I am a novelist, and I do not feel like writing right now.
Don't get me wrong—there's nothing I love more (creatively and professionally) than writing a novel, but right now I just don't have the motivation for it. We're over a hundred days in to a crippling global pandemic in the US, I'm acting as emotional counselor and feelings manager and general household referee to my four rambunctious boys (who haven't seen any other children but themselves since early March), most of my daily energy goes into keeping the boys fed and not too loud so my husband can work from home, and in the in-between time I am trying to not go crazy myself. Oh, and manage my writing career.
Because here's the thing: writing is my career. I don't have another day job, which in a way was very, very good. When the pandemic shut the country down, I didn't have to worry about being furloughed or laid off, and I also didn't have to worry about transitioning to a work-from-home scenario—like my husband. I was already home and available to receive my kids and take over as manager of their home education. We've been incredibly fortunate that our finances have been secure and that aside from the massive shift in our daily routines, at least we have security and peace of mind.
But, overnight, my ability to prioritize my career during daytime hours got thrown out the window. My husband is the breadwinner; my income is supplementary. His hours are static and mine are flexible. We had a way to make it work, and so we did—and for as long as we need to shelter-in-place, we will.
I'm not resentful of the need to put my children first. But I think all work-from-home parents feel this tension between the need to get work done and the needs that your children have for your attention, your time, and your expressions of love. And not just the tension between those two, but in discerning the difference between needs and demands. Frankly, it's exhausting. One of the things I was noting to my husband today is that I used to be able to take a break when I needed it, but now the ability to get away is gone. I miss going to a coffee shop with my laptop for a couple of hours just to write. I can't ever really get away these days.
Early in this crisis I felt that my anxiety had stymied my creativity. Now I'm calmer, but I still feel a lack of motivation to buckle down and write. I think it must be an aspect of the suffocation of always being in one place—and always surrounded by my people. It doesn't matter how much I love them; there is a constancy to the noise.
But. I am a writer—this is my job, which means I do it whether or not I feel like it. I can't choose to settle into it when inspiration strikes after I've already made money doing something else. And although my monthly writing income is supplementary to my husband's, it's important and essential for us that I continue doing it. Work isn't always easy, even if it's something you love to do. And I do love that writing is my work, even if I'm terribly unmotivated to write in the time of COVID.
So I've dusted off a couple ideas that I have, and I'm forcing myself to work on them, bit by bit. I don't know which story will fully catch yet, so I'm working on both right now, but one of the benefits of being a professional working author is that I've done this so many times that I know what the steps are. I know how I should brainstorm—what questions I should ask of my ideas, what is worth writing down, when an idea is good and when it's not. I also know that much of what I'm working on right now is so preliminary that it will probably end up getting thrown out before I even start populating my outlines. And I know that's okay.
If I was highly motivated, this would all be happening a lot faster. There's a frenetic energy I usually bring to the novel planning process—to this early writing. But writing, like any job, isn't always running after wild inspiration. Sometimes it's just putting your head down and working hard and following procedures you've drilled into yourself over the course of twelve books already successfully written. Sometimes it's following your own advice that you've taught in the classroom for eleven years.
And in the meantime, my existing books continue to sell (for which I am extremely grateful). And I continue my search for a new agent (which takes up most of my daily work right now). And I keep writing my twice-monthly column for Christ and Pop Culture. And I am also continuing to work on Project CoNarrative with my co-author, Luke Harrington. And I'm also continuing to promote another of my books that is over at Swoon Reads. Because I am a writer, and in the in-between times of these plague months, I'm finding time to work. Now I just need to write another novel.
The motivation—the excitement—will come. Eventually. I have to act like an author first to remind myself who I am.
As many of you reading this may know from reading my newsletter, I've been preparing my backlisted books for re-release this summer, 2018. This project is HUGE, as my backlist comprises of 8 titles across two series, and since I have the opportunity to re-release them on my own terms, I'm taking full advantage of this opportunity to edit, update, revise, and basically bring my old titles up to my new standards. I've been writing professionally for many years now, and I've learned a lot, so (as you can imagine), looking back on my earliest books has always left me with a desire to apply what I've learned to the stories I still love in order to make them better. What I'm able to do now with these books, and most particularly with The Gateway Chronicles, is, therefore, really a gift.
I do want to assure any of you who are fans of The Gateway Chronicles and are reading this post with any worry or dismay: I am not changing anything that is fundamental to the story. My edits, revisions, and updates have more to do with cleaning up the manuscripts than anything else, so here follows a basic rundown of what I have been doing on books 1-2 (and will continue doing to books 3-6) for the past 8 weeks.
#1 - Fixing sloppy writing, such as creative dialogue tags
When I first started out, I didn't realize how lazy and amateur certain writing habits, like the wide use of creative dialogue tags, are. In my edits, therefore, I am deleting most of them and/or replacing them with "said" or some sort of "showing" action. I'm also cutting many ly-adverbs, fixing "telling" scenes, cutting usages of "that" and "just," fixing any voice inconsistencies I find, etc. Minor "house cleaning" details like that.
