Balancing Life and Writing (or how not to do it)

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Work/life balance. It’s the goal we strive toward – the Stanley cup at the end of a season – yet sometimes, it seems more of an urban myth. Has anyone ever achieved the fabled work/life balance? How do you obtain something so challenging when you add a time consuming activity like writing into the mix? Good question. Let me know when you have the answer!

In all seriousness, this is a topic I struggle with at the best of times. How to juggle a busy job with kids, house chores, animals, friends, a husband, reading, and down time (not in order of importance of course!) and then adding writing on top of it all? For me personally, it’s a matter of compromise. I focus on the area of my life that demands attention most, but generally that means another aspect ends up suffering – then I focus on the area that suffered and the cycle goes on… and on. Is it perfect? Hell no. But then again, what in life truly is? It’s an ever evolving process, and one I’m constantly tweaking.

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If I were to use one word to describe my writing process, I’d probably use the word “sporadic”. Over the past few years, I noticed my writing settled into a basic pattern. During the fall and winter I write like heck (because it’s cold, miserable, and hurts to breathe outside), and come summer time I start revising, since work at the clinic amps up and the kids demand more of my time with outdoor activities (since it’s not dark at 5pm anymore!) which makes the process of drafting harder for me. I work best when on a deadline. No excuses, just get down and get ‘er done. (Which is why I’m forever grateful to PitchWars and Nanowrimo, my revising and drafting incentives)

So do I have it all figured out? Not yet. Maybe someday. For now, I’ll just keep hacking away to find little moments where I can work on my passion in the hopes that one day I can share it with the world. Until then, I’ll be curled up in a cozy corner of my couch on cold, wintry days typing away to my heart’s content – or revising in a swath of sunlight with a cool iced tea on sweltering summer days (and always surrounded by my unruly but loving brood).

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Weaknesses and Strengths

This week’s theme reminds me of those job self-assessment reviews and the dreaded questions: What are your strengths? Weaknesses?

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Honestly, I’d rather walk through a bed of flaming hot lava than answer questions where I know I’ll be hanging myself out to dry with my answers. Not only do I not like admitting my weaknesses, I hate doing it in front of a stranger. Talk about the ultimate second guessing situation!

With writing, it’s a bit different. I think when we admit there are areas we need to work on, we get it as fellow writers. Writing is a process and the more we hone our craft, the better it becomes – but it doesn’t come without a learning curve. I’ve had my fair share of going through the different stages of learning: show vs. tell, character depth, world building, and voice. There’s so much to accomplish, yet we’re told not to do so many other different things: Don’t info dump! Don’t use passive voice! Don’t use too many exclamation marks! (LOL)

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As a baby writer having these terms thrown at me without any context was overwhelming. What was show don’t tell? And what the hell was voice? (All good topics for another day!) As I learnt each of these terms for myself (and not just by reading about them from a blog, but actually knowing what they meant and how to achieve them myself) there were true light bulb moments of discovery.

I’d like to say I’ve come a long way since then, but I still struggle. World building and showing emotion versus telling are my new Achilles heel. One of the biggest problems for me is describing a physical emotional response. We’re told as writers to vary words and avoid repetition, but I realized fairly quickly when reflecting on my own personal experiences that I have a pretty boring repertoire of reaction. In tense situations I clench my jaw. When I’m anxious, I tense my jaw. When I relax . . . you guessed it: I un-tense my jaw. (Otherwise known as relaxing, but that would defeat the word usage ;)) The best resource I’ve found to help me in this particular area is Angela Ackerman’s “The Emotion Thesaurus”. It helps stimulate my imagination on alternative options than the clenched jaw and sweaty palms (repetitions of which I am still guilty!) while giving a deeper sense of point of view than when I would just describe a character as “mad” or “upset”.

 

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For world building, I find that I have to go back and add details as I revise. In my head, I have a clear image of how the world should be, but I find it doesn’t always translate to the page until about the third revision and at least two beta/critique partner reads. I find the feedback from CPs invaluable, and better than any revision software or tool out there. Nothing beats a good intuitive reader who can tell you where you failed in your representation of your vision – so that you can build on what’s missing until that vision is complete.

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As far as strengths – I don’t know if there really is one that stands out for me, but I do know what I enjoy writing the most and comes easiest: action scenes. In my first manuscript, I had a fairly detailed plot line which didn’t include many action scenes. After all, I thought that was more my husband’s jam than mine. It wasn’t until I started pantsing my second novel that I realized how easy action and fight scenes came to me. In fact, I think my second novel is made up of 90% action and fight scenes because I loved writing them a little too much. Maybe it was all the action and war movies I watched with my brothers when growing up — or perhaps I was a street-smart scrapper in another life — but the flow of movement and the rush of emotion and tension that action scenes allow is exhilarating.

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So if you’re a writer and you’re going through a writing slump – you’re not alone. Without the slumps we would never learn and never improve. I think it’s what defines us as writers – that in spite of the hardship and the constant self-doubt we continue on until we find our groove — and then we repeat the process, over and over again.

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Until next time 😀

 

 

The Writing Process – Pantser, Plotter… or Plantser?

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I’ve realized at the heart of my writing, I’m a planster. If you’ve never heard this term before, you’ll probably think I’ve either lost my mind or perhaps fallen victim to a mildly amusing autocorrect malfunction. Neither of these options are the case (though my husband might debate the former) but rather it’s a new word I’ve seen bouncing around on Twitter. In layman’s terms, I’m a mix between a panster (fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants without previous plotting) and a plotter (where everything is detailed and plotted before writing).

Originally, when I first started writing, I firmly believed I was a plotter. I planned and made lists of everything. How could I not be a plotter? The plot of a story was so important – it wasn’t something I could leave to the variables and whims of my mind. Right?

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Wrong. I plotted my first book and every time I tried to force the plot or subplot in one direction, my characters and story would take me in an entirely different direction. Revisions were a nightmare, because it would happen again… and again. I felt I had all these little strings in my hand leading to themes and plot lines, but instead of having a firm grasp of where everything was they kept slipping from my grip (and getting horribly knotted in the process!).

The next book I wrote, I decided to let the reins loose a little. I had a basic plot: where I wanted to start and end, with a rough theme and plot running throughout. And then I just went for it. This time, I found my subconscious played a large part in the process – I was able to weave themes and subplots while still having a firm grasp of all those unwieldy strings.

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Then there was the rush that came with writing scenes I had no idea would happen until I started typing. It was better than reading a book or watching a good TV show: the characters and their actions came from me – my mind. I had ultimate control. When the characters and world would take over and lead me in a direction I didn’t want the story to go, I could go back a scene or two and rein them in. The freedom this gave me was liberating. I could let my creations breathe and live.

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When I’m in the groove, everything is perfect. Birds sing in my head like they do in Disney movies, and it feels like I’ve reached the end of the rainbow and found my pot of gold: inspiration. It isn’t always like that though – there are times when I’ve carved out time to write, but every word is a struggle. At the time I’m sure that every word I write is garbage – but funnily enough, when I go back to revise, it’s often the words that are hardest to come by that shine the brightest. In other words (lol), I don’t have to edit the crap out of them.

So in summary, I’m a reformed plotter turned plantser who enjoys the comfort of a well cushioned couch and a delicious cup of tea while I turn my mind loose on the empty page. It’s my getaway from a hectic life — a place where I form worlds so my mind can play. Who said escapism wasn’t healthy?

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Why I Write

Sounds like I’m trying to emulate George Orwell, right? The question is one many writers ask themselves, and are asked in turn. Why do we write? For fame, fortune, and prestige? Ha! Keep on dreaming (which is what we do anyhow…).

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Personally, the reason I write is because it’s in me. I have to write. There’s no gun pointed at my head, no deadline I have to meet – but it’s still something I have to do. L.M. Montgomery in her “Emily” books described the feeling as the “itch to write”. That description resonates with me.

When I was in grade school (around nine years old) I first discovered how easy it was to write a fictional story. Words flowed and I fell into another world, lost between my own pages. Of course, all of the stories back then were junk – but they were mine and I loved the process. Some of my stories ended up in the school newsletter, which made me exceedingly proud.

Then one day, around Halloween, I wrote a story and really let my imagination run wild. There were many thunderstorms, ghosts, murders – and as all good Halloween stories should end (or so I thought) everyone died at the end.

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Now I think back on it, and I realize why my teacher pulled me out of class and had a concerned “Is everything okay at home?” talk with me. At the time though, it crushed me. Killed my desire to write or to let my imagination go wild, because it was wrong and it would get me into trouble. (I was a toe the line kinda kid) So I stopped writing.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a post about why I write unless I picked it back up again at some point. Around twelve I started writing again. I’d run out of my favorite books to read, so I wrote my own. They were a very thinly veiled mix of the Adventure Series by Enid Blyton crossed with a bit of the Trixie Belden mystery stories. Of course, they were crap too, but this time I wrote “books”, lovingly handwritten and then painstakingly typewritten.

In my teens, I discovered a few books that changed my life: I fell into the trap of R.L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and then even deeper into “Kidnapped”. I read British, Russian, French, and American classics voraciously. My writing branched out from fan fiction to literary. I’d start a first chapter and then leave it. Creating the world was enough to satisfy the “itch”, but I had no staying power to finish it. I had no real interest in the stories I was trying to tell.

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Dead men tell no tales

Life became busy and again I stopped writing. This time I stopped reading – and not just for a little while, but for years. When I finally picked up a book again, I didn’t want something super heavy, so I picked up “The Hunger Games” (ironic, eh?)… and read it in a night. From there, my love of YA took off – as did the passion for futuristic, dystopian-era type novels. Something about the “what if” scenario appealed to me on a deep level and caught my interest in a way that nothing had before. On a snowy day into work an idea came to me, and from there my first true novel came to be.

So for me, I write because I have an itch that needs to be scratched – an anxious, ticklish pressure in my chest that’s only relieved by creating worlds I’ll never experience and scenarios I’ll never have to deal with (or want to, really). I write for my own sanity (and those around me). Anything else is just gravy.

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Scratching that itch

 

 

Thanks for joining us on our writing journey!

Welcome to Two Canadians and an American, a group of three writers brought together by PitchWars. We’ll share the ups and downs of the whole writing process from outlining, writing the first draft, editing (again and again), finding beta readers and critique partners, and finally querying literary agents (and hopefully snagging one). So sit back with a coffee (or tea) and join us for a little while. We’d love the company.

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