Writing When Life Throws You A Curve

How do you stick with your writing when life throws you a curve?

Maybe you create a list of goals for your writing. Or choose one project to finish this year: a novel you started last year, a series of short stories, a book on how to cook gourmet meals.

Then something happens.

A flood damages your home, you need to care for an ill friend or family member, you become injured yourself. In addition to your grief and learning to cope with the change in your life, you may feel more frustrated, depressed, or anxious because you can’t write or aren’t progressing the way you feel you “should.”

What do you do? 

You Don't Write With Your Toes, But…

In late April I broke two bones in my foot.

One was a major bone on which you put all your weight, so instead of a walking boot for a short time (as one of my friends had for a stress fracture), I had a series of different casts that reached to my knee. I had to stay off of my foot entirely for over 10 weeks, spent 3 weeks in a walking cast, and am still rehabbing so I can eventually walk without limping.

When the doctor told me the treatment plan, though, I figured it wouldn't interfere with my writing. After all, I don’t write with my toes.

It turns out wearing a cast makes it hard to find a comfortable way to sleep, to sit at a desk, and to get around even at home. Things like brushing my teeth and making the bed took twice if not three times as long as usual on crutches. And I was exhausted. Not only from lack of sleep but because it takes a lot of energy for your body to heal.

It seemed like I'd be struggling forever, and spending a lot of time at home alone didn’t help my state of mind.

So though my fingers could still type, I didn't write all that much. But I learned a lot.

Feel free to adopt what helps you and ignore the rest.

Remember: It's A Long Game

Whether you’re recovering from a physical injury, dealing with emotional pain, or experiencing other acute stress, you may well find you're less able to write.

If you can keep your writing schedule and it helps you feel better to do it, then of course go ahead.

But if not, remind yourself that it's okay to do less. Finishing a novel or building a writing career is a long game. As Anthony Robbins says in Awaken The Giant Within, most people overestimate what they can do in one year and vastly under estimate what they can do in 10.  

Slowing down or taking a break entirely doesn’t mean that in the long run you won’t reach where you hope to be.

Do Something Different

During the first few weeks of my recovery I had trouble focusing enough to write or read much. But I did two things that ultimately helped me feel better and sparked new ideas.

Each time I iced my foot I watched a segment of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern-day take on my favorite book of all time, Pride and Prejudice, told as a video blog. In doing so, I engaged with a new (to me) form of storytelling and delighted in a different spin on a story I loved.

That reminded me how much I love the audiobook edition of Pride and Prejudice narrated by Shiromi Arserio.


I started listening to it at night when I couldn’t sleep. The narrator has a wonderful voice, and hearing the book again was like visiting old friends.

Now that I'm doing better, I added a new book to my list of non-fiction books to write over the next 9 months: Pride, Prejudice, and Plot. In it, I plan to use Jane Austen's classic to illustrate the simple plot points from my guide to plotting, Super Simple Story Structure.

If people find that book helpful and enjoy it, I plan to write Pride, Prejudice, and People, a study of characterization.

Choose A Smaller Or Writing-Adjacent Task

You may not be able to keep writing when life throw you a curve, at least not at the same pace or on the same project.

But you may be able to write or plan something else.

Perhaps a short journal entry each morning. Or maybe you can do something to help create or plan your story, such as imagining a scene or interviewing a character in your mind. 

Appreciate What You Can Do

It’s easy to think about what you’re not doing. But rather than thinking about the hours you don't spend writing in a day or week, give yourself credit for the fifteen minutes you do.

Be Guided By Your Feelings

Sometimes something you think will help makes you feel worse. For instance, at first I thought that since I had to spend so much time at home sitting or lying down I’d be able to add to the roster of writing podcasts I listen to.

But that made me feel depressed.

It emphasized what I wasn’t doing and left me feeling as if I were behind everybody else. I cut back to the two podcasts that for me are the most helpful and encouraging: The Creative Penn and the Sell More Books Show. And even those I sometimes put off listening to for a day or two until I was in the right state of mind.

It’s also important to pay attention to what makes you feel better.

The Lizzie Bennett Diaries were so absorbing that they took my mind off of my pain and elevated my mood. That’s why I binge watched them.

That’s all for today.

Until next Friday —

L. M. Lilly

P.S. For thoughts on writing and chronic health or wellness issues, see Writing When Injured Or Not Well.

More Than Writing a/k/a Goals For The New Year

Each year around this time (it's New Year's Eve as I write this), I think about the different areas of my life and set goals following 3 guidelines:

  1. Aim High
  2. Be Flexible
  3. Life Is About More Than Writing

Whether or not you're a list-maker or goal-setter, I hope my thoughts on goals will help you get excited about the coming year.

