What not to do when you’re staring at the screen early in the morning

Good morning! A post from the trenches of margin-writing today. I wanted to write you a post called something like “How to get started writing in the morning if you can’t remember what your book is about.” But then I realized that I am in that situation right now and I have no idea how to start again, and only 28 minutes to write, so I would be a hypocrite if I wrote you a blog about that. And I don’t have time to both remember what my book is about and write a blog post.

So this post is what not to do when you’re staring at the screen early in the morning and can’t remember what your book is about.

First of course, don’t start writing a blog post. Is this your book? No, it is not.

Oh well.

Second, do not let your cats sit on your notebook and cuddle up with each other. They will look too cute and then you will not be able to move them. And if you do, then they will just start eating everything on your desk, and that is also annoying.

Third: definitely do not look at Facebook. You will not find your book on there. One time (literally just one time) I had to go on Facebook to check out someone who was a fashion inspiration for a character. The rest of the time, I was just procrastinating.

(Point 3 also goes for Pinterest, although I do use it more for research than Facebook. You can see proof of this on our Marginally Pinterest page, which is not my personal Pinterest. I had a serious Pinterest addiction and have had to separate my writing account from the one about beautiful bedrooms and vegan baking.)

Another tip: don’t organize anything. Organization is a great procrastination technique, but you don’t need procrastination when you have max 1 hour to write in the morning. Organization is a great thing to do in the evening.

Fifth, don’t turn on your phone. I keep my phone on airplane mode until after I’ve written (or at least theoretically). Days when I don’t do that, my brain gets fried and it’s super hard to sit down to write.

Sixth, don’t forget to light your candles and turn on the music that makes you know you’re ready to write! That’s your ritual! Why did you forget??

In short, writing isn’t working for me this morning, so I’m going to go meditate. I’m really thinking about shifting my writing routine to the evening.

PS – I’m going to put this smug quote from an Earlier Me here for a bit of irony.

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Writing while sick (and how to jump back in when you’re better)

Flu season is raging right now, and while (so far) my family has been safe — high five for vaccines, hand washing, and getting enough sleep — I know it could hit anyway. Even without the flu, we’ve had a pretty rough winter, including having to reschedule a flight from the airport parking lot because of my 4-year-old’s sudden stomach bug. A stomach bug I got 5 days later, on Christmas Day. I’d just gotten over a brutal cold, and then a week after Christmas, another one that lasted into mid-January.

It’s funny, because at the beginning of the season, I was looking forward to curling up inside and hitting my revisions hard. I’d hoped to be able to start researching my next book — I’m trying to decide between two different historicals, and one involves reading lots of Brontë. Perfect for miserable winter days, even if (full disclosure) I don’t usually experience much cold where I live.

This winter though? There’s been lots of cold. Snow, even. It’s 35 degrees F outside right now, though the full sun makes me feel guilty for being indoors. Exactly what I imagined back in late November. Except … I forgot to imagine being sick for a month straight.

Ok, that’s all super boring, but I’m pretty sure everyone out there can commiserate with their own stories. We all get sick — some of us because it’s winter and we have small kids or travel frequently, and some people because of chronic illness. I can’t speak to the last one, but I recommend Esme Wang and Kim of Her Pickings for some insight into living a creative life with chronic illness, and would love to check out any others you want to share.

So, what I want to talk about is how to deal with being sick when it isn’t a part of your normal routine.

Make it a routine

I’m not saying to get sick all the time. I’m saying to think about how you could think about what your routine could look like on a sick day. What are your low-energy tasks? What absolutely must get done, no matter what? What can someone else do instead?

These questions are much easier to answer before you get sick, but they don’t have to be decided ahead of time.

We love this kind of emergency plan (we talk about applying it to holidays or vacations here); the great thing about it is how versatile it is to any disruptive situation.

Do what you can

Sometimes you can curl up in bed with a notebook and journal. Even if it’s just whining about feeling bad — this works best when you feel terrible, but aren’t sleeping 23 hours a day. If you’re lucky enough to be able to take a sick day from your day job, consider using any time you feel like doing something to work on your writing instead. Not that a sick day is the equivalent of a writing retreat, but if you’re home sick from work, it can be good to not work if you aren’t expected to.

Don’t do what you can’t

Honestly, the week I was sick, I didn’t do much. I didn’t wake up early to write, and I didn’t even try to come up to my quota. I wasn’t trying to meet a real deadline — that is, one that isn’t self-imposed — and I did have other things I needed to take care of that week, like pick children up from school and some of my day job. Freelancers know the pain of no sick days, as do those whose employers have terrible expectations of sick employees.

