Archive for writing life

writing life

2023 in Review

Happy new year!

I’m back at work, trying to not just get back into my old routine, but start some new routines that I hope will be more productive for me.

2023 was a bit of a mixed bag. I know I said that I was giving myself a year to get my writing business turned around or I might have to consider getting a regular job and scaling back the writing. That didn’t go so well. I made very little money last year. However, things did take a substantial uptick later in the year, which felt like enough of a turnaround to encourage me to keep going. I don’t know if I’ll set any kind of deadline for this year because this may be a big transition year for me. I’m pondering a big cross-country move, which is going to disrupt a lot of things. I’m currently veering wildly between “excited” and “terrified” at the concept, but I think what it boils down to is that I really don’t want to be in my current living situation anymore, but I can’t afford to live anywhere else in this area. I’m going to have to move some distance if I’m going to leave my current home. If I’m going to move out of this general area, I may as well make it to a place that doesn’t have a lot of the drawbacks to where I’m living now — mostly the climate. I’m not sure I can tolerate another summer like we had last year. It’s not the part about living in a totally new place that terrifies me. I’m fine with that, and if I could just teleport myself and my stuff into a new home, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But all the logistics of making that kind of move are daunting — selling my current home, figuring out how to ship my stuff (or if I should just ditch everything that doesn’t fit in the Subaru and start all over again instead of paying more than it’s probably worth to ship it), finding a new place to live, figuring out whether to find a short-term rental while I look for a home to buy and leaving my stuff in storage or finding a longer-term temporary place and shipping my stuff there to live for a while before I buy a house, dealing with things like banking and health insurance changes, etc. All that makes me want to crawl into a hole and stay where I am forever, even if I know it’s not where I want to be.

But if I’m moving, there’s no point in finding a job here. I’m considering looking for a job in the place I want to move to, which would have the benefit of allowing me to write some of the moving expenses off my taxes if I’m relocating for a job. But I would prefer to be able to really hit an upswing on the writing and not need that.

The good news is that Tea and Empathy seems to be doing pretty well. It’s already outsold Tales of Enchantment, which came with a built-in fanbase and which had a two-month head start. That suggests I’m finding new readers. Sales for all my books ticked upward a bit after that one was published, so those new readers seem to be finding my other work. I’m starting the brainstorming process for book 2 in that series and hope to get it done before I move.

I’m trying to focus really hard on my work for now. I’m treating it like a real job, with regular working hours and dedicated time for my key tasks. I’ve always been pretty haphazard with my promotional work, so I’m trying to allocate time and come up with a plan for tasks I can do in that time. For now, that means doing a lot of learning about things I can do. My weekend is already full of webinars I’ve signed up for, with one on Friday afternoon, one on Saturday morning and one on Sunday mid-day. The next trick will be actually applying what I’ve learned.

In 2023 I took my first real vacation (involving travel, more than one night away from home, and not for anything to do with work) since 2018 with my epic cross-country road trip that’s what’s kicked off this possible move, as I found that I really did like the place I’d been looking at online. Then I got the new (to me) car that’s suited for that kind of place.

I feel like I didn’t do that much writing. I developed and wrote Tea and Empathy, and I wrote the new stories for Tales of Enchantment. The rest of the year was spent working on a book that refuses to fall into place. I think I’m finally on the right track with it, so maybe I’ll finally get it done and to my agent.

I don’t remember a lot about last year. Just about everything before October seems like a blur. There’s a little more detail between October and June, and before June is blank. It was a weird year. This year is likely to be challenging, but I hope to be in a good place and ready to move forward at the end of it.


writing life

Book Brain

I have a bad case of what I call Book Brain, when I’m so caught up in writing that I have a hard time focusing on anything other than the book. Other thoughts fly out of my head. In fact, this morning, I was trying to make a to-do list, and I thought of something that needed to go on the list, but in between thinking about it and moving my pen to write it down, I forgot what it was. I’m still not sure what it was. I hope it wasn’t too important.

