When Productivity Isn't a Good Thing

It is so easy to get caught up in chasing the wrong thing, and not nurturing the things that matter most. | lucyflint.com

About a month ago, an acquaintance of mine--a good person, well-intentioned, who wants the best for me--asked how my novel was going. And I wanted to:

Multiple choice: choose the most appropriate answer: 

a) discuss the recent high points in my drafting process.
b) invite them to read my work-in-progress.
c) pass the question off with a super-vague answer.
d) scream. And just go ahead and keep on screaming.

To my deep mortification, the answer is d. I held it together at the time, and managed to squeak by with a combo of a and c, but oh my goodness. I had to go to my writing desk and sit down and have a very serious talk with myself.

I mean: What was my deal? It's one thing when someone's being a pain in the hindquarters. But this was a genuinely nice person. (Who doesn't read this blog. So don't worry, I'm not talking about you.)

It took me about ten minutes to realize that my near-meltdown was because I haven't been writing fiction lately. I haven't been working on my novel.

When I'm not working on fiction, two things happen. 1) I become restless and irritable, and 2) I'm much more likely to take the heads off innocent bystanders who are asking about it.

When I'm not working on a novel, I get a little unhinged.

But I know this about myself. I've known this a long time. In fact, my family is well-trained: if I'm getting a bit, um, difficult to live with, they know how to lovingly say, "Hey, why don't you go write."

So the real surprise on that day I did not scream was this: That I had no idea that this condition was creeping up on me. 

To tell you the truth, it didn't even dawn on me how much I wasn't writing.

What was I doing instead? I was having a mega let's-plan-the-rest-of-my-life festival.

For about a month.

Now, I have a bunch of good reasons. SO MANY REASONS. I'm taking new directions in my overall career focus, and shifting a few other things around too. (General life stuff. Big overhaul. Big plans.)

A lot of things are up in the air, honestly. And since I'm one of the 99% of people who have trouble with change, I've been feeling a teeny bit anxious lately.

And when I get anxious, I plan.

I try to stabilize my shaky legs on ideas that feel solid and sure. Like lists.

I've been looking at productivity strategies, making to-do lists, creating six-month plans, three-month plans, eight-week plans, next week's plans...

My days were full of words and paper and new digital documents. I felt so deliciously BUSY. And it was all to do with career stuff, and new mindsets, and a better outlook. 

Everything I was doing wore a big shiny "I'm Important!" badge.

But the truth is, I camped out way too long in Plan Making. 

I fought all the uncertainties with a blaze of productivity, of plans and activities and deep thinking.

And I stranded the imaginative side of my work. For weeks.

Funny how this is still so easy to forget, but as a fiction-writer, the imagination is my primary citizenship.

Not lists, but dreams.

What do you do when you get a wake-up call?

I didn't make a list. But I did make a few choices.

plunged back into my fiction work, bringing my novel back to the front of my days. The top priority spot in my schedule. When my brain is best.

The novel now gets the bulk of my time. (Can you hear all my characters cheering?)

But the more I thought about it, the more I could tell that there are other places I've neglected too: There's my perennial cry that I don't read enough. It's been too long since I've nurtured creativity for its own sake. And there are places in my craft that I need to focus in on, with a master class or two.

What's a Lucy to do? 

I'm making a few other changes to my schedule, and one of them affects you, my lovely and wonderful readers. Here it is: Instead of publishing three posts a week, I'm gonna pull it back to just two. Is that okay?

I still love you, and I'm still rooting for you like crazy. We're still going to talk all things lionhearted, all thing writing lifeWe'll just be doing it on Mondays and Thursdays, instead of three days a week.

Is that cool with you? ... Okay. Thanks.

And my novel says a huge THANK YOU. (Also, it says: high fives to your current work-in-progress, if you could pass that along.)

So how are you doing? Have you stumbled across a wake-up call lately? Any acquaintances that may have been screamed at? Or is there just a slow disconnect, an unwinding and an unraveling in your work? 

Do you feel crazy-busy? Is it choking out all the quiet voices of your words, your writing? 

How's your imagination? Does it feel strong and healthy and ready to conjure up another world at a moment's notice? Or is it a little limp, exhausted, and drowned out by the productivity sirens?

Maybe for you, planning and list-making isn't the problem. Maybe it's all research and no writing? Or staying in the "idea gathering" stage waaaaay too long? 

What might be trying to get your attention? And what would it look like if you listened? If you focused in on it, and put all your attention on the most important thing?

Let me know in the comments, and I will totally cheer you on. 

You Just Might Empty Your Bank Account After Reading This Post (and book a few tickets!)

If you want some crazy inspiration for your next trip around the world... this is the book for you! | lucyflint.com

Yes, I know, I've been recommending a lot of great reads this month! But I couldn't let July wrap up without mentioning this exquisite book: Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman, by Alice Steinbach.

Educating Alice: the next book on your to-read list. | lucyflint.com

If you have a stubborn, persistent travel itch...

If you are a perpetual learner, always intrigued by new subjects...

If you--ahem--get a teeny bit bored with travelogues that are only about one place (or is that just me and my attention span?)...

Then this is the book for you! 

Alice Steinbach quit her job (as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist!) to travel the world. Cool. Sounds great, right? Lots of good initiative there.

But here's the rest of it:

Every place she went, she took a class or a course. She went ahead and LEARNED stuff.

... I don't know about you, but that's like the perfect crossroads for me: To travel and to take a course. It gets me drooling. (Have you heard of those cruises that are cooking schools? Just STOP, right?)

Ahem. So. Alice Steinbach learns about gardening in Provence, cooking in Paris, architecture in Havana, traditional dancing in Kyoto, and, among other trips, border collie training in Scotland. (Gaaaaaaaa!!! I can't stand it!) 

