Back on Track and the Lessons I’ve Learned While Astray

Terrible oil pastel drawing of that crushing, staticky feeling. Artist: me.

As you’ve probably noticed from my fluctuation between complaining and a lack of posts, I have had some issues writing after quitting my “day job.” I thought at first I just didn’t have the right story idea. Maybe the plot I had in mind (or the characters, or the setting, or the everything altogether) was bad and I wasn’t going to get it to work, so I abandoned the idea. This happened twice in a row. Then I thought that I was pushing myself to work too much or too often. So I took a break.

After my break, I felt much better – for about a day. Then I went straight back into feeling like shit and static filling my head. Maybe I was overwhelming myself with the steps to write something to completion. So I built a system to keep myself focused. This worked for about two weeks and then I fell right back into the pit. 

Maybe I was depressed again. So I decided to narrow down what I was doing, lighten my workload. But I still suffered this…blockage of sorts. What the hell was going on?

Finally I realized I felt the worst when something external reminded me about writing. Someone would ask how my book was coming along. Or they’d make a snarky comment about how I wasn’t working on a Saturday. Just taking a peek at Medium I’d get bombarded with all kinds of writing advice articles. 

The articles were, interestingly enough, the worst. Individually they aren’t bad, but I’d sit down and read a bunch in a row. Every single one of them basically saying the same thing: I should be writing content every single day. 

And the problem isn’t that producing content is bad. I’m writing content right now. The problem starts when you let this outside world into your private routine. When you allow others to tell you how to write or what to write or when to write. And this happens very easily when you feel that your process or your job isn’t valid.

So what changed? 

I can’t say for sure exactly where I unfucked myself. Most likely, it was a culmination of a few things. 

First, I stopped trying to make myself an “authority” on anything. I stopped writing the how-to posts here. This eased my impostor syndrome quite a bit, and being honest about it felt great, but had the unintended side effect of a minor, uh, existential crisis. 

What should I write now? What do I even have to say? Do I have something to say? Should I just stfu and shut down the blog? 

The adage is to write what you know, but what did I really know? Well…I knew a lot about my own experiences with depression and anxiety. So I drafted up a few Medium articles on that. And never posted them.

I’m still learning how to be more honest with myself about my emotions – broadcasting heavy thoughts like that with my name out there for everyone to see felt…wrong. I just couldn’t make myself do it. What I wrote was “authentic” I guess, but publishing it just didn’t feel like me. I kept asking myself, “if not that, then what?” I agonized over this for way too long until I finally asked myself the real questions:

What drew me to writing in the first place? What is it that I like to read?

scenic view of city during nighttime
A whole new wooooorld…
Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

I love books that are filled with characters who struggle. I love stepping into worlds that are rich and vibrant. Adventures that make me feel alive. Relationships that feel authentic and sweet, even if they start off a bit rocky. I want to open a book and see a massive universe I can set out and explore. Especially if it goes beyond what the author has written. 

Stories like Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, The Witcher, The Dark Tower series. Any world that allows you to imagine yourself living there is like catnip to me. I use literature to escape and I’d love to write the same for others. 

I have ideas for short stories, too. I’ve written several, and in the spirit of the year of finishing things, I will still try to finish the majority of ones I abandoned. But publishing shorts is not my calling. Worldbuilding is. 

This conclusion made me realize I’m incapable of following the route the internet has drawn up for writers. Though there’s more money to be had in publishing an article every day on Medium and in writing and submitting shorts (assuming they get accepted). Guest posts, cross posts, affiliate links, Pinterest infographics, Twitter quotes/screenshots…all of these things and more are great ways to monetize your writing and to gain an audience. I’ll have to do some of them eventually, too. None of this is bad. It’s just not what I should be doing right now.

I should be writing. I should be living in the worlds I’m crafting so that when I’m done, you can live there, too. 

Because of this realization, I was able to shed the imagined expectations weighing me down. I don’t need to write 40 hours a week. Sometimes writing means getting thoughts down on paper (or pixels) whether or not they are coherent. I am writing every day, and a lot of it is unusable crap. If I need to stop mid workday and play Bugsnax or (god help me) Detroit: Become Human in order to relax, I should. If I need to take a whole day or week off in order to “refill my creative bottle” (Thanks for the metaphor, Arbor!), then I absolutely do. If my workday consists of me walking around my office in circles, mumbling new storylines or dialogue to myself, then so be it! 

Stephen King says to write with the door closed, edit with the door open. He’s referring to writing a story exactly how you want to tell it, and then editing it so that it can appeal to other people as well. I feel like it should extend to your routine, too. Don’t let other people dictate how you work, just make sure you eventually do get to work. 

