Keep Your Day Job AND Write . . . How?

This summer I attended the Willamette Writers’ Conference.  Many of the writers and presenters there kept saying, “keep your day job.”  There’s even a pretty good blog that I occasionally read called www.writerwithadayjob.com that offers tips and motivation to keep going in the face of a busy life.  She also has a companion book that I haven’t read but it’s on my list.

Some of the reasons successful (read published) day job writers give for keeping the job are:

  • It keeps you out in the world with real people, not locked away in solitude.
  • It gives you something to write about
  • It helps structure your day
  • It keeps you focused.
  • Health  Insurance
  • A steady paycheck so you can relax and not feel pressured to write

While I actually agree with many of those reasons, in practice it’s tough.  Now that I am almost a semester and a half into the school year, I’ve been thinking about my progress on my writing thus far.

It’s been a struggle to meet my teaching, coaching, wife, and mom obligations and still find time to write.  Last week, I did alright, but during the two weeks prior, I failed miserably at the writing part.  It seems to work like this.  I have a great week and churn out two blog posts and two thousand novel words and other weeks, it’s a struggle to get one blog post done.

My new writing goal is to write something every day.  I started the school year with the goal to write 4000 words per week.  That soon got reduced to 2000 words until I finally decided that writing something every day was better than nothing and demanding a word count from myself only made me feel like I was failing, which I am not, at all.  It’s just that writing in the large chunks of time which I prefer has been difficult to achieve.

So my question is this:  How do published writers do it?  They give reasons to keep the day job but then how do they achieve their writing goals?

What are the specific strategies?  On the one hand, I like the structure and focus my job teaching gives me, but on the other hand, my job is a time suck.  Right now, I have a stack of research papers to grade; I had to be at school at 6:00 am this morning to take four students to town to speak to the local Rotary club; I am sending 18 more students to Reno for a tournament at 6:00 am Friday morning with hotel arrangements etc., and then I’m driving a school vehicle down with four more students after school gets out.  I’ll return home midday Sunday.

Oh ya, and then I have a novel to finish.  I am not complaining. I am happy . . . just busy.

My life is full.  Each minute is precious. What are strategies that any of you found that work?  I’ve tried a bunch, and I’m open to suggestions.

Being a Beta

During the past two weeks, I have re-entered the world of being labeled with a Greek letter and become a Beta.  No, I have not rediscovered my inner sorority girl (though I can still proudly sing the Greek alphabet).  I have become a Beta reader.  This is the official name of someone who has the honor of reading an unpublished novel and providing feedback for the author.

In my day job as a high school English teacher, I spend countless hours reading students’ rough drafts, essays, paragraphs, stories, and personal narratives.  It can get grueling. In fact, the one part of my job that I struggle through (well, I actually hate) is all the grading.  I love the kids, enjoy the curriculum, like the lesson planning and teaching, but the grading? It sucks.

With that said, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to respond to an entire novel.  Would it be like reading 150 pages of student work?  If so, I feared my new venture as a Beta reader would send me down a path I’d rather avoid:  annoyed that I’d agreed to the job and downing far too much wine to get through it.

Happily, I discovered I like being a Beta.  I tried to read and respond to each chapter at a time, to record questions that I had about plot or characters, impressions that I got, directions I thought the story was heading at that point.  Since there was a bit of a mystery involved in the story, when I finished it, it was also interesting to go back and see what I thought would happen.  I was wrong and didn’t figure out the culprit until it was revealed at the end, just like I was supposed to.

While there were elements of the story that were fabulous, I also had questions about some of the characters, their relationships, and even some plot elements.  I had read a draft, not a completed work, and while it’s a solid draft with tons of potential, it was just that, a draft.

I’ve been somewhat stuck in my own novel project over the last two months, and participating in the Beta process took a bit of the pressure off that I’ve been putting on myself to make the first draft reach a standard that it won’t ever meet.  The lesson? Just finish.  Get the first draft done.  I can revise to my heart’s content . . . later.  I needed that reminder.  Writing is a process.

I’d like to congratulate my writing friend, Susan, for her amazing first draft, and thank her for sharing her work with me and encouraging me to get my project own project done so she can read it.

Books at Night

As a lover of books, bookstores, color and design, I fell in love with the following video.  I have no idea how the creators did it, but it made me smile.  It also reminded me of two of my favorite films Toy Story and Night at the Museum.  While those focus on what happens with unsupervised toys and historical icons, this little film envisions what all our beloved books might be doing when the lights go out.  Enjoy.

Reading for Fun

“You seriously bought a book called Hot Rocks?” my husband asked.

