Delilah S. Dawson: 25 Writing Hacks From A Hack Writer
You will sit there. And you will listen as Delilah S. Dawson (whose YA, Servants of the Storm, is out now, and whose YA sci-fi hitman tale, HIT, comes out soon) hacks your ass apart with an axe. *is handed a note* Okay, turns out that’s not what she’s doing here. She’s trying to LIFE HACK your WRITING LIFE. With an axe! *is handed another note* All right, no axe. Just words. Good to know. *reels murder tarp back into its container* Anyway! Here she is:
Bad news: YOU HAVE BEEN LIVING WRONG YOUR WHOLE LIFE. You cook corn wrong, you eat cupcakes wrong, you haven’t used an old CD spindle to store hobo organs. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And that goes for writing, too.
Thing is, it’s hard to write when you’re doing life wrong, which is why I’m here to help. I’d actually like to write an entire non-fiction book about hacking your life and your writing, and this post is a test run. If you like it, please let me know in the comments. And if you see something I’m missing, like how you can write an entire book using a simple cordless drill and a Mason jar full of glitter, let me know that, too. I’m here to answer your questions about all the shit you’re messing up. Like your mom, but productive!
1. PICK UP THE FUCKING REINS AND START DRIVING.
You control the horse that is your life, and you can use spurs or dangle a carrot or just sit in the damn pasture and think about daisies. Acknowledge that you are in control. Accept that your writing is affected by the outside world and plan accordingly. As great as it would be if anyone could write at any time and unicorns were plentiful and good for eating, it’s just not true. Your writing will always come at the mercy of your environment, your job, your body, your hormones, your family. The best thing you can do is start engineering your world in a way that facilitates your writing. Also, start breeding edible unicorns.
2. EMBRACE THE MINIMAL EFFECTIVE DOSE.
Make the smallest change possible to reach the desired impact. You don’t have to overhaul your life; just figure out how to tweak it. It would be great if we all had our own writing sheds LIKE SOME PEOPLE. But I live on the side of a cliff and don’t know any Amish people, so I have to make do. The thing is, you don’t have to spend mad bank to be a “real” writer. There is no Perfect Experience that will instantly cause your Muse to appear like a genie holding a bottle of Scotch. So start small. For example, before building a solid gold office addition on your home, try buying a laptop desk or card table for $15 and put it in the spare bedroom. I wrote my first book on the couch using a collapsible TV table to hold my laptop as I nursed my baby on a Boppy. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
3. GET RID OF EXTRANEOUS BULLSHIT.
Do you ever feel trapped in your home? Like you have too much crap to sort through? Do you sit down to write and start making a list of all the cleaning you should be doing? Ugh. That’s not good for writing.
One of the best things I ever did was to get rid of 60% of the crap I owned. We downsized from a big suburban home to a smaller mountain cabin, which meant we took dozens of bags of old clothes, linens, and doodads to Goodwill and put everything else on the front lawn with a sign and a Craigslist ad that said, “Take whatever you want as long as you don’t ring the doorbell. Also, no murders. Thanks.” I’m a painter, which meant I had 15 years of artwork that I was sick of looking at, so I put that out there, too. Everything that was left got donated or chucked into a Bagster, which is this truck-sized Ikea-style bag that you buy from Home Depot, fill with shit, and call to have picked up. This makes your problem, as Douglas Adams says, Somebody Else’s Problem.
Do I miss my stuff? Hell no. Life’s so much easier when you’re not weighed down by history, crap, and guilt. If you need a more complete primer for how to get rid of all your shit, I highly recommend the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (http://www.amazon.com/Life-Changing-Magic-Tidying-effective-clutter-ebook/dp/B00KK0PICK), which really did change my life. Another good one is Everything That Remains (http://www.amazon.com/Everything-That-Remains-Memoir-Minimalists-ebook/dp/B00HGJ9D6K). Clear your space to make your mind more nimble. Plus, less shit to clean!
4. THEN DESTROY THE BOTTLENECKS.
So we got rid of all that crap. We moved to a much smaller house with an empty attic. Still, there were certain places that constantly made me annoyed when I walked past them—places where *new* crap collected. My husband’s dresser drawers, always spilling out. The closet. The vitamin cabinet in the kitchen. Things that we couldn’t get rid of but that were never tidy. Now burn all that. KIDDING.