These steps together eventually got me back on track, and I really hope outlining them will help anyone else suffering from a constant burnt-out, static-brained, panic-stricken blockage of words. Basically I think it all boiled down to getting back to why I started writing in the first place. 

A caveat

This is the part where I reiterate that I am so, so privileged. I get a small retirement payment every month, so I can feel like I contribute a little to my household. Beyond that, everything gets covered by my husband. We saved for a long time, we finagled our finances, and eventually got to the point where me not having any other income was doable. I can rest easy while I make-believe and do other weird writer shit. My circumstances are not normal. 

If you want to only write novels, then do it! But keep a day job. Don’t force the pressure of finishing a novel on yourself – you will fail, and it will suck the whole way down. Establish a writing routine around your work. If your job leaves you exhausted at the end of the day, write at the beginning of your day. If you can’t concentrate on work when you write beforehand and it’s threatening your job, find a different job (while still working at your current one). 

If you want to write articles every single day and you think you know your niche, then try it while you still have a job. With either of these options, you want to be able to support yourself (or nearly be able to support yourself) on the money you’re making from your efforts working around your dictated schedule. If you find yourself making excuses, procrastinating, getting easily discouraged, doing or being or feeling anything that keeps you from producing regularly, do not quit your job. 

Anyway, the point is…

…enjoy the go! Oh wait, no, that’s something else. 

But seriously, have fun while you work. If you can’t figure out how to enjoy it, it’ll be more difficult. And if you’re anything like me, the pressure to work while miserable will make you crumble. Sure, I can bust my ass to meet the occasional deadline, but I would die as a journalist. Knowing your work style, your limits, and being honest about and honoring them both will make all the difference if you’re having issues writing like I did. 

And I almost guarantee I will forget this by the time NaNoWriMo rolls around again…

An Unplanned Update

A casual post gets a casual picture. Behold: Hucky boi…

Almost all of the posts on this blog so far have been carefully constructed: I figured out what to write, wrote a first draft – possibly from an outline – and then I edited it. I knew what I was going to say beforehand or at least knew what I wanted to say from the beginning.

Today I wanted to try something a little different. I’m still trying to figure out what I want out of this blog beyond the clearly stated mission already posted. Do I want this to continue being very orderly and neat and planned and polished? Is that even a realistic expectation as I go forward with my plan to finish as many stories I’ve started over the years as possible this year? I don’t really think it is. And that’s okay.

I don’t really want to stop posting here. That wouldn’t be true to the point of the whole thing. But I also need to let go of this fantasy of the truly polished blog. Of perfect entries that are instantly shareable with infographics and research. I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself to produce work in a way that is just so and it has started to eat me alive.

My time away from this blog and writing in general made me feel really fucking dumb writing all these “how to” articles when I still hadn’t published anything, and so I had decided not to do that anymore. But then I found a new problem: what the hell am I going to write instead?

…and Bumblebee!

Obviously I’m going to be writing fiction. I want to be a fiction author. I didn’t set out to be a blogger, not in the beginning. That wasn’t the thing I thought of when I considered my dreams. There’s nothing wrong with being that style of writing, either, but my point is that when I wanted to be a writer, “blogging” hadn’t been invented yet. I had never even heard of the internet at all before. I’m not here to write a textbook or whatever, so there’s not really a point to me trying to write a bunch of polished posts like I am.

So where does that leave me? With my original mission: I’m here to report on what this life is like for those who wanna know the more complete story. I think might end up sharing fiction I write here, but that’s for another day.

Either way, that’s where I’m at right now. I may or may not stick to a posting schedule. I think I will try, just so it’s both better for you to know when to come back and also better for SEO reasons (*~algorithms~*) but I might throw in the occasional random post depending on what’s going on.


It’s the day after typing this up – casual or not, I gotta edit – and I’m feeling much better about this. I’m going to work up to “diversifying my portfolio” and “income streams” or whatever, but I’m okay with keeping it simple for now. I’m still really new at this. I’m still learning. That’s okay.

My Goal Setting Story

pen calendar to do checklist
This planner is a TAD out of date…
Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

A few months ago when I began writing posts for this blog, I had a goal: write enough posts that I could have 20 weeks worth of posts at the ready. This would allow me to schedule them, then get to writing fiction. With fiction, I would write one flash fiction story draft in a week, write a new flash fiction story in the next week, edit the first one in the third week, and then finish up editing the second one the week after that. I would be able to do this for 20 weeks – that’s approximately 5 months, or 10 stories. I would take a little bit of time to write up cover letters and find places to submit the stories I wrote each month, and then get back to writing while I waited to hear back. Adorable.