The Book Brain this week is mostly because I’m so close to finishing this draft. I’m in the middle of writing the big, climactic confrontation with the bad guys, so it’s very painstaking work. Sometimes, I stop to think for so long about what needs to happen next and how it should go that the computer goes to sleep.

Now I’m within 6,000 words of hitting my word count goal for this book. That’s maybe two days of writing, if all goes well. I’m not sure I have enough story left to fill all that up, but I already know of some things I need to go back and add, like entire characters who have shown up at the climax and who turn out to be critical to the plot, but who haven’t appeared before. I need to go back and add them to the story and then weave them in throughout so they’re set up properly to play their role at the end.

I’ll share more details about this book once I’m done and starting the process of getting it ready for publication. It’s something new for me, but I think it has a lot of the elements my fans like about my books, so although it’s in a different kind of setting, it’s still very much a Shanna Swendson book.

The thing that I needed to put on my to-do list just came to me, and this time I managed to write it down.

Now back to my book …

writing life

Online Conferences

One good thing to come out of the pandemic has been the rise in online events and conferences. In the first year or so, everyone had to quickly pivot to online events or cancel them entirely, but then a lot of groups figured out that having online events opened them up to a whole new group of attendees. People who didn’t have the time or budget to travel to a conference could attend an online conference. You could go to conference sessions in your pajamas or sweatpants, and a lot of these conferences had the sessions recorded, so you could watch them whenever you wanted to. A few got good at doing interactive events, using programs like Zoom to create roundtables and networking sessions so you could talk to other attendees.

I’ve been to a lot more conferences since the pandemic started than I’d been to in years before it. I tend to get drained by being around crowds, so while I enjoy conferences, I’ll end up collapsing in my hotel room between sessions, and I’m left drained at the end. I lose about two weeks of writing time for a conference that covers a long weekend. There’s the preparation and travel before, then the travel and recovery afterward. With an online conference, I manage to get writing done during the conference, and while I might be a little tired after an intense weekend of sessions, I’m not so drained that I lose days of work.

I’m about to attend another online writing conference that starts this weekend. With this one, all the workshops are pre-recorded, and I can watch them whenever I want in the next few years. Then there are live events on the next three weekends, with live Q&A sessions and roundtable sessions. During the conference, I focus on the workshops connected to live events and the live events like networking and roundtable sessions. Then I can spread the other workshops out over the rest of the year.

I’ve learned that there are some preparations I have to make. Mostly, I need easy meals so I don’t have to spend a lot of time cooking, and I need snacks. Snacks aren’t necessarily a big thing at writing conferences, but there’s usually a hospitality suite at science fiction conventions, where you can get snacks and hang out. That seems to have created an expectation in my brain that if I’m at a conference, there will be snacks of the sort that I usually only let myself eat at conferences, so I’ll end up craving those things. I didn’t go nuts, but I have a few things to munch on while I watch workshops and presentations.

I got some spiral notebooks and pens for taking notes. Fortunately, it’s back-to-school time, so it’s all on sale. Like I need an excuse to buy school supplies.

Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of an online course, so I might be overloading myself a bit. The real trick is reminding myself that no one thing I learn is going to change everything. I may learn new things that will allow incremental improvement, but I’m not going to discover the magical secret that launches my career in a new direction.

writing life

My Planner System

I’ve never been much of a trendsetter, so by the time I catch on to something, it’s old news. My latest late discovery is the concept of the bullet journal.

Actually, I’d heard about this years ago when it first became a thing, and I was intrigued by the idea because I love planners and attempting to be organized, but I couldn’t find a good explanation that wasn’t extremely intimidating. All the examples I found were Instagram-worthy, with watercolor artwork, calligraphy, stickers, and fancy designs. But a couple of months ago I saw an interview with the guy who came up with the concept, and the way he talked about it made so much sense to me — and it seems that it was other people who went nuts with the basic concept and turned it into a competition.

