The Lie of Straight Lines

Motivation & Inspiration, Writing Process

I used to think that growth only happened in a straight line and that as long as I wrote every day eventually I’d reach a point where it wasn’t so hard anymore and I’d have the answer to every question and enough experience and insight to crank out amazing works of art in half the time. But something strange has happened during the writing of my 7th novel, something terrifying and totally unexpected.

It sucks.

Like big time.

I used to have the bad habit of going back and editing during a first draft, which was tedious and made the process exponentially longer. But it also yielded pretty solid first drafts that I was actually really proud of. So many things have changed since those days. My style is a bit less lyrical and the stories I write are more plot-driven; I also no longer stop to edit (or sometimes even think) during the writing of a first draft, three things that have inadvertently made me a much faster writer. But now that I find myself on the other end of the “self-editing” spectrum and have become an expert at beating my inner critic into silent submission, I’m wondering if her two cents might actually have some value after all.

Learning to end the cycle of self-doubt and self-loathing that plagues every writer, especially during the writing of a first draft, is important but for me personally, writing without any fear or reservations is a recipe for disaster. And let me tell you, this manuscript is definitely a disaster. I’ve been working on it during my time away from my YA series and after finally reaching the halfway point, I’ve never been more disappointed in myself. The idea itself has potential, so at least that much is salvageable, but when I read back through what I have so far, I don’t recognize myself in any of it. It’s so bare that my voice has nothing to cling onto, which means that neither will my readers. I was shocked at first at how terrible it actually was, not to mention on the verge of panic, but it made me wonder if maybe I was overreacting (something I tend to do on a daily basis). And I also started to wonder if maybe what I was experiencing was actually normal.

Life isn’t linear. It may seem that way but the truth is life is messy and crooked and there are more valleys than there are peaks. Creativity works the same way. It’s fluid and always changing and progress doesn’t happen all at once or all in one direction. I still believe that writing every day is the only way to truly improve but I also believe that setbacks can happen any time, regardless of how solid of a writer you are. I’ve grown out of a lot of bad habits in the past few years but unfortunately I’ve also adopted some new ones, proof that you never stop learning or growing or changing for the better or for the worse. Because in life there is no finish line and there is no perfection. Everything we are and everything we do is a work in progress and failure itself is a big a part of that progress. Because we’re not molded or strengthened by the things that coddle us, but we’re molded by the things that hurt, by the hard things and the scary things. The things that break us. Because it’s only the broken that can be mended and it’s only the broken that can be made new.

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The Disillusionment of Twitter

Marketing & Promotion, Mental Health, Self Publishing

I know that as a writer I’m supposed to be enamored with Twitter but the truth is I can’t spend a significant amount of time there without feeling terrible about myself. My feed is full of other authors, more well-know and more successful authors, and every day someone else is landing an agent or having an amazing sales day or launching a new book or sharing the amazing review they just got. Twitter is becoming less of a means of communication and more of a personal billboard and all it does is force me to indulge in that dreaded soul-sucking past-time called comparison. So I step away and I block it out. And while it’s the only way I can get any writing done I’m also not building any relationships and I’m not interacting with the people who matter most–readers. So how can we find the balance between engaging on social media and maintaining the right head space for writing, all while not becoming overwhelmed in the process? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question but I am learning more ways to cope with the stress that envy and disappointment bring and how to celebrate others’ success without discounting my own.

Step One: Know Your Limits.

When I’m in the middle of writing a first draft being raw both emotionally and creatively is a necessity. For two months I’m as open as a sore and sometimes getting the words out is just as painful which means that this is not the time to put myself in any kind of situation that could possibly lead to some kind of mental breakdown. Which means no checking my blog stats or monitoring my sales or constantly refreshing my twitter feed and dwelling on all of the people who have lives way cooler than mine. Comparison is the thief of creativity as well as the thief of joy and when your psyche is as delicate as an egg shell engaging in things that don’t fill you up or make you feel good about yourself just aren’t worth the risk.

Instead, learn to celebrate your own small victories, congratulating and encouraging yourself one word at a time. But not just for the words themselves but for the very act of creating, for being brave enough to make something no one ever has before. Even if you have to sit at your desk with your eyes closed, focusing only on the feeling of the keys beneath your fingers. Focus. Focus on you and no one else. Because there is a time and a use for social media but there is also a time for you. There is a time to step away from it all and in order to become successful finishers we must learn the difference. For our health, for our creativity, and for our sanity.

Step Two: Skip The Tough Love.