I outlined, and wrote, and re-wrote, and edited. I honed the process over time so that I could write faster and better starting with the first draft. Eventually I outlined 20 posts, but only actually finished about 8 of them. Close enough, I thought. I could just start scheduling them and go from there. 

Then I had the idea that I could alternate between writing fiction and writing posts, since I had 8 weeks of posts under my belt. Including retrospectives, that was 10 weeks. So I tried that.

Truth is, when I have the pressure to do well on my mind (and little recent practice under my belt), it takes a lot longer than a week to write flash fiction. “Flash” also tends to morph into “short.” When I didn’t have the pressure there, I could write a first draft of flash in a day, so I thought I was giving myself ample time to deal with not only the writing but writer’s block as well. Apparently not.

Anyhow, I shifted from flash to posts to working on worldbuilding for a novel I want to write during NaNoWriMo this year, and sometimes I would switch between them in matters of minutes. I kept track of my word counts, so I knew I was writing something, but it didn’t feel like it. I was making little to no progress, and it only got worse once I realized my older pieces I wanted to spruce up for publishing needed major rework. Was this due to my newfound perfectionism or because they were written in a day? 

Mmm…probably both. 

But I kept pushing, kept switching, kept flailing and failing, until I found myself headed for burnout. I didn’t really know what to work on or when. I set up a schedule which helped for a little while, outlining that I’d work on fiction in the morning, blog posts at lunch (during the work week, since I have to have a “real” job for now), and then school work or whatever was most pressing after. It felt better, having some order. But I quickly devolved into chaos again.

I can’t even remember what spurred my decision to start writing out my goals, but whatever it was, I’m thankful for it. I’m still working out the kinks, and I’ve discovered that I really need to have stuff like goals and task lists very visible all the time, but here’s what I’ve started with, if you want to follow along at home:

By the end of the year, I want to:

  • Finish the first draft of The Dragon (mostly during NaNoWriMo, naturally)
  • Submit my stories to LitMags ~30 times (I’ve given up on the rejection goals for this year, since that requires them actually getting back to me by December 31st)
  • Finish reading 12 more books
  • Manage to post on my blog every Saturday until the end of the year

So I guess it’s just time to start working, right? WRONG. Your plan is bad and you should feel bad. And you probably will if you try to make that work – I know I did. Hence this article!

Breaking it Down

Knowing these specific goals, I can now break them down into smaller ones. For finishing The Dragon (I am slowly starting to hate this name, but it’s simple enough to work with it for now), I will need to make sure I finish character development, worldbuilding, and plot/story planning before November – or at least as much as I can before then. I will naturally find holes that can’t be filled until I write scenes, and in the spirit of NaNo that’s a no no. Then during November, it’s fifty thousand words I’ll need to write in thirty days. 

For submissions, if I submit one story five times each month, then I can reach this goal. That means that I’ll need to finish writing/editing/polishing at least one story a month and submit it to 5 different places. This is going to definitely be a stretch considering my current burnout problem and also NaNoWriMo kind of conflicting with this goal, but that’s okay. I won’t die if I fall short, but it gives me something to reach for.

To read 12 more books is simple: read 2 of them every month until the end of the year.

Finally, posting every Saturday is just as simple as the last goal: don’t miss a Saturday! That’s making sure I finish polishing up about 4 posts a month.

But I’m not done yet!

Breaking it down even more

For The Dragon, breaking it down further is a little more difficult, mostly because characters, setting, and plot are so interconnected. Basically I’m just going to start with character development and plot first and go from there. I’m trying out Lisa Cron’s Story Genius method for this book, just to see how it goes. Don’t worry, I’ll write about that in the future.

For submissions, I’ve already got several short stories started and lined up for this year. I’ll need to rework and rewrite them, which I hope to do in the first two weeks of each month. Then I’ll let it rest for a few days while I try to find places to submit, then head back into editing and rewriting for the rest of the third week. The fourth week I’ll let it rest for a day or two, then polish it up and write the cover letter for the story of the month. 

Every twoish weeks, I’ll be reading one book, and each week I will finish up and polish a post. 

Also every week, I will be going even further and trying to set up every day so that I will make sure I do a little bit of what needs to be accomplished each week. Once I have everything checked off my list for the day, I can relax. 

This list doesn’t include the things I’m doing for work or class or just being alive in a society of laws in general, but I have included those into my plans. In fact, because there are so many things I need to get done, I have also made sure to prioritize my goals so that if I need to remove some things, I know what to axe first.

