Posted in creative writing, writing, writing thoughts

Improving work-life balance

work-1627703_1920Writers work in a variety of situations: work from home full time, work outside the home and work from home part home, work full time outside the home and fit in writing on lunch breaks and down time, and on and on. Achieving a work-life balance that works is often a challenge.

When talking about work-life balance, there are four “life quadrants” to consider: work, family, friends, and self. Work-life balance doesn’t mean all four of these are in equal balance. Work-life balance also isn’t static, but should be fluid over time to accommodate changing situations. Everyone’s personal work-life balance will be different.

Below are some tips and resources for achieving better work-life balance. Please share any additional tips that have helped you!

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SELF

  1. Take care of yourself! If you aren’t caring for yourself, every other area of your life is impacted negatively.
  2. Schedule one activity per week that is just for you, whether it’s doing something on your own or going out with friends.
  3. Make others aware of your plans or schedule so they expect it and can adjust accordingly.
  4. Know when to stop or say no. This includes work commitments and family/friends activities. Simplify your life by prioritizing which activities are important and which are beyond your current capabilities.
  5. Exercise and/or meditate. Both are stress reducers and don’t have to take up hours of your day to provide health benefits. Both work to reduce stress by activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms everything down in the moment and long term as you develop a consistent routine.
  6. Develop strong time-management skills.
    1. Plan your entire week ahead of time.
    2. Set time limits for chores, writing etc.
    3. Keep an activity log for a few days, tracking every 15-30 minutes. Review at the end of the day and cut out whatever is unnecessary or time wasting.
    4. Reevaluate your goals so they are realistic.
    5. Utilize auto-ship/delivery/pickup services when possible.
    6. Choose easy-to-make meals and have kids or partners help prepare them when possible.
  7. Limit time-wasting activities and people. Rank daily activities based on priorities. Trim what wastes time.
  8. Participate in community engagement activities such a group discussions and book clubs at HGW and local activities and events in your area.
  9. Create a designated quiet space. This space should be a space where you can take a mental break. Make it uncluttered and free of work materials or reminders. Find a space with lots of light, one that is comfortable, has plants possibly, and is calming.
  10. Take short breaks throughout the day to get in some steps, go outside, or do something that allows you to clear your head.
  11. Change your life structure to matches your time to your responsibilities. Delegate or split tasks when possible, enlist help from services or friends, or cut out activities or responsibilities that are not necessary.
  12. Redistribute responsibilities, focus on what you specialize in, what time commitments make sense, and what you value most.

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WORK

  1. Let go of perfectionism, especially on a first draft. Let yourself work free of critique so you can work faster. Save the editing and re-writes for later.
  2. Limit distractions while working. Turn off your phone, internet, etc. and focus only on your work for a specific amount of time. Then take a break and clear you mind.
  3. Take pleasure in your work. Keep a list near your computer reminding you why you enjoy writing.
  4. Overlap instead of multi-tasking. Accept that some family activities do not require your full attention and can double as work time, such as waiting in the lobby for a child’s dance class to end.
  5. Set boundaries and stick to them. Know how much time you have to devote to different areas and makes others aware of your commitments so they don’t feel ignored and can help you accomplish your goals.
  6. Have a physical schedule of deadlines and projects that is posted where you and family members can see. It serves as a reminder to you and to family members of why you are busy or can’t spend as much time in other pursuits at the moment.