The very basic idea is just that you create your own journal/planner. You just need an index at the front to help you find things and you can create your own code for how to mark items in your journal (where the “bullet” comes from). Beyond that, it’s up to you.

So I got a composition book out of my stash (I buy tons every year for 50 cents each at the back-to-school sales because that’s what I use for brainstorming books) and got started. I will never be sharing pages from my journal because there’s no art or design or fanciness involved. It’s all just lists. I don’t even create a monthly calendar page, since I have plenty of calendars.

For the planner part, I have a page for the month, on which I have a list of goals (like “finish first draft”) and to-do items (like a list of bills that have to be paid and the payment date) and any appointments. I’ll also write down any events after they happen if I’ll need to remember when something happened. Just that alone helps a lot because I don’t have that “did I pay that bill?” panic when I have a list and mark it off every month. Then I have daily pages (usually half pages) on which I put that day’s to-do list and any appointments. I’ll also put menu plans and what time I need to start cooking to have dinner on time. I’m trying to do yoga every evening before dinner, so I factor in that start time with my cooking time. Every morning, I check with the monthly list and put any of those tasks on the day’s list. I have a code for the to-do list for items that must be done that day and the work priority of the day, as well as for items that are in progress (started but not finished) and items I’ve moved forward to the next day.

Aside from that, it’s a book of lists. I have a list of books I want to read, movies I want to watch, a master to-do list (items that aren’t yet on the monthly list but that I need to get around to doing eventually), story ideas, etc. I also have a quarterly plan. Basically, if I need to keep track of it, I write it down on a list. I think I’m going to start a “put it away in a safe place” list so that I can find those things later. It might help to write down what I thought the safe place was at the time I put it away.

It’s really worked wonders for helping me get stuff done. When I write out my daily tasks, I can take those big monthly tasks and break them into less daunting chunks, or I can create a “theme” day to deal with everything in a certain category.

There’s no artwork at all, just lists in a composition book and an index and page numbers. I thought I’d share how I’m using the concept in case anyone else was intimidated by all those pictures of planners people are posting with artwork and calligraphy and stickers and all that. Just having a place to keep track of all the stuff in my head helps me a lot, especially with the little admin tasks that pile up and overwhelm me. Since I started doing this, I finally tackled some things that had been lingering on my to-do list for nearly a year.

However, I failed to put “post blog” on my to-do list (although “draft Friday blog post” was on yesterday’s list, and I got it done), so I didn’t think about it until later in the day. I don’t know if this proves or disproves how well this system is working for me. As long as I write it down, I get it done, but if I don’t, I may totally forget it.

writing life

Compulsive Storytelling

There’s been a lot of talk in the writing and fantasy world about a recent article on a popular author. The article was bad enough that I won’t dignify it by linking to it, but an interesting thing that came out of it was that the writer believed the author has graphomania. He’s utterly compelled to write and would happily spend every hour of the day writing if he could. His idea of a vacation is having fewer things to take away from his time to write rather than taking a break from writing.

I definitely don’t have that, but I seem to have a sort of compulsive storytelling thing going on. I’m constantly coming up with and thinking about stories. My mind is always spinning with some kind of story idea, whether it’s the book I’m currently working on or something new. When I watch a movie or TV show or read a book, I find myself dreaming up story ideas inspired by it. I come up with spinoffs of my own ideas. Even if I had graphomania and wrote non-stop, I could never write all the ideas I come up with. This is why I laugh at the people who do the “I have a great idea for a book, I’ll tell you, you write it, and we’ll split the profits” routine with me. I already have more ideas than I know what to do with. Writing is the hard part.

But I’m not at all compelled to write them down. I mostly do that because writing stories down and sharing them is the way I make a living. Having stories constantly spinning in my head pretty much makes me unemployable at anything else. My mind is always elsewhere, and it takes me a lot of effort to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.

