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Tanya Rewind: Big in Germany (but not Big-Headed)

This post discussing different versions of success originally appeared two years ago, and while re-reading it, I had to laugh at the deja vu. My blog post discussed the thrill of being a RITA finalist (which happened to me again this spring–YAY!) and the wrenching disappointment of my publisher closing the line I wrote for (which…happened to me again this spring. BOOOO.) I don’t think success is a destination. I think it’s a see-saw. My career has been a series of ups and downs; thankfully, I’ve been blessed with great friends to see me through both.

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Writers talk about how rejection can mess with your mind and self-esteem. (That’s true and a series of blog posts in itself.) Wanna know something weird? Success can also screw with you mentally.

Sometimes success goes to people’s heads, making them obnoxious, entitled caricatures of themselves. Paradoxically, it can overwhelm a person with self-doubt or even shame. (Why did I get this? There are other talented writers. Maybe they deserved it more.) Other times, there’s just a strange disconnect between the success you fantasized about and the reality of how it happens.

Early in our marriage, J and I talked about how we’d celebrate when I sold my first book. There’s a tower hotel in downtown Atlanta with a revolving restaurant at the top. We were going to eat there, order massive amounts of champagne, then stay in one of the suites. (I now know that such an extravagant night would have cost the entire advance check I received for my first book.) I did not envision getting The Call two weeks after an emergency C-section. I’d had a particularly rough night with the baby, hadn’t slept in thirty hours and when the editor began speaking into the answering machine, I legit thought it was a sleep-deprived hallucination.

Needless to say, J and I did not run out for a fancy dinner. Still, I’D SOLD A BOOK. The joy of that is mine to keep forever. I had arrived!

Once I’d caught up on sleep and done revisions, I pitched my editor a second book. She apologetically turned it down. I pitched her a third idea, which she thought showed promise, so I wrote a proposal…that she turned down. Thank God she loved my proposal for the fourth idea! But her boss turned it down. By the time I sold another book I was pregnant again. (Okay, I had my kids pretty close together. But still.) My arrival into the publishing world was less a definitive YOU HAVE ARRIVED and more like the scene at the end of “Airplane” when the out-of-control jet hits the ground and airport speakers are announcing “Now arriving at gate 1…no, 2…3, 4? …35, 36, 37…”

After a book comes out, authors are paid royalties a few times a year, assuming the author has sold enough copies. The walk to the mailbox is like Budgeting Roulette—will I get fifty bucks or five hundred? I once got a check for, no joke, sixty-one cents.

A few years ago, I wrote a women’s fiction novel that I think nineteen people read in the U.S. My editor told me the book was also being published in Germany, so I hoped to double the number to thirty-eight. Picture a spring day: Tanya steps outside in mismatched clothes she threw on to avoid encountering neighbors in her writing PJs, she pulls an envelope from Penguin Random House out of the mailbox and, with typical impatience, tears it open before she ever reaches the house.

It had been a tough year, and I was desperately praying for a check that was at least a few hundred dollars to help with medical expenses. The check inside was well over ten-thousand dollars. Apparently, Germany LOVED my tearjerker novel about two sisters. My extremely professional reaction was to sit in the driveway and cry. (Afterward, we went to Disney World.)

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Alas, my one-hit wonder bestsellerdom did not blossom into fame and fortune. One day I’m dazed in the driveway wondering if we’re going to be rich; the next September, I find myself looting my State Quarter Collection to give the kids lunch money.

Of course, there are other ways to measure success than financial gain. For romance writers, there’s a prestigious award called the RITA. In March of 2004, while cleaning up dog vomit and begging my baby daughter to stop crying, I got a call telling me I was a finalist in the Best First Book category. Me, a RITA finalist? I was ecstatic to the point of giddiness. For about ten minutes. Then I plummeted into despair-filled certainty that it was a fluke. Possibly a mathematical error on someone’s part. Honestly, I don’t think that self-doubt started to fade until a year later, when I got a RITA call letting me know I’d finaled in another category. As of this spring, I’m a six-time finalist. I no longer think it’s a fluke. On the other hand, because I am fortunate enough to have a track record in this area, I feel palpable expectation from my editors, as if the years when I’m not a finalist are a disappointment to them. (I realize this neurosis is completely self-absorbed and makes me sound like “Oh, poor me, someone nominated me for an award, my life is so tough!” Boo-hoo, Tanya. Shut up.)

