8 reasons why writing is better than other jobs


Why is writing better than most other jobs, you ask? Read on and find out. Full disclosure: Since I haven’t ever worked as a rock star, neurosurgeon or fire fighter, I can’t say that writing is better than every other job out there. But I have worked as an evaluator, strategic planner, researcher, mediator, conference coordinator, lobbyist and analyst, so I’ve got a few careers covered.

But first, a short plug for an anthology I am honored to be part of: The Gamer Chronicles was released last week and is already garnering fabulous reviews. It is available at a promotional price of $1.99 for a short time only, so make sure to check it out.

So why is writing full time better than a lot of other jobs? Given that I have now been back working a non-writing job pretty much full time for the last two years, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I miss about writing full time. Here are my 8 reasons why writing is better than other jobs:

1)    Less dread

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you have to do something you don’t particularly like on any given work day, like managing a difficult client, working with a borderline sociopath co-worker, driving to a meeting over icy, snow-covered roads, or admitting that a project is not going particularly well? I am not saying every day has those challenges. Some work days are downright enjoyable and inspiring, but you always know that in every week, there is likely to be one or two dread days or moments where you are at the coalface of your work. With writing, not so much – sure there is the existential dread of a book getting poorly reviewed or not selling well, but that dread is less immediate or in your face.

2)    No boss

I guess this only applies if you are indie published because your editor or publisher could be considered a boss. Don’t get me wrong – my boss at work is fabulous and possibly one of the best bosses one could ask for. I also work in a fairly flat organization and get to call a lot of my own shots. But that doesn’t change the fact that I have a boss who is the ultimate arbiter and that I sometimes disagree with the choices he makes. The decisions he makes with regard to who I work with, what projects I take on, and the measures of success of those projects can cause me a lot of stress. I also work in a very competitive arena with a lot of high achievers. We are all always expected to be turning out brilliant work and being completely collaborative, and I feel like he is always watching (which he is, and has to). The no boss aspect of indie writing or more accurately being totally my own boss and defining my own success, for me, is a win-win.

3)    I was in great shape

While I actually worked more hours a day as a writer, my schedule was completely my own, which meant that I could do a cross fit class at noon, or tack an extra 15 minutes on to my cross country ski and just make up for it in the evening. Now that I work full time, my day is squashed full of phone meetings and in-person meetings. I have to fit in exercise around that. While I still manage to do so most days, my sessions are not nearly as long or intense. I am also just more exhausted.

4)    Meaningful feedback

I get good feedback and a decent amount of appreciation from my work. I often get told my stuff is fantastic and exceptional and that I am a leader in my field (I also get less than positive feedback too because hey, we can’t always hit the mark). That is gratifying, but it is not the same as getting a review, or email from a reader saying that my writing has touched them, or inspired them or changed their life. Very few reports are going to change someone’s life in the way that writing a really spectacular book is going to.

5)    Everyone knows what a writer is

When I was able to say I was a writer, people instantly know what that is. They may have a lot of questions, like do you actually make a living, and are you a “real” writer, but they can conceptualize what a writer is. When I say that I am an evaluator, I get a lot of really blank stares. Even in my own organization where we have made evaluation a supposed “priority”, most people fail to really engage it. They assume that I have it covered and it is always last on our agendas. People think I do mysterious things with statistics and numbers. They also have unrealistic assumptions about what is actually measurable in an extremely complex system. Writing seems more concrete and graspable.

6)    I learned more

Being a writer forced me to actually learn the rules of punctuation and grammar. (Of course as soon as I put that out there, someone is going to be identifying the grammatical errors, dangling participles and comma splices in this post. Learning grammar and punctuation does not make me perfect at it.) Before I was a writer, I had only a vague sense of what was correct or not, having learned mostly by reading and imitating. Being a writer forced me to make a more intentional study of grammar and punctuation. It also forced me to study and deconstruct novels and short stories, so I could understand what made them work, or not. I had to learn marketing and what makes a book cover pop. I was the ultimate decision maker and expert and it forced me to up my game on many fronts. In my job, I have people to handle things like marketing and overall strategy for me. I don’t have to constantly be as well-rounded.

7)    Writing feeds the soul

No matter how much I enjoy my job and the people I work with, there is nothing like the feeling of serendipity and excitement of a scene or narrative arc that came together just the way you wanted it to, the way you needed it to. Just as a reader becomes invested in the narrative dream of a novel, wanting to stay in that world after the book has ended, truly feeling the joy and sadness of the characters, so too can a writer. It is like being able to live multiple lives, and having the opportunity to retreat to the sometimes more satisfying and exciting lives of your characters when you need to. And even better, you can control those lives, allowing them to experience wins when you need or want them to, allowing them to find love, or come out the other side of despair. You can make the people you are writing about be who you want or need them to be, which gives reprieve from a world where you most definitely do not have that level of control.

8)    You can go down the rabbit hole

Writing often involves a lot of research and discovering how things are connected. Writing is all about the details, what people were wearing, how things smelled, arcane ideas or facts. While I do research for my work, it is always time limited. I need to find the most credible sources of information that tell us 80 percent of the story and are factually accurate. In writing, you can go down rabbit holes and explore speculations and other ways of thinking about the universe, magic, and history. You can pursue interesting details, that would not make the 80 percent cut required for my work. You can stumble on strange but fascinating theories about how things are connected to each other. Because somewhere down that rabbit hole is the one idea or fact that is going to make your narrative work.

Why do you think writing is better than other jobs? Stay tuned for my next blog where I might talk about the ways writing is worse than other jobs.

Don't Write Bad Endings

Photo Credit: George Hodan

Photo Credit: George Hodan

I recently read a novel with a bad ending. It had, up until the last few pages, been a great novel. I had consumed it almost in one sitting, breathlessly, and then when I was expecting a twist, a resolution, something to bring it to a satisfying conclusion, there was nothing. It presented the most banal solution to what had been an exciting puzzle that could have been imagined. I felt betrayed and angry, and I will not likely read anything by that author again.

I have written about the importance of beginnings in your novel, but endings are just as critical. In the beginning you establish the contract with the reader and in the end, you must execute on it. You must deliver the payoff to those who have invested in your work.

Lists of books with bad endings abound. Some commonly listed books with bad endings include Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Allegiant by Veronica Roth and Atonement by Ian McEwan. Yup, those are all on my bad ending list, although Atonement is considered by some to be one of the best endings. Part of the reason that the endings are so bad is because the books had so much promise that it is even more agonizing when the ending is poor.

Gillian Berry has a fantastic list of the worst types of endings to books, including some of my personal least favourites:

  • Everyone Dies Ending – pretty self-explanatory and never a good idea
  • Deus Ex Machina Endings – character gets themselves out of a dire situation with an inexplicable and contrived solution – some new event, ability or loaded gun that just happened to be right where they needed it
  • The Way Too Soon Ending—writer got tired of writing and cut things off right after the climax, or worse, petered out before any climax
  • The Where Did that Come From Ending—a strange twist or shift in the story or writing tone that was totally unexpected, not foreshadowed, out of character and unsatisfying

I would add to that list the:

  • The Main or Key Character Dies Ending—sometimes acceptable when it was potentially expected, like they were sick of something, but other than that, not
  • The Non-Twist When You Promised a Twist Ending—writer spends whole time hinting at and building up to something and then nothing is revealed, the killer is the person who was suspected all the time
  • The Too Ambiguous or Non-Ending Ending—too little is explained, the writer teases the reader with too many open-ended questions, there is no evidence of personal growth or redemption on the part of the main character
  • The Gratuitous Final Twist When Everything Was Wrapped Up Ending—everything is resolved and seems like it is going to be okay, then the UFO comes back, or the main character ruins her life in one fell blow

Others would add The Too Happy Ending and The It Was All a Dream Ending. While I don’t love those, I find them more tolerable than some of the others.

Joan Acocella points out that endings are bad when they are a betrayal of what came before and theorizes that sometimes authors just get tired and think they have worked hard enough. Gillian Berry likewise points out that sometimes authors paint themselves into a corner with their plot and don’t know how to get out—enter the avalanche that kills everyone, or the inexplicable Deus Ex Machina that gets your character out of an unescapable situation. Writers also may think that ambiguous or non-ending endings are more artistic. They certainly abound in literature, and sometimes they are okay as long as they conform to genre norms and aren’t too ambiguous, but I’m not a big fan. I remember being told in a writing class that I had to kill my darlings. I thought that this meant that artistically I had to kill one of my main characters. It doesn’t and don’t.

Genre conventions and reader expectations also play a critical role in determining what is a good or bad ending. Some readers want a happy ending to every story—others like endings that are shocking and leave them scratching their heads. Romances must have a happily ever after or a happy for now ending or readers will generally be very upset. The killer must be revealed at the end of a mystery. Thrillers must have a twist. Literary fiction allows for much more ambiguity in its endings, and Lee Rourke argues for the value of loose ends in this piece in The Guardian.

No matter what you are writing, you must pay attention to your ending. If the first line in your novel is important, the last line is often critical.

Satisfying endings answer questions, fulfill your promises and bring some closure to the reader and the story. You don’t have to answer every single question, but you have to answer the main ones. You can leave room for interpretation, but things have to make sense, and seem inevitable and right. Novels can end with sadness, but there must be some uplift somehow. According to the NY Book Editors blog (which offers some great advice on writing endings) Good endings make the reader’s “heart ache and then ponder”.

Tails of Dystopia


If you have read any of my work, you will know it generally includes animals in some form or another, often as pets, but sometimes also as point of view characters. Some of my favorite books feature animals that talk and interact in an almost human way, including Watership Down, Ozma of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Velveteen Rabbit, and Silverwing.

To me, a book isn’t complete unless it includes an animal of some sort. In the fantasy genre in particular, animals are almost a necessity (think horses, dragons, talking lions)—some of them talk, some of them do not, some of them are anthromorphised, some of them are not, but all animals in fiction help bring the story to life and, most importantly, create an emotional connection with readers. We love animal characters differently, and often more absolutely, than we love human characters. Think of how many beloved fictional animals there are: Shadowfax, Wilbur, Balloo, Aslan, Dug, Winnie the Pooh, Dory, Black Beauty, Old Yeller, just to name a few. Disney has taken the idea of animals as main characters to a whole new level with hundreds of movies with animals as point of view characters. Even in human-centric stories, animals often play the role of the sage, whacky or crafty side-kick, such as Scooby Doo, Snowy, Toto or Nymeria. Animals can be used to send a serious social message and reflect on human behavior, as in Animal Farm, or they can be used for comic relief or as protectors of their owners. No matter how they are portrayed, in the same way that people who have pets are often healthier and live longer lives,  animals are an essential part of fiction and bring deeper emotional resonance to a story.

All that leads me to Chronicle Worlds: Tails of Dystopia, which launched on Monday and stayed in the top 1000 on Amazon all week. It is an amazing anthology described as “1984 meets The Incredible Journey”. It contains thirteen dystopian tales about animals by some of the best writers in science fiction today, including USA Today bestselling authors David Adams and Cheri Lasota, Wall Street Journal bestselling authors Daniel Arthur Smith and Ann Christy, and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award winner Rysa Walker.

I am very honored to have a story “Cry Wolf” in the anthology that is set in the world of my dystopian novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation. All of the stories in Tails of Dystopia unfold through the eyes of animals and are set in the dystopian worlds created by their authors. Tails of Dystopia is only 99 cents this week, so get your copy now. The first anthology in the Tails series, Tails of the Apocalypse is also only 99 cents for the month of November, so check it out as well. I would also like to put in a plug for Chronicle Worlds: B Movie—if you like mummies and killer koalas, don’t miss it.

Most importantly, proceeds from Tails of Dystopia help support the charity Pets for Vets, which rescues and re-trains shelter animals and matches them with military veterans in need of a companion animal. Pets for Vets helps heal the emotional wounds of military veterans by pairing them with animals that have been selected for them, while at the same time giving a shelter animal a second chance at life. It is a great cause and one that the authors in Tails are glad to support.