This step is all about respect. When it comes to writing I’m incredibly hard on myself, punishing myself with negative thoughts and comparisons and bad habits whenever I don’t reach my word count or didn’t accomplish as much as I’d planned. I used to categorize it as tough love but the truth is it’s just toxic. Because forcing myself to salivate over the success of others doesn’t motivate me. It terrifies me. And not just because it fills me with so much doubt and this crippling longing that I’m afraid will never go away, but because it’s so easy to get lost in it. It’s so easy to get on twitter or facebook or wordpress or kindle boards or amazon and spend an eternity over-analyzing every move and every piece of data and every author and trying to figure out where you’re going wrong.

It’s so easy to make yourself feel like a failure that sooner or later you start to become one. Because sooner or later you start to entertain the idea of giving up and if you keep indulging in these self-destructive comparisons, sooner or later you will. Failures aren’t the people who tried and lost it all. Failures are the people who never tried at all. And if you’re spending too much time on social media, letting yourself spiral into deep disappointment and self-loathing, and your excusing it as some kind of twisted form of motivation you’re not hurting anyone but yourself and you’re only prolonging the success that could be yours if you just had the self-discipline to get off the internet and get back to writing.

Step Three: Stay Away From The Things That Hurt You.

The concept is so simple it’s biological. I know we’ve all heard about or maybe even lived out the scenario of our mother telling us not to touch the stove top because the burner is on. Unfortunately though, throughout the history of mankind, the warning is usually never enough. So we touch it anyway and guess what? We get burned. We blister and it hurts like hell but it’s that pain that we carry with us long after the burn has healed as a reminder to stay away from things that might hurt us. It’s a survival mechanism, really, and we’re fairly good at it when it comes to physical adversaries. But for some reason we’re not so good at it when it comes to emotional ones.

As humans, and especially as creative ones, for some reason we like to dwell on things. We like to drown in our own sorrows and the urge to pick ourselves apart is like this awful twenty-first century tick that sends us out in a frenzy to buy every new product or endorse every new program that might somehow make us better. But if we really cared about bettering ourselves we would treat our time and our thoughts and our bodies like they’re sacred. Because they are. And we need to fill them with things that build us up rather than tear us down and we have to learn the kind of self-discipline and self-respect that allows us to say no. To close that article or that email. To put that magazine away or to stop listening to that judgmental family member who makes us feel worthless. To get out of that toxic relationship with men and with women and with food.

To protect ourselves like we’re worth protecting.

This need to constantly judge and degrade ourselves goes way beyond abusing social media and so do the traumas. But if we can start there, if we can learn to set boundaries with the small things first, then maybe we can use them as leverage when it’s time to build bigger ones.

Indie Life 02-12-14

Self Publishing

It’s time for another edition of Indie Life, hosted by The Indelibles. You can sign up by clicking the graphic!IndieLife7

I’ve spent every day this past week hunched over my laptop, in my pajamas, binging on Now and Laters and trying to get the first draft of my sixth book finished. Not that this scenario is all that much different from what I was doing last week or the week before or for the past six months for that matter but what has changed is my attitude. During the last edition of Indie Life I shared some of my gripes about the price of self-publishing–it’s expensive–but today I want to gripe about something a little more intangible and a little more dangerous. Disappointment.

Yes, I’m still crying over not being able to publish anything new this spring and yes I’ll probably still be crying about it in July. It’s hard changing plans and it’s even harder to let go of this vision I’ve been cultivating for months, waiting for and getting excited about. It’s hard to feel like the universe is against you and like nothing is going your way. And that’s how I’ve felt for the past three months. It’s not an attitude I adopt often, mostly because it’s impossible to be productive, let alone function, when all you can think about is all of the things you’re not doing or all of the things you don’t have. But with all of the financial stress I’ve been under lately I couldn’t help it. Every setback felt like an avalanche and I spent so many nights, staring into the darkness, feeling sick to my stomach, and wondering why I was even bothering.

Yes, me, the girl who can’t live without her dreams was considering giving them up. For like…half a second. It’s not that I would ever or could ever stop writing but I’ve questioned my chosen path more in the past few months than I ever have and every time I fill out another job application or get another email from a company saying they’ve chosen to go with another applicant, I can’t help but wonder if I should be pursuing something more practical. It would kill me to work for Corporate America for the rest of my life, I know this, but you know what else is slowly killing me? Stress.

