Writers Must Practice Reflection

This week, as part of my day job, I’m attending a conference “dedicated to educating leaders in higher education, K-12, and non-profit organizations on experiential and project-based learning”. The principles discussed here fit in with the model established by David Kolb. There is lots of information about the Kolb cycle online, but one of the key factors that I think should be woven regularly into the process of writing is that of reflection.

The idea of reflection is not new. If you are like me, you may do this often after a situation has gone wrong. In those situations, you may think “I could have…” or “I should have…” or even “If I hadn’t…”. It may even be accompanied by a feeling of regret or the longing to take something back. But as a writing tool, reflection is invaluable.

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I think there are two kinds of reflection: accidental and intentional. Accidental reflection comes when you are reading through a craft book, listening to a presentation about character development or world-building where many of the things that are shared are reminders instead of new lessons. It might be when there is a Q&A and as you are listening to the questions being asked, you will realize that you know the answer, or at least a way to answer. It’s like what my own children are experiencing on a semi-regular basis lately where they are being asked to stand up or next to someone and realize they have grown.

Accidental reflection is an exceptional way to know how far you’ve come. It is a reason to celebrate knowledge and understanding and better appreciation of craft. But it isn’t the kind of reflection that allows you, as an artist, a weaver of words, a composer of character, to grow.

When we engage in intentional reflection, we are seeking out a way to learn and to improve. We are looking at our stories, our characters, our emotional impact, our setting and deliberately considering what is working, what isn’t working, why it is or isn’t. Intentional reflection means we know what we did to make these things work; it means we are searching and studying and reaching for an understanding of why something isn’t working.

The way this infiltrates our writing could be varied depending on our writing methods. As an outliner, I try to think through the complications and be intentional during my drafting process while I know many people who are pantsers or people who revise as they draft who prefer to weave or layer the details in as they become aware of them. Intentional reflection requires analysis of not only our stories, but of those that have an impact on us, whether that be movies, TV shows, books or plays.

If we desire to continue to improve as a writer, intentional reflection is a fundamental key to that success.

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TashaTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as a board member for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Trudging Through Sludge

It creeps under doorways, rises through vents, incorporating everything and everyone in its path, zapping them of energy, physical and mental. It’s a destroyer of focus and productivity, causing its victims to write at a snail’s pace, stare at blank screens, and abandon projects. I call it the Sludge, and I’ve been trying to wade through it for ages now.

Sludge

I briefly escaped it when I traveled across the country to write in a cabin with a bunch of other writers (several of whom were also traveling to escape the Sludge.) I hoped that maybe while I was away, the Sludge would get bored and move somewhere else. But no, it had waited patiently back at home, and was there to greet me again when I returned.

I tried to convince it to go with threats of Camp NaNoWriMo word counts, but it laughed in my face and gave me the flu. It knows I can’t write when I have the flu. Then the dreaded Spring Break arrived and the two teamed up. There’s no wading through a combo of Sludge and Spring Break—what was originally the thickness of molasses hardened into clay. I’ve written very, very little during the last three weeks.

There’s a trick to fighting the Sludge though, if you’re patient. You know how in old movies, the protagonist would fall into quick sand, and the more they struggled, the deeper they would sink? Eventually they would realize that if they stopped struggling, they’d float back up to the top where they could reach a vine or outstretched hand that would bring them back to safety. The Sludge is kind of like that. The more you stress about how little you’re writing, the harder it becomes to write, until eventually, you’re not writing at all.

I’ve found that I do better if I stop thinking about it much. If I just ride along on the surface of the Sludge and let it carry me to wherever it’s trying to go, it will eventually float me to a branch that I can use to pull myself out. I stop worrying about word counts, and just ask myself if I’ve written at all that day. Or heck, if I’ve even opened up my document and looked at it, if I’ve thought about it at all while showering or doing the dishes—if I haven’t abandoned it completely, that’s good enough for now. And eventually, if I keep at it in just such a way, the Sludge will slink away for a while and let me get back to work.

Have you ever been taken over by the Sludge? How did you handle it? Or, if you’re currently trudging through it, I hope this has helped you to know you’re not alone, and eventually, you’ll find your way back out.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Writing Life: Making Art

A friend of mine posted a video of Jake Gyllenhaal singing “Finishing a Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, which is one of my favorite shows and is on Broadway for a short run right now.

