Vocation, Obligation, & the Fiction Writer

The word should stresses me out. My eye is twitching a little right now just thinking about it. It’s a word that “reeks of guilt, regret, powerlessness. If you should do something, it probably means you don’t want to do it, but you’ll do it anyway, albeit begrudgingly. “ I have a long, long, LONG list of things I should do and it seems to get longer every day. Maybe it’s because I have a full time job, a house, two kids, and a dog. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to write a book, manage my mini media empire, and occasionally clock more than 4 hours of sleep. Maybe it’s because I suck at time management. The point is, sometimes I feel like I am awash in a sea of should and I can’t swim and my inner tube has sprung a slow leak.

Not that there’s anything special about any of that. In fact, I’ll bet if you think about it, you have a long should list and a twitchy eye and your own slowly deflating inner tube. Most of us do. It seems to be the curse of modern life.

It never really bothered me until I started hearing myself say things like “I should be writing” and “I should finish Chapter 13 today.” How did that happen? How did writing go from being something I love to do, to something I have to do? Something on the same list with cleaning the bathtub and washing the dog (though not in that order, obviously)? How did I let the line get so blurred and more importantly, how can I sharpen it up again?

First off I’m trying not to say should so much anymore. Under this new rule I will no longer be saying things like, “I should put this book down and do the dishes” or “I should get to work early today.” I’m still going to have a list of things I need to do, and I’ll still going to do those things because frankly, they’re not going to do themselves and they’re shitty jobs that no one else wants, but I’m going to try very hard to change the way I talk about doing them.

  • I’m going to stop being resentful and feeling guilty about the existence of the should list.
  • I’m going to let the little stuff go. Maybe I should organize the linen closet, but I’m not going to.
  • I’m going to make time for the things I want to do.

But most importantly, I’m going to remember the difference between an obligation and a vocation and stop saying “I should be writing.” I’m going to write because I like to. Not because I should.

What’s on your should list? Tell me all about it in the comments. Maybe we can help each other out.





Slay your Babies & Other Advice for Fiction Writers

        Editing is my least favorite part of writing. Sadly, it’s also the most important part of writing anything that’s actually worth reading. Anyone can fill up a page with words, but to write well you have to know which words to leave there and which ones to take away.  So I do it. Oh, how I suffer for my art….
        Anyway, I recently had a conversation with a writer friend of mine (who we’ll call WF) about the need for editing. It went something like this:
WF: Have you ever written something and you suspected while you were writing it that it was great and then you finished and it WAS great and then it was so great that it required no work or thought or editing because it was already so great? (probably not a direct quote)
JY: Sure, all the time. Then I remind myself of some advice I got from a college professor of mine and I force myself to look at it anyway.
WF: What was the advice?
JY: Slay your babies.*
WF: Excuse me?
JY: I said Slay. Your. Babies.
WF: Yeah, that’s what I thought you said.
    I know it sounds harsh, but it’s probably the most important writing lesson I ever learned. Sam, the workshop professor who taught it to me, wouldn’t tolerate mollycoddling of any kind in his class. He’d sit at the front of the room and if he felt that one of us was cradling our precious work a little too gently, he’d shout out, “What’s the only rule, Miss Young?” The answer, the only rule, was “Slay your babies.”
    By that he meant that anything and everything you write needs editing. It needs finessing. It needs work. Hence first drafts and second drafts and rounds of revisions. Even if you love something, even if you are 100% sure it’s the best thing you have ever written, even if it pains you physically to do it, you still need to rip it apart. In fact, if Sam were here right now, he’d probably say you owe it to the work to rip it apart.
    Anyway, I thought I’d pass that along. What’s the best advice about writing you ever got? Tell me all about it in the comments. Maybe we can help each other out.

* Just for the record, I am vehemently anti-infanticide. I am also against shoving the elderly, kicking a man when he’s down, and horse violence of any kind.


Deadlines & the Fiction Writer: How to turn Emotional Issues into Motivational Tools

I need deadlines. Without them I will wander around aimlessly, accomplishing nothing, thinking about what to have for lunch. I will call my sister. I will read a book. I will spend whole days looking at pretty pictures on pinterest (Click here) to see my boards but don’t blame me if you get sucked in over there and fail to accomplish another thing all day. But if I know someone is counting on me to be finished by such and such a time, I will be finished. Come hell, high water, or a plague rat where the mouse should be. No exceptions, no excuses. I’ll be done.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams

Traditionally self imposed deadlines haven’t been nearly as effective for me. That’s probably because without the (nearly paralyzing) fear of disappointing someone hanging over my head, I don’t feel as much pressure to perform. (Readers, these are my staggering emotional problems. Staggering emotional problems, these are my readers. There. Now we all know each other.). But as I’m working on book 2 of the Princess of Twilight and Dawn series,  (Click here for a sneak peak at Chapter 1) of Tab Bennett and the Underneath) I find myself sticking to my schedule, meeting my writing goals (665 words a night), and getting shit done even though there’s no one standing behind me, looking at me with sad puppy eyes and saying things like “I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.” Do you want to know why? Because of the readers. Because they’re out there in the world waiting to find out what happens to Tab next and because only I can tell them. And I really don’t want to let them – you – down.

