Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Writing Routines & the Importance of Me-Time

I get asked a lot about process and my writing routine when I do interviews. It's something I never mind sharing because it's something I'm extremely curious about myself. I know there is no right or wrong way for a writer to work (and hopefully you do, too!), but I'm always interested in hearing about what other writers do, so I can try their techniques out and steal them or adapt them to suit my own purposes.

My writing routine is a work-in-progress itself. It has changed as my life changed, and even though my life has been the same for the past three years or so, I still haven't worked out all of the kinks so I keep readjusting.

When I was a student, I was a binge writer. I did this out of necessity. I was going to school full-time and working two jobs (bartending and office work), sometimes three (teaching). So while I carried my journal with me everywhere and sometimes wrote by hand when it was slow at the bar or the office, I mainly had one day a week, Sundays, where I binged. I wrote from when I woke up til at least dinner time and sometimes til I went to bed.

When I finished grad school and got a "real grown-up job" (more office work that paid slightly better and demanded way, way more), I still often binged one day a week and I also wrote a few hours at night during the week. This pace was really kind of a killer for me, but I hadn't yet been published. I didn't have blogs and websites and social networking and email to keep up with, too. Publishing was like this dream that I wished for, but never thought would come true. I wrote purely out of the enjoyment of writing and the need to tell the story. I thought that if after I finished the book I was working on (BALLADS OF SUBURBIA), it didn't sell, I'd just go back to school for library science and find a different way to be involved with books.

Then my first book, the one that had making the rounds on editor's desks for over a year, the one that I was calling "All Roads Lead To Rock 'n Roll," but renamed I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, sold to MTV Books and my routine changed again. Not immediately. I did my revisions for IWBYJR in the come-home-from-work-and-write, binge-write-on-the-weekends fashion I'd become accustomed to. I finished BALLADS in that fashion, too, and we sold it to MTV Books before IWBYJR was released. But knowing that once IWBYJR came out, I'd have a lot of extra work to do, plus I'd have revisions for BALLADS and I would want to start a new book, I decided to quit the soul-sucking, grown-up office job and go back to bartending. It would mean less income--and unreliable income at that--but more writing time.

And I'll tell you a secret: I thought it would only be temporary. The bartending, I mean. I had these giant dreams that IWBYJR would be a big enough deal to make my future in the writing world secure. I hoped that it would sell well and then BALLADS would sell well and I'd have no problem selling more books for better money, plus I'd have royalties and foreign rights sales and I'd be okay. I didn't want to be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but I thought writing could be my one and only job.

And here is the reality check: my books came out during the recession. I did the best I could to promote them, but they haven't sold enough to earn me royalties and I've yet to be able to sell a third book. I haven't made a dime from writing books since the very beginning of 2009 when I got the final part of my advance for BALLADS.

So at this point basically all of my income is from bartending, another small portion is from freelancing (which doesn't pay particularly well, but I'm passionate about the places I write for and it's the only writing that is earning me any money at all right now), and I've taught a couple college classes to bring in a little bit extra. These three part-time jobs definitely add up to the hours I spent at the office job, but I was still thinking of myself as a full-time or mostly full-time writer.

Figuring out how to balance all of the jobs plus all the stuff I didn't do before I was published (everything from answering the higher quantity of email to social networking to blogging, group blogging, and reading other people's blogs, to setting up events). For the past couple of years, I pushed myself to do it all, all the time. I've designed and redesigned my routine to try to balance it all and beat myself up when I failed. I felt like since my job is at night and only three days a week, I should be trying to write forty-hours a week during the day. Sometimes I would because I was really trying to meet a goal or deadline and I was into the story, but everything else would fall to the wayside and I'd feel guilty about it. Sometimes I would get on top of everything else and feel accomplished about that, but feel like I wasn't doing enough writing. The majority of the time I would be so angsty about my writing that I was getting absolutely nothing accomplished. And last fall when I was teaching and started a new freelance job with ROOKIE, I was pretty much working or sleeping. Other than Friday nights out, my husband barely even saw me because on the other nights that I wasn't working at the bar I would swear that I'd be finished with whatever project/business/freelance piece I was working on "in half an hour or so" and before I knew it, midnight had come and he'd be kissing me goodnight. I didn't see my friends at all aside from the ones who came into the bar I tend or work at the college where I teach.

