Category Archives: Balancing Acts

It’s My Job

keyboardIf I could go back to when I started writing, I would have treated my writing time differently. I would have started off treating it like a job and not a hobby and creating good habits. How would I do that? Glad I asked!

First, whether I was writing part time or full time, I would set a schedule and stick to it. If all I had time for was fifteen minutes a day right before bed or a half hour before I went to work or if I had the luxury of writing several hours a day, I would set that time aside and hold it sacred. It matters less how much time you have available than that you use it the way in which you need. At most other jobs, we’re expected to arrive at a set time, work for a set amount of time, take lunch at set times and leave at a set time. And while we’re there, we’re expected to accomplish certain tasks. This is what we’re paid to do. And you’re writing career should be no different, if you expect to make money from it someday.

So, I need to show up when I’m expected to, keep to my schedule and do what I’m expected. I am my own boss on this and I need to keep my employee-self on task. This not only helps me treat my writing professionally, but it tells others it’s a job I take seriously. Family and friends can be terrible sources of distraction whether they mean to or not. When they try to encroach on my scheduled work time, I would say what I’d say if I were at any other job, “Sorry, I can’t. I have to work.” Schedule lunches, meetings, errands and such for other times that aren’t your work time.

Second, write. Seems obvious. It isn’t. If I could go back, I would set aside other time for writing related tasks that are not writing. Checking email, reading articles/blogs/books about writing, plotting, editing, doing research, staring at the ceiling thinking and a list too long of other related things are NOT writing. They are all things I need to do in my writing career, but they are not writing. They are things I can usually do other times or squeeze in around the edges in little bits of down time. Some I can even do on commercial breaks at night while watching my favorite shows. And if I have to schedule time to do them, then I would. But I would not let it infringe on my sacred writing time, my work time (whatever time I had set for that).

Third, I would advise my early self to keep writing if I’m stuck. Crap can be fixed. Holes can be filled. Transitions can be built. But nothing can be done with nothing. So, if I’m stuck in the current scene. I can make some notes on what I’m thinking at the time and go to a different scene and work there. At least I’m doing my job.

I would tell me to take my job seriously. If I don’t, why would anyone else? And if I take my job seriously, then I will get my work done. I will finish stories. I will produce the necessary product to get it out there no matter in what way I choose to get it out there. You can’t query, edit, revise, sell, publish or market a product you do not have.

Yes, writing is an art. It takes creativity, but as Dave Farland/Dave Wolverton once told me, I can train myself to get into that creative mode really quick through good habits. Treating it all as a job, going to your work space at the set times you are scheduled to work and getting to it are the habits needed to train your brain to put on its creative work clothes quickly and get to your job.

After years, I still struggle with some of this, but the more I practice and ingrain these job habits, the more I get done and the better writer I become. So, that’s the advice I would give me if I could go back.

I’m looking forward to the rest of this month because as a professional, I’m always looking for better ways to improve my work, my work space, my work habits, and my work mentality.

Without Them, I Wouldn’t Be Writing

There are many advantages to being a writer, especially a self-employed one like me. True, my income is highly variable and no one throws me a staff Christmas party at the end of the year, but I get to wake up late, work in my pyjamas, and take time off whenever I like. I get to go trips, use them as research opportunities and attend writing workshops, and then write off all those flights, hotels, and restaurant dinners on my taxes.

I also get to have fans.

I’ve written before on the Fictorians about the day I first realized that I had a fan club. That was one of the best moments of my life, and certainly one that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t poured so much time and energy into being a writer.

Having fans is incredibly inspiring—but more than that, it comes with a greater sense of responsibility. No longer can I get away with just writing anything I want and hoping it’s good enough. I have people who read carefully and care about the characters and settings I have invented. And if I don’t give it my all, they know. They call me on it.

During a question-and-answer session last year at a reading for my latest novel, an astute reader in the audience stood up to identify a plot hole I had never noticed before. She didn’t do it in a mean-spirited way; she had assumed the seeming inconsistency was intentional, and that it was part of an elaborate setup for a future book. If only that were true. Knowing that people are reading carefully and paying attention means you gotta work twice as hard.

