10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writers in Lockdown

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Next week marks two months of staying at home for my family. While governments everywhere are beginning the slow process of reopening in a safe and viable manner, it’s pretty clear that the coronavirus pandemic is far from being resolved, and social distancing is here for the foreseeable future.

In some ways, time has flown by. In others, it has dragged on interminably. All of us have been forced to dig within and find balance, charting the things that make our new realities bearable. For writers and other creatives, there’s that added pressure of social media reminding us to take advantage of lockdown to, you know, create. But, as many of us are finding, it’s Not Quite That Simple.

Here’s a Top 10 of my personal do’s and don’ts as a writer in lockdown. (Emphasis on personal!)

1. DON’T read any of those posts. You know the ones. SHAKESPEARE WROTE KING LEAR DURING THE PLAGUE. Yeah, those ones. Between the general uncertainty, the incessant news updates, and the overall (very real) sense of fear, many of us are finding it hard to spark our creativity right now. Be kind to yourself. It’s perfectly fine to store ideas in your head (or a handy notebook) for now and wait until the world settles a little around you.

2. DO get a change of perspective every now and then. I’m lucky enough to live in a quiet suburban neighborhood where I can safely walk the dog AND social distance. Those moments spent outside the house help me reorder my brain. If you can’t go out, try using an unusual space instead. Sit on the stairs. Lie on the bathroom floor. Stand inside a closet in the dark for five minutes.

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3. DON’T feel pressured to ‘use your time at home in an educational manner’. Sure, there are a ton of amazing webinars and author talks aimed at writers right now, many of them graciously offered free of charge. If your mind is in that place, go for it! My mind… is not. Every now and then I feel a stab of guilt when I see some cool online event advertised. But I ruthlessly squash it down. The only new skill anyone has picked up around here lately is the dog, who learnt how to roll over. And I’m fine with that!

4. DO take some time to have fun with your imaginary worlds. Just because you’re not necessarily writing doesn’t mean you can’t let your mind soar! Create a color palette. Build an aesthetic board on Pinterest. Curate a playlist for your favorite characters or bake them a cake. Be playful.

5. DON’T judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. If you need to fall apart sometimes and scream into a pillow, go do it. If you need to lock your family out and hide in the bedroom for a while, go do it. Find your own coping mechanisms. If those include writing — a work-in-progress or a diary or a prompt or two — that’s fine and great, but if not, don’t feel like you should be writing just because other people are channeling their fear and frustration that way. Seriously. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards.

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Me as a Tarot cat screaming into the void

6. DO find analogies for creativity that anchor you in this difficult moment. For me, it’s plants. I’ve been expanding and repotting my small indoor jungle — I’m not much of a gardener, but container plants, I can handle. Watching my beauties grow reminds me that words, like plants, have periods of plenty and periods of rest. Yes, sometimes we do have to force ourselves to push through a block or a slow patch, but at other times it’s all right to let our work grow, well, organically.

7. DON’T feel obligated to connect. Yes, a lot of writers are moving online to get together as a community. We’ve all had to learn to use Zoom or Google Meets, among other tools. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Join an online meet if you want, but if it’s not for you, don’t feel pressured by social media posts or the latest Microsoft ad to jump on the meet-up bandwagon. A simple email or Facebook message to friends to let them know that you’re okay works, too. Or go old-school and send a card or a surprise treat.

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A lovely surprise from a friend!

8. DO seize the moment to break your own writing rules. The work-in-progress not doing it for you right now? Try something completely different. Pen some haikus. Dabble in fan fiction. Re-imagine your latest draft as scenes from a Regency romance. Pick the most absurd writing prompt you can find on the internet and go for it, purely for your own enjoyment!

9. DON’T forget to feed your writing brain. Put aside all your carefully crafted to-read or to-watch lists. Choose what you need right now, in this moment. Maybe it’s the comfort of reconnecting with a favorite book. Or the challenge of tackling a genre you usually ignore. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of watching the opening scenes of a dozen Netflix shows until you find one that lights you up inside. And again, don’t let anyone guilt you from enjoying what you want to be reading or watching.

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10. DO take a break from life every now and then to create moments of mindfulness. We all need some inner peace right now! Light a candle and meditate. Collect stones on your walks and write yourself reminders. Pray a rosary. Do divination with crystals. Stand barefoot on the grass and breathe. Make dandelion wishes. Anything goes!

A Whole New Year

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2019 is almost over, but hey! I get a whole new year tomorrow, brand new and sparkling with promise. (At least, I think that shiny stuff is promise. It could just be glitter. Not gonna lie, there’s a lot of leftover Christmas glitter lying around. And pine needles. Especially pine needles!)

Before moving forward, here’s a quick look at 2019…

Writer things

  • The first draft of a fantasy novel written, which I then decided to rewrite completely; I’m now a third of the way through the rewrite.
  • Two short stories published in anthologies; another sold but only coming out in 2020.
  • Three interviews given (see my press page).
  • Two Cons as panelist and one doing a reading (Boskone in Boston, Worldcon in Dublin, and Eurocon in Belfast).
  • An international book launch! We released our collaborative women’s sci fi anthology DISTAFF during Eurocon in Belfast. There were cupcakes and robot chocolates…
  • Attended the New England SCBWI conference and the NESCBWI ENCORE event.
  • I passed on organization of our local SCBWI meet and greets but took on a new role as co-director of the 2020 and 2021 regional conferences! 

 

Fun stuffs

  • Favorite books this year include Holly Black’s fabulous Folk of the Air series, S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass and Kingdom of Copper, Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races, Peter McLean’s excellent Priest of Bones, and Matt Fraction’s run of Hawkeye graphic novels.
  • Some of the movies I loved were Captain Marvel and Charlie’s Angels. Shazam was a delightful surprise — lots of fun and one of the best found families I’ve seen in a while. The Rise of Skywalker was a good and satisfying conclusion to Star Wars. As for Endgame, no comment. I’m still in mourning!
  • TV shows! I finally caught up on the Netflix Marvel shows, and the last season of Daredevil was truly excellent. Derry Girls is fabulous and really good fun; thanks to my daughter for introducing it! We binged The Umbrella Academy as a family and thoroughly enjoyed it (great soundtrack). Other faves were Good Omens and Carnival Row, which I’m almost done with. And the CW end of year Arrowverse crossover has been a blast, with tons of fun cameos. Oh, if you like cooking shows, please go and watch Jon Favreau’s The Chef Show on Netflix! (I don’t even watch cooking shows and I love this one. I think my fave episodes so far have been Skywalker Ranch and the oyster farm…)

 

Personal bits and pieces

  • Our rescue pup Misty is now a year and a half, and tons of trouble but also absolutely adorable.
  • We went on a family trip to Washington DC in spring — my first time there. We arrived at peak cherry blossom time, beautiful!
  • Summer took me to Ireland for two weeks on my own to meet writing friends, attend a couple of conferences, and do a bit of sightseeing on the side.
  • We also had summer visits from my mum and my mother-in-law, always a good excuse to get out and do some local touristing.
  • I now have a child with a driver’s license… Scary stuff!!
  • We had a French exchange student come to stay for two weeks, a great experience for all of us.
  • I’ve joined a gym, am trying to eat more healthily, and am learning to do divination with crystals (a good meditation tool!) — investing in a bit of TLC for both body and soul.

 

Coming in 2020

  • In February, I’ll be at the NYC SCBWI Winter Conference and at Boskone, checking in with both my kid lit friends and the SF/F community. In May it’ll be time for the NESCBWI regional conference, which I’m helping to organize this year!
  • The Not All Monsters anthology from Strangehouse Books arrives sometime in autumn, containing my short story The Sugar Cane Sea.
  • Writing, writing, writing. Goals for 2020! I have a short story I’m rather pleased with that I’m polishing up to submit soon. I plan to finish the rewrite of my fantasy novel and get it submission-ready. I also plan to finish revising the SF YA I wrote in 2018, and get back to my stalled draft of Star Blade. Busy, busy!

 

WISHING YOU ALL A WONDERFUL 2020!

 

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Small Steps, Tiny Bites

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Star stickers make everything better!

I have kids. Two of them, teenagers now, which allows for plenty of ‘me’ time, since they’re often occupied with their private worlds of school and friends, YouTube and online gaming, and books of their own choosing. But still, I have kids. This means that, twice a year, my carefully set up writing routine gets turned upside down.

Winter break is easier. Although December is usually a blur of things to do and places to be, the school hiatus itself is unreasonably tiny in the USA. They’re out for around ten days and then it’s back to school. The routine hits a small bump in the road, but rightens itself quickly.

But summer… Summer is hard. Summer is long. Summer is frequent breaks for day trips to the lake or the beach, cousins staying over, kids asking for rides to the mall, or to friends’ houses. Summer is slowing life right down to a comfortable crawl, and enjoying a last-minute barbeque, or setting up an inflatable pool on the blacktop and having a family water fight. Summer is fun, summer is a welcome change of pace. Summer is… not great for writing. For me, at least.

After the kids (finally) go back to school at the end of August, it usually takes me a while to find my rhythm again. This year was extra especially hard as we adopted a puppy in August, with all the pet training challenges an enthusiastic three-month-old dog brings. So, come mid-September, I was screaming at myself to get a grip and focus on my work. But it just wasn’t happening, and this was dragging me into a downward spiral of self-doubt, fueled by VERY EARLY mornings (thanks to Small Pup) and not enough sleep. I wasn’t writing ANYTHING, and I wasn’t reading, either. My to-be-read pile looked like an unclimbable mountain, and I just didn’t feel like touching a single book. So I sat down and came up with some strategies to ease myself back into things. I decided that, instead of tackling the big tasks on my to-do list, I would try starting out with small steps, and tiny bites.

On the reading front, I resolutely put the TBR pile away. I went to my town library and looked for comfort and familiarity, and a change of genre. If science fiction and fantasy were stressing me out, I was going to move away, at least for a while. I picked up a few thrillers by an author I used to love, rereading a few old favorites and trying a couple of new titles. I mixed in a bit of middle grade, and a bit of YA. Before I knew it, my 2018 ‘books read’ list — horrifically untouched throughout July and August — was suddenly growing, and I was having fun again.

I approached writing with clear and easy goals, and a challenge. The challenge for what was left of September was to do something writing-related every day. It could be creating a blog post, going over a critique partner’s submission, or working on a short story. I set aside the must do’s (like work on Star Blade!) and focused on the can do’s. As my confidence grew, I began to hit my goals. I revised a short story that had been languishing for a couple of months, I wrote a promised blog interview I’d been sitting on for a while, and I got through most of a new editing pass for my brand-new sci fi thriller. I wrote down what I achieved every day in my journal, and gave myself stars and a pat on the back. I was on a roll, I was getting things done.

I’ve kept the momentum going into October, with slightly more challenging goals, keeping to my system of trying to do at least one writing-related thing each day. So far, it’s working, and I feel like I’m back up to speed and moving along nicely. The strategies worked, for me at least, and I shall reapply them whenever I lose momentum or get into one of those self-doubt spirals, and need something structured to help me along.

We all go through slow patches at times. It’s normal, and often downright necessary. And sometimes we need to help ourselves a little to get out of a slump. Will my strategies work for you? I don’t know; perhaps you might have to come up with your own solutions. But here’s a recap of mine, in case you need them. Good luck!

  • Daily challenges. A loose ‘do something writing-related every day’ worked for me, but find your own. It could be trying a writing prompt, or doing a different daily writing exercise. Make it something that can be as big or as small as you can handle on each specific day. Small steps, tiny bites.
  • Easy goals. Give yourself tasks you know you can handle. One page of new words a day. A new short story. Ten pages of revision. Victory with easy goals will encourage you to take on more demanding ones next.
  • Comfort food. Or comfort books, really. Though food is good, too. Especially cake. Wait, what were we talking about? Books, that’s right. Think of it as comfort food for the brain. I got myself back in the mood for reading by returning to old favorites and switching genres for a while.
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Small Pup is a big fan of ‘tiny steps get you places’.

Extra Ordinary

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Small Pup exploring the backyard universe

When we are young, the extraordinary is everywhere. Babies reach for dust motes, sparkling like magic in a stray sunbeam. Toddlers find enchantment in sticks, and stones, and seashells. Shadows hold mysteries, a puddle is an ocean of promise, and every street corner hides a story yet to unfold.

We recently adopted a shelter puppy, which means I’ve been taking endless trips to the backyard in the name of house training. Small Pup is in awe of everything in her newly expanded universe: the crackle of last autumn’s leaves in the woods at the back of our house; the chirp and cheep of crickets and chipmunks and other wild calling things; the dappled play of sunlight through the green boughs.

Our multiple excursions have forced me to slow down, take a break from life, and actually take a good look around me. I’m rediscovering the art of enjoying the details, the little things: early acorns, tiny frogs, the first of the autumn colors in the trees. Last night a small snake — barely a hatchling — slithered past. When it saw us, it froze and raised its head in youthful defiance, until we moved away and it could escape, leaving a rippling trail in the grass.

It takes me back to childhood days I’d thought forgotten. To the tall bushes at the end of my London garden, which I was convinced held a path to a secret world if I could only find the right word, or the right moment, or the right gesture. To games played in the nearby woods, looking for fairies in the quiet places and wondering if the squirrels could be persuaded to talk.

