Guest K. Ferrin: The Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do

I was about nine years old when I wrote my first story. I was very excited about the assignment, I loved writing even then. But what I remember most clearly is the lightning strike of inspiration I got when the story idea popped into my mind. It seemed to come straight out of the aether - some gypsy-voodoo-black-magic that I’d somehow managed to get on me or to step in. It felt as if it had come from out there, rather than from inside of me. From that instant I was hooked, I wanted to write novels.

Like many authors, I continued to write over the years. Also like many authors, I never finished a novel. I wrote while I rode the wave of inspiration but when inspiration abandoned me I abandoned the story. For decades I left villains at their peak, deserted heroes at their point of greatest weakness, relinquished half written stories to the shadowy depths of my hard drive.

Somewhere after that first lightning flash of inspiration I’d picked up the habit of seeing writing itself as gypsy-voodoo-black-magic that came from out there. And if it came from “out there” that meant I had no control over it. If the muse stopped weaving her magic what could a mere mortal do about it?

This sort of thinking infected me in all sorts of ways. When I was nine I wanted to be a writer. By the time I started college I’d given up writing and wanted to be a biologist or chemist. I left college with a BS in Criminal Justice (pre-law) and by the time I started working in my first “real job” it was in technology.

Meandering paths are not uncommon when we’re young, but what might not be so obvious is that, for me at least, the spaces between those bullet points were because the shiny rubbed off. Things got hard and I sometimes lost my motivation. There was no magic, and there should always be magic… right?

So instead of working hard for what I wanted most, I spent my time working a little for what came easiest. It was easy to blame the fickle muse for this. To hide the path of least resistance within the guise of magic-from-the-aether. To claim I was an artist following the path of inspiration. But eventually I started to wonder about this muse of mine. What kind of sick bitch was she to start me down one path only to yank the rug from under me and send me careening off in some new direction?

Now, to be clear, we should follow our inspirations. Inspiration is an expression of our intuition, it tells us where our passion lies, where our talents reside. But believing that people accomplish things because they’re gifted with gypsy-voodoo-black-magic is a mistake. The truth is that finishing stuff is hard no matter who you are. And it takes a lot more than inspiration to carry things through to the end. The truth is, finishing is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.

Inspiration is designed for the start. Sweat, dedication, and courage are designed for the finish. I’d lived my life waiting for the magic. I’d made the mistake of believing all I needed was that magic and I’d forgotten all about sweat part.

But the actual writing part, the doing, is sweat and courage. It’s showing up every single day no matter where your muse is. Some days, the magical ones, words flow like warmed honey. Other days it feels like you’re crawling across a mile of used needles, bloody hospital scalpels and poo.

You see, finishing has nothing to do with inspiration and has everything to do with hard work and the courage to keep to your path. It’s refusing to give in to the blank looks you get from people when you tell them you’re a writer, it’s continuing with your efforts even when you see no results. It’s not glamorous. It’s actually quite ugly. It often involves crying. There’s almost always blood. But after all of that, at the end of the day, when you have finished, it is pure magic.

 

GetAttachmentK. Ferrin started writing fantasy just after learning her ABCs and has never looked back. Magicless, a young adult fantasy novel, was published in 2014. Across the Darkling Sea, book one of her Ling trilogy, will be available in April of 2016. She lives at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with her husband, two dogs, and a relentless craving for pie.

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.

 

 

Time to Call the Family!

The amazing thing about being a writer is that it automatically makes you part of a family. And who better to call when you're in trouble than family?

The Colorado Gold conference was four months ago. All that fresh energy that boosted us in those first couple months has begun to dissipate. Time has softened our resolutions. We’re lagging in our production and criticizing ourselves.

The flurry of emails with new friends and those we reconnected with has lessened. The daily contact we had has waned. The holidays shifted our attention and we lost touch with one another. Life seems lonely. We’re feeling more isolated and the introversion is creeping in.

Those who received nibbles on their manuscripts have slaved to edit and perfect and complete them. Some have done so and moved forward toward their goals. Others encountered road blocks. A few have had responses from editors and agents that weren’t what they desired.

It’s also the middle of January. We’ve had cold and snow and ice. Spring is still a couple months distant. “Blah” seems to sum up our distaste.