Well, lesson learned.

This week, I went to the doctor’s office for a checkup. While in the waiting room, someone sidled up next to me and asked when my next book was coming out. When I refused to give him a straight answer, he tried to fish some spoilers out of me. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and more than once I’ve pulled a Robert-Jordan-esque “ROFL.” Even two years ago, I never would have imagined something like that happening.

Another reader once asked me if I could write her into the next book. She may have been joking, but when she picks up said book when it comes out she may have a surprise in store.

Perhaps it’s because I’m from a small town, but people seem to know me where I’m from. They recognize me, they turn out in relatively large numbers when I have an event, and they ask me about my upcoming projects while I’m picking up the mail or waiting at the deli counter at the grocery store. This most likely wouldn’t be the case if I lived in a big city, which makes me all the more grateful for the experience. I’m in awe of it.

Like I said, it comes with responsibility.

When I sit down at the beginning of a new writing session, my mind invariably turns to the latest handful of people who asked me when the next book is coming out. I want my writing to be worthy of their interest and attention, and as a result I strive hard to take my craft to the next level.

What makes me love being a writer? Indisputably, the fans. Without readers, there cannot be books. If all these dedicated and persistent readers in my life didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be pushing as hard as I am right now. I wouldn’t be writing. I’d be popping in a DVD, sitting down to watch another episode of Game of Thrones for the tenth time. I’d be playing yet another game of Minesweeper.

So here’s to the fans—who came to my reading despite having to drive fifty kilometres through one of the worst snowstorms of the worst winter since the 1800s, who put me on Winnipeg’s bestseller list two weeks in a row during the Christmas rush, and who pester me constantly when I’m feeling down. They make this whole miserable and glorious experience worthwhile.

Choices of Love and Fear

Though I have respected Jim Carrey as a comedian and performer for many years, I would never have thought him to be a fount of cosmic wisdom. That is why, along with so many others, I was blown away by his commencement address at the MUM graduation. In his address, Carrey spoke of his father, on the importance of following one’s dreams, effecting others positively and choosing love over fear. For the full address, click here. If you don’t have the 26 minutes to spare right now, please click on the embedded video below (but do come back to the full speech later). It’s just a single minute of your time, so please do yourself the favor.

When you seek to be a professional author, the odds are against you to an absurd degree. When I was in high school, trying to figure out who I was going to become for the next phase of my life, I had a choice. Either, I could pursue a career in science and technology, or I could develop my passion for writing and storytelling that had begun to grow on the fertile ground of my passion for reading. In the end and at the encouragement of those who loved me, I went to one of the top technical schools in the country and spent four and a half years earning a degree that has enriched my life. Upon graduating, I began working for an engineering company that is a respected leader and fierce competitor in their field. I had done it. People I knew, people who I cared about, told me how proud of me they were and how obviously successful I was.

And yet, I was unhappy. I was unfulfilled. There was a part of me, part of my talent that was being unexpressed and underutilized. It took me nearly 18 months to realize where the sense of discontent was coming from.

You see, though I was pursing highly technical studies in college, I also fed my creative urges regularly through live performance improvised comedy and table top role-playing. My life was grounded in reality through my studies, but I was still able to live in the fantastic. When I joined the working world, I had left that fantastic behind for many good and practical reasons. But, I still needed it.

It was when I started writing again, started reaching out to the community of writers and blogging regularly, that I began to find my contentment and happiness. This month has been all about goals, finding your own balance and managing your life when the deck seems stacked to overwhelm you.

Please take it from someone who has learned it the hard way. Fulfillment will never come from someone else. Instead, you must explore what you find to be fulfilling, what you love beyond all reason and pursue it. That said, the day job and the dream job do not have to be mutually exclusive.

I am an engineer. I am a writer. I am not one or the other, but rather both, simultaneously and always. Each part of my personality influences and informs the other, making it stronger and richer.