And I think it’s something not enough indie writers talk about. I know when I first started blogging I had this idea in my head of how I was supposed to write and sound and act to my peers and to readers. I thought that if I drew back the curtain and shared too much information about how poorly my sales were or about how much I was really doubting myself that I would somehow look like an amateur. I thought that in some ways, being honest about the wrong things would hurt me. But what really truly hurts even more than being ridiculed is feeling alone. I don’t know very many other indie authors who are brave enough to share the stripped down, bare naked truth about how stressful self-publishing actually is in the emotional, spiritual, and financial sense but I know there are others out there struggling and doubting themselves and envying their friends who are querying or out on submission. I was drowning in this…panic about the choices I’ve made and I was worried that maybe I’d made the wrong ones.

But then I remembered something. I remembered why I chose to go indie in the first place. Because my vision for my life goes way beyond just writing books. And in order to achieve that vision and make it a reality I need this freedom. The freedom to experiment and more importantly the freedom to fail. I’m growing every day as a writer and I know that not everything I write is going to resonate with everyone. But I will not allow myself to be slave to anyone’s expectations but my own and I will not allow myself to be in a position where my creative “failures” dictate my future. I don’t want to worry about my image or sales. Not now. Not when it feels this good to just sit and write in this magical anticipation of something great, of being discovered and being understood. I have so much freedom right now to tell the stories I want to tell exactly how I think they should be told. So I’m thankful for my temporary obscurity. I’m thankful that I get to live in the anticipation of this dream that might end up being better than the real thing. But most of all I’m thankful that even after months of setbacks and doubts and disappointments, this passion inside me hasn’t waned and I know that it will be there to push me in every dark moment back into the light.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Mental Health, Self Publishing

I know it’s tempting, believe me. The majority of us probably spend the entire work day daydreaming about our grand exit–the dramatic toss of those damned manilla folders, papers scattered all over the floor, pouring our cold coffee all over our keyboard (that we requested be replaced six months ago because four of the letters are constantly sticking), kicking over the water cooler in the break room and sending a biblical style flood into the boss’ corner office. For a lot of us our day job is literally sucking the soul right out of our bodies and every morning when that alarm goes off it gets harder and harder not to just keep lying there. But despite the drudgery and the misery and the complete lack of fulfillment, that day job is necessary.

On Sunday I blogged about my theory that world peace is only achievable when everyone is living out their true purpose, and while I absolutely and wholeheartedly believe that, it doesn’t mean that we can all just quit our jobs and spend our days doing whatever the hell we want. Although that would be ideal, in a time where everyone is struggling financially, it’s just not realistic. So, even though making our dreams our top priority is the first step to making them come true, here’s why we still need that old 9 to 5 to help get us there.

Reason One: The Peace Of Mind

This one is huge. From last July to November I wasn’t working. I’d moved from Florida back to Texas and I decided that rather than start looking for another job right away I’d spend some time focusing on writing. So I did. For four whole months all I did was write, from nine in the morning until six in the evening, sometimes later. And you know what? When it came to my productivity, I was writing about the same amount as I am now while also working a part time job. And I could blame that on the lack of structure or my own lack of self-discipline but one major factor that really kept me from writing as much as I could have was my own anxiety.

I put so much pressure on myself to make the most of every second of that time off and that pressure ended up crippling my creativity. I was constantly worried about when I would run out of money and what exactly I would do when I did and then I berated myself every time I didn’t reach a word count goal or wasted time on the internet. It was awful to wake up every day and already feel like a failure before it had even begun. Not just because I wasn’t writing enough but because I was doing it at the expense of an actual income. But the truth is it was all in my head–the fear and the anxiety and the negative thoughts. I’d created that atmosphere and all of the goals I’d set in order to push myself ended up backfiring on me.

It wasn’t until I went back to work that I finally felt like I could breathe again. I’m not making money doing what I love but I still make time to write and now it’s not at the expense of my mental health. Instead I’m taking my time and not only have I learned to be patient with myself but I’ve also learned to be more forgiving. And because of this new attitude I’ll never again put myself in a position where I’m worried about how I’m going to pay rent just because the real world was too hard and I’d rather be writing. Because here’s the bottom line: Writers have to eat too and there is absolutely nothing glamorous about being a starving artist.

Reason Two: The Freedom

I know this one may sound counterintuitive since the cubicle is basically the desk equivalent of a prison cell, but I promise it’s true. Because when you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay for your next meal or how you’re possibly going to make rent this month, you have the freedom to worry about other things and you have the freedom to do other things that don’t require making a profit. Yes, we would all love to be able to make a comfortable living from doing what we love, but it should be a comfort to know that we’ll have a steady income regardless of how our creative pursuits pan out. That way when we don’t feel like sitting down to write one evening or when we feel like writing something personal and just for us, we have the freedom to do so. We have the freedom to explore and we have the freedom to be obligated to one person and one person only, ourselves.

Reason Three: The Exposure

No, not to some kind of flesh eating bacteria–although I wouldn’t touch the sponge in the break room sink with a ten foot pole–but exposure to that little thing us creative, introverted types tend to avoid as often as possible. Life. I’ve been working from home since November and even though the introvert in me always daydreamed about having that kind of opportunity, it didn’t take long for me to realize that social interaction is  not only necessary for my creativity but for my happiness. It’s barely three months in and I’ve already got cabin fever. I swear, when I found an opportunity to work at a library this month, I was so grateful. And while I’m usually not the type to strike up conversations with total strangers, I’m finding myself doing just that, and probably talking their ear off in the process. But not because I’ve spontaneously become some kind of social butterfly. But because I’m human.

Humans need to connect, whether that’s for fifteen minutes in the mornings while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew or in a quarterly meeting or at an office Christmas party. And those interactions might not seem like a lot but even the smallest exchange can have a huge impact. But living in the real world isn’t just about making connections, for artists it’s also about making observations. We can’t expect to be able to write about life unless we’ve lived it. Unless we’ve tasted and felt and touched and kissed and wanted and discovered. We have to live to write and not the other way around. So, like I’ve written about before, the day job is not our enemy, but it’s the means to an end. It’s a vessel, an observatory, and a place where we are growing every day as writers and artists, and most importantly as human beings.

When Enough Is Enough

Writing Process

I had another good day today, on the verge of great, though I don’t want to jinx it. But for the first time in a long time I actually had to force myself to step away from the laptop. I reached 4,000 words in just five hours, something I don’t remember having ever done before and by the end of it I didn’t want to stop. Sure I was exhausted but in the midst of that mental strain was this strange euphoria. Almost like a runner’s high–which I would know absolutely nothing about because, well, screw that. But it was just the most encouraging fatigue, the kind that says, “I did something important.”

Maybe that was the real reason I didn’t want to stop writing, because every word that came out of me felt important. Not perfect and certainly not easy but important. I made some huge breakthroughs in the past couple of days and I really think I owe it to this commitment I’ve made to write without question and without doubt and fear. And I’m doing it and it feels amazing.

So then why did I force myself to step away?

Reason One: To Maintain Momentum

Some really great writing advice that I’ve never forgotten was to always finish the day right in the middle of something whether that be a scene or a conversation or a chapter. Nothing wards off writer’s block like being able to pick up the next day right where you left off. Because let’s face it. Isn’t that where most of us get stuck? Beginnings are hard and intimidating and for some reason that pressure is always the most crippling. Which is why so many of us never do. Instead we procrastinate and feel guilty and then we go eat our weight in peanut butter cups because once again we have failed to live up to our full potential which means that our stories will never live up to their full potential. But if we started each day knowing exactly where our story was heading, well then we’ve already won half the battle and all that’s left to do is keeping going.

Reason Two: To Avoid Burn out

4,000 words is A LOT! My sweet spot is closer to 2K a day but recently I’ve been stretching myself to reach a deadline and even though I’m making progress at lightning speed this pace also makes me much more susceptible to burn out. I’ve been burned out before, quite a few times actually, and the thing that frustrates me the most about it is how long it takes to recover. There is a natural ebb and flow to every creative process: a time to push ourselves and a time to rest. But when we have deadlines or obligations or when we feel ourselves being driven by guilt or greed it can be hard to make ourselves stop. But we have to. For our health, for our peace of mind, and for our relationships. Real life matters just as much as our dreams and if we neglect it for too long either those things will disappear or we will. Maybe both. So learn to disconnect when you have to and stop constantly living in anticipation of the future. It will actually make you more productive in the long run.

Reason Three: To Recuperate and Celebrate

Let me say it again: 4,000 words is A LOT! And we all have our limits, that word count we’re all stretching ourselves toward. Some of you might not bat an eye at anything under 5K and some of might struggle just to reach 1. But the point is, when we actually manage to meet those goals, our first thought should not constantly be, “Okay, now a thousand more.” I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to push ourselves in a healthy, constructive way. But the mentality of never being satisfied is a toxic one, especially for Creatives. Instead we should celebrate our victories and we should learn to take a moment and take pride in our accomplishments. As writers we are the workhorse, we are the machine and we need the proper maintenance to continue functioning at optimal level. This means taking care of our health mentally, physically, and spiritually but in essence what it all boils down to is being kind to ourselves. And part of being kind to ourselves is acknowledging that our best is enough. That the work we do is enough. That we are enough. So celebrate your hard work because regardless of how big or how small, how much or how little, as long as it is your best then it is absolutely enough.