The Suddenly Syndrome

I remember discussing a phenomenon with other writers a decade or so back that we called the “Suddenly Syndrome.”  Your house could have been a wreck for ages, and your errands could have been postponed for weeks, and maybe there had been nothing even remotely interesting on television in the past millennia.  And then you get a deadline.

Suddenly, you must clean your house or it’s going to drive you insane.  And suddenly, the errands can wait no longer, because if they aren’t done this minute the whole world is going to end.  And the television?  Why it’s suddenly displaying the most amazing and wonderful of programs…of course you have to watch them, because that’s vital creative input, right?

Suddenly, everything in the world is pressing for your attention and the deadline that’s looming gets more and more daunting with each passing hour.

What Deadline GreenThat’s me to a tee, still today.  I suffer from Suddenly Syndrome so badly that my favorite coffee cup says “What Deadline?”  And if I don’t guard my time very closely, I can land right on top of a deadline without a single word written.

When I wrote articles, that wasn’t so much of a problem.  I can knock out 400-2000 words in a few short hours.  But when I started selling books and suddenly a deadline consists of 30-50 pages, that’s a bit more challenging to accomplish in 24 hours or less.

Let me explain that my book deadlines are the non-fiction kind.  And non-fiction works a little differently than fiction.  With non-fiction books (at least in the technology sector), you’re given incremental deadlines.  My most recent project requires that I write 1-3 chapters a week, for a total of a little more than 36 pages.  It doesn’t sound terribly daunting, unless of course, you have to write it.  Then it’s a whole different story.

To deal with the pressure of getting something written I have to monitor myself pretty closely.  It’s nothing for me to spend a few hours a day online researching something.  But at some point I have to make myself pull away from the research and get to work.

I’m also prone to fits and starts.  I start working on a project but if I can’t sink right into it, I’m up putting in a load of laundry, washing a few dishes, taking the dog out…whatever little something I can do to take me away from the words that won’t flow.  Then I’m back in front of the computer, wrestling with the muse.

Self-discipline is hard for me!  I wish I could give you some magic formula that would show you how to discipline yourself to sit in front of the computer and put in whatever number of words or pages you have scheduled for that day.  I can’t.  What works for me is simply the repeated liberal application of my backside to the seat and my fingers to the keyboard.  Eventually, the writing brain kicks in and I focus and the words start to flow easily.

It might not work for you.  You may require a brisk walk, or a music regimen.  Or maybe it’s just sitting down in the right place, whether that’s your office, your favorite writing chair, or a coffee house.  Whatever it is, I can be sure of this much…it’s unique to you.  Just like my forcing the muse to come out to play is unique to me.  Given enough time (and a quickly approaching deadline), and I can force the old girl to cooperate.  In fact, that’s usually the only way she’ll join the party.

The Catalyst for Growth

One of the wonders of a child is the way in which they grow.  One day your kid might be three feet tall and seemingly a week later she might be three and a half feet tall.  Her shoe size could be a four today and a seven tomorrow.  And in between all of these growth spurts, she hits periods of intense hunger, where it seems like she eats all the time.

It’s all a natural part of a child growing into an adult.

Writing works kind of like that.  One day you’re writing dark, angsty teenage poetry, the next you’re composing your first articles, stories, or plays and eventually you’re writing for publication in any of a variety of forms.  In between these growth periods, there are periods of intense writing and study.  I always think of these times as “carb loading” for the coming growth spurt.

The very first time I realized I was cycling through these loading/growing periods, I almost felt like the newborn that just figured out that I could use those wiggly things at the end of my hands to actually pick stuff up.

I fell into non-fiction writing as a means of income by necessity.  I continue to grow as a non-fiction writer when demand requires that I develop a new skill set.  When I had that first realization of growth, I had struggled for a long time to achieve the style and tone of writing that you read in most technology articles.  That usually meant writing, and  rewriting, and writing again.  It was a frustrating process.

Then one day it just clicked.  I got it.  I could write an article, maybe read through it and make minor changes, then I was done.  Amazing.  Suddenly, it all made sense.  I couldn’t necessarily explain what it was that clicked, but something did, and I knew that I had grown as a writer.  It was the same when I made the move from writing articles to writing books.

I’ve experienced many of those moments in the 15+ years that I’ve worked to make a living as a writer, but for the first time now, I’m in middle of a growth period of which I’m actually aware.  I think it’s because this is such an encompassing growth period.

Everything seems to be changing right now.  My focus has shifted, but I had some learning to do to realize exactly what shift needed to take place.  Originally, I thought I was changing from writing nonfiction to writing Christian fiction.  But it turns out that one part of this growth is a lesson in why I should be writing.  Originally, I thought it was for the paycheck.  Then as I started making this shift, I thought it was because I wanted to write something specific (Christian fiction). But I’ve slowly come to realize that I’m really supposed to use the talent God gifted me with  to further His kingdom.

I’m also having to learn to change my voice.  After writing technology content for so long, I’d forgotten what *I* sound like.  That lesson?  That my words sound just the same as my voice does.  Occasionally, the cadence of the words change, but the tone remains the same nearly all the time.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that I’m always learning.  Even when my skills remain essentially the same.  I can string a sentence together as well now as I’ve always been able to.  The difference is the motivation with which I’m building sentences.  And by the very nature of being both writer and human inhabiting the same body, my motivation occassionally changes, and so my writing grows.  Without change and growth, I’d still be trying to figure out how to put together coherent sentences.

I Will Write That!

Writing is a tricky occupation. It’s full of ups and downs. There are times of feast and times of famine. But the most hazardous part of writing is in the belief that you can or cannot write something. Your mindset is your worst enemy as a writer.

I’ve been a writer, (mostly) making a living for somewhere in the neighborhood of about 18 years now. I still remember those early days. I lucked into the ability to stay home with my children through circumstances that I had little control over. Even so, I understood that might be my one chance to prove I could be a writer.

TypewritersThe problem in the beginning was that I didn’t know exactly what to write about. I spent a lot of time writing fiction that got beautiful rejection letters, but no publication. Then the need for an income really set in and I had to change my mindset. I was no longer writing because I wanted to, I was writing because if I wanted to, I had to make some money at it.

The first piece of non-fiction that I had published was based on work experience that I had. The article was about caring for the caregiver, something I was intimately familiar with because I worked in a long-term care facility for Alzheimer’s patients. Then I moved on to women’s and family articles. I was adhering to the adage, “write what you know.”

The problem with writing what you know when you’re in your 20s is that you just don’t know a whole lot. (And what you do know doesn’t pay a whole lot.) A lucky break changed my mindset again. A technology-writer-friend needed help with some articles, and a career was born. Once I figured out that I could write about technology, I took off. Thousands of articles later, I’m still writing about technology.

I was happy writing articles for a while, but eventually I wanted more. I wanted to write books. But how was I to write books? I mean, come on. I was a self-taught technology writer. I knew programs, not programming languages, which is what I thought publishers were looking for. I slogged forward a few more years. Then one day I picked up a book that changed my mindset again: “Damn, Why Didn’t I Write That?” by Marc McCutcheon.Book Cover

In the book, the author had a good point. If other people could write books, why couldn’t I? I’d written thousands of articles. I could write a book. I’d just gotten comfortable writing articles that I didn’t have to query for or even think much about. Writing a book would require a commitment. I could do that.

I did do that. I stepped out and started looking for an agent, which I found, through a friend. The agent worked with me to get a few fairly impressive proposals put together, and literally within six months I had my first book deal. I was terrified through the whole process, but I did it.  Then, other books followed and in the last 5 years I’ve written 18 books.

Getting into a particular mindset or thought pattern as a writer can be just as dangerous as the ebb and flow of the market. You can psych yourself into or out of writing just about anything. This time of year, I always try to remember that and to examine my current mindset. What am I thinking that could prevent me from moving forward? If it is all about what you tell yourself, then I need to tell myself that I can do whatever I have in mind.

Do you need to re-examine your mindset? I’m not published in fiction yet, but I’d bet that the same theory applies and I don’t plan to let my mindset be what keeps me from reaching that goal.

A Bit of a Different Bird…

In such a group of diverse and talented women, I feel a slight bit out of place.  That’s nothing new, and doesn’t deter me one bit, but you should probably know what you’re in for.  I’m not like everyone else…well, maybe I am in some ways.

I’m an author.  A writer.  A mom. A hard-headed, strong-willed child of Jesus.  I’ve always known that I would be most of these things.  I started writing (plays of all things) when I was a child.  As the child of a career Navy man, I spent a lot of time traveling, which meant a lot of time sitting still, coming up with ways to occupy my mind.

The first thing that I remember writing was plays for the kids in my neighborhood while we were stationed on the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  A limited open space with limited amounts of activities leaves kids finding creative ways to fill their time.  I don’t remember now what the plays were even about, but I wrote them and the kids from the neighborhood put them on.   It was fun.

My career didn’t really take hold for many years after that. I wanted to be a writer, but I was cautioned over and over again that it wasn’t possible to make a living as a writer, and as a strong young woman I needed to have a career.  Remember how I said I’m hard-headed?  That’s really an understatement.  The only thing I wanted more than to be a writer was to be a wife and Mom.

This is where my life takes on a path of my own. I started my family young. For a while, I devoted my life to my family, spending time writing only for myself and for a long time.  Eventually, I came back to that other dream.  Thankfully my (then) husband could support our family, so I was able to stay home with my two kids after a while.  I found myself with a bit of time on my hands and started “playing” with writing again.

It wasn’t until I caught a lucky break from a good friend that needed some help that I really began to realize my dream.  Well, sorta.  My friend needed a technology writer and the work I did with her started me on a path that lead me deep into techno-reality.  My first published piece (incidentally NOT technology) was published in 1994.  That break into technology came in 1998.

Since then, I’ve written well over a thousand articles, mostly technology.  Taught hundreds of technology courses online.  And written 19 books; all technology.  But my heart longs for something more.  I’ve always seen myself writing fiction.  And since I found my way back to Jesus a few years ago (that’s another VERY long story) the desire to write Christian fiction (and non-fiction, too) has been the leading force behind my career.  I’m still not published in these areas, but I trust when God is ready I will be, too.

Life recently has taken a strange turn. I’m divorced.  My daughter lives with me; my son lives with his Dad.  And the economy really stinks.  And when the economy stinks, technology usually takes the hit the hardest. So, the writing I’ve been doing to support myself and my daughter for several years is suddenly not enough. I had to take a full-time job.

It was tough.  When I dreamed of having a family, I never dreamed I’d be a single Mom leaving her teenage daughter alone until she got home from work.  I thought I would always be a stay-at-home Mom.  It felt a lot like failure.

Then things started to happen.  Suddenly, I’m writing for Christian venues.  I’m a regular contributor to Bay Area Christian Family magazine. Other opportunities have come up.  I’ve even got a book proposal for Christian singles making the rounds.  God is closing one door, but there are windows opening in every direction.

So, I am a bit of a different bird.  I’ve come to my Christian writing career from a completely different direction than my friends here.  But I’m as excited as they are to learn, to grow, and to let God use my talents for His purpose.  And I’m truly looking forward to the adventure that He has set before me.