Archive for writing life

writing life

Working from Home

It looks like a lot of people are going to be working from home in the near future as we attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. I’ve been working from home for twenty years, first as a telecommuter and then as a freelancer, so here are some tips that may help you cope.

First, although it seems like one of the benefits of working from home is being able to work in pajamas, it really does help to get dressed in the morning before you start work. When you stay in the clothes you slept in, you don’t feel like the day has started. It’s like a really lazy weekend morning or a sick day. But here’s the fun thing: you can have “work” pajamas. The clothes you change into don’t have to be the kind of clothes you might wear to work. They just need to be different from the clothes you slept in. Of course, if you have a videoconference, you’ll want to put on a decent shirt and do something with your hair, but otherwise, wear something comfortable.

If you’re at all self-disciplined, you’ll probably get a lot more done when you’re working from home than you do in an office. When I started telecommuting, I found that I could get a full day’s work done in half a day. It’s amazing how much time is wasted in an office with other people around. This may not apply if you’ve got a micromanager boss who insists on daily conference calls or videoconferences while everyone’s working from home, but you may be able to multitask during a pointless conference call in a way that you can’t in a face-to-face meeting. Because of this increased productivity, don’t feel guilty about adjusting your working hours accordingly, especially if you have to keep time sheets. Log the time a task would have taken you in the office or else you’ll end up actually doing more work.

It’s also possible that you’ll go nuts with the freedom and do less work, especially if you’ve been really stressed or if you hate your job. No one will know if you’re playing online, watching a movie, or sleeping late. It’s easy to put off work, figuring you’ll just work later in the evening.

Whether you find yourself working more or less, sticking to a schedule really does help. Set an alarm and get to work at a regular time. Take a lunch break. End your day at a regular time. Try not to let work bleed into the rest of your life. Yeah, easier said than done, but it’s easier to hold the line with other people than it is with yourself. I used to have two different phone greetings I used, depending on whether I was at “work” or off-duty. If someone called me after hours, they got my casual “off-duty” greeting, which was a signal that they’d called me at “home” rather than at “work.” Now that I have caller-ID, it would be easier to distinguish between work calls and personal calls, but I think I’d still give a “home” greeting after hours. This also works in the opposite way for dealing with friends or family who call you when you’re at work but think you’re free to chat because you work at home.

Also, it’s a good idea to learn to always sound alert and with-it when you answer the phone for work, no matter what you happen to be doing. I got to the point that I could answer the phone in the middle of the night when awakened from a deep sleep and sound like I was at my desk. This was an issue because my main client was in Sweden, and when they were being weasels and doing something like canceling a launch we’d been working on, they’d try to be sneaky and call in the morning at their time, which was in the middle of the night our time, so they’d get voice mail. I think I scared them to death when I answered the phone. They quit the overnight phone calls. This skill is handy when you’re having a slow day and really need a nap, too.

Make a point of scheduling breaks. You don’t realize how often you get up and move around when you’re at the office. Working at home, because of that increased focus that allows more productivity, it’s easy to get in a zone and not get up to move. Try to give yourself at least a few minutes every half hour or so, even if it’s just to refill your water glass or coffee cup. Walk around a little and stretch a bit.

If you’re an introvert, you may find that you suddenly have a lot more energy. You’re not spending your social energy on the people at work, so you may find yourself wanting to socialize more than you usually do. Though that may be a problem if you’re supposed to be self-quarantining.

The really tough part will come when you have to go back to working in an office. Extroverts may be glad to go back. Introverts may be spoiled. We’ll have to see if employers learn from this experience to see that working from home makes some employees a lot more productive and if that leads to policy changes. I’m sure there are people who will be less productive because they need external accountability and supervision, but work situations shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all prospect. It seems silly to reduce the productivity of some workers because of the needs of a few other workers, but then that’s why I’ve worked for myself for so long.

writing life


I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on how I can turn this writing/publishing thing into a more viable business that meets my financial goals, and something I read last week was rather eye-opening. The author of the article said he was going to try to release a book every month, since that does something in the Amazon algorithms to give him higher visibility. He figured he could do that easily by writing 2,000 words a day.

I was immediately skeptical, since my typical writing day is 3-4,000 words a day, and I can’t begin to imagine writing 12 books a year. He was talking about a 40-50,000-word book, though, while mine tend to be at least 70,000. But I started doing math and realized that it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for me to write three shorter mysteries in the 50,000-word range and three longer fantasies in the 70,000-word range a year at my typical writing pace, if I’m really diligent and consistent. That would only take 2-3 hours a day of actual hands-on-keyboard work. It would end up being about 3 weeks worth of drafting for a mystery and 4 weeks for a fantasy (which I have done before), so in total for three books each, that’s 21 weeks, less than half the year.