In her chapter with the border collies, "Lassie, Come Home," Steinbach writes:

Somewhere in the first ten minutes of my initiation into the art of being a shepherd, I found myself about to be charged by ten Scottish Blackface rams. Not Blackface ewes, mind you, but full-grown males who seemed to resent my attempt to redirect their usual movement patterns. Even from a distance I could see their eyes challenging me, the way New York City drivers challenge a cop who has the chutzpah to reroute traffic on Fifth Avenue. Go ahead, just try it and see what happens was the message I got from their wide-set eyes.

(ALICE. You are my writing-traveling-and-learning HERO.)

I liked her writing style, loved her travel/learning itinerary, and frankly adored the prospect of doing the same thing myself. 

Trust me: if you frequently itch to travel, or if you enjoy being a student, this book will have you daydreaming your own round-the-world learning trip.

... And who knows? It just might change your plans for the rest of the year.

Refuse to Feel Sheepish about How Completely Odd You Are

True creativity isn't found in the same influences everyone else is using. Follow your own oddities. Embrace your strangeness. And be totally unique. | lucyflint.com

On a lightning-quick visit to Chicago last spring, I stumbled across an exhibit of Edward Gorey's works at Loyola University. Lucky, lucky, LUCKY me! I spent an age poking through the exhibit, reading every little blurb, staring at every illustration.

(...Okay, I really really love his stuff, so let's skip the part where I basically hijack this blog post and turn it into one long gush festival about how much I love his stunning and macabre illustrations, how I laughed till I cried at The Gashlycrumb Tinies, and what that says about my sense of humor. We'll skip all that. I love him, the end.)

The most important moment for me was when I read this one panel that listed all Gorey's influences. Everything that he liked. The stuff that had some effect or other on his work.

You guys. This list. SO LONG.

And bizarre. And ... varied. Edwardian architecture and Gilbert & Sullivan. The game of Monopoly and graveyards (obviously). Edward Leary and sitcoms. Ballet and Batman and cats. 

He was influenced by so many things that he became totally uncategorizable.

Completely original. 

I came back home, thrilled by all of the exhibit, but especially haunted by that list.

See, I have this temptation to ignore all my quirkiness. To override my creative impulses. To refuse to make time for all the things that intrigue me.

No, no, no, I protest to myself. I need to be efficient! I need to not go down all those other paths of what I'm curious about. I need to stay FOCUSED.

Productivity is all well and good, but we need to create room and time to be artists.

To chase down the things that interest us. 

Whether they're interesting to other people or not. Whether they "fit" our topic and our genre or not.

When I was little, I had this book about codes that I loved. I'd sit for hours with this reference book, pouring over the section on Morse Code, and Braille, and flag signaling. 

I also had these nature encyclopedias. I studied the detailed drawings of animal footprints, just in case I had to identify, say, a bobcat print. (You never know.) I memorized details about thorny lizards and carpet sharks and cassowaries. 

I was obsessed with the alphabet. I loved paper folding and weird little crafts. I named all the trees in our backyard and invented histories for what had happened there before we came.

... And then I guess I grew up. I watched reality TV in college and the same movies everyone else was watching, and I felt generally kind of ... dull.

There's a temptation to mimic everyone else's input. Right? To make it look acceptable and safe. But that doesn't breed creativity. Not so much.

What about you? What were you obsessed with as a kid? And what's inspiring you like crazy now? (Or what would inspire you, if, you know, you went ahead and let it?)

Are you making time for that? 

What would happen, if we explored those weird little curiosities we have?

I have this suspicion: that by giving ourselves time to do that, we might be feeding our creativity and stories in deeper ways than we can really know.

What do you need to do, to treasure your own oddities? To treat them like the creative GOLD that they are? 

What would it look like for you to pursue those funny little interests, that strange hobby? To be well and truly influenced by that thing that's not on anyone else's radar?

... Can I tell you something hokey I'm doing?

I'm dreaming up some kind of exhibit that might exist, decades down the road. You know. After my long and incredibly creative career, after I turn up my toes and am snoozing in a very comfortable grave somewhere.

Say, ten years after I'm dead.

And there's all these BOOKS. (A book exhibit. Sure. Why not.) And there's a panel on the wall, listing the many, wildly varied influences on Lucy Flint's life and career and stories.

All the crazy ingredients that seeped into my stories through the years.

And here's my question to myself right now: What's on that list? 

And then, next step: To totally own that list of influences. To give myself full creative license to dig into the things that inspire me. Unapologetically. 

Maybe I'll figure out that bobcat footprint after all. Maybe I'l let my inner geek out and study Morse Code again.

How about you? What's on your ultimate list of influences?

Or are you stuck trying to sound like all the other bloggers and Twitterers? Are you trying to make your Instagram feed and your Pinterest boards look like everyone else's? Do you feel somehow obligated to be inspired by certain things?

What movies do you really want to watch? What kinds of reference books would make you stay up way too late at night? What details make you crazy-excited? 

Don't water down your creativity by trying to use the "acceptable" influences.

Do not trade your dreams for someone else's idea of normalcy. 

Because you know what? The world does not actually need you to blend in, and write the same exact stuff as everyone else in your genre. It DOESN'T NEED THAT.

There will be pressure to make things that way, but trust me: That's NOT what it needs.

It needs you to be you. Your deepest, wildest, most unruly self. 

This weekend, set aside some time for a creative date with yourself. Pursue the quirky things that you love.

Refuse to feel sheepish. Just plunge headlong into your own craziness. Be TRULY inspired.

Okay? And let's be the writers we're supposed to be.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to find a book on codes.

If You're Sick of Books about Writing, This Is the Writing Book You Need

This is the super-exciting book that will JOLT your writing life awake. Seriously. | lucyflint.com

Well, I've gotten myself into trouble. Because I want to tell you about this GREAT BOOK for your writing life--a book I'm super excited about, a book that puts a huge grin on my face when I think about it--

Only I have no idea how to describe it. 

No idea.

Here, just come over here and meet it:

You've just met the spectacular WONDERBOOK. And your life may never be the same again. | lucyflint.com

(If you totally adore the cover, like I do, then JUST WAIT. The inside gets way the heck crazier. And you will just LOVE. IT.)

Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer, is the jolt that your (and my!) writing life needs right now. 

Only I have no way to put it into words. No way to talk about it. Um...

Okay. I'm gonna try.

Jeff VanderMeer puts together fantastic chapters on all those best basics, like beginnings and endings, plot and structure, characterization, world building, and revision. Only he has a new way of seeing them, a new way to talk about them. Great wisdom and great advice.

(I've read a bajillion writing books. And I was underlining paragraphs like a newbie. So. There you go.)

His own excellent work is studded with brilliant essays by other writers--Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin and Lev Grossman (whose essay on revision is just COMPLETELY RIGHT, like the rightest thing you have ever read). 

... And then there are about four thousand totally bizarre illustrations and exercises and charts and--and--and stuff I don't even know how to categorize. 

(I'm getting a little worked up over here. It's cool.)

I love this book because it got me through a crazy-hard month last year. When I didn't know how to get back to writing again. When my imagination felt dry as dust and twice as clichéd. When I was just tired all the time. 

I came across this book and felt like something lit up inside. Not to get all mushy on you, but I love it.

This book is for you if you write fiction. 

(And it's at the tip-top of your To Read list if you write fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, or anything even remotely quirky or speculative.)

This book is for you if books on craft or creativity are all starting to kinda sound the same.

This book is for you if you're bored.

This book is for you if you'd like a huge book that you can dip in and out of, read from back to front, marvel at all the illustrations, or hop through and read all the essays first. If you like marking up books and dog-earing them and generally making your own interactive experience out of them--then this book is totally your style.

This book is for you. Period. Because you and I--we need something completely unexpected now and then. A curveball in book form.

That's this book. 

Grab a copy and go give your writing life a nice big zap.

How to Survive Writing Life Culture Shock

If you're having a hard time adjusting to this crazy writing life, you're not alone!! You have culture shock. Here's what to do. | lucyflint.com

When you dive into the writing life--especially if you're going full tilt, full time--you might experience culture shock. And frankly, it might be severe.

Wait a sec, you might be thinking. Isn't this taking the whole "travel" metaphor a bit far?

Nope. 

When I was in college, I spent a semester studying in England. We were prepped with a discussion or two on culture shock before we left. 

Okay. Things will be different, I thought. So I went with my teeth gritted a bit, expecting to enjoy my host country, but also to face a bit of culture shock as well.

Guess what. I had absolutely NO culture shock symptoms at all. I wanted to stay there forever. (Sniff. I love you, England.)

But fast forward to, oh, about 24 hours after college graduation: I developed a major case of culture shock. Which lasted about seven years.

Learning to check my instincts before crossing a road was SO EASY compared to navigating the full time novelist's life!

Culture shock + the writing life. Let's talk about it. 

I love this description of culture shock, from the University of North Carolina - Greensboro. (Not my college, but they do an awesome job of discussing symptoms and adjustment.) 

They define culture shock as "the way you react and feel when the cultural cues you know so well from home are lacking."

What do you think, lionhearted writer? Did your cultural cues shift when you started the writing life?

All the things that made sense in your normal job, or in school--when they disappeared and were replaced by the writing life's cues... how did that go for you?

I found that I was desperate for a syllabus. I wanted someone else to have a plan for my writing life. I missed feedback at every step of the way--from fellow students, from professors.

And I couldn't figure out why working all day and night was burning me out instead of getting stuff done. The harder I pushed, the worse things got.

Here's what I found: All the skills I had developed to do really awesome work in school were the exact skills that set me up to do really badly as a full time novel writer. 

Seriously. 

So did I get some major culture shock? Yup. 

And not just metaphorically. I had the symptoms

Check out that list on the U of NC page: I developed a BUNCH of them as a full time writer!

This is a little embarrassing, but seriously, I checked pretty strong on: tiredness, irritability, depression, crying for no reason, homesickness, and (ahem) hostility toward host nationals. (I hated hearing about other writers doing well. Like I said: embarrassing.)

I have finally crossed through that stage, but I think I could have passed through it much MUCH faster if I realized what the heck I was dealing with. I could have learned to adapt, I could have thought like an expat, instead of just fighting it all.

I love the tips for coping on that study abroad link. Seriously, these are GREAT for writers. Let's translate them into writer-speak:

Learn as much as possible about the writing life. 

Not just the writing craft, but the writing LIFE.

That's a huge part of why I have this blog in the first place: because all the books on craft weren't helping me get better.

It was only when I learned more and more about how other writers  survived, how other writers tick, how other writers navigate productivity and creativity... only then did I start to calm down, and figure this stuff out.

So what can you do?

  • Read writer's memoirs! Books about how other writers deal with this funny writing life. (The Writer's Desk is a gorgeous and very pick-up-able intro to the writing life.)
  • Gulp down interviews with other writers. (The website Writer Unboxed has an incredible archive of interviews. Read 'em all!!)
  • I will crawl over shards of glass to hand any writer a copy of Page after Page or Chapter after Chapter by Heather Sellers. More than any other books, these helped explain to me what it feels like to be a writer. 

Find logical reasons for the cultural differences.

So, the writing life doesn't look like a bunch of other kinds of lives.

It is not the same thing as a full time student life. Or full time work with a boss and clear instructions. Okay? 

If you've only ever been a student, or if you've only ever worked with fairly clear guidelines--you might feel like your identity has gone all shaky on you. 

You might feel like you've been tossed in a lake with a pen and paper. (And if so, yup, that's right on track.)

It's a fluid kind of life, with room for creativity and curiosity. You learn how much discipline you need, and how to keep discipline from choking creativity. (And creativity from choking discipline!) You learn how to push yourself and how to let yourself rest. 

And it's darned hard! 

I spent so much time highlighting the differences between the writing life and my former life. And then I reinforced  those differences by fighting the writing life. And fighting hard.

I kept thinking: it shouldn't be this way. It should be a lot more like college.

