Monthly Archives

October 2017

Writing & Pregnancy

Tip #1: Get as much done during your pregnancy as you can (which may be less than you think).

Tip #2: don’t get a 9-week-old Golden Retriever puppy two days before you find out you’re pregnant.

When I saw that second line show up on the pregnancy test, I started to laugh. “Well, this should be interesting,” I called to my husband, who was chasing Vonnegut, our brand-new minion of chaos, across the living room. Vonnie had been home for a day and a half. So had I, fresh off the plane from a week-long writing retreat on the other side of the country. The retreat had been a last hurrah, as we both suspected that any month now we’d be getting ready for the ultimate vacation disruptor. I’d written forty thousand words in five days, over half of what would become I AM STILL ALIVE. I didn’t even know I was pregnant and I was already frantic to get as much writing done as I could before the kid arrived.

This was my strategy, in all its complex tactical glory: write as much as I humanly could while I was pregnant, so I could slack off for a bit after the birth (you know, like a few days, max).

It was a great strategy. You should totally try it. Just know that I completely failed at it, and everything turned out fine.

Over the next nine months, I had two books published and wrote another book and a half. Meanwhile, Vonnie’s bladder capacity slowly got better while mine slowly got worse. My borderline panic continued to mount. So did my excitement. By the time I was in my third trimester, I struggled to get anything done unless it was baby-related. Painting the entire apartment (badly)? Sure, no problem. Stringing a sentence together? Impossible. It was too hard to focus on imaginary worlds and invented lives when thinking about my future was so all-consuming.

As the “subtle” comments about age gaps between siblings start flying at family gatherings, pregnancy and writing are on my mind. I’m determined to learn from my mistakes and my successes and be a hell of a lot nicer to myself this time around, so stick around next week and I’ll start diving into what worked, what didn’t, and provide an ongoing catalogue of the things that puppy destroyed.

Momma, What You Even Do?

When my older son was around 2 or 3, he realized those hours of the day where we weren’t playing with him weren’t due to our not understanding that he wanted to play, but because we had jobs. 

“What you even do?” he demanded. Daddy, it was decided “fixed computers.” And Momma wrote books. Which books? These books–these novels we have piles of copies of with the horned lady on the cover, Farideh. My series, the Brimstone Angels Saga, was onto its third title by then, and would finish out last year with number six.

Tiny Mr. I, enthralled by books, was delighted to hear all of this. “Let’s weed Fweeda!”

Ooh. Let’s not. Grown-up books. You can read them when you’re older (Except maybe don’t read them when you’re older. That feels weird….We’ll cross that bridge later.)

That did not satisfy him. Of course it did not satisfy him. Did I mention he was 2 or 3? He pestered and pestered and pestered me. I mean, by this point he was entranced by Farideh. He’d find her at the book store. He’d attempt to potty train my copy of The Adversary along with his stuffed octopus. He’d insist on adding her to songs listing people we knew–the Farideh on the bus goes zap, zap, zap! And always, always “Momma, what is this? What you even do?”

It’s an innocent enough question, really, and while I was never going to read my pretty violent, sometimes sexy, entirely complex and inappropriate for a toddler fantasy series to my son…I was willing to give him a Cliff Notes versions. The not-scary, not-sexy, avoid-all-the-nightmare-fuel-because-I-want-you-to-sleep-omg versions.

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Techniques for Producing Words Despite Your Precious, Beautiful Screeching Howler Monkey, Part III

Read Part I and Part II of this series!

Part III, or: I Could Keep Doing This Forever But Three Is a Good Number. Our final two tips/techniques are…

Word Sprints and Accountability Buddies

The problem: You feel isolated while writing. Or you don’t feel much motivation with only yourself to disappoint. You have a deadline and no energy. Writing lacks thrill.