As we’ve said before, be gentle on yourself. Being sick is no joke. Pushing yourself too hard will only prolong your misery, and chances are you’ll have to burn everything you wrote anyway, because it will make no sense.

Have a re-entry plan

After being sick for weeks on end, the day I felt better, I felt SO MUCH BETTER. I wanted to do ALL THE THINGS, but I also had a fresh reminder of the dangers of jumping in too quickly, and didn’t want to end up sick again. So I looked at my generic re-entry plan. It’s something I use for busy work weeks, but can be adapted for any disruptive situation, and is a tip I picked up from my book coach.

You can work this out when you make your emergency plan, long before getting sick (like right after you read this!), but you can also count on spending a couple of hours after getting well figuring out what to do. It’s always disorienting switching tempos, so give yourself some transition time and an easy checklist to get back into the groove. That way, you don’t sit at your desk wondering what you should be doing, and bouncing from one task to another.

Some ideas:

Read through the last 10 pages or so of your manuscript to get it back into your head

Journal. A few pages of rambling about how distracted you are, or how sick you were, or all the things you wanted to do but didn’t can help you get all the junk out of your brain so you can focus on what matters.

Move. Take a walk, do some gentle yoga. Get outside if you can.

Change your surroundings. Take your work somewhere else (again, if you can). Even changing the desktop background on your computer or using a different notebook can help you really feel the fresh start.

Don’t worry about it

If you spend the whole first day back doing nothing, that’s ok. Maybe that’s what you needed anyway. Pick up your re-entry plan as soon as you feel restless and touchy — that’s always a sign I need to get focused. Choose one thing that you know will make you feel like you accomplished something, and do it. Then, at the end of the day, consider a have-done list instead of worrying about what’s crossed off on your to-do list. Start with a blank piece of paper and write down everything you did, whether or not it was on your to-do list. Don’t compare it to that other list — in fact, you can throw that list away.

Congratulate yourself for being alive and able to breathe through your nose and stay awake past 7pm!

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The NaNoWriMo launch post

Happy Halloween everyone!

In yesterday’s episode, we had a little mini-debate on NaNoWriMo, which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write a first draft of a novel, or 50,000 words.

All three of us on the show – Meghan, Olivia and Ayanna – have attempted NaNo before, and none of us have done the full 50k words – or “won,” in the terms of the organizers (we’ll come back to that in a second). We had a bit of a debate on the show, about the ambivalence that all of us feel about this.

On one hand, Olivia found the collectivity and community really inspirational last year – it was the first time that she had really started writing almost every day. It was a great motivator to wake up early, to have a routine, but also to have a group of people doing it at the same time. In other words, you could say that NaNo last year did what this podcast is doing this year – linking her up with other writers and their routines. So even though she didn’t write 50k words, she wrote a lot, and she liked it.

Meghan and Ayanna struggle with their perfectionism because of some of the language around winning and the quantitative goal.

Here’s the thing, right? You don’t have to do the whole 50k words. I know, this is a sort of rebel approach, but we decided that, for both Olivia and Meghan, we need to set our own goals that are focused on drawing on the community – but also being realistic about the demands of our schedules.

Olivia’s goal? To write 20k words. (Last month, she did 12k of a 15k goal, so this is a stretch but not impossible.)

And Meghan’s? To participate in the community, cheer people on, and keep up the schedule and routine that is working for her – without putting additional pressure on herself.

We’re using the metaphor of a marathon race: you can still show up, but maybe you need to run the 5k or 10k or half marathon, if you’re not ready for the full marathon. And sometimes (like I did this past weekend), you are just cheering for the runners – and that’s really important, too.

So, where can you find us? 

We have started a forum in the writing club section, specifically about the Marginally thing – writing when you have a day job. Please join us there!

You can also add us as buddies: Here’s Olivia’s NaNo profile, and Meghan’s profile.

Finally, we will also be following, lurking and commenting in various fora, but especially:

  • Olivia’s genre, thriller/suspense has a forum
  • Our age group has a forum (it’s suitably wide so not giving anything away here)
  • We love the NaNo Rebels page – all different types of goals, genres and everything else (we’ll be here a lot)
  • Meghan will be doing a 6:30 am EST sprint most mornings — check this thread for the daily link

We’ll post more as we go on.

We’d love to hear from you: are you doing NaNo? Why, or why not? What’s your goal?

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Rituals, the brain … and writing

I’ve read a lot about rituals and how important they are when you’re doing creativity. There’s a lot out there about how the muse will only show up if you actually put your ass in the chair and wait for her. In fact, I think, if you’ve only got a very short amount of time to write or be creative (like all of us day-job-workers), then this is even important: we need our muse to show up on time, right?

