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Author Interview Writing Life

Interview with Craig DiLouie, Author of Southern Gothic Novel, One of Us

Today we speak to Craig DiLouie, whose book One of Us debuted on July 17th and has been described by Peter Clines as “disturbing, beautiful.” Craig shares insight about his writing process and publishing, and his advice for new authors.

Can you tell us a little about One of Us? What inspired it? What influences did you draw on while writing it?

Thank you for having me as a guest at the Writing Bloc!

Published by Orbit, One of Us is a dark fantasy about monsters living in the real world. In the 1970s, a genetic disease produces a generation of monsters, who are now growing up rejected and abused in ramshackle government orphanages throughout the deep South. Some of them are beginning to exhibit frightening powers. When a “normal” kid is murdered, a plague boy stands accused, which might be the spark of revolt.

Misunderstood monsters and mutants with powers are familiar ideas in fantasy, but what makes this telling fresh and gritty is casting it as a Southern Gothic. This venerable American literary tradition—occupied by greats such as Cormac McCarthy—is dark, violent, and deals with topics like the taboo, grotesque, and society in decay. The result is a misunderstood monster novel about human monsters and monstrous humans. About prejudice and whether monsters are born or made. Author Claire North (84K) called it The Girl with All the Gifts meets To Kill a Mockingbird, which sums it up perfectly.

How long did it take to write the book?

It took me six weeks to write. It really poured out of me. That being said, there was quite a bit of preparation before I started writing, and the editing process took way longer. Bradley Englert, my editor, really proved his value with excellent suggestions for improving the novel, which resulted in a lot of back-end work. I couldn’t be happier with the result. It’s really the most powerful, gut-punching thing I’ve ever produced.

Did you have any moments while writing One of Us that you thought you might give up? How did you move past these?

One of Us was a rare book for me in that I wrote it with a fierce joy without the usual speed bumps. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and how to get there. I was barely typing fast enough to keep up with the words forming in my head.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day?

I’m lucky in that I write as a day job, providing journalism and education services to the lighting industry. This trained me to treat writing as a job done with discipline. It’s also given me a lot of flexibility, though not a lot of time between a very full client roster and being a single dad.

Once I was ready to start, I’d commit to writing it in the morning and getting back to my client work in the afternoon, but the novel wouldn’t let go of me. Next thing I knew, I was writing it every free minute I had until it was finished.

Your bio says you are a Canadian American author and your book takes place in the Southern United States. What inspired you to pick this setting and what kind of research did you do to write about it? What role does place play in the story?

I set the novel in the rural South to fit the Southern Gothic mold. The world in One of Us is a very small place, where the characters come across as ordinary and yet larger than life. Everything is small town and tight knit, from the relationships to the history to the thinking to the witticisms passed down through generations. At the same time, there is a mythical feel to it, again hitting that “small yet larger than life” vibe. This setting is very important to the novel, from the farms to the swamps to old plantations in ruins, all of it feeding a rich, earthy, brooding atmosphere.

I’ve been to the South but didn’t grow up there, so yeah, this required research. This was twofold, split between factual research into things like local geography and common proverbs, and Southern Gothic literature, to get the mood just right. Overall, the research phase is one of my favorite parts of writing a novel. All sorts of ideas pop into my head during this time.

As a side note, I also set the novel in 1984, and I did that for several reasons. I wanted to convey that this is an alternate history, where one big thing changed everything in America’s timeline. I liked the low tech feel of nobody having cell phones and other devices. The AIDS epidemic and its stigmatization occurred in the 80s, which is appropriate thematically. And finally, I was going for nostalgia. Not the on-the-nose nostalgia of Stranger Things, but a general nostalgia for the past.

What do you most hope readers will get from reading your book? Is there a main takeaway you want them to have?

As with all my books, the one big thing I hope readers will get from my work is an engaging experience that will make them feel something and then reflect on its themes.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing? Can you tell us about the process of finding a publisher? How did you feel when your book was accepted for publication?

As a “hybrid” author who both self-publishes and also gets into print with big publishing companies, I love both, though I write very different books for these outlets. For large traditional publishers, I tend to write standalone big idea novels, while when I self-publish, I tend to write series of highly targeted, pulpy dime novels.