“Yep.  It looks good too!”

Most every published author will tell you that you need to read, and read a lot, in order to write.  I have always read a lot, but this past year it seems I’ve been reading lots of what would be considered literary fiction, some classics, and lots of non-fiction research and craft books.  I keep thinking that I need to read stuff that will improve my writing.

In On Writing, Stephen King advises writers to just read and read a lot.  He doesn’t read to improve his craft and even argues that the “bad” books sometimes teach writers more than the “good” ones.  I completely agree with that, but  I’ve been focusing so much on learning that I’ve forsaken one of my favorite hobbies, just reading for the pure escape and joy of it.  That is . . . until this weekend.

My son played in a hockey tournament, and on Saturday, we had several hours between games.  I live thirty minutes from the rink, so it wasn’t really enough time to go home.  We went to lunch, ran some errands, and then I asked my husband to stop by our little local bookstore.

A groan followed by, “Noooooooo, it’ll take fooorrreevvveerrrr,” came wailing from my fourteen year old daughter in the backseat.  How I gave birth to a child who I would consider a non-reader will always be one of my life’s great mysteries, but I did.  My husband, bless his heart, ignored her and pulled into the bookstore parking lot.

“Really, this will just take a minute,” I said before dashing into the store.  My daughter, having spent hours with me in bookstores, didn’t believe it at all.  She just stared at me with that look that fourteen year old girls have perfected especially for their mothers, sort of a mix of resignation and annoyance all covered over with “why me?”.

I was out of the store in under six minutes which, for me, is something of a record, and I had exactly what I wanted, a couple of romantic suspense novels: a little mystery, a little sex, a fun story.  Perfect.

I spent the rest of the weekend watching three more hockey games, a little football, and snuggling in my chair with tea, a quilt, and my new book.  I remembered why I like these quick, light reads.  The characters are fun, the dialogue is always witty, and they always have a happy ending.

They’re entertaining!  I guess it’s like watching a romantic comedy as opposed to an academy award winning movie.  As an English teacher and lover of good literature, I sometimes get in the mindset that one is “better” than the other, but that’s ridiculous.  I get sucked into romantic suspense novels just as much as I get sucked into what would be considered “literature,” sometimes even more so.

I read for a good story, for the entertainment, for the escape.  This weekend, I got that.  Thanks Nora Roberts.  It was just what I needed.

Dragging my Feet into eBooks

EBooks are here, and apparently they are here to stay.  I have embraced the internet, digital music, my ipod, smartphones, email, blogging, texting, and all kinds of other technological advances, but I haven’t yet embraced the digitized book.  If the “e” stood for excellent, I might be sold, but it doesn’t.  It stands for electronic, and since anyone can publish an eBook in minutes, how can I know if they’re any good?  I like the idea that a traditional book has had more than a few people read it, work on it, and edit it before I spend my money on it.

Apparently this makes me old-fashioned, but as of now, I’m okay with that.

I am also a book store junkie. I love digging through giant book stores, small used book stores and even the local thrift shop to find literary treasures, and I can spend hours there. I adore the stale smell of stacks of old books as well as books with old gift inscriptions inside the front cover.  I lose this experience with digitized novels.

When I pick up a book, I know how to decide if its one I want to read. I look at the cover, read the back, read the front page, and read a page or two in the middle. I check the font and the amount of white space on each page.  I have no idea how to do that electronically.

I am overwhelmed by the whole idea of Kindles, Nooks, the Motorola Xoom (is that zoom?) and the Sony Reader. There’s even a Kindle DX. I thought that might play games like the Nintendo DS, but apparently it’s only a larger version of the regular Kindle which makes me wonder why they didn’t just call it the Kindle XL?

The world is transitioning to eBooks. Two years ago, none of my students had e-book readers. Now, there is one or two in each class. Students bring their eReaders, and I check their progress in percentages. On Monday, they might be 17% done. On Wednesday, 24%. That’s weird.

If I ask how long their book actually is, what do they say? 100%? Um, ya.

Perhaps there is a page count feature on an eBook reader, but I don’t know since I still haven’t succumbed despite some friends’ valiant efforts.

Everyone who has one loves it, and they tell me all about how great they are. The world is heading that direction. Borders’ demise is a sure sign of it. I’m sure eventually I’ll succumb, but I’m dragging my feet and hanging on to my piles of paperbacks for as long as I can.

Reading About (and not doing any) Writing

I hit the 20,000 word mark on my novel this past week.  This seems like a big milestone to me.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  To celebrate both this milestone and our country’s birthday, I took the last three days off from writing.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We were camping on this holiday weekend with no cell service, no electricity, no computer . . . you get the picture.

