Category Archives: Ace Jordyn

When Chronic Illness Sabotages Goals

There are many writers and aspiring writers with chronic illnesses. These illnesses sabotage our goals and writing time when we experience flare ups. Chronic illnesses can sabotage our goals and objectives and make the smallest task seem daunting. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). CFS has changed how I function as a writer. It has forced me to choose what I do and if I do it at all. It has forced me to prioritize and focus. These things are not bad in and of themselves. They simply mean that I have had to adjust but adjusting has not always been easy or simple. Here are a few Tips to Manage Writing with Chronic Illness and achieving goals:

1) Practise Self-Care.
This is one of the hardest things ever to learn. Sounds simple enough but consider the following:

A) As writers we’re driven to tell the story and to succeed in this industry. There are shining examples of successful authors who write one, two or three novels a year, and do all sorts of marketing stuff. This is who we aspire to be and when we can’t be, that voice of sabotage in our heads tells us we are failures. Self-care here means changing the expectation, accepting what we can and cannot do, setting realistic goals for ourselves. Most important, we need to change the paradigm of success we have in our heads. There are writers with chronic illness who are successful. We can do it. On our terms we certainly can!

B) Self care means telling the energy drains in your life to take a back seat or to buzz off. Whether its people, involvement with social media (there’s a reason why I don’t do Face Book), or house cleaning (I had to resort to getting a housekeeper to come in every three weeks to do the cleaning I cannot. I had to give up something else but that was worth it). Some will call it selfish, but this type of selfish is healthy as is claiming your writing time and enforcing it.

C) Gratitude is really important. I’m generally optimistic but when I’m grateful for the things I can accomplish, and grateful for the writing however slow or sporadic at times, the world feels like a much more fun and wonderful place. Gratitude helps me get through the tough times because I recover more quickly if I’m not down on myself.

2) Know Your Limitations and Work Within Them
Many days, if I can write for an hour, it’s been a good day. Then, I do some of the other things and if I’m lucky, I can get more writing time in. First thing in the morning is my best writing time, when my brain is the freshest. This system works because now my brain and I have learned to work together. As I wake up, ideas emerge, scenes are visualized and when my feet hit the floor, it’s off to the laptop to write it all down. This works best, I think, because when at rest, minimal muscle energy is used, and the brain is less engaged with making the body function properly. Hence, there is more energy for thinking. I’ve written over 14,000 words this way this month and the month isn’t done yet! One of the reasons why this system works for me is that when I’m done writing, I take a minute to decide what I want to work on the next day. It seems my subconscious then ‘works’ on it while I sleep and the ideas come the next morning.

3) Use Spoons to Portion Out Your Energy and to Help Others Understand
Spoons are a way to explain available energy. Some days I don’t know how few I have because it varies and I don’t know until I’ve attempted my first activity. It can be a three spoon day where all I can do is make meals, eat and clean up. It can be a six spoon day were I can write for half an hour and then do the necessities. And if it’s an 8 spoon day, I can maybe go for groceries recognizing that driving each way is a spoon, getting the groceries is worth three spoons, unloading and putting away is another two spoons but by now I’m spent enough that it takes four spoons to do a two spoon job. By now, I’ve used either seven of the eight spoons (and I haven’t made dinner, eaten and cleaned up yet which is another three spoons) or I’ve gone over and used up nine spoons. Overdoing it will hamper my energy for the next one to three days.

This is on a good day and I haven’t written a word and won’t have enough energy for my brain to do the thinking it needs to. When it’s really bad and I’m in pain and the world seems to pass me by, writing is the furthest thing from my mind – it has to be. Practising self-care takes priority.

3) Set Your Goals and Objectives. Then Ignore, Adjust or Rethink
A goal is the long-term thing you want to accomplish. I want to write an 80,000 word novel this year. Goals give us direction, or a target if you prefer. Without knowing the target, we can’t reach it.

An objective is the series of concrete steps it takes to get to the goal. I will research the world for one month. I will outline the novel for two months. I will write the novel in eight months with the smaller objective of writing 10,000 words per month.

Illness will sabotage an objective. Objectives not met change the goal or part of the goal. I may still want to write the novel, but it may take a year and a half instead of a year to do so. Objectives are small pieces of the goal. By understanding that, I feel more in control of the outcome as I make adjustments. Most importantly, I can break down objectives into manageable parts which are more realistic for what I can accomplish in any given time period.