The path to publication for One of Us was so surprisingly simple it felt like a hammer to the head. I’d written it, sent it to my agent, he loved it, he sent it out, and then there were just rejections, one after the other. Then at the last minute, three offers came in from great houses. Book publishing is a “no, no, no, no, no, yes” business, so you can imagine how cathartic that yes was. Working with Orbit was a dream come true, so I grabbed their offer in an instant. For me, it was the culmination of thirty years of struggle working my way up through the publishing world, both gratifying and humbling. So, yeah, it was an amazing moment receiving the offer, accepting it, and seeing my book on the shelf at the local bookstore.

That being said, I’ve gotten just as amazing a feeling from self-publishing. Putting out a series of short military fiction novels and having total control of everything, seeing the Amazon rankings and sales add up, and getting fan mail. It used to be self-publishing was considered cool but not as cool as working with a big publisher, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore and actually never really did. If you’re putting out a book and readers are enjoying it, you’re making it.

What advice would you like to give writers who are working on their first novels?

I can share a few things I’ve learned, noting your mileage may vary, as there are so many types of writers out there.

Many writers produce faster if they plan out their work. Learn story architecture—I’d suggest Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. Then learn character arcs—I’d suggest Take Your Pants Off by Libbie Hawks, a book about plotting for pantsers. Start with a big idea that is wrapped around a strong question or nonfiction theme, then build out where you want it to go. By the time you plan out the major plot points and character arcs, writing the novel won’t seem daunting.

Write your logline as soon as possible, ideally the first thing you do, though you can of course refine it. The logline is an elevator pitch for your novel that sums it up in 1-3 sentences, ideally one sentence. That logline should identify the protagonist, the problem facing him or her, what he or she wants, what antagonistic person or force is in their way, and where/when this is all taking place. This becomes the bible for the story. Many writers try to come up with the perfect pitch after the novel’s done—if you do it before you start writing, you’ll write the story with that logline internalized, and your story may be more focused.

Write the novel then write the next. One of the best things that ever happened to me was writing as a day job—first in advertising then in magazine publishing and now as a freelance journalist and educator. Writing for publication tends to be a long game. Put in the hours, produce good work, and keep producing it.

Finally, don’t think of yourself as writing. Don’t write. Tell a story. That is what you’re doing.

What advice do you have for authors hoping to publish their work?

At some point, new novelists will bump into somebody who achieved some success, and that somebody will say, “Just do what I did.” I think one could learn from whatever that author had to say, but overall “just do what I did” doesn’t really work. I often describe my own career as looking like somebody falling up a long flight of stairs—how do you tell somebody how to do that?

That being said, I could offer some very simple advice that I think is universal. First, be hungry, but also be patient. It’s always wonderful to hear of somebody writing their first novel and getting a big publishing and TV show deal—I know a guy who did just that—but it’s rare. In this game, one small success tends to lead to another. Again, treat it as a long game. To keep those successes rolling in, always be writing and learning, and be professional at all times in dealing with others. 

Another thing I’d advise is don’t be shy about attending writing groups and especially conferences. You’ll be amazed at the friends you make and the things you’ll learn. Networking is very important for writers trying to maximize their odds. Be professional and you may make valuable contacts, not to mention some good friends.

Manage your expectations. Success is up to each writer, and it is not always one thing or another. Success is a very long ladder with many rungs, not a pass/fail thing.

Finally, and this is probably the hardest thing an aspiring author will ever hear, is whether you fast-track and self-publish or struggle your way into traditional publication, there is an elusive X factor, which is just plain luck—being at the right place at the right time with the right book. Nobody knows exactly what will catch an editor’s eye or set the market on fire. The main thing is to find your voice, produce quality work, and get it out there, hoping it will be the new spark.

Thanks again for having me as a guest!

 

Thank you, too, Craig, for your thoughtful and inspiring answers to our questions!

Published on July 17, 2018 by the Orbit brand of Hachette Book Group, One of Us is available in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook formats. The 400-page hardcover edition, launched at San Diego Comic Con, is available at any physical or online bookstore. The trade paperback will be published in February 2019.