That kind of thinking didn't help me. At all. It kept me locked in culture shock for a long time:

I shouldn't have to have an apprenticeship. I should be able to write a perfect novel in a year. Other people should understand exactly what it is I do (and be encouraging, for pete's sake).

Creativity should follow neat, organized paths. I should be able to stay perfectly on my predicted schedule. Every day should be productive in a quantifiable, check-off-that-box kind of way.

That kind of thinking helped me graduate with honors. I did really great in school. So, yay. Yay for that. But it was time--past time--to let that thinking go.

To tuck those ideas, that way of working, in a box with some tissue paper, and put a freaking lid on it.

If, say, creativity followed neat and organized paths, guess what. IT WOULDN'T BE CREATIVITY. It might be, say, website coding, or architecture, or algebra. But it wouldn't be CREATIVITY. 

See what I mean?

What about you? What are your biggest arguments against the creative writing life?

Maybe it's time to acknowledge that this kind of thinking helped you do whatever it is that you did before. Maybe it even helped you do really, really well. And that's great. Really.

But it will strangle your writing life. Time to let it go.

Don't whine about your new culture.

Ahem. Right? We need to resist the temptation to get together with other writers to have a big moaning festival.

I'm only one week into my No Whining Challenge, but I'm already discovering three great benefits to refusing to whine: 

1) If I can't vent about something, I find that I can laugh about it. And not just in a bitter way, but I can genuinely find it funny. It's like all that whining energy puts on party hats and makes me laugh. I can't explain it. But it's a good thing.

2) A bigger sense of gratitude. When I'm not clouding my general outlook with a lot of complaining, my vision is clearer to see all the good stuff. Which has been pretty cool.

3) If something's really bugging me and I can't whine about it, I channel all that energy into just fixing it. Shocking, right? Instead of griping, I can, you know, DO something about it.

So instead of whining about the writing life (the instability! the disorganization! the many tempting chances to go insane!), find what's funny about it. What's genuinely humorous about the writing temperament, the quirkiness of what we do, the way writers talk and think.

See the freedom with gratitude. 

And if something's really nagging at you--try to fix it.

Talk to someone who has acclimated to this new culture.

YES! Meet other writers! Seek friendships with the non-whining people who are navigating this life, and who are doing a decent job of it. Find 'em on Twitter, on Instagram, through other social media channels...

Or hey, talk to me, I'm right here! Ha ha! But seriously, leave a comment or catch me on Twitter @reallucyflint, and say hello. We can talk about this totally unusual writing life!!

Talk with your new writing friends about how your old cultural cues worked and how these new cues are so different.

Talk about how your sense of expectations changed, how success is totally different, how freedom sometimes feels like it's strangling you, how all those books on creativity make you feel squirmy.

And learn about how this other person has made their adjustments, what mindset tricks they use, how they think about it now. This can be so so helpful!

Know that you can make it.

You really can. (Heck, if I can do it, I'm pretty sure anyone can!) 

If you're writing at all, if you're drawn to the writing life, then some part of you, somewhere in your personality and psyche, some part of you really will thrive in this life. Some part of you is urging you to jump in.

And the rest of you? The rest of you really can catch up. I promise.

The writing life is a pretty broad and forgiving thing, when you get used to it. There's a lot of room for variety. As you adapt, you'll find ways to make it your own. One day you might wake up and find that you're right at home, talking and giving directions like a native!

It helps if you aren't super strict with yourself as you adjust. Give yourself so much grace. Don't demand perfection. Don't try to push yourself harder when you're still learning the ropes. 

That study abroad page has a list of character traits that are good for helping you adjust and cope: And even though they say that they're helping you travel to a new culture, I think that they are IDEAL for a writer's toolkit!

A tolerance for ambiguity? YUP.

Open-mindedness. Flexibility. Curiosity. Sense of humor. Ability to fail.

Yes to all that.

Look, friend. If you really want to be a writer, but are having the hardest time adjusting, I totally hear you. 

Try this. It really is more than just a nifty metaphor this time. Try thinking of it as culture shock. You learned how to survive in your old culture, and you probably were really, really good at it.

But this is a new place. 

Don't beat yourself up. The new culture simply won't look the same as the old, in so many ways. The cues are not the same.

Don't hold yourself to old standards when you're in a new land. At the very least, you'll be uncomfortable. At the worst, you'll be a bit of a wreck, kinda like me. 

What is the thing that you trip over the most, the cultural cue that is the most frustrating and infuriating? The thing that makes you snap, and holler about how much you hate writing, you hate this crummy life? What is that thing?

Try to see it in light of this new culture. Maybe there's a reason things are different here. Maybe the reasons are even understandable, even good somehow. Learn how other writers made that adjustment. Make friends with writers who are adjusting right alongside you.

Practice flexibility. Practice your sense of humor. Let yourself fail. 

And become a citizen of a new (and ultimately super wonderful!) culture.


What is the toughest part of adapting to this new culture? Or what are you overcoming; what have you overcome? Let us know in the comments. Let's be a writing community that supports each other! 

Get Crazy-Delighted with Words (by Reading This Book)

If you have a chance to amp up your writing delight in any way: go for it. This Friday, love your word-loving side by getting this book. | lucyflint.com

My favorite way to work is with pure and total delight. (Seriously--who ISN'T on board with that?) 

This writing life is a million times easier when I'm loving my story concept, my working environment, and the rhythm of sentences flowing out of my fingertips. Mmm.

That is my happiest kind of happy.

So when I find something--a tool, a resource, or a bit of inspiration--that helps me get to that happy-writer space, I am ALL EXCITED. All in.

It's part of the Lionhearted Writing Life 101, right? If you can inject delight, curiosity, and energy into your work: Do it!!! Make that happen!

So on that note, let me introduce to you this fantastic little volume: Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. It's compiled and illustrated by Ella Frances Sanders (who runs a super charming website and blog as well).

Grab the book LOST IN TRANSLATION and revel in the charming illustrations and the perfection of the words! | lucyflint.com

Friends. You totally need this book in your collection.

It combines art, a global awareness, and the definitions of words into something beautiful, inspiring, and yes, delightful. 

