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Making time to read

stack of books in front of flowersDespite all the detours I took getting here, I’ve wanted to be a writer since at least 7th grade. Maybe it’s because I was such a huge reader. Like bring-home-14-books-a-week-from-the-library-during-the-summer huge. Like never-not-reading-something huge. Like up-too-late-reading-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight-on-a-school-night huge.

(Who’s with me?)

I was constantly immersed in stories, to the point that my friends made fun of my vocabulary. (Because, apparently, no one uses words like risqué in middle school.)

Even while working full time for someone else, I probably read at least a book or two a week. I read on my lunch break, at the gym, while waiting for my boys at sports practice, on weekends, and after the kids went to bed.

Somehow, I managed to have a life and still read.

And then I started writing, and the more I got into it, the less I read. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was using that time to write. And because I felt like if I had the time, I should write. Or do something else “productive.”

But if I’m always writing and never reading, how do I know what’s going on in the world of books? And how am I refilling my creative well if I’m never immersed anyone else’s words and ideas and style?

Okay, well not never. But there were whole weeks that went by where I didn’t crack open—or power up—a single book that wasn’t for story research or writing education.

For someone who got into writing because she loved stories, that seemed ridiculous. I had two main problems.

  1. I had no office hours. This is the ongoing dilemma for those who work from home. We’re never not at work, and if we have downtime, we feel like we should be filling it with work. One of the few things I miss about working for someone else is that when I came home in the evening, I could relax and enjoy that time guilt-free.
  2. I didn’t make reading a priority. I was making a lot of things happen, but sitting down to read when I could be cleaning, or writing, or answering email, or sorting my socks felt like playing hooky from all the things I should be doing.

I haven’t completely solved number one, but I am getting better at giving myself permission to ignore my office after dinner.

Number two has been easier. I simply added reading to my daily to-do list, and created a goal on Goodreads. Once something is on my list, it’s no longer a guilty pleasure, it’s a must-do.

“Fun read” has its own checkbox right alongside things like working out, writing, and all of my business to-dos. I hate unchecked boxes, so now I find ways to fit it in. I’m back to reading on my lunch break—this newer thing I’m trying where I don’t eat in front of my computer…

I read in the evenings when my husband returns to studying after we eat dinner and watch a show together, and while flossing/brushing my teeth.

Sometimes, on the weekend, I’ll sit in the living room or on the back patio, and get lost in a book for hours. Crazy, right?

Last year I read a little over 60 books—both fiction and nonfiction—against a goal of 52. This year, I’ve already finished more than 20 toward my goal of 75.

I’m pretty sure I’ll smash 75, and enjoy every minute of it.

Are you a big reader? Is there something in your life you’d like to fit in? What’s holding you back?

Getting back to writing (and giving myself a pass)

WRITE spelled out in block lettersI love writing. L-O-V-E it. The need to build a world, delve into a character’s feelings, create a mood, or explain a concept in a down-to-earth way (often with a bit of humor, and lots of em dashes and parentheses) has lived in me since at least seventh grade.

But that doesn’t mean I always sit down and do it, even when I theoretically have the time. A deployment, a new training platform, a high school graduation, my husband’s retirement from the Air Force, and a Boston-to-Sacramento move took far more of my mental energy over the last year than I expected. I got a little off track, a little out of routine, and my word count plummeted.

But now I’m out of hotels, into my home office, back on an irregular regular writing schedule, and most importantly, mentally back on track.

I’ve written on 17 of the last 18 days and produced more than 11,000 good words on my current WIP. *insert happy dance*

It feels fantastic. There is nothing like finally seeing forward progress in the story—my hero and heroine finally left the damn airport!—after months of going nowhere.

It’s more than being productive in a way that matters to me, but being immersed in my story daily, even if just for fifteen minutes. That daily attention keeps the ideas rolling in, and makes it easier to take advantage of the small gaps in my day where I can fit in a few words, because I haven’t forgotten where my characters are. Or who they are. Writing frequently brings back the joy I had when I first started.

That joy is worth more than gold. (Well, except you can’t buy books with it. Sigh.)

This is a lesson I seem to have to learn over and over, unfortunately.

But another lesson I’ve learned recently (also, again) is that sometimes I need to turn off the pressure valve and simply enjoy the distractions in my life. The last year has been crazy busy, but full of other moments that brought joy, some of them the last with my youngest son before he goes to college. Before we become empty nesters.

Before I theoretically have a lot more time to write. Again.

What gets in the way of your writing? How do you turn things around?

Writing together makes us better

better together text

Anyone else a little busy right now? The only way I’ve been getting any writing done lately is to meet my friend Bria Quinlan at the library three days a week to write for several hours. Since we started, I’ve averaged more words per week than I have all year (even during NaNoWriMo).

The concept is simple, but the result has been epic. Writing at home always sounds great, and I can do it, but the minute I get stuck in a scene, it’s far too easy to get distracted by food, laundry, a dirty counter, my dog, my bed, business stuff, errands, email… At the library, I know I’m there for one reason only: to write. No excuses. And there are very few distractions (aside from the books on every wall).