The 3 Guidelines

High goals are great because most of us rarely exceed our goals, so setting them high ensures the best results.

Also, as the above graphic (a modified quote from Robert Browning) suggests, higher goals are more inspiring and exciting. “Outline my first novel” is a lot less motivating than “Finish and publish my first novel.”

One caveat: setting all your goals too  high can lead to feeling discouraged if none of them are met.

That's where flexibility comes in. I set a few goals that will be tough to reach and others that I’m confident I can achieve if I work hard.

I also set ranges.

So my goal might be writing  3-6 short stories in a year. That leaves me room to write fewer of them if I take on other unplanned projects or more if I get very focused on producing short pieces.

As to (3) on my list above, there's more to life than writing, I love writing so much, it’d be easy for me to focus on nothing but.

Adding other goals reminds me that the point is not be a successful but unhappy writer, it’s to be a happy person who spends the bulk of my work time writing.

Areas Of Life

Below are the areas of life I focus on when setting goals. Feel free to borrow these or to choose your own.

  • Writing

Here I decide on my writing projects, not sales or publication goals. I’ll share my 2017 goals as an example, but I won’t do that with each category as everyone’s goals will differ.

For 2017, I aimed to:

  1. Revise and finalize the fourth and last book in my Awakening series, The Illumination
  2. Build this website as a resource for other writers
  3. Write, revise, and finalize the first book in my new mystery series

I reached (1) and (2).

As to (3), I’m on page 110 of 389 in my revisions to The Worried Man and once I’m done I’ll send it to beta readers.

I didn’t finish on schedule because I took a detour, or several, by writing nonfiction books that weren’t on my goal list. But I’m happy with those, so overall I feel pretty good about this set of goals.

If you’re writing while still working significant hours at another job, you may want to choose one major writing project, such as a first draft of novel or a non-fiction book, for the year rather than three. Or you may want to choose three smaller projects–three short stories, blog posts, or articles.

  • Writing Business

In this category, I set goals for publications, royalties, sales, and related items.

If you’re starting out, you might aim to publish your first book. If you’ve released one or two already, your goal may be to try out new advertising platforms, figure out ways to get publicity, or create or update your marketing plan.

Your goal also could  be to learn as much as you can about self-publishing or about following the traditional route of seeking an agent or publisher.

  • Your Non-Writing Profession Or Job

The goals for my day-to-day job or career evolved over time and usually dovetailed with writing.  At some points in life, my job goals were to work as little as possible so I could have time to write.

When I became a lawyer, though, I focused on developing skills and achieving “firsts” (such as first appellate argument). Later I focused on building client relationships and then building my own law firm. Still later I aimed to slow down my law practice to write more.

Your annual goals will depend on your long-term plan.

If you hope to write full time eventually or you want more time to write as you continue your current job, you might look at how you can work less and earn more at your non-writing career. If you want to keep doing both, your goals might be more focused on advancing your career and you might build more flexibility into your writing goals.

  • Other Income/Investments

Whatever your overall professional goals, having other sources of income or investments can make your life better and less stressful.

The economy, business, and the political world all change rapidly. The more ways you earn your living, the easier it will be to adjust to whatever comes next.

If you're not sure how to do this, your goal for the year could be to read one or two books on the topic (the Rich Dad, Poor Dad series is a great start) or to read articles or talk to people who have multiple streams of income.

Also, it’s okay to start small.

Joanna Penn tells a great story about how her first affiliate income check (income from recommending a product or service) was something like $5. Now, though, she says affiliate income is a significant percentage of what she makes every year. This is a great example of starting small.

  • Relationships

There is something about setting relationship goals that seems a little too analytical. After all, relationships are about feelings and what’s in your heart, not your head.

But for most of us it can be easy to take the people around us for granted, and making a point to have better relationships helps ensure that doesn't happen.

I find it especially helpful to set specific goals here. “Have better relationships” doesn't give you a plan for what to do to achieve that. 

Everyone will have different goals on this front, but a few examples are visiting family or friends who are out of state several times a year, talking on the phone (rather than using only texting or social media) with a good friend regularly, or meeting someone you don't see often enough for dinner once a month.

  • Interests/Fun

Yes, I include this on my goal list!

I started adding this category when I was working full-time and going to law school at night because for the first semester or two there was almost no time for anything else. I realized that I couldn’t continue another three years that way. Even if “Interests/Fun” only got an hour every couple weeks, it was important to make space for it.

You might include setting aside time for hobbies or sports, vacations, taking walks, seeing plays, reading, or whatever else you love that does not involve working.