... I've been browsing through the pages again, trying to pick a favorite word, but I'm stumped.

Do I most love: the Malay noun for the time needed to eat a banana? (!) Or the Inuit noun that describes going outside to check if anyone is coming? (!!) The Swedish noun for the road-like reflection of the moon in the water? (!!!)

Or--Swedish again--this one, the name for a third cup of coffee:

Are you swooning yet?? (LOST IN TRANSLATION, by Ella Frances Sanders) | lucyflint.com

Because how could I not love a word for a third cup of coffee. I mean, come on

Each untranslatable word is accompanied with a charming illustration, the definition, and a miniature bit of musing.

Reading through it, you get insight into other cultures and languages, you fill your eyes with these perfect illustrations, and you stir up your word-loving brain into something of a frenzy. 

Seriously, you'll adore it. It's like handing your writing life a fistful of balloons. 

(And it's Friday. And we all deserve balloons. So there.)

Six Ways to Keep Working When You're Sick

What happens when you're in the midst of your work-in-progress, and sick happens?? Here is a handful of ways to keep working. | lucyflint.com

I've read a number of interviews with successful authors, who say that they keep RIGHT ON WORKING when they're sick. Apparently the thinking is: What, I have the flu? Pfft. There's this NOVEL I need to write. Let's DRAFT. And off they go.

Man. I applaud that. But that is not my experience when I'm sick.

As timing would have it, I'm sick at the moment. Some kind of stomach bug thingie that I'm not especially enjoying. (And I can't tell you how funny I think it is that this hit right after my #30DaysNoWhining challenge started on Monday!)

So. I'm not whining. (I promise!) I'm just making sure my lunch stays in place and my cookies don't get tossed. So far, so good.

But it got me thinking about writing when sick. (Which, can we all say, is SO MUCH EASIER than traveling when sick. How many terrible stories are there about getting sick on the road. Yiiiiikes.)

I'm not all tough when it comes to working while being sick. Really. I wish I was rah-rah-rah about it, but I'm pretty much a softie.

That said, I still have a few questions for myself when those germs show up. I'll push through for a bit, but then I start asking myself: How can I step back from this hardworking pace, and yet still feed my work? How can I take a break--and, you know, get HEALTHY--but then re-enter my writing work in a good way?

My immune system is not completely super, so I've had a lot of chances to explore these questions. And at this point, when I don't feel so good, I have a good list of habits to help my work along while I rest. 

#1: Put your daydreams to work. 

Being sick has two qualities that are pretty great for writers: 1) most people will leave you alone when you get the word out, and 2) your brain is floating around in a dreamy state.

This is like a perfect recipe for daydreaming.

I think of intentional daydreaming like making a smoothie: put a few good ingredients together in a blender, and flip it on.

So when you're sick and you're crawling back to bed, mentally grab about three things from your work-in-progress. Maybe: a setting you want to explore, or a relationship between characters, a scene or a plot point that you're stuck on, a beginning or ending that you want to rework.

Stick some paper by your bed, and then crawl under the covers and doze. Let your mind wander about. Take naps and wake up and sleep again. And every time you're awake, take your brain for a little walk around those story questions you have.

Honestly, you might surprise yourself with what you dream up. Keep feeding your subconscious during the day, and jot down notes as ideas float by. You can deepen so many parts of your work this way... and it's practically effortless!

#2: Mindmap your way to better ideas.

More focused than daydreaming, but still along those same lines: Being sick can be a great time to explore your ideas in a more concentrated way. 

I've heard again and again that if you want to do better brainstorming work, you need to put yourself physically in a different space. And if you're leaving your desk for your bed, swapping a screen for paper and pen--well, you're halfway there! 

If you're feeling up to it, prop some pillows behind yourself, grab a big pad of paper, and create a mind map of a project or two.

Thanks to the dreaminess of being sick, you have a chance to have a looser process, to let more air into your work, and to just think differently as you brainstorm.

Take that chance to pursue some new ideas and let your mind ramble around in new territory. (I'm only just getting interested in mind mapping... here's a quick explanation if you're new to the concept.)

#3: Create a mini writing retreat.

What's something you want to learn about in your writing, but you don't ever seem to have a chance? Grab that writing book you've been meaning to get to, or explore the writing website you found but haven't yet read.

Fill your feverish little noggin with writing articles and podcasts.

And hey--if you're sick RIGHT NOW, and this writing retreat thing appeals to you, there's an online writing conference happening, the Self-Publishing Success Summit, which is free for a limited time. I've caught a few interviews and am definitely enjoying it! Perfect timing for sick little me! (I don't know when it stops being free, so run check it out!)

#4: Fall into an excellent novel.

This is a great time to dive deep into a book. Declare a reading holiday! 

Pick up a novel that's like the one you're trying to write, and as you soak in the words, push yourself to think like a writer.

Pay attention to where the plot tightens up, to how the character relationships unfold, to whether you want to keep reading (in spite of being sick!), or where the tension slacks off and you'd rather nap.

Jot down page numbers for where the description is spot on, or that perfect way they opened Chapter 14. Make a few notes, so that when you're back at your desk, you can analyze that good writing.

(If you can't keep your eyes open: let a quality audio book send you to sleep. Fill your dreams with superb sentences.)

#5: Have yourself a movie festival.

Find a few movies about authors, or writing, or really--anything to do with books. (When I seriously can't work for one reason or another, it's still nice to give the writing life a big old hug. It helps remind me why I love this work... and that never hurts!) 

You could also dive into a handful of that kind of movie that reviewers call "visual feasts." (Or any other kind of feast, really!) Rewatch some quirky films that delight or inspire you. 

Have yourself an inspiration picnic, right there amid the tissues and cough drops. Get your imagination all revved up. Nourish the places that might have gone a little dry, while you were being so productive before. 

#6 Exercise your grace muscle by letting yourself off the hook.

Look. If you're really really sick, just put the work to one side. Let yourself sleep like crazy. Heal.