It’s times like this that we turn to those who care and bolster us most—our families.

Relatives, though, may not be the families that we writers most need. No matter how much they love and accept us, our siblings and children and significant others often do not share the experience of writing. They may love us, but that doesn’t mean they truly understand what we’re feeling in our particular unique “winter of discontent.”

These blah stretches are those during which we owe it to ourselves to reach out to our writing family. This is the perfect time to send an email or make a phone call to jump start relationships. These are the days when it’s important to meet for coffee/tea/lunch/drinks and seek one another’s energy. This is the time when we should get together and allow ourselves to whine a bit.

After all, who knows better what a writer is going through than another writer?

Lest we view reaching out as a weakness, we must remember we don’t have to leap into complaints. We just need to make the contact, ask a fellow writer how the winter is going. The conversation will flow, organically, as it always seems to do among writers. One of us is bound to launch the topic as well as to offer the support the other needs. That’s what family does.

And, in giving support to someone else, we are given the support we crave ourselves.

So, my friends…my family…it’s time to reach out, get together, and defeat the doldrums of the post-conference, pre-contest, mid-winter blues!

We owe it to ourselves and to one another.

Writing Space

It's January and goal-making time, and most of us have determined what we want to accomplish this year with regard to our writing. It might also be time to take a look at our office or writing work space to see that it's set up right.

By that, I mean that it is right for you. I know what I need for my office, and some things might apply to all of us, but make sure you have your space set up the way you prefer and need it. Anything that keeps you from writing should be corrected.

First, consider lighting. It's also winter. I suffer on gray days, so I've put full-spectrum light bulbs in both my desk lamp and the overhead fixture. My office faces south so I usually get sunlight during some of the day, too, which keeps me working. That said, the sunlight can hit shiny materials that set up a glare when I look beyond my monitor, so my blinds are angled to minimize this. Lighting can also be a subconscious cue. When the overhead lights are on, I'm usually looking for something, or checking out my bookcases. When the desk lamp is on, it's time to write, and my brain (and fingers) know this.

Currently I have a full office set up, including separate keyboard, large monitor, computer stand and a u-shaped desk with bookcases on two sides. Computers being so small and portable now, also consider where you'd like to work and what peripherals will help you most. You may prefer a notebook on a table in a sunroom rather than an actual office.

But do think about those peripherals. My separate keyboard has a numeric keypad which I find useful and is more ergonomic than a laptop keyboard, and with larger keys. It also on a pole that can be raised, lowered and angled. That works for me. Are you happy with your keyboard?

My monitor is a full 22 inches and excellent to compare documents side to side, particularly during the copy edit and galley stage. Or for two versions of a document. I do have a tiny 11 inch travel computer and have found comparing documents on that difficult. Are you happy with your monitor?

I have my most used research books in hard copy and within reach, since if I look on the internet for a quick answer I can be distracted. I also have an engagement calendar where I write down my progress at my elbow. At a glance I can see how much I've written during the week and if I've made my daily goals. These help me.

What are you sitting in? I recently met with a friend who has a reclining chair with a tray that I lusted after, one that cradles her bad back. I tend to use a covered exercise ball. And make sure you have the room to stop and stretch in between (I hope) bouts of inspiration.

Consider the tidiness of your office. Do you look in and cringe at how sterile the place is? Or shudder at the stacks of stuff on your desk that you think you should take care of before you write? You are the best judge of the ambiance of clutter you like, but make sure it isn't keeping you away from your workspace. And, I admit, that's why I wanted to write this article. I do have a stack of papers – okay, two stacks – that are bothering me right now. Time to clean them up and get going on meeting my deadlines.

May you create your perfect space for writing and find pleasure in your craft every day.

Robin

Is Writing Getting in the Way of My Life?

So I have a spiritual adviser. I know that can be off-putting, but If it helps, you can picture me talking to Yoda. I mean, after all, Yoda was a spiritual guide for Luke and various other people who never listened to the green-skinned guru. Oh, well, we are a headstrong bunch.

My little green spiritual adviser asked if writing was getting in the way of my spiritual development. He’s unimpressed by me, which is good, because I am so damn impressive.