Writing Beginnings


I started a new novel last week… Book 5 in my Derivatives of Displacement series, tentatively titled, A Cat a List. It has been a bit of a revelation. I am loving it, and suddenly my creativity is back. After struggling for so long with my adult romantic thriller, I realized that I don’t want to spend my time immersed in the real world. I spend enough time in the real world when I’m in the real world. When I’m writing, I’d rather immerse myself in a world of magic, where anything is possible, where I can try to recreate that moment when as a child, you realize that the book you are reading is going to be very good indeed, and it is going to take you on a grand adventure that you are not going to want to end.

Given that I am at the beginning of that novel, I began to wonder, what are the essential characteristics of the beginning of a fantasy novel for children (and for adults because I still love children’s fantasy novels)? Beginnings matter. It is your promise to the reader of what is to come. You want the reader immersed in the narrative dream immediately. The beginning of a fantasy novel is particularly important. What tells the reader they are in for a grand adventure? What was it about the fantasy series I loved as a child that caught me right from the beginning?

Out of curiosity, I went to my favorite fantasy series, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, A Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madeline L’Engle and the Oz series by L. Frank Baum, and read the first few pages of each book in the series… well not the Oz series, because there are far too many books, but you get my drift.

They are all different, but there is a sense of sameness too.

Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Oz books generally start with a short bit of omniscient narration to introduce the story before sliding in to the action, although Rowling varies this up depending on where she is in the series. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in particular does a fair bit of omniscient stage setting before we find ourselves mostly in Harry’s point of view, although there is always a sense of the narrator. The books in His Dark Materials, The Dark is Rising, and A Wrinkle in Time Quintet generally start in media res, or in the middle of the action, with the first sentence often being a line of dialogue, except A Wrinkle in Time itself, which begins ironically with “It was a dark and stormy night.” In books that start in media res, the reader is plunked right into the scene and exposition and stage setting is filled in gradually.

The beginnings of these novels establish the atmosphere of the books and series.

Most of the series establish a vague sense of threat in the first few pages, but also a sense of childlike excitement, innocence and curiosity in the face of that threat. For example, Mr Dursley’s day and the interactions between Dumbledore and McGonagall set Harry Potter up to be more light-hearted than the opening of His Dark Materials, and the Wrinkle in Time Quintet, which are more brooding and explore adult themes more thoroughly. There is a preponderance of aunts and uncles in all of the books who are brought in in the opening pages. Parents only appear in some of the Chronicles of Narnia, Dark is Rising books, and Wrinkle in Time books, and are generally quite distracted by their own issues. Even if they are not orphaned, or think the are orphaned, as in the case of Harry, Lyra and Dorothy, children are often sent to stay with aunts and uncles. This all makes sense—wouldn’t want any helicopter parents ruining the fun. Aunts and uncles are apparently far more likely to turn a blind eye while the children dash off to another world. In addition, half of these series focus around siblings—Narnia, Dark is Rising and Wrinkle in Time, whereas the other ones focus a single main character. Only Harry Potter and His Dark Materials maintain the same main character throughout the series. There is also an animal, either a pet in the case of A Wrinkle in Time, Over Sea, Under Stone, and The Wizard of Oz, or a magical animal creature of some sort in the case of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Golden Compass, introduced within the first page or two.

I began looking for the narrative hook in each novel and series.

A hook is a structural element in the first chapter of a novel intended to capture or “hook” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. The hook must capture the reader’s attention and make them wonder what is going to happen. Some suggest that ideally the hook should be the opening sentence. Action is often utilized as a hook, but settings, characters or even thematic statements can also be utilized as hooks. Rowling sort of hooks you in her first sentence in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by opening with “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”, which tells you of course that the Dursleys are not normal. She continues to pull the reader within the next few paragraphs describing the peculiar events of Mr Dursley’s day and the clear implication that something ‘big’ had happened. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman begins with the sentence, “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” You know immediately that they are up to something they should not be doing and even better, that Lyra has something called a daemon.

Interestingly, the first lines of the second Harry Potter book, and the fifth Chronicles of Narnia book are considered to be the best in each series. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets opens with the line “Not for the first time, a fight had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.” The line is effective in part because the reader now knows exactly where number four, Privet Drive is, and what it means and who is likely fighting. That familiarity of knowledge is comforting, and draws the reader back into the series. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins with “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” I confess, my initial reaction was disappointment—was this book not to be about Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy, but I had to know what Eustace could have done to almost deserve such a name? The second book in the Wrinkle in Time Quintet, A Wind in the Door definitely has the best opening line “There are dragons’ in the twins’ vegetable garden.” This line again plays on the familiarity that the reader already has with the series—we know who the twins are, and we can guess the likely speaker of the line almost immediately.

In addition to your hook, the beginning of your novel often contains an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is the thing that disrupts the character’s every day existence and eventually leads them to the doorway of no return (or the first plot point), where they become fully vested in the adventure. I was surprised to discover that Lucy is through the wardrobe and into Narnia and Dorothy has landed in Oz within the first two to three pages of the novel. The inciting incident and hook are sometimes interchangeable and and because the inciting incident does not always happen in the first chapter, it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. For example, is the inciting incident in The Golden Compass, the inciting incident is when Lyra sneaks into a room she should not be in at Oxford and sees the Master putting powder in the drink he is about to serve to her uncle, and then while hiding in a wardrobe learns about “dust”? In A Wrinkle in Time, is it when Charles Wallace announcing that he had met Mrs Whatsit, or is that moment a continuation of the hook, and the inciting incident happens in chapter two when Meg meets Mrs Whatsit and realizes that the real world is not at all what she thought it was? K.M. Weiland offers an excellent breakdown of the potential differences between the hook and inciting incident.

You must knock over the first domino.

The bottom line is that the first few pages of your children’s fantasy novel (or any novel), must capture the reader’s imagination and knock over the first domino or the first few dominos in your line of dominos that is your plot. Your beginning must also establish the atmosphere of your novel – is it going to be first person POV or omniscient, is it about one child or a group of children, do they have a pet J, what is the setting, is it going to be dark or light-hearted, or both. Most of all, is it going to be fun? Subsequent books in a series must reintroduce the characters to the reader, if they are the same, and establish that immediate sense of familiarity and comfort, or immediately make the reader care about new characters, if they are different (a far more challenging task).


I also have ARCs to give away!

I also have exciting news. Chronicle Worlds: Tails of the Dystopia, containing a short story that I wrote about a dog, that is set in the world of, and could serve as an alternate beginning for my novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation will be released on November 7. anthology I have five Advanced Reader Copies to give away. Those copies will go to the first five people who email me at jlelliswriting@gmail.com and tell me whether you want a mobi or epub version. In exchange, we request that you leave a review on Amazon on launch day. You will love the amazing stories by the authors in this collection. Even more important, the anthology benefits Pets for Vets, an organization that finds and trains companion animals for veterans. I will also be sending out a reminder about the ARCs to my reading list soon, but don’t delay. If you want an ARC, email me now!

Finding the Creative Fire

Photo Credit:  Denise Krebs  / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Denise Krebs / flickr / Creative Commons

There is no doubt about it. I am in a creativity and productivity rut. Not at work of course. I still churn out scintillating evaluation reports and mind-blowing graphs on a daily basis… although now that I think about it the fact that I consider them so exciting might be part of the problem. But on the writing front, my supposed raison d’être, I have failed to finish a single thing in 2017, except for a short story in the forthcoming Tails of the Apocalypse 2. I’ve barely even blogged.

I have managed to eke out 30,000 words of a “written-to-market” thriller, my attempt to capitalize on the appetite for Girl on the Train type novel, but with each passing chapter I am finding myself more and more indifferent to it. I am no more on the edge of my seat while writing it than I am while preparing my grocery list. Less even. But I don’t know why. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, and I like reading romantic thrillers, so it’s not as if I am forcing myself to write something that I don’t read. But everything about it from the characters to setting, to the whole conceit, bores me. There’s no magic in it. Maybe I only like writing books about time travel or the end of the world. Today, I opened up a story I started several years ago about a train crash and a drug smuggling ring in a small town, and found it to be oddly compelling. But I can barely remember the person who wrote it. The person with drive, blind faith and a never ending source of ideas. Surely a raison d’être cannot be destroyed by too much graph exposure.

Despairing, I went for a walk and listened to an episode of Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons about the intricacies of the creative process. I am not a diehard Eat, Pray, Love fan, but there is a kindness in Gilbert’s voice when she talks to people about living the creative life that is very nourishing to the soul. The podcast is all about getting people unstuck in their creative pursuits. She often talks to people who have had some success in pursuing their creative dream, but who have had a setback or hit a wall of some sort. Gilbert helps them get past their obstacles by assigning them tasks, like competing in a poetry slam or writing for just an hour every day for a month. Although I have yet to listen to many episodes, Gilbert seems to emphasize the value of making art and writing for the sake of being creative and the pure joy of building something.

Good advice…I think… but in the competitive indie world or even the traditional publishing world, that doesn’t tend to be the way we operate.

But when I think about my writing, I did some of my best work, and more importantly, enjoyed it the most, when I knew absolutely NOTHING about the writing world, when I thought that it was easy to make a living as a writer, when I thought that my writing was just as good as that of published writers, when I had no writer friends on Facebook or anywhere else. I say some of my best work, because there is little doubt in my mind that my writing has become more technically sound as a result of my exposure to other writers through a myriad of classes and conferences. It has also become better purely as a result of writing eight and four half novels. But my early work was some of my most joyous work, where I could not wait to get to the page every day, where the story coursed through me in vivid Technicolor, where my characters lived and breathed in my mind (a mind possibly now too full of graphs). Sometimes it seemed like I was just a conduit. When I wrote, it was a simple matter of reaching into the “fire” of creativity and putting that life on the page. It was often easy. At times, it very definitely felt like magic.

While I was very diligent about showing up and getting words on the page, I wasn’t hemmed in by any dictates about what would and would not sell. I didn’t do market research or try to write to a formula. I wasn’t restricted by the right and wrong way to write. I didn’t envy or even monitor the success of others. I didn’t hear about their latest releases on Facebook. I didn’t read their reviews on Goodreads. I didn’t even know who they were. I didn’t try to write “likable” characters. My characters were quirky and sometimes unattractive. They were often weak and sometimes strong. They weren’t perfect and they didn’t always have that much vaunted agency, but they were honest. When I started writing, I was also a lot younger. It has been ten years since I started writing seriously and I have seen graphs (it’s always the graphs, damn it) that suggest that writers peak at age 45. Ten years ago, I had lots of time. Now that I have slipped past that age of peak creativity I do not, and that knowledge weighs on me.

During a writing course that I took with a well-known Canadian author and creative writing professor, as she neared the completion of her second book, she indicated that she felt she only had a few novels in her, and that writing was not something that she saw herself doing for the rest of her life. At the time, her words floored me. Who plans to stop writing? I couldn’t imagine not wanting or needing to write. I couldn’t imagine having a limited number of ideas within me. But over the past year as I have struggled to find the time and passion to get my words on the page, I’ve definitely entertained the possibility.

But that doesn’t seem right for me. In Gilbert’s episode with Brene Brown, a professor who studies courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, Brown says that she has come to the conclusion that creativity is the way she shares her soul with the world and without it, she is not okay. She further says that “unused creativity is not benign” that it metastasizes into resentment, grief, and heartbreak.

So, what do to?

When talking to a poet struggling with sharing her work further, Gilbert asked “who do you write for?” and then said something to the effect of, “if the answer is anyone other than yourself, we need to talk.”

That is an interesting question. Who do I write for? I don’t even know. When I first started writing, I wrote for a small but dedicated group of family and friends who read each chapter as it was produced. I spent almost no time surfing the internet each day, other than to do research for my writing. I wasn’t even on Facebook. The pioneers of the indie world were just getting started and there were very few websites telling you how to make it big in the indie world—and I didn’t read them anyway. Now I feel pummelled by advice and the success of others on all sides, not to mention a continual stream of global bad news, and I’m trying to write to “market” before it’s too late, before the indie gold rush is over, before I am too old, before the end of the world. Clearly that isn’t working.

