My Bookshelf: Impacted by Benji Carr

Took a departure from my stack of women’s fiction this summer to take a bite out of Benji Carr’s Impacted (pun very much intended). First of all, I met Benji years ago at a fiction writing class we both took at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Benji was a master of voice then and his debut novel proves he’s got the chops (the dental puns are just too fun!).

Impacted is a darkly comic coming-of-age story focused on seventeen-year-old Wade who just can’t seem to get it together. Torn between his ongoing, illicit affair with his handsome dentist and the mother of his new baby living with him in his mom’s basement, every move he makes seems to dig him deeper into trouble. Most teenagers struggle with where their life is headed, but Wade’s seems intent to drive his off the rails and see what remains when the wreckage clears.

There are so many twists and turns in this novel that I dare not say too much to give anything away. So, let me simply say, the characters are voicey as all get out and driven by disparate motivations that could complicate Wade’s life at every turn. There’s the hunky delivery man, Trevor. The knows-too-much dental assistant, Celeste. Mary, Wade’s widowed mother who wants desperately to find the best way to connect with her son. Wade’s dramatic girlfriend, Jessa, and sweet baby Lydie who softens every scene she appears in just enough, like the subtle newborn scent wafting off her head.

This book is perfect for fans of dark humor, coming-of-age stories, and maybe folks who already have a distaste for their dentist. I may never look at mine the same again!

A Fresh Coat of Paint

Earlier this year, I delivered my latest draft to my beta readers. And I exhaled. The pressure of the edit was over. My words in someone else’s hands. The stress was still there, don’t get me wrong. My words were in someone else’s hands. Ack! But I had no control over those words anymore. And honestly, I was too close. I needed external perspective as much as I need a forced distance from the story.

Once it was gone, I had every intention of using my writing time for query letter and synopsis drafts. Only my heart wasn’t in it. Not because I was afraid of the challenge (although, I’d have every right to be–synopses are my nemesis), or because I didn’t have enough time, or because something else was clamoring for my attention. No. It was more because I truly needed a break from this story. A real mental vacation so that I would be ready for feedback and up to the task of another pass of inevitable revisions.

I cleaned up all my notes, excavating my desk from the stacks of drafts and myriad of sticky notes with lists of filter words and check lists and teetering stack of craft books. I sat in my office, staring at the walls, wondering what’s next.

Staring at generic beige walls.

Walls jam packed with furniture that weren’t serving my needs. The cabinet that housed early drafts also housed the family’s craft supplies, cast-off blank thank you notes, gift ribbon, and old Christmas cards. Books lined the top of the cabinet and were shoved underneath it. Craft books were relegated to a moving cart that made sense when I bought it but were already overflowing its boundaries. There was nowhere to sit and read. The space had become as cluttered as my brain and, worse. Uninspired. My attempts to brighten the space with a colorful rug and art only seemed to highlight what wasn’t working.

So I noodled the paint color I’d seen on someone’s Instagram feed and had jotted down weeks before. I trolled the Internet for bookshelves. I pinned chair options. I felt a creative spark start to burn. I decided I’d spend the time distancing myself from my words with a giant redecorating challenge.

But…

Just as I worried about my words being judged by my beta readers, that they would soon be disappointed in my ability, or lack thereof, to sustain an entire novel, I began to worry that my decorating choices would disappoint and be visible to all. My failure on display.

I moved through the fear anyway, just as I sent the pages anyway. We can’t know for sure until we do the thing. The scary, risky, nagging at your gut that it may just be fantastic thing.

And in the end, it’s lovely. The cabinet of art supplies has been replaced with two bookshelves. My rug suddenly has a purpose. The art is highlighted in a new way and I added house plans designed by my late father to complement his drafting table that is now my desk. A chair beckons for my next beta read or craft study or a place for my feline assistant to cuddle on rainy days. My craft books have a shelf with room to grow. My binders of drafts and workshop materials are now easily accessible. This room is mine. I made it. I will use it. It’s a space in a house crowded with people during this last, most unusual year that allows my mind a place to breathe.

When the feedback from my readers came back, I was ready. Fresh and inspired by my new space. Now I am tackling the edits with the same perspective I did this room–by asking what is working, what serves, and what is simply a colorful rug in a scene that falls flat? Hopefully, in the end, the book will shine as much as my new space.

My Bookshelf: Blind Turn by Cara Sue Achterberg

I was thrilled to receive a copy of Blind Turn from fellow WFWA member Cara Sue Achterberg. It was the perfect book to dive into on a cold weekend with nowhere to go (isn’t that every weekend lately? Never thought I’d actually miss those crazy weekends of kid sports and family commitments and birthday parties and errands that kept us going hither and yon, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, I suppose).

Liz Johnson is a single mom with a less than dependable ex-husband and a teenaged daughter, Jessica. Jess is an honor student and budding track star on tap to earn a scholarship and escape their small Texas town, a feat her mother was unable to achieve when she got pregnant with Jess in high school.

When Jess is involved in a fatal texting and driving accident that leaves the high school’s beloved football coach dead, her dreams of escape are replaced with the possibility of jail time and the burden of ending a life in an accident she can’t even remember.

While the legal battle wages, the public delivers its own guilty verdict, ostracizing Jess and Liz, jeopardizing Liz’s job, and sending Jess into a spiral of shame and despair. Jess and Liz navigate this rocky terrain with the help of Liz’s ex-husband, a lawyer Liz calls on for help, the high school guidance counselor, and a few unlikely new friends.

This story is all too real. I read as a mother of a teen who is yet to start driving, but who is often distracted from simple conversation by his devices, and immediately believed how quickly a mistake like this could happen. I could also relate to the struggle a mother would have to protect her child while also holding them accountable for their actions–a seemingly impossible balance in a situation like this.

What I loved about this book is that the characters in Blind Turn were all fully drawn no matter how much time they spent on the page. While small town characters in books can sometimes fall back on caricatures, this author does a wonderful job of portraying a unique, complex, and complete cast without relying on stereotypes or quirks simply for the purpose of being quirky. She also allows the characters to explore their own internal battles without sugar coating—Jess often considers self-harm while trying to come to grips with what she’s done in addition to the online and in person bullying she endures; and Liz confesses she’d take Jess across the border to Mexico before letting her daughter go to jail.

Ultimately, this is a story of accountability and forgiveness. Yes, we all make mistakes, whether that’s not using protection or taking our eyes off the road or not speaking to a loved one for years after a disagreement, but we must own our mistakes in order to forgive ourselves first before seeking amends, being able to forgive others, and being able to truly move on in a new direction.

So, does one mistake define us?

The book posits that they can, but they don’t have to. To tweak an old adage, it’s not whether you fall, but how you get back up that makes the difference.

Cara Sue Achterberg does a wonderful job of weaving two points of view throughout this story and creating multiple points of conflict between characters despite their common goals. I found myself hooked into their world and cheering for them all. A truly satisfying read and a wonderful book to spend curled up with on a winter weekend.

If you made it this far, I wanted to also spend a second to talk about how hard it has been for authors to launch books the last year. There are no more book events, no more booksellers able to talk up new titles to shoppers as we all rely on online orders and curbside pick-up, even from our local book shops. Marketing has become an extremely nebulous and onerous task for authors.

So what can you do to help? Did you read a book you liked recently? Review it! You don’t have to have a blog to do that. Leave a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon. Engage with the author by following them on social media or signing up for their newsletter. Encourage your book club to select a favorite read, you might even reach out to the author to see if they will join your book club meeting via Zoom. It’s easier now than ever if your book club is already meeting virtually like mine is and some authors love it (don’t be offended if they turn you down, though. Writers tend to be an introverted bunch and some love public speaking more than others). Look for online author events as well. Many are still doing readings through local bookstore pages or on their own platforms. Engage, share, review! It’s easy and goes a long way to spreading the word about a book during a time when it’s hard for authors to get their books into the hands of new readers in the traditional ways.

Happy reading!

2021: Looking Forward

My last post took a look back at what I did and did not accomplish in 2020.

Now, it’s time to look forward.

If you’re like me, it’s hard to find anything to look forward to this year. My kids are still at home doing virtual school. We still aren’t hosting family gatherings. There are no workshops or dinner parties or retreats on my calendar. Vacation would be nice, but hard to know when and what to plan for with a slow vaccine rollout and current numbers spiking in our state. Not to mention the distraction of recent events on Capitol Hill.

But, look forward I still need to do.

I have determined that 2021 will be the year of the small victories for me. And perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m currently writing my third novel, the first two now taking up drawer space, and it can be easy to judge my success based on the fact that the big milestones (securing an agent, going on submission, ultimate publication) are still lurking out of reach. Taking a step back to acknowledge the small victories (finishing a third novel, strengthening my craft, taking risks on the page) is probably the perspective I need to keep pursuing. After all, those “small” victories are big wins and the only things I can control on this journey anyhow.

Like many of you, I enjoy picking a word to focus on for the new year instead of a resolution. A touch point when I start feeling a little lost in the logistics of a goal or get off track with a side project (or global pandemic). Looking ahead to 2021, I needed to pick a word that wouldn’t mock me later like 2020. Last year’s word was venture. I had planned to attend my first writer’s retreat and commit to taking professional risks. When day-to-day life became risky, I shied away from adding any additional emotional risk to my already full mental plate. This year, I needed something softer. Something that didn’t focus on ambition or end goals. I needed something internal.

So, this year, I am focusing on two words: Grace and Resilience.

First up, Grace.

In 2020, I found it very easy to wrap my own self-worth up in what I was and was not handling well during the meat of self-isolation. While I easily doled out grace to my kids and their teachers and even the school board as decisions were changing and morphing during the end of one rocky school year and the start of another, I did not so readily award that same grace to myself. If I had trouble concentrating on my creative work, I was a failure. If I had to put aside work for the day to help fill a child’s emotional bucket, that was still time lost and due to my own lack of time management or dedication or focus or commitment. I often allowed my green-eyed monster to wonder how so-and-so managed to finish that book or languish in the knowledge that in this marathon-paced business of publishing, I was only delaying my own potential success. Luckily, I have a very understanding spouse who never seemed to tire of reminding me of the unique circumstances we found ourselves in.

This year, I want to extend grace to myself. To grant myself the openness and softness of inviting whatever emotion, challenge, experience into my life with acceptance and acknowledgement. My mantra is if it’s okay for my kids, it’s okay for me. Time to parent my inner self a little.

So, grace.

Next up, Resilience.

In looking back, I was able to recognize when I had adapted to the circumstances and make progress elsewhere even if the work in progress writing train stalled. I want to take that flexibility and nourish it in 2021. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.” Not always a strong suit of mine, so I want to focus on continuing to work hard; to adapt when necessary; to bend, but not break. Basically, I want to remember in 2021 it’s not about how many times I get knocked down, but how many times I get back up.

Grace and Resilience.

The last few years I have selected verbs or words that represent forward motion. It’s not lost on me that after 2020 I have settled into something a bit more cerebral. This slower pace of life without social engagements and meetings and date nights and chauffeuring kids to sports and clubs and play dates has allowed me to take a step back and really analyze what about this writing journey is important. Sure, I still want to find an agent, have the book published, see my name on a spine in a bookstore, but the process of getting there is beautiful and I don’t want to miss it because my eyes were too focused on the prize.

Grace and Resilience. All about the process. And the process is ultimately what brings us happiness, satisfaction, peace, isn’t it? This year, I’m focusing on the process.

What are you focusing on for 2021? Share your words in the comments or how 2020 changed your approach to your creative pursuits. And let’s cheer each other on in 2021! We got this!

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

A Look Back

It is hard to look back on a year that is so currently in your face. We are facing the worst numbers in the pandemic so far, making the cold, winter months ahead more intimidating. The election is behind us, but political bickering continues. And civil unrest–well the fact is we shouldn’t leave that one behind at all because there is work yet to be done and we need to continue to listen and fight for a better world for all.

But, taking a step back from the mountain of world events dominating our consciousness, we are all still taking care of kids, aging parents, and work. For me, that work is writing. And since that makes me my own boss, it was time to sit down and review how the year really went.

On the surface, it did not go great. At the start of 2020, I plotted out very specific goals:

  • Finish a New Novel in 2020
  • Write 12 Short Pieces (essays, flash, short stories, articles)
  • Query Existing Book

Each goal was then broken into actionable items and until March, I was killing it. But the world fell apart and so did my creative drive. The first two months were focused on adapting to new pandemic rules, sorting out the kids’ school and mental situation, and, honestly, taking care of my own anxiety levels. Eventually I did finish a very rough draft of the new novel this summer, but originally I wanted to be able to start 2021 querying it. That will not be happening.

As for short pieces, there are a few starts of things, but that’s about it. And querying? I tabled that manuscript after some (admittedly fair) feedback and decided to focus on the new book for now so I didn’t lose the creative thread (I’ll go back to the other one and dive into revisions again at some point).

As I scanned my journal at all the touch points I missed this year, I felt…well, honestly, I felt like a big fat failure. So many items were left unchecked on my list or stalled in a virtual file folder. Then I read this blog post on Writers in the Storm and decided it couldn’t hurt to make a list of everything I did do (as it pertains to writing) in 2020. Just to see. Here is my list:

  • Rough draft (99,000 words) complete
  • Currently halfway through revision pass
  • Participated in the WFWA mentorship program as a mentee
  • Created and launched a new author website
  • Created and launched a new author Facebook page
  • Participated daily in the annual WOW (Work our WIP) month in February and met my goal
  • Participated in a Writing Career Vision Workshop
  • Participated in an intense Donald Maas Workshop
  • Wrote 5 (now 6) blog posts (compared to the 0 written in 2019)
  • Created 45 Instagram posts
  • Sent 23 queries of the earlier book before deciding to pause
  • Read three craft books

So. Not a big fat failure after all.

The stories we tell ourselves in our head, are often more compelling than the ones we are trying to put on the page. Because I had not met one part of my original goal (DUE TO A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!!), I went ahead and deemed the year a waste. But, in looking back, I adapted, creating new challenges (like the website revamp) that were more achievable for my current mindset. Because my pace changed, I was able to read the incredible Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin before beginning my edits, completely changing the way I approached them. I jumped into the Donald Maas workshop that otherwise I might have skipped because the timing conflicted with my original 2020 timeline. And thank goodness, because that workshop still whispers in my ear as I revise adding emotional layers I might not have considered before.

Maybe I’m trying to put a silver lining on a shit storm of a year, but taking a second to see all the small things I accomplished (I fed my kids three meals a day and occasionally posted on my author Instagram!) reminded me that I am resilient and adaptable and still working. Maybe not as much as I would like or as fast as I normally would, but I am working. I am making progress. Slow and steady.

The fact is, we can’t all be creative during a pandemic (seriously Taylor Swift, two albums?), but we can take baby steps to nourish that creativity through books, music, coloring books, knitting, binging a new show, or simply writing a note to a friend, so that when our mental space feels free, we’ll be ready.

Ready.

Slow and steady.

See you later, 2020. Here’s to a healthy and happy new year filled with grace and gratitude for each other and our writing wins, no matter how big or small they may be.

Photo by Cedric Fox on Unsplash

My Bookshelf: The Bride and Doom by Erin Scoggins

The leaves and the temperatures are finally falling here in North Carolina making it the perfect time to snuggle up with a good book. Okay, I’ll read any time anywhere, but fall provides the perfect excuse for grabbing a blanket and losing myself in a story while the boys in my house watch hours of football analyzing their fantasy teams and throwing names around the dinner table as if I know these people.

This past weekend, I dove into Erin Scoggins first book in her Wedding Crashers mystery series The Bride and Doom. First of all, let’s talk about the perfection of that title. So fun! Second, I have to take a step back and disclose that I know Erin through the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and the first time she described the series to a group of us here in central NC, everyone in the room was hooked! I was very excited to finally get my hands on this one.

This cozy mystery did not disappoint. From the recently disgraced protagonist forced to return to the small town she had hoped to leave in the rearview, to the quirky cast of characters (please tell me Scoots gets more page time in the next one because that woman has some (probably not PG) stories to tell!), to the dead body on the boat her aunt was supposed to get married on, to the chicken in the bridal party, this story had me hooked, chuckling, and guessing at the true murderer from the beginning.

Glory is an event planner in Raleigh struggling to keep a roof over her head after the charity event that should have propelled her career to the next level instead ends it when her con-artist husband steals the pot and skips town. Wallowing in her misery and a pint of ice cream, her Aunt Beverlee lures her back home with an emergency that ends up being her fourth trip down the aisle. When the prickly wedding planner ends up strung up from the mast of the ship Beverlee plans to use for her pirate themed wedding, she becomes the prime suspect. Glory is determined to keep her aunt out of prison and finds that a small town can still have big secrets.

If you love a cozy mystery and binge watching Say Yes to the Dress, then this book is for you! It was the perfect escape this weekend when I normally would be agonizing over my Thanksgiving day menu and planning out the week’s worth of cooking but instead found myself with time on my hands as we scale back this year’s gathering to just our family of four.

I can’t wait to see what new adventures are in store for Glory and the Flat Falls gang next!

Thoughts on Grief

My father died two years ago today.

I look back and those first months are hazy. Heavy. I feel them pressing down on me again if I dip my toe into that memory. My family in shock. The trauma deep. My grief absolute.

I used to think grief was a tunnel. A period of darkness with the promise of light and fresh air on the other side. A wide expanse. Freedom from the pain and the anxiety that lived in the tunnel.

I know better now.

Grief is a forest.

There is no end, no beginning. The forest extends in every direction. Sometimes it is dark, the canopy gathered overhead, thick with towering pines and twisted branches, their leafy fingers interlaced against the sky, blocking out the sun. The forest can be hard to navigate. The way bumpy. The path unclear if there at all. There are animal calls you can’t identify. Twigs snap and fear hums in your blood. Your body prepares for survival in a constant way that leads to exhaustion.

But then. A moment. A light through the trees. Sunshine on your face. Warmth. Pretty wildflowers push up through fields, their heads bent towards sunrise. The forest becomes a protector. Rain filters through the leaves and softly baptizes you. The crunch of your footsteps echoes familiarity. The call of birdsong lifts your gaze to the sky.

The pain lessens, the anxiety breathes, but you will always be in the forest. The darkness returns or the light is dappled and it is both light and dark at the same time. You make peace with the shade because the shadows of grief will remain. You don’t come out the other side. You simply press on. One foot in front of the other. Resting on the soft moss when needed. Trailing your hands along the soft blossoms when you can.

Grief is a new home. A place that can be full of gratitude for the love you felt, the memories you made together. A place of growth and pain and tears and laughter. It is all those things. Grief is a forest of many trees. An organism with deep roots.

It is not a tunnel.

It doesn’t end or expire.

It hurts like hell.

But it can still be beautiful.

My Book Shelf: A Good Neighborhood, Therese Anne Fowler

I read “A Good Neighborhood” by Therese Anne Fowler over the weekend. I am a big fan of Fowler’s “Z” about Zelda Fitzgerald and enjoyed “A Well Behaved Woman” about Ava Vanderbilt and her place in one of America’s wealthiest families. This book is a departure from not only the historical fiction genre she typically writes in, but the traditional story telling techniques we’ve seen in her previous books.

Told with an omnipotent and anonymous narrator that appears to represent “the neighborhood,” we are introduced to Oak Knoll, a middle class, mixed race neighborhood in a generic, central North Carolina city. The Whitmans, and their new money, have torn down an existing home, clear-cut the lot, and built their dream McMansion. Abutting their yard to the back is Valerie Alston-Holt and her biracial son Xavier, a passionate young classical guitarist with dreams and a single-focused dedication to achieve them. Until he meets young Juniper Whitman, a 17 year old girl who has endured bullying at her own school as a result of the purity pledge she took with her step-father, Brad, at their church.

Valerie, a dedicated gardener and professor bent on saving the environment, is outraged when the repercussions of the builder’s tree razing and lot usage have damaged her beloved water oak tree. She sues intent on teaching entitled Brad Whitman and his corporate builder a lesson, which enrages Brad. Meanwhile, Xavier and Juniper have started seeing each in secret.

Without giving anything away, this star-crossed lovers story is so much more than denied teenaged love. It is a story tackling race, gentrification, class, entitlement, and women’s agency. While tragic (seriously, please have tissues handy), the story is beautifully told. These characters are rich on the page and multi-faceted. The neighborhood, as a character, harkens back to the traditional Greek chorus and while they warn the reader tragedy is ahead, I kept reading full of hope that these characters would find a way out.

This book was a tour de force for me. I sat in silence for quite some time after finishing reflecting on many things this book addresses, not the least of which was the brilliant writing for me. Be sure to also spend time with Fowler’s acknowledgements and her honest admission to her own limitations and responsibility in writing characters of color — there are ways to handle writing outside our own cultures, but it must be handled appropriately. As another white woman, I am not an appropriate judge as to whether she succeeds, but I did feel she handled these characters with the utmost respect and care.

I would give this book five out of five stars.

The Light at the End of the Rough Draft Tunnel

This morning I reached the end of the verbal vomit brain dump that is this current work in progress rough draft. There is light at the end of this very long, often uphill, tunnel.

The light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train.

Robert Lowell

Yes. The light is an illusion. The end I reached this morning isn’t the finish line. Revisions and edits await here on the other side of my tunnel. I can feel the rumble of that oncoming train in my bones. The baggage that needs to be packed for these characters to become fully fleshed humans with their own motives and agency and mistake-making potential. The track to be laid to pull the tension throughout each scene. The stakes that need to be shoveled into the belly of the beast to power the story forward.

That train is coming. And right soon. But it will wait. For a moment so I can bask in the bright light of the other side. What, just a few short weeks ago even, was a faraway pin prick of light has grown into a widening circle. I have completed a huge task. Nearly 100,000 words of text that will split and divide and eventually become the story.

The tunnel is all part of the process. Writing a rough draft, with or without (points at self) an outline, is exhilarating and scary all at once. You trust the tracks you’re on as long as you can, but it’s dark and dank and sometimes the train stops for no apparent reason and the claustrophobia of writer’s block settles around you. At this point, you look around for an emergency hatch, a secret passage to crawl up and reach daylight again. But in our rough draft tunnels, there is no hatch. There is only the writing. Writing is your only way out. So you keep writing, pushing the little story that could out into the daylight.

And then, one day, there it is. The other side. The journey isn’t over, but perhaps it will be a little easier in the light of day.

Reconnecting With Your Writer’s Muse During a Global Pandemic

Back in January, I started work on a brand new manuscript. I took out my calendar and counted the available days between January and May, excluding weekends and my kids’ school breaks (they attend year round school so every nine weeks they have a three week break – there would be one in late February/early March and another in mid-May). I then divided my available days by 100,000 to set a daily writing goal.

After setting my daily writing goal, I dove deeper: Was this a realistic goal, why or why not? What possible barriers were there to meeting that goal (these included things like upcoming school breaks and trips, a possible loved one’s elective surgery that would require caregiving, uncertainty in where the manuscript was headed (I am, for better or worse, a pantser), and emotional barriers like fear and anxiety)? I then wrote suggestions to address each of those possible barriers.

I used that information to formulate a plan with concrete goals and tactics for achieving them (a set schedule plan for the boys during their break, non-negotiable time for writing that came before any possible caregiving tasks, brainstorming sessions, positive reinforcement, buy-in from my family, etc…). I also scheduled a monthly check-in meeting on my calendar to evaluate what worked and what didn’t. I created a self-interview for those meetings that included questions like: How many days did I write? How many words completed? What was my average words per day? How many words and days remained and what average word count would I need to meet to make my proposed deadline? What new barriers had I encountered? What possible solutions would address these barriers?

And I was kicking butt!

I started in late January and knocked out 12,000+ words before the end of that month. I smashed February and wrote 30,000+ before the kids’ school break. Then, all coronavirus hell broke loose.

The kids had only been back in school for four days before they cancelled it again. I was concerned and confused by the fire hose of information coming at us at that time. I was managing a slew of cancelled appointments and navigating a brand new emotional world for our family. As a result, I wrote only 10,000 words in all of March.

April and May were worse. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. The work in progress stalled.

I found myself stuck. With good reason. My creative well was empty. I decided that was okay. There were real, concrete reasons for my inability to write. I firmly repeated the words grace and gentleness to myself like a mantra. I gave myself permission to not write. I mourned my lost deadline, but I accepted it. This was beyond my control, beyond my planning, beyond comprehension in many ways.

But then the boys settled into a school routine. They needed me less and I found myself with a little available time, but still no motivation. I signed up for a workshop that allowed me to work up scenes from my work in progress which flexed my creative muscles and gave me a touch point to my manuscript, but I still was not writing completely new material for the draft yet. It started to pain me. I wanted to get back to it but was afraid I didn’t know how.

Finally, I got a kick in the pants by way of feedback on a different manuscript I was querying. The feedback wasn’t bad, but it was thought provoking. If I followed this person’s advice, it would mean more work. Work I had to admit it probably needed and I felt capable of, but work that would take longer than a day or even a week. Work that would bump me from my new manuscript while I tackled the old one.

I went to a trusted group of writers I know and cried out for help – not something I am typically comfortable with, but I am so glad I did. They all offered excellent advice and posed questions I had to dig deep for the answers. I spent a weekend in deep thought and really listened to myself, my muse, my creative self, whatever that piece of me is that typically compels me to the page. I did a gut check and I knew, in my heart, that I didn’t want to lose the thread of this new manuscript. I could revise the older one later, after I completed the rough draft when I needed space and perspective anyway.

Back to the planning pages I went. I set a new deadline. I calculated days and a conservative average word count/day to get me there. I committed to a seven day a week writing plan and an early morning alarm clock on all seven of those days to ensure the quiet space I need to write. Every morning, before I put fingers to keys on my manuscript, I turn off my wifi and put pen to paper to brain dump all the hang-ups I have that morning. The key, however, is that I have to offer a solution to every problem. Yes, I can vent about being tired or not knowing what in the world these two characters are up to, but I have to keep writing until I can fix it or let it go. It doesn’t mean I solve every possible problem on that journal page, but it does mean I don’t come to the keys afraid or frustrated or thinking only of how I shouldn’t have stayed up so late the night before binge watching Schitt’s Creek. Finally, I picked a scene that may not have been chronologically next, but knew needed to be in the book and was excited to tackle.

I started writing.

And I kept writing. I should easily complete this rough draft by the end of this month.

I was terrified that this plan was a recipe for failure. I had spent so many months without trailing words behind my cursor that I was convinced it wouldn’t happen again. Not only has the well opened again for this draft (don’t get me wrong, there are still some murky middle moments and revisions are going to be hell as a result), but I’m thinking about the story in a whole new way. I realized I may need to add a second point-of-view. I see where motivations changed for someone halfway through the story and are better for it, meaning big changes to the first half. Like I said, revisions are going to be hell, but what this time of fallow writing really showed me is that being honest with myself and by giving voice to what’s stopping me – both physical and emotional barriers – I can more effectively deal with them.

So, if you are stuck, here are my quick tips for getting restarted:

  • What is your writing goal? This could be as simple as rekindling a daily habit or as big as writing a novel. Figure out what that goal is and be specific.
  • Does your goal have a deadline? I love a deadline for accountability. Write it down. Circle it on your calendar. Even if it’s arbitrary, treat it seriously.
  • Write down any possible barriers to reaching your goal. This might sound silly, but this was huge for me. I wrote down everything I could think of then took a look at my list and realized they fell into three major categories: Murky Middle (writing challenges), Mental Health (fear, anxiety) and the Outside World (e.g., kid demands, self-isolation challenges). This really helped me to recognize what was really keeping me from my goal.
  • Brainstorm solutions to those barriers. Here is what my list looked like:
    • Murky Middle Solutions: Keep moving the story forward. Start with a scene I KNOW needs to be there. Don’t forget my subplots.
    • Mental Health Solutions: Opt outside (go for a walk every day, pick a hike each week to do with the kids). Ask for support. Tell a friend about my deadline (accountability partners can really be helpful). Check in with my therapist as needed (Therapy has been a huge help in my life and if you think it might help you, I encourage you to try it!).
    • Outside World: Create sacred early morning writing time. Turn off wifi. Journal before starting. Schedule time for other creative pursuits (photography, interior home projects). Limit time on social media.
  • Check in. Schedule a date to check in with yourself and see what’s working. Run through the questions again and analyze what’s working and what’s not. Things change. Before we were all self-isolated at home, I wrote at a completely different time of day that’s definitely not feasible any more. These check-ins provide an opportunity to adjust course before you go too far down the wrong path, get frustrated, and give up. I have been known to grab a journal page and do an emergency check-in meeting when I think something’s not working. I highly recommend writing down your questions and answers (I use different color ink for the answers) like I’m interviewing myself on paper. I don’t know why that works, but it creates a different kind of analysis than only thinking through the answers to myself. But do what works for you.
  • Celebrate the small victories. I brag about my word counts to my kids and husband and let them know how I’m doing on reaching my goal deadline. I wrote my writer friends who had given me advice and shared my plan and how it was going and we all virtually wa-hooed together. Celebrate however works for you – a piece (or two or three) of chocolate, a glass of wine, a long walk, a celebratory gif sent to that accountability partner. Whatever you do, acknowledge your successes. You deserve them!

I hope one of these tips helps you. Share in the comments below what tips and tricks have been working for you during this pandemic.

Wishing you all grace and gentleness wherever you are on your pandemic writing journey.