For some folks, there’s nothing like external pressure and accountability to get things done. I often find that one of the best ways to get things done is to kick in my competitive drive, which my family can tell you is… intense. (I was banned from playing Magic: The Gathering with my brother as a child, and I’m still not really allowed to play competitive board games. It’s. Um. A problem.) And similarly, I’m far more likely to get something done to avoid disappointing someone else than if it’s a purely personal goal. I love deadlines with a passion, but they aren’t always forthcoming.

So this is actually two techniques rolled into one. First, group (or paired) word sprints: Find a buddy, set a timer, and WRITE. It’s like a joint Pomodoro. You can make these as long as you want, but I always find that they don’t work if I go longer than 30 minutes at a stretch; I no longer treat it like a sprint, and devolve back into bad habits. At the end of the time, compare progress. If you’re the competitive sort (and cheerful about it) you can crown a “winner” for the sprint; otherwise, you can just cheer each other on. At the very least, this forces you to admit to another human being when you cheated and checked Facebook for fifteen minutes.

Longer term, having a writing group or critique partner waiting on your words creates external accountability and gives you deadlines that exist as more than personal goals (but are nonetheless more flexible than your editor’s). Even just talking about something publicly can ensure that you work on it, just to avoid the awkward conversations about “What ever happened to…”

Spreadsheets

Problem: You need an excuse to make a spreadsheet. You feel insufficiently motivated without a visual indicator of progress. You don’t have enough spreadsheets in your life. 

If you don’t find spreadsheets inherently intoxicating, this may not be as effective for you. But really, is there any problem a spreadsheet can’t improve? Especially a color-coded, conditionally-formatted spreadsheet?

I love spreadsheets to track my writing. Admittedly, I’m not great with daily wordcounts in spreadsheets; I usually have only a couple weeks of tending to a spreadsheet in me, tops. So I stick with them for short term goals, but if you have the diligence to check in every day with your spreadsheet, they can be a great tool.

They can give you a visual indicator of progress, and a quick visual motivator. Format your cells so that they turn prettier colors the closer you get to your goal. You want that cell to be green, don’t you? The green of the sea. The green of a verdant forest. The green of a sparkling emerald. Not that muddy yellowish color it is now! Keep going!

It’s also great for spotting patterns. You can see when you wrote more or less, and try to figure out what was different, and if you can make changes to hit more of those green days and fewer of those red and yellow days.

My machete draft spreadsheet, not yet green.

The main thing I use spreadsheets for is actually deleting words. When I do what I call a machete draft to get rid of word bloat or trim down an overlong manuscript, I always plug everything into a spreadsheet so that I can see where the words are coming from, target areas that haven’t been touched as much, and generally enjoy the numbers ticking down.

A warning: This kicks my self-competitive mode into overdrive, and it’s hard to turn off. My husband starts making sad noises, the dog paws at the door, the baby fusses, but I MUST write more words. The house may be a wreck but THAT IS THE GREENEST FUCKING CELL YOU HAVE EVER SEEN IN YOUR LIFE.

…So there you go! Six quick techniques to sample to stay productive while your child attempts to slap your keyboard because he KNOWS that’s how you make Caspar Babypants play. Not that I’m trying to restrain a wailing, dancing toddler right now. Nope. Okay, gotta go…

Ages, Stages, & Pages, Chapter Two: Infants (3-6 months)

Congratulations! You survived the “fourth trimester”!

Your baby is now getting the hang of the basics. You don’t have to set alarms through the night to feed them, they’ve probably got that breathing thing down, and you are starting to get a sense for your new normal. Which is to say you are getting used to everything changing every week or so. That means cool stuff—Intentional smiles! Rolling over! Wordlike sounds! Solid foods! And less cool stuff—Four-month sleep regression! Solid food poops! The realization that you will be comparing your kid to everyone else’s forever and ever! Why do we have to baby-proof already!?