But that’s first drafts, and I tend to do a lot of research/preparation and a lot of rewriting. But that still gives me about a month per book for revision, and since it only involves a couple of hours a day of actual writing time, that allows the rest of the day for research and preparation on other projects.

So, not outside the realm of possibility. But I ran into something today that shows what kind of snags can arise. I realized as I was falling asleep last night that I’d made a wrong move in Friday’s writing that pretty much means that writing is useless and I need to start over at that scene and do something different, and when I woke up this morning I realized that it was true. Because I’d set a deadline for finishing this draft and going back to rework would mean either missing the deadline or really having to buckle down this week, for a moment I resisted the idea of rewriting, telling myself it was okay the way it was and I had some fun scenes. That’s a dangerous way to think because it means I’m putting an arbitrary deadline ahead of quality.

In the past when I’ve written a fast draft, I’ve become really optimistic about what I could produce if I kept up like that, and yet I never have managed to sustain it. I put in more hours last year than this schedule would entail, and I only drafted two books (plus did a couple of rounds of revisions on another and thoroughly revised two books, as well as developing and researching a book), so it’s not as though I’m slacking. I just don’t seem to have been all that productive with the work I’ve put in.

But it is an interesting idea, and I think I’m going to try to at least pretend to have this kind of production schedule for a while. Getting a lot of books out rapidly is a good way to build a name and a readership, and then once you’ve got a good backlist going, it starts to snowball.

And that means that now I have to figure out what I should do instead of the scene I wrote on Friday.

writing life

Title Woes

I’m halfway through the first draft of the book I’m working on. It took me weeks to get through the first quarter of it, but that was interrupted by all that construction work. Then it took me less than a week to write the next quarter. I guess I’m gaining momentum.

I’m trying to avoid the series burnout factor by working on some other things at the same time. In the evenings I’ve been researching another story entirely, and so far the two things haven’t clashed in my head. Sometimes I’m more fascinated by the potential of the one I’m researching than I am by the one I’m writing, but that’s where the daily word count goal comes in. When I hit that goal, I can play with research. It’s a win-win. I’m making the progress I need to, so I’m not neglecting one project, and knowing I can play with the other project is additional incentive to make progress.

I really need titles for these books and this series, and this genre requires something clever and punny, but I haven’t been able to think of anything yet. I may need to do a good brainstorming session after I finish this book. Titles are so hard for me. Either I start out with something perfect already in mind or I end up just sticking something generic on the book. I guess a couple of times something clever has come to me late in the game. For instance, Make Mine Magic was originally called Some Enchanted Evening, and that was a desperation move to just have something to stick on the book proposal. When even my agent was getting mixed up whether we were talking about that book or an Enchanted, Inc. book, I said we needed to change it. The new title came to me in a dream. I dreamed a scene in which that was said, woke up and wrote it down, then when I still liked it in the morning I suggested it to my editor. My other late-in-the-game title was Damsel Under Stress. That book had gone through edits and still didn’t have a title. We were starting to joke that putting it out with no title would be an innovative marketing scheme. Then one day in the shower, I was thinking of fairy tale related phrases and how I could twist them. I thought about how I was a damsel in distress, stressed about needing a title, and it clicked. I jumped out of the shower and wrote it down, and everyone loved it, though there was some confusion, since it sounds like “damsel in distress” when you say it out loud (which was the point). I had readers unable to find the book because they were searching for or asking for the wrong title, or if they asked for it at a store, the bookseller misunderstood, typed in “damsel in distress” and said the book didn’t exist.

I guess it’s possible for a title to be too perfect a pun. Now I need something along those lines for my mystery books. I may be taking a lot of showers soon.

writing life

Working Hours

It’s theoretically a holiday — government offices and schools are closed — but I’m treating it as a semi-work day. I’ll probably do about the same amount of work as usual, but I’m doing it on a more flexible schedule. I let myself sleep in and had a leisurely breakfast. I’m gearing up to starting the first draft of a new book, so there’s some prep work to do.

I’ve been trying to work out my best work routines. A book I was reading on forming habits said that one reason people in Germany have a shorter work week while Americans are working longer and longer hours is that in Germany there’s a culture of work time being limited to work — no chit-chat, no personal e-mails or phone calls, no spending time on social media — and then when they go home, they’re completely off work. In America, the culture is that you’re expected to socialize some at work (you may even get criticized in a performance review if you’re not friendly with coworkers), and it’s okay to make the occasional personal call, check personal e-mail, etc., but employees are also expected to work longer hours and answer e-mails and calls after hours. I’m not entirely sure how true that is. My brother works for a German company and works crazy hours, including being more or less on call at all hours of the day, on weekends, and on holidays. That may be because he works for the US office and his customers are in the US and/or because he’s in sales and a lot of his work is “leisure” stuff like dinners, golf games, going to sporting events with customers, etc. There’s also a bit of chicken-and-egg going on in the US — are we expected to work longer hours and be on call because of the goofing off and socializing during the workday, or is the goofing off during the workday an attempt to balance things out because we’re expected to work crazy hours and be in touch by phone/e-mail at all times? If the boss can call or text you when you’re at home in the evening, then you figure that you can call/text/e-mail your friends when you’re in the office. I do know that when I started telecommuting a couple of years before I got laid off in my last job, I was working fewer hours (because I took a pay cut to go “part time” in a way that kept a cap on the number of hours I could work) but actually doing more work once I was no longer in the office and having to deal with all the meetings, people stopping by my office to chat, etc.

Anyway, it gets tricky when you’re working for yourself at home. I’m never really fully off work, and never really fully at work. As I write this, I’m also doing laundry. But when I’m “off” work tonight and reading, my pleasure reading is somewhat work-related because I’m reading in my field to get a sense of the market. When I go on vacation, I don’t feel entirely like I’m completely off because I still check social media and e-mail for work purposes, and of course the writer brain never shuts off.

I like being able to multi-task the household drudgery. I can throw in a load of laundry and write a blog post, set a stew to simmering and write a few pages. I need to take some breaks during the day to move and recharge between scenes or to shift gears between projects. But I would like to do a better job at feeling like I’m on and off work, so that in my leisure time I don’t have that nagging sense that I should be writing. It may help to get my office back in order so I can work in there. I can put in my writing time, then come downstairs and be “off” work. And I really need to learn to take real vacations without feeling like the world is passing me by if I don’t check in online.

writing life

Pushy Characters

One thing that’s helping in my current idea explosion is that only two of these projects competing for mental attention involve actual characters, and in both those cases, I’ve already developed those characters and written an entire book with them, so the characters aren’t being particularly pushy about telling me their stories.

With the other idea, it’s more about the world right now and the kinds of stories that might take place in it. I have roles that will need to be filled, but they aren’t yet actual characters. I just have one real character telling me stuff about himself and demanding attention. The weird thing is that he’s mostly a supporting character until he eventually gets his own book. My plan for this series is that it’s mostly about the world, with loosely interconnected stories taking place in that world. You can jump into the series at any point and still understand that book, but there are crossovers and things woven in and out, so the more of the books you’ve read, the more you’ll get out of them. I had in mind a character who would appear in a usually minor role in all the books and be someone kind of intriguing, so you’d want him to get his own book, and then we finally do get his book and learn who he really is and what he’s really been up to.

Well, he’s started telling me all that. I guess it will help if I know the details before he makes his first appearance.

I can deal with worlds and stories trying to flesh themselves out in my head and with plot events and scenes coming to mind. It’s the characters who get distracting when they start telling me about themselves and I hear their voices in my head. Owen was one of those characters. He took over my brain as soon as I started writing the first book in the series, and I knew it was time to wrap up the series when he left me alone at the end of the last book.

I won’t even be ready to start writing this other series until maybe the fall, so it may get annoying having this guy leaning over my shoulder, giving me hints. It did help to write out what I know about him so far. I haven’t come up with anything new about him since then.

But since it’s a good cold, rainy, dark, gloomy day (my kind of weather, as long as I’m snug at home), I may do a movie afternoon of movies that might inspire me, and that means I’ll probably get new ideas.

writing life

Needing Variety

I’ve made it to the point where my daily target word count has dropped below 2,000 words a day. I’m going to keep going over my target, so that count should drop a little bit every day. The real question now is whether I’ll get to the end of the story by the end of the month. I suspect it’s going to be a bit longer than I originally planned. And then I will end up cutting a lot of rambling in the middle.

I’m hoping to get a few books in this series written before I start releasing them, so I can get them out with some momentum and make more of a splash. But I’m not sure I can deal with writing the same characters and place back-to-back, and I don’t yet have a planned plot for the next book. So I guess we’ll see what strikes me as the next thing to work on. My problem is that I need variety. Writing the same thing all the time would drive me crazy. I have so many stories I want to tell. But the way to get momentum and build a following is to have a series.

That’s why I’m contemplating a series that’s more of a world series, with overlapping standalone stories. Then I could write book after book without getting too bored. But I need to get the current one launched and on its way before I get distracted by a different series.

I’ll be writing another scene set in my fictional Mexican restaurant today, but this time I’m prepared. I have ingredients for making enchiladas for dinner tonight.

writing life

Good Students and the Dreaded Group Project

I had a bit of an epiphany this morning about why authors tend to find publishing frustrating.

I would guess that a lot of published authors were good students in school, the ones who turned in good work on time and got As. We learned that if you do what’s expected of you, do it well, and do it on time, you will succeed.

But publishing has very little to do with how well you do it. Yeah, you have to meet a certain standard to get a book published in the first place, but quality has no direct correlation with success. A brilliant book may never sell to a publisher at all because it doesn’t have any good marketing hooks, because another book with similar subject matter was recently published and bombed, because there’s nothing really like it in the market to compare it to, so the editor can’t come up with comp titles for selling it in-house and the marketing team nixes it. A less-than-brilliant book on a hot topic may sell at auction. Even once books are published, you never know what will take off. I’m sure we’ve all noticed massive bestsellers that aren’t at all well-written, that are derivative and corny. And there are books that get consistently positive reviews and even win awards but that don’t sell very well. Writing a really good book is no guarantee of success.

Even turning things in on time isn’t such a huge deal. I learned that publishers expect authors to be at least a month late with their books. They love it when an author hits deadlines, but that doesn’t necessarily do you any good. I did get a slightly better publication date once when someone else slipped a deadline so badly that the book had to be rescheduled and my book was done early, but they still dropped me at the end of my next contract. If you’re a big enough bestseller, deadlines don’t matter at all anymore. They’ll just take the book whenever you decide to get around to giving it to them.

Your typical A student feels like something is totally out of whack when doing good work and doing it on time ends up meaning very little, especially when they see the person who, in effect, paraphrased someone else’s paper and turned it in late getting a better grade.

But to make matters worse, publishing is like the dreaded group project. The writer may do the bulk of the work in coming up with the idea and actually executing it, but then someone else in the group is responsible for putting it together in the right format and putting the right cover on it, then someone else is responsible for presenting it to the class—and then the class votes on what grade you get. You can put your heart and soul into doing the paper, but then you’re in trouble if the person who was supposed to present it got sidetracked with cheerleading practice and forgot she was supposed to do it, so she stumbles through the presentation and makes it sound boring, or worse, doesn’t bother presenting it at all. Even if your whole team is putting their all into it, you never know how the class will react. Maybe they’ll really vote on the best project. Maybe they’ll vote for the popular kids who put no effort into it. Maybe there will be an assembly on the day you’re scheduled to present your project, so everyone’s distracted and doesn’t pay attention.

Independent publishing may be a little easier for the “I can do it all myself!” types to cope with because they can choose their own teams and they’re in charge of those teams, but the class is still voting on the grade.

Maybe the ones who survive publishing with their sanity intact are the ones who were bright but not particularly good students because they weren’t motivated by grades. They might or might not bother with the work and didn’t worry about jumping through the academic hoops, instead focusing their mental energy on things they found intrinsically interesting and rewarding.

Speaking of discouraging things, I have a column today at Fiction University on coping methods for dealing with discouragement. Because I came up with this analogy this morning, I didn’t mention the idea of knowing your own worth and not worrying about outside measurements, whether it’s grades or book sales.

writing life

Mental Writing

It seems there’s one thing the weighted blanket is no match for: a book that wants to write itself. But I don’t mind that kind of sleepless night. I pretty much just have to transcribe the first few chapters that wrote themselves in my head last night, and before I even got out of bed this morning I’d written the back-cover copy for the book.

First, I need to create the town because the location is a little vague. I know a few of the places, but I need to be a lot more specific and concrete to figure out the logistics. I’ve spent the morning Google touring the area where I’m setting the book. I’m stealing elements of a couple of different real towns, the location (more or less) of another town, and then making up a lot of stuff, but being able to “drive” down the roads via Google maps made it easier to visualize what I’m hoping to create (and saved me a day trip).

So, I guess I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again (unofficially) and adding difficulty points by starting late, not getting around to even plotting until several days into the month. That gives me a deadline to shoot for to have a rough draft done. I’m going to try to have a couple of books done before I launch, so what I may do is draft the second before revising the first. That way I’ll know what characters and places I need to establish in the first book.