  • Community

For me, contributing to the community helps me feel better about life, myself, and the world. It’s also a great way to meet positive people and to get perspective on my own challenges.

Goals here can include donating, volunteering, attending or planning fundraisers or other events, or simply learning more about different organizations you want to support in the future.

  • Health And Fitness

It’s hard to enjoy life and do our best if we’re not feeling well. Also, if you write a lot, you may start experiencing strain injuries or aches and pains associated with being at the keyboard.

That's why I set big picture goals as well as day-to-day ones.

One of mine last year was to eat about 10% more vegetables. That goal pushed me to find a few more vegetables I could tolerate eating (asparagus and raw spinach—still can’t eat cooked spinach, no offense to Popeye). I also make a point to include some vegetables in at least two meals a day.

If you’re a vegetable-lover (I've heard there are such people), that may not sound like much, but it’s a big step forward for me.

Unless you're by nature into health and exercise, it's probably best in this category in particular to pick just a couple goals and really focus on them rather than creating a long list that quickly feels overwhelming.

What are your goals or aspirations for the coming year?

Feel free to share them in the comments or email me ([email protected]) with thoughts or questions.

Best wishes for a happy, peaceful, and productive new year!

Until Friday–

L. M. Lilly

P.S. If one of your goals this coming year is to write a novel, you might find The One-Year Novelist helpful. You can download the free template for it here if you'd like to explore before buying the book.

Are You Committed To Writing Or Just Interested?

I'm a huge Tony Robbins fan. (Based on his books, not his conferences, which are a bit too pricey for me.)

One distinction Robbins makes that's key to writing is commitment versus interest.

Being Interested v. Being Committed

If you're interested in doing something, you probably admire or envy other people who've achieved that goal or engaged in that activity. You believe you'd enjoy it, and you feel it's something you'd be proud of.

But if you don't do it, while you might feel a little regret, it won't seriously upset you.

For example, maybe you took piano lessons as a kid. As an adult, you might like to play better than you do, and you might include “play piano more often” as one of your New Year's resolutions or goals.

If despite that resolution, during the next twelve months your piano is mostly used to display family photos (or your favorite tea sets, not that that's what I use mine for), you're interested in playing piano, but you're not committed to it.

On the other hand, if you're committed, playing piano and playing it well matters to you more than almost anything else.

If life gets busy, you'll push aside another task to make time to play. If you feel sick, short of actually collapsing, you'll sit at the keyboard even if it's for five minutes or practice your fingering in your mind or listen to music you can learn from.

As it is with piano playing, so it is with writing.

How You Become Committed To Writing A Novel

If despite your best laid plans, month after month you never get more than a few sentences written, what you need most may not be more time but to shift from being interested in writing to being committed to it.

How do you do that?

  • Set a deadline.

If you don't choose a timeframe, it's too easy to imagine you'll get to writing your book next week or next month. Then you turn around a year later and you've still not finished your novel.

So choose a date by which you'll finish your book that's reasonable but a little ambitious so you'll need to make an effort to find the time. It could be six months, a year, or two years.

  • Write down all the reasons you want to finish a novel.

Maybe you've had an idea forever that you believe is perfect, and you so want to see how it plays out. Maybe you love immersing yourself in a fictional world once you finally do it, and you want that feeling more often. Maybe you imagine being interviewed on a podcast or television show, speaking at a conference, or reading at a launch party from your novel.

Whatever your reasons are, write them down. Now imagine how you'll feel if all of that comes true. Pretty great, right?

  • Imagine yourself a year down the road and you haven't written word.

How will you feel? Write that down along with the other downsides of not writing.

  • Tell other people about your goal.

Tell three people that you will finish a novel within six months, a year, two years, whatever your timeline is.

Just saying it strengthens your commitment, because now you've said it aloud to witnesses. Even if you never speak of it again and all three people forget about it, you'll know that if they do happen to ask and you haven't written a word, you'll have to admit that. (Or lie, but you wouldn't do that, right? And, anyway, you'll know the truth no matter what you say.)

  • Ask for help.

This point is one step beyond telling people, it's enlisting them in your goal.

Ask a friend or family member to check in with you once a month and ask how the novel is going. Or, if you don't want to put that obligation on anyone, ask if they are willing to receive an email, text, or voicemail from you once a week about your progress.

The person doesn't need to respond.

Simply knowing you'll be reporting what you did or didn't do will add to your commitment to have something positive to say, even if it's only “wrote a hundred words” or “figured out who my antagonist is.”

Good Luck!