Is writing getting in the way of my spirituality?

Well, it makes me miserable, and since I’m a third Catholic, it counts as being beneficial. As my friend Jason Evans says, “All suffering is redemptive.”

To be clear, I’m not someone trying to get into heaven. I’m a guy whose natural inclination is to find a nice corner of hell and set up shop. I choose my suffering, and my spirituality is about me trying to suffer less.

Does writing help me suffer less?

Ouch. No. But let me continue…

You might have heard of a small film that came out in December of 2015. It’s called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I know, weird title, right? I think it might have something to do with Yoda, but I’m not sure.

I can’t tell you how much fuller my life is because of this one movie, which I’ve not seen at the writing of this blog post. It it fills me with a dreamy kind of hope, an excitement, a wonder.

I had to accept, early on, that writing stories is a selfless act and the world is better for the stories people tell. Even when the stories are sequels spun out of a story machine who’s only aim is to make as much money as possible. Even those stories matter.

When I write and publish books, I am adding stories to the world and I don’t know what will happen. And I can’t just write books and keep them hidden. I spent twenty years doing that, and those days are over. Lucky you, my practice books won’t see the light of day. But the practice is over, and it’s show time.

Writing doesn’t help me to suffer less. That’s not the point. The writing makes me strive harder, work more, and to really push myself to the very limits of my endurance, which makes me seek a power greater than myself.

The world is better for the stories we tell. And if I have stories to tell, I have a sacred duty to tell them.

I’ve had to pray and meditate more than ever because of the writing game.

I’ve had to reach out for help because of the writing game.

I’ve had to swim through frigid oceans of screeching fear because of the writing game.

Writing has made me a better human being, but that doesn’t mean it’s made me happy. Happiness is such an American ideal. Part of me is old school, yo, as in, I’m here to do my duty. Happiness may or may not come, but honor, courage, discipline, those are what I should focus on.

So I told my Yoda all that, and he was unimpressed, as he should be, because he knows I’m clinging to the writing business.

The real danger is that I have spent a lifetime, thirty years, in pursuit of this dream. Could I let go it now? If the divine muffin came down and told me to put the pen down, could I?

Our Buddhist friends would say attachment leads to suffering. And I’m not just attached to writing, I’ve superglued it to my soul. My query letters have been etched on my bones.

So, no, I can’t let go of it. It’s too late for me to stop, even if I wanted to. Even if I could.

But this is my calling, my vocation. I’m committed, for better or worse, even when it makes me suffer and I hate it so. Even when the dreams of fame and fortune flutter away and I’m left with an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,426,891 Paid in Kindle Store and even worse, an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,552,680 in Books. And no, I don’t want to see the Top 100 in books, thank you very much.

So, I’ll keep writing books. I’ll continue to suffer, since I like it for some odd reason, and I’ll continue to fight fear.

Because I am Jedi, like my father before me. And the work of writing stories matters more than my own happiness.

May The Force be with you. Always.

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.

To Contest or Not To Contest…that is the question

Do you enter contests for your writing?

Over the last couple decades, I’ve entered many contests, both for full-length novels and short stories. I belong to RWA (Romance Writers of America), which includes multiple chapter contests in their monthly magazine, both for unpublished and published authors. I think most genres have something similar, or you can easily find them on-line. RMFW has an annual contest for unpublished authors. Writer’s Digest and other publications and on-line sites have contests for short stories. There are a couple different reasons for entering contests, and your decision may hinge on where you are in your writing career.

If you’re unpublished, contests can:

  • Help you identify problems with your writing that you’ve become “word blind” to.
  • Educate you on craft (one judge highlighted each point of view in a different color, which really helped me to understand why I kept getting comments on staying in POV).
  • Get your work in front of published author judges and, if you final, agents and editors who are actively looking for books in the genre they’re judging.
  • Give you a low cost way to get more input on your writing.
  • Generally you’ll get 3 preliminary judges so you get 3 different points of view on your writing; usually they’ll post comments on the judging form, as well as on the manuscript.
  • Some contests will send you graphics you can use on your website/social media if you final/win.
  • Finaling or winning is great to include on your query letters or during your pitch appointments; it might be the final push to get someone to request pages or a full read.
  • Most contests post their winners in multiple places, getting your name, and your book title, out into the world – priceless publicity.