This is my favorite phase of the writing process, making up all the stuff, just before I start actually writing. I’m not plotting too heavily. I know who the bad guy is and why, but I don’t know the process. If “pantsing” works for so many mystery writers, I may try it this time and see if my writing feels more spontaneous.

writing life

The Mystery Convention

After a very busy week, it’s nice to get back to something like a “normal” schedule. I let myself sleep in, as it’s been more than a week since I didn’t have to get up and go somewhere in the morning, but now I’m trying to go by my usual working routine.

The mystery convention was interesting, though not quite what I expected. For one thing, I was probably in the youngest quarter of all attendees. I felt rather like a child. For another, I wasn’t entirely sure where it fell on the fan vs. writer spectrum. A lot of the panel descriptions made the panels sound like they’d be writing panels with how-tos and advice for writers, but then they ended up being more for a reader perspective. I still got some good info and learned a lot about the way mystery writers and readers think, but I didn’t get the nuts and bolts I was hoping for. I think most of the benefit for me was that hearing the discussions gave me ideas, and that made the vague mystery idea I’ve had in the back of my head start taking concrete shape.

As big of a mystery reader as I’ve always been, I hadn’t heard of (or hadn’t read) most of the speakers. I’ve now got a list of books I want to look for. I did get to meet Rhys Bowen, who writes the Royal Spyness mysteries, but that was in the hospitality room rather than on any panel. And I got a lot of scoop about writers I had read from Felix Francis’s talk. Of course, he talked a lot about his father, Dick Francis, but because of growing up with his father and because of the people he knew, he was also able to talk about going over to Agatha Christie’s house or visiting P.D. James. It sounds like as a kid he was very curious about writers’ processes, so he was able to talk about how they plotted their books and how they worked. I graduated from Nancy Drew straight to Dick Francis and Agatha Christie, so it was fun hearing all those stories.

I was rather surprised to learn how many mystery writers are “pantsers” who just write rather than plotting out the book in advance. I’d have thought that would be the one genre where you have to plot and plan. There seemed to be huge extremes between having everything planned out on color-coded notecards or Excel spreadsheets and just making it up as they go. Surprisingly, Agatha Christie was apparently a pantser. She made sure that every suspect actually could have been the murderer, with motive, means, and opportunity, but didn’t decide who actually did it until late in the writing process. Was Murder on the Orient Express a case of her not being able to make up her mind? And I guess And Then There Were None was a case of flipping it and making all the suspects victims.

In a way, I suppose it makes sense that if the writer is surprised by the conclusion, the reader is more likely to be, while if you know it all going in it might be harder to avoid being too obvious. My books haven’t technically been mysteries, but I have gone in thinking the culprit would be one person, then realized midway through that it was too obvious, so that person became the red herring, and then someone else became the culprit, with some editing to set it up.

I’m not sure I’d travel out of town to attend this convention again. Even if I start writing mysteries, I’m not sure the demographics are in line with my readership. I did get recognized a few times by readers who saw my name and knew who I was and commented about loving my books, which was cool. So I do have some readers there. But I doubt there would be much promo value without the backing of a major publisher. Most authors were only on one panel each, and then there were the publisher giveaway signings. That’s not a lot of exposure from an author perspective, but there’s also not a lot of business/education going on. There might have been more networking if I’d stayed at the hotel and attended the evening events instead of commuting, but networking isn’t my superpower, so I’m not sure I’d have got that much out of it.

But I did get some new books to read and I need to look up a few authors at the library.

writing life

Distracting Myself

I got my energy back today, so I’m looking forward to a productive day (the morning so far has been spent on dealing with the HOA, with their vendors getting estimates on doing repairs around my house).

I think my brain has been working over some things, and it generally finds ways to distract me to get me out of the way so I can’t work until it’s ready. It reminds me a bit of one of those books I recommended, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. It’s a time travel book that’s basically about chaos theory and how the timeline seems to be self-repairing. The time travelers are trying to fix something that another time traveler seems to have possibly messed up, but everything they do to try to set things right just makes matters worse. Finally, when trying to get back to the time they’re working in after reporting to the “present,” they get stuck in the wrong time for a while and realize that the timeline was getting them out of the way so things could get fixed.

That’s what my brain seems to do sometimes. When I’m going in the wrong direction on a book, I sometimes get to where I can’t work at all and am totally distracted. That keeps me from writing the wrong thing that will have to be deleted. I get back to work when my brain has it all worked out.

The trick is figuring out the difference between normal distractions and “don’t wannas” and getting out of the way so I can work it all out. There’s nothing like a deadline for making me feel like my cabinets and closets need to be re-organized or to really want to go on a baking binge.

We’ll see when I sit down to write whether this otherwise lost week has paid off.