Until Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you're looking to learn more on this distinction between commitment and interest or how to motivate yourself, I recommend you go right to the source and read Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins.

 

Set A Single Goal (And Stop Managing Your Time)

Time management gives me the chills.

When I’d been a lawyer for about three years, the large law firm where I worked sent an email about a time management seminar. A slow week for me was working 55 hours, and I was writing a novel on the side.

I saw the email and literally thought, “I don't have time.”

Plus, the description reminded me of something I read once about stress management seminars. Most people attend not to lessen stress but to learn to take on more of it. This seminar sounded like a way for my firm to teach me to cram more into my schedule.

No thanks.

But can you cram in less and get more done?

The best way I've found to do that is to set a single overarching goal for the year.

The Single Goal

Choosing one major goal for the year creates time.

Most articles and advice about goals stresses ensuring that by a certain time or after certain steps, you’ll achieve something measurable. As an example, simply stating that my goal is writing a novel, particularly if I tell other people and add a time frame (such as “within a year”), makes it more likely I’ll do it.

But that’s only part of the benefit. An overarching goal helps you make the best use of the limited time you have and, more important, causes you to spend less time on tasks that won’t get you where you want to be and don’t add to your enjoyment of life.

Without goals, we can check things off To Do lists all day and feel like we’re accomplishing a lot without achieving what we truly want in life.

How Making One Decision Creates Time

No one schedules time to stare at a blank screen or an overflowing To Do list feeling overwhelmed. It just happens, and it not only takes up time, it undermines us. We feel less able to get things done and less sure we’ll reach our goals.

That in turn takes more time as we mentally reevaluate whether we set the right goal, whether we have time for this whole writing thing anyway, and whether we’d be happier focusing on something else.

Choosing a single main goal for the year eliminates those countless minutes (which eventually add up to hours).

Let's say your overarching goal for the year is to finish one novel. That doesn’t mean you can’t write anything else. But your time split for writing will be 80/20 or 90/10 in favor of the novel. Not a short story or article or blog post. You do those things if you feel good about your progress on your novel for the week or month, but the novel comes first.

In other words, if you only have 20 minutes, you know what you're working on.

Or let’s say you have books published and your main goal is to increase your earnings. You'll still need to write, but you will need to devote significant time to business pursuits. You'll probably do a 50/50 split between writing and business.

That's where I am this year. My overarching goal is to earn $50,000 in gross income from royalties by the end of the year, which is a significant increase for me. (I wrote it on this index card to remind me.) To pursue this, I’m splitting my time equally between writing and business.

Breaking It Down

You'll still need to know what to do with each small segment of time, especially if you have many other responsibilities and are likely to have only short bursts of time to write.

The single goal gives you the framework. Once you set it, break it down.

For the novel example, if you're starting from zero, depending on your own writing process the pieces might be:

  • Characters
  • Plot/Outline
  • Scenes
  • Organizing Scenes Into Chapters
  • Revisions Of Plot
  • Revisions Of Dialogue
  • Copyediting

Now if you have 15 minutes, you can start on the next task on the list. In 15 minutes, you can write a few paragraphs or sketch out bullet points about a character (try my free Character Creation Tip Sheet for some questions to ask yourself). You can figure out one major plot point. If you're standing in line for groceries, you can imagine a single scene in your mind so that when you get the next 15 minutes you can start writing it.

For me, if I have 15 minutes, I might watch a section of the Ads For Authors course I’m taking or listen to 15 minutes of a marketing podcast or research the latest book promotion sites by running a quick Google search.

Focus

The single goal also ensures you focus on what matters. If you’re like me and you like goal setting and lists (I love lists), you’ll probably set other goals for the year or month, and that’s good. You can see the top of my monthly goal sheet in the photo below the index card.

Your single major goal will help you decide if those other goals make sense. It also will aid you in knowing which to omit if you’ve taken on too much and which to push toward regardless.

On a task level, the single goal keeps you on track. If I'm tempted to check my KDP Dashboard (which shows book sales updated periodically) for the third time in a day, I look at my index card and ask myself if doing so will help me increase my royalties to $50,000.

The answer, all but perhaps once a week to see how different promotional efforts or ads worked, is No. Same for randomly checking Twitter.

All of the above isn't to say that you can't have any time where you are relaxing and not being productive in a work sense, where you’re spending time with your family or friends or reading a book. We all need that or what’s the point of life?

The single goal helps you focus and use all your time well, including short bursts of it, giving you more free blocks of time for other parts of life.

Rather than time being an unruly employee to manage or an enemy to overcome, it becomes your ally.

And who doesn't need more allies?

Until next week—

Best,

L.M. Lilly