Not all the ideas are worth writing down, and not all of them develop into books. Some are just mental amusements. Sometimes an idea develops for a long time and manages to become a book. Sometimes two ideas might collide and be enough to become a book. There are some ideas I’m more compelled to write than others, the ones I have to get out of my head or that I want to see in book form. Other ideas fizzle out and get forgotten. For instance, I had a story/characters in my brain for nearly twenty years, finally wrote it, couldn’t sell it, and have more or less forgotten it. Getting it written stopped it from playing out in my head anymore. Every so often, an old, forgotten idea will pop back up and demand attention. That’s what I’m working on now. I came up with the idea about 30 years ago, started working on it, then it fizzled. I wrote it ten years later, and it didn’t work. Then it popped up again and became something entirely different based on that setting/situation and characters.

I currently have stories for about five fictional universes at work in my brain. Just this week, I’m still figuring out the rest of the book I’m writing. I started thinking about a book I wrote a few years ago that didn’t quite work and that I’m thinking of revisiting for a different market. I figured out the book I’d want to write if I got a chance to pitch a book to the Star Wars universe. I’ve been pondering the book I started writing last year that didn’t quite work and have figured out what the problem was. I’ve also come up with several new characters and idea fragments in search of a home.

Maybe I need to develop graphomania so I can write all these stories, but there’s a huge gap between a mental story and a viable book, and figuring out what it takes to turn that mental story into a book can be incredibly difficult. Finding the words to convey the story is also hard work. I get exhausted from just spending a couple of hours a day actually writing. The rest of the day is spent thinking about what I’m writing and figuring out how the next scene should go.

If I didn’t have to make a living, I don’t know how much I’d end up writing. Like, if I won one of those billion-dollar lottery jackpots and no longer needed to earn money from writing, I might just spend my days doing stuff like gardening or hiking, with my brain happily dreaming up stories but without having to do the hard work of turning them into books. Or I might need to write some of them down just to clear out my head.

writing life

Thinking Retreats

One thing I’ve learned from this workshop about discovering and using my strengths is that since most of my strengths involve learning, getting information, and thinking, I get energy from doing those things. It’s not just procrastination when I do a lot more research than I probably need to write something. It’s part of what makes my brain happy so it can do better work. That also gives my brain more to work with in thinking about the story, and it gives me time to puzzle it all out.

It also seems that doing the things that you’re strong with is a good way to avoid burnout because it gives you energy. I’ve almost always started a book project with a kind of “retreat” in which I read and watch stuff related to that project or that reminds me of the project in some way, and it turns out this is good for giving me the energy I need to dive in. But I think it might be good to make time to do regular retreats like this to maintain that energy. It doesn’t even necessarily have to relate directly to the book I’m working on. Just taking time to watch documentaries, read books on history, and brainstorm is good for me.

I’ve hit the midpoint of this book, and after a bunch of false starts and rewrites I think I’m finally on the right track, so now it’s time to figure out the rest. Therefore, since it’s a cool, dreary day (my favorite kind of weather), I’m going to devote the rest of the day to a retreat of sorts. I have class material to work through, and otherwise I’m going to find some documentaries and do some brainstorming while huddled under the electric blanket and drinking tea. Then I can drive forward into the rest of the book starting next week. It’s a lot easier for me to write when I’m able to picture what happens next.

writing life

Strategic Thinking

I’m taking a seminar/workshop on finding and using your strengths. It starts with an assessment that’s usually used in corporate and career-development settings, and then they apply it specifically to writers. This week I did the assessment and got the general results. To the surprise of probably no one, I fall almost entirely into the strategic thinker category. I’m at my best learning things, gathering input, putting it all in context, and then thinking about it (or overthinking). I don’t yet have the information on how this applies specifically to me as a writer, but I see some patterns that fit into this.

I’ve often joked about when it comes to the plotter vs. pantser continuum, I have the worst of both worlds. I can’t start writing without plotting the book, but then I don’t know what the book’s about until I start writing. But after looking at where my strengths are and how my mind works, I think it’s more accurate to call myself a thinker. I need to do a lot of thinking about the book before I can write, and the plotting process provides a framework to guide my thinking and make sure I’m thinking about the key things. Working through all the different story structures isn’t overkill. Each one asks different questions about the elements of the story, so each one gives me different input.

My plotting process isn’t really about creating an outline, and when I have an outline after distilling all that input and thinking, the outline is more of a guideline and a jumping off point than a clear roadmap. Each step in the outline gives me something to think about in visualizing what can happen. I replot so much as I go because actually writing the book gives me more input. I know more about the world and the characters, which naturally changes my plans.

And I’m this way in a lot of areas. This is pretty much how I plan vacations. I do a ton of research, looking up things I want to see and do and finding all the info I need about those things — operating days and hours, scheduled events, menus, reviews, etc. — and make a plan for the trip, but then once I get there and get new info, like seeing what things are actually like and stumbling across new things along the way, I may adjust my plans.

I’m not sure yet how this knowledge may change things, but being conscious of it does help. I know I need to think things through, so I give myself permission to stop and think. It does seem to have helped this week when I’ve hit points where I’m not sure what should happen, and instead of staring at the computer screen and getting frustrated, I go off and think about it, maybe while doing something else, until I have the answer. Knowing that this is all my process makes me feel better about it instead of beating myself up for not feeling productive. Thinking time is valuable working time for me, even if it doesn’t look like “work.”

I’m curious what I’ll learn once I get the info the teacher has on how these strengths are known to apply to writers and if I’m on the right track in guessing about how it affects my process.

writing life

Getting Things Done

I may have found the solution to my “getting things done” issue, and it came about because of my tea habit.

I’ve already found that I get more writing done when that’s the first thing I do when I get to my office in the morning. I leave Scrivener up on the screen when I put the laptop to sleep at night, and I don’t do anything else on the computer until I’ve written for about an hour. I was trying to do the same thing for after lunch, starting the afternoon with writing.

Except, I like to have tea while I’m writing. I do that in the morning because I just bring my last cup of tea from breakfast upstairs with me. Strangely, I feel weird about having my afternoon tea right after lunch. So I find that I just kind of goof around until it’s an appropriate tea time, and then I get to writing.

It occurred to me last week that I could use that time to do the admin stuff. Just because I start the day with writing, it doesn’t mean I have to do the same thing after lunch. My “get started before doing anything else” thing in the afternoon can be admin and promo work.

It hasn’t been a full week yet, and I’ve already powered through a bunch of stuff that’s been sitting on my to-do list for literally months. I get a slight mental gear shift from breaking for lunch, and I’m finishing the workday at about the same time because I’m putting a work task where time wasting would usually go. Then I get back to writing at about the same time I usually would start it.

This sounds kind of like a “duh,” but I had it in my head that I needed to be writing at that time, and for some weird reason that kept me from doing anything else until I’d hit my writing quota. We’ll see how the habit holds up. And we’ll see if actually doing all these little tasks makes any difference. I’m doing stuff like updating the older e-books to add new releases to the “also by” list so people will know there are more books in the series and in some cases even new series.

The new habit is that I leave open whatever software I need for my admin tasks when I put the laptop to sleep before lunch, or I go to the website I need, so there won’t be any temptation to do anything else before I get through that day’s to-do list items.

writing life

Getting Things Done

I’ve noticed during the course of my writing career that writing a first draft is all-consuming for me. I may not spend that many hours in the day actually producing words, but my brain is never off-duty. That means I have no brain left to do anything else. I may try, but I’ll stare at the computer screen and try to remember what I should be doing. This is a real problem because there’s business and marketing stuff I need to do in addition to writing, and most of that requires a lot of attention to detail.

I start my writing first thing in the workday, before I do anything else, and that tends to make me more productive for the rest of the day, but it also means that by the time I reach my writing goal for the day, I have no brain left to do anything else. But if I start the day doing marketing or business work, I never manage to start writing.

I only have about a week left of working on this first draft, so I don’t have a lot of time for experimenting now, but I’m pondering a couple of different ideas.

One is to make a clean break between writing and other work. Right now, I reach my writing goal and immediately try to switch over to other work. Maybe if I stop and go do a bit of housework or exercise and then come back to the computer I’ll be better at switching gears and have more brainpower.

Another possibility is to have a designated “getting things done” day. I did this in the past when I was teaching children’s choir, which meant my workday ended early and I had prep work to do, so I seldom got much done. I declared that to be the “get things done” day and didn’t even try to do any writing on that day. That was the day for errands, personal business tasks like paying bills, and doing any publishing business or promo work. Then I just focused on writing the rest of the week. I think I did get more administrative and marketing work done, but it also hurt my writing momentum. I didn’t get additional writing done on the other days to make up for the day with no writing, and I had to review where I left off after taking a break in the middle of the week.

I’ve also tried scheduling, where I have designated times for writing and for admin and promo work, and I don’t worry about writing goals but go by the clock. That hasn’t been that effective for me because it doesn’t address having run out of steam when it’s time for admin work.

I think I’ll try that break idea next week and see what happens. Right now, I do my exercise at the end of the workday, as a way of making a break between work and relaxation. Doing a yoga session helps me unwind and relax in the evening. But maybe if I did that after writing it would help me shift gears. Or I could take a walk or do something around the house, then go back to the office and start what might feel like a second workday.

Or I could somewhat combine the two and have a getting things done day in which I only write in the morning. Plow through as much writing as I can get done before lunch, then have lunch, and then do my business and promo stuff after lunch. That way, I can maintain some momentum but still get things accomplished.

writing life

2022 in Review

I usually write a “year in review” post outlining things I did, read, watched, etc., and the highlights of the year, but this year was kind of a blur. I keep a list of books I’ve read, and I barely remembered most of them. I had to stop and think to recall what most of them were about. Some of them I honestly didn’t remember reading. I don’t seem to have discovered any new-to-me authors I was excited about.

I know I watched a lot of movies this year, thanks to my “movie night” habit. I don’t keep a list, so now I have a hard time remembering what I watched. I know I loved the new version of West Side Story. I’d have to think about what else there was.

For TV, it was a Star Wars kind of year. Far and away the best series I watched was Andor. I also liked the Obi-Wan Kenobi series. For non-Star Wars stuff, I think my favorite new series would be Rings of Power.

I wrote two books and two half books. I got started on a book that was meant to be the launch of a new series, got halfway through it and realized there was something wrong with it that I didn’t know how to fix, and it might take me the rest of the year to write it. So I put it on hold and got a couple of mystery books written, and then I decided there was another book that would be better to work on and easier to market, so I got about half of it written before I took a break for the holidays.

For the coming year, I’m going to work very hard on actually making a business plan and sticking to it so that I’m not just writing by whim but rather have a schedule. This is important because I’m considering this my make-or-break year. I’m giving myself this year to get my act together and make the writing thing really work before I have to look into getting a regular job. I’d probably keep writing because it’s what I do, but the financial uncertainty is getting to me. I feel like I’m still living like a college student and I’d like to have a bit more security. So, I either have to make a lot more money from writing or I have to get a job. I’ve got this year to really dig in and make the most of being able to have this as my full-time job and see if that will turn things around.

That probably means next year is going to be a blur, too, since I’ll be spending it working hard. I’m going to try to be better about work/life balance and letting my work time be work time and my leisure time be leisure. I’m bad about letting them spill over into each other so that I’m not really effective in my work and I’m not really relaxed in my leisure. I need to be more active for my health, so that’s another goal, to just get up and move more often.

And that’s pretty much it for my look back at the past year and a look ahead at the next year.