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. 😎

Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.

CHARACTER BACKSTORY

[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

Writing Shortcuts (Part 3): Pacing

This is the third post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) to catch up!

While reading through the first draft, I slowly came to realize how uneven the days of the week were. The plot spanned across the course of six days. Nearly 40 percent of the book happened on Day #1. (!!!) Other days got as little as 5 percent of the grand total page count. (This was partly a symptom of my speed-writing need. I get really excited about a story idea during a first draft and want to get to the end so badly that I write only the barest of bones. I just want to write “The End” ASAP…and scenes, chapters, and entire day’s worth of events get increasingly shorter as a result.)

Something that would have REALLY helped me during the drafting process to slow down my writing pace and, as a result, create a manuscript that had better story pacing, would have been a calendar.

Like this one.

Plotting Calendar

Plotting calendar. Magical tool for measured pacing!

Once I read through the first draft, I bullet-pointed the scenes on the calendar. That’s when I started seeing the holes. Literally. Huge, gaping holes. Seeing it laid out like that, I realized that one day only had one scene: a random conversation that happened during the evening. Then, cut scene, the next day! Seeing all these holes was like instant inspiration to dig in and start fleshing out the story. I started envisioning the characters interacting together–these were detailed visions I was itching to get on paper–in scenes that didn’t yet exist in the draft, but which I knew HAD to happen and would fit in those holes perfectly. The calendar helped me see a lot of scenes that I should have written during the first draft but was too rushed to give them the time and attention they deserved.

So, lesson learned? Always have a calendar for a first draft. (A lesson learned just in time for NaNoWriMo! Anybody else doing it? Friend me!)

10 Fun Facts I’ve Learned from Books

I loved this post over at Shae Has Left the Room last week, about the trivia tidbits and larger facts that various young adult authors learned from their childhood reads. Inspired by the complete list of books I read in seventh grade that resurfaced in my life around the same time, I thought this would be a fun recollection.

1. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell taught me that you can cut a worm in half and, instead of killing them, you will then have two live, mini worms who are no worse for wear and can go on their merry separate ways.

2. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George taught me that liver is a good source of a ton of iron and that you need iron in your diet or else your body will start failing you. (I considered, for a short few moments, of trying liver for this reason, and then decided that I would just eat more greens instead. Therefore, this book made me eat my vegetables! Books are magic!)

3. The War Within by Carol Matas taught me that Jews were persecuted during the Civil War. General Grant’s General Order #11 commanded all Jews to evacuate the territory for violating trade regulations; they lost their homes, their businesses, everything. Not only did I learn this, but, several years later, so did my eleventh grade history teacher. I brought up this fact during a class discussion and he told me I was incorrect and making it up. That night, I went to the public library, checked out the book again, and brought it to school the next day. The teacher was surprised to read the order, recorded word-for-word in the appendix. (Available to read on the Amazon preview, if you’re interested.)

4.The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind taught me that, apparently, getting stabbed in the kidneys is the most painful way to die. So painful that you can’t scream, so it’s therefore an effectively quiet murder tactic. I shared this fact while my two new college roommates and I were tucked into our beds having late night get-to-know-you sleepover talk during freshmen orientation week. My roommates like to retell the story that they were afraid to fall asleep that night, for fear that I might stab them in the kidney’s while they slept. I swear, though, that the fact applied to the conversation, somehow! I wasn’t randomly sharing secret murderous thoughts. Though it probably was a bad first impression, since they didn’t know me at all yet. Anywho, everyone survived, we all became amazing friends, we actually roomed together all four years (so they must have felt safe), and they understand the strange quirky directions of my brain now.

5. Tangerine by Edward Bloor taught me that being legally blind didn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t see. I had thought blindness always meant complete darkness before then.

6. The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot taught me that people, for fashion sake, have been known to shave off their eyebrows and get fake, perfectly-shaped eyebrows tattooed on in their place. This is a thing people do! [shudder] Oh, Grandmere.

7. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare taught me that whether or not a girl could swim used to be a test for witchcraft. I recall being very alarmed, asking my mother what would happen to the girls who couldn’t swim. “They would drown. But they were ‘proven innocent’ so her name was cleared, even though she was dead.” I also recall thinking this was ridiculous because I was an excellent swimmer…thanks to swim lessons, not magic.

8. The Invisible Inc. series by Elizabeth Levy taught me that you can make invisible ink out of lemon juice and then heat it over a burner to be able to read it! (This led to many, parent-supervised experiments.)

9. Together Apart by Dianne E. Gray taught me the tradition behind brightly-colored front doors: So that, in the middle of a blizzard, lost souls can find those doors to warmth and safety in a sea of white. (Lesson learned: I will ALWAYS have a brightly-colored door! Even if my area of the world is not prone to ginormous snow storms. Just because.)

10. The Dear America/Royal Diaries/I Am America series taught me that: Hawaii had a royal family before it became a state, that children used to be captured by Native American tribes and raised as their own until they happily assimilated, that there was a terrible assimilation process Native American children endured generations later in Indian Schools, and that the Romanov royal family’s children used to roller skate around the palace halls.