Because ultimately--and you know this if you've been around here a while--I'm all about taking good care of yourself as a person first, and as a writer second.

And honestly, illness is a good time for me to re-orient on this principle. 

Because when things are going super well, I can start believing this lie that says, if I check every box on schedule, I can have a perfect writing life.

And then when I get sick, I am tempted to believe that everything is ruined.

Well, frankly, it doesn't work like that. And I'm slowly learning that really good things can STILL happen, even when our plans wreck and our perfect little schedules hit a snag.

So give yourself a ton of grace. And maybe some balloons and flowers. Snuggle into bed. Your work will still be there when you get up. You'll find your way back into it. 

And no fellow lionheart will get all furious with you if you just take the time to get well. Okay? 

Okay then. 

On that note, I'm off to bed. And until I'm on my feet again, I'll be doing a bit of #3, #2, and #5.

What sounds good to you? What will you be up to?

The Habit We All Have that Poisons Our Writing (Yikes!)

When we use our mouths to highlight the differences between our idealized writing life and our *actual* writing life, we're in for some trouble. | lucyflint.com

Have you ever gone on a trip with a total whiner? Someone who highlights every disappointment, every inconvenience? 

The smell of the room, the weird guy over there, the long line at the restrooms, the shoulder bag is way too heavy, these prices are ridiculous, feet are aching, ohmygosh is it really about to rain, these exhibits aren't really all that great, these streets should be better marked, CAN'T get my MAP folded back up . . .

You know. Whining.

It's funny: I love traveling. Love it! I itch to explore new places. And yet... I do my fair share of whining.

*slaps forehead* 

What's up with that? Here's my theory. I think I love idealized travel. Right? Travel with neat edges: clean restrooms, low humidity, good hair days, smooth traffic, no exploding shampoo in the suitcase.

The kind of travel that doesn't really exist.

So the part of me that loves idealized travel is the part that cannot believe that all these difficulties and irritations exist.

So I nitpick. And whine. About all the inconveniences.

... but have you heard what G. K. Chesterton said about inconvenience?

He wrote, An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.

Meaning: it's all a matter of perspective.

Meaning: all my whining IS TOTALLY OPTIONAL.

What about you--are you a whiner?

(Go ahead and 'fess up. It's good for the soul.)

Do you whine about travel? Or, more to the point: Do you whine about your writing

Oof. I know. Me too.

It's so easy to love writing, to love the writing life, and find out that what you actually love is the idealized version.

The writing life where everything moves at the pace you would choose. Where you never have to throw out that 500-page draft you spent over a year working on. (Who, me?) Where you get money just for TRYING HARD.

Where the words come fairly easily, and any struggles--if you must have them--are beautifully cinematic and cause other people to buy you drinks. (As opposed to telling you to get a "real" job.)

Whining about our writing because it's not the "ideal" writing life. 

I think we need to stop doing that. 

Just go cold turkey. Give it up. No more whining.

To be clear, by "whining" I don't mean: Identifying an obstacle or pointing out that something is wrong. I'm not saying that we shouldn't recognize what isn't working well, or that a situation is difficult. 

By all means, let's stay realistic.

But let's also realize that all our whining is actually optional and not super helpful. And that by turning all setbacks into inconveniences, we just might be missing some adventures.

Need a bit more convincing? Okay. 

Here's what I find when I whine, whether it's about my writing, or about anything else:

Whining means: putting words out there. (I tend to whine in a journal a lot, so I'm literally writing my whines down. I'm using all my writing muscles to whine.)

And it doesn't make things better. Real whining? It's just moving the mess around.

In housecleaning terms, it's taking a pile of clutter and marching through the house with it, spilling papers and paraphernalia all through the rest of your living quarters. Giving yourself MORE to deal with, not less.

I'm not saying that we should never have a negative thought. I'm not saying we need to lie to ourselves, or to Pollyanna our way through life.

What I am saying--and what I've seen at work in my own writing life--is this: When I whine (whether with my mouth or pen or keyboard), I drain words and energy and emotion and courage right away from my writing.

After a big whine festival, I feel like I'm sizzling with ideas for more whining. I feel a bit worn out and self-righteous and like I could write a whole treatise for Why This Thing Is Wrong.

And also, like watching a movie with a gin and tonic. Because now I'm tired, and I feel like I need a break. 

From stewing and rehashing and complaining about something that--frankly--I probably won't even remember a week from now. Something that definitely Does Not Matter.

Usually I'm inflating a petty drama or a misunderstanding. I'm blowing a ton of hot air into it, so it turns into this massive balloon of a mood that sweeps me up and away. 

I'm focusing on conflict that isn't my novel's conflict. I'm rehearsing and recreating dialogues that aren't coming from my characters.

I'm spinning this whole narrative sequence--all those novel skills at work!--and using up my creativity for some silly, petty nothing.

That's whatcha call Counterproductive.

And here's the other thing: Whining dulls us. 

G.K. Chesterton might say that it keeps us from seeing adventures, opportunities, and new ways of thinking.

When we inflate the inconvenience version of things, we can't possibly see the positive version. We go blind. (This is never good for a writer.)

And it messes with our voice. Have you noticed that all whining sounds pretty much the same?

There's a tone and a direction, a sourness. Whining deflates a personality, and turns it into plain old bitterness. Which smells and sounds like everyone else's bitterness. Gross.

Lionhearts! Let's NOT DO THIS. Okay? 

It's toxic. It's bad for our writing, and probably it isn't super for any other part of our lives.

Let's boot it out of our writing hearts. Let's not use our pens to jot down a million reasons why something is no good.

Let's stop dwelling on petty dramas and inconveniences. Let's stop trading our good novel words for energy-draining, personality-zapping dullness.

ICK.

No more letting our moods stomp away with us.

I didn't really plan this, but I've decided to do something. I'm all convinced. I'm sick of being the whiner, of finding creative ways to voice my disapproval of things that don't actually matter.

So I'm gonna give myself a challenge. Thirty days. Of NOT WHINING. 

