Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 31, 2015

Survival Toolbox for Writers

The other day I was cleaning out some boxes in the basement and came across a gift from a design agency I worked with when I was in corporate. We were in the depths of annual report season and I was ready to pull my hair out from the back and forths and revisions and redos and oy! The agency sent over a “survival toolbox” that included a candy bar, a small jar of NyQuil, a packet of Advil, and a shot glass.

That toolbox was promptly put on a shelf in my office. And it got me thinking—what would a survival toolbox for writers look like? Coffee beans, an extra large mug, chocolate, wine glass & opener, Advil, gummy bears.

*scuse me while I go fill my coffee mug and grab another bag of gummies*

Yesterday I was whining (sorry, Kathryn Craft, I was all out of gold) to a friend about various frustrations. Her response was a kicker of a reality check: “You forgot to enforce your boundaries.”

*head slap*

Coffee and gummies (or chocolate, whatever floats your boat) are all great, but maybe that survival toolbox needs to also come with blueprints for solid boundaries.

Protect your writing time.

When I first started writing, I was also working full time as a freelance writer and editor. My days were mapped out and I knew I had x amount of time to write. And I wrote during that time. There wasn’t the option for “I’ll do it later.” Later was spoken for.

Then I started writing full time. Luckily my son was in elementary school so I had all of those hours to write. Except that I had “all of those hours” to write. And that meant I also had “all of those hours” to do all the other things that needed to get done – cleaning the house, social media, volunteering, blogging, beta reading. Because I had the time. Except, with each thing I said yes to, it took away from my writing time.

Your writing time should be sacred. Whether you have an hour or four or an entire day, set your boundaries and stand firm. Sure, sometimes you have to tuck your writing behind an emergency. It happens. But it should be the exception, not the rule.

Protect your writing space.

IMG_7722I have an adorable office that is affectionately known as the lemon room thanks to the neon yellow walls. There’s a white board on the closet door for brainstorming, a kick-in-the-pants reminder about my mission above that door, there are bookshelves all around, and inspirational quotes tacked where I can see them. I also write on the front porch when the weather is too nice to stay indoors (or the dust bunnies are too big to ignore). Those are my creative places.

When I’m working on a blog or on association things, I usually move to the kitchen table. Granted, there have been times I sat there and wrote on one WIP or another, or spread out with revisions when my office desk felt too cramped.

But my creative places are my happy places. When I’m there, I don’t have legos spread everywhere, I don’t have to look at a pile of bills that needs to be paid, and I don’t have to see a pile of dishes out of the corner of my eye.

Whether you have a room of your own or a corner in the house or you write where you can find a clean spot to sit with your laptop, that space needs to be yours (if only for that period of time you’re using it). The only “people” you should scoot over to make space for are the characters in your head (and maybe a cat or dog).

Protect your thoughts.

Think back to when you first started dating someone. The relationship is new and exciting, maybe you mention to your friends that you’ve met someone really cool but when pressed for more, you clam up. Why? Because it’s fresh and yours. Because you don’t want the opinions of others influencing your decision on the relationship.

A new story isn’t much different than a new flame. There’s the initial courtship time when you noodle story ideas and character traits, plot twists and sidekicks. The characters become friends and what happens to them becomes personal.

A year or so ago, I started working on a new project that had me bubbling with excitement. I was completely smitten with my main characters and the story between them and so excited that I couldn’t wait to share the idea with a writing friend. Her lack of enthusiasm and criticism for my baby idea was a major bucket of ice water. That story has become my “the one I think about,” you know, the guy/gal you wonder what could have been if only you hadn’t blown them off.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying never share ideas. I have a writing friend who I always run to with new ideas. She may think that one of my ideas has a big nose or needs to learn table manners but she’d never say anything to derail the budding romance.

I read once that the first draft should be for you, the writer only. The revisions are for your agent/editor/readers. Fall in love with your characters and their story first. When you’re secure enough in the “relationship,” then go public.

Protect your energy.

Someone recently posted an image on Facebook that disturbed me for some reason. The message was actually quite nice – “Do your thing & cheer for others.” That’s a good thing, right?

So what about that bothered me? The realization that I wasn’t protecting my energy to do my own thing. I was spending so much energy cheering and supporting everyone else, that I was too drained at the end to make that same effort on my work.

One of the things I admire most about the writing community is how generous people are. I love being part of this community and being able to support writer friends. But back to boundaries … know your limitations. Know how much time you have to commit beyond your day job, your family, your writing obligations, your you time. Know when you can take on a volunteer role or a request to beta or blog or whatever you’ve been asked to do. As founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, I’ve seen so many volunteers who genuinely want to help, to give back, then find themselves stretched too thin and unable to meet all their obligations (*raising hand sheepishly*).

Set your boundaries. Make sure you leave yourself enough energy (just for clarification, I don’t mean just physical energy; I’m also talking about emotional energy) to be able to do your thing and cheer for others.

Maybe with stronger boundaries, I’ll be able to wean myself off gummy bears.

I’d love to hear if any of you have stumbled over your own boundaries. What did you do to remedy the situation? Or maybe you’re willing to share your secret for holding fast to your boundaries? And what would you put in your survival toolbox?  🙂

About Orly

orly1.jpgAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

50 comments on “Survival Toolbox for Writers”

  1. Haha Orly, we're all allowed to whine every now and again! But thanks for the shout-out. 😉

    Your advice to protect your thoughts really resonated with me. I, for instance, have to watch what I tell my husband about my new ideas. He has this way of treating incoming information with this kind of smirk that to me screams, "where'd you get THAT half-baked idea?" To be fair, he's that way about most unwanted incoming stimuli (if you heard him answer the phone you might hang up, but he'll immediately warm to the sound of a human voice), but that awareness doesn't keep hi reaction from cutting me to the quick.

    As a developmental editor I always tell people NOT to send me their first drafts. When I send the feedback and meet with them for followup, I always know who ignored that advice. Thing is, after the first draft, you are only now starting to get a sense of your story. Hang with it until you own every square inch to the very best of your ability. That's the time to share.

    1. I thought that would amuse you, Kathryn. 🙂

      And yeah, I get the "interesting" (and not in a fascinating-interesting kind of way) eye-brow raise when I try to talk about my projects with my husband. I don't anymore.

      "Hang with it until you own every square inch to the very best of your ability." Perfect!!!

  2. I love this post, Orly. Like Kathryn's comment, the "Protect you Thoughts" piece was spot-on for me, too. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Survival kit? Who needs more than coffee? Think you need something else? You need more coffee.

    You know I can relate to this post, Orly, especially the part about having All the time to write All. The. Time. Hahahahhaha! I just knew I'd be SO much more productive...big bubble pop.

    I should start a support group: 'Writers Without Boundaries'. It's kinda like Doctors without Borders . . . only more dysfunctional. Anyone want to join?

    1. Yeah, Laura, I can think of a few boundaries you're straddling. 😉

      "Writers Without Boundaries" ... love it. I'll volunteer to help with that group. Oy!!!!

  4. "Protect Your Boundaries" totally resonated for me; I have a meeting in 45 minutes to decide whether or not to say "yes" to yet another collaborative project or focus on my own. Saving some "emotional" energy for what I want to do is great advice. Thanks.

    1. Good luck with the meeting, Anne! If you're anything like me, it's always tempting to get involved in a shiny new project but you have to weigh the pros and cons.

  5. Good for you Orly! The first draft is for you. And you only. I think a better story evolves when we just write. Tweaking can come later. Looking forward to your next masterpiece. 🙂

    1. Ha! I need a few more bricks to secure my boundary before the next masterpiece has a prayer. 🙂

  6. Like the others, this post struck a nerve, big time. I've repeated (ad nauseum) to family/friends that this "writing thing," is no different than my corporate gig which ended three years ago. And yet, somehow, each week, something happens and I lose a day or two of writing time. I try to make up for it (because I do write on weekends too), but it's like I KNOW I've lost those days and I can't ever get them back. I try not to resent it, but sometimes when I stare at my word count...

    And the "protect your boundaries." Yeah. That too. I've learned the hard way to not spill too quickly. There's nothing worse than a desultory "huh."

    1. I struggled with that, too. Then my husband pointed out that if I was still at the office, I wouldn't be taking the family calls in the middle of the day and I wouldn't be worrying about laundry if I was at the office, so why was I allowing those distractions now. If I don't take my writing seriously, no one else will. Obviously I still have a few issues with those boundaries. But I'm working on it. Maybe Laura's "Writers without Boundaries" support group will help. 🙂

  7. I learned the lesson of protecting my boundaries the hard way last year when I over volunteered and ended up frazzled and stressed. I'm learning to say no more frequently, but it's hard for me. I like to help! I do manage to protect my writing time on most days, to keep myself focused on the stories that need to be told. Thanks for the reminder to protect both time and thoughts, though. Brilliant!

  8. Orly, thank you, your post really resonated with me.

    Dysfunctional, no boundaries support group? Sign me up. After leaving the corporate life to write full time, I found my writing coming in second to volunteer activities. So many worthy organizations need help, and we're not "working," right? I wanted to do it all! As much as I support those causes, I had to make choices. Now my writing hours are the same as my hours in the corporate world used to be, and my volunteer work occurs outside those boundaries. Both my writing and my volunteering are much more productive. As a bonus, I'm not torn between volunteering when I should be writing and vice versa.

    Thanks to all the Writers in the Storm for your daily inspiration!

    1. I'm glad this post - and the other WITS posts - resonate with you. The "we're not 'working'" comment made me laugh. I can't tell you how many times I argued with myself over that and had to defend my time to others. Whether you're writing as a published author or an aspiring author, it's still work, it's still the career you've chosen to pursue and deserves the level of commitment any other career would demand.

  9. Your last point really hit home for me. I'm a freelance fiction editor as well as a writer, and so it often feels like I spend all my time giving all my energy and creativity away, leaving nothing for myself. It's such a difficult balance to find.

    1. It really is. I chunk my days - mornings for writing, exercise to switch gears, then client work or association work until I have to pick up the kid from school. Some days it works. Some days I get sucked into the loudest deadlines. 🙂

  10. This is all too true about protecting our thoughts. I have had some great book ideas in the past, only to feel defeated when I shared those ideas with others in the beginning stages of my writing. I think this is the key to writing... Don't share your ideas, until they are already firmly established on paper. 🙂

    1. Yes! I think a few of us have learned that lesson the hard way. Better late than never. And those great ideas may still be great. I've been secretly "dating" that past idea and am starting to see a future for us. 🙂 Maybe give yours a second shot as well.

  11. Orly & Laura: I have my last child leaving for college in September, so I want in on that "Writers without Boundaries" group, please! Great post. My main way to turn on my writing switch is through clothing: the bra comes off and the slippers go on when it's time to write!

    1. *scooting over to make room in the front row* ... I'll have to try your approach for the writing switch. Although maybe not when I'm writing on the front porch. 🙂

  12. I really liked the part about protecting your writing space... Now when I go there to write, I actually write! Now the hard part becomes just getting there!!!

    1. But promo is a necessary part of the business, isn't it?! Easy in theory, but can you schedule your days in such a way that morning is dedicated to either writing or promo and then afternoon for the other? I know, I know ... 🙂
      Good luck and make sure the boundaries don't get completely knocked down.

  13. Thanks for the motivation and tips. As a writer, I truly need to get in gear and have discipline. Working full-time and school full-time, it is hard to get any writing done. I'm going to do better. My office is in my bed, lol. I love writing in bed.

    1. Time boundaries! Not easy, I agree. I used to get up an hour before anyone else in the house to write. Of course now that I don't have to steal time, I can't haul myself out of bed that early.

  14. I had to laugh when I read Holly's description of getting undressed to write. I'm the opposite. I've found that I have to actually 'go to work' to write. I live alone, but I have to get up, get a shower, get dressed, and go to work in order to write. I can do social media, clean the kitchen, do laundry, etc. in pajamas, but to write, I have to go to work.

    1. When I started freelancing from home I had to do the same thing. I also had two office spaces - the freelance "serious" one in the basement and my "creative" space upstairs. Whatever works to get the words on the page! 🙂

  15. Excellent post! One I needed, I'm guilty of ignoring/excusing/not believing in my writing. So, I clean, watch TV, etc.. My son and husband built me a great office earlier this year. They separated what was once a long formal living/dining area. It helps but I still make excuses. Boundaries. Huh, interesting. I have to get rid of self-imposed fear and lack of confidence, my biggest hurdle.


