The Writing Habit

If you want to be a productive writer, then you need a habit.

Not this kind of habit:

singingnun

THIS kind of  habit:

Butt in Chair

Yeah, I know, we writers are creative people. We like to have muses and write when we're inspired. We want all of the rainbows and unicorns and leprechaun gold while we're at it. Habits are boring and stifling and structured, for God's sake. We get enough structure from our day jobs and our family responsibilities. Writing should be spontaneous and fun and happen when we're really feeling the love.

This is all true UNLESS you want to write professionally. Because here's the fly in the ointment, my friends. If you want to be published - and continue to be published - then writing becomes a J-O-B.

Yep. I said it. Writing professionally is a full on responsibility.

Sure, it's still fun - some of the time.

Magic still happens - some of the time.

The Muse still sings songs of enchantment and wonder that get you lost in Storyland - some of the time.

But that isn't going to cut it if you're trying to build a career. Your capricious Muse won't help you meet deadlines, and neither will fitful inspiration. There will be days when writing feels like the last thing on  the face of the planet that you want to be doing. There will be days when it feels hopeless, pointless, and maybe even stupid. This happens to every writer, even, I dare say, to those who are highly successful and appear to have "made it."

You have to find a way to write anyway.

I am going to offer a caveat here. Yes, there are days when "writing" means thinking. There are days when the best thing you can do is step away from a manuscript and take a walk, do some brainstorming, or talk to a friend. Some writers take regular, planned days off from writing, in order to rest and refresh. This advice is for writers who are struggling with getting the writing done.

I've talked in previous posts about setting priorities and finding your focus. These things are hard.  I'm not sure what Life has against writing, but I can tell you that Life does not want you to write. It will throw things at you overhand, underhand, and sideways. It will screw you over six ways from Sunday. If you wait for those wonderful, golden moments of sheer writing bliss to be handed to you on a silver platter, you're going to be waiting until you're in the ground and fodder for the worms.

Ever notice how you don't have to carve out time for your habits? If you're a morning coffee drinker, you don't have to think about that in the morning. Imagine if, when the alarm went off and you managed to drag yourself into the kitchen, you spent fifteen minutes debating about whether or not to make coffee.

God forbid. That would be one question too many in your decaffeinated state. Nope. Before your eyes are open, you're fumbling through your morning coffee ritual. Maybe you were really smart and loaded the coffee pot the night before.

Everything in your morning routine - from taking a shower and brushing your teeth to getting dressed - happens pretty much on auto pilot. These things are habits (at least for most of us.) We do them every day, whether we feel like it or not.

A writing habit serves the same purpose. If you have made it a habit, when your allotted writing time comes up, you write.

You write whether you feel the writing love or not.

You write whether you're brimming with inspiration or feeling jaded and tired and beset by doubt.

Writers write. Regularly.

Some of you are going to tell me that your days are too unpredictable or that you don't have time. If this is true, chances are it's time to rethink your priorities. If you REALLY WANT TO WRITE then you will find a time to fit writing regularly into your life. But I will also tell you that something else that you love may need to go, because we don't get anything for free.

Even when you've developed the habit, there will be days where writing doesn't happen. There are probably days when you don't get dressed or brush your teeth, and maybe - gods forfend - days when you don't drink coffee. Life is like that. But the thing about habits is that once they're established, they are hard to break. So if you have a Writing Habit and you miss a day, you'll find your way back to it the next day, or the next.

When you don't write, you'll feel that something is missing, just like when you forget to brush your teeth. Words will get written.

Chances are, once you establish it, this is one habit you'll never want to break.

I'll be teaching a class on getting writing done at Colorado Gold 2016 called Write Now: Making Space for Writing in a Busy World. It's scheduled for 8 am on Sunday, which is either appropriate or ironic, or maybe both. 

Focusing Your Energy Where it Counts

I'm probably the last person in the world who should be talking about focus.

You know that person with her head so high in the clouds that she put her car keys in the freezer? Or  pulls into the neighbor's garage, gets out of her car, walks into the house, and wonders who changed the linoleum and why the cat is the wrong color?

Yep, that's me. I'm the woman who starts off taking out the kitchen garbage, stops along the way to pet the cat, notices the litter box needs attention and scoops, leaving the trash bag in the house by the cat box and taking the litter to the outside trash can. I'm the woman who then notices it's a beautiful day and wanders off to see if the lilacs are going to bloom this year, coming inside an hour later to wonder who left the trash bag sitting in the bathroom.