Of not dwelling on inconvenience. Of not venting and venting and venting. Of not rehashing things that irritated me. 

Without whining, I'll have more room in my brain for my words. More room for my wonderful work-in-progress. Yep, it's worth it. So I'm going to close the door on complaint.

#30DaysNoWhining

You are SO welcome to join me. Let's stop letting moods poison what we do. 

Let's see adventures instead of inconveniences. 

Thirty days. Starting right now. 

Your Next Vacation Just Might Transform Your Writing Life

A paradoxical thing happens when we visit the places where famous writers wrote. And it just might change your writing life. | lucyflint.com

If you're itching to travel, but don't yet have a destination in mind, might I make a recommendation? (Of course I might. You know me. I totally WILL.) 

How about taking a literary trip? Go on a pilgrimage: Visit an author's home, a place where So-and-so penned their famous novels.

If you want a bunch of suggestions to get you ridiculously inspired, pick up this book: Novel DestinationsYou'll have a zillion ideas at your fingertips, and you can do a bit of armchair traveling in the meantime.

Going on a literary trip just might change how you think of yourself as a writer.

Really.

How? 

Well, for starters, the things that we celebrate have a way of shaping us.

So, if you're having trouble in your writing, or if you're having a hard time accepting the writing life, it might be really good for you to seek out another writer's haunts.

To celebrate the books they wrote, all the words they put to paper over the years, the gift their work was to so many people.

You know? Whip your book-loving heart into a frenzy. Take a tour of a few writerly sites. 

And celebrate!! Let your word nerd out. 

And as you value all the work that this Famous Author did, let your respect for them nourish your relationship with your own writing. When you're standing there, let it hit you: How hard they worked. How long their haul was. The obstacles they overcame.

Kinda like how hard you are working. How long your haul is. The obstacles that you have overcome; the obstacles that you will overcome. The gift that your words are to others.

Celebrate their words. And as you're doing that, celebrate the writing life in general.

And your writing life especially.

Okay? 

So, go to the places where they wrote. 

That's step one.

Here's step two--and stick with me, because it's a little paradoxical:

Notice how ordinary these sites are.  

Can I say that? 

Obviously there are some exceptions. Sure. But for the most part: we're talking about some pretty normal-looking places. 

Have you ever had this experience:

You're exploring a historical site, or yes, an author's writing place. And you smile around at all the details that your guide is pointing out, or you're dutifully reading brochures and placards. 

And then this voice in you rises up to say, UM, it's just an old house? Or, it's just another room? Or, I've seen plenty of old places by now, is this any different?

You look at the view that inspired so many stories, and you think, Sure, it's nice, but it's just trees and some distant hills...?

And of course, we try to shut that voice up. It sounds ungrateful and rude and unappreciative. Uncultured.

... And I actually can't believe I just blogged about it. I really hope I'm not the only one who reacts this way. Please don't throw things at me.

Because I think that voice has a really good point.

It's easy to start thinking that other writers, famous writers, have stuff that we don't.

We immortalize them in our minds, enshrine them. Maybe without even realizing it. 

So it's easy to start thinking that the place where they wrote will be amazing, in some way. That it will carry some kind of power, some forceful inspiration. We might start thinking, If only I had a place like that--then I could write.

When I was traveling in England, I stood outside the door of one of Jane Austen's residences in Bath. (For some reason, we couldn't go inside--I think it was already closed for the day or something.)

But I stared up at it and thought, Well, it's beautiful and all, but spoiler alert, ALL of Bath is beautiful. At that point in the trip, it looked just like all the other doors. 

Same thing happened when I saw the room where C.S. Lewis worked in Cambridge. It didn't have golden light pouring out of it, no fauns sticking their heads out and waving, no lions roaring. It was another window, like all the rest, looking down at this peaceful little courtyard (which was definitely lacking an eternal winter). Like all the rest.

There's no magic in the places where they lived--however inspiring they may have or have not been. There's no special spark we can soak up.

And that is exactly my point. 

We are the magic! We're the special spark! You, my lionhearted writing friend! You, and your crazy imagination and all the things you care about, all the stuff in you that turns into stories somehow. You're the magic. And so am I.

These places inspired these writers because they were working. Because they kept at it. 

In spite of dreary weather and long struggles and not enough money and lots of interruptions. 

Even if you'd like to argue that these writers had genius: well, genius doesn't write books.

It has to be disciplined, it still has to put in the time, and it has to fight against all those other character flaws that come with genius. 

So let's be done with the kind of thinking that says: they could, but not me.

Let's just LET THAT GO.

Okay? Can we agree to that?

So here's the plan: Go find a famous writer's famous writing site. Go visit.

And when you stand where that Famous Writer stood, go ahead and feel the rush. Connect to your writing life in a good way. Celebrate!

Celebrate the writers that came before you, who inspired you. And celebrate the writer that you already are.

Then let yourself see how ordinary it is. Even if their ordinary is different from your ordinary: notice that it isn't actually magic, however lovely or peaceful or chaotic or colorful or whatever. 

And step three, the kicker:

Find a little bench, a curb, some place to sit. 

And write something. 

It's the perfect culmination of your visit! It celebrates and honors the Famous Writer. It celebrates and honors the Writing You. And at the same time it says, this isn't a shrine. It is a place where writing happened, and where writing will keep on happening.

So write.

It can just be notes of the place where you're sitting. It can be a record of whatever the guide just said. It can be describing how totally inspiring/uninspiring the place itself is. 

Or maybe it will be the start of a new project. An unexpected scrap of poetry that makes your fingers tingle. An essay that captures a little shard of your heart. 

Or hey. I'm a big dreamer: Maybe it's the seed of the novel idea that will, one day, bring hundreds and thousands of people to visit your stomping grounds.

Yes?? 

Yeah. That's what I thought. 

The Key to Discovering Your Ideal Outlining (or Not Outlining!) Style

It's really not about plotter versus pantser. It's about learning how your brain works best. Here's how I figured out mine. | lucyflint.com

When I started writing my first novel, I found out that I had to choose a side.

