Category Archives: Giving Yourself a Break

When Disaster Strikes – Getting My Momentum Back

I’ve blogged on the Fictorians before about the infection that nearly killed me in 2014. What I may not have mentioned that outside of that scary situation and hospital stay, it really wrecked my writing momentum. This was February 2014. If we rewind back to mid-2013, I went into the most productive period of my writing at that point. From July 2013 to January 14, I wrote two novels. I wrote what became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL and another shorter novel that’s my tribute to Elmore Leonard called SUPER SYNC. In that six month period, I also wrote a few short stories and my overall total of words written was probably somewhere near 180,000. This was an incredible time and I really felt like I was getting into a higher gear when everything came crashing down.

After my illness, I barely wrote anything new for a year. Yes, I sold and went through subsequent edits on both SLEEPER PROTOCOL and an earlier novel RUNS IN THE FAMILY, so I was “writing” but I wasn’t writing anything new, which we all know are two entirely different things. But, in that period from April 2015 to January 2016 came the impetus for the sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL and I decided to try my hand at a prequel to RUNS IN THE FAMILY. Writing was slow and arduous. There were several times when I wanted to simply give up. I was going to publish a novel, after all. I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to be happy with one book on that shelf by my deathbed. It was time to write more, so in January 2016, I decided that it was time to get off my ass and write. I’d been incredibly productive before then, and I believed I could get back to, or surpass, my productivity. It just required self-discipline to get into the chair and write and a little faith that I would get better, both mentally and physically.

It was slow going at first, but I outlined an alternate history novel. From there, I went into the draft of VENDETTA PROTOCOL with the goal of writing it in three months. SLEEPER PROTOCOL took me 7 weeks and I figured I would need about double the time. Turns out, I wrote VENDETTA PROTOCOL in 9 weeks. Because I could feel myself getting faster and I trusted myself as a writer. Was it perfect? Hell, no. But I was getting it out of my head. I turned around from that draft and wrote a novella LANCER ONE. After that, I was asked to submit to a military science fiction anthology, so I wrote a 9,000 word story “Stand On It.” At the end of 2016, I started work on the alternate history novel I’d outlined in February-March. I worked on that draft into February of 2017.

Not long after I finished that project, my military science fiction anthology story turned into a novel titled PEACEMAKER. I wrote that novel in less than three months. During that time, I was asked on short notice to provide a story for the upcoming X-PRIZE: Avatars anthology. I had to turn it around in two weeks – I did it in a week. All of that “new writing” ended back in June of this year. I’ve been editing ever since. The results are crazy.

PEACEMAKER get worldwide release on August 25th. VENDETTA PROTOCOL gets an ebook release on September 13th and a print version following. The novella LANCER ONE is due out in October. The first anthology A FISTFUL OF CREDITS was released in June and is selling like hotcakes. The X-PRIZE anthology is due later this year.

Two weeks ago, I turned in the alternate history project to my editor/mentor. It’s the most difficult book I’ve written to date. I’ve now laid out a plan for the rest of 2017 and it’s ambitious as hell. I can get it done, though. My momentum is back. How did I do it?

Go back a few paragraphs. For me, it’s about putting my butt in the chair and writing. Yes, I plot and outline, but I’m also thinking about the books and projects all the time. I take a lot of notes. Some of them work, others don’t. The best ideas I don’t have to write down because they stay with me. Once I’m committed to writing the project, I let go of my inner critic – that little bastard that likes to click the backspace button more than he types. I write because I know that I can fix it later. I get the story out of my head. If it comes in short or over the desired word count, I go back and fix it. All of that is faith in myself. Will I make mistakes? Yes. Can I fix them? Yes. I’ve taken very strongly to the belief that I can fix anything in editing. The result is my productivity is higher than ever.

Let go. Have faith. Write.

Know Who You Are and How You Write

Ask a dozen writers for advice on how/how often to write productively and you’ll get a dozen answers. Everyone will eagerly tell you the system that works for them, urging you to replicate it precisely on your way to success. But as we all know from a million ads for personalized products, everyone is different. Given the same topic, no two writers will produce the same story. In the same way, no two writers will find the same process.

We’ve written about this before, of course, at length. But in a month about momentum, it’s one of the most important topics to reiterate: no, you don’t need to write every day or write a certain number of words per session. As I see it, “writing regularly” as a concept boils down to two core principles:

  1. Wanting to write
  2. Making time to write

But there’s a third principle as well, one that sits outside of writing regularly but is equally, if not more, important: don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t managing the kind of regular writing you want. I’m speaking to you as someone who is suffering from a momentum problem myself, right now. An unexpected promotion earlier this year at my day job has left me with a lot less energy in the evening, and I spend half the weekend recovering mentally. There are some nights where I force myself to sit at the keyboard and pound out words, and after a bit they do come. Then there are some days where any attempt to do that just leaves me frustrated and with nothing to show for it. Believe me when I say I’ve failed to follow my own advice a fair bit this year.

But you can’t let yourself go down that rabbit hole, because unless you are one of those writers that thrives on pressure and recrimination, you’re just going to make the problem worse. A lot of people publicly call out George R.R. Martin for his writing, and whichever side of that debate fans might take, does anybody really think that the knowledge that thousands of fans are furious at him all the time is making The Winds of Winter happen any faster? Well, the same is true if your biggest critic is yourself. You have to be in a good head space to write well, and you’re never going to be in a good head space if you’re constantly battering yourself for not writing faster. If you try to force it, you’ll either end up with nothing or writing that’s so bad you’ll feel worse than when you started.

If you do find yourself in this vicious cycle, first take a breath. Cut yourself some slack. Quit comparing yourself to the fastest, most prolific writer you know. We all know that person, and it’s not healthy, because you aren’t them (unless, of course, you are the fastest writer you know, in which case you’ve earned a break). You aren’t a failure as a writer because you need a break.

Once you’ve given yourself some time to clear your head, think back to the last time you were writing at a rate that made you happy. What were the circumstances then, and how are your current circumstances different? And, crucially, was that pace sustainable? I’ve twice written drafts of 100,000+ word novels in under three months, but I was so burned out after each instance, I was unable to even look at my laptop for another three months. So that pace works when I have a deadline looming, but otherwise is no good for me, because I can’t sustain it long-term. With a full-time day job, 3k-5k words per week seems to be my sweet spot for sustainability, but even then, life can (and does) get in the way. You have to be both flexible and forgiving.

In the end, only you are responsible for your own well-being as a writer. No one is better equipped than you to know when it isn’t working, and no one is going to step in and tell you that it’s time to try something different or to step away for awhile. Only you can know that about yourself. But you have to remember to listen.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents: An Anthology of What Lies Beneath. He lives with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Finding Momentum When It’s Gone

I work on one big project at a time. The art of juggling two or three big projects at once is lost on me, as all the projects start to blend together in a weird, self-referencing word-soup. That means my writing process is a one-step-at-a-time deal. For a few weeks, I will do nothing but planning, plotting, and outlining. Then, for a few months, all I’m doing is writing. And then for up to year after that, I’m editing.

After I’ve been editing my work for so long, I’m often intimidated when I think of going back to writing. I’m worried I haven’t learned anything, or that I won’t apply what I’ve learned when I edited. I’m worried the flow and creativity has been stilted by too much editing work. I’m afraid I’ve lost my voice. I’m concerned I’m too focused on what will sell instead of what it is I’ve got to say.

It’s taken some time for me to learn how to get back into writing after time away. The “just sit down and write” advice doesn’t always cut it. You can plan your time down to the minute and regiment yourself to your schedule, and that works for a lot of people. Most people. But that doesn’t take care of the lack of confidence or the worries, and making myself sit in a chair and stare at a screen doesn’t help me find the heart of why I’m writing.

Over the years, I’ve learned the painful lesson that inspiration is incredibly important to my writing and my creative identity. It is true that, many times, you’ll have to write when the muse isn’t slinking around your shoulders and whispering in your ear. However, I think it’s easy to become distracted working that way – distracted from your core, from the reason you wanted to write in the first place. Viewing writing as a job, as work, is allowing it one step closer to becoming your job instead of your vocation, and divorcing it from passion altogether. In the day to day, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutia. I’ve found it’s vital to be able to stop and ask myself what I’m looking to accomplish with the project in the first place. What am I trying to communicate?

Those answers don’t always come immediately. I often have to search for them. This is how:

  1. Journal
  2. Go to a natural history museum or cultural center
  3. Watch a documentary or two about subjects that I know very little about.
  4. Go for a hike/ go camping. Don’t allow myself my phone or any digital tethers
  5. Allow myself to daydream. Allow myself to forget my schedule and my to-do list
  6. Use my hands to make. Bake. Work on a motorcycle. Throw a pot on a wheel. Learn glassblowing. Draw. Make. Learn. Do. And let the mind wander

*Bring journal or a notebook when doing 2-6

These things have helped me focus back on my voice, consider my point of view, helped me remember what is important, and reminded me of our connection points as humans and therefore what we can all relate to on a primal and emotional level. I find allowing my mind to wander on these subjects through art, journaling, and being a student of life and nature itself helps focus my mind and prepare it for creativity and communication.