 

Bright Side: New levels of cute

However adorable your baby was when they were a newborn, this stage increases that cuteness by an order of magnitude. Here’s where they start to notice you. Here’s where those smiles get deliberate. Here’s where they start to realize how interesting the world is. Here’s where you can feed them a lemon and watch what happens! Everything that was cute about your little one is cuter because they’re interacting in all kinds of new ways.

 

Dangers to Productivity: Google

We’ve all fallen prey to a Wikipedia hole—you start out hunting for resources about ancient underwear or how fast you die if you get shot in the lung or the name of that thing that ancient Romans carried around with the ear pick in it, and four hours later, you remember you’re supposed to be writing a book (but you probably have ideas for six more).

This tendency is dangerous when coupled with the fast arrival of needing to think about “milestones.” When should they roll over? When should they sit up? When should they start babbling and is my child going to Harvard because she definitely signed “more” two weeks before she’s supposed to and if so how do I save for that? Should I take my baby to the hospital because he can’t stand up, but the baby in the library storytime, the one who has the same birthday, is walking? I get it, it’s soothing to read, to gain all the information, but it takes on a whole new level of madness when it’s your kid you’re googling about. Corral it. Avoid it. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned, but remind yourself that your baby is going to do all of these things eventually.

 

Mantra: THIS TOO SHALL PASS.

Good or bad, all of this is temporary even though it will feel like there’s no chance of that happening.  But they aren’t going to be waking you up in the middle of the night to be fed when they’re twenty. They won’t go off to their first job in diapers. They won’t insist on eating soup with their bare hands at their wedding. You also won’t get baby snuggles forever, and the days of fleecy footie pajamas are short. If your schedule gets derailed or your focus isn’t what it needs to be, don’t despair. Savor the good stuff and remind yourself the bad stuff goes quick, especially at this age.

(Don’t think about teenagers yet.)

 

Perfect Project: Start Small

If you don’t have anything going already, this can be a good time to take on something relatively self-contained. Your kiddo is changing rapidly, so it’s hard to count on your writing time not changing, but since you’re likely starting to feel a little more yourself (although, if not, don’t beat yourself up! This takes time!), you might have an easier time rolling with it. Start working out what your new normal can reliably look like, and work on some short stories or essays or poems, or maybe a novella, if your sleep regression goes fast. It will feel good to finish something, and start setting goals in this new chapter of your life.

Techniques for Producing Words Despite Your Precious, Beautiful Screeching Howler Monkey, Part II

In Part II of our ongoing series (you can find Part I here), we’re going to touch on two more tricks/techniques I’ve used to get going when I’m stuck, frazzled, and staring at the screen blankly.

Changing the Medium

The problem: You just can’t get started. The task feels too immense; your words seem inadequate for the story in your head. Your creativity is gummed up, and nothing will flow.

The technique: Use a different medium to write. It’s as simple as that. If you’ve been writing at a computer, write longhand. If you’ve been working on your laptop, work on a desktop computer. If you’ve been writing in Scrivener, try Word to get started. Maybe you even just try a different font, or write in an email to yourself, or dictate into a recorder. The point is to alter the format enough that it feels slightly unfamiliar.

This is actually a trick that I use every time I start a new project. When I’m smart, I set out to do it from the start, but usually it takes a few failed attempts to get going before I remember how necessary it is. I write novels, and the process from the first draft to final proofreading is long and involved. By the time I send a manuscript off, I’ve forgotten what it feels like to draft; my “muscle memory” is primed for revising and perfecting and tweaking. To break myself out of that mindset, I need to change the environment I’m writing in.

Part of this is reducing the pressure to make things perfect on the first go. Writing on a tablet or in an email feels somehow less official, and lets me relax about the quality. Writing longhand only ever lasts me a few pages at the most, since my mind outstrips my writing speed, but it lets me see the uneven handwriting, the insertions, the scribbling out that screams “draft!” and releases me from the pressure of polish.