So maybe it’s time to ignore every indie truism I have learned over the past few years about being a business, setting word targets, building a tribe and writing what will sell and go back to basics. Pretend I’m back at the beginning of this journey. Stay off Facebook and write…for myself.

When the body says... follow your dream?

Follow your dreams, live your passion, find your bliss. Those are the mantras of the new century. The blogosphere, book stores, and the internet in general are rife with people encouraging you to do what makes you happy. Life coaching has become a new profession. You won’t succeed at what doesn’t make you happy anyway, they tell us, or you will end up a hollow shell of person on your death bed at the end of a life filled with regret. Worse (or equally bad) you will make everyone around you miserable because you are bitter because you did not follow your dreams.

Everywhere you look, the follow your dream mantra dangles in front of us, tauntingly, beguilingly.

For those of us with a dream and with some (or a lot) of existential malaise, it is always floating out there as the reason why we Are. Not. Happy. But should you follow your dream?

These mantras and beliefs are particularly pertinent to writers because for the most part writing makes us happy. Unfortunately for most of us, writing is unlikely to allow you to make a living. This has always been true and remains true. Writers in the past often lived lives of quiet poverty, or had the luxury of being writers because they had family money or a supportive benefactor. For every shining success story in the writing world, there are thousands of failures.

You have no idea how much I wish plumbing was my passion or that I got blissed out writing evaluation reports or filling cavities.

To make matters worse, those telling us to follow our dreams, live our passion and find our bliss often make their living selling courses, coaching and books exhorting us to do so. Their passion is apparently to tell us to live our passion. They get paid to tell us to quit our jobs and find what makes us happy. The other group of people telling us not to give up, that failing is far worse than not to trying, are successful actors or writers who already beat the unbelievable odds and succeeded. I opened Facebook this morning to see two commencement addresses, one from Will Ferrell and one from Jim Carrey, at the top of my newsfeed telling fresh-faced students that for them not trying would have been worse than failing. You don’t have to look much further to see similar addresses from Peter Dinklage, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling. They are moving speeches. I love watching them.

But these are people who have made it.

It would be interesting to see addresses from people who have failed. Are there people who are living lives of financial instability, who have sacrificed their health, relationships and security because they followed their dreams? What advice would they have… stick with dentistry, accept the ordinary, or find the sublime in waste management?

This all makes me sound like a terrible terrible cynic and killjoy. I'm not, I swear. There are plenty of people who say the suggestion that you should follow your dream is bunk and point out that the chances of making it in competitive careers like say…. writing, are low. Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow wrong about everything? devotes entire chapters to sharing data to prove this fact. Others just share their opinion. For example, Marty Nemko, a career coach, observes in his article Why Following Your Passion is the Worst Kind of Career Advice:

Most professional actors live a life of endless cattle-call auditions, which usually result in rejection or a bit part in which you spend most rehearsal and showtime waiting.
Mightn't you prefer a career in a field less likely to have the masses fighting with you for a job and, if you get it, just waiting for you to screw up so they can take your place?

The thing is, until reading Timothy Caulfield’s book, I actually believed that you could and should follow your dreams.

Sure, I did the safe thing. I got my PhD, built a consulting career, got married to a man who could mostly support a family. But I did this just as insurance. I still believed that eventually I would follow my dreams and succeed. When I first started writing, I actually thought that I could make it as a writer. I had talent and drive. It was just a matter of time. In the first year of writing, I thought it would just be a matter of churning out a novel. When I became a seasoned wannabe writer and realized it was a bit more difficult than that, I settled in for the long haul, but still I believed that through a combination of perseverance, luck, and ability, success would happen. After all, I’d succeeded at everything I had tried before. I was a straight A+ student through much of university. I got accepted to Harvard (but foolishly declined to go). I worked from home as a consultant by choice and my consulting work roster was always full. Why wouldn’t I succeed at being a writer?

Moreover, I did have some initial successes. Traditionally published writers at conferences seemed to think I had a chance, I got an agent, my novel was read by the big four publishers in Canada. When I went indie, I got the coveted orange bestseller ribbon on Amazon. My books got good reviews, and I was accepted for Book Bub ads. I got invited to be part of the Apocalypse Weird series and was included in anthologies, including Samuel Peralta’s Future Chronicles. When I accepted the job at which I currently work, the job that takes me from my dream, I had just done a stint of writing full time for six months and my earnings from Amazon were finally consistently over $500 per month, hardly enough to live on though, but not bad. They were on the upward trajectory.

So, why did I take the job at all?

The dream had definite costs, mostly in the form of lost income, which translated into resentment from my husband that he had to bear more of the burden of earning an income. Resentment that I got to try to follow my dream and he didn’t. It also translated into an empty-ish bank account and a slowly but surely mounting line of credit—we had more than enough money to eat, buy the basics and pay the utilities, but not much after that. The job, which was originally supposed to be twelve hours a week, was my way of trying to contribute and still stay on my dream path. A way of pursuing both what I “should” do and what I “must” do as Brad Stulberg argues in his post that The Best Way to Follow your Dreams Is by Keeping Your Day Job.

Going all in on the dream also had personal costs—it was risky. If it failed would I be able to go back to my consulting career. How would I explain the strange gap in contracts? Emotionally, when you are all in on something that could so very easily fail (will likely fail if you believe Caulfield), you do feel like you are out there with your pants down. According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile, going all in on something makes you fragile, and I did feel that way for the six months that I focused exclusively on writing.

The job was my way of being antifragile.

But few people in the work world understand wanting to work only twelve hours a week so you can write science fiction, and once you prove your worth, they want you to just help out on this project, and this one, and if you say no your overall value to the organization is in question. I know that many valiant writers have and continue to fit writing in around their day jobs and I have done so for nine years, but eventually you get tired. Flash forward to a year and a bit after taking the “twelve” hour a week job and I work every day, I’m no longer on the dream path and (thanks largely to Caulfield—I am clearly far too impressionable and logical) I’m in a pitched battle with my cynicism over the possibility of the dream.

And yet as it did once before when I was in a particularly bad contract, my body is again showing signs of the strain in a chronic and challenging condition that involves considerable pain and makes it difficult to work, not to mention write.

When Gabor Maté’s book When the Body Says No: The Hidden Costs of Stress, came out in 2011, I grasped it eagerly, feeling instinctually that I needed to read it. My mother had blamed her rare and terminal disease on lifelong stress. However Maté’s book contained little for me. It focused on how serious trauma—rape, abuse, deep poverty—manifests in addictions and chronic illnesses. I have no doubt it does, but what about the chronic garden variety stress experienced by conscientious quasi-perfectionists who have a stupid dream to write and spend a largish percentage of their lives trying to make other people happy? Where is the book on that? I tried Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers, and found little help there either.

To say that my condition is stress related seems to trivialize it, make it seem like it is all in my head, when there is physiological evidence that it exists. But after suffering through a terrible winter with it, it was a bit surprising that it disappeared almost entirely for the entire week that my family spent in Hawaii, away from my desk, away from my job. It was absent for the three weeks following the trip when I had a slightly lighter workload than usual, but then reared its head again when I had a particularly stressful week ahead.

Humans are unique creatures in the sense that we can use our brains to override pain.

Lower-level organisms take their cues from pain. If it hurts, they steer away from it. Humans believe in short-term pain for long-term gain, and there are times when that is true, but often we are referring to the pain of disciplining ourselves to study or work out just a little harder, not actual physical pain.

In Barking up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker talks about those students who do really well in school and university—straight-A students, like me. These students do well because they are conscientious and work harder than everyone else, because they are generalists that focus on all areas of learning not just one passion, and because they do what they are told and follow the rules. These students often become moderately successful, but rarely go on to change, impress or run the world. They are rarely top achievers in the job world. Darn it, I knew I should have partied more in university.

Hmmm... my logical mind will never allow me to go all in on writing—it is simply too rational, too logical. I am still the conscientious student, the generalist that follows the rules... But my body on the other hand... it still seems to believe in following the dream...


I Quit Writing

Photo Credit:  aboblist.com

Photo Credit: aboblist.com

Six months ago I just stopped writing. I stopped tweeting. I stopped updating my blog. I stopped managing my writing career in any way. I stopped even responding to most writing-related emails and comments on my blog. I stopped listening to all writing podcasts. I haven’t even collected checks for book sales that I know are waiting for me at some indie book stores.

When I first stopped, I told myself I was just taking a short break. Two weeks maybe. I had just finished and published the fourth novel in my Derivatives of Displacement series. Getting that novel done had been a grind because since November 2015, I had been working almost full time at a demanding job. Getting that novel done had required writing every night, editing madly in the car while my children played big soccer games, and making sure a day did not pass without pushing out my 1000 words.

Immediately after finishing that novel, I switched gears and started writing one of my pen name novels, which was half finished and currently untouched now for 6 months at 26,000 words. I was tired. I had been pushing hard with indie publishing since September 2013 and writing during every conceivable moment since 2007. I just needed a little break.

Two weeks turned into two months, and then four and now six. I dabbled in writing. I had two short stories for anthologies due during that time. I wrote half of one halfheartedly and finished the other. But the thrill was gone. I thought about blog posts—semi-colons are fascinating aren’t they? I thought about novels I could write. I thought about finishing one of the many quarter and half finished novels on my laptop. I imagined taking my writing career in a totally different direction—writing thrillers, mysteries, or sweet romances. I mentored other writers. I read a myriad of novels. All writers should read, shouldn’t they?

Reading often just made me angry. I realized how picky I am as a reader. How many novels strike me as self-indulgent, phoned in, or just not my style. I found some new writers I loved, like Blake Crouch, Kimberly Belle, and Gill Paul, and revisited the work of some that I had loved before, like Patrick DeWitt. I tried to analyze what it was about the novels that I really liked.

My break was going on much longer than I planned, and the longer it went on, the more paralyzed I became about returning to the screen. When they say writing is a habit, it is no lie. Like exercise, when you stop writing, it is very hard to start again. During the time slots that I could have been writing, I mindlessly surfed Facebook, not even reading posts, just scrolling through, completely wasting my time. I read countless self-help books, none of which were any help. I started watching TV at night—Scandal, Riverdale, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency…

Everything to do with writing became like that project for that class that you didn’t start early enough, the one that is due in two days where there is so much to do piled up that you ignore it and don’t do anything, but it hangs over you always. The kind of thing that I have nightmares about.

So why? Why did I stop writing? I wrestled with the many possible reasons.

1) My mother died last January

I had just started a new job and had a novel due in the spring. I pushed through and continued working because I had to. I miss her terribly. Was my break some sort of deferred grief?

2) I get paid handsomely by the hour for my job.

I can always do more hours. I took over managing our family finances in December 2015 and discovered that we really really needed my income to make ends meet. Each hour of work that I did became like a little hit of security. It was a straight feedback loop. I work, I get paid. Compare that to writing where you work your ass off and may or may not get paid at all, ever. In one of my last blog posts, I had calculated the number of hours that went in to writing a novel. I had also calculated how much I would have earned if I had just worked for those hours. It was depressing. Had I become addicted to the work and get paid algorithm? The hits I used to get by selling a book or getting a good review were replaced by straight dollars in the bank account hits.

3) I have teenagers.

My house is a tip and they are always hungry. It is possible that teenagers are messier than toddlers and they don’t respond well to the “everybody clean up” song. It is possible that I spend more time cleaning up and shopping for Mr. Noodles than I did when they were young (well a lot more time on the Mr. Noodles front as I never envisioned even considering allowing my children to eat Mr. Noodles, but I digress).

4) I read a book called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?

It was a good book and it is not really mostly about Gwyneth at all. It is more about the cult of celebrity, how we listen to celebrities (even though we really shouldn’t) and how we all secretly want to be celebrities (even though our chances are slim to none). The author, Timothy Caulfield, devotes many chapters to precisely how unlikely it is that you or your children will ever make it as a singer, writer, or actor (he even provided stats). He is a failed singer himself and a damn good researcher. His research was compelling and totally depressing.

5) I was developing deep-seated professional envy and confusion.