It become untenable. I broke down. This happened. In summary because that is a long blog entry, I took a month off to hang out with my friend and then realizing how nice it was to not be working every minute of the day and how I associated my writing with failure and stress, seriously considered the quitting-writing-to-go-back-to-school option. Over the course of the last month, I've taken the parts of my writing routine that have worked and adjusted them so I'm not hating life. Here are the things that do work for me:
  • On the five days a week that I am committed to doing book-writing, I start with book-writing. I mean, I get up, exercise, shower, feed the cats and eat breakfast, but that's time I use to start getting my mind moving about my story. I don't answer email (though sometimes I delete some while I'm laying in bed still waking up), I don't go on social networks other than to link to a pre-written blog post or tweet about that days' goals, I don't do errands or chores. I write. Because if I don't write first, I'll never get to it. I know this is something I have to train myself to better about or otherwise emergency trips to the doctor's office like happened last week throw me off entirely. But hey, I know this is a weakness and the best way to deal with it is to avoid it when possible.
  • #90minWrite. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you'll sometimes see me say that I'm going to do one and invite other people to join me. I wrote a blog entry about why I write in 90 minute increments here. When I get around to blogging about goals, I'll probably talk more about time goals vs. word count goals. But basically this works for me very well. I also like to tweet with a group of other writers about our goals for the day because the accountability factor helps keep me off the internet.
  • Binge writing when I need it. I do love a good, guilt-free writing binge. This is why I scrimp and save to go on retreats so that I can say to myself (and in my away message in my email), I am devoting this entire week to writing and nothing else, so sorry you have to wait. Or sometimes toward the end of the book, I set a hard deadline for myself and treat it like a publisher is holding me to it, so I again I can tell myself and other people, sorry, deadline, not doing anything else. And on those binges I will write up to 14 hours a day. But I cannot do that at the beginning of a novel. I can do that when I'm in the thick of it or revising it.
And here are the adaptations I've made to my routine/writing mindset to attempt to make 2012 more liveable and fun.

  • No more overpacked schedules. As I stated, I haven't made a dime off of my books in three years. I am not a full-time writer. I am not even a paid part-time writer at this point. So I cannot feel guilty about not writing 40 hours a week. When I force myself to write, I lose the joy and I end up scrambling to get my paid work done. I have a new routine now where I write from 11 to 2:30 or 3 Monday through Thursday. Sundays, I spend another 3 to 4 hours in a writing group with a friend. That's only 18-20 hours of writing a week, but it's time spent productively instead of feeling stressed. And it works right now because I'm at the beginning of a project. Once it starts flowing I'll re-evaluate and change it if necessary and of course give myself permission to binge.
  • During the week I spend the late afternoon hours writing my freelance pieces, blogs, and keeping up on email, etc. I spend Fridays cleaning the house, running errands and catching up on whatever I didn't get done that week. I do this because if I've learned one major lesson over the past few years it's this: Things will always take me longer than I think they will. Books take longer. Scenes and chapters take longer. Freelance pieces take longer. Blogs definitely take longer (because I'm wordy, sorry. This is another thing I aim to work on.) Even simple errands will often take longer that I thought they would. When my schedule is tightly crammed because I'm trying to do it all, this leads to a constant state of frustration and feelings of failure. I have enough of that kind of angst in my life right now, so I'm working harder to allot more time to everything I do. I used to write until 4 or 5 six days a week, and then I'd be scrambling to tend to other responsibilities. Now I'm carving out real time for those other things and I'm also trying not to to take as much on.
  • Here's a biggie that goes along with that. I'm trying not to feel guilty or obligated to do everything that people ask me to do, and only do what I really want to. I'm also telling myself that if I start something, don't quite get to where I want to be in the time allotted, but have time to devote to it later in the week, it is not a big deal. Like this blog entry, I wrote it in a few different sessions. Also when it comes to book writing, stopping in the middle of a scene when I know what is happening next can be a good trick to get a solid jumpstart the next day of writing.
  • Last but not least is the biggest, most important lesson I've learned: I need some time each week where I'm doing what I want to do and relaxing. I used to tell myself that the Friday errand-running was good enough because it was a day that I wasn't writing. But it's not like cleaning the house and going to the store is fun. So now Saturdays are "me-time" day. This may mean going to a hair appointment like it will this Saturday or hanging out with my niece who always makes life happier or doing some reading, even if it is novel research reading, the key is it being something I want to do.
  • I've also discovered the importance of having other creative outlets BESIDES writing. I've never thought of myself as artistically talented. Writing is the thing I do well and that's about it. I'm a fairly decent cook and I enjoy my time in the kitchen immensely as it gives me a chance to clear my head and do something. Then when my friend Lindsay visited and we started deconstructing t-shirts and make them into to new shirts (see this blog entry), I realized that I could some crafty type things without being too terribly skilled. Then about a month ago, a friend of mine who has been knitting for 20+ years offered to teach a group of us who were interested at the bar. I thought, hey, why not? So now I have a Monday night knitting group, which forces me not to stay up all night Mondays overworking myself. It also provides good thinking and relaxation time.
So, this past Saturday, I spent the afternoon making bread in the bread machine I got for my wedding but hadn't made time to try and while it baked, I watched several episodes of Buffy (which I've never seen. I know! What is wrong with me! That is why me-time will be including lots of Buffy this year), and I made some pretty good progress on this scarf I'm making for my mom.

I intend to spend many future Saturdays with Buffy and doing DIY projects like knitting, t-shirt deconstruction/reconstruction, other fun things like this that I find out about on Rookie (I must give Rookie a lot of credit for helping me see that I can be creative in making things even if I don't feel particularly artistic or design savvy) and hopefully, if I can find a new pattern of some sort, making curtains for my office. (If you have any tips on that let me know!)

I'm sure this won't be a luxury I'll have forever. I mean, hopefully I'll sell another book soon and have actual deadlines, but in the meantime, a day to myself a week is a necessity to keep me sane and exploring other creative outlets actually allow me to do a lot of random thinking about my story, so it's a win-win.

What about you? What is your routine? Do you allow time for yourself? What other creative outlets do you have? Any cool craft ideas to share?

Oh and here is a tidbit from the WIP:

I called her a bitch when she turned away. I repeated it a few times so that she would hear me because I didn’t know that my last sight of her would be cinnamon-streaked curls swinging across the back of a ratty black sweater with Queen of Hell screenprinted on it in red lettering that resembled spattered blood.

I’ve been holding on to that blurry image of her walking away from me for eight months—eight months and fourteen days ago to be precise, not that anyone except me and maybe Gran keeps track that closely anymore.


Liam said...

Loopy Yarns has a Sitch n Bitch group on Friday nights that usually starts between 6:30-7p and runs till 8:30-9p if you ever want to take the time for it.

April said...

This sounds like a great plan. Everyone needs to refill the well every once in a while. Enjoy your time! -April

JenFlower said...

I absolutely approve of the plan to watch Buffy! Recently my work schedule changed and I am still trying to work out the kinks in my plan, I manage to fit in work and uni and am trying to figure out a way to fit in writing without giving up sleep!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Hey Liam, Friday nights are my nights with my husband and I've got a little beginners group I'm part of at my bar, but thanks for letting me know. Also thanks for the ravelry info you sent me on twitter. I peeked at it and may end up joining as a lurker as I progress beyond scarges.

Thanks April

ANd Jen, I am loving my Buffy plan. It is fabulous. I think schedules are always a work in progress. If you can carve out even an hour here or there, you'll be good, but don't give up sleep. You'll find a way!