came together. It was the part I had loved the most about giant academic papers in college, taking that raw material I had dumped on the page and making every single word right, making them the right words in the right places in the right order. Shouldn’t some stage of the writing be fun, if I’m a writer?

But revising this manuscript was no more fun than drafting it had been. If anything, it was worse. The plot just wasn’t working and it felt like the characters were glaring out of their world at me. If you could just figure out this revising thing, if you could just do this thing right, you could do us justice, they seemed to be saying. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t that I was broken–it wasn’t that I was completely incompetent at revising–it was that the story was broken. And it was also partly because I wasn’t the same person who had written that first draft. I still cared about the characters, but I didn’t care about the plot, about what the book was about, anymore. I wasn’t as excited about answering the questions I had been so eager to find answers to the year before. I had, for all intents and purposes, outgrown the story. So I shelved it.

It was hard, shelving that book. There are parts of it that I believe might be the best stuff I’ve ever written. And at that point, one year ago this month, I had been trying to write a book for a long time. I’m one of those people who wrote books in elementary school, middle school, high school, college. Has always dreamed of being a writer. I fell in love with children’s literature and never really left it. I’ve been devouring it, studying voice and trends and watching the young adult branch of publishing grow and boom. I’ve been reading about literary agents and publishers through my favorite author’s blogs for nearly ten years now–since I was a little public school baby writer–all with one goal in mind: sharing a quality book worth reading with readers. How wasn’t I there, yet? Why were other people, who had just randomly woken up one day last year and decided they wanted to write a young adult book get it done right on their first try? How was it possible that this most recent not-book-shaped thing was still telling me You’re not ready?

Every time I try out a new idea, type up the words “Chapter 1,” for the first time, I try something different. It’d always be young adult, but it’d be a different genre: young adult fantasy, young adult dystopian, young adult historical, trying to find the right fit. I’d try different tenses, pants vs. plot, and different formats, like a book told completely in journal entries. When I set down to write the new book of 2014, it was really different for me. Third person. Middle grade. Male protagonist. I had never done any of those things before.

The drafting, as always, was hard. I kind of hate drafting, I’ve realized. It’s painful for me. I want things to be good–I derive a lot of pride and joy from good sentences, good writing, great characters, from writing I enjoy reading after I’ve written it–and first drafts are just by nature mediocre at best, nothing to ever brag about. And somewhere in the middle of every story I always get completely lost, whether I have an outline or not, and the quality deteriorates even further from there as I write in circles, just throwing words at the page trying to see what sticks. Stuck somewhere in the middle of my story, for a lot of weeks this summer, I didn’t write at all.

I was feeling more confident about this book, though, towards the end of 2014. I felt like I had a better handle on all the things–story, characters, dialogue, scene structure, tension, and that ever-elusive creature “voice”–than I had ever had in the past. I would read over passages and knew that, at the very least, I was definitely becoming a better writer, I was definitely better than I had been a few years before and that was a relief. At least I was getting somewhere.

When I reread the full draft last month, the whispering was a little different than it’s been before. The whispering was, this could work. It doesn’t work yet. But it could.

As I said before, I dislike drafting. I certainly can’t make myself do it every day, as so many people claim “real” writers do. It’s too draining and if I force myself to do it every day, I end up tossing the words usually anyway, and I end up hating writing, avoiding it, even more than I already want to do during the dreaded drafting stage. During the 2013 manuscript, I finally understood that writing every day just wasn’t something I could do while also balancing everything else–exercise, friends, family, reading, full-time job. And I forgave myself for that.

So that’s why how I’ve been reacting to revising this book has surprised me so much.

I’m 22,000 words in now and I’m not slowing down. I put myself on an idealistic 5,000 words a week schedule…and I’m actually a little bit ahead, which I’m pleased about for now. But the way that I stay on schedule means I have to dedicate a decent chunk of hours to consistently revising every week. I originally gave myself the goal of three times a week, totally reasonable. The thing that’s really been surprising me, though, is that three times isn’t enough…not hours-wise, but emotionally. I WANT to revise this story every day, all the time. I’m driving somewhere and I’m thinking about tackling the next scene, diving back into my little fictional neighborhood. I’ve started carrying around a dozen or so pages in progress in my purse all the time (I print out the first draft and pretty much rewrite every sentence by hand and then revise even further when I type it up that night) and edit a half an hour here or there, in-between doctor’s appointments, on lunch breaks. There’s a momentum building with this story as I nail down each chapter that I’ve never experienced before. I feel like there’s a little train, like the miniature one that circles around Christmas villages, in my head, plugging away to the tune This could be it, this might be it, it’s finally sort of working, I think this is working.

This is what revising looks like. Lot's of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

This is what revising looks like. Lot’s of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

So that’s where I am, in case you were wondering. 22,000 words into a 65,000 revision/rewrite, with the plan to finish the second draft by April 1st (no joke) and get it out to some beta readers. Barring any really awful, unanticipatedly drastic feedback, I think that should take about two months. So…the plan is to seriously start querying in June, then I guess.

Fingers crossed this manuscript keeps liking me and I keep liking it and my beta readers like it after that…

Writing Shortcuts (Part 1): Things I Wish I Had Learned Before Draft #1

For the past five months I’ve been plowing my way through what I thought was going to be a revision of my WIP but morphed into a complete rewrite. Though I kept pieces of Draft #1, and used it as a loose outline of the chronological events that occur in the plot, ultimately I cut 33,000+ words out of 54,000 and ended up with a completely rewritten Draft #2 clocking in at roughly 66,000 words. I guess that was to be expected, because as I was reading through I was adding comments like “add whole new day here” and “add another day here,” “delete this whole chapter,” and “add scene, add scene, add scene.”

This draft was a huge learning experience for me. Not only did I learn so much about my characters, but I also learned a lot about the actual mechanics of storytelling, the functioning parts of a scene, creating backstory, and I learned a lot about generating conflict (I hate doing mean things to my characters! It’s so hard to do to the ones I like, and the ones who remind me of myself!).

Now that I’m back and gearing up–finally–for the heavy revision process, I thought I’d share a few writing shortcuts I’ve learned that I’ll definitely be using in future drafting processes (which will be really soon with NaNoWriMo 2013 nearly upon us! I have a great story idea I’m dying to get onto a page this November. Are you joining me this year??), shortcuts that would have made Draft #1 a whole lot less of a pile of crap (not that a draft can ever be anything but, but it can at least be a little less). I’m trying tell myself that spending another five months writing Draft #2 after #1 wasn’t a complete waste of time. It was an experience. Ah, novel writing. The frustrations.

I went at Draft #1 in a sort-of pantsing method and Draft #2 involved a lot more strategic planning. Though I don’t think I’ll ever become a full-blown plot outliner, it would be useful to utilize some of these planning tools in the future, to make pantsing Draft #1 a lot more cohesive and consistent.

Having been out of the blogging game for more than a month now, I figured I’d ease back into the habit by making this a mini series, one post a week. Also, this will allow me an abundance of time each week to still dedicate to the revision! I want to get this manuscript DONE and OUT of my hard drive and INTO my beta readers’ inboxes!

So, in future posts in future weeks, you can look forward to discussions of writing shortcuts on the topics of:

1. Setting

2. Pacing

3. Character sketches

4. Scene outlines