Despite Caulfield’s argument, I know people who are making it as writers in the indie and traditional writing world. Some of them are really good writers. Some of them are only okay. Once you pass a certain bar in terms of quality, there seems to be no correlation between success and the quality of your writing. Each time one of my friends “made it,” I would wonder, what is it that they are doing differently? Are they marketing more, are they doing it full time, are they writing in a hotter genre, are they just more outgoing and shameless self-promoters? The indie world is rife with advice on how to succeed. You could make yourself absolutely crazy reading blog posts and listening to podcasts containing often contradictory advice, trying to figure out what to implement in your limited marketing time. It’s paralyzing and I just had to shut it off.

6) I was becoming addicted to Facebook.

I would literally waste an hour or two a day scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, not reading much, following a few links, watching cat videos (which is a total waste of time even though I really like cats) and reading scary headlines about Trump. I wasn’t even liking or commenting on things or building my online community, like you are supposed to do as a writer.

7) There are so many other writers…so many.

There are so many other books. There are so many other blog posts. Mindlessly surfing Facebook reminds me of this every day. It makes putting pen to paper seem fruitless. How can I possibly break through the noise? How can I possibly write something worth reading when so many other people are also trying to do so?

8) The U.S. election results really threw me.

I was so depressed after Trump’s election that I couldn’t do anything for a few weeks. This was partly because I was afraid that the world would be ending soon, and partly because the divisiveness of American politics and the difficulty of sorting through what is fake news and what is not makes my heart catch in my throat and stay there. I am worried for so many people in the U.S. who may soon be without health care or jobs. I am worried about the violence and war occurring in many other parts of the world. I am worried about climate change. Writing, especially writing sweet romances about rich or upper middle class people, seems trite against the backdrop of what is unfolding all around me. And yet writing gritty real-world novels about what is happening does not appeal to me either. They seem too dark at a time when we need hope. So, what does one write in this world that is uplifting and yet real?

9) My job is stressful and meaningful.

I work as an evaluator of health care projects. I spend a lot of time talking to patients who are experiencing something terrible and who are trying to hang on to hope. It is important work and work that I hope will help make our health care system better. It is work that drains me and requires that I pour a lot of creativity into it. It is work that leaves me with a lot less to give to writing. It is work that pays the bills and makes me feel like I am making a difference in the world.

So, what to do? What is it really holding me back—is it #2, #6, #9, all of the above? Should I quit my job? Should I read another self-help book?

I will not lie. I have entertained giving up writing forever. Simply working my day job and collecting my paycheck, watching TV and going on holidays without a deadline hanging over me, without that constant pressure to be writing, seems appealing. However even though I have told myself I can do that, that it would be okay, that my life would not be wasted if I did, six months later the “you should be writing” specter will not leave my side. Perhaps it is with me always. No matter how fulfilling my job is, it is not writing. Once a writer, always a writer.

So I am writing. I started a new novel a couple of weeks ago. It is a psychological thriller about a woman who discovers her husband has another family. I have set a conservative word count target of 500 words a day four days a week. I have promised myself I will start blogging again. Thanks for reading. My next post will be about proper and inventive uses of semi-colons and commas, I promise.

How Many Hours to Write a Novel?

Photo Credit:  Craig Chew-Moulding  / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Craig Chew-Moulding / flickr / Creative Commons

I just finished the third draft of Pair Alleles, the fourth book in my Derivatives of Displacement series yesterday. This was probably my most challenging novel yet to write. I have a more demanding job than ever before, requiring me to fit writing around all sorts of critical things like meetings, data analysis, and generally trying to look like my job is super important to me (which it is, but I’m sure most writers can identify with the feeling of being torn). In addition, as the fourth book in a series, Pair Alleles is more complex with many plot threads to keep track of and pull through from the previous books. It is also longish at 120,000 words.

Pair Alleles took me seven months to go from blank screen to third draft, and that felt like a very long time with many hours of toiling at my screen. I did not record the number of hours I sat at my desk writing my novel, unlike for work, where I record my time down to the fifteen minute increment, which provides me with a lot of useful data with regard to exactly how long it takes me to write a report, sit through a meeting, or craft an evaluation plan. I started to think that analyzing my productivity on the writing front might be helpful too.

How long, really, does it take to write a novel?

How many hours of work really go into a first draft, a second draft, and the final product? Google the question and generally speaking you won’t get a satisfying answer. Many of the responses are trite.

“Writing a novel takes as long as it takes, no more and no less.”
“Writing a good book takes however long it takes.”
“You will get to however many pages you want in the right amount of time for your story.”

As a lifelong measurer and a data analyst by day, these kinds of answers drive me nuts. Of course they are partially true. How long it takes to write a novel depends on how fast and experienced a writer you are, how long the novel is, what kind of novel it is, how much research is required, how many days a week you work in it, and how many hours a day you work. I know that, but surely we can come up with more precise data than “it takes as long as it takes.” Yes, there will be outliers—there always are. But there will be an average, median, and standard deviation as well.

People often talk about writing a book in terms of months or years, like I just did when I said it took me seven months to write Pair Alleles. Many literary fiction novels take three to ten years to write a novel, while some famous romance novelists, such as Nora Roberts and Barbara Cartland can write a novel in a month. We all know of novels that were written in a very short time—I have blogged about this before. Sarah Gruen wrote Water for Elephants in four weeks. A Clockwork Orange was written in three weeks. We’ve all heard of novels that take almost twenty years to write.

A year is often thrown around as the time it takes to write a book. Indie writers often do it faster, with many producing a novel every one to three months.

But the thing that is deceptive about all of those time frames is that we have no idea how many hours a day the writer is working. Do they show up to their desk at nine for a leisurely two-hour stint, write frantically for an hour every night after the kids have gone to bed, or spend fourteen hours chained to their desk? Do they write every day, or just on weekends?

How long does it take to write a novel in hours?

Was Sarah Gruen working twelve hours a day seven days a week for those four weeks? If she was, it took her 336 hours to write her novel. Or was she writing three hours a day, five days a week? If so, she churned it out in a measly 60 hours.

After doing some math based on the average number of hours I write per day (3.5), the number of days I write per week (7) and accounting for the days when I had meetings, social events, holidays or soccer tournaments to attend, I figured that I wrote on average 17 hours per week from February 1 to August 26, with four weeks off in which I had to write a short story for The Future Chronicles and a one-week marathon of 12 hour days when I was trying to finish Pair Alleles up. Conservatively then, Pair Alleles took me 476 hours to write, with 357 hours for the first draft, 85 hours for the second draft, and 34 hours for the third draft.

Is this normal—how many hours does it take other people to write a novel? An intensive Google search yielded not very much. Most writers do not calculate or record the number of hours that it takes them to write a novel, but I did find a few people (often data wonks like me) who tracked it and got the following numbers:

  • 736 hours for a shortish novel that included a lot of rewriting
  • 376 hours for a non-fiction book
  • 200 hours for a first draft
  • 200 hours for a 100,000 word first draft
  • 120 hours for a bad 100,000 word first draft
  • 272 hours for a 120,000 word first draft and 140 for a second draft for a total of 412

The last estimate, recalculated based on my word count, from data collected from a survey of 380 writers developed by Holley Lisle is the most useful number because it reflects the experiences of many writers and it includes the word count. Thus my total of 442 hours for a first and second draft is somewhat similar to the experience of other writers.

Why Track your Writing Time?

All of this was interesting to me. I felt like I worked at writing Pair Alleles doggedly, despite my more limited hours to devote to writing. I made my word count of 1000 words a day most days during the first draft phase, and yet it took me 135 days to write my 120,000 words, so I must not have hit it every day. I was also able to calculate my words per hour to be about 336 for the first draft phase.

Chris Fox is a big advocate of tracking how many words you write per hour in order to analyze your productivity and continually work to improve your output. His book is entitled 5,000 Words Per Hour, and that is how many words he claims to write per hour. Obviously at 336 words per hour, I am well off this goal. Until now, I had not really seen the value of tracking my output that obsessively—after all I obviously write as fast as I can write, and I already know I am far more productive in the morning than I am in the evening. But since I already track this kind of thing for my work, why not track it for my writing? I doubt I will ever get to 5000 words per hour, but maybe I can aim for 1000 words per hour. During my marathon “I have to get this done” session of 12 hour days, I was able to write 500 words per hour… better, but still room for improvement. Nevertheless, it is interesting to know that as I suspected when focused exclusively on writing, my output per hour increases.

So my resolution moving forward is to track my output more vigorously. I will report in when, and if, I have some interesting data - until then keep writing! What are your experiences tracking your productivity?

I believe, I don’t believe, I believe…

We all know that making it as a writer is a tough gig. It is possibly one of the toughest around in terms of the work and commitment required to get something amazing on the page, and in terms of the likelihood of breaking out and selling enough copies to make a living, even if you do write something amazing. So as writer, I will not deny that I struggle with believing that I will be successful enough to make writing my main focus.

But we all know that believing can make things happen, and that the writers who believe in themselves are more likely to be successful. I'm not going to pitch a bunch of woo woo The Secret kind of fluff at you. I don’t think success is simply a matter of believing hard enough. It also requires consistent hard work, persistence, and no small amount of luck. But believing does matter. Your beliefs shape your behavior, they shape how others perceive you, and they shape how hard you pursue your goals. There is scientific evidence behind it. People who believe are happier and healthier, and often more successful (even if they are deluding themselves).

Believing might not make you succeed as a writer, but not believing will surely make you fail.

Despite knowing the value of believing, I’m a funny mix of believing and not believing. On the one hand, I find four-leaf clovers at least twice a week, and used to read people’s tarot cards with unnerving accuracy. I’ve seen enough of the magic of the universe to think there is something there—that belief can bring luck. I’ve also tasted the success that hard work can bring with strong sales, great reviews, and exciting opportunities.

On the other hand, just when I start to let myself consider believing, my unfailingly pragmatic and accurate view of reality (which quite possibly borders on a pessimistic view) kicks in. I review the reality. I have had failures or long periods of low sales. My day job, while fantastic, requires focus and dedication too—so I don’t have as much time as I need to write. I know how hard it is to break through. I believe in my own abilities, but I don’t believe that’s enough. So instead of pushing to the next level, I have always played it safe (in all areas of my life, but that’s another post). I am a hardened cynic who looks for four-leaf clovers.

Like Mulder, I want to believe.

I know believing would help me. And yet, I still can’t quite make myself do it. So instead I hope, and hoping doesn’t quite have the same power as belief. It seems psychologically (and financially) safer to say “I might not make it” and ensure that I have a good job and try to save for retirement in case I don't. Cushioning my aspirations in non-belief also helps me on those days or weeks when it is not going well. One only has to go to a writing conference to see a multitude of people doing the same thing—talking about how difficult the publishing world is, talking about those who do make it in a tone of disbelief and wonder. Believing is risky. But what if not believing is the exact thing that is causing me to plateau.

When I first started writing, I used to subscribe to a blog about writing by Jeff Goins. He was very positive and wrote useful posts—he was just starting out too—but I just couldn’t see how he was going to make it as a writer. He was in the same boat as me, and we were in rough shark-infested waters with a long voyage ahead. Well, guess what? He did make it, and I think he believed his way through it. Yes, there was definitely a lot of hard work involved, but he never gave up and he believed enough to go all in when it counted.

But Jeff didn’t just rely on his books, he also worked on building a brand and a following.

We all know about people in the indie world like Jeff Goins, Steve Scott or Hugh Howey, who are making a living as writers. We also all know about people in the writing industry, like Joel Friedlander or Jesse Krieger, who are succeeding as entrepreneurs, and make their living pursuing their passions. Most of us in the indie writing world have that entrepreneurial edge, that desire to set our own schedule, do what we love, be our own boss, and make enough money to have some freedom (having a boat like Hugh Howey’s wouldn’t hurt either).

Every time I see one of those people in my Facebook feed or on social media, I think “I could be them, but they probably had something special going for them.” Some special kind of luck, or chutzpah or the willingness to work 24-hours a day. But maybe they don’t. Maybe they just believed and pushed through to the next level. My inner cynic says no, but I did find a four-leaf clover yesterday.