But as you can see, a writing career comes with psychological highs and lows. I cope with the lows by leaning on amazing friends and my supportive husband. To cope with success, I advise the following:

1. Don’t buy into the hype. A spot on a bestseller list is awesome, but it doesn’t make you better than anyone else. If you’re blessed with some fame, enjoy it but don’t count on it to last forever (especially if you alienate readers, bloggers, booksellers or other writers with diva behavior.)

2. Any time you have a victory, celebrate the hell out of it. You deserve it. There will be plenty of bad stuff along the way. Savor the good.

3. Understand that with success comes pressure and surround yourself with people who help prevent you from panicking. Whether it’s “Yay, I sold my first book…will I ever sell a second?” or “Hallelujah, I hit the NYT list…oh, God, what if I never do it again?” success can create expectations. You got where you are with talent and perseverance, and they will continue to serve you well as you journey forward. One step at a time.

Sometimes success is subtle. A rejection letter feels like failure, but if it says something like “I loved your voice. What else do you have?” then you are making progress. Keep at it!! I’ve written for multiple lines that got cancelled. Because of that, by the time my books came out, sometimes stores had already stopped them. Dismal sales and not even being able to find my work on shelves always felt like failure.

But sales are only one kind of success. In 2005, I released a foodie rom-com for a Harlequin line that was dropped just as the book was being released. Spicing it Up was a first-person book different than anything else I’d written. I’d worked hard on it, and I was devastated at its grim (that is to say, nonexistent) reception. Months later, I heard from a reader who’d lost her home in Hurricane Katrina. A copy of Spicing It Up was in a bag of donations she received, and she said reading it was the first time she remembered laughing out loud since the hurricane. If I made her laugh, I succeeded, even if she’d been the only person in the world to ever read that book.

Whether you’re a writer or you’re pursuing other dreams and goals, I wish you success. The bad news is, it rarely arrives when you hope. The good news is, it can often be weirder and more wonderful than you ever imagined.

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My Favorite Bad Girl Post: How Do You Bounce Back?

To be completely honest, my favorite post in my 5 years of Bad Girl blogging is my Sebastian Stan post. I’m pretty sure anyone who knows me could’ve predicted that. However, in the years since, the pictures have had to come down and it doesn’t make much sense re-blogging an image-less post. Especially when it means robbing you of the beauty that is Sebastian Stan. Instead, I’ll simply include these 

and move along to a post of mine that I think was most helpful.

How Do I Bounce Back?

Resilience. Some people are naturally inclined to have it, others struggle. I’m here to tell you, if you’ve decided publication – of any kind – is your goal, you’re going to need it.

Resilience comes into play when you have to push through a rough part of your story, produce words when the words are being little bastards, bounce back after some hard truths from a critique partner, or when you get rejected by every agent in the universe – plus a few from the Delta quadrant. Then, even after you sign with an agent, there will be more rejection, in the form of passes from editors. Even after you sell to an editor or publish, guess what. You got it! You can still face rejection for other projects or in the form of low sales.

Aren’t I just a little ray of sunshine this morning?

So, how does one conjure up the resilience to keep going in this brutal business? After bouncing back from a recent rejection, a friend asked me, “How are you so resilient?” It got me thinking.

Part of it is who I am; the life experiences and beliefs that come together to give me resilience. I don’t say this to throw rose petals at myself. In fact, I wish I could’ve skipped some of those life experiences, but it is what it is. It makes me ME. The other part of bouncing back is habit. I have some bounce back steps, and today, I’m going to share those steps with you.

Step 1: Digest the rejection, in whatever form it comes, and grieve. I mean it. Being upset, angry, hurt, resentful, envious – whatever the emotion, don’t fight it. Be honest with yourself because if you deny that you’re disappointed and feel like you got slapped in the face with a cold fish, it will eat you up inside.

Step 2: Wallow a little. This is your Big Black Moment, the part of your journey where all is lost. A pity party is to be expected. Eat some dessert, have wine. Have both together. Navel gaze. Beat yourself up, compare yourself to others, doubt everything you ever thought about yourself. Oh come on! You know you’re going to do it anyway. Own that sh*t! BUT, you are allowed no more than 48 hours of solo woe. It gets toxic very fast, so set a timer, grab some bon-bons, and make it count.

Step 3: Reach out to your people. Not just any people, because while your spouse or sibling is probably awesome, they aren’t going to understand this process. You need to talk to a writer friend who has been in the trenches too. Make sure they are wise and reasonable, not a hot mess who will lead you astray. Tell them what happened. Let them be upset with you and for you, and let them reassure you.

Step 4: Listen to their reassurances. Absorb it. You aren’t friends with dummies, so don’t be that guy who can’t take a compliment. Your pals know what they’re talking about. Let their words of wisdom soak in.

Step 5: Get over yourself. This is the hard part, but it’s time. You’ve had your moment of sad, now it’s time to dig deep and keep going. The black moment is over; it’s time to move toward your resolution. Focus on the facts. Look at the substantial takeaways from this experience. How can you improve? How can you grow? What can you learn from this? Take those lemons and make a lemon drop martini.

Step 6: Get out there and enjoy life. Do the things that make you happy, let the brain rest and renew. That is when ideas strike.

Step 7: Get your butt back in the chair, put your fingers on the keyboard and WRITE THE NEXT BOOK. This is the single most important step for any author, regardless of the issue. The solution to 98% of every writer issues is Write. Keep writing. Then, write more. You will get better. Your voice will get stronger. You’ll find that hook or genre or magical formula that will put your story in front of readers. You will not move from where you are unless you keep writing, so go for it! Tell us the next story and start bouncing.

 

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Process? I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Process!

How many writing processes are there? Answer: How many writers are there? I find that writers tend to land on what works for them naturally.

My process is pretty much the same for every book. Now, being a former engineer, you might think that I’m all about Excel spreadsheets and plots and knowing where my turning points are within +/- 500 words.

Nope. I’m a total panster. I come up with a general idea, the characters, and a scene. Preferably the first scene which should be the inciting incident.

Sometimes, I’ll get the spark of an idea from a news story or song (while driving…always while driving.) This often happens when I’m in the middle of writing a different book. I like to use spiral bound notebooks to keep track of ideas. I’ll jot everything that comes to me in a notebook and set it aside until I have time to actually write it. IF I have time to write it. I have many notebooks waiting patiently for me.

I’m all about letting an idea marinate in my subconscious as long as possible before I start writing. Maybe that’s my equivalent to “plotting.” One thing I’ve learned is to keep scraps of paper around, including a waterproof notebook for the shower, to record ideas down that come out of my subconscious at the oddest moments. It could be a piece of dialogue or a plot twist or backstory. I’ve learned to be prepared to capture these jewels before I forget them. And I will forget if I don’t record them. (You will too!)

Let’s be clear: I don’t encourage anyone to follow my “process.” (Does it even qualify?) It can be stressful as you wander the barren landscape of a manuscript as the slobbering wolves of your deadline gain on you every minute.

What I would do is encourage you to embrace your process, whatever it may be. Don’t try to change your process because someone else says you should. I don’t care if they are an NYT bestseller or a well respected craft writer. You do you!

I’ve tried to change my process. I’ve read plotting book after plotting book. I’ve tried beat sheets and character interviews. But, I’m an impatient writer. I want to jump in and sink or swim. I don’t like the prework when I already know the first few scenes. I get to know my characters and learn their backstories and idiosyncrasies as I write. It’s fun!

Does that give you hives? Then, plot your little heart out before you write. Don’t fight the feeling. Embrace it. Learn to work with your process. And know that your process is as unique and as special as the book you’ll write!

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You Can Do It!

Do you mind if I vent for a second? I know other people have bigger problems than I do–hell, the entire country has Problems–but there is something that’s been getting me down lately. Homeschooling my thirteen-year-old daughter, who we had to pull out of public school due to some chronic health issues. To be clear, I love my daughter–I love both of my children–and her health is critical to me. I am willing to make sacrifices for her well-being, absolutely.

But, in the other column, have you met teenage girls? To paraphrase that Merc with a Mouth and noted child psychologist Deadpool, teenage girls are characterized by long sullen silences and mean comments. This is how I’m spending all day, every day. With a moody teen who misses her friends and is understandably frustrated about her circumstances. Add to that my struggle to remember what little I ever understood about 8th grade Algebra and it’s amazing my life hasn’t become a looping gif of Bridget Jones’ “I choose vodka” declaration.

This time last year, my kids got up, went to school (on the days my daughter felt up to it), and I had the house to myself. For hours! Oh, the glorious solitude. I got to write and play in my own make believe world and, shockingly, got PAID to do it! What kind of nonsense adult job is that? Now, I still have deadlines for books but far, far fewer productive hours (and as a result, fewer paychecks). I wonder if I’m driving my daughter away with all this togetherness. I wonder if I’m too impatient with her. I worry that I’m not enough to keep the former honors student caught up academically with her peers. I say to my husband a dozen times a week, “I can’t do this.” And, yet, since it’s getting done, apparently I….can?

Reluctantly, perhaps. Inexpertly, for sure. With a side of tears and swearing, absolutely. But I am managing something difficult in spite of the self-doubt. One day at a time.

I’ll bet you a dollar there’s something in your life you want to accomplish but you doubt your ability to achieve it. Maybe it’s lose a little weight or learn to knit or write a book or make the world a better place and you find yourself thinking, “I can’t do this.” I bet you another dollar that you absolutely can.

I do not love this new homeschooling arrangement, but my daughter is making straight A’s. We’ve both been learning about algebraic formulas and the Articles of Confederation and how animals adapt to their environment. It is not a perfect educational environment and our progress is slow, but we’re damn lucky that we have the resources and computer and flexible schedule to attempt what other families might not be in a position to try. And I don’t write as fast as I used to, but the fictional voices are still there, talking to me at odd moments, and I record snippets of dialogue and ideas for scenes in the Notes section of my iPhone. Yesterday, I put sentences on a page–not as many as I would have liked, but a paragraph exists now that wasn’t out in the universe before, and I created that.

Books are written one sentence, one word, at a time. Keep slogging forward. Those words add up. One of our math problems last week was whether it would be better to take a job that paid a million dollars for thirty days (where do I sign up?!?!) or a thirty day job that paid one penny the first day but doubled salary every day. To steal from clickbait headlines, THE ANSWER MAY SURPRISE YOU. Pennies add up. Steps walked and calories counted add up. Calls and emails to politicians about important matters add up. And the more you do, the better you feel. Start small–hell, start tiny if you need to. Keep your expectations reasonable and be patient with yourself, but do not listen to that stupid, petty voice that sneers “You can’t do this.” It is wrong, and I believe in you. Surround yourself with people (in your physical world or online) that echo that belief and cheer you on and, in the meantime, I’ll share with you these wise words from Christopher Robin that I’ve hung on my own wall as a reminder.

Now get out there and kick some ass—-slowly, and in manageable tasks with occasional setbacks. But that’s okay. An ass kicked in slo-mo is still an ass kicked.

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Burn Out is Real…and it’s Scary

I’m a burn out. Wait, wait! Let me rephrase that. I am burnt out.

I am in the process of writing my fourth book in a year and a half… During that time, four other books released. I know there are some amazing authors who can kick out a book every two months — or one month. I wish! But that’s not me, and I know that.

Let me be clear…I’m not complaining. NOT ONE BIT.

But I am admitting…
I’m burnt out.

As a debut author who had never signed a contract before, I didn’t realize how grueling a publishing schedule would be. I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t be able to just put my head down and write as I did for years before I even tried to get a book deal.

Sure, I knew all about the other things that go into being an author—the editing and editing and editing, social media, marketing, conferences and continuing education workshops, author events and signings and more editing…and, of course, writing.

I signed my first contract in February 2015 and I haven’t been able to catch up yet. As soon as I signed that contract and put myself under a real deadline: Reality happened. Exhaustion and stress and life unraveling happened.

Real life doesn’t stop when you get a deal. And for me, it got a whole lot more complicated.

An entire re-write of my fifth book is staring me in the face. Minutes click quickly toward the date that it’s due (again). So how do I get my mojo back? How do I muster up the strength and energy to write the best damn book I possibly can?

I went back to my favorite place to write. A local French bakery in the “Noda” neighborhood of Charlotte called Amelie’s. It’s got such an eclectic vibe. There are always people there. Creative people. Business people. (Not that those two can’t be the same,) All ages from toddler to Betty White.

I settled into a seat and put my head down. No Internet. No writing companions. Just me, the music (because you guys know I need the music) and my laptop. And I wrote my ass off. I was there from 6pm to 2:30 in the morning. The next morning, I jumped out of bed and was back at a cozy table with black coffee and a delicious breakfast sandwich (eggs, spinach and asiago on a croissant—in case you want to get the full picture) by 8am.

The words were flowing. The ideas kept popping. It’s almost as if I had to get out of that pocket of life that was stifling my creativity and go back to this vibrant, happy coffee shop where I’d written so many words previously—before the contract.

Life. Moving. Jobs. Deadlines. Marketing. Motherhood. Social Media. Events. Separation. Moving. Kids. Time. Love. Loss.

There’s always going to be something. Find your happy place and get back on track. If that doesn’t work—mix it up. Try something you’ve never tried before (I just started yoga again after 9 years). Go where creative people are. Find meet up. Be in the presence of individuals who like the same things you do. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Find yourself. <3

After a few more sessions at Amelie’s, I’ve almost finished re-plotting and restructuring my current work in progress. And I’m going back tonight.

 

P.S. Photo: A scrumptious berry tart and dark chocolate covered strawberries. Happy Valentine’s Day to me. 🙂

Sophia Henry writes Heartfelt Flirty Fiction featuring hot, hockey-playing heroes. DELAYED PENALTY and POWER PLAY, the first two books in the Pilots Hockey series from Random House Flirt, are available now at all major e-book retailers.

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When Ideas Come Buzzing Around

The Bad Girlz have been talking about “plot bunnies” (a term for something that sparks a story idea) and what some of our most memorable have been.

My weirdest bunny was a wasp.

It’s fitting really, since sometimes an idea will start buzzing at the edge of my subconscious, disconcerting me. My anxiety runs the gamut from “what if I can’t do this idea justice?” to “when the hell will I have time to tackle this idea on top of my other commitments?” and the neurotic classic “what if someone else beats me to an even better version of this idea?!”

Yeah, ideas can be uncomfortable, but at least I’m not outright allergic to them, as I am with wasps. After I was stung on the leg once, the swelling was so bad I couldn’t wear pants for over a week. Thankfully, I’ve only been stung three times, but all the scenarios were the same: Tanya was minding her own business, winged red monster drops from the sky, HOLY SHIT WHY IS MY SKIN ON FIRE? Oh. Wasp sting.

The last time it happened, my husband and I were honeymooning on a tropical beach. This resulted in a first aid intervention where nobody spoke the same language but there was a lot of animated gesturing toward my butt. So, anyway. Wasps. Don’t like ‘em.

After my honeymoon but before I sold a book, I was house-sitting for a friend. She’d given me the code to open her garage door/disarm the alarm so that I could enter the house, but there were three wasps circling the key pad, looking as if they were considering a new place to call home. I didn’t know what to do. Short of breaking a window, that key pad was my only entrance into the house. The dogs inside (BIG dogs) had obviously heard me drive up and were barking like crazy. If I didn’t let them out soon, there could be accidents or exuberance-based damage. I sat in my car, feeling like a fear-riddled moron, hoping the wasps flew away.

And I started to imagine a heroine who had her life in total order (so, clearly the opposite of me) and is used to being seen as poised and in charge. But everyone has a vulnerability. When she was a kid she fell into a wasp nest and is now seriously phobic. She meets the hero as he’s trying to propose to his girlfriend at an outdoor restaurant when the heroine runs from a wasp and crashes into his table. Once I got in the house, I started jotting notes about this heroine and by the end of summer, I had a full manuscript.

In the writing world, sometimes we have face-to-face pitches with editors at conferences. My first one was a disaster. Actually, disaster would have been an upgrade. I was so nervous I forgot my own name and began babbling all of my faults (“I’m not sure I’m funny.” “I can’t write a sex scene to save my life.” “Mine may be the worst synopsis you’ll ever read.” WHY, TANYA, WHY? For the love of humanity, stop talking!!!) Anyway, the editor was stone-faced throughout, probably wondering how far away the nearest hotel security personnel was. Then I said something about the wasp-fleeing heroine crashing into the hero’s table while his marriage proposal is getting rejected and the editor cracked a smile, praise the Lord. She requested the first three chapters of the book and called me two weeks later to ask for the whole thing. She didn’t buy that story, but it was the first time I got close to a sale and she DID buy the next romantic comedy I sent her (The Maid of Dishonor, still available in ebook.)

I still don’t like wasps. But sometimes when I see one through the safety of double-paned glass, I have to grin. You never know when an idea will strike or how it might help your career.

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The Big Ravenous Drooling Bear (aka Deadlines)

Deadlines. Those little bastards. Most writers probably keep a planner of some sort and have deadlines circled in ominous red or big lettering like BOOK DUE or a three-fire alarm will issue from your electronic calendar. Deadlines are something we as writers must live with lurking in our lives. Hopefully, you picked deadlines for yourself that were doable and maybe even comfortable. However, one thing we never build into our plans are things out of our control like…

Acts of God!! *cue ominous music*

In my case, it was Mother Nature roaring through my neighborhood in the form of a tornado. Which, by the way, are extremely rare where I live in the upstate of South Carolina much less in December! Curse you, Global Warming!

We’re fine, the house will be fine. We’re getting a new roof, new fence, new shed. All fixable. The point of this post is not to host a pity-party, but to emphasize that sometimes things happen that are totally and completely out of our control. It might be weather related or health related (ours, our parents, our kids) or election related or maybe a friend needs us to drop everything and help.

As writers we have the flexibility to handle these crises as they happen, right? Maybe, maybe not…

One thing I learned after I accepted an offer of publication was that some publishers set their schedules months, sometimes up to a year, in advance. This is especially true if you are with a Big 5 publisher and got a print deal. Print requires a massive lead time, 4-6 months ideally. This means your book has to be fully edited (developmental, line, copy, page proofs, and a final proofread) before it heads to print.

For example, I have a book releasing in print August 1st, 2017. That book was due to my editor on November 1st, 2016. If I slip *my* due date, the entire process gets shifted and hardship falls to the publisher. Moving publishing dates that have been set for months is not good. (<–understatement) In other words, do not be late with your manuscript!

Not only do lead times figure into the equation, but if you are lucky enough to sign a three-book deal, you generally commit to due dates for all three books. This can commit your time for at least a year out! If you fall behind with the first book, what happens to your next two?

Back to my tornado…my plan was to hammer out the rough draft of my next book before the kids got out of school for Christmas break and before I receive edits on that book I turned in November 1st. My husband was actually scheduled to be out of the country for a week and I was going to work my butt off.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. My husband caught a flight home to help me deal with everything. We lost power for two days. People have been in and out of our house for the past week, driving me and the dog insane. Needless to say, that rough draft is not going to get finished before break.

However, that’s okay, because I have time built into my writing schedule. First off, let me get this out there…I am *not* a procrastinator when it comes to writing. In fact, I don’t understand people who do procrastinate. My anxiety would be off the charts.

Because I don’t procrastinate, I don’t bother to count days until my deadline and space out word count. Instead, I always write like my deadline is a ravenous bear chasing me even if that deadline is months away. I would rather build up a sizable lead on my bear instead of feeling him breathing down my neck. I ignore my deadline and try to get the book written as quickly as possible. This way if something happens that’s out of my control, like a tornado, or even something in my control, like I wrote myself into a corner, I’m not scrambling and panicking at the last minute. And guess what? I’ve always turned my books in early. That’s right, hate me if you want:)

This post is a cautionary tale about life and writing and things out of our control. If you are a procrastinator then…STOP IT! Don’t put off writing until that bear is huddled over your chair, drooling down your neck. You never know what might happen. And, no one wants to get eaten by a bear, right?

(**Sometimes though, really bad stuff happens. Stuff that’s more important than deadlines. That’s when you need to go to your agent and editor and have a ‘Come to Jesus’ talk about the future. That’s totally understandable**)

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Putting Writing First

Hey there everybody! This is my first post coming to you from the other side of becoming a parent for the first time. I’m the happy mom to a healthy two and a half month old girl.

And you know what else? I’m still a writer.

2016-11-13-dc1Before my tiny one came along, I have to admit that I had my doubts and fears. Kids take time and energy, and I always felt like I was barely meeting my word count as it was. How would I ever manage to keep up once I had parental responsibilities?

The answer, some days, is that I don’t. Kiddo has a bad day—or worse, a terrible night? Yeah. The words might not flow. Hell, I might not even get a chance to open my laptop.

And even on the good days, it sure isn’t easy. There are too many things to do in a day, and my tiny human needs so much. Even when she isn’t desperately, angrily in need of something, the guilt I feel that I should be doing more—playing with her, reading to her, teaching her calculus (okay, fine, maybe not that one…yet) is intense. The house needs cleaning, food needs cooking, laundry needs doing. It’s so easy to let the time just slip through my fingers. As I see it, in our current phase of life, I basically get to pick one thing to get done in a day outside of basic baby, life and household maintenance.

So here’s my secret—my incredibly easy, nearly impossible secret: I choose writing. Any day it possibly can be, I make that my one thing I get done.

This means my husband may come home to a disaster of a house. It means we might be having takeout (again). It means I may have to put on my headphones and pretend I don’t hear my daughter crying while my husband does his best with her.

It means I may only get about half of my pre-baby daily word count in. And it means I may have to be okay with that.

But it also means I continue to make progress. I don’t lose sight of the one thing I was determined to keep up with even after becoming a mom.

Make fun of me all you will. Tell me I’m hopelessly naïve or that I’ll see just how impossible it is once the tiny human becomes a little less tiny. You might be right. But here’s what I’m telling myself right now:

I take care of my kid, myself and my family. But after that? No excuses.

I put writing first.

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A Writer For All Seasons

Yay!!!! Today is officially the first day of fall.

Fall is my very favorite season. As a kid, I probably loved fall because it meant celebrating my birthday. As a work-at-home mom, fall means my own children are back in school and I can write in relative peace. (There are still interruptions, but not quite the INTERRUPTIONS of summer.) I love the fall holidays, the fall wardrobe (comfy sweaters and cute boots!) and the fall weather.

Of course, as I enthusiastically celebrate fall, I have to remember that it’s late spring in the book I’m currently writing. My heroine will look insane if she starts carving jack-o’-lanterns in May.

Writers are frequently “out of season.” Do you know how many times my family has heard Christmas carols blasting out of my office because I’m trying to write a holiday novella in August? I frequently get the date wrong on school notes, checks, etc. Not necessarily because I’ve killed too many brain cells with pinot grigio, but just because there’s so much weird time overlap in my career. In 2016, I’m booking speaking engagements for 2017 and promoting a book I first started writing in 2013. It’s September now, but I just got the cover for my January book, which takes place over Valentine’s Day. (But, really, there’s no wrong time of the year for a cover that looks like this! *heart eyes*)

jan-17

You may not know this, but every manuscript goes through its own cycle of seasons. A book starts with the bud of an idea, one a writer joyfully nurtures. There’s beauty and hope in this creatively fertile time. Blossom, little story!

in-bloom

Then, as you write pages, those pages become chapters and the story really heats up! Your characters become more real to you–scenes play out in your head, as vivid as a summer blockbuster film. On the best days, writing doesn’t even feel like work. It feels like a vacation from reality.

summer

But things change. Even if you plotted your book ahead of time, there will be forks in the road you didn’t anticipate. The story takes on a life of its own, requiring flexibility on your part. (In worst-case scenarios, a once promising story feels flat and lifeless on the page, requiring problem-solving and revision.) Change is as inevitable as the barrage of pumpkin spice products that hit every autumn. Sometimes it’s a beautiful change–a poignant dialogue exchange you didn’t see coming that makes you cry at the keyboard. Other times, the change is your plot falling apart faster than leaves fall from the trees.

fall

And then…

The winter of authorial discontent, those bleak days when you’re frozen by self-doubt, second-guessing every decision you’ve made. It feels like this in your soul (but less cheery):

bleak

You regret having ever started this damn book and realize the Starks totally knew what they were talking about: Winter WAS coming. It has descended upon you, leaving you up to your eyeballs in snowdrifts of uncooperative characters and unwieldy prose.

But don’t panic! This is just the natural life cycle of a book, not a sign that you are a hack who should quit. We must question our books, or how would we make them better? It’s okay to look for ways to improve the story, it’s okay to retrace your steps and find a better path. It’s okay to throw out four chapters (OUCH!) and write four new ones that incorporate all the knowledge you’ve gained about your story and characters along the way. The ice will thaw and your talent will shine through.

Just remember, every season offers something to celebrate and something to learn.

I wish you the happiest of falls and hope you’ll find time to curl up in a comfy sweater with your favorite autumn beverage (pumpkin spice or otherwise) and a good book.

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Staying Healthy: Family & Friends Edition

For the last few weeks, our focus here at the blog has been on maintaining your health (physical, mental and emotional) while writing. Expanding on that, there’s one other thing you probably want to keep healthy: your relationships.

Between deadlines and the many voices of fictional people in your head, it’s not always easy to balance the real people in your life. There’s a fine line between making your loved ones respect the sanctity of your writing time and alienating them entirely. A few years ago, I was struck by the irony of someone who writes romance novels for a living (me) telling her husband “I know it’s our anniversary, but I have to get this book turned in. Raincheck!” Yeah. Super romantic, Tanya.

In my defense, my husband frequently travels for his job. He’s spent an anniversary, a Valentine’s Day and quite a few of my birthdays in Europe. Without me. Not that I’m bitter.

The trick is to communicate these scheduling conflicts ahead of time as much as possible and make it up to each other later. Luckily, my husband is pretty supportive about my writing. (He sincerely hopes that one day, I’ll be a zillionaire best seller and he can retire to a leisurely life of golf and woodwork.) But people react to an author’s demanding schedule differently—some observers have trouble seeing it as a job, just because there are erratic hours, no commute and, occasionally, no pants. So how do you train those in your life to respect your eccentric career without making them feel neglected?

Based on daily arguments I have with my teenagers, I am not a perfect mom. But I did sell my first book two and a half weeks after my first child was born, so I’ve been juggling this family/writing thing for a while. (Shown below, me and my extended family, the epitome of happy, healthy, and harmonious.)

the fam

My thoughts on the people vs. pages balancing act:

1. Family comes first. If your spouse is going through medical procedures or a grueling time at work or you’re in the middle of a move (or have a baby who needs you), don’t expect to be able to focus on writing. Inevitable family obligations will cut into your time. If possible, schedule accordingly. But always keep a notebook or iPhone/Dictaphone nearby so that when inspiration strikes somewhere unexpected, like a pediatrician’s waiting room, you can jot it down for later.

2. Family comes first UP TO A POINT. After that, you have my permission to be heartless. If your child has chicken pox and is feverish/miserable/itchy, it’s understandable that the kid is gonna pester you. But it is not acceptable for your offspring to bug you because he/she “is bored.” Do not succumb to parental guilt for turning them away. I’ve seen this be particularly difficult for women, especially if they haven’t yet sold and aren’t making money. We beat ourselves up with thoughts like, “Why am I wasting my time on this when I should be baking brownies for junior’s soccer team?” Hold up. Dedicated pursuit of a goal is not wasting time. You are teaching your children perseverance, which is an important life skill. Meanwhile, I encourage you to rock the store-bought brownies.

3. Involve your family in celebrating goals and milestones. These can be tiny celebrations. “When Mommy finishes this chapter, we’ll go see Finding Dory.” Or play a family board game. Or go out for frozen yogurt. (For spouses and significant others, it could be a straightforward, “Let me write until 10 pm so I can get this scene down, then we’ll watch something on Netflix.” Or, you know, whatever the two of you are in the mood for.) Offering this kind of deal serves two purposes—assuring your family that spending time with them is also a priority and encouraging them to leave you the hell alone so you can actually reach your goal and get to that fun event faster. Sometimes, celebrations are more noteworthy. Once the manuscript is finished, get glammed up for a date night; you’ve earned it, and it will be a nice change from the bedraggled ponytail and yoga pants of deadline. A historical romance author bought her daughters a horse when she sold her first book; I took my family to Disney after the best royalty check of my life. But those were rare circumstances.

4. Come up with a schedule.

5. Stick to the schedule. Numbers 4 & 5 probably sound redundant, but they aren’t. You are going to encounter people who threaten your writing time—from relatives who subtly sabotage your efforts to well-meaning neighbors who want to have you over for coffee to that relentless PTA zealot who is determined to make you run the book-fair. Not only do I encourage you to tell these people no, I suggest you adopt a schedule that covers you like armor. If you write in the morning, don’t pick up the phone before noon. Turn off the ringer. Worst case scenario, you can ignore the whiny cousin who calls to complain about her life. Best case scenario, she gets the message and quits calling entirely during that time-slot.

While you don’t owe anyone explanations/defense about your time, you can soften refusals to friends and neighbors with counter offers that highlight your schedule. “As much as I would love to have coffee, I’m swamped until I finish this book at the end of August. How about September?” This sets a clear boundary (don’t bother me again until September!) but also demonstrates that your friends matter to you. (Because, once the damn book is actually turned in, you don’t want to look around and realize you’ve run off all your buddies. Although, frankly, I think there’s a reason so many of my best friends are fellow writers. They GET it.)

6. Don’t underestimate the importance of people—not just to your emotional health but to your ability to write great characters. I had a friend who doggedly invited me to social events (movies, Pampered Chef parties, book club meetings, holiday parades, wine tastings) even though I routinely turned her down. I was struggling to catch up on belated deadlines after my daughter had been sick. My friend was pretty good-natured about it, but she asked me once, “If you never get out of the house and interact with people, how can you expect to write about believable, fully developed people in your books?” I decided she was right and said, “screw it, I’m going to lunch.” After all, even on deadline, a writer’s gotta eat. And you know what? I returned to the computer refreshed and with some funny new ideas for dialogue.

7. Be careful about bitching to civilians. There’s a lot to drive us nuts about writing—low contest scores, rejections, lousy reviews. You are fully entitled to vent about these disappointments. But it’s usually best to commiserate with other authors who’ve been there and who can inspire you to keep going. If you routinely tell your mother, boyfriend, and former college roommate about how hard writing is—especially if you’re not under contract—they may suggest you quit. This can make you feel like they don’t believe in you and lead to arguments and hurt feelings. You can reduce the odds of this by having mimosas with a trusted critique partner.

In summary, writing can make us bonkers. Our loved ones can make us bonkers. But with strategy and effort, you can probably keep the bonkers manageable. While you want to make sure the people around you understand how seriously you take writing, you don’t want to drive them all away—at least, not permanently. Celebrating when you hit that first bestseller list will be a lot more fun when you’re surrounded by loved ones to cheer you on.

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