Start With the Zeroth Step

The problem: You just can’t get going when you sit down to write. You know what you should work on… but here you are, chuckling over a video of an ostrich with a slinky. And now the baby is awake, and you’ve lost your chance.

The technique: This one is more of a tip than a technique, I’ll admit. And sometimes it seems too obvious to mention, but it’s been of immense help to me. It’s simple. Instead of making the first item on your to-do list to write something, the first item on your to-do list is simply to gather any necessary materials and open the relevant program. That’s it. That’s the one thing you have to accomplish first.

It sounds silly, but it’s remarkable sometimes how difficult that first hurdle is, and how easy it is to drag your feet. But opening a program isn’t stressful; it’s a click of a button. And then once the page is staring you in the face, there’s no hurdle, however small, between you and starting to type.

So if you find yourself never even getting started, and instead dithering with other tasks and distractions, try setting yourself that goal. You don’t have to write. But before you do anything else, you at least have to open the damn file.

In Part III, we’ll cover accountability partners, word wars, and spreadsheets (you know you’re excited about spreadsheets!).

Techniques for Producing Words Despite Your Precious, Beautiful Screeching Howler Monkey, Part I

In the early days post-baby, I didn’t have any deadlines—only ambitions. This past summer, with the baby now not only walking but sprinting and babbling and having a mini nap strike, I had to write 120,000 words in two months. In between, I had a dozen less intense deadlines, and I had no choice but to put my butt in the chair and get the writing done. Sheer necessity got me through a lot of the time, but there are a handful of techniques I found helped me stay on task and plow through the work.

As with everything since having a baby, the key to getting words onto the page has been experimentation and flexibility. Try things out, see what works for you, and go for it. You may find that a technique that doesn’t work one month works the next, so don’t be afraid to circle back and try other methods if you start hitting a wall.

The Minimal Minimum Word Count

The problem: The work feels overwhelming. Failure to reach your goals repeatedly has left you frustrated and dispirited. You want to get back into a regular or daily writing habit, but you just can’t achieve consistency.

The technique: Set your daily word count goal (for whatever days you deem “writing days” ahead of time) absurdly low. 200 words, or 100, or even 50. No more than that. And knock it out. I don’t care if you have to describe your hero’s hat for two hundred words. You can do it.

If you can keep going, do it! And if you can’t, remember that you still made your goal. Even if that 201st word is more elusive than eight hours of sleep, you’re making progress. Two hundred words every day of the year is 73,000 words. That’s a novel! Unless you’re Erin, and then it’s a first act. But the real value here is that you’re getting into a habit and engaging yourself mentally with the work.

I admit that I have never been able to stick to this method for more than two days. I don’t have the right mindset for it; I’m too self-competitive, and the word count balloons to what could only be called “minimal” on a cosmological scale by the third day. But I always hope that my readers are nicer to themselves than I am.

Baby Pomodoro

The problem: You have trouble focusing; you get distracted by the latest publishing scandal or political dumpster fire; you have trouble carving out large chunks of your day to write.

The technique: The Pomodoro method has been written about extensively. Basically, you choose an interval of time (I use 25 minutes) and you set a timer. While the timer is running, you are on task. You do not check Twitter. You do not wander off to find a new chew toy for the dog. You do not Instagram your latte. You write. When the timer goes off, you set a new timer for your break interval (usually 5 minutes, with longer breaks every few Pomodoros).

Baby Pomodoro is much the same. Just with more interruptions. Here’s how it usually goes for me:

8:00:00 – Siri, set a timer for twenty-five minutes.

8:03:45 – Siri, pause timer. [Remove baby toy from dog’s mouth]

8:05:12 – Siri, resume timer.

8:08:17 – Siri, pause timer. [Remove dog toy from baby’s mouth]

8:09:32 – Siri, resume timer.