The answer here is to get creative—and you don’t have to go to the Container Store and buy a bunch of new shit, either. For my closet, I built two shelves to hold all my boots. Boom! It’s suddenly pretty and clean. For the vitamin cabinet, I used granola bar boxes to corral the roly-poly vitamin bottles. Same for the coffee. The onions are now in a tin bucket from some Christmas popcorn. The epsom salt for my bath is in a $4 glass jar with a pour spout. These small accents suddenly take away those concentration-breaking moments where you encounter snarls in your life, and that makes writing easier. And all you have to do is pay attention to the places in your house where you get that little wrinkle between your brows and get vicious about fixing it.
5. SLAY YOUR DRAGONS IMMEDIATELY.
When my writing is constipated, it’s often because my environment and brain are constipated. I’ve passed that same receipt on the floor 400 times and haven’t picked it up. I don’t want to print that contract and mail it. I don’t like paying bills. I need to send that annoying email. I have to say no to someone. When your brain is cluttered with these little frustrations, it’s hard to be nimble in the way that produces the most exciting book. And when you sit down to write, you’re suddenly thinking about all the junk you have to do. If you wait to long to slay your dragons, they get big and crafty and will destroy you.
So trash the receipt. Pay your bills. Send the annoying emails. Make a to-do list to offload whatever your brain is clutching like a little kid with a crushed frog. Get it off your plate. You’ll feel so much better, especially if you do all the crap you hate before 8am, before the dragons wake up.
6. RUN TO THE LIGHT, CAROL ANNE.
Most writers struggle with depression, or at least cycles of self-loathing and non-bathing. Especially in winter. That’s why “pajama pants and more wine” is a thing. I’ve found that a 10,000 LUX light box used in the morning helps immensely in outlook and motivation. I turn mine on for 45 minutes while I’m having coffee and breakfast, usually in the 7am range. And it makes me feel a lot better. Yeah, they cost $70+. But that’s less than half an hour of therapy costs and you still don’t have to put on pants, so WIN.
7. INDULGE INTELLIGENTLY.
Figure out what really makes a difference in your life and spend what you can for quality. For me, that means I drink great coffee in my Chemex. We get bi-weekly delivery of Blue Bottle coffee, and I drink 2 cups every morning with organic half-and-half. And it makes my entire day better. Maybe for you it’s tea or hot chocolate or a drink from the Starbucks window. But if it makes a real difference, put your dollars there. If using a $300 laptop makes you want to rip out all your hair, pay close attention to sales and get the MacBook you’ll love. I also insist on nice leather boots as my only footwear, so I keep an eagle eye on sales at 6pm.com and get my $350 boots for $54 with free shipping. Might sound silly or pricy to you, but it’s balanced out by the fact that my boots last forever and I don’t care about things like iPhones, cable TV, or expensive purses. We all have our forspecial thingy.
Life’s too short to hate your computer, to drink shitty coffee, to wear crappy shoes, or to eat a Whopper Jr. when you really want a Five Guys Burger. If you choose carefully instead of throwing your money at everything that moves, indulgence can be pretty reasonable.
8. MAKE FOOD RULES.
When I’m first drafting, I often forget to eat. All day. And when I’m editing, I can snarf half a cake without noticing. Neither is particularly healthy. So it turns out that the best thing I can do for my writing is recognize that I’m pretty stupid about food and make it easy on myself in advance. What works best for me is the slow-carb diet as outlined in The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. That means that I mostly eat meat, vegetables, beans, and nuts. No grains, no sugar. So I start by not letting any snack foods into the house—and throwing out all the tempting crap lying around. Then I stock the kitchen with easy to make foods that are good for me. Raw nuts, carrots and hummus, sausage, eggs. I cook 8 chicken thighs or a grassfed beef roast and eat on it for several days. I make a commitment to having an omelet and eggs every morning, and once the choice (OMG WHAT IS FOR BREAKFAST WHAT IS FOOD HOW DO I EAT OOOOH CHEEZ-ITS) is taken away, I stop worrying about food and rewards and my weight all the time. And then I’m free to think about other things. Like writing.
See what we’re doing here? Everything on the list so far is about making your mind more free, more nimble. You make a thousand unnecessary, bullshit choices every day that take brain cells away from your writing. Free your mind, and the rest will follow.
9. LEARN HOW TO SAY NO
If you just shouted NO at the screen, CONGRATULATIONS. You may go on to number 10.