Here’s something I haven’t admitted publicly – there was a time last year when I was ill enough that the world seemed dark, and I wanted to give up writing. I cried a lot because I felt like I was giving up on part of my soul and I didn’t want to do that. From somewhere came the idea that if I could not write, I would take a course on writing. That saved me. It gave me purpose, and a new perspective on craft. My fatigue almost sabotaged my fledgling career as a writer, but a new direction, a new distraction saved me.

4) Be Honest with Yourself and Others
This was the hardest for the longest time. I didn’t want to be sick. Still don’t but ignoring the fact was hurting me and my writing.

Seriously – be honest with yourself and others whether it be friends, family or colleagues. Chronic illness is an energy suck. It can flare up unexpectedly. We have limitations. We can’t be all things to anyone. No ever again. I used to be able to do it all – work, family, write, family dinners, garden – have an endless amount of energy and be all things to all people. Now, I have to manage energy and plan. If we go see the grandchildren at Christmas, how much energy will it take and how do I portion it out for the things I want to do like make or buy Christmas presents, travel, and so on. It all gets done, differently than when I had boundless energy.

The great thing is that the family and friends who care are respectful and make accommodations when I give them, like when I need to rest in quiet for an hour. Those who choose not to understand are no longer part of my life in any significant way. They can’t be. That goes back to the first principle of self care.

Honesty has a painful angle. There was a time when I could write 3,000 words a day and have a novel written in a month! That is no longer my reality. I had to own up to that and set more realistic goals and objectives. Doing that has staved off feeling worthless, the sabotaging voice in my head and has allowed me to write again.

The Final Word
So dear reader, I have taken the time to write this blog this morning because I thought it was important and I wanted to. It’s such a relief to be able to share this. I wrote this post knowing that the likelihood of my working on my novel today is zero spoons. But that’s okay. My remaining energy will be spent on going for a walk, reading, or listening to an audio book. These things I love and they are important too as is the delicious dinner I’m making tonight.

Stay well my friends and practice self care!

We Always Need a Goal

Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.

We all want something. It could be a new car, paying the rent on time, having a family, writing a novel, being a politician, or simply enjoying a nice cup of tea at 3 o’clock. It doesn’t matter if the want can be achieved quickly or if it takes several years to realize. Without the want, and without the conscious desire to reach it, there is no goal and nothing will happen.

Having a goal involves choice. We can choose to work toward or do something, or we can choose not to do anything. Either way, there will be an outcome, a goal achieved. Whether that goal is personally fulfilling or productive, whether it enriches or sabotages your life, that is another matter,. No matter the outcome, we all have goals.

These atatements may seem rather philosophical, but it’s important to understand that we always have a goal, whether we’re actively or inactively achieving it. Knowing that we have free agency to determine outcomes, frees us to set goals which are not only achievable but also fulfilling. And no, setting unrealistic goals in which one doesn’t participate to achieve the final outcome, doesn’t count. Unrealistic goals are simply fights of fancy or dreams. A goal should be something which spurs us into action (or inaction, but arguably, that is an action in and of itself).

A dream becomes a goal when action is taken toward its achievement.
Bo Bennett

Reaching the target may or may not always happen in the way it was envisioned. That’s okay. Without a goal you can’t get close to the target. For example, in high school and university, I always strived for 100% on exams. Did I achieve that? Sometimes but if not, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I figured out early on that I always made mistakes, or forgot something. That wasn’t the point. When I strived for the highest mark, my grades were higher than when I didn’t. Having a goal meant caring. If I cared a lot, the results were better becasue I rose to the challenge. If my goal was low, my grades were lower. It was that simple.

So, what does this mean for me as a writer?

I want to write a best seller. So I read best sellers. I study them. I study as well as practice the craft. Will I ever write a book that has the potential to be a best seller. Yes. After writing the book, will my goals include all the promotion and marketing needed? Yes. How hard will I work to realize this goal? That is always the question. But my point here is is that without the goal, I can’t do the work. The goal is my motivation for writing what I deem to be a good novel. I don’t want to self publish messy first drafts. It’s about doing it the best I can. The added benefit is that having a goal and working toward it makes me happy.