“But what about me?” you ask. “Unlike you Jes, I’m well-adjusted and I refuse to be manipulated by guilt. What tools can I use to help me meet my deadlines?” I’m so very glad you asked. When the psychological scars of your childhood won’t get the job done, meeting deadlines comes down to four important rules:

1. Be aware of the deadline: It will sneak up on you if it can. Mark it on the calendar. Circle it. Write it on the ceiling above your bed. Make acknowledging its approach an inescapable part of your day. Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of it.

2. Celebrate small successes: I like to break a project up into pieces so I have lots of little goals to meet. Lots of little goals to meet mean lots of chances to celebrate how competent and trustworthy I am when I actually meet them. (As an aside, there’s a potty training method that works on basically the same principal. It involves letting your child eat lots of pretzels and chips while drinking coke and hanging around the house without wearing any pants. Like toddlers, writers love to do well and be patted on the back for it. Coincidentally, they will also work for salty foods.)

3. Prepare for the other thing: Build a cushion into your schedule. That’s right; I’m telling you to plan for failure. Look, things come up. Life comes up. Sometimes you just can’t get to it. It’s not the end of the world if you’ve planned for it. That’s why I have a cushion. To catch my lazy butt when I fall.

4. No Sleep til Brooklyn: In this case, Brooklyn is your deadline and the one getting the no sleep is you. Stay up late. Get up early. Finish when you said you would.

But what about you? Do you work best with a deadline or do you prefer a more open ended schedule? Do you find those countdown clocks to be an awesome motivator or a terrifying reminder that time is shooting by you at the speed of light. Were you a Beastie Boys fan or was Vanilla Ice more your speed? Tell me all about it in the comments. Maybe we can help each other out.

The Writer’s Block

Do you get writer’s block? I do. Often. Honestly, I have it a little bit about this very post. It’s frustrating because I wanted to write it. I had ideas about writing it. But when I sat down to write it, nothing happened. So I checked my email instead. I looked for summer shoes at zappos.com. Then I wrote a sentence, erased it, and bought a sundress. It’s a problem, an expensive problem.

So what do I do about it? Well, for one thing I just put my wallet out in the car. Now in order to buy anything else I’d have to put my shoes on and go all the way out to the driveway. And it’s dark out there. And there might be a bear or something hanging out by the trash cans because we have bears in the neighborhood now. So I’m probably not going to do that. Because, honestly, I’d rather write this post than fight a bear.

“writing about a writer’s block is better than not writing at all”
– Charles Bukowski

Anyway, we were talking about writer’s block. There’s all kinds of conflicting advice about combating it. Some say you should get up and do something else for a while. I tried that once. I didn’t write another word for four years. Some say it’s better to stay at your desk. To keep working even if what you’re writing is awful.

“When I’m writing, I write.
And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says,
‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'”

– Maya Angelou

I’m with Ms. Angelou on this one. Even when I know I have no chance of writing anything I won’t immediately want to delete, I still sit down at the desk. I still make myself type. Even when it’s really hard. Even when there’s something I’d like to watch on TV. When I lack the motivation to get there, these are things I tell myself:

1. You can’t call yourself a writer if you don’t write. If you’re not a writer, you’re a person with a lot of imaginary friends. You are too old for imaginary friends.

2. Robert Frost was right: the best way out is always through. Getting through takes effort.

3. There’s nothing more common than unrealized dreams and wasted talent. (see 1)

4. Everyone gets writer’s block from time to time. It’s a drag. But if you find a way to tip it over, you can stand on it.

5. TIVO is recording your show anyway.

Then I begin to work.  Sometimes I sit there with my fingers poised above the keys, waiting for inspiration. Sometimes I write for two hours and then delete the whole thing. The reward is eventually the words come back and the story gets moving again.

What do you do when you get writer’s block? Do you get up? Stay seated? How do you work through it? Leave a comment and let me know. Maybe we can help each other out.





A Disappointment to the Animal Kingdom

Today I received an email that contained the following images:

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more motivated to write.

(These pictures are from a collection called 33 Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed in You. The original captions are by Jack Shepard over at buzzfeed.com. Mine have been personalized.)