One of the reasons I love this show is it’s about the process of making art as shown through the work of Georges Seurat. Of course the music is gorgeous and the lyrics brilliant because it’s by Stephen Sondheim. This song from the show, “Finishing a Hat,” means more to me now than it did the first time I heard it twenty-some-odd years ago because it speaks to what I’ve personally experienced as a writer.

If you don’t know it (and even if you do) take a moment to watch the video below. And once you get over the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal can sing (!!) listen closely to the lyrics.

This is perhaps the best song about making art that I know of, and it absolutely applies to writers and the writing life.

Why? Because it’s about how, at times, your art takes over your life. That you can spend so much of your day with your mind on your story, no matter what else you’re doing, regardless of who is around. You’re thinking about characters, back stories, story lines, trying to figure out plot twists or solve plot problems. You hear your characters talking (sometimes instead of the people around you) and you often have to “just finish this part—please wait, don’t talk to me, I gotta get this down.”

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How you miss out on life when you’re really ensconced in a story of your own making, choosing to stay in and write rather than go out to dinner with friends or go for a hike with your family. How you weigh those things—I really want to write, but I’d also like to go—and then have to make a choice. And you don’t always choose the people, very often you choose the writing.

When you recognize that you’re choosing work over relationships, that’s a hard thing to swallow. And the impulse to choose writing first is something you’ve got to tame in yourself if you want to keep those relationships healthy—if you want to stay happily married, want to actually be present in your children’s childhoods, want to keep your friendships. Which, in turn, means less writing gets done. That’s a hard thing to swallow, as well.

Balance—it doesn’t exist in an artist’s life. At least not in my experience. Instead, you’re maintaining a juggling act in which you keep dropping balls. Choosing not to keep dropping the same ball every time (or even most of the time) is the real trick.

When you’re in the thick of writing, there’s truly “nothing but sky.” Nothing but your world, your characters, your imaginary friends speaking to each other in whispers and shouts, images flashing through your mind, ideas and phrases coming in a rush or a dribble, and you can do nothing but pay attention and write it all down as quickly as you can so you don’t lose it. Your thoughts are consumed by all the little things that make up the whole, every detail, every turn of phrase, every word. That even while you’re spending time in the company of others (your spouse, children, friends), your mind is often wandering the lands of your imaginary world.

And even though sometimes you’re watching life through a window as you write, it feels amazing to create something from nothing—stories about people who feel real enough to be, well, REAL. You create worlds—things, places, events, people who have never existed before—that are fully unique to you. No one else could have imagined or told the story in the exact same way.

And I guess that’s what keeps me coming back to the page—juggling the things I love most in this world—for the chance to create. It’s what keeps all artists coming back to their work, to finish the hat or plan a sky, and get lost in their art again and again.
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img_2359_1Jen Meyers is happiest when she’s creating—characters, novels, coloring books, salsa, sweets, sweaters, art, etc. She has worked as a professional actor, singer, and artist (among other things), and she writes fiction because she’s totally in love with making things up for a living. She is the author of the Happily Ever After series, Anywhere, the Intangible series, and co-author of the Untamed series. She also creates totally inappropriate self-affirming sweary coloring books (which make her ridiculously happy). Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @jmeyersbooks or visit www.jmeyersbooks.com for more information about Jen and her books.

Sharpening Your Focus

Life gets crazy. It’s not uncommon for me to go several days without having time to write. And then, when I do sit down with plans to churn out several thousand words, I find myself unable to concentrate. My attention wanders all over the place, because I’m out of practice.

Concentration is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. I’ve tried most of the usual techniques, with varying degrees of success.

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Eliminating Distractions

These are commonsense, quick-fix steps, such as finding a quiet place to work, turning off the wi-fi, hiring a babysitter, or clearing your desk of clutter. In theory, they all sound perfectly logical. In reality, I’ve been known to find all new distractions to steal my attention. Suddenly the furniture needs dusting, or the books on the shelf need to be reorganized by color.

Taking Breaks

Take a brisk, ten-minute walk. Vacuum the living room. Start a load of laundry. All valid and reasonable ways to get the blood flowing and reset your wandering mind. But I find that if I get up from the computer, even for five minutes, once I sit down again (if at all) it takes me another half hour to settle back into work mode.