To use my writing goals as an example, I will be lowering the number of submissions first. I still want to have experience for finishing and submitting pieces, so I won’t be nixing that goal entirely. Next will be lowering the number of books to read. Then I might end up having to just finish the prep work for The Dragon and complete the first draft early next year. I’m really hoping I don’t need to take anything off of the table completely, but if I do, it will probably end up being The Dragon. That’s mainly because of the amount of sustained effort required to see that kind of project all the way through combined with the fact that next year I should have a lot more free time to work on it, so I can catch up quickly. Everything else has a cumulative effect on my skills, so they need to stay.

This is actually the beginning of making SMART goals. I might end up setting these up in the future, but I am taking it one step at a time for now.

Update:
Since I am still going to be working a full-time job in November, I am most likely going to end up nixing The Dragon until next year unless I can get enough posts written and all the prep work done before then.


What about you: do you have a goal-setting system of your own you’d like to share?

My Experience Shifting Between Hobby and Professional Writing

See? He’s professional now because of the bowtie!
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

I’ve written a retrospective, but no posts about my experiences. This is what I had originally intended for this blog, I just haven’t felt like anything I’ve done or been through was worth mentioning yet. I’ve started to reflect on what’s changed, however, and I wanted to talk a little bit about the overall shift of attitude and habits between hobby and professional writing. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t earned a dime yet, but I have committed to writing in a “professional manner,” so there’s still at least a subtle difference.

When you’re writing as a hobby, there’s zero pressure to do well. Don’t like a story you’re writing? Toss it. Don’t want to finish it? Don’t. Is editing the bane of your existence? Forget about it. There’s no reason to agonize over tone or flow, and if you write something that’s not great but still okay, that’s fine. No one is going to read it anyway.

The shift that happens when you try to write professionally, is that you have an obligation to keep going. Don’t like a story you’re writing? Figure out why and fix it. Don’t want to finish it? Too bad. Is editing the bane of your existence? Deal with it. “Git gud,” as the kids say. 

This isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying this. On the contrary, I feel that it lends the credibility I needed for my new addiction profession. I no longer feel like a child now that I’m paying attention to schedules and I’m actively reading about writing. I’m setting goals and objectives, planning out my learning and doing all of the career ownership I never did in any other job I’ve had before. I enjoy this and take it more seriously than anything else in my life, and it feels…purposeful. Liberating. It’s why I’m doing the retrospectives and keeping tabs on metrics. I’m my own boss, yes, said with all the puffed up pride as the next guy. But I’m also acting as my own manager. 

I’m sitting in my new writing spot as I type this. My “writing spot” has moved multiple times over the past couple of months, indicative of the changes I’ve gone through. There’s a lot more pressure now, but it feels good. When I write something terrible, my first thought is still “oh god, why?” but that’s followed closely by “How can I make this better?” and “Editing this will be great practice for me.” It’s a strange shift, going from a fixed-mindset to a growth-mindset. I’ll have to write more on that as well. 

We are getting closer and closer to the day when I’ll be able to actually quit and write full-time, though I’m not counting this as my “be a full-time writer” goal until I’m actually making money from it. I also don’t have delusions that I’m going to write the next Big Thing that earns me millions, but I suspect that I might be able to make enough each month to cover the gap between what my partner makes and what we need to both make rent and eat out a time or two. 

This gets me to the part where I write a little more about the lessons I’ve learned in this process.

Lessons Learned Thus Far

Letting a piece rest

When you cook meat, you always want to let it sit at room temperature to rest for a little while. This allows all the juices to redistribute, otherwise when you carve it, you’re just going to have a wet cutting board and dry meat. When you finish a draft, what I’m learning is you want to let the story rest, lest you cut into it for editing and…your story juice gets…you know what? Terrible metaphor. I find that it gives me space and clarity. It sounds a little less like my own writing and it makes it easier to tear apart. The longer a piece rests, the easier it is to edit, but you don’t always get that luxury. Letting it rest between edits is useful as well, especially if you change a significant portion or are doing rewrites.

Setting your objectives

If you have a lot of projects you are trying to get done all at once (say, a blog, a book, and a short story or five), it may begin to feel like you aren’t making progress on any of them. I felt this. It was like I was pressing the pedal all the way to the floorboards and my wheels were caught in mud. Pulling away from everything and writing down exactly what I wanted to accomplish this year made it clear where I wanted to go, and writing down exactly what I aimed to accomplish when gave me a plan for how to get there (this might actually be the next article, since it has been so helpful). This allowed me to simply trust in this plan, as long as I could stick to the daily tasks. It also allowed me to plan for time off. That brings me to another item:

Burnout suuuuuucks

I cannot say this enough. If you are trying to get through a night class, do homework, work full time, and start a brand new career, you will need time to rest. Not having the clear plan I mentioned in the last point combined with a need to be constantly working sapped the life out of me and reduced me to a panicking, sobbing mess two or three days out of the week. Don’t be like me–er, the old me. Be more like the me now. Whatever – don’t burn yourself out is the important bit. Plan for down time.