Our young lives are alight with stories of magic doorways and other places: a rabbit hole in the countryside or a space behind a dryer in a big city basement laundry can lead us to a Wonderland of talking playing cards or an Underland of giant roaches and warrior bats. But more than that: when we are small we believe in the possibility of magic and that these imaginary worlds might just be real. We lose that as we grow, and reason and logic begin to prevail.

These stolen moments, out in the backyard with Small Pup listening to the rustle of wildlife in the trees and letting my imagination soar, have been a true gift. I’ve been a little out of sync with my writing lately, and this quiet process of getting back in touch with the enchantment of my childhood days is helping me connect to my own words again. And find the extra in the ordinary.

Brand New Year

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January is well underway, my to-do list is truly terrifying, and the little guilt demon on my shoulder is whispering ‘you haven’t written anything new in over a month’. But you know what? I don’t really care.

I just spent a wonderful three weeks with my parents visiting from Brazil, and my brother and his family visiting from England. The last time we were all together was in 2014!

Late December and early January flew by in a magical haze of good food and too much dessert, of toddler footsteps along the hallway in the mornings, warm hugs, and conversations that lingered long after dinner was cleared away. Messy art projects and even messier baking attempts. Ski slope chatter on a crisp cold morning. Hot chocolate and shared jokes. Memories, new and old, shared around the table and then tucked away to brighten the dark days.

Those of you who have family living far away will understand just how special it is to have your loved ones gathered around even for a short while.

I may be late to the January party, with all those to-do’s threatening to go full avalanche and crush me as I huddle over my laptop, but my mind is beautifully clear, and I’m all fired up and ready to dive into this brand new year. Allowing yourself the luxury of stepping away from it all for a bit can be a huge plus if you look at it as a chance to recharge.

Here’s to a wonderful 2018 for all of us! May this be the year you make your dreams come true.

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Read For Pixels 2017 – International Women’s Day Edition

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The Pixel Project’s ‘Read For Pixels’ (International Women’s Day Edition) is still going strong. The non-profit has reached its initial target of U$5,000 in donations, and they are hoping to hit their stretch goal of U$10,000.

The Pixel Project gathers funds and raises awareness to help end violence against women around the world. Their twice-yearly Read For Pixels campaign has online hangouts with top authors, as well as books and other prizes that you can claim as ‘perks’ with your donation.

My novel Heart Blade is in one of the donation bundles, along with 1st Edition hardcovers from bestselling YA Fantasy authors Kimberly Derting (The Taking) and Alyson Noel (Unrivalled). Last time I checked, there was only one of these bundles left! There are many other donation perks, though, like books by Kendare Blake and Karen Rose.

Check out the campaign page here.

Also, keep an eye out for the Gaming For Pixels Spring Slam 2017, a 48-hour gaming marathon fundraiser to take place on April 7th-9th. More information here.

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A Tale of Firsts

I wrote a guest piece for Jo Zebedee on writing and taking risks. Besides being a talented author herself, Jo runs a great blog with lots of extremely honest advice on writing and publishing. You can find my guest post and Jo’s excellent blog here.

Downtime and the Back Burner

Every writer has moments when the flow of words stutters, stalls, comes to a sudden screeching halt. Call it writer’s block, call it what you want. In my case it’s usually a panicked ‘where do I go from here’ feeling which is almost always due to a misstep I’ve taken somewhere along the line. It’s that nagging sense of ‘something’s wrong’, and until I figure out what and how to fix it, I can’t move forward.

That’s where the ‘back burner’ comes in. That place at the back of your brain where you stick an idea to simmer while life goes on; never forgotten, but comfortably out of sight where part of your mind can worry away at it while you do other things.

While you have a little downtime from writing.

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Taking some time out at the White Memorial Conservation Center, CT

For me, downtime can be as simple as shutting off the laptop for the day, and going out to do errands and walk the dog. A couple of hours is sometimes enough to work out a plot tangle. Other times, if I’m really stuck, it can mean a week or two of doing nothing but reading other people’s words voraciously or binge-watching an entire season of Supernatural in the company of my daughter.

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A little break to enjoy the autumn colors

Eventually, after an hour, or a day, or a week, the pot finally stops simmering. The solution to my plot or character development problem is suddenly crystal clear. I can dive in again with new energy, and after taking a break things are stronger and better.

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Energized, renewed, ready for the next round

Everyone has their own approach to writing. Every writer has that rhythm that just works, and that is all their own. I love living in my made-up worlds, and can write happily for hours on end. But I get stuck, too. And for me, taking a break from time to time is essential to keep things moving.