I did actually bring a clipboard with some paper, but all I managed to write on it was the beginning of a character sketch and a list of stuff I needed to get to restock the camper.

Instead of focusing on writing, I played with my family.  And I read.

I finished Jeannette Walls’ lovely memoir The Glass Castle.  I also spent time in my lounge chair with some of my writing craft books.  As I began writing fiction in earnest at the beginning of this year, I read and read and read craft books, but I finally got to the point that I needed to actually practice what I was reading.  I needed to write my stories.

Now that I’ve made a bit of progress, I’m finding that as I read the craft books I’m thinking about and approaching the information in a more practical way.  I have characters and plots to think about which has given me a different perspective on the information.

The first time I read the writing books, they gave me the confidence and knowledge to start writing fiction.  Now, I feel like they’re giving me the information and confidence to keep going.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).  Mine is now well under way, and I’ve decided that its okay if its crap.   Writing is hard, I’ve figured out that much.  But I’ve also figured out that I love it, and I’ll stick with it.

I just need to keep going, keep plugging away, even when life is busy and crazy and I decide every single one of my ideas is lame and the whole story sucks.  The only way to get this book done and this story out is one (possibly shitty) word at a time.  The great part is, as the writer, I have the freedom to go back and change it all if I need to.  Perhaps that’s the best part of writing.

Next stop . . .  completed character sketches and 50,000 words.

Literary Black Holes – Part 2

I am an avid reader, and have been my entire life.  I read for the escape, the story, the characters.  I am normally something of a speed reader; if a book grabs me, say “goodbye” to Amy.

My children could be hungry and late for practice while I just finish “one more page.” I stay up far too late on work nights, completely engulfed by a great book.  When I do have to put the book aside and function as a responsible member of society,  I find myself thinking about the story.  I can’t seem to escape the vortex of a good story.  I’m literally sucked in.  I power through it, anxious to find out what happens.

Then, I’m sad. The book is over.  I’ve lost a dear friend.

Not all books affect me like this.  Some I can actually read at a normal pace – well, normal for me.  My family still thinks I read books freakishly fast even if it seems to me that I’m taking my time and really trying to savor each word.  The writer in me has been pondering this lately.

What is it about some books that completely take me over so that I ignore everyone and everything in my life, keep the book on a shelf and read it again while others I enjoy but don’t completely lose myself and all sense of responsibility as I read?  I can take them to the used book store without any feelings of loss, and sometimes I don’t even finish them.

Maybe its just genetics.  My sister does the same thing, but as a single mom with younger kids, it’s a little bit more dangerous for her.  She avoids good books until the perfect time; I used to do this too, but my kids are now teenagers who can at least feed themselves, get dressed, and out the door with their shoes on the right feet.

If its not genetics, and authors actually have something to do with this phenomenon, what is it that pulls me in?  Is it the plot?  The characters? The action? The realistic dialogue? I hadn’t ever really thought about these questions until I started writing  (actually doing it and not just thinking about it), and my life as a reader has changed.  I keep stopping and thinking about all the elements, the structure, of the stories.  I’ve slowed down . . . a little, but I still ask, what sucks me in?
The first, not-so-profound answer I came up with is that they’re just great stories.  It’s all of the elements put together in a compelling way that somehow pulls me in.  But that’s not really an answer; it feels like a cop out.  The books are good because they’re, well, good.  As a debate coach, I would hammer a student who used that circular reasoning in a case, so I need a better answer.

I guess, after much thought, it comes down to what I would call writing style, that elusive, indefinable way with words that every writer has.  However they approach their work, whatever it is they do to draw us in is their style.  Sometimes it works for me, sometimes not so much.

It’s much easier, and not quite so intimidating to think that I can pick and choose what I like and what I want to focus on in terms of my own writing style.  I now read, paying attention to why the authors made the choices they did in their story, and then if I want to, I can try that strategy myself or I can chuck it.  Any book I read, whether I get sucked in or not, has become something of a textbook.  What works?  What doesn’t?

This has even brought me back to some old favorites that I have re-read as a writer. When I’m writing dialogue, for example, I find myself randomly pulling old favorites off the shelf and opening up to sections of dialogue to see how that author wrote it.  It’s hugely helpful to have these masters sitting in front of me as I write, helping me develop.  And even if they aren’t “masters,” they’re at least published which, in my book, makes them a master.

The end result of all this reading and writing, my own writing style.  Maybe someday it too will suck some poor, unaware reader into a literary black hole they can’t escape until the last page.   (Wow – writing fantasy is fun too!)