People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.
Elon Musk

We all have goals. We all need goals. Goals give us direction, purpose and ultimately the process of achieving them should make us happy. Achieving them should elate us but I’ve always found it important to understand that goals change and the art of moving toward the goal can influence and change the outcome.

In many ways, our goals are not that much different from a story or character goal. Like the characters we write, we have desires, passions, and needs. We strive to fulfill those passions. There are ups and downs, set-backs and rewards. We get more information, something interrupts our progress, we persevere, we fight, and ultimately, we come out the other side to laugh, celebrate, or cry.

Most of our goals are active goals. We need them. Through them, we find meaning in our lives and pass down that meaning through our characters, Incidentally, that meaning is also called theme and it makes sense when you remember the addage that we shoul dwrite what we know best. Story is about goals both achieved and thwarted. When we recognize our goals and work toward them, we compel ourselves to actively participate in their achievement. We give meaning, not only to our lives, but also to our characters.

Goals are important. Striving to reach them is important. Whether they are reached as initially dreamed of, may not be as important as having a dream and striving to fulfill that dream.

It’s not an accident that musicians become musicians and engineers become engineers: it’s what they’re born to do. If you can tune into your purpose and really align with it, setting goals so that your vision is an expression of that purpose, then life flows much more easily.
Jack Canfield

If it isn’t working …

If it isn’t working, change it.

This axiom can apply to a lot of things in our personal and writing life.

While reflecting on this year, I realized that I made changes in two significant areas of my life. Things weren’t working in a bad, horrible way, but in ways which didn’t allow me to be as productive and healthy as I could be.

On the personal side, we all know that we can’t change anyone else. We can only change ourselves. That’s because the desire to change has to come from within to be realized and to be sustainable. This past year, more than ever before, I had to create boundaries and acknowledge my physical limitations. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and although I have never worn it on my sleeve, I learned that I must own it and not deny how it affects my life.

Publicly admitting that I have CFS feels risky. What if a publisher learns of my illness and isn’t sure I can handle the stress and time commitment of a writing career? Truth is, I know others with this illness and their writing careers are doing well. How do they do it? Time management. Cutting out extraneous activities, and the emotional and physical stressors imposed by other people. They focus by choosing to do what is important (writing) and sticking to it. This also includes self-care.

Mind you, this is what we all need to be doing. The A-type personality of doing all things and being all things to everyone burns most of us out. This is why I’m speaking out. It’s not for fear of a publisher rejecting me but to let other writers know that it’s okay to be who we are (health and other issues) and that we don’t have to live up to the schedules and productivity of superstars who have made it big in the industry. Hey, being on best seller lists, writing all the time, and being appreciated by a large readership is still my goal, but I don’t stress about it anymore. I just work toward it one bit at a time.

So, on the personal side, I became much more accepting of who I am and in applying self-care.  The cool thing is, is that by doing this, I’ve become more productive, have grown as a writer, and was a finalist for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award. How cool is that?

The writing life can be lonely and sometimes it’s good to have another writer or group to discuss story issues. Realizing my need for such a group got me talking about this with other writers. This brought about the second great change in my life – the creation of a developmental writing group.

I still belong to a critique group and a speculative fiction group which has skills sessions and critiques. The camaraderie within these groups is great as is the learning but they weren’t exactly what I wanted at this time.  I wanted to learn how to write mysteries and to be in a group that supported story development, not critiquing.

Four of us got together and found a mentor. Once a month, we share what we’ve been working on, and ask for feedback and brainstorming on specific problems. We’ve all become better at outlining and as a result, our stories are much better for it. The wonderful thing about this group is that it is supportive and positive. We each get a half hour to talk about what we want, whether it’s about an outline, story structure, a piece of our writing or whatever questions are running through our heads. The others respond, share their insights and at the end, we check to make sure the person’s concerns were addressed. We leave inspired, energised and most importantly, happy that we’ve had a good place in which to talk about specific writing issues as we develop and plot our stories.

Change comes in many forms, both personal and professional but only after we’ve been honest with ourselves can we create the type of environment and support we need to become more productive and successful.