In just five days, on June 20, Jesse Krieger is hosting a free online event called the Book, Business, & Brand Building Summit. It will have live sessions each day with a multitude of experts, including Jeff Goins, Steve Scott, and Joel Friedlander. It’s absolutely free. I’m going to attend and hope that I learn enough to make that breakthrough, and you should too. Register here. With all the great material that they will be offering (for free) you can't help but learn something. And now I must race to get ready for a work meeting—sigh. I will be reporting back in on whether it’s changed my perspectives! I believe... maybe.

Tightening your Writing by Deleting

Photo Credit:  Ervins Strauhmanis  / Flickr /  Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Ervins Strauhmanis / Flickr / Creative Commons

It’s been too long since I’ve blogged. I’m deep in the final ten to twenty thousand words of Pair Alleles (or Auntie Matter, I can’t decide), the fourth book in my Derivatives of Displacement series and am barely coming up for air as the day job continues to get more intense, the soccer season is in full swing, and I must get my thousand words written every single day. Every. Single. Day.

I had the good fortune to be selected for a Masters writing class with Lawrence Hill of The Book of Negroes fame last month. I got to sit next to him for the entire two-day class and tried not to be too literary fan girl, although I’m pretty sure I failed.

One of the exercises that he had us do, which I thought was quite useful, was to go through a polished, published short story by a famous Canadian writer and pretend we were editors. In order to fit the story within some page constraints of the journal, we were to trim forty words from the first two pages without changing the story.

The point of the exercise was that there is always something to be cut, even in a piece that seems perfect and has been crafted by a master.

Cutting words and tightening your prose can make your story flow faster and the action more gripping. Setting a precise target of the number of words to cut makes it more like a game and might make you more likely to actually make the cuts.

The things I deleted offer some insight into the kinds of things you should always consider pruning in your own prose, and were good reminders to me of the things to scrutinize when I do that final draft.

1) Adverbs

First to go were the adverbs (illogically, largely, slightingly). You know those ‘ly’ words that I defended here. They add color to your writing, and are okay in a limited quantity, but if something has to be cut, they are easy wins. I didn’t cut all of them though. Some of them are necessary to convey the intended meaning.

2) Redundancies

Then I hunted for redundancies – things that were said more than once or close enough, or things that were unnecessary clarifications of something the reader already knew or could guess. I several victories there and these had the benefit that they were often phrases so bumped up my deleted word count. Even famous writers repeat themselves occasionally it seems.

3) Adjectives

A few adjectives were the next to go (little, loose, sweet), especially the double barreled ones. You know when you love both descriptors so much that you put them both in. I do this all the time, but in a forced deletion exercise, having two adjectives for one noun is definitely unnecessary.

4) "That"

I found a “that” that could be axed along with the “were” that was with it, (“needles that were buried in my rump” became just “needles buried in my rump”). According to some editors, “that” is only necessary for clarity about 5 to 10% of the time, and the rest of the time it can and should be cut.

5) To Be

There were two cases of use of the verb to be (was, were, is) that I was able to cut and replace with the stronger verb that followed. (“The kettle was soon burbling” became “The kettle burbled”)

6) Prepositional Phrases

I found one prepositional phrase that could be deleted. Prepositional phrases (phrases that start with of, for, to, in, by) can clutter sentences and can often be replaced by a single word, or cut entirely (“It was the garden of the pastor” becomes “it was the pastor’s garden).

7) Detail

I cut an entire sentence of interesting, but unnecessary detail. Yes, I know details add color to a story, but this was a deleting exercise, and it’s important to examine every single sentence in your story and ask yourself whether adds.

Applying the deletion lens to someone else’s work was a useful exercise. I’m not wedded to someone else’s words the way I am to my own, so I could be more playful and experimental with my cuts. Since I had a word target, I scrutinized every word and sentence, looking for opportunities to trim words. It was also helpful to analyze my deletions to find that I was, without thinking, following some of the key rules to tightening prose. Because this was a previously published piece, it was already pretty tight, but other things to look for when you are deleting include:

8) Fatty Words or Phrases

Fatty words or phrases don't say anything. They just clutter your sentences. Try to get rid of them as much as possible. Look for words and phrases such as:

  • in order to
  • start to
  • very
  • really
  • definitely
  • just
  • currently
  • there is/there are
  • -ing verbs with a form of to be in front of them

9) The Passive Voice

Not only is the passive voice weaker (The bird was eaten by the cat), but using the passive voice often also results in using more words than the active voice (The cat ate the bird).

10) Unnecessarily Complex Phrases

Always look for unnecessarily complex phrases that could be replaced by single words e.g. replace “came to a stop” with “stop” and “due to the fact that” with “because”.

11) Noncontractions

Okay, I know that isn't a word. But there isn't a word for the opposite of contraction in a grammatical sense. Use contractions to trim words and make your writing flow better. I tend not to write with contractions at all, but when you read writing without contractions, especially aloud, it sounds stilted and overly formal. In my final manuscript review, I do a search on “not”, “could have” “it is”, “I am”, “we have” and a handful of other potential contractions-to-be, and adjust accordingly.

12) It, There and Here

Phrases that start with “it”, “there”, or “here” followed by a form of the verb to be (it was, there are, here is) can often be rephrased to go directly to the subject.

Okay that was a fun and temporary diversion. Now back to drafting. 75,000 words written. I’m really hoping I can round this novel off with another 10,000 words.  

What Makes a Character Likable?

Photo Credit:  AnikaandAj

Photo Credit: AnikaandAj

In honor of the Writing Idle podcast on crafting likable characters, which we recorded tonight, I thought I'd talk a little about what makes a character likable, and almost as importantly, do they have to be likable?

I am a big fan of complex characters in my writing.

I really want my characters, especially my POV characters, to be real and nuanced people. This means that they are going to have flaws, because let’s face it, we all do. It’s part of being human.

In my novel, In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, it’s possible that I edged too far over into writing characters that were too real. A consistent comment I have received in reviews and at book clubs that I have attended is that the characters are well-drawn and complex to the point of being shockingly real. The characters are what people either love or hate about my novel. Readers find Richard, the husband, narcissistic and sociopathic, even though there are lots of people in the world who are. Natalie and Daniel are too weak and in the thrall of Richard, even though these sort of co-dependent relationships are common. And please note, all my characters had very likable characteristics too. Richard saved his brother’s life, Natalie saved the farm, and Daniel took care of the farm animals and loved Natalie.

So, should I have tried to make them more likable?

The short answer is, it depends. Readers have different tastes and tolerances for characters who are likable. Some readers prefer characters who are almost flawless heroes or heroines. Read a few romances and you will see many of these almost perfect characters. Other readers don’t mind seriously flawed or even almost unlikable characters. Literary fiction is replete with pretty unlikable characters. Consider Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, or Humbert Humbert from Lolita. True they may have a few redeeming characteristics, but would you want one of them to be your BFF, would they even be capable of it? Nevertheless, readers snapped these characters up. Read Adrienne Crezo’s take on the importance of unlikable characters.

What are the characteristics that make characters likable?

Let's just say that I wanted to make sure all of my characters were likable. How would I go about it? Characteristics that theoretically make characters more likable include:

1) Not being too vile or mean.

Even bad characters have to have good characteristics, and most readers would not want to spend too much of a novel in the head of a truly bad character. Dropping into the head of the truly bad villain occasionally is okay, but they have to have some good characteristics—perhaps they love animals, or their mother—or they have a good reason for their badness—perhaps they were abused as a child. It is hard to define what is too vile or mean though and if done with delicacy, a terrible character can be likable. Hannibal Lecter is in theory pretty vile character and yet people liked him.

2) Not being too perfect or good.

Someone who is too good, or perfect is also annoying. Nobody is perfect. And we are quick to hate someone who appears to be. Flaws, such as having a quick temper, being clumsy, or disorganized, make a character relatable. Your character has to make the wrong decisions sometimes, or let their flaws show through occasionally. At the same time, they must also be aware of their flaws and strive to keep them a bit under control.

3) Not being too annoying or crass.

We all know annoying people. We all know people who engage in crass or rude behavior. We might even do some of those things ourselves sometimes. But just as we do not want friends who are consistently annoying, crass or rude, we don’t want to spend too much time in the head of someone who is that way. We also don’t want too much information regarding certain aspects of the person’s life.

4) Having a backbone or agency.

They have to take action and do something or they are boring. Characters who simply react to everything, even though this is in fact what some people in the world do, are often not as appealing to readers as characters who are more active in creating their own destiny. On the other hand, Bella Swan was a character with limited agency and obviously readers liked her, or liked something about Twilight (maybe it was the sparkles). Anna Karenina is another famous pretty weak character.

5) Having a goal and being persistent.

This relates to having agency. Characters we like have to have something they want and work toward achieving it in a persistent manner. They can give up or take a rest occasionally (this can be the dark night of the soul for your character), but they eventually need to pick themselves up and go on again.

6) Having other “good” characteristics.

To be likable, in addition to having a backbone and a goal, your character often will need to have a blend of other good characteristics. Not too many of course, but enough. Characteristics that readers often find appealing include being modest, courageous, kind to others, fair, funny and dependable, and uncomplaining (few people like a persistent whiner).

7)  Being complex.

This relates to not being “too” anything above, but it goes beyond that. Do your characters have unique or idiosyncratic obsessions? Do they have a history? Do they have interesting skills or party tricks? What are their fears? We all have quirks and different aspects of our personality that make us unique. Your character should have those too. Just being Prince Charming with no other major characteristics other than a nice smile, horse and lots of money does not make for a likable character.

8)  Having a name that suits them.

This is a minor point, but important. Names matter and say a lot about a character. It is not a matter of having a likable name, but having the name that suits the character. Think Ebenezer Scrooge, Scarlett O’Hara, or Atticus Finch.

9) Reacting the way real people react.

If your character’s family is murdered in the night, or she turns up to the ball with her dress tucked into her underwear, it is important that your character respond in at least one of the ways we all think we would respond, not making too light of certain situations, and not going over the edge in other situations. Characters have to be realistic in order to be relatable.

10) Learning and growing.

While readers may not be thinking it as they go into a story, we all (apparently) like characters who learn and develop as a result of their actions and the things that happen in the story. Just was we don’t like someone who seems stuck by their life situation, we don’t love characters who seem incapable of change, even though realistically, many real people are in fact stuck or incapable of change. This relates back to having agency. They have to be willing to stand up and do something, about something. That way we can root for them while they are undergoing their growth. You can’t root for someone who never gets out of bed… well you can, but it soon becomes evident that it is fruitless.

11) Being good looking.

This one is not a necessity and there are many famous unattractive characters, but many readers do like characters who are attractive. We want to live through their eyes after all, and being good looking can be enjoyable.

These are important things to keep in mind when developing your characters. The bottom line is that nobody will like every character. Just as we all have different tastes in friends, we all have different tastes in characters, and different characters will appeal to us or be more relatable to us at different points in our lives. Thinking about how likable a character is matters, but remember that likability is a complicated combination of a whole bunch of characteristics, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and motivations. The idea is to make your character complex, flawed and realistic enough to be relatable, but also motivated, cool enough, nice enough and talented enough to be a bit extraordinary. It is a tough line to walk!

On the Writing Idle podcast we talk about making your character real like your readers, but just a little bit more extraordinary, and more likely to do what your reader hopes they will do in difficult situations (that they may or may not ever encounter). Check it out!


Scene Turns or Polarity Shifts

I am deep in writing Pair Alleles, Book Four in my Derivatives of Displacement series. I’m just under a third of the way through and on a tight schedule. I’m writing more by feel and less by outline for this novel as I work to find my story and I’ve been thinking a lot about what Robert McKee calls scene “turns” or what Shaun Coyne of Story Grid fame calls polarity and value shifts.

According to McKee and Coyne, every scene in a story or novel must have a turn or polarity or value shift in order to give the scene purpose and the story forward movement. Shifts can be from positive to negative, negative to positive, positive to negative and back to positive, negative to even more negative, and positive to even more positive. There just has to be a shift, or reversal of circumstance. Each scene should start with a polarity, either positive or negative—things are either going well or according to plan, or they are going badly. By the end of the scene, that should have changed.

If thinking in terms of polarity and shifts is too complicated and you failed math and don’t ever want to think of whether two negatives make a positive again. Just think of these shifts as turning points, or “turns” for short.

Every scene should have a turn

So for example, the hero starts the scene dangling from a cliff and is saved by a donkey in a hot air balloon (negative to positive), a couple is having a romantic dinner and end up in a heated argument (positive to negative), the main character enters his new school alone and meets a friend (negative to positive), the main character enters his new school alone and meets an enemy (negative to more negative).

Turns introduce drama and conflict

The idea is that turns/shifts/changes introduce drama and without at least some drama, your story might not have life. If a scene does not include a polarity shift or turn, if it is neutral, then chances are it may be boring and not serving a clear purpose and should be edited or cut. There are exceptions here of course, but a book full of scenes without turns will not likely entertain anyone.

Lee Allen Howard observes:

“The effects of turning points, according to McKee, include: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction. The turning point provides new information and a goal for the next scene.”

What changes in turns?

That which changes can be the character’s circumstance, knowledge or emotions. Thus shifts can occur through action (the Death Star is destroyed), revelation (Harry discovers he is a wizard) or a change of heart (Maverick finds the courage to go back and help Goose).

Often the change is related to something that is of value or importance to the character. Some larger ideal or goal is at stake, such as freedom, love, trust, or survival. This relates back to the idea of character motivation and what is driving your characters. Most turns should reflect your character’s motivation and the key values that they hold dear. Your character can go from despair to hope, frustration to relief, trust to doubt, or anxiety to certainty.

Your turns need to have variety

If needing to have turns in every scene doesn’t make it hard enough, Coyne advises ensuring that you switch up what changes and the mechanism through which it changes. If you continually turn your scenes through revelations, your readers will get bored. Similarly, you should vary the direction of polarity shift from scene to scene. In other words, you do not want to have three consecutive scenes where the shift is from positive to negative.

Depending on what you are writing, turns can be small and subtle or or very evident. But even with literary fiction, the degree of charge (or change if you’re not a math person) should ramp up as the story develops so the shifts near the end of the story are more stunning than those at the beginning.

So what do turns mean for your writing?

Some writing coaches suggest going through each scene in your book and recording the direction and nature of the polarity shift. I’ve tried this and can assure you it is a mind-bendingly tedious task, and it’s hard, but it is worth doing for a few scenes to ensure you understand how it works.

Some writers advise being very conscious of your turns—planning them out in advance of writing the scene and tracking them as you go. I’m just not that organized in my writing. I am conscious of turns and for the most part I do them instinctively, and I feel most writers can get away with that approach. But it is worthwhile if you feel a scene lacks energy or just isn’t working for some reason to step back and ask yourself if there is a turn.

What do you think? Do you track turns in a spreadsheet or on index cards, or just try to ensure that they show up when needed?

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Maintaining Motivation through the Second Draft: 11 Tips

A fellow writer recently asked me to do a post on how to find the motivation to do a second draft. I was up to my ears in my second draft for a pen name novel, so held off for a couple of weeks, but now with that novel published and a blank page ready to start on my fourth Derivatives of Displacement novel, I have time to do a couple of posts (and catch up on the consulting work that I skipped while intensely proofreading).

A second draft means different things to different people.

A second draft even means different things to me, depending on whether I am working on a short or long piece and whether I am working on something I’m going to publish under my own name, or my pen name.

Everyone’s editing process is slightly different, especially for the second draft. Some people will read their book through in its entirety and make revision notes, some will start working on the prose while they do an initial pass, looking for plot holes and structural issues. Some will approach it in a linear fashion starting from page one and working their way through page by page, whereas others will go where they know the biggest problems are and work on those one by one.

There is no right way to do it. The important thing is that you do it. Generally, a second draft is reserved for more structural edits, fixing plot holes, addressing major issues, adding or deleting scenes. Thus it is generally inadvisable to spend a lot of time polishing prose until later drafts as some of it may be deleted anyway. I tend to do a combo with stuff I publish under my own name, doing an initial non-linear blitz of problems that I have on my revision list, and then a complete pass through where I sharpen the prose, fix the no brainer sentence structure problems, amp up the characterization, and look for other structural or major problems to be fixed. For shorter stuff and my pen name stuff, which tend to be less complex, I combine these two steps into one linear pass through.

A second draft is tough.

You don’t have the euphoric high of creating new stuff, although in reality you will (or should) be writing many entire new scenes and sections of scenes as the novel demands, and worse, all your writing faults (yes, we all have them) will be right there on display, which can be discouraging. And a second draft can also take a long time and seem like a grind, especially when you just want that high of being done and hitting publish! But you can’t without doing a second draft.

Eleven Tips for maintaining motivation through a second draft

1. Take a short break after finishing your first draft.

You’ve just written a short story or a whole novel for goodness sake. You deserve a short celebratory break, and you will start your second draft far more refreshed and motivated if you take one. But don’t let that break be longer than two weeks, or you might get accustomed to quaffing margaritas on the beach or watching The Walking Dead, and never come back. I take a one week break between drafts of the stuff I publish under my own name. The pen name only gets a one-day break. She’s hardier, and my pen name generally writes novellas that require fewer revisions.

2.  Use your revision notes as a motivating “to do” list.

You have revision notes don’t you? The things you jotted down while you were doing your first draft that you intended to go back and deal with or check on later, the holes that you thought might be in your plot, the cool things that happened later in the book that you now have to go back and foreshadow earlier in the book. If you don’t, you should. I fix a lot of things in my first draft as I go, but in the interest of pressing on and getting a first draft done, I keep a running list of fixes. If you don’t keep a list of fixes, do a quick read through of your first draft and make that list. Include things like plot holes, foreshadowing opportunities, issues with character motivation, and other general problems. This revision list serves as your “to do” list, and if you are anything like me, crossing off all the items on that to do list, and eventually making that crossed out chicken scrawled piece of paper disappear from your desk forever, is a great motivator.

3. Set a realistic, but firm, deadline for completing your revision and then set a daily word or page target based on that deadline and meet it.

A realistic deadline is going to depend on a few things—the length of your WIP, how drafty your first draft is, and how many hours a day you have to work on it. For a long short story of about 16,000 words, I give myself a week to two weeks to do a second and third draft. The pen name only gets four days (I’m so mean to her). For a novel, I often give myself three to four weeks for a second draft, which means spending a week to a week and a half blitzing the fixes on my revision list in a non-linear fashion and then moving page by page through the entire manuscript at a pace of about 4000 words a day, which is doable even if I can only work at night (which is often the case when I am working) especially if I can do 6000 words a day on weekends, giving myself a bit of leeway for those nights my head is drooping over the keyboard (which happens, believe me). The pen name gets about seven days for a novel, which since they are shorter means a pace of about 7000 words a day.

If those deadlines sound short, keep in mind that this is just the second draft. I’m still going to do a third, fourth and fifth and potentially a sixth draft on the work I publish under my own name (don’t be totally demoralized by this… some of those drafts are just quick read throughs—they are excruciating, but necessary). Also keep in mind that I am now at a stage in my writing where I can usually pull off pretty polished and put together first drafts—the second draft of my first novel took me four years. If you think your first draft needs more work, allocate a longer and more realistic deadline. But don’t belabor the second draft (i.e. do not take four years). You will have to do additional drafts, and a quick, but complete, second draft is better than agonizing over each chapter for a month and never finishing.

4. Remember that if you want to be a writer, it has to be done.

This is a very simple motivator. If you want a finished piece of work, a second draft is necessary. Nobody can do it for you, and there is no way around it. Every single book you have read started as a first draft that someone had to turn into a second draft, and quite often a third, fourth and fifth draft. It may seem daunting, but you made it through the first draft didn’t you?

5. Don’t get bogged down in how awful your WIP is or how much work it needs.

We all have that feeling sometimes when we look at our drafts, but don’t let it paralyze you, prevent you from starting, or cause you to get stuck on a particular section or problem that you don’t know how to fix. If you encounter something you don’t know how to fix, sometimes the best thing is to just flag the problem (yup, make another list!) keep moving, and get through the entire manuscript. Sometimes after thinking about it for a day or two I can go back and fix that thing that I wasn’t sure about on the day I was revising that section. But also expect that you will need to do a third draft and you will catch additional things then. Keep doing additional drafts as long as you need to, hopefully doing them more quickly with each draft. Your draft will get better with each revision, you will become more confident with and accustomed to revising, and eventually, after writing many pieces of fiction, you become a better writer you won’t need to do as many revisions.

6. If you are working on a list of things that need revising, pick appropriately for your motivation that day.

On days when you are feeling less motivated, look for the easy wins. Is it just a name that has to be searched and replaced, or a small but easy red herring that needs to be woven into a scene? I do these on the days I’m exhausted. There is nothing like being able to cross things off of on your list at the end of the day and see the list get shorter—yay! Conversely on the days where I have a few hours to write at the beginning of the day and am feeling more motivated, I tackle more challenging problems.

7.  Remember that not everything about your manuscript is going to suck.

Some things will suck and you need to fix them, but there will be good sections, and great sections. Knowing that you don’t need to fix everything can help keep you going. In my first novel, I had to rewrite about 60 to 70 percent of the first draft. Now I probably rewrite about 30 percent. I’m getting better, which means the second draft is less work.

8. Bring all of your tricks for writing a first draft into play.

What do you do when you get stuck on a first draft? Go for a walk, dreamstorm a scene, decide what could logically happen next, guzzle coffee or whiskey, play with your cat, noodle on Facebook for a couple of seconds? All of those things work on a second draft too. We all know the key to a first draft is keeping your bum in the chair—and that’s the key to a second draft too. You’ve already developed that discipline in the first draft. Now is the time to test your fitness level. If the first draft is the running blissfully through the woods section of your workout, the second draft is the squats section. Learn to love it, or at least tolerate it, and your blissful run will be all that more fun.

9.  Speed it up by keeping a checklist of your own writing peccadilloes or developing a process.

Revising is easier if you approach each scene with an idea of what you are looking for. I devised this list of things to look for in getting from first to second draft. K.M. Weiland offers this look at her own revision process, complete with a list of things she looks for. It is much easier to go through a list when you check out a scene to figure out what needs to be changed. Eventually this list will become ingrained in you, and you will automatically look for those things, but in the short term, a list is handy.

10.  Understand that nothing is a waste of time.

Adding scenes, deleting scenes, fixing sentences that will eventually be deleted, rewriting the entire last half of your book—it can all seem like an incredible waste of time and energy. The nice thing about a first draft is that it is whole and complete and if you walk away from it and never do a second draft, you can imagine it is great. It's painful to take apart something you have painstakingly put together, and sometimes seeing your novel in pieces on the virtual floor can be terrifying. What if you can’t put it back together? What if it's a huge amount of work to put it back together? Those poor scenes on the cutting room floor represent hours of your precious time. It is tempting to never take your novel apart. But be confident that none of these steps are a waste of time, and even if you delete scenes, chapters, or entire characters, they were part of the scaffolding that was necessary to build your novel. I know… it hurts, but it’s necessary.

11.  Remember why you wrote the book in the first place.

There are a lot of reasons for writing a book: a burning idea that just won’t leave your mind, the prospect of fame and fortune (although this might not be the best reason for writing), building a writing career, recording a piece of history. If you are having trouble with your second draft, think about these reasons to inspire you to keep going.

Those are my best tips for keeping motivated. Chocolate helps too. What keeps you going through your second draft?


Balancing Writing and the Day Job: 7 Tips

Photo Credit:  woodleywonderworks  / flickr /  creativecommons

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks / flickr / creativecommons

Balancing writing and the day job. The age-old conundrum for writers. As Elissa Field points out, “The repeated refrain in evaluating the perfect day job is the need to earn a living against a writer’s hunger to preserve time and creative energy for writing.” Although the indie world is making it increasingly possible for people to be full-time writers, that still doesn’t happen to most of us. As Liz Entman Harpur observed, “the truth is that being a full-time writer is basically just the literary equivalent of a career in the NBA.” I don’t know if that is strictly true anymore. There seem to be a lot of full-time writers out there, but it is still true for many of us.

After a sobering look at our finances a few months ago, I realized that I needed to make more money somehow—one of our vehicles got totaled a few weeks ago, my kids are going to need to go to university, and skiing is an expensive hobby (as is, it turns out, eating). Although my writing revenues are increasing, they are not increasing rapidly enough to match my consulting income. When a great part-time contract fell into my lap in November, I decided I should take it, both for the money and the career furthering opportunity (and it’s cool to be part of a fantastic team doing important work).

I could have made the case to myself for holding off on taking on a new contract a bit longer. After all, I’m on the upward writing income trend, right? But it isn’t a quick upward trend, and I worry about the sustainability of a writing career. Even if I did make it relatively big, for how many years could I make a reasonable income? I’m still going to continue to buy tickets in the writing lotto, of course, but I figure that maintaining a diverse and strong CV is still a valuable asset…

All right, that’s a falsehood, if I was coming close to replacing my income with my writing, I’d shove the professional CV down the toilet and throw all my eggs in the writing basket in a heartbeat.

But I digress… as 2016 moves forward at a rather alarming pace (inching ever closer to my May 15 deadline for my next Derivatives of Displacement book), I find myself thinking often about achieving a balance of some sort. Working at a demanding job in which I am mentally tracking multiple to dos and projects, even when I am not officially on the clock, leaves me less headspace than I would like for writing. I know all you writers who work full time and still churn out four novels a year are rolling your eyes at me right now. I did manage to write three novels two years ago while working three-quarter time, but doing so did have health costs that I do not care to repeat.

Not working and writing (at the same time) definitely causes my productivity to go way up. I earned enough money in the first four months of last year to enjoy a six-month stretch of focusing only on my writing. During that time, I got a lot done—two novels and two short stories under my name, and five novellas under my pen name. I also managed to more effectively do all the other things that go along with being a writer—social media, blogging, promoting my books in a myriad of ways, editing, proofreading, and managing my business.

Now that I am back to juggling, writing, working, parenting, housework, cats, exercising, cooking, and skiing, I’m finding myself more challenged to get words on the page and had started to feel a bit concerned as a result.

So I decided to look for tips on achieving balance. It is possible, right? Or maybe it isn’t. In a great blog post on achieving balance as a writer, David James Poissant points out:

“at all times, you will be either a bad parent, a bad writer, or a bad employee. Get used to being one of these things. The trick is to make sure you’re not being all three of these things all at once.”

He’s right, but darn it, I can’t afford to be bad at any of those three things. It was refreshing to read about other writers facing the same struggles, and to know that most writers are incredibly honest about the challenges of working for a living and still finding the muse. Susan Lanigan observed “For a working writer, there is constant awareness of needing to sacrifice, and pain associated with that need. It is never resolved.” After all, multiple writers throughout history have held down full time day jobs while writing, including Lewis Carroll, Bram Stoker, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Anne Rice, and Virginia Woolf. Then again, the leisurely publishing days of yore may have allowed for more of an easy union of writing and working.

So what are my top seven tips for finding balance?

1. This isn’t going to be a popular one in my house, but I am going to get my husband and kids to do more.

Everyone gets cranky when I’m not the one doing the grocery shopping and making dinner six nights out of seven. But I am going to stop feeling guilty about not making dinner two or three nights a week, even if everyone is grumpy about it. I will take their grumpiness with a smile and know that I have spent many years in the dinner trenches and now I am pursuing my dream, at least part of the time.

2. I am going to try and work in more short and intense bursts.

Sinéad Crowley, an Irish writer with a day job, notes “Because I have such a busy day job, I have developed the ability to work in short, intense bursts. I can sit down at the kitchen table at 8.30pm and write between 500 and 900 words and then that’s it, I’m done. Even if I had more time I don’t think I’d write more than that a day, my brain is trained to write like that now.”

3. I am going to stop checking Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, my email, and Goodreads fifty times a day.

It’s become a habit and a bad one. Even now my Facebook trigger finger is growing itchy, and I’ve only been trying to focus on this piece for like five minutes since my last check. I might even try to stop using Facebook (my biggest time sink) almost entirely. Blasphemy, you say. Even though I’ve met many marvelous writer friends, and fans on Facebook, and it’s great for writing events and hanging around the virtual water cooler, there’s lots of evidence that too much time on Facebook can have have a negative effect on mood. Even though I am happy for my writer friends when they accomplish something, a small part of me gets panicky and thinks maybe I’ll never make that break through or have that success. I don’t need to waste my time on that. If I’m going to work and write, I’m going to need every advantage I can get.

4. I’m not going to try to write at the same rate I was writing when I wasn’t working.

This is going to be hard. I became accustomed to that level of production, and it paid dividends in terms of my writing income. But it just isn’t realistic if I want to keep my health and my sanity (okay, sanity is probably overrated, but I do like my health). I may have to give up the pen name, cause you know working and writing for one person is hard enough, never mind two people. On Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, Tom Pollock, a writer who also works full time, argues for planning your time and he only plans to write three days a week. By not having the expectation that he will write every day, he is free to do other things, important things, like spend time with his family and recreate on the alternate days. But because he has taken the time off the other days, he is more committed to his writing times.

5. I’m going to put writing first in my day on every day I possibly can.

Although I can write in the afternoon and at night, my best writing happens in the morning. My work is part-time and flexible, and I work from home. But I do have lots of meetings I must attend, and I have lots of deliverables. My conscientious self wants to get my consulting work done first, so I get that hit of completion and feel like the rest of my day is clear. But then when I turn to my writing I am less fresh, and less productive. Because I don’t have to do my writing, I might not push as hard. If I were to do my writing first on the days that I don’t have meetings, I would still get my work done because I have to… I think. Bryan Hutchinson argues for writing at the same time every day so that it becomes a habit. Unfortunately my schedule does not quite allow for this. But putting it first most days might help.

6. I am not going to listen to what Tom Pollock calls my “dick” voice.

You know that voice that we all have fueled by Facebook that says everyone else is getting ahead, the market is tougher than it ever has been, that if you aren’t churning out twelve books a year, it isn’t going to happen, that voice that tells you to give up everything else and just write.

there are only so many hours in the day, and you’re already spending so many of them at the day job. You keep seeing on Twitter how everyone else is writing every spare second of every day (I mean, even Stephen frickin’ King says you need to write every day, and he’s Stephen frickin’ King).  What if everyone else is getting ahead because you’re not focussed on your game? Everyone’s talking about how tough the market is right now. Maybe it’s time to make the writing the priority, even ahead of some of the people in your life…
Do not listen to this voice. This voice is a massive dick, formed out of your own paranoia at falling behind some imagined curve and cloaked in just enough statement-of-the-obvious to make itself look reasonable. Yes, there may be times when you need to prioritize, and you know what? Prioritize the people. They’re more important.

Unfortunately that voice is very persuasive, but I am no longer going to listen to it… (cue crazed laughter), because if I don’t listen to it, writing might cease to be fun, and isn’t that why I got into writing in the first place?

7. I will start looking for other things to sacrifice.

Writing is all about sacrifice we all know. I have already given up ballet, volunteering, socializing and practicing piano. I won’t give up skiing, eating well, exercising, sleep, or being with my kids. But maybe I could give up housecleaning….

Wish me luck. And good luck in your own effort to find balance. I don’t know if I have the answers, but I’m still trying to find them. If you have a secret to finding balance in your writing and working life, please let me know. And now I am off to ski. My kids are in a competition today, and I want to be there to cheer them on.

The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Blog Twelve

Today we have Martin Crosbie, the organizer of this blog hop, and a recent Kindle Scout winner with his novel The Dead List (A John Drake Mystery).

I'm pretty much done my list of things that I hope will change in the indie world in 2016 (although I am sure if pressed I could come up with a few more), and need to go out and do some last minute shopping and get the food for Christmas dinner. Even though it is not perfect, the indie world of writing is pretty awesome. I got one of my best Christmas gift ever yesterday when I happened into the local bookstore to see that all of my books had sold out and a man in the store stopped me and asked where he could get one of my novels. It's time to sit back and contemplate Christmas and be grateful that I have the privilege of being an indie author.

I hope you enjoy Martin's heartwarming story and that you all have a lovely Christmas season. It really speaks to the heart of Christmas and gratitude. Don't forget to check out some of the other blogs of Christmas.

Martin's Story

Last year on the night after Christmas, even though it had been an exceptionally busy day, I drove a car-load of family members around the streets of our town. For two and a half hours we drove up and down roads searching out the brightest, most illuminating lights on people’s houses and lawns. My eighty-six year old passenger in the back seat, wrapped in a blanket and clutching a mug of hot chocolate, smiled the whole time and asked me pull over and look at every light on every street. Two days later we took her into hospital and three weeks after that we lost her.

            Doreen Clark was diagnosed with cancer when she was thirty years old. It was a form of cancer that took ninety-five percent of its victims. She beat it. In the following fifty-six years she lost a kidney, suffered heart failure, lost the ability to walk without a walker and overcame it all. She beat everything that was thrown at her. Some people are resilient, she was more than that. She was unbreakable. Click here to read more...

Martin Crosbie

In a press release, Amazon called Martin Crosbie one of their success stories of 2012. His self-publishing journey has been chronicled in Publisher's Weekly, Forbes Online, and Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper. He’s the author of six books including the Kindle Scout winner “The Dead List – A John Drake Mystery”.

Martin was born in the Highlands of Scotland and currently makes his home just outside Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada.


The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Blog Eleven

Only one more day in my countdown to Christmas. Today I must actually visit some stores and make some purchases for the people in my life (yes I know... I should have started weeks ago, but it is hard when there is powder to ski and words to write). On the blog today we have Cate Pedersen with a story about a Christmas Mystery Man. In my penultimate rant about things that need to change in the indie world, I am going to touch on something more controversial perhaps... those writers who become breakout successes on Amazon who are not great writers.

Please do not think that this post is about sour grapes. It isn't (I wouldn't do that two days before Christmas). It is more about me being utterly confused sometimes at what somehow at some moment in time decides to fly up the Amazon charts. I read a lot of books, and I'm not a particularly discriminating reader. I will read literary fiction, genre fiction, and everything in between. I can even appreciate indie books that contain a multitude of errors if I connect with the characters or become involved in the story line. Although I appreciate the qualities that traditional books often bring to bear (more refined prose, tighter editing), I do not always think they are better than indie books. I also think many of the indie writers who sit at the top of the charts have totally earned it with great writing, characters, and plots.

However there are some books that seem to fly up the charts and stick that just are not great, or even good (in my perhaps incorrect opinion). But the reviews often bear out my opinion, with people stating upfront that they don't understand why the book has received so many other earlier good reviews. I can't help but think some of these authors are gaming the system somehow, or just got really lucky. I notice that some of them are the ones who have the balls to basically state that they are really great in their marketing material. And if something gets up beyond a certain rank on Amazon, it develops a momentum of its own and it sticks there.

I don't even know what I think needs to change on this front, because I don't want the system to become so locked down that writers don't have a chance to have a breakout success. I appreciate that these writers may have worked just as hard as any other indie writer, and my dislike of their book may be just a matter of personal taste (obviously millions of people saw a shining gem in Fifty Shades of Grey, and millions of people can't be wrong, can they?). In the indie world, and in the writing world in general, we are very loathe to diss another writer's writing, because everyone knows everyone, and our own writing is so very vulnerable if we do. So we are often supremely uncritical of each others' work, which makes the indie world a very supportive place, but perhaps not a place where our writing improves.

All right, enough said, my hope for 2016 is that I will start to understand better the appeal of certain books and have more balls in my own marketing material, which you know as a deprecating Canadian is a challenge. My family has pointed out that the tagline "you probably won't like it" that I attach to many of the dinners I serve (even though I think I'm a pretty darn good cook) probably wouldn't be that effective for my books...

Cate Pedersen

Cate Pedersen is a freelance writer, editor and social media manager. She recently published her first novel and is working on books two and three in the Sister Spirit Series. She is also a contributor in It’s Really 10 Months: Special Delivery, an anthology of birth stories (Special Xmas Sale NOW on Amazon) and an upcoming anthology: Adventures in Potty Training. Cate’s children are now almost grown, so Christmas is not quite as busy, but will always hold a magical place in her heart. Read her “12 Blogs of Christmas” post to find out why!