And yet, if I’m honest, I think something in me is somewhat resistant to the idea that I need to make a special ceremony for my muse. Like, why isn’t it there already?? Maybe there’s something wrong with my muse? Maybe my will for the muse isn’t strong enough to summon her, etc.

So I was sort of encouraged to read this post about how rituals affect our brains. It’s a very scientific explanation of how that whole “put your ass in the chair” thing works: we perform better when we have a ritual.

Well, if science proves it, I guess I can let myself and my muse off the hook and start doing what the scientists tell me to. I am going to work on a ritual – nothing too intricate, but something to get me going in the morning. As we are heading into autumn/winter, I’m thinking my ritual should involve candles and maybe wonderful tea.

What does your writing ritual involve?

We’d love to hear from you, especially because next week’s podcast is about inspiration, motivation – and I think a big part of that is making it easy to stay motivated. A ritual can be a big part of it.

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Writing on vacation

It’s Labor Day weekend in America, right?

(I’m originally from the US, but I forget these things – the holiday only really dawned on me late this week, when I was wondering why there were so many Americans in Athens, and then I was listening to a podcast, and they mentioned it, and I thought, “Ah-ha!” But actually it may not be the reason there are so many Americans in Athens at all.)

Anyway, it’s Labor Day weekend, so everyone’s schedule is probably all up in the air. I’m writing to you from the end of my vacation in Greece – we’ve been here a bit over a week, and it’s been sort of a whirlwind. Sure, it’s a lazy whirlwind mainly composed of lots of hours of silent reading on the beach, or slow shuffling walks along dusty paths to the next pebbly beach, or six-hour marathons of The Good Wife, but it’s a whirlwind nonetheless.



On one hand, I’m happy because I have done some good writing here, and some thinking about my draft. And, on the other hand, I always think I have more time than I do, or that I will be more disciplined than I am.

Especially on holiday. I tell myself: Look at all that time! Whole entire days, and all I’m doing is going to the beach, which is totally a great place to work. I even take my laptop and notebook to the beach (and actually did some work):

And yet, the real truth is that writing on holiday is like writing all the rest of the time: if I don’t get up and work, I am not that likely to make up the time later. Turns out just sitting in your seat and doing the work is… well, really the only way it gets done.

All of that is not to say that I feel guilty. I don’t think I should or do – it’s pointless, it wastes energy, and it doesn’t change what was or wasn’t done. It’s just a sort of note, a placeholder for my future self. Maybe I can come back here and read it before my next holiday, and then make some realistic writing goals or timelines.

What about you? How are your holidays going? Do you get work done, or do you use it as a way to really switch off?

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Facing the blank page

blank page in a notebookYou know how writing in a new notebook, on that first page, is super hard? I always just skip the first page and then I’m writing on the second page, and then I can move on. Or write something witty on that second page about how I don’t want to write on the first page.

Anyway, we can’t do that on the blog – you always have to write the first post. No getting around it; it just has to be done. So consider this post, to some degree, as an almost-blank first page.

It’s been really difficult to start this project and this blog that we’ve been talking about for weeks. Before this, we swapped productivity tips and photos of to-do lists with ease. Now that the blank screen is staring me in the face, I’ll just start with three things we’ve learned as writers who have full-on day jobs and lives – all of which could be a podcast episode or two on their own.

First, in order to do this writer-with-a-day-job thing, you need a routine. Or at least we do. I’m naturally a night owl – I was since I was a kid. But my day job requires me to be in the office at a certain time, but doesn’t necessarily release me on time. So mornings are my best bet for fresh, clear thinking, and I write better when I can move from dreams to writing without interruption from the news, facts and social media.

Second, we’ve found it useful to plan in advance. When I have longer chunks of time to just write freely, knowing precisely what I need to write is not so important. But if I have 1 to 1.5 hours in the morning, I need to have a scene or a direction that I can resume and keep going with.

Third, you can’t do it all – priorities matter. If I’m writing intensively, every day, it means I need to go to bed, that I can’t go out with friends every night, and sometimes it means I don’t exercise or run as much as might when I’m not writing. I also don’t hole myself up in my house every day without meeting other humans because social activity is also important. It’s about prioritizing your writing but also having a balance, and figuring out what’s best for you.

Last, it’s a lifelong journey. No routine or system is perfect. When I hold too tightly to my existing routine, I can sometimes feel brittle or like I’m sacrificing everything either for my work or for my book. At the same time, I won’t find the perfect routine that will make me a writer unless I just freaking sit down and write.

What have you learned on your writing-and-working journey? We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

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