Outlining in 10 Steps

I’ve always been able to hold the broadest of outlines in my head. I always knew what the story was, who the characters were, what the goal was, what would happen at the climax and how the book would end. I’d also write in-depth character backgrounds and then I’d put the story in their hands and the characters would tell me how to get to the climax and reach the story goal.

This method of sort-of-plotting and writing by the seat of my pants worked well enough writing fantasy stories. But I wondered what I’d do if I had to provide an outline for a novel or a series. I also wanted to write a mystery/crime novel. Mystery conventions include planting solid clues and red herrings, and developing a credible outline of events. Flying by the seat of my pants, wasn’t going to accomplish this. I had to learn how to outline.

After studying and reading about outlining for mysteries, I created a system which works for me no matter what genre I write in. It’s a mash-up of many bits of wisdom and has its own gaps. The first few points can be done in any order.

1) Know the story goal and the consequences of not meeting the story goal. Keep the stakes high. For example, Zex must steal back the magic cooking pot from the ogre because leprechauns are dying because the gold which sustains them.

2) Build the world. The world determines what your character can/can’t do and the rules which must be followed or broken.

3) Understand the genre requirements and the type of story you are telling. Is it a fantasy (elements of magic or the fantastic) which is told using the Hero’s Journey story arc?  Is it a rags to riches, folk tale, thriller, revenge, forbidden love, or crime story? In a fantasy, you’ll need to know how the magic system works and the cost of using magic. In a mystery, you need to know the crime scene, the victim, the perpetrator, and those involved with the victim before you can outline.

4) Create character backgrounds because that will inform their motivations and will determine how they act and react.

5) Figure out your theme – you’re writing the story because you have something to say about the human condition. That something is what you are passionate about. Theme can be as simple as good versus evil or as complex as exploring how people deal with death. Once you’ve thought about the previously mentioned items in this list, take a moment to reflect on what the theme or point of your story is about. This is important because it affects how the story is outlined and written.

6) Assign each character a position or stance on the theme. Some will be for it. Some against. All to varying degrees. For example, let’s use the theme of the ends justify the means for our story with Zex the leprechaun. You must decide if he agrees, disagrees, or believes some variation (sometimes it is necessary) of this theme. All characters (or groups) should have differing views on the matter because that is a source for conflict and tension.

7) Note the beginning, the turning point, the climax, and the end of the story. These are the goal posts you are aiming for. If you are using the three, four or five act structures, or a story telling structure such as the Hero’s Journey, note the events which meet the key requirements for that structure. This should include genre story telling requirements.

8) Broadly fill in the gaps. For mystery, I chart everyone’s motivations and their relationships with the victim. I note the crime scene details then I plot the events leading to the crime scene, and where everyone was when the crime happened. I know who the perpetrator is and how that person will be caught. Then I plot the cat-and-mouse game of clues and red herrings. When writing fantasy, I employ a similar method because the protagonist’s journey is about a problem needing to be solved.

9) Fill in the details by creating scenes. If you’re a pantser, please don’t panic, this method I’m about to share still leaves lots of room for the imagination. I use this system to outline a few scenes at a time (not the entire novel). The broader outline (points 7 and 8) keeps me focussed on the theme while this one allows for tension, conflict, and action on the scene level. I call this the “And Then” method and I must credit author Mahrie G. Reid for showing it to me.

And then something happens. And the character feels ….

For example: And then Zex tripped over an invisible rope and fell into a trap. He panics over his silliness for watching the butterfly rather than focussing on the task. And then the ogre hovers on the rim of he pit, telling Zex that he will be cooked in the magic pot for the ogre’s dinner. Zex feels frightened. And then, Zex swallows his fright and forces himself to outsmart the ogre. He feels emboldened.

Or for a romantic fantasy: And then when Josh rips off his shirt, Kimberley sees the slash of the dragon’s claw across his back. At once, Kimberley feels her heart flutter and she feels faint at the sight of blood. And then Kimberley vomits and feels embarrassed.

10) Now, it’s time to write the story. I write the first few scenes, and then I go back and use the “And then…” method to plot out the next few scenes.

As you write the story, the outline will change. How things happen will change. That is normal and shows that the characters, the plot, and the conflicts are dynamic. Using some form of outlining has the benefit of faster writing, less major revision, and it will help you write the dreaded synopsis because the key elements of the story are determined.