#2 - Cutting redundancies
Redundant writing is also a plague of the inexperienced writer, and I've found a lot of it in my earliest manuscripts. Expressions such as "She nodded her head," or "He shrugged his shoulders," or "She covered her face with her hands," or "He sat down." All of these are needlessly wordy because the added clarifiers are redundant. How else can one nod but with your head? Shrug, but with your shoulders? I suppose you can cover your face in your arms, but if that really needs to be said, then you can clarify that. When you sit, you sit down. So: "She nodded." "He shrugged." "She covered her face." "He sat." If you can say what you need to say in fewer words, it's almost always best to do so.
Redundancies also show up in dialogue, especially when dialogue is paired with action. I find that I, personally, tend to be redundant when I'm having characters explain things because I'm an over-explainer. It probably comes from being a teacher.
#3 - Simplified and clarified passages of explanation, while cutting needless exposition
Speaking of being an over-explainer, I have some passages in both The Six and The Oracle that go overboard in the explanation department, and probably, I think, to the detriment of actually understanding what it is I'm trying to have the characters explain. In my read-throughs, I noticed how often, and in how many ways (for example) I tried to explain the time travel, or how two narks inhabit one body. These things are actually not that complicated, so I cut some of the explanation and simplified how I have the characters talk about them. I also cut back a bit of the history section in The Six.
#4 - Cutting down on self-indulgent writing
Because "Cedar Cove" is based on a real place, and Darcy's experiences at the camp and her interactions with her friends are heavily influenced by my own friendships and interactions at the real camp, I tended to slide into self-indulgent storytelling when I wrote The Gateway Chronicles. This works in the places where it lends that inner consistency of reality that the reader craves from any story, but where I wax on with descriptions of rocks and trees and paths and the lodge and the campgrounds and, and, and... It gets to be a bit much. The story shouldn't read like a personal camp memoir, so anything that doesn't actively build setting, develop characters, or move the plot forward got cut in these edits. (*I received some very impassioned pleas via e-mail from some of my lovely newsletter subscribers asking me NOT to cut too much from my camp descriptions, as this is part of the appeal of the series, and I want to assure everyone that I really, truly, have only cut those portions that went above and beyond. If it was EXTRA, it went. I don't think even my most avid readers will even notice what is missing here, unless they do a page-by-page comparison of the old and new manuscripts!)
#5 - Smoothing time transitions
This was something that was passed on to me as feedback from some newsletter subscribers, and it really only has applied so far to my edits on The Six. Some of the time jumps in the book are a little jarring, most particularly the one near the end (which I don't want to spoil). In response to the feedback, I took some care in going back over my transitions and attempting, at least, to smooth them over. I can't/couldn't add more scenes to expand the timeline of the story so there aren't those time jumps (I really can't have the books turn into 500-page tomes!), but I hope the small additions and changes I've made will have everything read a little smoother.
#6 - Expanded a few scenes to enrich relationships
Hopefully this editing note will be exciting for everyone! No, I didn't just make cuts in these edits, and YES, there will be new material to read! In particular, I've expanded a few scenes here and there in order to enrich relationships. The ones I've focused on are Tellius and Darcy, and Darcy and Yahto Veli (but I've made a few other tweaks here and there). I haven't added whole scenes (again, length restrictions), but I have added dialogue and some exposition. Tellius, in particular, doesn't get a lot of time and space in books 1 and 2, but after I got into the second half of the series, back when I was first writing it, and I saw how his character had developed, I always wished I had given him a little more in the first books. So now I have! Not massive additions, but hopefully enough to be excited about.
#7 - Brought the story into 2018
Since I'm rebooting and re-releasing, I thought, "Why not reboot this as a 2018 story?" I'm hoping many new readers will pick it up for the first time, and I thought they might be confused if, for example, the teens in the story didn't have smartphones. A few vernacular, thought, and fashion tweaks here and there in addition to things like giving them smartphones. Updating the dates for when Eleanor Stevenson went missing from Cedar Cove. These are small, but important details.
SO, again, these are the basic things I've been working on, and (honestly), I'm a little exhausted just reading back through all this! Phew. The Six has been the hardest, as it was my first book and needed the most work (and I'm very thankful for the volunteer efforts of a couple friends who have lent their eyes and expertise to it in the past month and a half, too!). The Oracle has been easier, and as I'm just starting my edit on The White Thread, I'm finding I really did improve incrementally with every book I wrote and every year I worked with my excellent editorial team. I'm confident I can get these books all finished to my standards and re-released this summer, and I hope you consider purchasing a new set and sharing them with your friends!
Please let me know if you have any questions at all about what I am doing or have done with The Gateway Chronicles, or the editing process in general. And if you really want to keep up with my re-release news as it's happening, be sure to subscribe. Thanks for reading!