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FAMILY

  1. Unplug and take time for your family. Tell others about your goal to stay unplugged for a specific amount of time so they can help remind you.
  2. Choose specific family activities that need you to be fully present for – such as a child’s sporting event or school program, and leave work behind.
  3. Schedule dedicated time with family each day or week. Don’t allow other distractions. Bonding time makes you more productive and relaxed at work.
  4. Make time for sit-down breakfast to start the day on a positive note.
  5. Family dinners are good for kids because they help them have better relationships with parents, which reduces parental stress.
  6. Get kids involved with necessary chores and have fun doing them together. Turn on some music or make a game of it.
  7. Involve the kids/family in exercise time or meditation. Children need quiet time or time to work out excess energy just as much as adults do!
  8. Check in with your kids/family every so often to see how you’re doing and express your needs to them. Work-life balance is often a group effort and works much better when the whole family is invested in improvement.
  9. Develop rituals to start/stop work and mentally and emotionally prepare yourself to be present in other activities. Set aside 20 minutes before wrapping up work to tie up all loose ends and clear your mind for family time.

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FRIENDS

  1. Make time to spend with friends, but set realistic goals based on your current commitments.
  2. Write out an “ideal” time with friends, such as dinner or a movie, and write out an alternative plan for busy weeks, such as 30 minutes for coffee. Adjust on a weekly basis for what fits best for that week, but don’t skip seeing friends regularly.
  3. Involve friends in exercise activities, such as walk or fitness class.
  4. Include friends in work related activities, such as a reading club or trip to the bookstore for a reading or author event.
  5. Take short breaks during the day to text or chat with friends.

An important thing to remember when working to improve work-life balance is that we all go through different seasons where some things simply must take priority while others are pushed aside. It doesn’t mean you’re failing at one aspect or another. It means you are aware of your limitations and are taking action to manage your responsibilities.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Worldbuilding

As writers, we all know how important worldbuilding is when writing fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian.

What about when you’re writing contemporary realistic fiction?

You may not need to create detailed maps or a new social structure when writing about the real world, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to worldbuilding.

What aspects of worldbuilding apply to contemporary realistic fiction?

Creating your own town

Small European TownCreating a fictional town is definitely the most involved type of worldbuilding in contemporary realistic fiction. You’ll draw from real places with the goal of developing something new and interesting. A huge benefit of making up a location is that you aren’t bound by anything. Another benefit is that you won’t spend hours researching a real place and worry about whether you’ve portrayed it correctly. A fictional location allows you to build the exact setting you need to develop your plot and characters.

What should you consider when creating your own town or setting?

What type of location does the storyline call for? Is your character on his own in a big city for the first time? Is she pulled from city life to figure out small-town living? Does the story require seclusion or crowds? How plugged in is your main character? Are they a foodie who loves trying new eateries or someone who loves the familiar?

How do you develop realistic details?

Desert RoadStart off based in reality. For those who’ve watched Twin Peaks and paid attention to the opening credits, the welcome sign claims the town has 51k people, yet everyone knows each other and there seems to be only one restaurant. Take the time to research town sizes and amenities in order to make sure everything lines up.

Check into weather and seasonal changes as well. Summer comes to Phoenix a lot quicker than Montana, BUT if you’ve been living with single digits for six months in Colorado Springs, 35 degrees feels pretty nice and you might see a few pairs of capris or flipflops.

Investigate the demographics, foods, culture, and dialect of your fictional town’s region or state. Just because your town is made up doesn’t mean you can go wild with random details. Ask people around the county how they refer to a carbonated beverage or what toppings they put on a pulled pork sandwich. If you spell chile (the vegetable) with an “I” in the Southwest, you’ll get more than a few eye rolls.

Building a neighborhood

Death_to_Stock_Photography_NYC_Skyline_7Whether you’re creating a fictional town or using a real town, you still need to develop the small-scale details of the neighborhood or apartment building your characters inhabit.

Who else lives here and how do they interact with the main character(s)? What is the overall feel of the area? This is a great place to start developing secondary characters and conflicts. Think about where the neighbors or residents tend to hang out or stop off for a quick conversation or gossip exchange. Is it in the laundry room or by the mailboxes? Does everyone walk to their destinations or is driving necessary? Does the MC want to stay or are they anxious to get out of dodge?

Consider the type of building or homes. Older homes have different problems then newer ones. What are the main issues and best aspects of the area and how do they impact the story? A dirty, trash-ridden street will create a different feeling than an old dirt road with cattle fence separating the properties.