I mean, I get it. I sound like a neo-hippy. Check that language, man. Connection, point of view, creation, daydream, communication. All I’m missing are some essential oils to drip all over this blog post and some vegan gluten-free cookies for you, my awesome readers.

I acknowledge that most people can just put ass-in-seat and write, treating it like a job. Set a timer. Schedule writing time. Have strict daily, weekly, and monthly goals. These are all fantastic strategies to get you back on track with writing after a long break.

But if you happen to be somewhat like me, you need reflection. You need to ask yourself questions about not only your story, but why you’re writing it. And then you need time to think through the answers. Our culture has made it easy to become very busy very fast – to work through a to-do list everyday, go to bed, wake up, and repeat. But if you’re finding that you need less structure, more time – prioritize that. Prioritize time. Loosen your daily schedule. Allow four hours of writing time instead of two, knowing that some of those four hours may be you taking a walk, sitting outside, listening to music, thinking. Sometimes a few of those all at once. I think you’ll be surprised to find how much inspiration follows you on those walks and mind-walks, and soon, you’ll be back in your seat and writing, refreshed, collected, and ready.

Reframing Failure

A few years back, I had a conversation about horses that changed how I viewed my writing career. A dear friend of mine was telling me a story about when she was teaching her son how to ride a horse. She had grown up on a West Texas ranch and wanted to pass that legacy on to the next generation. One day he was thrown by the animal and landed hard. My friend went to her son to ensure that he hadn’t been seriously hurt. Once she had confirmed that he would be okay, she stood over him in the dust and heat of the Texan summer. Her boy was on the verge of tears, but she didn’t try to sooth him. Instead, she told him that he needed to choose if he really wanted to know how to ride. If he didn’t, he could sit and cry, and that would be fine. But “cowboys don’t cry,” and if he really wanted that life he would need to show her how tough he really was. He’d need to stand up and go show that animal that he wasn’t afraid of it. He needed to take back his power, right now or not at all.

There’s a reason that the phrase “get back in the saddle” is a cliché for starting again after a failure. If you’ve never ridden a horse, you can’t know what it feels like to have a thousand pounds of animal underneath you. To feel the shifting of muscle and sway of the saddle as your mount walks. Or know the sensation of speed and power as the horse runs. As a rider, you are only in control as much as the mount’s training or your own skill allows you to be. All the while, you are aware that falling or being thrown can be a bone breaking, paralyzing, or mortal experience. For new riders, it’s frightening. And for good reason.

Most humans are programmed to avoid painful situations. Sometimes it’s something we’ve already experienced, and others it is simply the anticipation of harm that warns us away. While this instinct helps us survive, it doesn’t allow us to grow. We only develop as individuals if we are challenged, pushed to leave our comfort zones, and are forced to adapt. In doing so, however, we risk mental, emotional, or physical hardship. And no one gets through life unscathed.

Little did my friend know that when she told me that story, I was struggling with my own fall, just of a less literal nature. I had recently been rejected by an agent that I had queried a few weeks before. It wasn’t even a personalized rejection, but rather a form letter that was addressed to “Dear Author”. I was embarrassed, angry with myself, and ashamed of my failure. I was still lying in the dirt, hurt and wallowing. However, I needed to make a decision.

I wasn’t considering quitting writing. Storytelling was and still is my passion. I had been warned that rejection letters were inevitable and that I would need to develop a thick skin to being told “thank you, but no.” However, rejection letters have a powerful effect on us writers because they feed the part of our brain teeming with doubt. I was trying to decide what that particular rejection meant for me and my story. Did I still believe in these characters? Did I still believe that the work represented the best of my skills? Was the problem something in my query letter or my manuscript? I didn’t know and so was paralyzed by indecision.

My friend’s story reminded me that I was letting the letter have power over my actions and needed to show it, and myself, that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore.

And so, I decided to reframe my problem. Quite literally. I went to the store and spent about five dollars on a plain, black, plastic picture frame. I printed out the first page of the rejection and hung it on the wall in my office. I stepped back, looked at my framed failure, and told myself aloud that this was a step in the process. I would fail again. I would succeed. I’d hang each on my wall because I owned them, they did not own me.

In the years since, I’ve added many more black frames to my wall. However, I’ve also added a few silver frames, my wins. There aren’t many silvers in comparison to the blacks, but they would not exist at all had I not decided to move past my fear and self-pity to keep pushing myself to grow. Each time I look at that wall, I am reminded of what those failures taught me, and that I have persevered. Despite the failures, I am still writing, still submitting, and still growing. With enough hard work and determination, I will have my writing career. I just need to keep dusting myself off after each and every failure and choosing what I really want.