8:15:54 – Siri, pause timer…

 “Twenty-five minutes” becomes more like forty, but at the end of it I know I’ve completed twenty-five minutes of actual work. And as long as the timer is running, I’m working. I may need to stop to keep my creatures alive and out of each other’s fur, but the twenty-five minutes gets done.

Bonus: “I’m in the middle of a tomato” is a great “don’t bother me right now.” It assures your spouse/child/the fireman trying to get you to evacuate that you are, in fact, working (and not tweeting about how your office is on fire but you just need to get a few more words in) and that there’s a concrete end time when you can take a break and converse, do the dishes, or evacuate.

Read Part II of this post now: Changing the medium to shake loose some creativity and a trick to get past “butt in the chair” to “actual words on the page.”

Taping Together Time Confetti

Before I had kids, I had a day job in an office. I wrote when I got home, then ate a late dinner, and then wrote a whole lot more.  I spent my down time at work daydreaming about what I was working on, rehearsing in a sense, so when I sat down, I seldom had trouble getting the words out. I’d do minimum 1000 words a day, and my absolute peak was 7000. This was the right pace for me.

When I had my first son, Tiny Mr. I, my daydreaming time got co-opted by planning out feedings and milestones, laundry (oh my god, the laundry) and doctor’s appointments. I could think about my book, but much like my sleep quality, my daydream quality went down. Plans to do things like, “Write while I’m nursing” did not survive first contact. I cannot type one handed, as it happens. My first “writing zone” time became “make dinner” time, because Tiny Mr. I cannot wait to eat until 8 or so, and my second became hampered by the fact that Tiny Mr. I wakes up at 7 on the dot, so staying up writing until 1 or 2 was out. Hell, staying up until midnight was only an occasional thing–I was tired.

I ran into the phrase “time confetti” around this point, from the book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte.  I would love to recommend it to you, but as I have no time, it still lives on my to-read stack. Maybe we should start a book club, you guys? With wine? Skype wine? Is that a thing?

Anyway, I can recommend this concept from it: time confetti refers to the little scraps of time you end up with between all the stuff you have to do, which is a term that spoke to me post-children. Where were my six-hour writing stretches? When did I get to “answer the muse”?

In the time confetti, basically.

But don’t lose hope: there are plenty of ways to extend those moments, plenty of ways to tape your time confetti together. Here are some tools that have served me well.

Ritual

For many of you, the idea of a writing ritual is familiar. You start at this time, in this place, maybe with this drink or that music. You build in sensory cues that remind your brain and your body it’s time to write, and so you find you work better in a particular coffee shop or with a particular soundtrack. Maybe you do it intentionally, and maybe it just happens as you build up a habit.

Anything you can do that tells your brain it’s writing time is on the table, but the best options will be things you can do anywhere and things that you won’t regret doing every day, sometimes multiple times a day (There’s such a thing as too much coffee, trust me, and if you don’t want to hit a point where you dread the taste, leave this one be).

My trick right now is a scented lotion. I keep a little bottle in my purse and a bigger bottle on my desk. When I sit down to write, I put a little on my incredibly dry hands, and inhale. The smell gets associated with writing, and voila! I cut out the dawdling.

Smartphone writing app

Itsy Mr. E was not down with pretending to grab my phone, because I wanted him to grab my phone. So he went for my hair.

Itsy Mr. E, Erin, and phone

I can’t type on my computer one-handed, and while I intentionally chose a laptop that can fit in a diaper bag, it’s not always feasible to haul it around. But if you have a smartphone, you can work on that pretty much anywhere. It’s easier to type one handed. It’s easier to yank out of grabby baby reach. It’s not as pleasant as using a computer, but it’s a good backup.

There are plenty of writing apps and finding the best one for you is likely to be a matter of trial and error–I’ve gone through about five, but finally settled on Scrivener’s iOS app. It integrates with Dropbox and Scrivener on your computer, so anything you add to your manuscript or notes gets pulled into the main file. Also, it auto-saves.