All photos taken at the White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, CT.

 

Worlds Apart

I recently read a great blog piece by SF/F author Jo Zebedee on how every character is a protagonist in their own story. Her post stuck with me, and I began thinking about how – in real life – we create stories to live in which color and enrich our world. Children do this all the time: they walk around in superhero outfits or princess dresses, or use sticks as swords in the park. We say, “Oh, so-and-so has such a wonderful imagination!” But it’s not just ‘imagination’, is it? It’s an ability to rewrite the world around you, however temporarily, and make yourself the star at the center of your exclusively crafted solar system.

(And, shh! Adults do it too! Daydreaming, they call it, but when you’re lost in an alternate world where you’re treading the red carpet, or being awarded the CEO-of-the-year award, or sunning yourself on a tropical beach somewhere, you’re not just playing imaginary games. For a brief instant, you’re the key player in a story of your own making, and not only are you the main protagonist but the script writer, the costume designer, and the director all in one.)

I have a clear fairytale memory of being four, and arriving in Brazil to spend a year with my mother’s family while my parents made work contacts and began setting things up for our permanent move to Brazil a few years later. Of course, I didn’t understand about the work contacts and all that stuff. What I do remember is that we drove up to a palace, and when I was shown my vast bedroom I opened a huge wardrobe to find it spilling with beautiful silken dresses while my grandmother went ta-da! in the best fairy godmother style.

Fast forward many years later and now, when I look back at the scene, I smile at my small self. Yes, my grandparents’ house was big and sprawling compared to our tiny London semi, but far from being a palace it was actually a former farmhouse. The wardrobe still exists: it’s a teensy thing built for a child’s room. And while I’m sure there were probably a good handful of dresses inside, they were all nice, serviceable hand-me-downs from my older cousin. But who cares? Because for that brief moment, that was my narrative. The fairytale, the princess dream. It was a real thing, as was my part in it, and though the narrative twisted and changed over time, that perfect dream moment will always be a part of my personal story.

As Jo points out in her blog piece, when she compares two books written by different survivors of the same horrific event, each character in a story will focus on different aspects of the same event – the aspects that touch them most, that become a part of their own particular story. They are the main characters in that tale, but the stories are different, too, not just the protagonists’ place in them. If we, as non-fictional and real, living people, can create our own worlds around us, beautifully distinct and personal to each of us, then our written characters should, too.

One child’s wardrobe is another one’s key to a magical princess world. Which world do your characters live in? What story does each of them tell? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

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In each person’s eyes, a different world.

Write Yourself

Yesterday I went to a ‘decades’ costume party. I dressed as an eighties rock girl. I danced until my legs ached. For some reason, this got me thinking about my wedding, almost fifteen years ago.

I loved every bit of our wedding party. We didn’t have the latest trends in absolutely anything. I let my youngest flower girl decide the color scheme. Needless to say, there was a lot of pink!

We danced until 5am, and only stopped because the venue politely told us they needed to close. There was something for everyone: seventies, nineties, and plenty of eighties music. A lot of it was fabulously cheesy and fantastically fun. I danced my first dance to Bryan Adams, and threw my bouquet to Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman.

I’m an eighties girl, through and through. I spent my teenage years watching Back to the Future, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. My romantic ideal was Rutger Hauer riding into a church on a big old horse in Ladyhawke. I wore neon, and legwarmers, and shirts with mahoosive shoulder pads. Lipstick came in red or hot pink. Subtlety, thy name is not 1980’s.

This definitely affects me as a writer. It would be nice to write beautifully elegant prose, as sharp and balanced as a knife’s edge. But you can’t take the eighties out of the girl. I’ll always be a Die Hard kind of person. I like fireballs, and fight scenes, and people crawling through air ducts. I like a touch of John Hughes to my first kisses. It’s just who I am.

They tell you to write what you know. Well, what I know comes with an extra-large tub of movie popcorn on the side. It’s lighthearted and fun, and probably a little silly at times. But it’s me, and I can’t help that. I don’t do ‘dark’, though I love to read it. ‘Write what you know’, in my case, is definitely ‘write who you are’.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m more than fine with it. I didn’t begin writing ‘for real’ until I realized that the only person I had to please at that point was myself. I was allowed to have fun.

I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of this blog post. Perhaps there is none, except to make an impassioned plea to write what makes you happy. Be it epic battles, or tangled quests, or stolen kisses in the moonlight. Have fun with it; write that thing that makes your heart beat faster.

And maybe toss in a fireball, for me.