But maybe this makes me the right person to talk about focus, after all, because I've developed some coping methods over the years that help me get important things done. (See my last post on setting priorities for some ideas on how to sort out which are your most important things.)

Following are a few of the things I've found to be helpful in finding enough focus to get my words written.

Schedule it. If writing time is important to you, signal that to yourself and everybody else in the same way you would other important events. Make it an appointment and treat it like a parent-teacher conference, a work meeting at your day job, a visit to your doctor or your hair stylist. Put it on your calendar. Don't stand yourself up.Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.46.47 AM

Minimize distractions. Figure out whether you do better in a quiet or noisy environment. Experiment with music - can you focus better with it on, or off. What location works best for you - the kitchen table, a writing room desk, a corner in the coffee shop? Whatever works best, do that. Note that this might change depending on the book you're writing, and whether you're brainstorming, drafting, revising, or editing.

Turn off the social media. How many times have you sat down to write, only to find yourself an hour later deep down some rabbit hole on Facebook? Besides the time suck component, how can you get deeply involved in your character's emotions and lives if you are constantly receiving signals from outside influences? If you're like me and lack will power, consider a program like Freedom that blacks the internet for you for a set period of time. Or, shut off the internet altogether during writing time. I recently went through a spell where I didn't turn the internet on in the morning before my words were written. I was a little bit shocked at how much more writing I got done.

Sprint. Sometimes, if you're struggling with focus, settling in for a short stretch of 15 minutes can work very well for getting things done. I love to do this with a friend through a chat window. Set the time, go, and report back in. It's easier to settle down to work when you know it's not going to be a long haul. Plus, it's highly motivating to know you'll need to fess up to your partner if you've wandered off to Twitter. (It's also amusing when you both wander off to Twitter and call each other out for bad behavior. This may just have happened to me a time or two.)

Put the cat in the garage. I know, this is a drastic measure. The GDC, currently in my lap and judging everything I write, takes offense. We love our fur babies and they are wonderful and often comforting. They can also be a huge distraction. If you are struggling with focus and getting your words written, you might consider finding something else for the fur babies to do while you write.

I have a few other ideas, but I'm scheduled for my writing time in about two minutes and I'm choosing to honor that commitment and am signing off now.  I'm excited to tell you that I will be presenting a session on getting your writing done at the Colorado Gold Conference this year, so if this topic is of interest to you I'd love to see you there!

I'd also love to hear the strategies you've developed for managing focus during writing time.

 

Getting Your Priorities Straight

"We all have the same number of hours in the day."

I don't know about you, but when somebody says this, I generally want to kick them in the shins or slap them with a large, dead fish.

It always seems to get said with a self righteous air, as if the person uttering the words has everything in their life perfectly under control. They are never late for work. Never miss a deadline. Never find themselves scrambling to fulfill an obligation at the very last second.

The fact that the words are true just makes them more irritating.

Unless somebody has invented a time machine and is doing an incredible job of keeping it hidden in their garage, we all get the same allotment of twenty-four hours in a day. Except this week, of course, when those of us living in misguided countries have an hour stolen from us, but that's another story.

Some of us have a lot more living to cram into our time allowance than other people do. Some are contented with a slow and steady space. They go to work, come home, pet the cats, eat a tidy, low fuss dinner, watch TV and go to bed. I don't personally know anybody like this, although I'm told they exist. I don't think I've ever met anybody who felt they had more than enough hours in the day. People only trot out the "we all have the same number of hours in the day" statement when they're talking to somebody else.

My point is that until Science and Magic get their acts together and create a time turner, we're going to have to muddle along with not enough time to do All The Things. We can try, and sometimes even pull it off for awhile, but sooner or later we have to sleep. And the body, mind, and spirit will all rebel at some point if we push too hard, and find a way to force us to slow down. A rest enforced by physical illness, depression, anxiety, or some other system breakdown will slow us down more in the long run than a more reasonable pace.

So what's the answer, then, for those of us overwhelmed by the drive to do everything?

I think it starts with setting priorities.

I ran into a Facebook meme the other day about this which was pretty simple and brilliant. Every time you catch yourself saying, "I don't have time," change those words to "That's not a priority." And then listen closely to yourself.

"I'd love to write but I just don't have time," becomes, "Writing is not a priority."