What fun facts have books taught you?

The Books I Loved in Seventh Grade

Even though I moved out of my mom’s house and into my own place about eighteen months ago, there’s a moderate-sized pile of stuff still lingering in her basement: A half-dozen boxes full of glitzy prom shoes, a childhood shell collection, hard copies of a few papers from high school I was particularly proud of,  faded Girl Scout projects, and other things that managed to survive the severe bedroom/drawer purge that I always conducted the first week of summer.

It finally came time this past weekend to begin sorting through it all, in a final purge, deciding what tiny artifacts of my childhood would be kept, tossed, or shelved in the garage for a yard sale. My favorite thing I unearthed, though, was my end-of-the-year portfolios from elementary and middle school–fifth through ninth grade–each folder containing my best writing samples and a few with recorded lists of all the books I had read during that school year.

I’ve always been a voracious reader–I remember sneaking in chapters under the covers after bedtime, checking out the maximum books from the library (according to my seventh grade report, I went to the library every Saturday, the entire school year), and reading them all before they’re due, never going anywhere without a book in my bag–but seeing the numbers in front of me, in my own handwriting, was really surprising. It was like having Goodreads stats from ten years back. I was surprised to see I managed to read more books in a school year back when I was thirteen (and definitely at least a slightly slower reader than I am now) than I can read in an entire year! I feel like I’m reading constantly–I read at least an hour every day, if not more–so I can’t imagine how I managed to eat/sleep/go to school/do homework/be a kid and read that much all at the same time! In hindsight, my time management skills (or, maybe, my mom’s, who made sure I got everything done) were pretty impressive.

The tiny sliver of my brain that loves numbers (this is a very small sliver, and it’s mostly dominated by my interest in book sale stats, WIP word counts, and my own pathetic bank account digits) wishes I had more records. I’d love to know how many/which books I’ve read in my entire lifetime.

So, without further ado, the lists!

In fifth grade, with my lovely reading teacher, Mrs. Neff…(please excuse my egregious spelling!)

Reading List_0001Reading List_0002

These are the only two lists in the folder. I don’t know why there are two separate lists–maybe we did one every semester, or kept a different list for Fall and Spring half years–so the records are a little incomplete. I feel like I must have read more than what’s listed here, but maybe not. Also, I’m disappointed I didn’t rate the books on this list, but it’s interesting to see whether I picked up a book thanks to a recommendation (either through a friend, teacher, librarian, or the Reading Olympics list) or through my own library perusal. Though completely anecdotal, the list seems to reflect that recommendations are important guides for younger readers (at least, it was for this young reader)!

I still remember the moment when Harry Potter was recommended to me in fifth grade that year. I was an after school safety and one of the teachers in charge of the program pulled out one of those Scholastic book fair order packets and pointed out the little blurb and book cover of book one. “Apparently this is supposed to be really good.” I still have the book that arrived a few weeks after my mom offered up the $5 check. Obviously, that set off a reading binge! I begged and pleaded for the second and third books for Christmas and finished both before going back to school in January.

Now this list is more complete: It’s the motherload of book stats. Every single book I read in seventh grade, from September until June 2001-2002:

Reading List_0003Reading ListReading List_0004Reading List_0005

It’s funny to see the series I practically ate for breakfast. (Redwall, anyone? Redwall Minecraft (aka “AbbeyCraft”) is in the works!) And how I bent the rules (ranking was only 1-5) to satisfy my need to express how I really felt about a book. Despite the guidelines, I gave The Red Pony a “negative one”–and I still remember how much I disliked that book, a good indication of how much I would dislike Of Mice and Men in later years, though I did like Cannery Row–and a ten to Ella Enchanted, one of my favorite books of all time. The level of difficulty I gave for Seabiscuit (“Hard!”) makes me laugh because I still remember when my dad gave me that book as a random gift one day and I picked it for that month’s required book report. I had never read a book that difficult before–it was advanced non-fiction–and it wasn’t that it was hard to read, but hard to read on a deadline. I recall panicking to finish the book by the end of the month, struggling through the chapters, needing to look up words I was unfamiliar with constantly. I had never been that challenged by a book before, nor read one so slowly. But the work was worth the effort. I still vividly recall many of the descriptions in that book, though I haven’t opened it’s pages since I read it TWELVE years ago. I remember the descriptions of the rubber suits that the jockeys would run around the track in, in mid-day heat, to lose weight, and the single leaves of dehydrated lettuce that they’d reward themselves with.

I still remember many of the characters and plots of the books on these lists. It’s kind of fantastic, when you think about it, how books stick with us for so long. Mia from Princess Diaries and Grandma Dowdel from A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder.

I’ve been interested recently in figuring out my writer DNA, as encouraged by Robin LaFevers and reading through these old lists has been a good way to jog my memory for my favorite and biggest impact books.

Do you remember what books you read in fifth and seventh grade? Have some of them stuck with you, all these years? Were they your favorites, or the ones you really despised?