The problem I had, the source of my unhappiness and cognitive dissonance was the false assumption that I had to choose one or the other to be supreme. I was failing to achieve a work-life balance. Was that the fault of my company? After all they gave me a great deal of work to do that was time consuming and challenging. Of course not. I am, after all, employed by them. I was selling my time, knowledge and experience to them in exchange for a salary and benefits. Was the work exhausting and effecting my home life? Yes. But, what I chose to do with that home life was still entirely in my power.

This is the most important thing I’ve learned in my short career as an engineer. Saying you are “too busy” to do this or that is an expression of value, not of time constraints. Busyness is a choice. Time is a commodity, and like any other scarce resource, where we choose to spend our time indicates what we value. What you are actually saying when you are “too busy” to do some task is what you are doing now is more valuable than the proposed activity. Claiming to be too busy to write because of my job was in reality saying that I chose things like working, sleep, watching TV, going out with friends, exercise and other leisure was more valuable than the time I could spend writing.

So, what did I do? I began to choose how I spent my time more wisely and learned to say “no.” Not only to others but to myself. I canceled my television package, Netflix and Hulu+ accounts. I put away my gaming consoles and worked on stream lining the things I felt that I had to do to be more efficient.

And I wrote. A few hours of new words here and there, a half hour of editing and a minutes of plotting and milieu development wherever I could find the time. I put my fingers on the keyboard because that is what I valued.

Life is complex and dynamic, so finding your balance isn’t a matter of setting up all the elements in stasis. Instead, you must constantly be shifting, reevaluating what you want and reallocating your immediate future to line up with your goals. Will you risk “wasting” your time on things that make you unhappy but are safe and easy, or will you instead pursue the less certain path? It takes honesty and self-awareness, but spending time wisely is a choice and a statement of value.

 

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance at doing what you love.” ~Jim Carrey, 2014 Commencement Address, MUM Graduation.

Creative Discipline

Creative discipline – that’s an oxymoron for every writer! Creativity conjures images of free flowing thoughts; unfettered imagination spilling effortlessly onto pages and pages. The brilliance of remembered grade school grammar coupled with the adult’s ability to focus childhood imagination – that is every writer’s ability. Turn the tap on when you need it. Shut it off when life interferes. Always the stories will get written.

Or so my family and friends think.

Creativity requires time, space and yes, discipline. My writing got its kick start when I went back to university in my thirties for a degree in Food Science. That coupled with the first degree in English, I can spot an error in any recipe or food safety plan for slaughtering chickens! But, it was those nasty chemistry classes with all their formulas, all those reactions, which gave me the big Aha! and allowed me to write.

Observe. Note. Analyse. Explain. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Isn’t that what most articles on writing ask us to do? What is the character’s reaction to a given situation or action? If they act, what is everyone else’s reaction? What is the character’s ensuing reaction? Like in chemistry class, writers ask the question, What happens when I mix this with that? Explosions? That’s a good thing. A fizzle? Need better chemistry.

What if? is the magical question that blows worlds apart, creating compelling scenarios, challenging protagonists and readers to explore beyond their comfort zones. What if I as a writer don’t answer the phone or check emails regularly? What if I ignore the house work? Put off the laundry? Make a quick something instead of a feast for dinner? Just as for my protagonist, What If? also throws me out of my comfort zone. Yet, I’ve discovered that when I play by What If’s rules, I don’t starve. The laundry eventually gets done. People rarely need an immediate response. And, most importantly, my characters and worlds flourish because my discipline affords them the time to.

So yes, I’ve discovered that creativity needs discipline to flourish. Disciplined blocks of time and discipline to brainstorm What If? Turn the creative tap on and let it stay on. Otherwise, thoughts get lost, diluted or stale. Thoughts need discipline to be created and to appear on the page.

Now when you’re revising or editing, that’s a different discipline and a different blog!

Just remember, we write because words are our air, the page our playground, and our imagination feeds our spirit.