"I know I should read but I don't have time," becomes, "Reading is not a priority."

And - harsh reality time – maybe these things are not priorities for you. Maybe your priorities right now are raising kids, building a career, and binge watching The Walking Dead. No problem. If those are the priorities, then do those things.

Or, maybe, The Walking Dead can wait, and writing could fill that time slot.

It's all about awareness and choices. You can find writing time and reading time, you can find time to play with your kids. You can find time to clean your house from top to bottom and do Pinterest crafts and bake chocolate chip cookies. But you might not be able to choose all of those things, all at the same time.

CHALLENGE

Take a few minutes, five at the most, to jot down a list of priorities, things like career and family and writing. Don't get deep into the weeds on this – just jot them down as they come to you, in no particular order.

Got your list?

Great. Now pick the top five. This part is harder. Be honest and ignore the niggling guilt if your true priorities aren't what you think they should be. Also be aware that priorities shift. Maybe family was the top priority when your kids were little, but now they're in college and you're focused on another goal. It doesn't mean you don't love your family if another priority rises to the top. It just means you are choosing to focus your energy elsewhere. Arrange your top five in order of current importance, with number one being the thing you would keep if you were forced to relinquish the others, and so on. Hold onto your finished list. Pin it on your bulletin board, or stash it wherever you keep such things. Whatever works for you.

Now, for the next week, observe how you spend your time. How many hours spent sleeping? How many hours on the internet? How many hours with the family? Watching TV? Writing? Reading? At the day job? Cleaning house? Jot down notes at the end of every day and make sure you account for all 24 hours.

At the end of your week of time observation, sit down with your priority list and your observation notes and compare them. How much time are you spending on your priorities? How much time are you spending on things that didn't even make the priority cut? If your priorities and how you spend your time match up, chances are you're feeling reasonably good about what you accomplish in your life. If they don't, my guess is that you're feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

The next step is to figure out how to focus your energy on the things that matter most to you. This comes at a cost, by the way. We don't get anything for free, and no matter what we'd like to believe, we can't have it all.

I'll be talking more about this next month.

 

An Experiment in Decreasing Book Launch Stress

Whether you're Indie, Traditional, or somewhere in between, launching a book can be crazy making.

You've invested hours of your life creating characters that are more real to you than your next door neighbor and most of your co-workers at the day job. You've developed extra brow wrinkles from frowning at the computer monitor. Your wrists hurt and you have calluses on your fingertips from typing and retyping all of those words. There are gaping wounds in your soul from the darlings you've cut. The pages of your precious book are drenched in your heart's blood.

And then, one day, you get a publishing contract. Or you decide the book is polished and ready and set it up to go Indie. This is exciting! This is fun! Everything is going to be marvelous, and you're filled with all the superlative emotions of elation and joy and excitement--

Until the reality hits.

People are going to read it. Not just friendly people who love you.

You've hoped all along that the reading masses will love and adore your book. Universal praise! Money! Fans! Helicopters!

Nope. Even the most successful of books have their share of haters. Trolls will read your book. Critics. Reviewers. Readers who don't understand what you were trying to do and totally miss the point.

Or, worse, maybe nobody will read it. Maybe you'll send your little book out into the world and it will drift, lonely and unloved, in a tiny little backwater somewhere far away from civilization.

But wait - this isn't even the bad part, yet.

The nightmare side of launching a book is really this: its fate is now out of your hands.

Oh, sure, there are some things you can do. First and foremost, you can write a really good book. And then there's the blog tour, a little advertising, maybe a book signing tour, if you can swing the time and money. Maybe you'll offer up some great giveaways. If you're Indie, you can change up pricing or rewrite the cover copy or maybe get a Book Bub. Your efforts will find you a few more readers.

But whatever that magic something is that makes a book go viral may or may not happen, no matter how much you engage in smart marketing practices.

There's a point where you have to relinquish control and move on to other things.

My Viking came up with an excellent analogy for me as we were battening down the hatches in preparation for the launch of Dead Before Dying.

"You're the Queen of Spain," he said. "You've just launched the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, off to find a new route to Asia. You don't have cell phones or email or radio or any means of communication. Those ships sail out of harbor, and you're not going to hear anything for months, if ever. Maybe the voyage will be successful, and sooner or later they'll sail home laden with all sorts of foreign treasures. Or maybe they'll sink in the middle of a storm and never be heard of again. So you get on with your life and do other things, because there's absolutely nothing you can do to help the ships or the crews once they're out to sea."