Meditating

This is an ideal way to clear your mind. It works for me every time. Puts me right to sleep.

If the most obvious solutions aren’t working for you, consider this: the four most common obstacles to a productive work environment are boredom, stress, lack of sleep, and hunger. The trick is to know yourself and your patterns, so you can initiate proactive prevention. If you get the munchies while you write, keep snacks close at hand. (Although I’ve found that the best snack for keeping me on task—peanut M&Ms—is also the absolute worst thing for my waistline.) Getting enough sleep the night before is important, but not always possible. Try a 20-minute power nap, if you can squeeze one in. And music is an excellent way to fight boredom, as long as you choose something that inspires you without disrupting your concentration.

Stress, I believe, is a more complicated problem. Maybe your mind is spinning and you can’t seem to let go of your worries. Or, in the opposite extreme, your mind is blank, the screen is blank, and you can’t think of a single thing to type. Engaging with another human being is often the best way to snap out of both scenarios. Send a text to your spouse or email a writing buddy, just to get your concerns out in the open. Even if they don’t respond right away, you have freed up space in your overactive imagination for more creative pursuits.

For another perspective on how to increase concentration, I went looking for research-based articles that explore less conventional techniques. According to the Wall Street Journal, for example, doodling can actually help boost memory and creativity.

Don’t you love the idea of doodling away distraction? I plan to give it a try this week, lack of artistic talent notwithstanding.

And the Atlantic has a fantastic article from 2013 about how certain “brain-training games” can improve cognitive function and fight the natural effects of aging on mental engagement.

Even crossword puzzles and memorization games can sharpen your focus. Maybe all those hours I spend playing Scramble with Friends aren’t a waste of time, after all!

Whether we like it or not, the ability to focus for long-ish periods of time is an essential skill for writers. Finding the best way to improve your attention span may require some trial and error, but the increase in productivity is well worth the effort.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Supporting A Writer

I’ve been actively pursuing writing for over half a decade. And when I say I have, I mean my family has as well.

There are lots of posts out there about how to have success as a writer, but there aren’t many about those closest to the writers, spouses, kids, parents, friends, critique partners, etc.

When my husband married me, he knew I liked books and writing – I was working on an English degree after all. But I was not pursuing publication. This was not in the unofficial terms and conditions of our courtship, and didn’t even show up until we’d been married ten years.

So, I wanted to give a little bit of an insight into what it is like to support, care for, and nurture a loved one pursuing publication.

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ME: What is the most difficult thing about loving someone chasing publication?

HUSBAND: Rejection. It’s not like miscarriage because an actual person didn’t die (characters within the book exempted), but it’s like miscarriage because something you created has the potential of not living the life you wanted it to.

ME: What do you wish you would have known when I said I wanted to write?

HUSBAND: I wish I would have had a better understanding that writing . . . I wasn’t conscious of how important it was for you to have a hobby until you spent so much time writing. Because since having this hobby, you’ve actually become more fulfilled.

ME: When did you know that writing was more than a hobby?

HUSBAND: It probably came as a result, over time, from the rejection.

ME: What impact has my pursuit of publication had on your life?

HUSBAND: I have become a guinea pig for how to react to certain situations, but also I think in some ways it’s made me realize that I need more drive in my life toward something. It’s also facilitated the ability to buy gifts for certain events to go toward creating a place for you to write. I’ll try not to milk it for every single event.

(we are converting an old shed in our backyard into a writing room. For Christmas I got wire, electrical outlets, a ceiling fan, etc.) 

ME: Since I know there are times when loved ones of writers get put on the back burner,  what do you think writers could do to be a little better during these times?

HUSBAND: If a writer has to meet a deadline, it’s a contractual agreement. The loved ones need to be understanding of what the ramifications are if deadlines aren’t met. But that can only be understood by a person supporting the writer. If they aren’t supporting that writer, it’s a difficult situation all around, I think.

ME: Are there non-deadline times when taking a back seat in a writer’s attention still feels appropriate?

HUSBAND: Just as long as it doesn’t interfere with other goals of being a loving person, a loving spouse, a loving parent. The biggest thing is making sure there is a mutual understanding of what it is that’s trying to be accomplished (other than when you pause a TV show in order to have me help you write a blog post…) 

ME: What’s the best thing about being married to a writer?