    1. I would offer up a variation on the protect your writing space. Create a routine whether it's lighting a candle or fixing a favorite coffee/tea, and then set small goals - for example, write for one hour, no word count, no pressure for the words to be polished, then when the hour is up, you walk away from the office. Pretty soon that hour will become something you look forward to. It makes the whole concept of "going into the office TO WRITE" far less intimidating.

    1. Thanks, Nancy! Protecting my energy is where I struggle most as well ... both the physical and emotional energy. Good luck to both of us. 🙂

  16. This was a great post. As I sit here reading this and other sites I am on enjoying myself and telling me I am getting my motivation. LOL I need to be finishing any of my many WIP and polishing and revising and reviewing other WIP. If I worked for me I would fire me.
    But believe me it is not an easy job to keep "full time writer" status. When I worked full time and did so much volunteer work and solved all family problems and went to dance 3 nights a week I think I wrote more than I do now.
    Some how your mind tells you I need to do this or wash a load or straighten my home office and I'll sit down and write with a clear mind. NOT! A set schedule is non-existent when you let loose of the reigns and let the horse wander. My husband calls for help umpteen times a day, I don't dare let him answer the phone cause he agrees to more donations than our checks add up to for the month or says Mom will take care of it so it is better if I just answer it.
    I find my very long legs can jump boundaries so easy but I will try since you so perfectly said I need to stay in bounds because I promised a dear writer friend I would produce something and submit it by the end of Nov. Yes she pried me with 2 bottles each of the best wine I had drunk in a long time. The only wine I had had in a long time. But she is unforgiving and demands I produce and I love her for it.
    You see I'm too protective of my writing. Only about 4 or 5 in 10 years of writing have seen any of it. NOT GOOD EITHER!

    1. Sounds like you have a great "boundary sentry" in your friend. Having writing pals to keep us accountable is a huge motivator. If you make a commitment to your writing pal that you'll have a chapter for her to read every other week (for example), then it's harder to walk away from the writing. 🙂

  17. All so true! I'm instituting a new rule for myself: No newspaper reading, no Facebook, until I've done two of the writing tasks I've set for myself that day (out of about five :-0). My best strategy: I set a doable page or time limit for each task. I always end up doing more, but not being intimidated by a huge project that has to be done completely each day keeps me energized. Also--realizing that whatever i write doesn't have to be perfect, as long as I JUST WRITE.

    1. Oh, oh ... yes! "Just Write" ... there's a reason I have that on my wall. 🙂

  18. Thank you Orly. The "Writers without Boundaries" group sounds familiar. Too familiar 🙂
    All the great comments here reinforce the need for boundary setting. thanks everyone.
    It's like when I moved into an apartment from a large house with gardens front and back - I took up Bonzai and pot plants for my balcony instead. It works well and my back ache from bending is gone. I've similarly trimmed much of the volunteering (exit the vegie patch) the groups I attended but wasn't enjoying anymore (nil pruning and lopping) and not sharing ideas after a similar depressing period with a small writing group who were there for the biscuits and cake. PS the spare bedroom is now W's Office - only writing and painting are done there.

    1. At least you procrastinate WITH housework. I can't even claim clean bathrooms. 😉
      If you ever need an accountability goose, you know where to find me!

  19. Thanks, Orly, the responses certainly underline that we agree with you, and though we might have individual struggles, it's certainly true that protecting writing time is the ONLY thing that will help someone BE a writer. In my writer's tool box there is coffee, but there are also books--reading a good novel for inspiration and to ease off one's own characters for a while can be a great creative fix. Oh and chocolate--while doing that reading.

    1. Ahhh, a good book. Yes! Novels and craft books. Thanks for adding those to the must have list. 🙂

  20. I'm too easily distracted. And I have a retired husband at home who does want me to venture out of my writer cave occasionally to interact with him. I also have to do all my own cooking because of multiple food allergies. Kitchen prep takes time. Too much of it. And I have a friend I don't dare discuss my stories with. She immediately wants me to write them the way she would. And she doesn't read romantic suspense. Hardly reads any fiction at all. These are all "tools" I need to heed. Thanks.

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