I had to acknowledge that he had a point, and that it fits with my life philosophy of focusing my efforts on the things I do have control of and letting go of the rest. So, adopting the ship metaphor, I agreed to forego my usual launch week behaviors. No haunting of Amazon sales rankings, no looking at reviews, no angsting over the number of Goodreads shelf ads.

I've managed, so far, to abide by the terms of this agreement, and I have to say that this has been, so far, the least stressful launch I've had for any of my books. If I have a PR task lined up, I do it. If an opportunity to promote or buzz something comes to my attention, I do that.

I've done everything I could by writing the best book I knew how to write, and then lining up the best promotional avenues I could think of and/or afford prior to the launch day. The book is out there and off to make its way in the world. Maybe it will come back to me laden with new and wonderful things. Maybe it will founder and sink.

While I'm waiting to find out, I need to be preparing for the next voyage, and the one after that.

I Have an Idea

"Where do you get ideas for books?"

I've been asked this question a lot, and I have to admit it bewilders me. I don't know what actually spawns them, but the suckers are everywhere, like ants at a picnic, like wasps at a barbecue.  They come to me in the night, born of dream fragments or of lying awake worrying about the state of the world and the creatures in it. They pop up out of books I'm reading. They lie in wait on pages of newspapers and magazines, on the TV screen, in snippets of casual conversation.

They love to present themselves when I'm on a writing deadline for another project. Those particular ideas emerge from the ether, floating around my head scattering fairy dust and singing a siren song of distraction.

I don't know about your writer brain, but mine works like this:

I scan through Facebook, see a picture of an amazing underground cave that has plants growing in it, and I get an idea for a fantasy set in a subterranean world.

I see a story about a missing woman on the news, and I get a thriller idea about a woman who fakes her death and goes into hiding, probably to protect her family from the aliens who are blackmailing her.

I'm at work in the clinic and the doctor takes an extraordinarily long time in the room with a patient.  I start wondering, "What if they're both dead in there? If they were, how could it have been done?"

I walk outside and see icicles hanging from the eaves, beautiful but lethally sharp and pointy, and think they would make a fabulous murder weapon. Or we're burning dead wood on a bonfire and I have the same thoughts about a sharp ended stick...

Oh, and the day we discovered new orders had been entered in the chart of a deceased patient? Clearly a zombie story with a humorous twist...

You get the idea. (Ha. See? Ideas lurk all over the place.)

The difficulty is not in finding ideas. What's tricky is distinguishing a good idea from a bad idea.

In my younger days, if an idea hit me I used to just dive in and start writing, emerging from a creative frenzy only to realize that what seemed like sheer brilliance unrivaled in the history of mankind had fizzled out into nothing. Ah, youth. There was time for such foolishness then. I had a gazillion years in which to write every idea that came my way, and I wasn't writing professionally. I had the hope of being published, but not the expectation. That is a very different sort of thing.

These days I need to be a little more selective.

Here are a few questions I use to decide whether a story idea is worth my time or not:

  1. If I write an idea down and leave it alone for a week, am I still excited about it when I look at it again?
  2. How much energy does the idea have? Is this an idea I'm going to want to spend the next year of my life writing, rewriting, editing, publishing, promoting - or if I commit will it start to feel like an ill-advised Vegas wedding?
  3. Are there actual plot possibilities? Can it support a story arc and a cast of characters? Or is it just a bit of fluff that might be fun to add into another idea?
  4. What are the odds that anybody else will want to read it? (Consider this one with caution. It's impossible to predict what readers are going to latch onto, and trying to predict and follow trends is a quagmire.)
  5. How many times has it already been done? The truth is, most ideas have already been written in one way or another. If an idea burns in my writer soul like a little sun of inspiration, though, I'm going to write it anyway.
  6. Consider genre. If you're writing purely for the sake of Art (which is a wonderful thing) discard this bit of advice. If you're seeking publication, or are already published and want another contract, you've got to at least think about genre. Where does this idea fit in the grand scheme of things?

After you wisely consider all these things, if you're like me at all you'll still end up writing something like my Dead Before Dying - a weird, misfit paranormal-mystery-thriller-with-cozy- elements, born of a Twitter conversation and a joke about a geriatric vampire. And maybe, if it makes you happy, that's okay.

 

 

I Have a Strong Opinion – Now What?