2015PagesFromTheHeart_FINALIST2

 

Contests are great for Published Authors as well because:

  • Winning a contest looks great on query letters and in pitches, as well as on your website and author platform.
  • Finalists and winners get free publicity in genre newsletters, writing group social media, etc.

Contest negatives:

  • Some judges may not read, or even like, the genre they’re judging – resulting in unhelpful comments.
  • Judges have varying degrees of expertise, and may give you poor or incorrect feedback.
  • There is some cost involved (usually $10-$30, with from 1 to 50 pages judged).

No matter if you’re unpublished or multi-published (Nora Roberts STILL enters RWA contests), you can get something out of contests. But as always, it’s YOUR story. Don’t make changes just to please a judge. However, to get the most from judge notes:

  • If you get more than one judge commenting on the same issue, pay attention, especially if those comments are similar to ones your critique group have mentioned.
  • Read the comments, but if you don’t agree with them, give it a day or two. Don’t be hasty to toss the judging sheets out, or make a lot of changes.
  • If more than one judge is saying the same thing, and/or echoing critique comments, copy the pages into a new document and see what happens if you make the changes/start in a new place, etc. Sometimes what seemed like an impossible job, or a horrible idea, ends up making a much better manuscript. Don’t discount the comments just because you don’t like them at first blush.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking everything the judges say must be correct. One of my first contests had a judge telling me all my chapters had to be 12-13 pages long. Because I didn’t yet belong to a writer’s group like RMFW, and didn’t have anywhere else to go for information, I turned that manuscript inside out trying to make all the chapters come out at that length. I later found out the judge had one self-published family memoir as their sum total of writing experience. That doesn’t mean the judge couldn’t contribute good suggestions to help me improve my work, but they weren’t familiar with my genre, and probably didn’t read enough fiction to know chapter length is one of the most variable parts of books these days.

Whether or not you want to enter contests, consider volunteering to judge. You’ll get educated on the judging process, and you’re likely to make great contacts, as well as networking with other writers/judges interested in your genre. Judging can help you find your herd/tribe and possibly friendships that will last forever.

So, happy contesting, and Write On!

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.

The Game of Writing by Guest Kara Seal

So you successfully defeated the boss on level three and achieved a high score. You think to yourself, “that wasn’t so hard, this game is easy.” Level four is a little more demanding, but thanks to your well-honed skills, the dungeon is soon in sights and victory is inevitable! Only this boss has moves you’ve never seen before, and after three hits it’s game over. Sometimes, this is it how it feels starting a new writing project, except the game’s not over unless you give up.

There are several ways to write a book, and every writer has their own process. But what happens when your tried and true method fails? What worked for one book might not work for the next. To date, I’ve completed four manuscripts, all of which were written chronologically and all of which I employed the “edit as you go” approach. The method was golden. Or so I thought. Enter current project, which after four false starts still didn’t feel right. Things weren’t clicking. This story refused to let me write it in the way I thought was MY process. Somehow my book decided it wanted to be written out of order and without much fixing before moving on to the next scene or chapter. When I lamented my trouble, several writer friends expressed similar frustrations. Just as no two writers create in the same way, every book is a different game.

If, like me, you find yourself reinventing your process, how do you know if you’re doing it right? After fighting this story for months with very little progress, I realized I needed to stop resisting and listen to my characters. I needed to go where the story took me. Like real people, characters aren’t cookie-cutter creations, so why should I expect the telling of their stories to be a uniform process? This isn’t to say that your method SHOULD change from book to book; some of us are creatures of habit, and if the shoe fits, wear it. But for those of us who thrive on variation, we might find the need to adapt our process with each new idea.

The bottom line is writing is hard no matter how you go about it. The key is to keep putting words on the page and keep improving your craft. And remember, the game isn’t over until you give up, so press start to continue and play again.

 

Kara SealKara Seal holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Colorado State University. By day, she's a Programming Assistant at a public library district. By night, she's a writer of young adult and middle grade fiction, and an active member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Pikes Peak Writers. Kara was a finalist in the 2013 Colorado Gold writing contest. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two high energy dogs.