5 tips to help you get started

Getting started is often the hardest part of any project, whether it’s tackling that difficult scene or cleaning out the basement you’ve been tossing things willy-nilly into for the past ten years. I spend an inordinate amount of time procrastinating, especially when I’m making the transition between two very different tasks, say–for instance–wrangling my three children into bed and writing. A lot of laundry-folding and RSS feed checking goes on during that time.

Along the way, I’ve developed some tactics to help me get past the how-do-I-even-begin hump. Here are a few:

1. Warmups. Not every project lends itself to warmups, of course (I don’t know what sorts of warmups one can do before scrubbing out the bathroom–and no, I don’t really need to know if there are). But you can ease into a difficult task. No one goes into a rigorous exercise routine without stretching out their muscles. I don’t tackle a difficult piano piece without limbering up my fingers with scales, or something easier.. In the same way, writing warmups can help get you into the mood before you have to figure out how to rescue the beautiful Princess Meliandora from the Dark Lord’s impregnable fortress. I recommend freewriting.

2. Break it down. Writing a novel is a big undertaking. So is cleaning your entire house. Or starting a business. Or creating a historically accurate Marie Antoinette costume. My advice? Break the project down into manageable chunks. Don’t think of it as writing an entire novel, but as getting to that first candybar scene. Focus on one drawer instead of the entire house.

And celebrate the milestones, even if it is with a cookie or five minutes to check Twitter/Facebook/email/[insert social media of choice].

3. Give yourself a time limit. I’ve extolled the virtues of  writing in sessions of 10-20 minutes before. You can do anything for a short burst of time, whether it’s weeding or scrubbing the inside of the oven or drafting a blog post. Sometimes that short time period is enough to get you going so you can continue even when the timer beeps. Or, if you’re like me, you write super-fast in order to cram in as many words as possible before the time runs out!

4. Get support. Make your goals public. Tell your family and friends what you’re going to do. Use the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, tell your Facebook friends you’re attacking the attic today (and that they should send in search parties if you don’t re-emerge in a few hours). Get your spouse to prod you, and your friends to harass you about your goal (in a nice we-support-you sort of way). Tell your blog readers you’ve decided to post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday–oh wait, did I say that out loud? *grin*

5. Get it on the schedule. Clear your schedule for your project. For the longest time, exercise wasn’t even in the kitchen for me, much less the back-burner. Now, with my husband working from home, I have a standing date with his iPhone to listen to a podcast while taking a brisk walk during the kids’ afternoon Quiet Time. Hire a babysitter, send the family out of the house, or go out yourself–just block that time off. Put it on the calendar, even. In pen. It makes it all the more real and official.

What about you? How do you deal with procrastination?

rebuilding habits

This past week I fell off the writing bandwagon, and fell hard. After weeks of steady progress on my WIP, I took a planned vacation off, then got sick, then got caught up in all the details of life, then just didn’t plain want to write. Writing was not the only habit to fall by the wayside–so did exercise, piano practice, and several personal goals. Not to mention planning, prepping and cooking nutritious meals (we won’t discuss the frozen pizza we had for dinner two nights in a row *shudder*).

But this post is not about wallowing in guilt by the side of the road. It’s about climbing back onto the wagon, moving on from the disruption caused by last week and returning to those good routines. On Saturday I banged out over 600-plus painless words on Kai’s book, then followed that up with 700-plus words on Sunday. I got back into exercise with an hour of stretching (though admittedly I wouldn’t have if David hadn’t been holding my pudding hostage). Home-cooked meals and veggies are back on the menu. My fingers still remember how to play Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.

I’m rebuilding those good habits, with the help of some practical articles, a supportive community of writers, and this cute and inspiring button by WriterBelle:

What good habits are you trying to build? What routines are you trying to establish? How’s it going for you?

happy monday

I make so many mistakes, slack off, or get tired and barely scrape by, that I’m always glad for a second chance. Yesterday, as I was journaling about my fatigued zombie-like state of last week and my lack of a productive weekend, I was struck by how many new beginnings I get. A new day, a new week, a new month, a new season.

Most of us don’t look forward to Mondays, but this week I see Monday with new eyes. It’s another chance. Another chance to start the week off strong, on the right foot. To get a  flying start on math and spelling and reading. To make inroads into the history of the ancient Greeks. To brainstorm new scenes for Kai’s book, to make my world more robust and detailed. To finally get back on my cleaning schedule.

To start creating good habits to carry me through the times I’m tired, down or harassed by how much I have to do.