HUSBAND: The potential of lots and lots and lots and lots of money.

(laughing, laughing, laughing, laughing, laughing

Did you want me to be more serious?

ME: Please.

HUSBAND: Watching someone chase their dream. And very seldom do you have a dull conversation.

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Obviously, I’m of the opinion that I have one of the very best people out there, period. But part of the reason for this exercise, and the reason you got his responses verbatim is because having these kinds of conversations with the people who are supporting us are so very, very important.

We know about words and the power they hold, but that power is essential in the conversations we have with the people closest to us.

How have you seen support from people you love? What could you do better to deserve that support? 

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Considering the Cost

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The year is drawing to a close, and one of the themes that seems to be on everyone’s mind is time. It’s certainly on mine.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak to a group of students at the university where I teach. The topic? Time management. My gut reaction was, “Let’s find another speaker so I can listen to a talk on time management, because WOW, I need to hear that.” But I reluctantly recognized that the best way to learn to manage my own time a little better was to do the work of figuring some of this out for myself. So I got to work.

The students I was speaking to are like many of the readers of this blog: bright, motivated, and working tirelessly toward their goals. I asked them to start with this exercise: Write a list of the things that are important to you. No ranking, no set number of items on the list. You might include writing, family, work, exercise, sleep, activism or volunteer work, mediation or worship, travel–it’s your list! But there are a few to get you thinking. (This is the part where you actually take two minutes to write the list. Tasha’s insightful and inspiring post on essentialism might help.)

Okay. Now. Time is one of the most precious commodities any of us have to invest. I would assert that emotional energy may be the other, and that they are related through one of my mom’s favorite quotes:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Consider, then, the goals you’re pursuing and the important things on your list. What is the cost of each–not only in terms of time, but the emotional cost as well? How much of your life are you willing to exchange for a finished manuscript, a book deal, an online presence? For a close relationship with your parents or children? For a physically and mentally healthy body? For the social or environmental causes that are close to your heart?

These are not rhetorical questions; there is no answer or position I’m guiding you to. But the cost of each of the things on your list–those most precious, important aspects of your life–is worth considering.

As you look toward 2017, reflect upon how you spent your time and emotional energy in 2016. Unless you’re perfect, there will be adjustments to be made toward. (I know there are for me.) But know that if you’re investing in the things that are important to you–even if the balance isn’t perfect, even if you sometimes feel you’re falling short–then you’re doing okay. Make those adjustments. Ask for help. And then be fierce and steadfast and work hard.

We got this. Look out, 2017.


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

How Your (Other) Career Can Make You a Better Writer

Full-time writer.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have entertained dreams of this concept. Now I am well into my *cough* forties and not a full-time writer, though I personally know a few of these magical creatures. I have another career that demands quite a bit of my time, and I’m perfectly aware that I’m not as prolific as a writer as I could be. I used to battle over this notion, working on my WIPs in the wee hours of the morning until I was stressed and exhausted and a grouchy monster with no possible relief in sight for said grouchiness. This ultimately led to burnout, and on top of that, unhappiness with my inability to better balance my time between my author career (which I love with a passion) and my Associate Professor career (which I also love with a passion). We writers always hear the advice to make writing a priority, and I wholeheartedly agree. BUT  I admit that I sometimes wonder if I can mentally/ emotionally/ physically sustain both careers. (Note that I’m in the middle of finals week as I write this and I feel mentally/ emotionally/ physically exhausted.)  I also have a family that always comes first. And I have important friendships and other interests and even a need to eat now and then and my health to take care of and other matters of life and ALL THE THINGS. *hyperventilates*

But I digress. This post is about career choices — though for me, there really is no choice. I love and need my life as Associate Professor, and I love and need my author life, and so I choose both. But here’s the amazing thing that I figured out rather late in the game (this year). Until recently, I had largely been viewing these two careers as separate and not synergistic. Now I’ve come to realize that I’m a better professor because I’m an author. Likewise, I know that I’m a better author if I embrace my career as a Professor. (I should probably mention here that I’m not an Associate Professor of English or Creative Writing. I’m an Associate Professor of Biology.)