There was a heated debate about the best way to dive into this thing. It crops up on every writing site sooner or later. You've heard of this, right?

It's the Outliners versus the ones who say: Nope, not gonna. The Plotters who have it all settled in advance, versus the novelists who create by the seat of their pants--a.k.a., the Pantsers.

Do you figure it all out first and then sit down to write?

Or, do you go by your gut and your feelings every day, and kind of ooze your way toward your finished draft?

Well. I didn't need to think much about this decision.

Heck, if you've been reading for a while, you can probably guess which side I picked. 

After seventeen years of schooling, I knew that I'm the kind of girl who will make a 99-item list and then know that all is right with the world.

Who likes creating schedules to cover the next four years. Who counts list-making as a favorite activity. I plan for fun.

I mean, come on. Outlines all the way, right?

So for my first three novels, I outlined. These outlines were amazing. They were massive airship carriers of ideas. No storm could touch these babies. They were solid. They were impeccably structured.

I looked at those huge documents, and I knew I could write the novels they described. 

But I ran into trouble.

One novel was so fun that I poured all my story energy into the outline, and had nothing left over for the actual draft. No curiosity, no drive, no nothing. I never wrote that book.

The next two novels I worked on had fifty-page outlines for each draft. (And together, they've gone through seven drafts, so... now you know how I spent my twenties.)

I loved the certainty. I felt so prepared. It was just like school, like planning a semester around a few syllabuses. I was so organized. The books would be wonderful.

But passages that outlined well didn't translate to prose. One antagonist never really found his feet, even though everything in the outline said he'd be perfect for this role. Huge parts of these stories felt dull, crammed with everything that should be there, full of all the tidbits the structure books told me to put in.

All right. I can (finally) take a hint.

For my next book, I set off in the wild opposite direction.

I went pure pantser. 

I knew a few details about the main character, the general direction of the book, a few supporting characters, a radically new setting, and a kind of atmosphere that made my heart skip beats.

And that's it.

I dove in. Writing that draft was like taking a bunch of polaroid pictures, and waving them around to see what developed, and then assembling them into a quilt. I had no idea what the next day's work would hold. Which, let's face it, was pretty cool.

Honestly? I love that novel. I love it so much.

But it's a Swiss cheese of a story: there are some major holes that I just haven't been able to fill, problems that don't reconcile, gaps where every bridge I try just doesn't feel right.

Also, I was so anxious when I was writing it, that I literally had to crawl into bed every day and write from under the covers.

I checked in with another writer who was a total Non-Outliner. Is it supposed to feel like I'm drowning? Like I'm going blind? I asked her. YES! she said. It's so EXHILARATING.

But I didn't think I could survive another book like that.

And then I realized something. Writing a novel isn't at all like doing homework. It isn't like school. So my hyper-planning strategies from school days: wasn't gonna work.

At the same time, writing a novel isn't at all like summer break. Floating through it with some vague ideas of where I was going: also not going to work.

I found my best writing strategy when I remembered this: writing a novel is like going on a trip.

Right?

I mean: there's a beginning, a middle, an end, each with their own kind of energy, their own shape. You get yourself out there, and then you have to figure out how to get home.

There's always an "I'M PRETTY SURE WE'RE LOST" moment. High points, low points. Action balanced with reaction. Weariness and cheerfulness, excellent views and crummy alleyways. Heroes and villains. Unexpected characters. Conflict and plot twists. Maybe even a bit of danger, a bit of romance. All that.

Every novel holds its own world, and the narrative is the journey we take through it.

So I finally asked myself: How do I best like to travel?

Outlining seems like planning a trip in detail.

And the hyper massive outlines I created: That was like knowing the names of my taxi drivers in advance. Getting my hotel room number (heck, and a key!) before leaving home. Pinning down the date I'd wear each outfit. Looking at menus for restaurants and picking what I'd order.

Get the picture?

FYI: this is not how I travel.

But then the other extreme, my pantser novel: Well, that was like saying "I'd like to see this city around these dates, and hey, I'll bring these jeans." And that's it.

Also not how I travel.

When I go somewhere, I like to have a grip on what I consider the basics: general ideas of transportation. Definitely know which hotel(s) I'm staying at. And I'm a food lover, so if there's a restaurant I can't miss, I'll make sure I know the address. And then I'll get a general idea of what museums or parks or views I really have to catch. 

AND THAT'S IT. 

I like leaving room to be struck by impulse. To have a total change of plans without worrying about throwing everything off. To explore. To yes, get a bit lost.

To say: This looks good, that sounds great, hey there's a festival over there, maybe we should step inside that place--is that fudge?!

A chance to make up a lot of the trip on the spot. But not all of it.

It's not a hyper outline. And it's not just a vague intention.

It's somewhere in between.

When I wrote this trilogy during the second half of last year, I had a loose, super-gentle outline for each book. It was not hysterical. It was not highly structured. It didn't do what the outlining books said to do. 

But it also wasn't blank.

Every day when I sat down to draft, I knew one or two points I needed to hit that day, in order for the climax to happen, or in order for the tension to build. I had a general idea of who would be carrying the action and maybe what the setting would be. 

But that's it.

Enough of an outline to keep me breathing. I knew what my job was each day. But I also had plenty of room to wander, to be struck by new ideas, to take new tracks, to explore.

And guess what. It was the happiest, calmest, and best drafting experience I've ever had.

It was a near-perfect balance of structure and imagination in the moment. Freedom + safety net. With neither side outweighing the other.

So when people ask you to take a side, outlining or not outlining, just remember that it really doesn't have to be either/or, all or nothing. It's a spectrum. 

And as you prepare your next draft, don't think about homework, and don't think about summer breaks.

Instead, think about how you travel.

What rhythm feels right when you're on the road? How much structure or lack of structure helps you have the best trip?

What keeps you engaged in the experience of traveling, without making you too anxious about what you don't know?

Try giving that same amount of structure to your next writing project.

And see how that journey feels.