Happy Monday!

encouragement for the aspiring writer

Emerging from Post-Revision Haze to provide you with this public-service, link-heavy post for unpublished writers:

Celebrate your rejections. Really. Because getting rejections means that you’re completing stories and sending them out. Congratulations. If you’re getting rejections, you’re doing the job of a professional writer.

Still not convinced? Got the rejection blues? Tired of always being aspiring? DGLM’s Michael Bourret on enjoying the pre-published stage. And here’s a light-hearted look at the perks of being unpublished. Having seen books get savaged by Amazon reviewers, there are many days that I am grateful to be on this side of the Great Publishing Divide.

Here’s (upcoming) YA author Jodi Meadows on not giving up.

If you’re not interested in waiting for the Publishing Fairy to sprinkle you with gold dust, you can bypass all the gatekeepers, and go indie. There’s even a blog carnival for indie writers (via JA Marlow)!

Seth Godin on  hope and the magic lottery. I love this bit (which I think writers looking to build their fan base will appreciate):

If your business or your music or your art or your project is truly worth your energy and your passion, then don’t sell it short by putting its future into a lottery ticket.

Here’s another way to think about it: delight the audience you already have, amaze the customers you can already reach, dazzle the small investors who already trust you enough to listen to you. Take the permission you have and work your way up. Leaps look good in the movies, but in fact, success is mostly about finding a path and walking it one step at a time.

(Speaking of Seth Godin, here he is again talking about moving on from traditional publishing.)

i am writer, hear me roar!

It is HOT in here. Muggy hot. Stuffy hot from drawn shades and closed windows. Outside, it’s my-steering-wheel-is-going-to-burn-my-hands and the-pavement’s-going-to-melt and the-metal-is-going-to-take-off-my-skin HOT.

Yes, folks, we’re having a heat wave of temps in the mid-90s up here in Vermont.

I’ll wait while all you Florida and Arizona and other southern state people stop laughing.

Remember, we have no central air conditioning (thank God I insisted we install ceiling fans in every bedroom!). Our house is designed to trap heat (we can thank our Vermont winters for that). Our kids have been going about with flushed cheeks and heat-induced hair-trigger sensitivity. The Baron’s curls have been plastered to his head with sweat all day. I’m seriously considering cutting them off, poor child!

And still I revised. Got a whole new scene written, despite my laptop overheating and dying right in the middle. I feel victorious, the writer who triumphed over the weather, who did her writerly thing under less than optimum conditions, instead of filling up the bathtub with ice cubes and lying in it and insisting that no human body come within ten feet of her.

My friend Jo also got creative over the last day or two so she, too, could write.

Have you ever had to take drastic measures in order to write? Written a novel in 30-minute increments on a library computer? Scribbled flash fiction on a burp cloth while nursing twins? Let us know.  :)

keeping up the routine

One of the great things about summer is the lack of a schedule. One of the bad things about summer is the lack of a schedule.

With no school routine to anchor us; with plenty of one-time playdates and field trips to juggle; with all these one-week trips and camps to prepare for and keep track of, I’m just having a hard time getting into a writing routine. Even blogging has slid (as you can tell) (but I’m revising more diligently than blogging, so yay?).

Then yesterday, I succumbed to my weakness for a good story and spent all Quiet Time and Post-Kids-Bedtime Time reading this awesome book I got for my birthday (thanks, Robin?). Yes, I am a full week ahead of where I thought I would be, but isn’t it a little too early to be resting on my laurels with more than half of Quartz still ahead of me?

Don’t answer that.

Okay, so now that I have flagellated myself with chocolate bar wrappers and the shredded remains of previous manuscripts, I can marshal all my troops for the next assault on Quartz.

Some of the weapons at my disposal are:

Mandatory Quiet Time and Strict Bedtime: Napping and non-napping children must have an hour and fifteen minutes of down time in the afternoon. They are to be separated and occupied with quiet activities and not allowed to disturb Mommy unless there is blood, breakage or burning. Also, bedtime is semi-strictly enforced (the olders come out at least two or three times afterward, ungh :P).

A Timer: I use this online timer to write in 10, 20, 40 or whatever-minute sessions. If I have a short period of time and I’m in danger of frittering it away entirely because I’ll be gone in X minutes, I set the timer for 10 minutes (I can fix at least a couple of sentences in that time, right?). If I’m settling in for a long evening, I break the time into 40-minute sessions, giving me time to stretch, drink water, walk around, mull things over in my head.

Mundane Repetitive Housework: Washing dishes, sweeping, driving and folding laundry all keep my hands busy while giving me some headspace to think over my stories. Er, this would work better if I could focus only on Quartz and banish all the other ideas clamoring for my attention into the abyss.

External Motivation: The Sunday progress update posts on this blog and a small group board on the HTRYN forum both keep me from backsliding too much. Furthermore, I have given everyone permission to poke me every now and again.

So, how are you keeping motivated? Any tricks or tips you want to share?

saturday ponderings

Do you ever feel that you can never fully immerse yourself in one project without fretting about all the others you still need to get to? Does the shadow of all the other things you could (or should) be doing darken your enjoyment of what you are doing? Do you feel guilty for blogging when you could be writing, for journaling when you could be revising, for baking brownies when you could be scrubbing the bathroom floor?

Saturdays are often the worst days for those feelings. I put so many expectations on the weekends–I’m going to do everything I didn’t get to over the week, clean the house, run errands, pursue my various creative activities (ALL of them), read books, hang out with my family, do something fun and go some place new, and, oh, yes, take a nap. Ha!

Early this afternoon I was starting to get all panicky over how much I wanted to accomplish and how the day was half over and how I wasn’t going to get even a quarter of it done and ohgosh I’m such a lazy, unproductive… er, yeah. I cut myself off right there and instead focused on doing a few things. And enjoying them.

So, today I

  • went out with Miss M. to buy food and plants (phlox, marigolds, black-eyed susans and onions to plant), and got some one-on-one time with my daughter, to boot!
  • took lots and lots of pictures of flowers (I can’t help it, it’s an obsession!)
  • wrote several hundred words on Secret Project X and wrote conflict arcs for several sub-plots in Quartz
  • worked on my latest fiendishly difficult piano piece
  • cooked two new-to-me recipes from scratch
  • and watched the first half-hour of Fantasia with my family (I’ve never seen it before)

Not bad at all! I even remembered to throw a load of laundry into the washer, then the dryer. And I have plenty of leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Little things make me happy. :)

How was your Saturday?

this procrastinating writer

Blog reader Megs introduced me to the blog Procrastinating Writers, which is full of tips to help overcome that particular demon. It’s a smart idea to blog on this topic–there’s quite an audience for it–but it makes me a laugh a little, too. And think.

Why am I (and presumably hundreds of other writers) so prone to procrastination? Why is it that even though I want to write, I fail to, you know, actually do it? Why is it that when I sit down with my MS (after hours of anticipation), I would rather scrub the shower or organize my socks by color?

What is it about writing that makes it so easy to push on to the back burner?

Lack of deadlines. There are people who make a living from writing.

I’m not one of them.

Luckily for my family, we do not relying on my writing to pay the heating bill or buy groceries. Unluckily for my works-in-progress, it’s easier to goof off when not facing subzero temps inside my house or days of beans and rice.

Solution? Join writing groups and challenges (like NaNoWriMo) to help keep you on track. Get a good writing buddy to prod you every now and again. Get your spouse to block you from the Internet in the evenings–and refuse to give you that $#@!! password.

Lack of warmups. Sometimes, I’m writing along (lalalala) and all is well.

Then I hit a wall (shoulda seen that one coming!). A massive concrete monstrosity with barbed wire at the top and crude graffiti sneering at me. Unclimbable. Undrillable. Laughs at the stick of dynamite I’m waving at it

I’m stuck, the story is going nowhere. Every time I think about writing, I think about that wall. Why, yes, I’d rather play 87 games of Solitaire tonight, thanks.

Writing–as I do it–doesn’t have much in the way of warmups. When I have a difficult piece of music to work through, I usually don’t jump right into it. I’ll do scales for a while, work on easier songs, go back to the pieces I played a few months ago. After building up my confidence, I’m able to tackle the harder piece.

Solution? Begin writing sessions with ten minutes of freewriting. Create a novel journal for writing down all your anxieties and issues with the story. All story-related angsting goes here. Use this journal to brainstorm, cluster and talk your way out of story problems.

Lack of step-by-step instructions. When you knit, you follow a pattern (mostly). When you play music, you follow the music (mostly). When you act, you have a script.

Writing a novel doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Nobody tells you where you should start, when you bring in new characters, where those twists should go. It’s both liberating and paralyzing. There is nothing to gauge your work against. Nothing but that slowly sinking feeling in your stomach when something goes wrong.

Solution? This will be different for different people. Maybe planners need to ditch their outlines. Maybe pansters need to step back and work out one. I find that I need to have a strong premise, a sense of the ending and a handful of beginning scenes before I sit down to write a new novel.

Not tactile, not physical. Writing is a mostly a cerebral activity. Yes, there is the physical act of typing or writing longhand, but that is a very small component of a novelist’s skillset. And because writing mostly goes on in my head, it can be harder to make the leap to writing things down. With many other activities–you just do. Making up stories? That seems like a mystical process, one that cannot be corralled or controlled. One that does not produce something tangible or functional, unlike crocheting a warm blanket or harvesting lettuce for lunch.

Solution? Doing something physical–walking, washing dishes, gardening–often gives my brain a chance to tease out my story without my active interference. Seeking out new experiences, or just stopping to fully enjoy the ones I do have, store up a wealth of sensory detail for me to draw on when I am writing a story.

And, last of all, writing is hard work! We have so many leisure options available to us: movies, TV, Internet, video games, books, (let others do all the work), watching paint dry (just kidding!). After a long tiring day, all my brain and I want is to be entertained, not be entertaining.

What about you? If you’re a procrastinating writer, what makes it hard for you to get started?

about writing

Yes, I know this is a boring title, but it’s hard to come up with something witty and pithy for a serious subject. I’d like to point you to Glenda Larke’s post on what defines a successful writer, which came on the heels of a long dry season in my writing life. This drought lasted all summer, maybe even stretched back to the beginning of the year. I’ve had some uplifting writing moments so far this year–I wrote a short story I really liked, submitted to places that gave me reassuring rejections, even saw two stories published. But those were small oases that I had to leave, and the water they supplied me with did not last long enough (yeah, I’m really stretching that desert analogy here!).

What it all came down to was this: my twin desires to write and to be published were at war with one another. The drive to achieve one was strangling my love for the other. I pored over magazine and agent’s guidelines, and forced myself to work on projects that were the most marketable or near-enough complete so I could get them out faster (hint to self: don’t do that again. It doesn’t work. Any love you have for that project will fizzle out under such pressure).

At about the same time I persuaded D. that we should get a piano–for the kids! It took me a while to get someone out to tune it, but once it was in playable condition no one in my family could keep their mitts off of it. We even had minor arguments about who could play it when. I got a piano book (because that’s the kind of linear, orderly, rule-oriented person I am) and started working my way through it. Hit a brick wall and decided to find a piano teacher. Sir I. went along to that first lesson and was game to learn the piano, so now we’re both playing. And enjoying it.

When I play the piano, I play it for me. For my pleasure, not the pleasure of my family, my piano teacher, or my neighbors. I have no need to perform for others. It’s enough for me that I can train my fingers to move over the keys–confident, assured–and create music. Wow.

Totally different from how I’ve felt about writing.

It’s taken me time away, freewriting, mindmapping, angsting and conversation with a good writing buddy, to come back to the point where I can say, yet again, that writing is important to me. That creating compelling characters, twisty plots, gorgeous prose and bizarre worlds is what I enjoy doing. That I still love writing stories even if I’m not getting published often enough and fast to suit me. The desire for publication is still there, but it’s been put in its place as subordinate to the desire to just write for its own sake–for my own sake.

I ditched the marketable projects–abandoned a short story and a quarter-done novel revision–to work on the story that was really tugging at my heartstrings. I’m building up my writing muscles, aiming for 500 words a night, five times a week. And no beating myself up if I skip a night.

Writing is fun. And that’s how I want to keep it.

piano and writing

I haven’t talked recently about playing the piano, but let me reassure you that it is still happening. Sir I. and I started taking lessons over a month ago, and we both enjoy them, including the time we share together driving to and from lessons. Our teacher lives way out in the country–about half the route is on dirt roads–and we like to point out to each other the place we once saw foxes(!) crossing the street and the Hallway of Trees and the farm with the flagpole and pond. It’s good mother-son bonding time.

Oh, and I like playing the piano, too. Still. *wink*

Playing piano complements writing really well for me. I can’t write while the kids are around; I can’t play piano while they’re sleeping. Writing is hard mental work; playing is–well, I just sit down and make my fingers stumble over the keys in the hopes that I can build up the skill and strength and muscle memory it takes to play decently. And honestly, these days I feel more of a sense of accomplishment playing through a short piece of music than working on my writing. Maybe it’s because I’m a complete beginner at piano, so any progress feels like a huge leap to me.  My learning curve for writing, on the other hand, is currently a plateau. I’ve reached a certain level of competence and I’m stuck there. I can *see* where published work is better than what I’m writing, but not sure how to go about getting my stories across that invisible line.

And so, it’s just easier to go play the same measures of Sea Mist for the umpteenth time.

But, lest you think this is an entirely gloomy post, I have every confidence that once the weather cools down and we get into fall, my story-writing neurons will get all fired up to write. It’s weird, but cold weather makes a writer out of me. It’s as if I have a silicon brain, like the Discworld trolls.

How are your creative endeavors?