I recently finished the rough draft of my 11th novel. Using outlining techniques I've been honing for years, it took me between 11 and 12 weeks to plan and execute this draft from beginning to end, including about 90% of the world-building.
When I get going on a book, I write with a sort of feverish energy, totally immersing myself in the project, and I will admit that many things in my life go undone as a result -- usually things like cleaning and general picking up around my house. But my four children still have to be cared for, and I still need to spend time with my husband, and my other work (freelance and contract writing and editing) needs to get done, so I can't disappear entirely into my head. But my stories do weigh heavily on me until they are finished, which is part of why I insist on pouring them out at a frenetic pace until they are done.
I'm always asked how I do it. Obviously writing a novel is not a speed drill or a race with anyone else, so the pace at which I do it is really not that important, but to me, getting them out of my head in a timely manner IS important for the reasons I've mentioned, as well as a few others. And these other reasons are things I think make for a successful writer.
*Please keep in mind, I'm not claiming these are the only things that make a writer successful, just that they are some key elements I think do make for writing success. How each writer applies them might look different depending on circumstances.
I don't know if this is widely put about, but writing doesn't pay well. Or sometimes. . . at all. Or maybe better said, under certain circumstances, writing doesn't pay yet. Everything depends on where you are in your writing "journey" -- your career path, assuming you are choosing writing as a career. If you are really crazy and have chosen to be a novelist (ha), you had better prepare yourself to fall into the category of delayed monetary gratification, if it ever comes at all. So as a writer, you need to be self-motivated to get your manuscripts written in your own time while working other jobs for actual money (or falling back on a spouse or significant other or parents to support you).
I have met a lot of hobby writers and wannabe successful writers. You'd be surprised how many of them lack basic self-motivation. I know it seems like I'm making this all about money here, and maybe that's a mistake, but money is a reality of this game. Money aside, though, sometimes writers can just be terrible procrastinators. Not only do you have to be prepared to work for little to no income, but you have to motivate yourself to work even when you don't feel like it.
Successful writers are goal oriented people. I'm not talking about hobby writers. Hobby writers often pick at their manuscripts for years -- never really serious about them. They wax philosophical about being "writers," but many of them have never really finished anything or submitted anything for publication or been paid for anything (no matter how much or little). Many hobby writers could be professional writers if they wanted to be, but they lack clear goals -- clear focus about what they want to be doing, and/or where they want to be with their writing career a year from now. Two years from now. Five years. . . Ten years (you get the idea).
Most simply put: If you don't know where you're going, you can't possibly know how to get there.
If you don't view writing as a career and set clear goals for yourself, you will never put yourself on a path to meet those goals. Now, sometimes you won't meet your goals, because a lot in the writing industry simply doesn't depend on you and the power of your will. (If I could will myself to right now be a New York Times bestselling author, believe me, I would!) But, as with any goal setting, if you start with attainable goals and work your way forward, you will actually make progress toward the bigger goals you have. For example: Do you want to be a published novelist? If the answer is yes, but you have never actually completed a manuscript before, then the first goal you should set for yourself is finishing writing a book! Then you need to ask yourself: How do I finish writing a book? Then set steps for yourself to make sure you 1) Learn how to do it, and 2) Do it in a set timeframe (SO important).
Also so important with your goals, though, is giving yourself grace when things don't turn out the way you intend. You will stumble and fail many times over if you decide to seriously pursue writing. Sometimes it will be your fault, but if you are doing all you can to complete reasonable goals, more often than not, it will just be the hard knocks of the industry. It's a business of rejection -- plain and simple. Learning to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, reorient, and keep going. . . These are crucial things. (And if you've set your goals several years out, you should be able to keep those before you as a fixed point to help you get back on your feet whenever you stumble.)
Hobby writers tend to be terrible finishers. Professional writers -- successful writers -- finish things. I don't just mean finish manuscripts, by the way, I mean finish goals. I've known some fantastic hobby writers who have completed several books, articles, poems (you name it), but who have never gotten up the moxie to submit anything for publication or set any further goals besides tossing words on the page. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to finish -- not only books, articles, short stories, poems, essays (ad infinitum) in a timely manner (often to deadlines!), but finish those goals you set out for yourself. And it doesn't necessarily mean cranking out a novel in 12 weeks, but it does mean not letting procrastination take hold. It means treating writing like a job (because. . . it is). It means writing -- something -- every day you possibly can. It means acknowledging that if other professions don't get to use being "blocked" as an excuse to not finish a project, then neither do you!
At the end of the day, you can't ever be labeled "successful," and you're not going to make a dime on your writing, if you don't finish. And you can't finish if you don't know how (aren't goal-oriented). And you probably aren't going to set those goals in the first place if you aren't self-motivated to do so. So those are my Big Three when it comes to being a successful writer. Thoughts? Questions? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!
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