Places to go and things to do

Death_to_stock_communicate_hands_4Thinks Friends when you’re creating your characters’ daily habits and local haunts. Who’s apartment/house does everyone tend to hang out at and why? What features make it desirable? When they’re out and about, where do they often stop for coffee or to catch up, and how does that environment help the story? If characters need a quiet place to trade secrets or go over plans, a busy, noisy coffee shop might not work as well as a used bookstore.

Something to remember here is that locations should have a point and progress the story. Just because your characters likes kittens doesn’t mean readers need scenes of him or her at a local shelter if it in no way relates to the overall story. Every place or activity needs to be relevant or readers will start to think it’s filler and skim over it.

Work/office worldbuilding

iStock_000023280434LargeSimilar to building a neighborhood, it’s important to develop the work or office life of a character. How much it needs to be developed depends on how important it is to the story. If a character has social anxiety, a busy and fast-paced office will provide conflict. If a teen character is itching for excitement but works at an outdated video rental store only a few old people visit every week, that also provides conflict. If work is only mentioned in passing to acknowledge that the character does indeed have a job, minimal development is needed beyond the fact that it eats up a large portion of their time and provides an income.

Other sources of conflict and potential to move a story forward include relationships with co-workers, possibility of moving on to something better, fear of being fired, how other people in the office view the MC, and on and on. Again, any detail you insert should have a point, even if it’s only providing a coworker for the MC to sound off to or bounce ideas off.

Relationship to the world at large

DeathtoStock_CreativeSpace8 11.45.06 AMA very important, overarching detail to develop is how your MC relates to the world. This is most often going to develop from backstory. Some writers develop the backstory first while others let it come to light as they write. The important thing about backstory is that it forms a starting point for your character and helps determine an end point.

How does your character see the world around them? What problems or benefits does this viewpoint create? How will they overcome related problems? How will they change by the end of the book?

A character living in an overpriced, cramped apartment in New York will view it differently depending on where he or she was before that. Someone escaping a small town they hated may see it much more positively than someone who has been cut off and forced to make their own way. The character’s view of their world will alter how they will describe a scene, interact with others, make choices, and move within that world.

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Even if your characters are living in the same world we are, don’t skimp on developing a realistic and full setting. The more readers can recognize and relate to where your characters exist, the more they will connect to the overall story. We may all live in the same world, but we each experience it very differently, and so should your characters.

Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing thoughts, writing tips, young adult

Categorizing young adult fiction

read-515531_1920I’ve been editing a young adult project I wrote a few years back and never got back to, and it reminded me of a comment I saw on social media a while back about whether YA is an age group or a genre.

Traditionally, YA has been categorized based on audience age and the age and experiences of the protagonist. Youth ages 12-18 are the  target audience. Themes focus on new experiences and challenges as characters approach adulthood.

As the genres have shifted over the past decade, there’s been some debate about whether YA is still categorized based on character age and audience age, or if it should even be considered a genre at all. It’s more complicated than simply saying it’s one or the other, or should or shouldn’t be.

It’s not uncommon for a teenage character to face challenges and themes that may not be suitable for a twelve-year-old reader. Is it still YA? The fact that half of YA readers are adults shows that plenty of grownups enjoy reading about the young adult experience. Is it still YA if adults are the largest reader group of a particular book? The wide variety of subgenres, topics covered, heat levels, amount of profanity, and character age ranges in YA shows how difficult it is to pinpoint what is and isn’t YA.

I didn’t read Lord of the Flies until I was in high school, yet the characters are pre-adolescent. The content, however, would make it a difficult read for middle grade readers.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s main character, Scout, is only six years old when the book begins, but deals with difficult concepts and themes which apply to a wide variety of readers of all ages.

Fahrenheit 451 is often listed as both YA and adult fiction, and is frequently on high school reading lists. However, almost all of the main characters are all adults and the story deals with complex themes and difficult scenes.

So what makes a book YA, and is it a genre or age range of target readers?

I tend to agree that YA as a genre attempts to pigeon-hole a huge variety of fiction into one category. It says more about the age range of readers someone out there thinks will enjoy the story more than what type of book it is. TO me, that’s not a terrible helpful category. You have to move on to subgenre to figure out what a book is going to be about.

Classifying a book has more to do with the point and purpose of the story than the age of the reader or characters. Does the story speak to the experiences of a young adult? The teenage years are often a time of self-discovery and trying to figure out where you belong in the world. Young adults face a lot of “firsts” that are often complicated to manage and can have a huge impact on the way they see themselves and the world, good or bad.

YA fiction tends to focus on the specific challenges and crises that go along with entering a new world (adulthood, moving towns or schools, first relationships and jobs, etc.), social and emotional growth and development, exploring boundaries (relationships, drugs and alcohol, sex, etc.), and self-discovery.

Of course, many adults face similar issues, which is why the lines get blurred so often between genres, however, teens tend to experience these things differently than most adults. This shifts the focus or perspective of YA fiction. A relationship at 16 is very different than one at 40. The same goes for jobs, school, sex, and much more. The thing is, though, that those experiences are interesting to more than just the teens out there living it because it’s about the human experience.

Despite what genre gets listed on Kindle or Apple Books, YA is more complicated than simply saying it’s a defined genre or an age group. An author may have a specific audience or purpose as they write, but readers take what they will from each book they read and catalog it in a way that makes sense to them. The exact definition matters a lot less than whether or not the story speaks to readers in a meaningful way.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing thoughts

The in-between times are weird

desk-2906792It’s been a long time since I haven’t had a project that I was in the middle of and felt pressured to finish.

Don’t get me wrong, I have multiple half-finished books, podcast audio files to edit and upload, marketing stuff I keep meaning to do, and new ideas bouncing around in my head. I just don’t have to do any of them right this second.

For months it’s been one deadline after another, learning a new job, trying and often failing to keep up with things at home and learning to ask for help, and feeling like I’m constantly behind.

It feels good to have wrapped up all my freelance projects and pressing personal projects and feel like I’m getting a handle on my job. What feels weird is not having anyone bombarding me at the moment. I don’t know what to work on next. Part of me wants to just enjoy not having to do anything right this second, even though I know I have a long to-do list waiting for me.

I have ideas for a fifth and final Date Shark book, the next Escaping Fate book, “Oracle Lost,” is outlined and ready to be written, I have a concept for the next Ghost Host book, I have a few chapters written for “Child of Hope” (sequel to the still unpublished “Child of Destruction”), the next Arcane Wielders book is about a 1/4 written,  scenes for the next Eliza Carlisle book are bouncing around in my head, and I have a couple of brand new ideas I think readers will like. What I don’t have is a plan to get through all of that.

This strange in-between feeling is almost overwhelming. To get back into an open series, I need to reread the previous books. To start something new means putting off half-finished projects. To focus on marketing means I’m not writing. It has me at a standstill in some ways.

What next?

If any of my readers have a suggestion on what book they most want to see next, shout it out!

Posted in writing, writing thoughts

My first six months in journalism

Typewriter illustrationThis past February I started a job as an editorial assistant at a local newspaper. I’ve been writing since I was a teen, and got started publishing fiction almost ten years ago, but journalism is a whole new world of writing for me. I’ve learned a lot so far, some writing-related and some just plain interesting.

The AP Stylebook is the end-all be-all for journalists, even though it says not to use the Oxford comma, which drives me batty on a daily basis.

On the rare occasion AP doesn’t have the answer, Miriam-Webster gets the final say. Any questions either of these can’t handle go to David Buck, who knows everything about journalism but is still super nice.

InCopy has this amazing feature that can change capitalization with one click. It’s my favorite thing about it, especially since the program is kind of a pain in the ass in general. I have no idea why Word can’t change capitalization like this. Get on it, developers. Please?

Writing length is measured in inches, not pages or words. I still haven’t figured out the conversion and need to see it visually, but as usual, my articles are often too long!

Storytelling in journalism is a lot different than in fiction. There’s no room for a detailed backstory or well-developed plot. Journalism answers questions and informs more than tells stories most of the time.

Journalists don’t accept change easily. There were audible gasps when AP announced the percent sign could now be used instead of writing it out.

Last but not least, I’ve learned that one of my coworkers carries a cross in her pocket, not because she’s religious, but because you never know when you might run into a vampire.

I still have a ton to learn about journalism, but I’m enjoying the process and the people.

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If you want to see what I’ve been writing, stop by The Durango Herald and The Journal!
Posted in books, creative writing, lessons learned, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Lessons Learned: Life of Pi

I watched the movie first, and really enjoyed it, so I figured I would read the book, since there’s always so much left out of the movie version of any book. This is one of those very rare times where I actually preferred the trimmed down movie version.

life of piFor those who haven’t read or seen Life of Pi, it’s about a young man who survives his ship sinking in the middle of the sea during a journey from India to Canada. He makes it to a life boat, but finds himself in the company of several of the zoo animals his family was transporting…including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

What I loved about this story was the use of extended metaphor to tell Pi’s story of survival at sea with Richard Parker (I won’t give away what that’s a metaphor for in case you haven’t seen/read it). It’s not a commonly used tactic in modern fiction, and if you’d like an great example of it, read this book. Or watch the movie.

How to write an extended metaphor is not the lesson learned from this book, however.

Not overloading your reader or being condescending to them is the lesson learned.

c4223-robotcartoonInfodumping is often a struggle for writers who do in-depth research for a book. You found out all these awesome things about whatever and now you HAVE TO SHARE THEM ALL! Unless you are writing a non-fiction book about your topic that is meant to give a detailed history of whatever, please, please, please for the love of all things bookish DO NOT vomit up every seemingly fascinating tidbit of research you uncovered while preparing to write your book.

Listening to an audiobook, you can’t really skim, which makes endless amounts of information you’re not particularly interested in even harder to get through. I listened to Life of Pi and simply had to take a break when chapters went on and on about various animals, their habits and traits, mating rituals, etc. I started listening to the book to find out more about Pi’s journey, not to hear a dissertation on animal husbandry.

Focus on what your reader wants out of your story, not just on what you want to tell them.

girl-868784_1920I also struggled to listen at length to the religious discussions, which I usually enjoy quite a bit. I think religion is a fascinating topic and enjoy learning about many different religions. What I didn’t enjoy was, again, too much straight information that took me away from the story, and the sometimes condescending way the information was presented. I don’t hold with any particular religion, but I was still bothered by the sense I got that if a reader didn’t agree with the author’s opinions on eating meat, practicing multiple religions at once, or who or what God or gods might be they were simply wrong or not as smart as the author. I enjoy learning about how others view God, religion, the Universe, etc., but in a way that invites thoughtfulness rather than looking down on others’ beliefs or viewpoints.

Don’t talk down to your reader.

While I enjoyed the story overall, I definitely prefer the movie version, which focused the point of Pi’s journey as a struggle to understand faith and the meaning of life when faced with tragedy. If something you want to put into your book doesn’t add to the story or unnecessarily turns readers off, there’s a good chance it doesn’t need to be there.

Posted in books, writing, writing thoughts

Writing a Book is like Running a (half) Marathon

Last weekend, my husband and I just ran our second half marathon. I intended to write this post after we ran it last year, but that’s how on top of things I’ve been lately!

So, how is writing a book like running a half marathon?

R and S running the course

The first few miles of a half marathon are awesome. Your adrenaline is pumping, you’re excited to get the race going, and 13 miles doesn’t sound that bad now that you’ve actually got your sneakers on the course. You’ll definitely beat your personal best, by at least half an hour.