Politics.

The Viking happened to be looking over my shoulder when I wrote that word, and immediately told me, "Don't go there."

He's wise, of course. If, as a writer, you venture to spout your political beliefs on the internet, you're going to get yourself in trouble. You'll alienate readers. You'll invite trolls. You might get into arguments with other writers. Most agents and marketing and PR people advise their writer clients to button up and stay out of the fray.

So far in my writing career I haven't had much trouble keeping my mouth shut. I'm busy. I hate conflict. And since I'm Canadian and living in the United States, I can't vote and don't really feel I have a say in anything that happens here. As for Canada, I've been gone long enough to feel detached and like I don't really understand the issues. So I keep my mouth shut and write my books and let the world fall as it may.

But I've been having thoughts about this of late. Not little, fleeting thoughts, but big, cumbersome, slow moving THOUGHTS that are insisting I pay some attention.

There is so much ugly out there. Thanks to social media, even if I don't watch the news (which I avoid like the plague) all of that ugly is brought regularly to my attention. Rape. Police brutality. Racial injustice. Suffering refugees. Sexual inequality. War and rumors of war. A constant, overwhelming, deluge of hate.

I have opinions on all of these things. Sometimes I have vehement opinions. Still, knowing that anything I put out there on Twitter or Facebook or even a blog post will be out there FOREVER, I mostly just bite my tongue, sit on my hands, and keep my thoughts to myself.

Over the last year I've been pushed to the point where I question my own silence. Things are happening out there that move beyond politics. They are moral and ethical issues involving people. Other living, breathing, human souls who are being hurt.

If a Syrian refugee child showed up starving and homeless on my doorstep would I feed and shelter her? Of course I would.

If a woman knocked at my door late at night looking for refuge from some horror of a human being who has raped her, would I take her in, get her to safety, do everything in my power to help her bring the assaulter to justice? You bet I would.

If I see racial injustice happen in front of me, will I speak up? Yes. I have. I do.

But there's this thing that happens, I think, when we're inundated by horrific images from all over the globe. Before the age of technology, people only needed to focus on what happened in their own corner of the world. Now, everywhere you look, there's somebody suffering. Every minute of every hour of every day. And, as human beings, we have a limited capacity to absorb horror and trauma and fear before we begin to suffer our own traumatic response. When we reach a certain threshold our defense mechanisms kick in, numbing our response, making it easier to see some things as "far away" and therefore not a danger or grief we need to attend to. At some point, even those things close to home can seem less relevant.

Defense mechanisms are healthy, to a point. Just as keeping our mouths shut in public is healthy to a point.

But it's also important to act, to make a difference, to be an instrument of change. As writers, we are adept at using words to share ideas and provoke emotions. I think it's important to develop an awareness of how we are using, or not using, our influence. Action, even in small ways, makes a difference, even if we are never able to see it.

Social Media isn't the only place we can express our opinions, our outrage, and our grief. I've always admired Dickens for his ability to tell a good story while condemning social injustices. Pratchett did this brilliantly, as well, so a writer doesn't have to be focused on literary fiction in order to write stories that make a difference.

To be clear, I'm not advocating that any of us get preachy. Tales told from a moral high horse seldom make for good reading. And I don't have answers for the question of how much we should share our beliefs in the public arena. But I do think some serious soul searching is in order. Knowing what we believe, having a moral compass, and allowing that to find its way into our work is an important step.

I'll be working on that. What about you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Never Give Up

Whatever you're writing, wherever you are in the writing process or in your career, I have two pieces of advice for you:

  1. Finish the book
  2. Don't ever give up.

Nobody said this writing life was going to be easy. I don't need to tell you about the obstacles – you already know what they are. Only you know how strong your personal demons are and how much energy it takes to overcome them every time you sit down to write. Only you know how hard it is to summon up enough faith to send out one more query. Only you know how deep and dark your doubts are when you're wide awake in the middle of the night.

Don't let any of this stop you. If you have the passion, if writing is the one thing that makes you feel fully alive and present in this world, then you must keep on.

Write on the days when the words flow as easily as water. Write on the days when it feels like every word has to be dredged up from your toenails. Write on the days when you feel like the painted ship upon a painted sea, when words are sludge and hope is gone and you know for certain that nobody in their right mind will ever read this tripe you're smearing on the page.

Some of you are doing Nanowrimo this month. Maybe you're blazing trails and have left that 50k word count goal in the dust. Maybe what you're writing is sheer brilliance and you are riding a writing high. But if you happen to be three weeks into Nanowrimo and your word count is falling behind, don't give up. Keep writing. If you can't quite make the word count, focus on making a word count.  If the end of November comes along and you've only got twenty-thousand words, or ten, that's more than you had at the beginning of the month. Keep going. Don't let some airy-fairy idea of failure make you stop.

If you're above ground, if you're still writing, you haven't failed.

And when you finally finish your draft and you read it and you're sure it totally sucks, see if you can make it better. Then move on and write another book. And then another and another. Focus on making every new book better than the last.

I'm not saying you shouldn't revise the sucky draft. You probably should. Most first drafts are wormwood and despair. They need a lot of work to turn them into masterpieces. By the time I'm done revising and rewriting, I generally have as many words in what I call my "Darlings" file as there are in the finished novel.

But there is a danger in getting fixated and stuck on one novel. I see writers working on the same book forever and ever, like they're Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill, day after day after day. The energy leaks out of the book, or it becomes a convoluted mess. The writer lives in a state of desperation and despair. This is not good for either book or writer.

Sometimes you have to step away for a bit. Find a new idea. Write another book. And then another one. Every book will teach you something new about your craft and lead you closer to mastery. And then, maybe, one day, you'll go back to that sucky Nanowrimo draft and realize you now have the skills you need to fix it.

Look what I ran across the other day:

 

winner

Notice the date. Yep. Dead Before Dying was written five years ago, and is just now on its way to publication. Since the time that draft was completed I've written four other books and three novellas. Dead Before Dying had to wait its turn until I'd figured out what it needed. That first draft was a mess. The POV was all wrong. It didn't fit any genre category known to humanity. And Maureen, my feisty lead character, wasn't even in it.

I didn't know any of that. All I knew was that something was wrong with it. I never abandoned it - I always knew I would come back to finish it. But I had to go build some writing chops on other projects.

My point with all of this is exactly what I said at the beginning. Whatever you're writing now? Finish it. And then write something else.

Don't stop.

Don't give up.

Writers write. You are a writer. So go do the thing you're here in this world to do, and don't let anything or anybody stop you.

 

Ten Tips for Staying Healthy

Writing is never easy, but when you're sick? That sneezing, sniffling, aches, pain, and fever thing is death to eloquent words and brilliantly devised plots. Your brain gets stuck on thoughts of, will I ever breathe again? and I want my mommy. You take a pill or swallow some nasty tasting liquid out of a bottle that promises to make you function like a rock star, but all you get is a medicine head and, if you're lucky, a nose that drips instead of flowing like a garden hose.

I don't know about you, but the only things I excel at when I've caught a bug are whining and moaning. Well, and maybe sneezing. I'm a fabulous sneezer.

It could be said that the experience of illness will allow you to write this state more realistically if any of your characters are taken sick, but I'm willing to guess you've already been there, done that, and don't really need to do it again.

The good news is that there are things you can do to bump up your immune system during the colder, darker days of winter, so that you are less likely to play host to the tiny, evil, opportunistic organisms swarming around you.

  • Don't rely on the flu shot. I'm an RN in a clinic, and I often encounter patients who are shocked, appalled, and even angry that the flu shot did not prevent them from getting sick. Here's the thing: the flu shot will only provide protection from the flu, and only from certain strains of the flu. It's not going to help you out at all with colds and other viruses and bacteria. It's important to know that the flu shot only provides immunity to whatever strains the experts predict will be most prevalent during a particular year. Last year, the formulation was way off target and pretty much useless. I'm not saying don't get one, I'm only saying don't rely on it as your only means of protection.

 

  • Wash your hands. I can hear you saying, "Yeah, yeah, we know." Well, I'm telling you again. Wash 'em. Frequently. Colds and flu viruses can be spread through tiny droplets that hang in the air, but you are much more likely to catch the disease by touching an object covered in viruses and then transferring them to a mucus membrane (eyes, lining of nose, mouth). Objects that are reservoirs for the bugs that can make you sick—doorknobs, for example, and little kids—are known as fomites. (I figured, as writers, you would like to know this word.) Somebody with a cold blows their nose, then opens the door. An hour later you come by and put your hand, all unsuspecting, on the doorknob. Then your eye itches. And bingo – you've provided a colony of little viral immigrants with a new home. You could do the Howard Hughes thing and never go outside your door without gloves and a mask. You could scrub the skin off your hands and spend all of your free time sterilizing every possible fomite you encounter. But then you wouldn't have time to write. Besides, a healthy immune system does an amazing job of fighting off intruders, and there are things you can do to help out.

 

  • Cut back on your sugar intake. Sugar is an immune damper and leaves you more susceptible to invasion by the microscopic barbarians. I know this is a tough one for writers – most of us love to snack while writing, to keep the words flowing. We use treats as incentives and to honor goals completed. We comfort ourselves with ice cream and chocolate when we're faced with bad writing days, rejection, and low sales numbers. Candy. Cookies. Pie. I'm drooling over here. I'm not suggesting to cut these things out all together – they are delicious and life is short. But make a choice to cut back and choose a healthier snack when you can.

 

  • Get some Vitamin D in your day. If you're pale skinned and live in the western hemisphere, chances are good that you're Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D plays an integral role in a healthy immune system, so you might want to consider getting a good supplement. D3 is better than D2. Of course, if you can get plenty of sunshine that works, too. But winter days, for most of us, are short and dark.

 

  • Manage your stress. Chronic stress has all sorts of negative effects on the body, and I'm not going to begin to address all of them here. Suffice it to say that the primary stress hormone, cortisol, can negatively impact your immune system when there is too much of it floating around. The life of a writer is full of stressors. All of us are balancing writing with a busy schedule, hitting deadlines, and dealing with rejection, and this takes its toll.  Anything that relaxes you and calms the stress response (except for alcohol, unfortunately), is good for your immune system. Take a leisurely walk, preferably somewhere in nature. Get a massage. Read a book – for pleasure. Critique reads are often stressful in one way or another. Soak in the bathtub. Engage in music or art. Try Yoga and meditation, as these are both fabulous stress reducers. Think you don't have time? Think again. A recent study indicated that just 3-5 minutes a day of meditative breathing dramatically lowered the stress hormones in the body.

 

  • Get a reasonable amount of sleep. I know, I know. You've got word count goals. Deadlines. Nanowrimo. But if you get sick, you're going to lose a ton of productive writing time. Writing is usually a marathon, not a sprint. Conserve your energy. If you suffer from insomnia, make sure to consider stress management, since that is one of the major culprits in a sleepless night.

 

  • Consider immune boosting supplements. The jury is still out on whether taking Vitamin C, Garlic, Zinc, Vitamin B, Echinacea, and other supplements is helpful to the immune system or not. It's possible we'd just be better off eating a well-balanced diet rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. I'll admit, research evidence or not, that the minute I start feeling a tickle in my throat I grab a bottle of Sambucol Black Elderberry and slug it straight out of the bottle. I'll also argue vehemently that it works.

 

  • Exercise regularly. We all know that a healthy body is more likely to have a healthy immune system. Exercise also happens to be a fabulous stress buster and one of the best defenses against depression. It's easy to not have time for this - trust me, I know. My schedule is crazy and I totally understand that a lot of us do not have time to go to the gym everyday. But I'm suggesting that you walk when you can. Park in a spot on the far side of the parking lot instead of searching for a space close to the door. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Do what you can.

 

  • Laugh. If nothing funny is presenting itself, go look for things. Watch funny clips on YouTube. Seek out the Twitter and Facebook people who post things that make you laugh. Watch funny TV. The old saying "laughter is the best medicine" came to be for a reason. Laughing has all kinds of crazy health benefits, actually, and one of them is a boost to your immune system.

 

  • Tend to your relationships. Recent research shows that the health of our relationships has an enormous impact on our immune systems. Like a lot of research, I read this and said, "Well, duh." There is no greater stress than a relationship that is all in tangles. Sometimes the solution is as simple as walking away from a toxic friendship. Often, it's not so easy. Important relationships often demand - and deserve - hard work to sort things out. To which I say, do the work. Your body will thank you for taking action.

Finding Your People

The Viking says I need a new travel agent. This business of flying into Spokane at 11 pm and then traveling home over dark, deserted highways filled with suicidal deer has got to change. I tell him if it is the price I must pay to engage in a conference like Colorado Gold, then I am willing, even if it does leave me shuffling around for days like a zombie with a big, red, "recharge battery NOW" sign blinking where my brain should be.

This year, as usual, the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers crew put on a fabulous conference: great classes, wonderful speakers, along with opportunities to talk to industry professionals and get books signed by awesome authors.

But for me, what made the conference spectacularly awesome was hanging out with other writers. I skipped interesting and informative classes to talk to writers. I stayed up way past my bedtime and functioned on minimal sleep in order to spend time hanging out with writers. I even skipped coffee once or twice in order to talk to writers.

I'm a full on introvert, and this is not my usual modus operandi. My forays into social events tend to be infrequent and brief. Not because I'm shy, but because I usually find gatherings of people draining and exhausting. Besides, my life is bursting at the seams with writing and other things I need to get done.

I tell myself I don't have time for anybody outside of my immediate family.

This is a comforting little lie that allows me to feel like a better human.

The truth is, I don't have time to hang out with people who want to talk about shoes and clothes and kitchens and the latest reality show on TV. And I don't really care which movie star is cheating on his spouse or which singer just got pregnant. Sometimes at a party I'll catch my eyes glazing over as I realize that I'm terribly, horribly, bored.

But give me people who want to talk philosophy, writing, personality typing, how to get things done, book ideas, character development, publishing industry news - and I light up like a prairie sunrise.

Where I'm going with all of this, I guess, is that it's important to find our people. Even those of us who are hard core introverts need a tribe – or a herd, as Susan Spann so eloquently put it during her Writer of the Year speech at Colorado Gold. We need people to spark new ideas for us, to believe in us, to support us. We need people to encourage us when the publishing industry looks like a Sharknado, or when the book we're writing sucks so bad we can't bear to even look at the page.

And we need the experience of being the person who offers support and encouragement, along with the understanding that even our seemingly boring little lives can be a catalyst and inspiration to somebody else.

Fortunately, we don't have to wait for conferences to be a part of this experience. Check your social media feeds and find the writers who are interesting and supportive. Or, for that matter, non-writers with whom you share interests. And remember that you have the power to shape your own social media world – you can let in the members of your tribe and lock out the others. Life's too short to spend it either bored or alone.

Creating Dynamic Characters

Well-developed characters make for great reading, but also for fun writing. It's such an amazing feeling when a character wakes up and starts doing stuff without a lot of direction from me.

As you've probably noticed, there are a thousand-and-one approaches to character development. A lot of writers use work sheets that ask for details ranging from eye color and shoe size to favorite song and which high school the character graduated from. I think these sheets are awesome, but since I am not  detail oriented and get easily distracted, I have yet to complete one. Inevitably I get bored and wander off to write something more exciting.

I honestly don't have a conscious process for creating my characters. Usually, when I sit down and start writing they kindly show up and start talking. I don't consciously sit down and plot out what kind of character they are going to be.

But, I have a background in mental health and I suspect my subconscious is in on the game and kindly supplying me with information. When I stop to think about it and try to analyze my process, I realize that I am relying on a few basic principles.

  1. I make sure the character has a cohesive personality. Are they an introvert or an extrovert? Somebody who is intuitive and flexible, or somebody who likes rules and structure and routines? Do they talk a lot, or prefer to keep things to themselves? Then I make sure that they stick to this, unless there's a damn good reason for them to break away from their usual behavior.
  2. What is the character's defining life event? Here I am talking about those experiences we go through that change us forever. Most of us have a number of these, but there is often one particular occurrence that changes everything. Pay attention to your friends and family, really listen, and you'll often hear it. Look for the "before" and "after" type words for your clues: Before the divorce … After the accident… Ever since I was diagnosed with… People tend to mark everything in their lives by this one defining event.
  3. I also pay attention to core values. What is most important to your character. Family? Independence? Success? Belonging? Individuality? Once you know what these are, you can really up the stakes in your plot by throwing your character into a situation where there most deeply chereished values are threatened and tested.

For example, in my paranormal mystery, Dead Before Dying, (releasing Feb. 9 from Diversion Books) Paranormal Investigator Maureen Keslyn's top value is independence, followed closely by a love of personal challenge, and pursuing justice. In this story she's about to turn sixty, has recently been injured on the job, and is physically vulnerable for the first time in her life. She's also facing a situation where someone or something is killing off elderly people in a nursing home. This set up makes it easy to set up suspense and emotional tension and keep it going throughout the book.

I'll be talking more about character development at the workshop I'll be co-presenting with the Heather Webb at the Colorado Gold Conference. Hope to see you there!