Taking a Break

This summer, I planned to at least get half of my book with an Oct. 15th deadline written. At least 22,500 words. During the school year, that’s two weeks if I’m really on a roll. But summer is different. My twelve year old is home which means my husband is around more too. They want to go play and I want to go with them. My son and I love whiling away entire days in our above ground pool. But I didn’t want to wait until the middle of August and have an entire book to write by the middle of Oct.

So, I set up a schedule. Write Monday through Friday from 10:00 pm to 2:00 am and sleep until 10:00 am. The first week was VBS and I’m the craft lady. I was too exhausted to stay up late. After VBS, my schedule worked for a few weeks. My son even had three basketball camps scheduled which meant I got to write during the day. But on day three of the second camp, we got a phone call. He’d hurt his arm and the mom who called thought it was broken. We rushed to a town 30 minutes away knowing he was in pain and waiting for us.

Once we got there, we spent another 45 minutes on the road taking him to his doctor where we learned his wrist was indeed broken. In our rural town, the specialists come to town two days a week. We got an appointment the next day and after a sleepless night for all of us, we took him to have it set.

It could have been worse, but the broken bone rattled me. His summer came to screeching halt. He was home more, had friends over less, couldn’t play basketball, and couldn’t even swim in the pool. His bummer summer became our bummer summer. Life became about trying to occupy a twelve year old boy with a broken arm. My night owl schedule wasn’t working because no one went to bed before midnight and my office is in a corner of the living room.

But I kept plugging along anyway. Churning out words. Boring words with boring characters in a boring story. I didn’t like it, didn’t like them, didn’t like anything about it.

The third basketball camp came along and we talked to the coach about our son doing drills and shooting practice. The coach agreed and even recruited an older boy who’d broken his arm earlier in the year to work one on one with our son. A whole week of him getting to go to basketball camp and having fun. A whole week to try to save this book.

And then I got the revisions for my January release from my editor. Guess what I did during basketball camp?

I finished my edits and we went on vacation. Exactly a week after our return, company was scheduled to arrive. So of course, I spent that time furiously cleaning my house. The book was at a stand still. I hated the book and readers would hate it too. I decided not to worry about it. I had 15,000 words at this point. Bad words with boring characters, but still 15,000 words. I made plans to hit it hard once school started and turn this book around.

My unintentional three week break culminated with a nice visit with my cousins. Mid way through their stay, I was putting my makeup on for the day and it hit me. If this character was that character’s sibling–oh my– the complications that would arise. This character that I’ve been doing backflips to explain his presence in town would have a reason to come to town. His sibling connection would cause all kinds of conflict between the hero and heroine. No, my hero and heroine do not learn they are siblings. But characters’ close to them do forcing the hero and heroine to take sides and it swirls into an awesome conflict.

I’ve always plotted at my best during mindless, repetitive tasks. Driving the road I know so well, I could drive it with my eyes closed. Mowing the yard. Going for a walk. Taking a shower. Putting on makeup. When doing something I don’t have to think about, my best ideas come. And at one point, long ago and before I was published, I realized that a break can often get my creativity stirring. But since I’ve had deadlines, I haven’t felt I have time to take a break except between my first draft and editing phase.

My cousins left and our son got his cast off last week. We spent his final week before school started having fun. We swam, he had a friend over, he played basketball, and we did final shopping for school. My break morphed into a full month.

Yesterday, he went back to school. I started my story over, wrote 1700 words, and wove the new sibling connection into what I’d already written. I love this story. I love these characters. And I hope readers do too.

Lesson learned–when you hate the book–try taking a break. Even if you don’t think you have time for one.

4 Essentials for Surviving the Writing Life

I’ve been a (mostly) full-time writer for about 20 years now. Sure, there are periods where I have to take a job for a while to supplement my income, but even during those times, I’m a writer first and any other job just fills in the gaps. Over that time, I haven’t developed a survival kit so much as I have come up with some survival essentials to ensure that my writing career will last my lifetime.

Be willing to work harder than every other writer out there. Let’s face it. I’m not the best writer on the planet. I’ve met many others who, hands down, can write better prose than I can. However, I learned early on that the ability to write well can be learned and sometimes what makes the difference is your ability to write more than anyone else. I’ve had stints during my career where 3 hours of sleep was a norm because my work load was so high. During those times, I learned to write faster and cleaner. During slower times, I learned to write better. (And if you’re a writer, you know what I mean!)

Be flexible, always. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, there’s always room for flexibility. In fiction writing, your characters are going to take you places you never thought you would go. In non-fiction, your editors will take you there. If you’re willing to be led. If not, you could miss out on some great opportunities. I’m currently struggling (still) with Biloxi Blue, the second in my Biloxi Series, because for the longest time, I just couldn’t be flexible with my characters. They won, of course, and now I find myself going down a road that makes me supremely nervous. But it’s their story, so I have to flexible and allow them to lead me where THEY need to go.

Be willing to say no. Some of the worst mistakes I’ve made as a writer have stemmed from my inability to say no.  The problem with always saying yes is that sometimes, those mistakes end up in print and they will haunt you for years to come. For example, I wrote a book a number of years ago on a topic with which I wasn’t very familiar. But the editors asked me to write it, and who was I to turn down a request from an editor? Uh…the author!  YOU know what you’re capable of and what you’re not. Set your boundaries and respect them, because I promise, always saying yes isn’t necessarily what is best for your career.

Know when to take a break. This is the toughest one.  Everyone assumes that if you can go a day (or a week, or a month) without writing, then you must not be a writer.  I believe that is wrong thinking. See, the thing about writers is that we tend to work ALL the time. There’s a popular image going around right now that has a caption that reads “A writer’s life is spent writing or thinking about writing.” It’s true. We never take a break. If our fingers aren’t actively moving on some article, poem, or story, then our brains are working out plot points and scene breaks, organization, and character motives. But it is possible to burn out, even for writers. I know. I’ve had it happen to me. And if you don’t take a break before you get to that point, the damage to your self-esteem and your career, can be hard to overcome.

These days, I know what to look for. If I get too tired. If I dread going to the office or sitting down at the computer. If the thought of having to write one more word makes me want to huddle in a ball in the corner. Then it’s time to take a break! And I do.  Sometimes, it’s a short break – a few minutes. Other times, it’s a break that lasts a month or more. That doesn’t make me NOT a writer. It makes me a smart writer who understands that for the best possible stories to come from that creative place in my being, it’s essential for my being to take a break.

So, that’s my list. What’s yours? What are the things that you ABSOLUTELY have to do in order to survive the writing life? I’d love to hear your suggestions, because I’m always looking for new ways to ensure a long and happy writing career.