When you first start writing a new idea, it’s exciting and you think feel like you’ll be able to write straight to the end because it’s that amazing! You can sit for hours on end scribbling down witty dialogue and captivating scenes. 300 pages? That’s nothing, right?

The fun and adrenaline starts to taper off somewhere around mile 6 or page 50.

When it comes to running, your adrenaline is pushing you to churn out a faster pace than you’ve ever run before. You’re pretty sure you can try out for the Olympics in a few years. Everything feels amazing. Until it doesn’t.

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World and character building has been a rush, and setting up all those clever little hints has convinced you that there won’t be a single reader in the world who will guess the ending. It’s the best opening of a book you’ve ever written or read. Until your creativity takes a nose dive.

That’s when you hit a wall…creatively or physically.

The physical wall you hit halfway through your half marathon is aggravating and painful. Your knees start to ache. Your hip feels like it has no cartilage left. Every step is torture and you’re regretting ever signing up for this stupid race. There’s no way you can finish. Every time a car passes by you hope they’ll stop and give you a ride to the finish line. But no one stops, so you Just Keep Running.

One moment you’re writing like a crazy person…then all the words dry up. Each one feels like you have to drag it to the surface by force. You’re pretty sure you now have carpal tunnel from the frantic writing. Where has it left you? You’ve set up fabulous characters and a storyline no reader will be able to put down, but keeping up the same momentum seems impossible when you move from doling out exciting tidbits to carrying on a consistently engaging story where you don’t lapse into pointless dialogue or never ending description of a walk through the park sounds impossible. But you Just Have To Keep Writing even though you’re now  positive the whole book sucks and you never should have started writing it.

Then something changes again.

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When you see mile marker 11 come into view and you realize you’re almost done, the tears aren’t easy to hold back. Pain, joy, madness…it’s hard to tell. You’re too dehydrated to cry, though, so you hobble onward with renewed energy. As much pain as you’re in, you’re almost there! You can make it.

With writing, the middle section that felt like torture to write and wanted to throw across the room while crying about how terrible it was…everything suddenly comes together. That chapter where your characters endlessly walked through the park went from being a Tolkienesque history of the trees to a pivotal conversation that helped them solve the mystery for fix their relationship. You know how the story ends now!

Sheree Finish Line

Crossing the finish line, writing the end, both feel incredible…but neither one is really the end because you know you’re going to be sore for a week or have a long list of rewrites to work on, BUT it’s a huge milestone to hit and it was totally worth it regardless of the messy shape your body or manuscript is in.

After our race, we got a breakfast burrito and a beer, which I’ll be honest, sounded like a horrible idea at ten in the morning after running 13 miles (the race was hosted by a brewery), but both were actually much appreciated because I was starving and in pain and food and alcohol proved to be exactly what I needed.

Finishing a manuscript is also something to be proud of regardless of the fact that it might have choppy scenes and stilted dialogue and a handful of hints you forgot to ever bring back into the plot. You started a book. You finished it. How many people have wanted to write a book and gave up after a few chapters? A lot.

20170206_074136After running a half marathon, I take a good couple weeks (or maybe a month) off from running. It’s time for yoga, core work, maybe a little biking. My body needs to recover, and honestly so does my motivation.

As soon as you type out THE END, take a good long break from your manuscript, too. Don’t even look at it. Think about it, if you want, consider those problem areas and forgotten clues, but leave the book alone for as long as you can stand it. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting to write sometimes. Give yourself a break so you can come back for the editing round with fresh eyes and some excitement.

Whether you’re running or writing, don’t give up when it gets painful or hard. You’ll learn a lot from your mistakes and be better for it in the end. It took me ten years to publish my first book and a year and a half or running 5 days a week to survive a half marathon. The journey to do something awesome sometimes sucks, a lot, but it’s worth it in the end.

Cheers!

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