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Writing Life

Motivation, Accountability, and Bribery: How I Get My Writing Done

I’ve always been a responsible person. I was a conscientious student from preschool, completing extra worksheets at home with my mom just because I wanted to. This personality train persists today, and is essential for my success as a writer. After all, no one is telling me I have to write a blog post each week other than me. No one has set any deadlines for the rewrite of my novel. It would be next to impossible to write without some amount of self-directed motivation and accountability, and though these seem to come naturally to me, I know they’re really hard for some people. I decided to intentionally consider the roots of these habits and how I cultivate them.

Motivation

At the heart of all of it, is motivation. If you don’t know why you’re writing, you won’t keep writing. For me, it’s a few things: Stories come up from somewhere inside me and I can’t think about anything else until I get them out. The stories need to be told. I want to be recognized as a writer– to have people read my work and be moved, to feel like it speaks to them. I want to hold my own books in my hands. And of course, now that people are waiting for my book, the desire not to disappoint them is a motivator too. If you don’t know why you write or paint or study, or do whatever it is you’re trying to do more of, spend some time thinking about it. Verbalize it. Imagine it. Really let yourself picture what it would feel like to achieve it. Studies show our brains respond the same way to things that are vividly imagined as they do to things we really experience. Get used to the feeling, so that it really feels possible, and come back to it any time your motivation is low.

Accountability

I give myself deadlines and I treat them like external deadlines. I only let myself compromise on them in rare circumstances. Writing down goals is essential for me. I write “write” in my planner every day and cross it off when I meet my goal. If something comes up and I don’t get to my 1000 word goal in the morning like I planned, I stay up that night until I do, even though I’m the only one checking. Investing in yourself requires holding yourself accountable. Don’t give yourself excuses. That being said, make sure your goals are reasonable. They should be challenging yet realistic. If it’s a struggle to meet them every day, they’re too difficult. If you’re meeting them easily every day, they aren’t hard enough.

If you really struggle with keeping internal deadlines, make them external. Sign up for NaNoWriMo or 750Words. Get a writing buddy and check in with each other.

Bribery

Don’t be afraid to bribe yourself. Before I started the rewrite for Rock of Ages, I made a list of milestones in the book and how I would treat myself when I reached them. Everything from coffee at your favorite place to bigger gifts can do the trick.

Is self-directed work hard for you? How  do you keep yourself motivated and accountable? What would you do if you could just make yourself do it? 

 

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Brittney Trescott Cassity

We have another West Virginia parent to feature today! Brittney Trescott Cassity, who writes under the name Josie Dorans shares her insight on writing when her kids were younger.

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Brittney: I married young and had my boys young. I was only 19 when we tied the knot. I had my first son a month before my 21st birthday and second son just after I turned 23. I honestly didn’t have a writing routine before I had kids. I had school assignments and sporadic bursts of creativity that I consider more of an outlet than writing for a finished product. Then I had the first taste of grown-up freedom and lost the urge for a while.

Becca: How did that change after having kids?

Brittney: I started getting “serious” about writing when my husband went to Iraq as a civilian contractor in 2005. I was telling my boys a continuing story every night involving a very small dragon. They started wanting those stories repeated so I started writing them down. Then I started illustrating the stories for them. The whole thing evolved into a self-published children’s book. That led into another book, and another, and another until I had four children’s books for a variety of ages and reasons. Next was a perpetual planner based on a blog I had going. By that time, the boys were older so I was balancing the niceness of children’s books (and the interesting challenges of being the mother of teenaged boys) with some feistier work under a pen name.

Becca: How is your writing itself influenced by having kids?

Brittney: I think I’ve always written for my kids. I write stories to help them build a better world even when I am writing a world that I would not want to live in. I believe that stories are the blueprints that we give our children so that they can build their world based on the lessons they learn from what they read. Even at my pen name’s worst, I try to write in a path to a better future. If I hadn’t had children, I’m not sure that I would recognize how important that is to include. I also try to write things that my grown sons can be proud to say their mother created. I don’t necessarily mean the story. They will never get into some of the plots. Still, I try to make the writing solid so they can recommend my books because they think someone will like them and not just because I’m their mom.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Brittney: Do it! That doesn’t mean you have to turn it into a job or your career although you definitely can if that is what you want to do. But embracing writing because you love it shows your kids to embrace their own passions. Writing helps you express your joys and your fears. It is an awesome outlet and it can help you work your way to answers when you need them the most. It helps build your foundation stronger. Your children will benefit from the experience of watching you grow as an adult. Share your love of writing with them. Write something just for them even if it isn’t what you would normally write – maybe especially if it isn’t what you would normally write. Let your writing build another bond with your kids. If you’re worried about a writing schedule with the demands you have as a parent, don’t worry about keeping up with a word count or amount of writing time until your demands lighten and more time for yourself appears. Write when you can and for as long as you can. Find YOUR way.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Brandy Renee McCann

Today’s Parent-Writer is extra special because she’s a fellow West Virginian! Meet Brandy Renee McCann, author of short story “Of a Certain Age.”

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Brandy: Before having kids I had a tenure track position and wrote first thing in the morning at home and between classes at the office.

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Brandy: These days my paid work is very part time and I have no office. Also, my kids come to my bed for early morning snuggles and I’ve found it impossible to get up and write like I used to. Now I write after they go to bed at night. I never wrote at night before having kids, even when I was in college. Also, this year they’ve been in preschool, so I’ve had about 10 hours per week during daytime hours. That has allowed me to take on some part time paid work.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since becoming a parent?

Brandy: My writing hasn’t changed much—I don’t write about parenthood for example—but I have become much more aware of the passage of time and have become laser-focused on my writing goals. It blows my mind to think about how much time I frittered away before I had kids.

Becca: What advice do you have for people who want to write who are parents of young children?

Brandy: I have a rule about housework: I don’t do housework when I could be writing. I try to do all my housework when the kids are with me.

I always keep a notebook or slip of paper with me. And an ink pen. That way if I have a moment free—the kids are napping in the car or I’m waiting while they’re in gymnastics—I can write down ideas or snippets of scenes. I also carry reading material everywhere I go. It is easy to waste that time scrolling social media, but I try to stay mindful and take advantage of those moments.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Laney Wylde

Today, Laney Wylde, author of the forthcoming book, Never Touched, shares her advice as a new writer and parent.

Becca: I know you’s said you didn’t start writing until after you became a parent. Can you share what made you start?

Laney: I wrote some when I was younger, and I wanted to major in film/screenwriting or English in college but I chickened out because I thought I wasn’t good enough. But I started reading a book about gifted children in April 2017 and realized, “Wait. Maybe I was gifted. Why can’t I write?” So I started writing seriously. Seven months later, I got a book deal.

Becca: Awesome! What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Laney: Be interruptible for your kids and for your writing. When the kids are up, do all your mommy responsibilities. When the kids are asleep, write. Leave the mess, the dishes, the spilled milk on the floor, and go into your one clean writing space in the house. That is your time and space to write and forget about all the mess downstairs. It’s not going anywhere. But your time to write will slip away.

Don’t feel guilty about reading/writing when your kids are awake as long as you are interruptible for them.
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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Cari Dubiel

Today we get to hear from mom/author/ crowdfunder extraordinaire Cari Dubiel, author of How to Remember.

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Cari:I thought I was disciplined before kids. Wrong! I wasted so much time. I did write 500-1000 words a day, but nothing I wrote was structured, and I didn’t have a dedicated plan. That was probably why the two novels I completed were terrible. I also didn’t know any other writers, so I was fumbling blind without a community.

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Cari: How things have changed: I’m much more efficient now. I’ve become a time management guru, with lists and calendars and notes for everything. I currently work full-time, freelance, and teach at Kent State University in addition to writing novels. Much more than I ever did before I was a parent. I structure and outline everything I write before I write it, so I save time during the drafting process. I also have a systematic self-editing process.

I did give myself a break after having both kids – about six months off each. When I had Henry, I was just beginning my term as Library Liaison to Sisters in Crime. While I wasn’t writing, I was networking and making connections in the writing world, and I was learning all the time.

I needed that during the sleepless nights, and it helped to curb the anxiety of becoming a new parent.

By the time Oliver came along, I was fully entrenched in several writing communities. The extra support is crucial to becoming a working writer.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since having kids?

Cari: I met the author James Renner when I was pregnant, and I remember him telling me that I’d have a new dimension to my writing – I’d be able to write about kids. I didn’t truly get what that meant until probably six months after Henry was born, when I realized that the parent-child dynamic from the parent side is totally different than from the child side.

It’s a new way to understand relationships. Parenting is a strong theme in my book, How to Remember, and I don’t think the novel would have evolved that way without my children.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Cari: You must have some kind of a plan. It doesn’t have to be a crazy evolved one like mine. Set a small goal: write 500 words a day, or use a workbook to keep you on task in outlining or character building. The book Finishing School by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton is a great place to start for inspiration.

But also – don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t get done. Actually, don’t beat yourself if nothing gets done – housework, laundry, birthday cards, whatever. It is OK to prioritize writing over the dishes.

Your kids will only be young once, but at the same time, you will only be YOU once. You can do anything, but not all at the same time, and it won’t be perfect. Be mindful and let things ebb and flow as they will. (Easier said than done!)

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Michael Haase

Today’s parent/writer who is rocking it is Michael Haase, author of The Man Who Stole the World.

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Michael: I used to stay up into the wee hours of night writing to my heart’s content. I’d stay up past four in the morning quite often and sleep until noon. I could get down nearly 5,000 words a day back then.

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Michael: It has all changed. My kids go to bed at 8am and wake up at 8am. I’m lucky that they both good sleepers and stay on the same schedule. (And they both still nap!) But I can’t stay up as late as I used to. If I write after they go to bed, I’m usually out of steam by midnight. I’ve been slowly converting myself into being a morning person. Ideally, I want to get up by 5am to write, as I’ve realized my approaching-forty-years-old brain appreciates a sober mind in the early morning when it comes to productive writing.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since having kids?

Michael: I’m not sure how much the writing itself has changed, but there are certainly more kids in my ramblings. I think the need to write has become more immediate, as I want my kids to have little bits of my brain in book form to keep around long after I’ve left this plane. If my mom or dad wrote a book, I’d probably be reading that at least a few times a year now that they’re both gone.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Michael: I am a “stay at home dad,” which actually just means that I work night shift. That being said, my advice is to learn to roll with the punches, type quickly, and not to wait for inspiration to come. I’ve become productive by having my computer warmed up and ready. My kids are young, 2 and 4, and I’ve trained myself to be able to write something in those small breaks, sometimes only five minutes. But I’ve put down a few hundred words in several five minute “breaks,” and those add up quickly. Just be ready, and don’t expect to sit down at a desk refreshed and ready. Expect to have to fight for your writing time. It’s worth fighting for, right? That being said, take care of your kids first, of course.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Robert Batten

Today’s installment of Parents Who Make Writing Work is from Robert Batten, author of Blood Capital

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids?

Robert: My writing routine was inconsistent before kids. It seems counter-intuitive, but I rarely held onto a regular process for long. I think this was, at least in part, a confidence issue. I didn’t believe in the quality of my work, and so a voice in the back of my mind constantly questioned the justification for investing so much time.

Secondary to that, and likely fueled by it, I allowed life to get in the way. There were shows to watch, drinking and eating to be done, friends to see, and games to play. I would sit down and commit to writing for a short burst, then permit distractions to draw me away.

 

Becca: How has that changed since having kids?

Robert: I now write at least five nights a week, after our son is asleep, and have cut back day-job hours to free some daylight hours. Children demand an enormous amount of your time, either directly with them, or all the peripheral tasks that come as part of being a parent. And then, when your time isn’t consumed by raising a child, you’re exhausted.

In that light, it seems a little strange that becoming a parent helped me write more, but it did. Thinking about it now, I feel there are several reasons for that.

 

Disciplined, regular writing is hard. Sitting down when you’re fresh and inspired, when there’re no distractions around you, is easy. That’s what I’d been doing before our son. But in real life, you don’t often get those moments (children or no).

Being a parent has conditioned me to do things regardless of whether I want to, or how tired I am, or how many other distractions there are. It’s helped me develop a greater level of discipline. It’s also naturally removed some of my distractions. I can no longer play violent video games whenever I want, so my gaming has shifted to the back-burner. All those nights going to the pub with friends? That doesn’t work so well with bath night, or getting your child into bed at a reasonable hour. So we’ve become more hermit-like, which means I’m more likely to be home writing.

The last thing that’s driven the change is a shift in our priorities and perspectives. I want to do something rewarding that gives me greater flexibility to spend time with my child. Writing makes that possible (as long as I can earn a living from it) and is more rewarding for me, so I’ve been approaching it with a more structured plan and dedication to make it my future.

Last, it would be remiss of me not to mention how important it’s been to have a supportive partner who’s not just willing to put up with me dedicating this time to the work, but who encourages me. That’s nothing to do with having kids as such, but it would be infinitely harder without her backing me up.

Becca: How has your writing itself changed since having kids?

Robert: My writing has changed in tone and quality since having a child, but I don’t think it’s because I had a child.  Being a parent has given me better insight into how children think and behave, which will hopefully lead to better characters. It’s also inspired me to write stories for my son, which will be a big departure from my usual focus on adult / young adult sci-fi and fantasy. However, that plan is very much in addition to my other projects.

Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?

Robert: Do it. It’s hard, and usually involves late nights at the keyboard after you’ve finally gotten the miscreants asleep, but it’s rewarding and it’s yours. We all need to retain a little sense of self, separate from our children. To know we’re still people in our own right. It could be anything: building miniatures, watching TV, jogging, knitting, whatever. However, if you feel the pull to create stories, you already know there’s a special sense of accomplishment in the act that little else can replicate.

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Author Interview Writing Life

Parents Who Make Writing Work: Cati Porter

In my most recent post, I shared tips that have worked for me when trying to balance my roles as a parent and as a writer. In this new series, Parents Who Make Writing Work, other writers who have children share their experiences, insight, and advice.

First up is Cati Porter, author of the forthcoming poetry collection The Body at a Loss

Becca: What was your writing routine before having kids? How did that change after having kids?
Cati: Before having kids, my routine was very non-specific. I didn’t really have one. I went through periods of writing late into the night, or I went through one phase where I wrote everything on an electric typewriter. I didn’t have to worry about “finding” time to write, and yet, what I found once I had kids was that I more productive.
Something about having to carve out dedicated time while they slept, or with them in my lap, or paying my sister to babysit (in the other room) while I met a deadline — that, strangely, made me far more productive than before I had kids even though there were fewer constraints then.
A little about constraints:
I think they can be useful tools. It’s one of the reasons why I turn to poetry in received forms (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum, sestina, etc.) when I’m feeling stuck. The constraints are paradoxically freeing. That was sort of how it was with having my first child, after which my first book came flooding out.
When you know you only have a limited amount of time (or space) to write, you are more apt to use it wisely.
Becca: Yes!! Same here!! I get things done so much more quickly now.
Cati: Seriously! I am much more efficient now.
Becca: Yes! It’s amazing what can get done in ten quiet minutes. How has your writing, itself, changed since having kids?
Cati: My writing itself has continued to change over time. Where once I focused almost exclusively on mama-centric work, that morphed into work that pushed the boundaries of the autobiography, into surrealism and fabulism, allowing a sort of respite from what was going in my life.
Becca: What advice do you have for parents of young kids who want to write?
Cati: My main advice for any writers with children is accept all offers of free time. Use it. And don’t ever let anyone tell you that having kids will limit the amount of work you produce.
Someone once told me that for every one child you have, that’s one book you’ll never write. I think that’s wrong. If it weren’t for my kids, I may not have written any books, just written aimlessly forever.
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Writing Life

Parenthood VS Writerhood: Can they Coexist?

When I was crowdfunding my novel, Rock of Ages, one of the questions I got all the time was, “How did you write a book with two little kids?!”

Part of the answer is that I wrote my first draft when I was pregnant with my first and had a lot of time at a desk job, but I did get through two more drafts completed after having kids as well as a first draft of a second novel and several smaller stories.

 

Ditch the Guilt

I created a video as an answer to this question. Take a few minutes to check it out if you can! It’s pretty entertaining to see me chase my littlest around while talking.

In the video I explain that I eschew the advice that is so often given that you must write every day. This advice, I explain, is for people who want to write but who can’t work up the motivation to just do it.

For people who would love to write every day, for whom writing time is a luxury, we instead need tips on how to not feel guilty for spending the time we do spend on writing, and for not feeling so bad that we don’t practice our craft daily.

Instead of trying to write every day, feeling frustrated when it didn’t happen, and being short with my kids trying to make it happen, I would devote a month or week every once in awhile to writing. During this mini retreat I would absolve myself of the guilt of being preoccupied with my work. During other times, I would absolve myself of the guilt of not writing as much.

I stand by this. It can feel impossible to write and be the kind of parent you want to be and this designating writing times and writing breaks can be a great way to find a balance.

Lately, though, I have been spending a bit more time writing— sometimes there are projects that you just have to get out of your head and onto the page. Or maybe you feel like you could be writing more but you aren’t sure how. For those days, here are some ways I’ve found to squeeze it in:

Find Your Time Confetti

Brigid Schulte writes about the concept of leisure time as a feminist issue. She says:

“Whatever leisure time (women) have is often devoted to what others want to do – particularly the kids – and making sure everyone else is happy doing it. Often women are so preoccupied by all the other stuff that needs doing – worrying about the carpool, whether there’s anything in the fridge to cook for dinner – that the time itself is what sociologists call ‘contaminated.’

I came to learn that women have never had a history or culture of leisure. (Unless you were a nun, one researcher later told me.) That from the dawn of humanity, high status men, removed from the drudge work of life, have enjoyed long, uninterrupted hours of leisure. And in that time, they created art, philosophy, literature, they made scientific discoveries and sank into what psychologists call the peak human experience of flow.

Women aren’t expected to flow.”

Her words are relevant for caretakers of any gender. Caretaking and creative pursuits are both taken for granted and undervalued.

Caretakers’ time is interrupted by the duties of caretaking and it makes it hard to get anything else done. What Schulte points us to, though, are the little bits of “time confetti”—the approximately 30 hours of leisure time we do have each week. This time confetti comes in short bursts and is often at inconvenient times, but there are ways to harness it.

One of my largest and most reliable chunks of leisure time is in the evenings after my kids are in bed. Occasionally I have the energy and motivation to get some writing done and the baby seems to be sleeping soundly enough that I can roll away from my spot next to her and type as quietly as possible. More often than not though, she wakes up if I move or I’m just too tired to do anything that requires much thought and I just watch 5 episodes of Fuller House on Netflix instead.

What does work, though, is if I skip the binge watching, go to sleep early-ish, and wake up refreshed. When I do this I can write the next morning while the kids are at their most content, or I can write during nap time because I’m not exhausted from the night before.

Using time confetti doesn’t mean filling every spare second. In fact, sometimes it means the opposite. Instead of reaching for your phone every time you get a minute of downtime, you can practice mindfulness and just being for a few moments. When you do this, you feel less burnt out and your days start to feel more open and expansive.

This brings me to my next tip:

Ditch social media

Manoush Zomorodi, author of Bored and Brilliant,  writes “Kaufman calls dopamine ‘the mother of invention’ and explains that because we have a limited amount of it, we must be judicious about choosing to spend it on ‘increasing our wonder and excitement for creating meaning and new things like art—or on Twitter.’”

I’ve found this to be true. When I uninstall social media apps, or use usage tracking apps like Quality Time to limit my social media usage I get much happier and more productive.

It’s not just that I’m writing during the times I would have been scrolling. It’s that I’m being more present with my kids so that I feel less guilty when I do take a chunk of time for writing. It also lets me feel bored instead of that pretend busy feeling of checking notifications, which, let’s face it—isn’t actually doing anything.

Try going one day without looking at Facebook. What you’ll probably find is that you can look over your notifications in a few minutes and that none of them really seem that important. When you think about how many times you normally compulsively check them during a day, the time seems ridiculous.

When you get bored, you come up with great ideas! I often find myself writing in my head when I’m not scrolling through social media instead.

 

Use the Right Tools

There is software that can make writing with kids easier. I’ve found Scrivener incredibly helpful because I can easily see and access different parts of a larger work so it’s easy to just work on a small bit at a time. If I have 15 minutes to write, some time confetti, instead of spending that 15 minutes searching for the part I want to work on and orienting myself, I can spend it actually writing and get in 500 words.

Outlining can work similarly for shorter pieces. Before you dive into a project, spend time outlining—type your major points or sections in bold and then fill them in as you can.

Try writing by hand. Screens make me feel distant from whatever is in front of me, namely my kids, and make me feel like they think I’m ignoring them. Paper and pen lets me work while still feeling like I’m in the space I’m actually in. My kids know that I’m writing and not just ignoring them for the distant world of whatever is on the screen.

I used to look down on using paper and pen. It seemed like extra work. Wouldn’t I just have to type stuff later? And it was so messy— I like being able to edit as I write if I want to. But not all writing needs to be seen. Just the act of writing is good practice for better writing.

Even writing badly—just the practice of it—is inherently valuable in itself. Anne Lammott writes beautifully about this in Bird by Bird.

She says, “What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.”

You write because you have to write and sometimes writing with a pen and paper is the easiest way to get in a few words. The bonus is that writing with pen and paper is a great way to quiet your inner editor and to get some practice in without the pressure for it to be perfect, so try it. If it works for you, keep a notebook and pen near where you play with your kids!

 

 

Learn with your kids

Even when you aren’t actually writing, there are things you can do to improve your craft. The big one is, of course, reading. Since it can be hard to sit down with a novel with kids climbing on you and it can be hard to immerse yourself in a story in 5 minute bursts between dishes and laundry, I’ve relied largely on audiobooks. Audiobooks are not “cheating,” whatever people may say. In fact, the science confirms that to your brain, it’s the same!

Share good writing with your kids! Reading is good for your kids for so many reasons but it will help you be a better writer, too, even if you aren’t a children’s book author!

I love audiobooks and story podcasts for kids too. Check out Overdrive to borrow audiobooks for free from your local library. Our favorite podcasts are Circle Round, Eleanor Amplified, and Story Pirates.

Story Pirates is especially awesome because they take kids’ stories and turn them into awesome songs and sketches. They have their own book that has writing tips for kids in the back and talking about things like character, setting, and plot with my four year old is a good review of some basics for me too!

 

Use Your Material

Being a parent gives you access to amazing, universally relatable material. Your experiences give you insight into characters that are parents that you didn’t have before. I’ve found all of my characters have become more multidimensional since becoming a parent because my empathy has grown. I consider what made my mean characters mean and my bad guys are no longer all bad. Some of the essays I’m proudest of are about my experience as a parent, because the emotion in them is so raw and deep.

In Closing:

Many people have written amazing pieces about the struggle to find balance as a parent and writer. In her piece “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?” Claire Dederer begins by discussing the revelations that many of her favorite artists have engaged in disgusting behavior toward women. She eventually wonders if she, herself, is monstrous for taking the time away from her family for her own art:

“There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness.

A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.

I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?”

As much as I try to strike a balance, there is a truth in this that resonates deeply.

Rufi Thorpe writes about the “conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother, concluding, “To make the most of oneself is not to forsake one’s identity as a woman or as a mother. It is not to become an art monster if the monster in question is nothing but a drunk asshole.

But it is also not to bend entirely, to flap hinge open to your children and your husband and the underwear that may be nestled behind a door, and give up the terrible, wonderful, furtive dream that is the self. To come second entirely, to be only mother, maid, cook, wife, is also not to make the most of oneself. One must learn how and when not to bend.

It is this, the balance between selflessness and selfishness, that is so difficult, but also, I would like to believe, worthwhile.”

Thorpe is right. We can try all the tips I’ve listed above. We’ll have days when they work and days when they don’t. Days when we write 1000 words and the kids are happy. Days when we write 1000 words and the kids are miserable. Days when we write 0 words and the kids are miserable. Days when we write 0 words and the kids are happy.

The important thing is that we keep trying. We keep doing our best day by day to be a good parent and to be a good writer. It’s the trying that is important, that is meaningful.

 

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