If you aren’t a full-time writer but are working two careers, whether it be Author first and Other second or vice versa, here are some ways you could benefit from embracing both:

  1. Character inspiration: This is not to say that you should necessarily write your boss as a villain (No matter how tempting that may be, this would invalidate that important disclaimer about your characters being fictional and how any resemblance of them to real people is a coincidence). BUT we can’t help that IRL people do serve as character inspirations. Maybe your coworker has a quirky or annoying thing that she does that your character borrows for her own. Maybe your directory of colleagues (or class list – hehe) serves as a potential list for new character names. Writers create real characters by borrowing bits of real people. A former colleague and I used to joke that someday we would write a comic strip about university life because of all of the drama and characters we work with. This hasn’t happened, but I’ve had lots of idea fodder because of my working environment, which I’ll talk about more in #2. But before I get to that, I need to emphasize that one of the most important things that helps us as writers (and human beings in general) is EMPATHY. In working with my students and others, I try to take the time to understand them as people. This helps ME as a person and yes, as a writer.careful_or_youll_end_up_in_my_novel_round_sticker-rae60fc169aa946faa3d08ee493ce1893_v9waf_8byvr_324
  2. Career-based inspiration. As real people serve as character inspiration, your knowledge base and working environment may be a source of inspiration as well. The specifics of this one are obviously dependent on your particular career. John Grisham is probably one of the best-known examples of an attorney who used his background to write his legal thrillers. One of my childhood favorites, Agatha Christie, worked for several years in a pharmacy, which gave her knowledge of drugs (and how they could be used for murder). My YA characters have been known to take science courses, and my inside knowledge of college life makes for a relatable college life for my NA characters. Your particular area of expertise can also help to improve authenticity and be used for elements of world building, no matter how big or small. (BTW, I really love this post by Amanda Rawson Hill on contemporary world building). agatha
  3. Integration. Every day that you write, you become a better writer. (If you don’t believe me, blow off the dust from one of your earliest works and read it.) If you truly enjoy both of your careers as I do, you can seize opportunities within your job to become a better writer. By this, I don’t mean by writing during lunch breaks or while waiting for a copy job to finish (though you could), but by seizing opportunities to do the things that help you become a better writer. Again, this does depend on your career type. A career in floor retail doesn’t afford much opportunity to integrate writing (but imagine the possibilities for #1). Neither does flying helicopters (but imagine the possibilities for #2.) Proofreading reports or legal briefs may help you become better at killing your darlings. Those sales pitches or job presentations may help you become better at pitching your stories. I used to think I had to keep Author life and Professor life completely segregated, but the possibilities for integration keep expanding. For instance, I’ve made great strides to instill the love of reading and the value of scientific AND general literacy in my students. My talented friend and colleague Tasha Seegmiller and I coauthored a scientific paper this year on how to effectively use fiction to promote scientific literacy in biology classes. My other talented friend and colleague (Assistant Professor of Chemistry; see how doable this is?), Elaine Vickers and I were recently accepted as faculty at the 2017 LDStorymakers Conference for our class, Getting It Right: Science in Fiction. These accomplishments are part of my author life AND my professor life, and TBH, I probably would have never dreamed of doing either of these specific things as part of my job if I hadn’t become an author. Also, in grading mountains of scientific papers (finals week – gah!), have become a better editor of my students’ written works (much to their dismay  when they find so much markup on their papers #sorrynotsorry). In my classes, they’re doing scientific and not creative writing, but I still feel it’s my professional duty to teach my biology students about the superiority of active voice over passive voice and why spelling matters (e.g., you know, because the words, “assess” and “asses” have completely different meanings.) But also lessons about why attention to all details is important (a lesson from editing and publishing) and why it’s important to make sure they take care of themselves as people (a lesson from writer life in general).

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In sum, for those of you who, like me, are not full-time writers at this point in time (and maybe never will be), don’t feel like you haven’t “made it” as a writer. Take stock in your entire world and appreciate opportunities for inspiration and whenever possible, integration. There is really something to be said about having the best of both worlds. 🙂

Do you have a career in addition to your writing career? What are some ways in which you’ve managed to have the best of both worlds?

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). As an Associate Professor of Biology, she tries to instill good writing practices and a love of reading into her students. You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com and her professor life at helenboswell.wordpress.com.