We had to lay some ground rules—based heavily on the “Writers Camp” formed by Roxanne St. Claire, Kristen Painter, Leigh Duncan, and Elle Saint James—to make sure we don’t just chat the whole time. For example, we get 15 minutes at the start of the day to catch up with each other. We set a goal for the morning (e.g. word count, pages revised), and no one gets lunch until we both reach our goals. How’s that for motivation?

We take 45 minutes for lunch during which we can eat, talk, check social media or email, and then get back to work. Appointments are scheduled for other days of the week. This is Work Time. Writing is our job, and this is our version of an office with a boss.

In the afternoon, we each try to meet our goal for the day before we wrap it up. Even if I miss my overall mark, I’ve been so much more productive that I have no complaints.

Not only am I getting in more words, but Storytime (as Bria dubbed it) is freeing me up to spend more time on the business tasks I’ve been putting off, without feeling guilty for not writing (as much) on those days.

I realize not everyone can do this during the day. I’m lucky to work from home full time. But the concept can be modified. Maybe it’s two hours at a coffee shop on Saturday and Sunday morning. Or a couple hours at the library several evenings a week. Or take your laptop to work and find a spot to write during your lunch hour (the conference room?).

Honestly, though, this works best with a partner. Why? Accountability is a big part of it. (Having someone to watch your computer on a bathroom break is an added bonus.) If I’m not meeting Bria, it’s easy to skip writing to tackle all of the other things on my to-do list. If I haven’t reached my goal by noon, I can’t just give in, I have to keep writing until I make my morning word count. It often comes easier than I expect when I force myself through the block.

The key—at least for me—is to get away from the distractions and to set up an unassailable period of time where my brain knows that writing is the only option. Some people can do this at home. (I envy you!) After almost a year of fighting with myself, I’ve learned that I need an alternative.

Do you struggle with distractions when you want to be writing (or working on something else important to you)? Have you found a way to deal with it? Please share!

Turn your phone into a distraction-free zone

Business man and business women walk among large screens displaying information. These screens forming a labyrinth.

Have you ever turned on your phone to check the weather, become distracted by another app—say, email—and an hour later when you turn it off, you realize you still don’t know the forecast?

But hey, you read your email, caught up on Facebook and Twitter, and read a bunch of articles about interesting stuff you don’t really need to know right now.

I do this all the time. (I’m guilty on my computer too, but there I’m less likely to open a program because there’s time involved in the process. To avoid temptation, I close the sneaky culprits when I’m done.) Phone apps open almost instantly, so there’s no psychological barrier. And the little red badge showing how many unread messages I have is like a tractor beam, sucking me in.

Woman mobile phone addicted

A few weeks ago I talked about the time wasted on multi-tasking. Distractions are another time sink/brain drain. Here’s my plan for minimizing my phone’s ability to take me down a rabbit hole.

Turn Off Counters/Badges

Except for my Reminders app—where I actually want to be “distracted” by the fact that I have something to do—I turned off all of the little number badges that pop up on an app icon to show me I have new email/Twitter mentions/Facebook tags.

If I’ve decided it’s time to check my email, I’m doing it deliberately, not because the unread messages tally has lured me in. (This works on the computer too.)

Excited man looking at computer screen

Move Distracting Apps Out of Sight

All of those apps that attract me like a dog to peanut butter? I moved them to another “screen.” (I’m using an iPhone, which supports multiple screen views. If yours doesn’t, maybe you could do something similar by creating a single folder to hold all distracting apps, thus minimizing their visual impact.)

Now, when I turn on my phone, I’m only faced with the apps that aren’t a problem for me. I have easy access to log my food/exercise, read a book, find a recipe, check the weather, walk me through meditation (yes, I really started doing it!), etc…

The only exception, again, is the Reminders app (and text messages, but I don’t get very many, so I don’t worry about it). I only create reminders for to-do items with a deadline. So, that’s one distraction I want.

My distraction-free screen

My distraction-free screen

Use the Search Feature

I’m trying to avoid the “hidden” Screen of Distractions, so I don’t want to swipe over to it. Ever. Instead, I’m training myself to use the search feature (iPhone users can swipe down the center of the screen to access Spotlight Search on the latest iOS) to pull up the app I want without ever switching views.

Distractions averted.

Develop New Habits

I recently read an article in the New York Times that discussed how habits are formed (and either scary or really cool ways retailers are using that data). The gist is that each habit is triggered by a cue, which kicks off the activity, for which you are rewarded.

For example, the email counter catches your eye and you realize you have new emails (cue). This triggers you to check your email and deal with it accordingly (activity). The empty inbox or zero unread messages count—or that little bit of social connection—provides you with a tiny thrill or sense of satisfaction (reward).

To form a new habit, you need to remove old cues. So, if you normally wake up and check your phone before you even turn back the sheets, try putting the phone somewhere out of reach.

man sleeping in bed with cell phone

Now when the alarm goes off, you have to get out of bed to check your email. If you encounter your work out clothes and sneakers before you reach your phone, who knows what wonders might happen? 😉

For more ideas to help you stay focused, check out Productivity Tools For Writers.

Busy brain: The problem with multi-tasking

man multi-tasking

Does your brain ever feel too busy? Mine does. And I’m guilty of never giving it a rest.

In my quest to be productive, I always seem to be fitting something in, and I think I’m suffering for it. Even reading is now an activity I squeeze in while on the cross-trainer. Rarely do I enjoy a relaxing hour perusing a book in my favorite chair.

Got five minutes while I wait for water to boil or a web page to load? I can make a quick phone call. Ten minutes waiting for my son’s next track event? Time to check my email/Twitter/Facebook/Pocket!

Through the wonders of my smart phone, I can access all of my social media and the entire wealth of the web anyplace/anytime. But that doesn’t mean I should.

And when I do, I don’t necessarily feel more productive, just more busy, more frazzled, more overloaded.

Part of my “problem” stems from being self-employed. When I worked full-time for someone else, work was at work, and when I left I was done. I could relax at home without guilt because my workday was over.

Now? Not so much. Home is my workplace, and my day is interspersed with activities from both worlds. I savor that freedom and flexibility, but sometimes it’s hard to set boundaries.

I used to enjoy downtime, sitting and thinking or noticing the world around me. It’s good to not be entertained or “productive” every spare minute of the day. I know this.

One of the reasons I like running so much is because I can’t do anything else while I’m out there except notice the world around me, and breathe.

Multi-tasking is a fraud. Apparently, we actually lose up to 40% of our productivity when we force our minds to keep switching gears.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to get some of that 40% back!

My goals for the rest of the year are to cut back on multi-tasking and allow for those moments of downtime in my day. I’ll try to focus on one thing at a time so my brain doesn’t have to keep switching gears—Scrivener’s full screen/composition mode is great for this—and maybe even block out some time to sit, relax, and ponder. Heck, I might even meditate.

Can’t hurt.

Brain on fire

Pic of woman with ideas around her headMy brain is on fire.

In a good way.

I’m not officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but I’m still writing as much as possible. One of the benefits of working on my book every day is something I’ve noticed during NaNo in years past: The more I write, the more ideas come to me at all times of the day. Last night I even had a dream that rehashed the scene I was working on, something that rarely happens to me.

I love this state.

The joy, this constant flow of ideas, is how I felt when I first started writing nearly six(!) years ago. I thought about my characters while walking the dog, jogging, driving, shopping, eating, sleeping, cooking… At any time, I might get hit with the solution to a troubling scene, an idea for how to make the stakes higher or deepen the emotional impact, or a great twist.

Sadly, this phenomenon also works in reverse. Worse, I’ve tested the theory several times. 😉 The less I write, the less motivation I have to write, the more time passes between great ideas and thoughts of my story, and so I write even less. I sit down and stare at the page with no idea where to go next.

That loss of excitement and flow is the reason I signed up for NaNo the second time (and 3rd, 4th, 5th). To remind myself that consistency was the key to getting my writerly brain back, banishing the infernal internal editor who blocks me, and rediscovering the joy of telling stories.

It also reminds me that I can write way more words than I think I can.

When it comes down to it—like with anything—the key (for me, anyway) is to keep working at it. When it’s a slog, I brainstorm, free write, or reread parts of the story that I’ve forgotten. I do research or write backstory scenes to get to know my characters better. Anything to keep my head in the game.

Anything to keep my brain on fire.

Finishing the book

The_End_BookIn the last two calendar years I wrote 245,000 words of fiction without completing a single novel.

In fact, until Monday, I hadn’t written “The End”—actually I don’t write that anyway—on a fiction manuscript since I finished the first draft of Blind Fury in December 2011.

Which makes Monday’s finish of the first draft of Blind Justice kind of a big deal!

I was starting to wonder if I still had what it takes to write a book to its full conclusion. I’d done it before, plenty of times—in fact, Blind Fury was my fourth completed manuscript—but just not lately.

It wasn’t writer’s block, more like a lack of clear focus.

Scrivener For Dummies provided a distraction for a good part of 2011, but even after that I was all over the place. I started a follow-up to BF, but then worried that maybe I should write something that wasn’t linked, just in case BF didn’t sell.

Then I got to a certain point and felt like I wasn’t at a place in my writing where I could do that story justice, so I started something completely different.

I was halfway through that second something when I decided I was going to forge my own path and dive into self-publishing.

Instant focus.

The series is king, which meant it was time to return to the Blind Fury follow-up and drop the manuscript I’d put over 30K into. It’s amazing how knowing what you want, and what you need to do to get there, makes all the difference.

So, now I finally have that fifth manuscript under my belt, and a sixth one halfway done.

My advice? If you’ve never finished a book, pick a story, stick with it, and finish it. Don’t be distracted by the plot bunnies. Capture them somewhere—Evernote maybe?—and get back to work.

You don’t have to love the first draft—that’s what revisions and editors are for—you just have to get to the end. It’s a lot easier to write half a story than a whole one. Until you complete one, you’ll never know if you can.

And once you do, you’ll have the confidence that you can do it again.

Oh, and I’d recommend not waiting two years to make it happen. 😉

Image credit: By EWikist at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons