Tag Archive: writing tips

Keeping the spark alive: how to conquer burnout

Burnout is something all writers face at some point in time. As much as we love what we do, sometimes it feels like the creative tank has been depleted. Either the ideas are lacking, or the motivation has dried up, or maybe both– either way, it can be a maddening cocktail of emotions.

I fell into an unmotivated spiral sometime last month. It was just after the New Year, when you’re supposed to make resolutions and feel energized and ready to tackle anything. Instead, I just felt tired. I chalked it up to the fact that growing a human takes a lot of energy, and it was normal for me to not feel like tackling writing projects with my usual aplomb. Plus, I had other things on my mind… decorating a nursery, creating a baby shower registry, looking at baby name books. But regardless, I was used to fitting writing in with everything else going on in my life, and couldn’t figure out what had changed.

It was only after talking to my husband about it one night that I figured out the root of what was going on. He helped me figure out what was missing, and why I wasn’t feeling as passionately about writing as I did before. A lot of it came down to how I was using my time. Part of the problem: I was wasting too much time mindlessly scrolling through social media (I’m sure we’ve all been there!), and comparing myself to other people. I wasn’t even aware I was doing this until I heard the words come out of my mouth. Sometimes, you have to actively remind yourself that what you see on social media is someone else’s highlight reel. We all have ups and downs, but we tend not to share the lows.

The other problem (which isn’t even a problem as much as a new situation) is that I didn’t have one project to focus all of my energy on and set deadlines for, but instead, was trying to work on several projects at once. I just didn’t know how to implement a schedule to work on all of them and be productive, and also remain interested in pursuing each one. I felt like my attention span had dwindled to that of a fruit fly– bouncing from one idea to the next, but never resting long enough to give it a chance to become something.

So how am I going to fix this? First, by admitting that it’s okay to take breaks sometimes. If you’re someone like me who tries to write every day, not writing can feel extremely detrimental, and like you’re going backwards instead of moving ahead. But this isn’t always the case. Forcing it can make it feel like a chore and not like something you love, and I never want to be in that position with writing.

I’m also stepping back from social media a bit, and choosing more set hours to be online, instead of being half-there a lot of the time. Often, after a weekend was over, I didn’t feel rested at all. I had spent a good chunk of it on my phone, responding to emails that weren’t urgent in nature just to get them out of my inbox (I’m a bit obsessive about never having any unread messages linger there). But the truth is, those emails and tweets can wait. I’m making the conscious decision to unplug and focus my energy in places that make me feel creatively replenished, not drained.

My main mission is to learn how to write unselfconsciously again, something that seems instinctive but really isn’t. I need to write for me and pursue ideas that excite me, even if they don’t go anywhere. Instead of thinking “what if” in a negative way: “what if this doesn’t sell? What if this is stupid? What if I’m wasting my time?” I’m trying to turn “what if” into a positive: “What if I love this and it turns into the best thing I’ve written?” Because I know from experience that even writing that goes nowhere is not a waste of time. It’s a learning experience– and those ideas that trail off, that don’t quite make it into books, are always something that can be pursued later.

I wanted to share all of this in case anyone else out there is feeling the same way… burned out, exhausted, uninspired. You’re not alone, and you haven’t lost your talent. You’re a writer, and these are the realities we struggle with. What we do– creating something out of nothing– takes a lot, and we don’t reward ourselves enough. Take a break. Read lots of books. Reorganize your office. Go back to your characters with excitement, not fear. And write your little heart out.

On those drawer darlings

While looking through the various folders on my computer recently, I realized that I’ve completed eight books.

And started about twice that many.

In an effort to stay organized, I give each book a folder. But some of these “books” don’t quite materialize, and the folders don’t have much to show. Some are partway toward being a completed novel– one has over 30,000 words, while another is encroaching on the 50,000 mark. Some are a lot less far along– a few chapters in, or even just a few pages. As I clicked through the neglected documents, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I had abandoned them. I never gave them a chance.

Or did I?

A drawer darling that just may be resurrected.

A drawer darling that just may be resurrected.

More than once, I’ve wondered—am I commitment-phobic? Am I just in it for the glorious honeymoon period, when everything feels shiny and effortless, before it becomes a big confusing mess? Do I take a hike when the words dry up and sentences feel like a massive undertaking and that paralyzing feeling of “what’s next” takes over?

I honestly don’t think so. I’m pretty sure my prognosis is that I’m just a regular writer.One thing my journey to publication has taught me is that most of us have lots of those half-started, half-finished, halfway-maybe-something projects in our proverbial drawers. Some of them are terrible and we’d never show them to a single soul. Some of them might become something, someday. So why do I still feel guilty that my drawer darlings exist?

I think it’s because such a huge part of success in writing is persevering through the hard times and never giving up. You’ll hear a lot of writers (myself included) say that habit is the key to success. You have to put in the work and commit in order to finish something. A first draft only has to exist, not be anywhere close to perfect. But not everything makes it even to first draft status. Those not-finished somethings don’t mean you didn’t commit or that you didn’t care. Making the choice to abandon a project isn’t the same as giving up. Maybe you’ll go back to it in a week, month, or even two years. Sometimes, distance is the best solution. And sometimes, the book just isn’t working, and you have to accept that. Accepting that it didn’t work isn’t a failure– it’s growth as an artist.

I can’t even fathom how many thousands of words of mine will never see the light of day, how many hours of work I put into projects that nobody will ever see. Maybe some people would deem that a waste of time, but I’m okay with it. None of the time and effort was a waste, because I was writing and learning and honing my skills, even if I didn’t see it at the time. I can go back to one of those abandoned folders and see why a project wasn’t working, why an idea fell flat. I can resurrect it. Or I can leave it, because the passion isn’t there anymore.

A writer’s imagination is a crazy-awesome place. There’s so much going on in there– your imagination lets you build worlds and characters out of nothing. That’s kind of like magic. Don’t cover all that with the heavy blanket of guilt. Let those words be wasted, if that’s the best thing for you. Let those drawer darlings gather dust. They’ll still be there, if– and when– you ever go back to them.

On (not) giving up, or why writing won’t quit you

I’ve done lots of interviews over the past several months surrounding the release of Firsts. It has been such an honor to answer so many thoughtful, amazing questions from readers and bloggers and book lovers everywhere. I have been asked how I got the idea for Firsts (I still wish I had a better answer for that!), about my writing process, best parts of debuting, and lessons learned along the way.

There’s one question I have been asked several times, and it’s a great one.

Did you ever think about giving up?

To which I answered yes. There have been several times along the path to publication where I considered giving up on my dream of seeing a book of mine in print. I was querying, but getting more rejections than requests. I was learning, but not fast enough. I felt like there was an excellent chance I would never sell a book and nobody would ever read my work.

But ever since giving those interviews, I’ve thought a lot about that question. Generally, people think it only pertains to the trying times along that elusive path to publication. Once you reach that goal and see your book in print, there’s the expectation that you are confident and calm and the words flow every time you sit down at your computer. You have things figured out.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I don’t have less doubts than I do before. I just have different doubts. The brain is a scary place, especially when you’re in a creative field. The same brain that houses your dreams also takes your happy thoughts and puts shackles on them and turns good things inside out, analyzing them for flaws. The same mind that conjures up ideas can just as easily crush them.

I don’t think about giving up on writing these days, but I do have days where I think writing has given up on me. That my words are on strike, my characters holding up little signs that say “WE WANT A BETTER AUTHOR!” and chanting for me to get my act together. I have days where I have no clue how to write a chapter and moments when I read what I’ve just written and shake my head because it’s such steaming crap. Each book after Firsts has been a struggle for me. I’ve said in interviews that at times while writing Firsts, the book practically wrote itself. Well, that hasn’t happened since. Not a single word wrote itself.

But does that mean I forgot how to write?

I’ve realized that the answer is no. Because it’s impossible to forget how to care fiercely about something you love. Some days, you read over the words you put down and realize they aren’t as bad as you thought. Some days, they’re worse. But always, they are there, on the page, no matter how hard it was for them to arrive.

Fellow authors, no matter what stage of the process you’re at– don’t quit. Because I promise, writing won’t quit you.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Writing Spaces

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about writing spaces. This topic is near and dear to me, since my concept of what makes a writing space has changed a lot over the last couple of years.

I wrote FIRSTS on my trusty Windows Surface tablet, which was perched on a lap desk while I reclined on the couch. (I feel like this is one of the many reasons why I have terrible posture.) Before my husband and I moved into our house, I didn’t have an official “writing space” in our apartment, so I wrote wherever I could. Sometimes in front of Breaking Bad marathons, sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes on my bed, always with my furry little BFF on my lap. I fantasized about having an office of my own.

One of my many writing spaces.

One of my many writing spaces.

The week I got an offer of representation from my amazing agent was the same week we moved into our first house. My office was the first thing I unpacked, and I couldn’t wait to start writing there. The timing was perfect. I felt so official! So grown up! So much like an author! Over the year, my office evolved a lot. My husband got me a super-comfortable desk chair and I put up photos and started a bookshelf entirely dedicated to books by my awesome author friends. My office is where I would be spending hours and hours of my time, so it had to have the right vibe. And I love it there, especially when it’s warm enough to open the windows and let fresh air in.

But… I still write while sitting on the couch sometimes. Because as much as I adore my office, I need a change of scenery every so often. (Plus, my dog prefers when I’m on the couch, because that means she gets to stretch out on my legs.) And this summer, my “office” has more often than not been my backyard deck in the evening, with a glass of wine and a view of our garden.

The truth is, I don’t think of a writing space in static terms anymore. A writing space is anywhere, and mine changes all the time. A writing space happens in the cafeteria on my lunch break at work. A writing space happens in the Notes app on my phone while I’m walking. A writing space happens when I scribble in a notebook (and hope I can decipher my writing later). Sometimes a writing space even happens solely in my head, when I don’t have anything to write with but get struck by a thought I want to remember later.

The main thing I want to feel as a writer is that I can write anywhere. The circumstances don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to be in my super-comfortable desk chair with the American Beauty soundtrack playing and a full mug of coffee beside me (although I certainly won’t complain if that happens!). I don’t need to be “inspired” by my surroundings to get words on the page. I can be anywhere, doing anything. Because I’m a writer, and my ultimate writing space is my imagination.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Characters

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about characters. I have written before about voice and how important it is, but the subject of characters in general got me thinking about how I create mine. Or more accurately, how they speak to me and tell me how to make them.

What would Scarlett O'Hara do? Just about anything.

What would Scarlett O’Hara do? Just about anything.

A lot of good writing advice says that you have to know a character before you can write effectively about her, and this is true. You have to know what she wants, what’s standing in her way, how she’ll react in a situation, what drives her insane, what makes her knees weak. You have to know who she cares about and how she expresses her feelings. What thrills her and what paralyzes her with fear. But for me, these things come out in the writing. They’re never all there when I get started. I think of a first draft as a great way to get to know a character, much like building a friendship (or a frenemy-ship, depending on the character you’re writing!).

Before I wrote FIRSTS, I knew my main character’s name would be Mercedes and I knew what her struggle would be. The more I wrote, the more her voice became so familiar to me, and the easier I could slip into it. But even though at times it felt like the story wrote itself, that’s not to say every sentence was perfect. (Far, far from it, as early readers can attest!) Many scenes from the first draft didn’t make it to the second draft, or the fifth, or the final version. But does that mean they were a waste of time? Absolutely not. Every word I wrote from Mercedes’ point of view was a step closer to knowing her, and I wouldn’t trade any of those deleted darlings. Without them, FIRSTS may not be the book it is now.

I don’t know everything about a character before I get started. That’s not how my writing process works. I learn as I go, as words fill pages. I didn’t know Mercedes’ favorite foods or her hobbies or the college she wanted to attend. Not right away. But the more I wrote, the more she became a real person to me, not a character. I knew she was bold and sarcastic and strong and vulnerable. Controlling and scared and fiercely protective of her emotions. And because I knew that, I let her fill me in on everything else. When I doubted a turn in the story, I listened to her voice in my head. No, silly author, I would never say that! Are you kidding me? I really don’t think that’s something I would do. And the more I listened, the more authentic the book felt as a result.

I’ve heard many other authors talk about having the nagging sense that something isn’t working and being stumped with where the story goes next. Often, we realize it’s because we were trying to force a main character in a direction he doesn’t want to go. No matter how detailed an outline is, so much can change as a story progresses, just because you get to know your characters that much better.


What wouldn’t McMurphy do?

For those of you wondering who my all-time favorite character in literature is? Well, I have two. Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind and Randle Patrick McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Anytime I feel uninspired, I just flip to a page in either one of those books and remember that every character, even the ones in literary masterpieces, came from the same place: a writer’s imagination. As writers, we take thoughts and ideas and maybe a bit of insight from real life and the voices in our heads and meld all of that into the people between the pages who readers love and hate and maybe even look to for their own inspiration.

And I happen to think building someone out of nothing is pretty freaking cool.

On having faith in your story

With most of my writing projects, I’m a full-blown pantser. I like to start my WIPs with a main character or two, a hook, and a blank Word document. Part of the reason is because I find the writing process more fun this way. But also, I love starting out like this because I’m so curious to know where the story will go—what twists the plot will take, what other characters will pop up, what obstacles will get in their way. I like to surprise myself and dare myself to just write whatever comes into my head and make it work. To me, the absolute coolest part of writing is having your story develop as you go and when you read it over again later, thinking, I wrote that?

Give those words a chance!

Give those words a chance!

But this approach comes with its challenges. Days where I have no idea what comes next. (Those are, coincidentally, days when Netflix beckons.) Days where I’m sure I wrote myself into a corner and can’t possibly get back on track. Days where I stare at my computer and feel like the person who wrote the previous pages was some other version of me, a better version who must have taken a vacation. And what I’m coming to realize is that I usually get nervous and doubtful when I start getting invested in a project. When I think to myself, this could be something—that’s when I feel like I’m about to ruin it.

So what I’m thinking about more and more is the importance of having faith that the writing will unfold exactly how it’s supposed to. That there’s no such thing as ruining it. That there are a thousand possible twists and turns and none of them are wrong. The only way to ruin a story is to not finish it. Everything can be fixed later—that’s what editing is for. I have never once sat back after a writing session and thought, that was such a waste of time. It always, always feels worthwhile, no matter how bad the words on the page might be, no matter how strongly you feel like you’ll throw them out later. The only wasted writing time is time not spent writing.

There have been times when I was so in love with the first few chapters of a manuscript I wrote that I’m afraid to write more and mess it up. And as a pantser, that’s a hard mentality to break. The only way to break it is to write more. And more and more and more. Because having faith in your story, in your ability to write it, is what will take you to those magic words. THE END.

Give your words a chance. They might just surprise you.

#SixteensBlogAbout: Revision

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about revision. Which is kind of perfect, since I’m smack-dab in the middle of revising my current WIP. This means I’m overly caffeinated, entirely spacey, and my closet door is covered in a whole tree’s worth of Post-Its. (Sorry, tree.)

My revision bible, aka the best impulse buy I ever made.

My revision bible, aka the best impulse buy I ever made.

Honestly, I think highly of revision. It’s one of the coolest parts of the writing process, the stage where something rough around the edges starts to be transformed into a bright and shiny thing. But it’s also one of the most daunting, frustrating, and painstaking. It’s hot and cold, like an unreliable boyfriend. Because no matter how hard I try to approach it like a science, no matter how badly I try to organize and plot and figure out a plan to make a revision go as smoothly as possible, I always end up throwing my “revision schedule” out the window (well, not literally—I recycle!) because things always, always get messy. Characters don’t want to cooperate. Scenes don’t want to sit beside each other. Plot threads just don’t want to blend with other plot threads. Giant plot holes are perfectly content to remain unfilled and wallow lazily in the middle of the action.

The more books I write, the more I learn that revising, like writing, is an art. It’s not a scientific process and it’s not cut-and-dried. It’s temperamental. The glee of discovering a way to make a plot twist work is quickly replaced by the realization that you used the word look 238 times and you still don’t know how to fix the sagging middle of your story. The triumph of killing as many of those unnecessary looks as possible is overshadowed by the terrifying task of blending two minor characters into one. Plus, you have to accept that a lot of your darlings are going to end up dead. You might be sad about it now, but later you’ll look back and see how much better your book is because of the excess weight you cut out.

Here’s the thing about revision: you have to really get comfortable with it. If you don’t have a good love-hate relationship with it already, you need to spend some more time with it and see that it’s only trying to help, as stubborn and obstinate as it may be. Pull up a chair and get cozy with your laptop, with your Post-Its, with the messy notes you made that you can’t even decipher. Even with those annoying plot holes, because they sure as hell won’t fix themselves. (Trust me, I’ve tried that.)

Because the other thing about revision? It never ends, at least not for a long, long time. Writing “The End” is misleading, because we all know the end is nowhere in sight.

If you’re looking for me this week, you’ll find me in fleece polar bear pajamas (don’t judge), my second tenth cup of coffee getting cold, tweaking and reworking and deleting and layering… and hopefully making sense of those handwritten notes.

March, briefly

March has been a pretty awesome month. For one thing, the weather has improved considerably, so I have been able to get outside for walks with my husband and dog and enjoy some long overdue sunshine. And to make things even better, this will go down the month I finally managed to find a happy medium behind plotting and pantsing.


Not just for special occasions.

Working on: For the most part, I have adhered to a schedule of at least 2K each day to get a first draft of my current YA contemporary WIP done. And I’m happy to say that I met my goal! Since this was the hardest first draft I’ve ever written, it’s also the one I’m the most proud of. I couldn’t just fly by the seat of my pants with this WIP, and learning to reconcile a plot with my pantsing tendencies has challenged me and pushed me to new limits as a writer. I now have 85K to reread, play with, and revise the heck out of. As much as I love the exhilarating freedom of a first draft, I also enjoy the deconstructive element of revising—breaking everything down, figuring out what isn’t working, and putting it back together as something even better.

Reading: I read two books that I absolutely loved this month, and both were 2015 releases. (This is shaping up to be a totally killer for reading!) The first was ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by Jennifer Niven, which is equal parts touching, heartbreaking, and hopeful. I love that we get into the heads of both main characters, Finch and Violet. Finch, especially, is one of the most memorable characters I have read in a long time. I really enjoyed Jennifer Niven’s writing style, and I’ll definitely be picking up her other books.

I also binge-read Jasmine Warga’s debut novel, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES. Binge-read because I could not put it down. This is a hugely moving, beautifully written debut that tackles very difficult subject matter with grace and humor. Aysel and Roman (aka FrozenRobot), the two main characters, feel very real: their personalities, struggles with depression, and the tragedies they have had to endure. Their relationship is unlike any other I have seen in other books, and I enjoyed seeing it develop and change as they start to break down each other’s walls.

Listening to: I’m an easily distracted person. (Evidenced by my many failed attempts to be one of those people who can write while a TV show plays in the background.) I’m finding out that I can’t write very effectively to music with lyrics either because the lyrics end up drowning out my thought process. So I have been listening to a lot of movie soundtracks lately. My very favorite soundtrack is AMERICAN BEAUTY, which has basically been on repeat for the past few weeks.

Well, that’s March in a nutshell! I’m really looking forward to taking this WIP and making it shine as April progresses. And speaking of shine, a bit more sunshine would be nice, too…

On celebrating small victories

When you’re on the path to publication, the big milestones are easy to distinguish. Finishing a book. Getting an agent. Revising. Selling a book. If you’re a querying writer trying to get traditionally published, these are probably the goals you strive for. If you’re anything like me, you tell yourself to enjoy the writing part, to truly love creating stories, because it’s the only part you have any real control over.

Words to live by.

Words to live by.

And if you’re anything like me, you might sometimes find that advice annoyingly impossible to follow when all you can think about is what you haven’t accomplished yet.

A lot has happened in the past year. I was lucky enough to achieve the goals I had always dreamed of, and I’m still shocked sometimes that it’s all happening. But even though I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at now, I still have days where I forget to live in the moment because I’m too busy thinking ahead. Days where I fail to see my own progress. And that got me thinking about the importance of celebrating small victories.

As writers, we’re naturally our own biggest critics. We get frustrated when things don’t go our way. We get mad at ourselves if the words aren’t flowing as easily one day as they did before, and when we’re uninspired or have a case of writer’s block, we question if we’ve lost the ability to write entirely. (This happens to me more often than I’d like to admit.) And while those big goals are easy to celebrate, the smaller ones deserve some glory too. The ones we work at each day and forget to recognize as achievements at all.

Coming up with a title. Finishing a chapter. Fixing a plot hole. Fleshing out a secondary character. Not just adding words, but taking them away when it benefits the story. Learning a character’s voice. Figuring out a satisfying ending. Finding out how to weave a plot thread throughout your entire story. Conjuring up a perfect first kiss. Describing a delicious meal. Capturing the mood you were striving for. Creating a snappy dialogue exchange. Waking up in the middle of the night to write down a sentence fragment that changes everything.

These are among the milestones that we sometimes fail to acknowledge at all. These are parts of being a writer that we can easily take for granted because there’s something else, something bigger obscuring our vision. A brighter, glittering jewel blocking out the rest of the light. But I’m starting to believe, more and more, that the small victories need more credit. Because those bigger, brighter accomplishments are built on each word we write. They’re built on sentences and characters and dialogue and pure hard work. They’re constructed on those times we sit and stare at a gaping plot hole and spend hours figuring out how to fix it. They’re built on the days we don’t want to write at all, but somehow find the drive we need to put words on paper.

Not all goals are celebrated with champagne and much happy dancing (although those ones are undoubtedly very exciting and fun)! So many go by unnoticed, and this is something I’m trying to remedy this year. I want to recognize and enjoy the small things and see them for what they are: not small at all.

“What now?” : Or, keeping momentum going

Every writer operates differently. Some people work in bursts, reaching giant word counts one day and writing nothing the next. Some fit in words whenever they can, wherever they can. Others, like me, do best with a routine. Since I work full-time, my routine involves at least two hours of butt-in-chair time at the beginning of the day, every day. Although I don’t have a strict word count goal (as per this post, where I resolved to be nicer to myself), I feel good if I hit at least 1000 words. Usually, I can accomplish this in less than an hour.


But the problem is, sometime that two hours of butt-in-chair time doesn’t always constitute work.

There are mornings I sit at my desk, open my Word document, and stare at it. I make awkward eye contact with the fresh new chapter heading in front of me and consult any notes I might have made. My fingers hover over the keys. Then all of a sudden I’m on Twitter or checking out Publishers Marketplace or looking at purses online (shh, don’t tell my husband). Before I know it, I’ve wasted half an hour. Or a full hour. And then it’s time to get ready for work and I’m staring at a couple half-assed sentences and I feel guilty because I know I could have done more if I had only managed my time better.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently. About why it’s so difficult to get going some mornings, when other times the words flow freely. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to writer’s block or make up some excuse, but I wanted to identify the problem so I could find out a way to solve it.

The problem? Momentum.

I used to think momentum just meant writing every day, even if it’s only for five minutes, because you at least touch base with your story and characters that way. But now I’m looking at momentum on a smaller scale. For me, it’s not about writing every day as much as where you start writing each day.

When you’re going at that crazy, frenetic pace with your writing, when you know exactly what you want to say, it’s a heady feeling. It’s amazing when your fingers can barely keep up with what your brain is thinking. When you finish for the day, you feel invincible. You can’t wait to get going the next day and pick up where you left off. So when you sit down the next morning and find that the word well has dried up, it’s easy to wonder how the momentum stalled just like that.

What I’m coming to realize? That stopping at the end of a chapter—a logical place to finish a writing session—can make it that much harder to get going when you pick up where you left off. I’m finding more and more that when I stop off at a crucial point—even in the middle of a sentence—it’s infinitely easier to get going the next time. You’re dropped right back into the thick of things, and finishing one sentence leads into writing a whole lot more. You can latch onto your thoughts and inject yourself back into the story easier than if you’re just staring at “Chapter 26” and a scarily blank page.

I used to hate stopping partway through a chapter. I used to feel like a failure if I had to abandon a sentence halfway through. But now, I purposely look for places I can stop writing in the heart of the action. Because I know it’ll be that much easier for me to hone in on my story when I pick up the sentence. (And that much easier to keep Twitter and online shopping distractions at bay.)

And the best part? That heady, invincible feeling always comes back, and I’m excited about my story all over again.

I’d love to know—how do you keep momentum going?

%d bloggers like this: