The Discovery, the Bones, and the Artist’s Way

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg talks about beginner’s mind, where we go back to the beginning to remember what it is like to try something for the first time. As someone who has been writing since high school with the intention of being published, and as someone who has had a few literary successes I thought I knew what writing was.

And then I didn’t.

It was the stuff outside writing I started having problems with. I understand what social media is and how to use it (some of it, anyway). I understand more about marketing than I did before Her Dear & Loving Husband was published. Suddenly, publicity and marketing became overwhelming because there’s too much out there. Blogs, books, podcasts–all proclaiming “I’ve sold a million books! This is how you can do it!” And then when I didn’t get close to the numbers the experts claimed to have achieved I felt smaller than a gnat. I wanted to sell a million books too, so I allowed myself to be persuaded by iffy claims and false advertising–sometimes from people who hadn’t sold any more books than I had. If I had been around in the era of the carnival barkers I would have fallen for their every sales pitch, believing that saw dust would cure all my ills. I followed every publishing site, read every book, and listened to every podcast searching for that magic nugget, that one big reveal that would set me on the road to becoming the Next Big Thing.

One day, not too long ago, everything I was reading about publishing started to feel like noise–a residual sound like a tinnitus-type ringing in my ears. Then I wondered, how have I contributed to the noise? Is that what being a writer is now? Spreading noise instead of thoughts, opinions, and ideas? Instead of sharing stories? How much of my work has come from my heart, and how much has come from my beliefs about what I think others want from me? As of right now, I know what I do not want: I no longer want to contribute to the noise.

As soon as last week I was making myself crazy trying to discover what kind of books I should write that would make the most money and how quickly I could write those books and how to best market those books and which influencers I should connect with and how to publicize everything to my best advantage.

Only I didn’t want any of it.

Somehow, call it a flash of enlightenment, I understood that I was marching to the beat of other people’s drummers instead of my own. I’m a pretty independent-minded person, and even I followed the pied piper.  I went along because I lost track of what being a writer meant to me. I lost track of being an artist, of seeing the world through wide, open eyes that recognize life on earth as the miracle it is, like when I taught kindergarteners–a job I adored–because everything was new to them. The simplest experiment–making bubbles from soap and water and empty strawberry cartons and watching the sunlight reflect rainbow prisms as the bubbles floated away in the white-cloud sky–made them point and giggle with glee. In that moment those bubbles were the greatest thing ever. After 23 years of writing, that’s what I wanted for myself–I wanted to watch bubbles with wonder. I wanted to get back to beginner’s mind.

I’ve read Writing Down the Bones too many times to count, and this morning I finished reading it once again. But it was a different experience this time. This time, it hit me exactly in the innards. I had seen myself as a writer for many years, and while I always loved what Goldberg said and took a lot of it to heart, I didn’t really understand the book until this latest reading. I had also read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way before, only the first time I read it cover to cover, which is not how the book was meant to be experienced since it’s a 12 week course to be studied week by week. I loved what Cameron said about living a creative’s life, but I didn’t take it to heart because I thought I was already doing all right in that department.

Maybe I wasn’t as creatively all right as I thought. I want to get back to the heart of being creative and the soul of what I really love–writing. I am really only at home in the world when I’m writing. I am now going through Cameron’s course week by week. I’m on week one. I’ve started doing morning pages (or writing practice, as Natalie Goldberg calls it). So far I’ve done my morning pages every day this week, though I haven’t done my artist’s date yet. I have a feeling Saturdays will be my day for my artist’s date. I think I would like to do a page or two in my art journal, using finger paints and designing whatever I see in my mind’s eye at that moment. I haven’t touched my art journal in nearly a year, and I have missed it.

For so long, writing had become a chore because I had so many other worries. Like Natalie Goldberg says, writing does writing, and that’s where I lost my connection–to writing and myself. I was trying too hard to push the writing this or that way thinking I should do what others told me to do instead of doing what my heart wanted to do. That is always a mistake.

I’m looking forward to working through The Artist’s Way. I’ll share my experiences as I go through the program week by week. So far, week one, I find the process freeing and exhilarating and exactly what I need right now.

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Writers Block Versus Readers Block

I feel like I’ve become Chicken Little shouting “The sky is falling!” or, in my case, “Down Salem Way is coming!” I can hear fans of the Loving Husband Trilogy thinking, seriously, lady, how long does it take to write a novel based on characters and ideas you already know?

It’s true that I’ve had other things going on in my life, as we all have. Some of those other things have taken a lot of time, but even that isn’t really an excuse. I’ve always believed that if you want to write badly enough you’ll make the time. It’s true I had other books that were poking at me with pointed sticks until I wrote them down and set them free, but When It Rained at Hembry Castle was published over a year ago, and then there were no more excuses. What else was going on?

I’ve been stalled. I mean really, really stalled. For a while, I thought it was writers block that was stopping me. If you’ve spent any amount of time writing, you know about writers block. It’s where writers are so stuck for ideas that we spend hours or even weeks staring at a blank screen. It’s where writers think they will never have an idea again, the well is dry, and there’s nowhere to find the water you need to survive. That sounds dramatic, I know, but that’s what writing struggles feel like—like you’re searching for that one big idea that will help everything else fall into place, a figurative glass of water to soothe your thirst. To a degree, it’s correct to call my struggles with Down Salem Way writers block. The three books in the Loving Husband Trilogy came so easily. Once I settled on the historical periods for each book (the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, and the Japanese-American internment camps, respectively), the plots took care of themselves. When I finished writing the last book in the trilogy, Her Loving Husband’s Return, I felt that the story was neatly wrapped up—all the odds and ends of the plot had been seen to—and in my mind the story was done. When so many readers asked for more James and Sarah stories, I thought, sure, I can do that. I love these characters and I love their story. I can write more.

It’s a different feeling writing a book in a series that is loved by readers than it is to write a book to entertain yourself. That’s what I did when I wrote the Loving Husband Trilogy—I wrote the stories for myself because I was eager to see what happened next. Suddenly, I was worried about the new story in a way I hadn’t been before. What will fans of the series think? Will they like the direction in which James and Sarah have gone? Will they like the twists and turns? I’m wondering if it has been readers block that slowed down my writing process; of course, readers block is simply an extension of writers block. Readers block is where the writer is so worried about what readers are going to think that it stops the writing process altogether. Writers block is where I’m unable to write because of what I think about my writing; readers block is where I’m unable to write because of what I think readers will think about my writing. It may be a minor distinction—both types of blocks leave me banging my head against the wall—but it was important for me to realize that I was worried about disappointing readers. I had to recognize that I was nervous about not recreating the magic of the first three Loving Husband books. I had to shine a light on my writing struggles and acknowledge them because otherwise I was full of excuses: I have other books that I had to write first; I had to take a break from the Loving Husband stories because I worked on them four years straight without a break; I have other life obligations that were taking too much time. You know the drill. When we’re in the midst of excuses it’s too easy to turn away from the truth that’s staring us in the face. I was afraid to write because I was afraid to fail.

So there’s my rationale behind my decision to write Down Salem Way on Wattpad. I’ve always believed that in order to overcome a fear, you have to face it head on. Rather than not write the story, which is how I had been handling the fear, or rather than writing the story while I was hidden away in the dark with all my worries making my monkey mind spin uncontrollably, I decided to write in the light of day so anyone who wants to can see. What you’re seeing on Wattpad right now is what you get because I’m posting an early draft as I write it, but I think this writing out loud is just what I need to help myself get past my readers block, or my writers block, or whatever this lack of progress is, so that I can get back to what I do best–writing.

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The Importance of Being and Doing

I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. I’m always working toward something, which gives me motivation to keep on keeping on. The problem with being a goal-oriented person is that at some point the goal is achieved, and then there’s an awkward period since I’m not sure who I am without something to aim for. In his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle warns against being too achievement oriented. It’s not that he thinks we shouldn’t accomplish goals, it’s just that he’s wary of how so many of us are always focused on the future to the neglect of our lives in this moment. When I do that I’ll be happy. When I have this I’ll be happy. When we’re consumed by thoughts of the future, Tolle warns, we’re not appreciating what we have in this moment.

I’m currently rereading The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, and I appreciate the message more now than I did when I read it years ago. I’ll always have plans for the future, that’s too much a part of who I am, but now I’m learning to be in the moment. Right now I’m thankful that I have this time to write. I find that I have to remind myself to be grateful. It’s all too easy for me to get caught up in the negatives (some real but most imagined) since I’m a worrier. I could blame it on my worrier of a mother, or my worrier of a brother, or I could say it’s just my overactive brain’s way of processing the oddities of this world. But then I remind myself, as Tolle says, to leave aside the memories of the past and concerns about the future and focus on this moment, and in this moment I am fine. I have to remind myself that I have permission to simply be.

I agree with the heart of Tolle’s message—that now is the most important time we have since now is all there really is—but I do think it’s okay to imagine the future I want. I can’t live in the future, but now, today, I can take actions that will help me create the life I want. In a moment of deep understanding, so sharp and bright it was like a blast of sunlight illuminating my thoughts, I understood my goals in a completely different way. The epiphany that comes with an important realization is much like Dorothy understanding there’s no place like home; in other words, what you really want has often been right in front of you all along. What do I want more than anything? What do I love more than anything? Writing. I love writing. I want to make my living as a writer. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted, but the desire has been pressed aside for one reason or another. Further introspection helped me realize that I’ve been scattered in how I approached my writing. Either I pursued writing relentlessly or I let it fall by the wayside. I did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, seeing some good results here, some great results there when I was lucky, but I was never consistent in a way that allowed for sustainable growth.

I am at a point now where I’m learning to stay focused on this moment, as in right now while my fingers press the letters on my laptop keyboard, searching for the words and the meanings I want to share with you. I’m learning to be grateful for what I have when I have it. Losing someone you love really hits that lesson home, hard. I had to say good-bye to my cute little red-headed boy cat, Chuck, who lost his battle with cancer about a month ago. I’ve been staying strong because I remember all the joy he brought me over 12 years, but those of you who love your pets know that their loss is no different from that of losing a family member because they are family members. I’m in the moment when I play with my three girl cats because they make me laugh. I’m accepting where I am in my life, and at the same time I’m doing things that will help me enjoy my life more in the moment. For example, I just finished rereading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and, again, the book resonates for me more during this second reading. I’m organizing all my spaces, donating clothing and books and recycling old papers and magazines. Marie Kondo is right: there is magic in tidying up! Decluttering not only frees up shelf space, but also brain space. I’m not sure how the two are connected, but they are. I’m decluttering financially as well, weeding out expenses I no longer need. I cut the cord with my cable company, something I had been considering for some time since they raised my rates yet again and I found myself paying for TV channels I didn’t even watch. I’m considering what’s really important to me and what I really want from my life. The more I declutter both my home and my brain, the more I’m able to focus on the moment instead of being distracted by this, that, and every other thing.

For me, it’s hard to be in the now and not at all consider what the future might hold. I’m not as evolved as Tolle, I guess. But I am learning to be at peace with where I am in the journey now. It’s not about being obsessed with the future at the expense of being with those, human and animal, I love, and it’s not about spending every waking moment with a telescope pointed with one gleaming eye only toward the future. It’s about accepting where I am right and then making choices that will help me steer my ship so that my future heads in the direction I want to go. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that success is not about external achievements: I have this many college degrees, I’ve sold this many books, I’ve been on these bestseller lists. Success is about acceptance, gratitude, and making peace with the journey. I feel like I’ve come back to writing with a new vigor, a new purpose, and a new vision. All the wrong turns were worth it if I feel at peace with where I am now.

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Why I’m Writing About the Other Oddities

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This is somebody new in my life. Her name is Poppy and she’s 11 months old. Yes, she’s as cute and sweet as she looks!

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog and what I could do to make it more connected to who I’m becoming as a writer, and as a person, and yet still keep it relevant for the friends who have been part of this blog for many years (you know who you are). Even before I took the hiatus I felt like the blog had become stale, and I struggled to find new topics to post about. I needed the distance to make sense of what I really wanted to accomplish here. What is my intention? When I started this blog in 2010, I did exactly what the blogging and publishing experts said I should. I stayed on message. I was a writer, and I had books I wanted people to know about, so I wrote about my books. I wrote about historical fiction, writing, publishing, and editing. And then I ran out of things to say.

If you know anything about me you know that writing is the way I make sense of the world, so I’ll never stop writing about my books or my writing. But now I want to talk about other aspects of my oddball life.  I’ve developed an interest in writing nonfiction, and I’m delving into a genre I love to read but have never written—memoir. I’ve gained more stamina as a writer in the past few years, as well as more confidence. Maybe I know a little more about writing now than I did when I first started this blog. And maybe I’m a little older (actually, I am definitely a little older) and a little more patient now. Maybe I have a clearer vision of what I want from my life. I’m working on myself spiritually, attempting meditation, learning to focus on my breath, doing everything I can to stop what Buddhists call the monkey mind from taking over my life as it has done on many occasions. In other words, I have different topics to discuss these days.

I know conventional wisdom says to have a different blog for each of your interests, but then again I’ve never been the most obedient person. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll have a different blog for fiction writing and a different blog for nonfiction writing, but for right now I want to write about what I want to write about. I think that will make this blog fresher for my readers and more meaningful to me, and that’s one thing I have been working toward lately—only doing what is meaningful to me and leaving the rest behind.

Charles Dickens Meets Downton Abbey

Here’s the interview I did for Many Books about my experience writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Enjoy!

Meredith Allard fell in love with Charles Dickens’ work when she was in college and after watching every Downton Abbey episode multiple times, she decided to create a work inspired by her favorite author and TV show. When it Rained at Hembry Castle is the perfect marriage between the humor and mystery of Dickens’ work and the upstairs/downstairs world of the English aristocrats. As our author of the day, Allard tells us more about what made her want to write a book set in the Victorian era, how she makes her characters come to life and how Hembry Castle has been brewing in her mind for 20 years.

Please give us a short introduction to When it Rained at Hembry Castle

When It Rained at Hembry Castle is set in Victorian England in 1870. It’s the story of American Daphne Meriwether, the granddaughter of the Earl of Staton. When the Earl dies, Daphne and her father Frederick return to England. It’s a challenge for Daphne, learning to live in the upstairs/downstairs world of her father’s family. And she may fall in love with the aspiring writer Edward Ellis while she’s there. Of course, obstacles get in their way. Hembry Castle is a love story at heart, though it has an interesting cast of characters who make life interesting for Edward and Daphne.

Why Victorian England? What fascinates you about this time period?

I fell in love with the novels of Charles Dickens when I was in college and I always wanted to write a book set in this era. The Victorian Era is interesting because it is a time that is both historical and yet in some ways it feels modern. I love learning about history, and writing historical fiction is a great way for me to do that.

Did it require a lot of research to keep your novel historically correct? Which part of the research did you find the most interesting?

This was one historical novel that I didn’t have to do a ton of research for because I already had a lot of knowledge about it from reading Dickens and reading books about the era. I did double check everything I wrote, but since I knew where to look for the information that made it a shorter process than usual for me. I was able to travel to London twice as part of my research, and I absolutely loved that. London is a great city. In fact, I’ve walked many of Edward’s walks through the city. I think being able to visit and see the places for myself make the story much more realistic.

What, would you say, makes the English aristocrats so interesting to read about?

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was partially inspired by Downton Abbey, and the popularity of Downton Abbey is largely based on the curiosity people have about the upstairs/downstairs world of English aristocrats. In America, the upstairs/downstairs world is not part of our culture the way it is in Britain, and I think that accounts for the fascination about that lifestyle. It’s an introduction to a world we knew nothing about.

Privilege and class division are recurring themes in When it Rained at Hembry Castle. Why?

Since Downton Abbey was such a big influence on Hembry Castle, it seemed appropriate that privilege and class division should play a part in the story. My love for all things Dickens also inspired the novel, and privilege and class division are often themes in his stories. While I love watching Downton Abbey and am fascinated by the lifestyle of the upper classes, I can’t imagine ever having to live according to such arbitrary rules and regulations. Daphne represents the way I would look at that lifestyle if I were thrust into that world—with a sense of detachment and maybe some humor about it all. The fact that Daphne falls in love with the butler’s grandson when her grandmother means for her to marry a duke allowed me to probe a bit deeper into what seems to be the pointlessness of class division, but, again, I’m American and would see it that way.

How did you manage to describe England’s countryside and other locations in your book so vividly?

Partially it was through reading, partially it was through photographs on Pinterest, but mainly it was my imagination. I was able to picture the scenery in my mind’s eye and I did my best to describe what I saw. And watching every episode of Downton Abbey many times helped!

Which classic author do you admire the most?

Charles Dickens, if you haven’t already figured that out. I read Dickens for the first time in college and knew that that’s what I wanted to do—write stories that were entire worlds unto themselves. I love his sense of humor, his spot-on observations, his way of pointing out things that were wrong in his world, many of which are still wrong in our world today. He’s the smartest, funniest writer I’ve ever read. Dickens has been the biggest influence in my own writing.

When it Rained at Hembry Castle contains many hilarious scenes. Why do you find it important to use humor in your writing?

This goes back to my love for Dickens. Dickens was a hilarious writer, and from him I learned that if you’re going to write truthfully about people then you have to include the light as well as the dark. People are funny. We do and say funny things all the time (sometimes without meaning to do so—which makes it even funnier). And besides, a sense of humor goes a long way in making a story fun to read.

Your book has a very Downton Abbey feel to it. Was that intentional? Are you a Downton Abbey fan yourself?

I love Downton Abbey and it was absolutely intentional to include the upstairs/downstairs feel of the show. In fact, Downton Abbey gave me an angle from which to tell the story. I came up with the original idea for Hembry Castle about 20 years ago (no joke) when I decided I wanted to write a story set in Victorian England about a writer who would be loosely based on a young Charles Dickens. I went on to write other novels and kept the Victorian story on the back burner for years. After I fell in love with Downton Abbey I realized that I could take elements from that TV show and use it to bring my Victorian story to life.

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What are some tricks you use to create such believable characters?

Mainly, I use my imagination. It took me longer to write Hembry Castle than I thought it would because it took me some time to get to know all the characters. I can’t write about a character until I get a sense of his or her personality. Hembry Castle has a larger cast of characters than I usually write about, and it took me some time to get them all straight in my head. Really, it’s about not thinking too much during the first draft, allowing the characters to materialize in front of me, and then writing down what I see. Sometimes I’ll put a favorite actor in the “part” of that character and imagine that actor acting out the scenes. That helps me get a sense of cadence when the character speaks, the types of movements the character might do, and so on. But really, it all boils down to allowing my imagination freedom.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

Writing is my most obvious superpower, but when I’m not writing I love to read. I also love to cook, and I just started art journaling, which I really enjoy.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

The best place to find me online is my website, www.meredithallard.com. I’m also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authormeredithallard/. My favorite social media is Pinterest, and you can find me at https://www.pinterest.com/meredithallard/. I could stay on that all day!

When It Rained at Hembry Castle

Missing Downton Abbey? Read When It Rained at Hembry Castle. A lush historical novel set in Victorian England, When It Rained at Hembry Castle is the story of an aristocratic family, secrets that dare not be told, and the wonder of falling in love.
$0.99

About the Author

Meredith Allard is the author of the bestselling novels The Loving Husband Trilogy, That You Are Here, Victory Garden, Woman of Stones, and My Brother’s Battle (Copperfield Press). Her newest release is the historical novel When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a great read for fans of Downton Abbey. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Visit Meredith online at www.meredithallard.com.

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Productivity for Writers and Other People

It’s interesting to me to see how conversations change over time. Not so long ago everyone was praising multi-tasking as the best thing ever. Hey, I can write the world’s greatest novel while reading blogs while checking every new email the moment it pops into my inbox while keeping track of every ping on Facebook and Twitter while walking the dog while doing my taxes while binge watching Netflix while juggling watermelons while yodeling to the tune of “O Solo Mio.” At the end of the day I’d wonder why I hadn’t written more. Had I really lost an entire day watching cat videos on YouTube? Then I realized that I didn’t want to spend more time working. I wanted to get more done.

Around this time, I started seeing articles about how multi-tasking may not be all it was cracked up to be. We weren’t putting all our attention and talent into any one task; as a result, we weren’t working to the best of our abilities because our attention was too scattered. Enter the discussion about productivity.

I think the reason there are so many articles about productivity is because so many of us are struggling with the same issue—how do we work more efficiently so that we’re getting more and better work done in less time? Here are a few tricks I’ve learned lately that have helped me stay focused while I’m working. I wrote this post from the point of view of a writer hoping to steal back some of her precious time to get more writing done, but I hope anyone who is having some concerns about their productivity will find these tips useful.

  1. I changed my homepage for the Internet.

Since I’ve had the Internet in the mid 1990s I’ve used AOL as my homepage. My email address is through AOL, so by using AOL as my homepage I could check my email as soon as I logged online. But you know how it goes…there are the news links, the entertainment links, the books links, along with any other links that might catch my eye. Once AOL and The Huffington Post joined hands, I was done for. I’d spend an hour reading blog posts and getting no work done in the process. Was it fun? For sure, though there were definitely times when I was wondering why I was reading about celebrities I didn’t even care about. I had just wasted an hour I could have spent getting my work done.

About three months ago I changed my Internet homepage to my own website. That might sound a little self-serving, but it helps me in two ways. First, I can do a quick glance at my site to see if there are comments I need to respond to, which I can often do in under five minutes. Second, there are no news feeds to distract me so I’m able to get right to whatever it is I need on the Internet. Yes, I have to click on one or two more links to get to my email, but it’s worth it to me to skip over the distractions.

  1. I check my email twice a day.

I check my email in the morning to see if there’s anything imperative that needs seeing to, and then I check my email at the end of my work day to see if there’s something that came in since the morning. That’s it.

  1. I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and iPad and stopped all social media notifications.

Now the only way I can access Facebook and Twitter is to log in on my computer. This extra step helps to scratch the itch that used to lead me to check my social media pages every five minutes to see if someone posted a new cute cat photo. I check Facebook and Twitter twice a day, quick scans to see what others are up to and if there’s anything I need to respond to, which, again, I can usually do in less than five minutes.

I also removed all social media notifications. I no longer get instant pings whenever I get a new email or message on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. When I was getting the notifications everything else stopped until I discovered who sent the message and what it said. One day, in a burst of wisdom, I realized that most of the pings were about things of extreme unimportance. I decided that I wanted to focus my attention on things that are important so I turned off the notifications, and I don’t even miss them.

  1. I schedule my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn posts.

I use Hootsuite to schedule my posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It takes about an hour to schedule a week’s worth of posts, and then I’m done and don’t have to search every day for what to post on social media.

  1. I started using Google calendar to schedule my daily tasks.

For years I used paper and pencil notebooks and planners, but in my new wish to downsize my belongings (I love Marie Kondo’s books about decluttering) I’ve become totally electronic. Google calendar is heaven sent. It’s free, and all you need is a gmail account, which is also free. You can share your calendar with others, or you can keep it private. So now I know each day what I need to accomplish.

For example, today I had several tasks to tend to: complete my word count for the first draft of Down Salem Way, write this blog post, and find five sites to advertise Her Dear & Loving Husband, which is once again free. When those tasks are finished, I’m done with my work for the day, which is always a good feeling. Knowing what I have to do helps me stay focused. When I wasn’t keeping track of my daily tasks I just floated about looking at stupid stuff on the Internet because I was never sure what to do next so I’d go back to those cute cat videos on YouTube.

On a side note, I also find that it helps to know exactly what I’m looking for when I go onto the Internet. Right now, I’m back to researching the Salem Witch Trials for Down Salem Way, and I’m also looking for places to advertise When It Rained at Hembry Castle and Her Dear & Loving Husband. I have those tasks on my Google calendar too so I know what I’m searching for. It stops me from going back to (you guessed it–the cute cat videos).

  1. I turned off the TV.

The TV is not completely gone because I do love my Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming. For years, even if I wasn’t watching a show I had the TV on acting as background noise. Now the TV is off, as in off off, with a blank screen and everything. I started listening to music because music always helps to get my creative juice flowing. I’ve also started listening to podcasts because I realized I’d rather listen to some intelligent conversation than some TV show I don’t care about, and I can listen while I work. Rather than distracting me, the podcasts tap into my inquisitiveness about the world and they help me think, which is always a good thing.

My podcast tastes are pretty eclectic, like everything else about me. I love podcasts about writing and the publishing industry like Joanna Penn’s The Creative Penn. As I’m learning more about productivity, I’m also learning more about how to be centered and healthy in this crazy world of ours so I listen to Shawn Stevenson’s The Model Health Show and Pedram Shojai’s The Urban Monk. The School of Greatness with Lewis Howes is also pretty cool, and Shambhala features talks by famous meditation teachers in their podcast Meditation in the City. I recently discovered the History Chicks’ podcast, a great listen for a history buff like me.

  1. I had to learn to stop checking everything everywhere.

We’ve all heard of the social ill the Fear of Missing Out (affectionately—or not depending on your point of view—known as FOMO). I was right there with everyone else, checking my social media every five minutes, worrying that what was going on over there was more important than what was going on over here. Also, because I’m a writer I was constantly checking my stats on my website and my book sales. Why did I sell more books on Wednesday than Monday? How come this book’s sales have slipped? Why did this post get more views than that post? I’d check my Amazon sales page five or six times a day, as if things were going to be that different between 3 and 5 pm. And then when things were the same I felt disappointed that some magical sales boost hadn’t happened.

Not only is this kind of constant worry exhausting, it isn’t productive. When I was worried about book sales or website stats I should have been writing. There was some time there when I was a writer who wasn’t writing—or at least I wasn’t writing as much as I could have been. I was so concerned about all these other aspects, some of which were beyond my control, and you know what? They don’t matter. Sales don’t matter. Website hits don’t matter. The only thing that matters is how I feel about what I’m doing. I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or even worse, my own perception of other people’s perceptions of me) to affect how I felt about myself, and that, my friends, is never a good thing.

As a result, I put myself on my “no checking stats” rule that I live by to this day. I no longer check my Amazon, BN, or Kobo sales pages. I no longer check to see how many page views my latest blog post has. My one exception is that when I’m running a promotion I may check my book sales pages to see if the promotion is worth its weight in beans, but otherwise my Amazon page is a no-go. Because you know what? My books are going to sell as many copies that day as they’re going to sell whether I’m compulsively checking or not. Why make myself crazy and waste time in the process? Yes, it does takes some self-restraint to go from checking 10 times a day to zero times a day, but it is possible. If you’re not able to go cold turkey like I did, maybe try checking just once a day and see how that goes.

  1. I started paying more attention to my health.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t eating well. I was eating and drinking way too much sugar, and my exercise habits had all but disappeared. As I’m working toward becoming a more productive writer, I’m also learning more about health and wellness (mostly from the afore mentioned Model Health Show podcast from Shawn Stevenson). I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but for now I’ll say that whoever you are, no matter what your profession, you have to get up and move. You have to put healthy food into your body. You have to drink more water. The better you feel, the more productive you’re able to be because you’re healthier. It’s hard to be productive when you feel lousy. Do what you can to help yourself feel better.

I am definitely getting more work done in less time. I’m no longer wasting time—or, more accurately, I’m wasting far less time. I still spend more time on Pinterest than I need to, but hey, no one’s perfect. For the first time, I’m writing two books at a time, which is something I’ve never been able to do before. By whittling away at time wasters and finding ways to streamline my work time, I’ve been able to get more done. From now on, instead of multi-tasking, I’ll be focusing on productivity.

What I Learned About Writing from Coloring Books

As I’ve said before (in this post), I’ve joined the coloring book craze. I loved coloring when I was a kid, and as it happens I still love to color. I consider myself a wannabe crafter, and I used to dabble in painting with acrylics, and while coloring isn’t actually crafting or creating an original work of art, it still allows me to play with colors.

Peacock

This is definitely one of my better pieces, maybe because I love peacocks.

I’ve found that, at least for me, there is a meditation-like quality to coloring because the coloring itself is all I’m thinking about while I’m engaged in the activity. I’m not worried about schoolwork I have to do, crazy professors, and all the writing I have to get through. All I’m thinking about is the page I’m coloring, what colored pencils, crayons, or markers I want to use, and which colors I think will look best. The more I have to do, the more I appreciate the simplicity of sitting down with some crayons and filling in the pictures.

As coloring became more popular, suddenly there were countless posts and articles about how to color. It’s similar to what happened with writing and indie publishing—suddenly there were all these experts shouting about the right way to do things. Something that should be relaxing and fun becomes stressful as we try to keep up. There’s nothing like an expert to take the fun out of something.

I had the realization (while coloring, of course) that my attitude toward coloring was the same as my attitude toward writing. I had to decide for myself how I wanted to color, just like I had to decide for myself how I wanted to write. Here are a few things I learned from coloring books and how they relate to writing:

  1. Use the colors you want to use.

The experts in coloring will tell you to choose your palette first—use a color wheel to help you determine which colors to use. They’ll tell you which colors go with each other, and if you use that other color combination, look out! The Crayola Police will hunt you down. Hey, they say, that’s how painters do it, so that’s how coloring people should do it too!

And then I realized that I could use any color combination I want, just as I can write my stories however I want. I don’t like choosing my colors ahead of time. I like to choose my colors one by one as I’m coloring in the picture. Sometimes I have an overall idea of the color scheme I want to use, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m happy with how the pictures turn out, sometimes I’m not. When I’m writing, I have an overall idea of how I want the story to turn out, but I’ve also learned to get out of my own way and allow the story to find its own path. If I prefer choosing my colors as I go as opposed to choosing them first then I can do that. If I prefer letting my stories find their own way, I can do that too.

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There are some amazing coloring websites out there where the coloring people post their finished pages. Some of those colored pages are indeed museum ready. They’re absolutely beautiful with shading and light and the way the colors blend together. My pictures don’t look like that (as you’ll see from the examples in this post). I love playing with colors, and some color combinations I try I like, some I don’t like as much, but so what? I wouldn’t know what I liked unless I allowed myself the freedom to experiment.

I have no desire to become a professional artist. Making myself crazy trying to make my pictures look like some of these artists’ pictures doesn’t work for me. I don’t have a lot of time to color because I’m so busy with other tasks, so when I do have time to color I don’t want to spend my time being stressed because my picture doesn’t look good enough compared to what other people can do. Where’s the fun in that?

Writers often have severe cases of compare-itis. We’re always looking to see which writers are selling more books, getting better reviews, or winning more awards than we are. We have to remind ourselves that we’re not in competition with other writers. This isn’t a race. Our careers as writers are just as unique as we are as people. No two writing careers are alike. We need to remember to focus on ourselves and helping our own careers move forward. Like runners, if we keep looking back to see who might overtake us we’ll lose steam and slow down.

  1. Outline if you want to (and it’s okay to color outside the lines).
Blue Birds

You can see that I outlined the leaves in dark green and filled them in with light green.

When I was reading posts of coloring tips, a number of the experts said not to outline your drawing. Apparently, with outlining you’re not going to have a realistic looking product and that’s not how the professionals do it. Oh well. I’ve always liked to outline my coloring pictures. Even when I was a kid I’d outline the shapes with whatever crayon I was using. A lot of times, I’ll outline with a darker color and fill in the shape with a lighter color (as evidenced in the picture to the left here), and I like the way that looks. Is it wrong? Not to me. It’s my coloring page and I’m going to do it the way I want to. It’s the same with coloring outside the lines. I like it when my coloring pencils or crayons end up outside the line because then when I’m filling in the next color they blend a bit. How maddening, to feel like your coloring page is all wrong if your hand slipped and some color ended up on the other side of the black line.

There are many posts out there for writers about the right way to do things. Write in these genres if you want to make money. Publish this many books a year. Set your books at these prices. Grow your social media presence and build your author platform. But what if you don’t want to limit your writing to certain genres, or what if you have another life outside of your writing like I do and you can only publish one book a year? Does that mean that you won’t have any career as a writer? Not at all. It means that you get to decide what kind of career you’re going to have.

Here are my own tips for coloring (and they apply to writing as well):

  1. Choose what you want to color. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the book. You decide where to start. If you don’t love the picture, colorng it will be a chore. The same goes for writing. Write something you’re excited to get back to. If you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be hard to convince readers your writing is worth their time.
  1. Choose your own colors. You can use a color wheel to examine which colors go together, or you can choose whatever you want to choose because you want to choose it. You can choose them ahead of time, or you can choose them in the moment, whichever feels right to you. For writing, you get to decide how you use language. You have the final say in how you’ll string phrases together. You may not like the way some of it turns out. That’s okay. You tried it, you didn’t like it, so try again until you find something you do like.
  1. Don’t compare your pictures (or your writing) to anyone else. Find your own style.
  1. Coloring (and writing) should be fun. Listen to your favorite music. Turn off your electronic devices and other distractions. Make your coloring (and your writing) time special so you’re looking forward to getting back to it.

You can let the experts tell you what to do and how to do it, or you can find your own way. Whether I’m coloring or writing, I find it a lot more fulfilling to find my own way.