How I’ve Designed My Writing Schedule to Fit My Life


Photo by Gades Photography on Unsplash

One of the things we often talk about in the writing groups I attend is what a typical writing day looks like for each of us. Everyone seems eager to learn about other people’s habits and their strategies for getting the most writing done. If there is one common motivating factor I have uncovered through my discussions with other beginning writers, it is that we all feel like we could be writing more.

I have tried out a plethora of suggestions for writing times (i.e., writing early in the morning before work, writing on your lunch break, writing thirty minutes every day, etc.). What I’ve come to learn during all of these trial periods is that no one else’s schedule actually works for me. Of course, I have learned useful tips from others, but it is impossible for me to follow someone else’s writing strategy precisely, and I am sure they would have the same difficulty in following mine. What’s more is that a schedule that once worked for me in the past may not work for me at the present moment and vice versa.

So why is it so hard for me to stick to the same writing schedule?

My Sleep Habits Change

I have unearthed several of my own reasons that I find it difficult to keep the same writing schedule throughout the years. One of the main reasons is due to my age, and by default, my sleep schedule: I am not the night owl that I used to be. While I’m not lucky enough to be at retirement age quite yet, at nearly thirty I am also not young enough to pull the all-nighters that I once could when I was in my early twenties. It is hard to believe I could regularly write for hours past midnight or stay up all night finishing a college paper. These days, by nine or ten o’clock p.m., my brain is done for the day.

I’ve found that at this time in my life, writing earlier in the day is the way to go. My mind is fresher and I am able to focus even better than I could when I would over-caffeinate myself to stay up throughout the night in my younger days. However, this morning schedule would not have worked in that earlier time in my life, either. Trying to wake up to write before an 8:00 a.m. class would have been a fate worse than death back then.

Work is a Four Letter Word

My writing schedule also revolves around my work schedule. Work is a huge factor in limiting my writing time. One of the things I noticed after tracking my writing each day for a few weeks is that most of my writing ends up being done on the weekends. There is so much going on during a work day (week days, in my case), that I don’t usually have the time or energy to write after work. And that is okay!

There is a lot of information out there in writing communities stressing the importance of writing each day, but for me personally, that is not my most productive schedule. I’d rather write a couple hours straight for one day when I am relaxed and rested than try to squeeze in one painful, sleep-deprived hour late in the evening after work for Monday through Friday.

That being said, on those week nights where I do have some free time (the laundry pile has miraculously disappeared, there are no appointments, and so on), I make an effort to put in some time writing rather than watching a third hour of Blue Planet II (as wonderful as the show might be…).

Social Obligations

Yes, even writers are expected to participate in social situations. My writing schedule will vary depending on my family’s and friends’ circumstances as well. For example, if I know I have a wedding to attend, then I can be pretty certain trying to write between meal courses is fairly out of the question, and I’ll need to try to get in a good writing session before that date. Same thing for vacations or birthdays. I have learned to accept those days as work-free days and plan my writing around them to make up for lost time.

So what is my “typical” writing schedule at the moment? It varies. I try to fit in at least two evenings of writing weeknights after work. Usually, that time will be after dinner, around 7:30 PM onward. On the weekend, I like to start writing earlier in the day when the house is quiet and my mind is clear. I might pull out my laptop while I am drinking that first cup of coffee and eating a little breakfast around 9:00 or 10:00 AM. I often return to writing during those weekend evenings as well for a few hours, sometimes to edit what I started earlier in the day or to continue with a first draft.

Especially over the last year and a half, I have begun carving out dedicated times to write. I make sure to let people know that I am trying to finish a piece of writing or working on something specific so that they know I am not free at that time. Headphones help me focus and drown out background noise, or sometimes, even closing the bedroom door gives me the solitude I need to concentrate. I’ve learned that no matter where or when I am writing, I have to give my writing one hundred percent of my focus for those precious hours; otherwise, I will never finish anything.

As I mentioned earlier, I know my own shifting schedule wouldn’t work for everyone. I would love to know your own writing habits and suggestions, so please leave a comment, and I’ll get back to you!

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Writing Prompt Exercise

Photo on Foter.com

Today’s blog post is my response to a writing prompt from the site Reedsy. In the past, I have entered their weekly contest and while I’ve never won that $50 cash prize, I have produced a few short stories based on the prompts. This afternoon, I decided to give one a try not as a contest entry but as a blog post. My passage is based on a real-life incident in which a friend and I found a young woman’s diary which had been left behind in a park.

Definitely not my usual writing style/subject matter, but it was still a fun experiment.

Prompt: Tell a story through a shopping list.

I hadn’t noticed the notebook at first. It had slipped into a crack in the park bench and was nearly invisible between two slats of wood that formed the bench’s seat. Only when I inadvertently sat down on the notebook’s spine, ready to eat lunch on my break from the office, did it catch my attention.

Sliding the notebook out from the bench, I saw that it was small, more compact than the ones we had used for taking notes in school, maybe seven by ten inches. It was solid black with a cheap, faux leather cover and a length of ribbon poking out – a bookmark.

I glanced around for the owner, but the park was nearly empty, save a mother and father walking their golden retriever near the fountain at the park’s entrance. They were trying to keep up with their energetic toddler who was splashing water from the fountain onto a flock of unsuspecting pigeons. The weather was colder than the forecasters had predicted, and the park was much more vacant than usual.

I took a sip from my coffee cup and flipped through the book. It seemed to be a diary of some kind. A date was neatly printed in pencil in the corner of every page, and below each date was a bulleted list of items and goals. I could see that nearly three-quarters of the notebook were filled, containing what must have been seventy pages of lists.

Scanning through the book, I tried to find the author’s name or phone number scrawled somewhere within its contents so that I could return it. The first page was dated for September 17 and contained a short shopping list but no identifying information.

  • 8 ounces of heavy cream
  • Pound of sugar (granulated)
  • Milk
  • Cake pan
  • Gift for Justin (baseball tickets? vinyl? ???!)

On the next page was another list, a to-do list, dated for September 20.

To Do:

  • 9:00 AM – Gym
  • 11:00 AM – Drop off Justin at airport
  • 12:00 PM – Pick up prescription on way home from airport
  • 6:00 PM – Dinner with Janie
  • 7:30 PM – MOVIE!!! Finally!

The pages went on as such. I gathered from the handwriting and information in the lists that the writer was female, and Justin was apparently her significant other. As I continued reading through the pages, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t really snooping, but only trying to find some sort of contact information.

October 10

To Do:

  • Stop thinking about Justin
  • Don’t call Justin
  • Don’t text Justin
  • Go to the gym tonight
  • Eat a salad! Jesus!
  • Call Janie

The mention of a salad reminded me I hadn’t yet eaten my lunch. I dug around in my purse and found the wrapped BLT I’d thrown in there that morning before I left the house. I continued reading as I ate, trying to piece together what Justin might have done to bring about a breakup. The girl had baked him a cake for God’s sake.

October 24

Three good things that have happened:

  • Lost 5 pounds
  • Submitted the anthropology paper
  • Still working on figuring out a third good thing…

One not-so-good thing that has happened:

  • Janie saw Justin with a new girl at the bar, already

Already! I thought. I compared the dates – Two weeks and the guy had moved on to dating some other woman at a bar. The thought of the scorned writer dieting feverishly in an attempt to deal with the breakup made me feel a pang of sympathy. At thirty-three, I had too many memories of my own that were filled with calorie counting and cardio exercises.

This entry was the last in the book, and the rest of the pages were blank. I continued eating my sandwich, the notebook still open in my lap. With no way to return the book, I wondered what I should do with it. After a moment, I had an idea.

Getting Past “Zero” Days


Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

One of the things I have been working on this year is recognizing and celebrating all the successes I have had in my writing, no matter how small they might seem. I know many of us writers like to be very critical of ourselves when we reflect on the amount of time we spend on our work or the quality of the writing we produce. I am continuously making an active effort to be less judgmental towards myself and my writing, but it isn’t always easy.

For example, yesterday, I spent a good hour staring at a blank blog post. I started a few different topics but after realizing those ideas weren’t working for me at the time, I saved each only as a draft and didn’t publish anything by the end of the day. I tried turning towards a short story hoping to write creatively but ended up feeling equally uninspired. Eventually, I went to sleep that night feeling unaccomplished and irritated with myself. Awakening this morning, my mind immediately revisited that feeling of failure, and I dreaded the thought of trying to produce something positive from that negativity I’d kept with me all night.

In the past, I would have let that one “bad” writing day dictate my mood the rest of the week. I would have avoided even attempting to write any more for the next few days since I didn’t want to have to face that perceived failure, but I have learned to put that mindset behind me. One of the mantras I now keep in the forefront of my mind is that writers write. We may not always write our best or what we feel is satisfactory work, but by definition, writers write. That, we can all agree on.

So today, instead of continuing to be stuck on that one Zero day, I made a choice to be grateful for having the time yesterday to sift through so many “failed” topics. In doing so, I am closer to discovering those viable ideas which will develop into longer works I can feel happy with.

I can also be grateful for the writing accomplishments I have had over the course of this entire week. Monday night I finished reading The Haunting of Hill House and Wednesday, I wrote and published a review of it. Thursday, I finished editing a short story of my own and then submitted it to multiple online publications. I continued submitting it on Friday and also posted another blog post.

Focusing on these accomplishments helps me to regain my perspective after a few hours of negativity. No, one day of not writing doesn’t mean I am a total failure. It means I did have an off day but I have also had a lot more “on” days. As long that pattern continues, I like to think I am doing pretty well, all in all.

Keeping track of my writing progress through a system like a bullet journal has also been helpful for me, especially when it comes to getting past Zero days. I like to use a writing tracker like this one. In fact, I use one very similar in my own bullet journal except I turn it into a bar graph as a personal preference, and mine isn’t just for Nanowrimo but for each month of the year.

As I start seriously thinking about my writing goals for 2019, continuing to accept the fluctuations in my writing process while maintaining enough self-discipline to meet my personal targets remains high on my priorities. It is a tough balance to manage especially while trying to succeed in the midst of all of life’s other stresses, but I am hopeful. Taking the time to remember how far I have come in 2018 makes me excited to find out what lies ahead in the next twelve months!

Using Journaling as a Writing Tool

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I have written in a journal, diary, notebook – what I call it depends on my mood that day – off and on since I was seven years old, which is when I received my first journal as a Christmas gift. It was one of those simple kids’ diaries with a plastic flowery cover and cheap metal lock that could easily be picked with a bobby pin, but I fell in love with it.

As one of five children, the household was often noisy and I found that writing in my journal was a way of taking some alone time. Throughout the years, I wrote about my classes, my first crushes and best friends, fights with my siblings, anything that was part of my life. When I filled that first journal, I moved through various other ones, which were sometimes elaborate decorated ones, or, as when I went through my Harriet the Spy phase in middle school, plain black and white marbled composition notebooks. I carried my journal with me to school in my backpack, and during my angsty teenage years, snuck it in among my class notebooks so I could even write during math class.

As I have gotten older, technology has popularized other forms of writing, but I still prefer to write with pen and paper when it comes to journaling. Although I like to type when doing other forms of writing, the tactile nature of physically writing in a journal is therapeutic for me. Stepping away from the computer and turning towards a notebook for a while helps me separate my “work” writing from my journaling.

Below are some of the ways I have used my journaling to aid my writing process.

Relieving anxiety

I am a huge supporter of using journaling as a tool to reduce anxiety. Being able to write out my feelings or worries helps me to gain perspective on them, and mental health professionals often recommend people to keep a journal. Sometimes, just putting the words down on paper make me see that things aren’t so bad as I imagined them to be just a few moments earlier. Also, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I personally find it difficult to write in the times where I am overcome with anxiety in my personal life. Journaling can be a way for me to recenter and refocus during those times and allow me to transition into the more structured writing that I may be aiming to accomplish, such as essay or fiction writing.

Story ideas

Although I have typically thought of my journal as a (rather biased) record of my own life, I am often surprised at how often other people’s lives have found their way onto the pages. I have reread journals from years before and found mention of someone who had crossed my life fleetingly at that time, possibly in a college class for instance, and later resurfaced in my life as a co-worker or friend of a friend. I have also written about encounters with strangers or situations that struck me as interesting that day, which I can use in future stories.

Writing practice

Some days I find it hard to sit at the computer and come up with anything to write. On those days, turning to my journal, I seem to rid myself of any filters. I can start off writing about the most mundane events that morning, whether it was pouring a cup of coffee or feeding the cats, and simply writing complete sentences such as these help me to loosen up. More often than not, after a few paragraphs about my day, my mind has started turning over some of those events and those people I met, and I am able to get some ideas flowing.

Perspective

When I flip through my old journals, I am amazed at how I can see my priorities and interests shifting. The things I worried about when I was fourteen compared to those at twenty-two are worlds apart. Seeing my words as I wrote them down at different times in my life help me remember what it was like to be a self-conscious teenager or to be a naive college student. When I am writing stories, these perspectives can help me write more authentically from different characters’ points of view.

At nearly thirty years old, I still turn to a journal when I am feeling overwhelmed or in need of writing inspiration. When I worked in the school setting, I urged students to keep journals as well, and sometimes, when they would share a poem they had written or a writing sample that was especially meaningful for them, I could see how useful journals were for them, as well.

I would love to hear about your experiences with journaling. Leave a comment below, and I will get back to you!

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House

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Photo by Edan Cohen on Unsplash

*The review below may contain spoilers*

I, like many others I know, have found myself hooked on the recently released Netflix show “The Haunting of Hill House.” As I am fascinated with all things paranormal, it was the down the rabbit hole I went after watching only one episode. I ended up watching all ten episodes in a matter of days, occasionally with every light turned on in my house.

My boyfriend noticed how much I enjoyed the show and bought me a copy of the book it was based on. He actually bought me a very lovely Library of America compilation, which also contains several of Shirley Jackson’s works including The Lottery, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and miscellaneous other short stories. I had previously read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and liked the tone, so I was excited to dive into another one of Jackson’s mysterious stories.

From the beginning, The Haunting of Hill House is very different from the Netflix version. There are few similarities in plot except the overarching theme of a creepy house taking over its inhabitants. The characters’ names overlap as well, but their relationships to one another and their personalities are completely different in the book than their onscreen representations.

Published in 1959, the book follows the character of Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two year old woman who from the start, raises a few eyebrows with the reader. As a child, she was involved in a bizarre event during which rocks fell from the sky onto her family’s house. Due to this prior involvement with the supernatural, she is contacted (in present day) by a paranormal investigator, Dr. Montague. He invites her to take part in a summer study involving supernatural activity at Hill House, a place Eleanor has never heard of. Against the wishes of her sister and brother-in-law, she takes the family car and sets out for the house. Upon her arrival, she meets two others invited by the same paranormal investigator: Theodora, a woman with a history of ESP abilities and Luke, the nephew of Hill House’s owner, and thus the man who will one day inherit the house.

The plot centers around Eleanor and the other three main characters’ experiences as they spend several days in the house. Loud banging on the walls at night, a phantom dog running through the hallways, and a ghost family’s picnic are all the sorts of odd things they encounter. Jackson does a superb job of interweaving the thoughts crossing Eleanor’s increasingly unstable mind with these supernatural events. Eleanor slowly begins to distrust the others around her, especially Theodora. As Eleanor’s thoughts turn more violent and nonsensical, the reader is left to wonder just how many of the strange events in the house are caused by the paranormal and how much of it is actually in Eleanor’s head.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the paranormal or even just the psychology of the human mind. While it doesn’t follow the plot line of the Netflix version, it does capture the sense of dread Hill House gives off. By the end of it, I wasn’t quite sure what really had happened in Hill House, and I think that’s just what Jackson had in mind when she wrote the story.

Atlanta Writers Conference

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Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

Back in August, a friend asked me if I wanted to attend the Atlanta Writers Conference with her in November. Neither of us had attended a writers conference before but after looking into the details, we both decided to attend.

The conference is set up so that participants pay only for the sessions that they wish to attend.  At the time of sign up, we were offered:

  • a Q & A session with a panel of editors
  • a Q & A session with literary agents
  • a query letter critique
  • a manuscript critique (first nineteen pages were to be sent in by early October followed by a fifteen minute critique session at the conference in November)

Even as early as August, we had to be put on a waitlist for a manuscript critique.  Although I did eventually get offered a spot a few weeks before the conference, I decided not to take the spot as my kids’ novel needed some major work (specifically, I worry that I need to revise the point-of-view, as I am afraid I need to work on character development in its current state).

Two friends and I ended up attending the conference. They live closer to Atlanta than I do currently and made it down in time to attend the orientation on Friday. I had to work, unfortunately, and drove from North Carolina down to Atlanta Friday night, about a six hour drive from my town.

Although I missed the very beginning of the conference, I was able to check in the morning and received my schedule for Saturday. I signed up for the Literary Agent Q and A session and was able to also attend a few free seminars.

Literary Agent Q and A

This session was a great insight into the behind-the-scenes work that agents do once they receive a submission from a writer. They provided a lot of helpful feedback about query letters (keep them three to four paragraphs long, make your voice unique yet professional, include your credentials, etc.).

The most useful advice I gained from the session was learning how agents find writers whose work they’re interested in. For example, some of the agents mentioned finding writers by reading their blogs, scouting through Google searches, and paying attention to winners of literary contests.

The Seven Marketing Habits of Bestselling Authors

Grace Wynter is a romance author that led this session. She walked us through the different steps she takes to reach more readers, including building mailing lists and offering giveaways of her writing through Bookfunnel and Prolific Reader.

Critique Groups, Writers Groups, Hard-Won How-To Lessons

This session was conducted by Roger Johns, a mystery writer from the Southeast. He gave the audience lots of advice on how to create an author website, why you might want to create a newsletter for your readers, and tips for keeping a blog about your writing experiences.

Manuscript Critique

As I mentioned earlier, I decided not to submit my unfinished manuscript as I felt it needed some major restructuring. However, my friends that participated in manuscript critiques received tons of feedback that helped guide them in taking the next step with their drafts. They were even asked to resubmit their manuscripts to the literary agents after they incorporated the suggested edits, which was promising.

Overall, the conference was a wonderful opportunity to learn about writing careers from professionals in the field. I also got the chance to meet many other writers in the region, including graphic novelists. The total cost of the conference for me was about 200 dollars, factoring in the $50 Atlanta Writers Club membership, $50 for the Q and A session, and approximately $100 for a hotel room and gas. For future conferences, I would definitely prepare a manuscript ahead of time so that I could participate in the critique, as I felt this process was a fundamental aspect of the conference.

Why I No Longer Believe in Writer’s Block

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Until recently, I believed in the concept of writer’s block. Since I was young, I had heard people mention the artistic frustration writers get when they cannot find inspiration for their work and are subsequently unable to write. Writer’s block is represented in a scene in Big Fish where Steve Buscemi’s character, the poet Norther Winslow, works on a poem for a whole ten years as he squanders his time in the magical town of Spectre. Showing his poem to Edward Bloom, we see it in its entirety: “Grass so green / Skies so blue / Spectre is really great!” When Edward is understandably surprised by its brevity, Norther snatches his poem back, defensively replying, “This is why you should never show a work in progress.”

I used to think that I had writer’s block all the time, and much like Norther, I was defensive in my lack of progress. I would sit at my desk and try to write, but it was like my mind hit a brick wall. An uncomfortable silence filled my brain, yet I felt reassured. I simply had Writer’s Block, which meant there was nothing I could do. I was struck with an ailment that anyone who was fool enough to try to put words to paper experienced.

Over the past year as I have been submerging myself in the writing world, I have heard various writers scoff at the idea of writer’s block. Some argue that it does not exist, and that instead, it is only the situation of a writer facing an external issue which is unrelated to writing. This idea seems to go against everything that writers are known to be, or at least, how I had been conditioned to envision them. We are supposed to be distraught, frantic, constantly searching for the right story, the right word. We are supposed to stew around the house in a frenzy when we can’t find it.

However, once I began surrounding myself with actual other writers, I realized, in fact, that none of them were suffering in anguish. No, on the contrary, most writers I have met have seemed quite happy. But what explains those bouts of mindlessness, those hours of staring at a blinking cursor on the computer screen, typing nothing but a sentence or two, sentences which are invariably erased upon rereading?

I can only speak for myself, but I, too, came to believe that my writing block was fairly unrelated to my actual writing abilities. Once I began examining the inner reasons for why I struggled to get words down, I realized that I had used the concept of writer’s block as a way to shift the responsibility for carrying out the hard work of writing away from myself. If I saw myself as divinely struck by a period of writer’s block, then that gave me an easy out from completing my writing that day. It isn’t my fault I’m not writing. It’s the Universe’s fault; it isn’t giving me any inspiration.

I began to attribute what I had formerly called writer’s block to two things:

1) Lack of self-discipline. This revelation was a hard one for me to admit. I was lazy when it came to writing. Why? Because writing is hard. If I am writing non-fiction, it is tough subject matter sometimes, especially if the piece is about something deeply personal to me. Likewise, if I am writing fiction, it is difficult for me to craft dialogue the way I feel it should appear or to shape characters believably. Writing is a skill, and I hear it over and over in the writing workshops I’ve attended and writing books, articles, tips, etc. that I’ve read: you have to practice. Even when you don’t feel like it, when you’re in a bad mood, or tired after work. The worst story ever written is still better than the story that was never written.

I have made strides in improving my self-discipline, although it is always an on-going process for me. Some things that have been helpful for me are:

  • Using a planner – I have a planner that I use for planning out my personal life. I use it for reminding myself of bill due dates, shopping items, birthdays, and so on. When I also began using my planner for structuring my writing, it helped me to keep on task with my writing. For example, if I have a goal of submitting a short story for publication in the month of December, I can use my planner to break the goal into manageable pieces:

Week 1: Write the story

Week 2: Edit the story

Week 3: Research publications and submission guidelines

Week 4: Submit the story

  • Tracking my writing time – Each day, I keep track of how many minutes I spend writing, and I put the information into a bar graph. That sounds incredibly meticulous, but it only takes a few seconds to do each day. For someone like myself, seeing a visual representation of how much time I have been devoting to writing helps keep me on track. I can see which days of the week I am most prolific with writing. It also helps to keep me going; if I know that I have written five days in a row, I am more likely to keep that pattern going.

2) Anxiety. The second realization I had for why I was struggling with putting words to paper is that I was, and still am, anxious about my writing. I worry that my writing sounds terrible. I worry I won’t write enough of a certain story, or I will write too much and drag it out, or that my stories will be too boring for anyone to read. What if someone that knows me reads one of my stories and thinks, This is it? This is all she wrote? I realized that the worries plagued me when I sat there at my keyboard, and I had let them all build up inside my head so much that they formed a barrier between me and my writing.

I learned there were ways to combat this anxiety that interfered with not only my writing but other aspects of my life.

  • Meditating – Clearing my mind for a few minutes a day helps me to regain perspective.  Meditation allows me to focus on my breathing and control my stress when I have those moments of feeling inadequate as a writer.
  • Yoga – I fought trying yoga for the longest time. Friends have been recommending it to me for the past decade, and I had somewhere along the line convinced myself that it would never work for me, even though I had never actually tried it. When I moved to a small town and was looking for things to do, I reluctantly signed up for a yoga class and discovered that I am not only capable of doing it, but that I also love it. Not just for the exercise aspect but for the anxiety-reducing effects of yoga as well. Yoga focuses on breathing and relaxing. I find that my mind doesn’t race so much, and I am in a peaceful state of being that lets me approach writing without feeling built up with anxiety. It sounds counterintuitive, but spending time away from writing to do yoga has actually helped me to produce more writing.
  • Journaling – This method for overcoming writer’s block might be cheating a bit as technically, journaling is writing. But I realized that the more I journal, the less I encounter “writer’s block.” For me, journaling is a way to get words flowing even if the words aren’t part of the piece you are working on. Even if I am working on a science fiction story, if I take a break from it and turn to journaling about my day for a bit, I am comforted by the fact that no, I have not completely lost the ability to string two words together. Journaling helps keep me feeling like a writer and in the end, you never know whether some of that journaling might turn into an idea or help you work through a tricky section in your story.

Do you have more tips for overcoming writer’s block? Please leave them in the comment section.