Find a writing group

I haven’t actually done this one yet, and I hate it. I need to have someone who I’m not married or related to read my work for feedback, and I need to get better at critiquing others’ work as well. Why the second one? It’s important to learn from your own mistakes and writing habits, but you get double the lessons out of learning from someone else’s as well. There also inherent risks involved in writing groups, but as long as you remain aware of them, it makes for a great way to grow.

Sometimes you need to completely start over

The other day I was working on a flash fiction piece that I wrote the first draft for a year or so ago. No matter what I did, nothing seemed to work – the descriptions were clunky, the piece had no point, nothing really mattered. I hated it, but as we’ve just established, professionals at least try to finish what they start. For a week I wrote a paragraph here, did some copypasta from the first draft there. Removing lines, adding words. Taking out and promptly putting commas back in (seriously, I have a problem). In frustration I opened a new document and started from scratch. In about an hour I had something far better than I’ve written in a long while. 

Once you figure out that a piece isn’t working, and you can’t get it to – nix it. Toss it. Kill it. Not the whole idea, but parts that aren’t working. My example was flash fiction, so I could afford to start from scratch all over again, but if you’re working on a chapter that doesn’t fit – get rid of it and try again. No need to throw away the book, but the chapter can go, I promise. You will soar once out from under that dead weight.

Most importantly, be honest with yourself

If you know you aren’t going to work on Tuesdays, don’t try. Make that your Saturday. If you know that you like your spouse and you want to spend time with them once they get off work, make sure you finish your tasks for the day before then. If you know that you’re very “out of sight, out of mind,” hang your tasks and schedule on the wall where you see them every day. Stay mindful of what works and what doesn’t, and don’t be afraid to change something, even for a day, if you think it will help.


What have you been learning about yourself or your process recently? Any specific tips to share with the rest of us about making the switch to “professional?” Share in the comments below!

Juneteenth and Being Better

Yesterday was Juneteenth. A quick summary for the uninformed people reading this: it is a celebration of when Union Soldiers finally got down to Texas to tell the slaves they were free. This happened two and a half years after the law had passed. The reasons for the delay are unverified, but either way, this day has been celebrated since 1865 (or I guess 1866, since it happened in 1865). 

Have you never heard of it? Me either. I just found out about it a few days ago. There is a lot more information about this holiday, and I urge you to catch up on the history our systemically racist school systems never bothered to teach properly. 

So much is happening right now. Oppression in the US is still very real, Black people are dying in the streets, and something must be done. I hesitated writing this post for a number of reasons, not the least of which was I didn’t know where I fit in this conversation. But we all have a responsibility to participate. But how do I do that? 

I could lament here about all of the ways I have been racist (why the hell hadn’t I ever considered that Black culture might have holidays I didn’t know about? Or even ask questions to try to understand in general?), but this wouldn’t actually do anything. I could do what I imagine a lot of companies are going to try to get away with (something like post a black square for the likes and then act like nothing ever happened), which is not only useless but offensive. Or I could pledge here and now to actually be better.

I don’t have much of an audience at the moment (I think last week I had literally 3 people who looked at this site including myself). However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t use what little platform I have to try to keep Black voices heard. 

On Twitter I will continue to retweet as much as possible to help spread their messages. On this blog I’m already planning on adding posts that highlight books and services related to reading and writing – there is no reason why I shouldn’t make every effort to have a balanced mix of heritages, cultures, nationalities, genders, sexualities and other minority groups represented. 

Online and in real life I am working on building my confidence in speaking about racial issues, while trying to refrain from making it all about me (which I’m failing at in this post I think) or being condescending/white knighting. I’m also making every effort to actually seek out diverse sources for everything I consume now, from music to books to the stores where I shop. All of this will be done on top of learning as much as I can and accepting any feedback I am given. My comments and contact page are always open, or you can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram (links at the bottom of the page). 

I know this post doesn’t “solve racism” and I know that is doesn’t automatically make me a good person. But I hope it is an acceptable start as I learn how to do better and how to be better. I challenge all the privileged people reading this post to figure out their own plan for doing better and to publicly pledge to stick to that plan. There is a lot of work to be done, and we privileged need to do the heavy lifting.