Website: www.copycate.ca

Facebook: Copycate Writing, Editing & Communications

 My Christmas Mystery Man

There is certain magic I experience right at midnight on Christmas Eve. The entire world seems to pause and the air is different somehow. I relax completely, despite the recent whirlwind of activity over the past few days and the maelstrom which is to come Christmas morning and continue until New Year. My spine tingles with anticipation as the hour and minute hands join; I almost want to cheer, “It’s here, it’s here!” I look forward to it every year. I cannot recall ever going to bed earlier than midnight on that auspicious night— especially as a child, waiting up for sounds of bells and scraping hooves on the roof.

When my son and daughter were young, it was the same performance each Christmas Eve; I knew my cues perfectly and waited until I heard regular breathing through my daughter’s bedroom door. She was always last to fall asleep. Her father had been the first. I collect the presents hidden under my bed, in closets, above bookcases and wedged between storage containers. I tiptoe towards the tree with an armful of brightly papered boxes with colour-coordinated bows (and extra tape) . . . then freeze as the ball of my foot puts pressure on that part of the floor that squeaks. I imagine the cracking of wood sending shudders through the hall, and under the beds of my sleeping children, jarring them awake . . . Read more

The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Blog Ten

Only three more days left in the 12 blogs of Christmas. Today we have Jordan Buchanan with a story about one of her Christmas pasts. I'm almost out of things that I hope will change in the indie world in 2016, but fear not good readers, I still have a few more :-).

Since I still don't make a huge amount of money from writing (although it is improving), I still work a day job, but I only have to work part-time. I am a consultant so I try to take small contracts that are about ten to fifteen hours a week so that I still have time to write, because writing takes time. Yes I know there are all sorts of writers who produce bestsellers while working eight hour a week day jobs, but I find it much easier to produce quality work when I have a chance to really focus on my writing for a few hours a day. I find that even though I tell my employers that I am a writer and am looking for the exact number of hours that they posted, that as soon as I start, they suddenly want me to work more hours a week, and then more, and more (I would like to think this is a hazard of me being good at my job, but it might be more a hazard of them being desperate). Even though I remind them often that I'm a writer, and that while the work I'm doing for them is important to me, I really want to write too, they don't seem to get it.

So here is hoping that in 2016, employers or clients will begin to embrace the fact that yes, some people really do just want to work part time, and they can love their job and be serious (very serious... no doing sneaky stints at the writing desk for me) about it, but that they also have something else that they love and take seriously. It used to be like this when I wanted to work part time because my kids were young, the clients would always just look mystified when I would remind them that no I really do want to be home with the kids half the time.

No clients, I really do want to be spinning tales about time travel, cats, and alien robots. Why can't you understand that? Okay, on to the post of the day by Jordan Buchanan.

Jordan Buchanan

Jordan Buchanan was born and spent most of her life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Now residing in northern Michigan, she misses the Shenandoah Valley but living in the home state of the mighty Detroit Red Wings helps ease the pain.

4Play, her debut publication, is a collection of erotic romance short stories. She is currently working on two novels -- For Love or Money and Xander's Garden.

When she’s not reading, writing, or watching hockey, she enjoys time spent with her charming husband and their three Lab mixes.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JordanBAuthor

Blog: www.eroticablues.blogspot.com

Blog excerpt

Happy holidays to all and a huge thank you to Martin Crosbie for inviting me to be part of the 12 Blogs of Christmas. It’s quite an honor for me, a fledgling author, to be included in such accomplished company, and I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to share a tale of my Christmas past.

 At an office holiday party a few years ago, I decided to forego the ubiquitous Santa hat and donned a fur-trimmed tiara instead. One of my co-workers dubbed me the “Queen of Christmas”, but I’m merely a pretender to the throne, a princess at best. The title was always owned by my mother who reigned over our family Christmas party like a benevolent dictator. She did all the decorating, the cooking, the cleaning—everything necessary for us to eat, drink and be merry. She provided the playground; we came to play. Read more here.

The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Blog Nine

Today on the blog we have poet Heather Haley with a fitting poem about the Virgin Mary. As we draw closer to Christmas, it's probably time that I start thinking about Christmas, not work and writing. I will start my shopping today, I swear... maybe after a little ski (it is a powder day after all).

One of the big challenges of being an indie writer (aside from resisting powder days) is all the busy work associated with updating one's front and back matter and files whenever a minor mistake is discovered or you have a new release. Buy-through is enhanced dramatically if you have links to and excerpts from your other books, so it's worth it to go back through and update all your back matter whenever you have a new release. This can be very time consuming though especially if you have a lot of works. Draft2Digital has created a new feature whereby apparently you can update your back matter in one place and it automatically is included in all of your novels and shorts.

For those of you who don't know what Draft2Digital is, it is an amalgamator, like Smashwords, whereby you can upload your pieces to one dashboard and have them appear on all the platforms, even Amazon. They take a 10 percent cut I think. It is, apparently, not as powerful as working with the platforms directly because you can't optimize categories and keywords. I don't use it for Amazon (because I need to be able to do that optimization), but I do use Draft2Digital for the other platforms because my sales on the other platforms are too low at this point to worry optimization.

I think this backmatter updater is an unbelievably great idea. I haven't tried it yet because I don't have a lot of books on the other platforms because of the power of KU. But if Amazon were to add a feature like that, it would dramatically reduce my workload and increase my writing time. So here's hoping that in 2016, Amazon creates a backmatter updater. End of today's wishful thinking and on to Heather :-) (and some powder... maybe).

Heather Haley

Trailblazing poet, author and media artist Heather Haley pushes boundaries by creatively integrating disciplines, genres and media. Her writing appears in numerous journals and anthologies including the Antigonish Review, Geist and The Verse Map of Vancouver. Haley was an editor for the LA Weekly and publisher of the Edgewise Cafe, one of Canada’s first electronic literary magazines. She is the author of poetry collections Sideways, Three Blocks West of Wonderland, and debut novel, The Town Slut’s Daughter. Haley’s videopoems are official selections at dozens of international film festivals and she’s toured Canada, the U.S. and Europe in support of two critically acclaimed AURAL Heather CDs of spoken word song.

Find Heather’s blog, One Life at: www.heatherhaley.com


First Came Mary

Before hate. In spite of war. A few years back I was fortunate to visit the Yucatan, now referred to as the Mayan Riviera. An anthropology buff, I was thrilled to tour the ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza. It was Christmas and I was astonished by the degree of Maryolotry, the inspiration for this poem from my collection Three Blocks West of Wonderland.

It bears repeating, especially…more

The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Blog Eight

Today on the blog we have Laurie Boris with a heartwarming story about how Mrs. Claus got her groove back. I'm sitting here after just watching the new Star Wars, which was amazing, and I'm so excited about the movie that I can't think of anything that I want to change in the indie world, except maybe that I could write a story like Star Wars. Movies do that to me, especially action movies. I have to limit the number I watch or I would spend too much of my life too excited. I actually didn't sleep for two weeks after seeing The Phantom Menace (I know, I know, not as good as the originals) because I was so busy spinning new plot lines that could arise from it.

But given that it is Christmas, and the snow is amazing, I am not feeling the writing drive quite as much as I usually do, although I did write my thousand word quota for the pen name today (normally it would be two thousand words, but since most people are off enjoying the season, I decided I should too). For fun, I looked up getting your creative writing groove back and of course found this great advice from Chuck Wendig. Importantly he says (see number 11) that getting out of the house is good for you, and that vacations might be okay (see number 24). So I am going with that and am going to advocate that for 2016, Christmas become an official time for festing, getting out of the house, skiing and watching Star Wars for writers.

Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer and copyeditor. At one time, she was a magician’s assistant, although she was very bad at it. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of six novels including her latest, A Sudden Gust of Gravity. When not hanging out with the universe of imaginary people in her head, she enjoys baseball, reading, and avoiding housework.

Website: http://laurieboris.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/laurie.boris.author

How Mrs. Claus Got Her Groove Back

Emma Claus looked from the crackling log in the fireplace to the cheerful cards on the mantel and the string of twinkling lights she’d woven among them. But the yuletide trappings still left her cold. She’d tried everything to awaken her Christmas spirit: hitting the Black Friday sales online, reading letters from the children, baking tray after tray of cookies. Even the sappiest of holiday movies failed to lift her mood. Even the ones with Colin Firth.

Just to make sure she’d given Hollywood a fair shake, she clicked the remote to the Hallmark Channel, which was showing the same snowed-in romance brewing at the same over-decorated country inn. Emma merely clucked her tongue. “Fools,” she said. “Do those innkeepers ever sleep? All that work! Cooking and cleaning! Sweeping up pine needles, drizzling everything with tinsel just so, tending the fires in every room and dusting twice a day from all the ash…what kind of life is that?”

Read more here

The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Blog Six

Today on the blog is RJ Crayton with a post entitled "The Place for Humbug During the Holiday Season." This is a particularly apt post for me today as I must confess I was feeling a bit humbuggy. Yesterday was my birthday and I decided to drift through one of my favorite clothing stores in search of a new fleece for myself. It gets cold at the writing desk in the Klondike and so I wear a fleece and slippers, and the two fleeces I have are starting to look a bit bally, which means that I look rather a bit like a yak most of the time. In effort to look a bit more presentable, or at least like a presentable yak, I thought I might get a new fleece.

Alas, I happened to check the line of credit before going into the store. which brought me to an abrupt halt with respect to my potential fleece purchase. So I headed home fleeceless (or fleece free... Well, I was wearing my bally fleece). After a more detailed review of our finances, which I confess I had left in the hands of some other member of our household in favor of writing, I realized that I might actually have to give up writing... well I have at least had to take on more consulting contracts, which leaves me less time for writing. I am at the end of year two of that magic three years that someone (was it Hugh Howey?) claimed was how long it takes to make it in the indie world, and although the royalties are increasing, they still do not come close to replacing my income.

We all know writing is a tough gig to make it in. For centuries writers have worked away at their craft, apparently toiling away in chilly garrets (probably fleeceless, the poor souls), often with little financial reward. I knew that going in, so I'm not whining, but I really do hope that in 2016 there is a renaissance in reading and more writers will be able to make a decent living off their craft... otherwise we might all start to look like yaks.

Addendum: Wouldn't you know it, just as I finished writing this, the zipper on one of my fleeces broke. A sign from the writing gods perhaps?

The Place for Humbug During the Holiday Season

Bah, humbug!

There, I said it.

I know. It’s the Christmas season. Everything is warm and fuzzy like in greeting cards, sappy viral videos and TV movies. Only, it’s not all warm and fuzzy all the time, because greeting cards and video specials aren’t real life. Everyone feels like saying, “Bah, humbug,” at least once during the holiday season. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s not that the season isn’t full of joy. It’s just that the season is also full of commitments — clashing office holiday parties, school parties, recitals, plays, church performances, family gatherings, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes you just want to shout, “Bah, humbug,” hop into bed, and huddle under the covers with a flashlight and your favorite book. (Those old enough to remember, may even want to hop into a tub, and shout, “Calgone, take me away.”*)

So, this is just a little post to remind you that you get to have a “Bah, humbug” moment or two this holiday season. Not everything will go the way you want it to. There’s someone you’ll want to see, who you can’t see. You’ll have family you don’t want to see, who you have to see.

… Read the rest of this article here.

RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a little young lady who writes fiction when she’s not parenting her two children or wifing her one husband. She writes about characters in peril, who sometimes find a moment for romance. Crayton is occasionally humorous, often right, and always curious. She loves the Christmas season and baking. Due to her severe cupcake addiction, Crayton tries to avoid baking cupcakes, except during the holidays. (As an aside, for the perfect mesh of holiday cheer and cupcakes, check out this recipe.) Crayton has published a three-book dystopian series (Life First), a book on self publishing and a short story collection about motherhood. She also is a contributor at Indies Unlimited, a site for independent publishers. In 2016, Crayton plans to release a novel about a deadly virus and a humorous book on motherhood. You can learn more about her at http://www.rjcrayton.com.