 

Baby carrier

This is the face of a woman trying to decide which character dies.

Tiny Mr. I, Erin, a Beco Butterfly, and 30,000 words to go.

This tool only works for small babies, but while they’re teeny, you can drop them in the front pack and multitask working and cuddling, plus getting them to sleep. Again, there are a lot of different styles of front packs and a lot of opinions. I liked the wrap-style Moby at some points, and the Beco for others (these are great to borrow from other parents, by the way). Make sure whatever you get supports your back, and lets you sit comfortably if that’s how you need to write.

 

 

“Quiet Time”

Naps are a great time to get work done. Two, sometimes three, hours of uninterrupted quiet? Hallelujah! Let’s get stuff done.

Assuming your child naps. When they get older, they all stop napping anyway, so what then? With Tiny Mr. I, we instituted “quiet time,” and that wasn’t only for my sake. Tiny Mr. I is a very outgoing child, but on some deep, fundamental level, he is also the introverted child of two introverts. He likes people; they’re still exhausting. When he first stopped napping, he would go a day or two and then be an absolute terror. His well was dry. His spoons were gone. He needed some alone time, some quiet.

So for an hour a day, he would go to his room. He listened to podcasts or audiobooks and plays with quiet toys. He did puzzles, built Legos, colored–and then he’d come bounding out, happy and ready to go! And I got an hour of work done–win-win!

The additional benefit of this is that now he understands when he needs some down time. He’s in school now, so there’s no enforced quiet time, but often he comes home and tells us he’ll be in his room for some quiet.

“Play Alone Toys”

Quiet time is great, but it cannot be deployed on the fly. You’ve got a deadline. You’ve got an idea you need to get down. You’ve got an interview you need to do. There are kids out there–I hear, anyway–who can be told, “Go play for a bit” and entertain themselves. As I said, Tiny Mr. I loves people

That’s when we pull down the “play alone toys.” These are special. These are rare. They only come down when Momma needs to have her space, and so they are kind of exciting, even if it means you’re not getting attention.

Play alone toys can be anything that piques your kiddos interest, but a few requirements:

  • They only come out when needed.
  • They can only be played with by kids.
  • They need to be toys that your kids don’t require help with. It defeats the purpose if you have to stop to open containers and connect pieces (looking at you, Hot Wheels).

Our last rotation of play alone toys included some Junior Legos, a puzzle book, and a Play-Doh fun factory.

Write Or Die

I mentioned I use Scrivener, and I know people can get evangelical about how it changed their lives. But I’m here today to ask if you’ve heard the good word of Write or Die, and to ask you to let Kamikaze mode into your heart.

One of my problems with making the time work for me is starting. Left to my own devices, I want to get comfortable and noodle and ponder and circle the problem a few times before I attack it, but by then the baby’s awake and my writing time for the morning is done. Write or Die 2 takes that away. You set a word count goal and a time limit. Then you look inside your soul and decide if you’re a carrot person or a stick person: you can be rewarded for reaching your goal, or receive consequences for slipping.

I am a stick-person. I find the most motivating way to use Write or Die 2 is to set it to “Kamikaze mode.” Then I start writing and if I stop, the screen starts to turn red. If I don’t get to typing, then an alarm sounds and a scary picture appears (like a big-ass spider). If that doesn’t get me going, Write or Die starts eating the words I wrote. Chomp-chomp-chomp. 

I have fifteen minutes before an appointment and a great idea for that scene? I can get the beginnings out without my noodly, daydreamer tendencies getting in my way. I don’t actually lose those tendencies, mind, I just periodically shelve them in favor of getting things down faster. And recall when I said my pre-baby speed was 1000 an hour? It’s doubled with Write or Die.

There’s a web-based app you can try, or a paid download with more features. You can turn off the spiders and give yourselves kittens, or turn off the backspace and really rough draft it!

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Now it’s your turn: what are your tricks for getting writing done in the time confetti?