Confession: I have only learned how to say no in the last couple of years, and it is GLORIOUS. When you’re a new writer, it’s pretty normal to be terrified of saying no to anyone or anything, as if you might throw away that one chance at greatness. As Patrick Rothfuss once said to me, BUUUUUUULLSHIT. Saying yes to something you dread is like accepting someone else’s heavy suitcase. And now you have 10 suitcases stacked on your back. Doesn’t feel good, does it? You’re basically trading 30 seconds of discomfort (disappointing someone by saying no) for months of dread.
You don’t have to say yes to writing for free, to writing something you don’t want to write for not enough money, to going to a conference that’s going to cost you more emotionally and fiscally than staying home. You don’t owe anyone anything. You must conserve your energy and channel it into your writing.
Fun fact: They (by which I mean REAL SCIENTISTS), did some experiments about saying no. They’ve found that if you start with “I don’t”, you’ll feel better about your decision and stick with it longer, plus people won’t push back. As in:
Them: Hey, so will you write this thing for me for free?
You: I can’t. I’m super busy, and…
Them: But EXPOSURE! And TRAFFIC! And I’ll give you an extra month on the deadline!
You: UGGGGGGHOUTOFEXCUSES. FINE.
See? “I can’t” just makes ’em more doggedly persistent. It’s an automatic foot in the door.
Them: Hey, so will you write this thing for me for free?
You: I don’t write for free.
Them: Well, I don’t have any budget at this time. Never mind!
Only say yes to the things you want to do that will help you reach your goal. Period. Interrobang.
10. SCREW GUILT.
This is another case of getting rid of a backlog of bullshit that keeps you from reaching your writing potential. Fact is, you probably have some kind of guilt attached to your writing. While you write, you’re ignoring your kids, keeping your significant other awake, using time when you could be doing chores, or “doing a real job.” And fuck that. Writing, or whatever your passion might be, is worth pursuing. You are a human being with one life, and you damn well deserve to do the thing that brings you joy. You do not have to feel guilty for pursuing your passion.
Repeat: DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR PURSUING YOUR PASSION.
Now, that being said, you have to keep up your bargains with the world. You can’t just quit your day job and spend your family’s savings to rent a writer’s bungalow in Bali. You have to pay your bills and taxes, keep your kids healthy, and pay attention to that person you promised to love and cherish. As with all things, there’s a balance. But if you’re doing all the things you’re supposed to be doing, you have every right as a living creature to pursue your bliss in your spare time. Anyone who says otherwise is a dreamkiller, and fuck dreamkillers right in the ear. If someone tries to make you feel bad for writing, consider why they’re being a toxic douchebag and why you need them in your life.
Also of note: You don’t have to call them “guilty pleasures.” There’s no reason to be ashamed of the things that bring you pleasure. Just own it. Make anyone who calls you on it feel horribly awkward.
11. GET THE HELL OUT OF THE HOUSE.
I love my pajama pants as much as the next person. Hell, probably more. But I know that I do better work when I’m bathed, fully dressed, and feeling pretty. Although we veterans in the trenches might tweet that we’re on day 4 of polar bear pajamas and college sweatshirt with 0 bathing and There’s Something About Mary hair, that’s probably during edits on a deadline. For all other situations, your brain will perk up if you get out into the world with a freshly bathed bod, feeling vibrant and being among other human beings. Listen to conversations at the coffee shop, take an interesting class, browse a bookstore, see a movie, go to Sephora, visit a zoo or pet store. It can be very easy, as a writer, to get into a vicious cycle of sitting in your house like a mole doing nothing and staring at a blank screen, furious because the writing won’t come.
This is a loop. You must get out of the loop. Let me tell you more about loops.
12. LOOPS ARE THE ENEMY. BREAK THEM.
Look. Your brain is very lazy. Your brain likes for things to be easy. Your brain will get itself caught in loops like that polar bear at the Central Park Zoo who swims the same loop 8000 times a day. And do you know what he can’t do while he’s swimming loops? Write a book.
You know you’re in a loop when you keep doing the same fucking thing over and over and can’t seem to stop. Minecraft, Candy Crush, shopping for the perfect shoes, scrolling through Facebook, reading every article on Cracked, hunting for the right tattoo on Pinterest. Same thing, over and over, hunting for a seratonin hit and never getting satisfied but just getting enough of a little ping to keep doing it. It’s like playing the slots and winning a dollar here, a dollar there, losing all along, always hoping for some big-ass jackpot that rarely happens. And when you’re writing and you get stuck in a loop, the writing stops.
Catch yourself in a loop? You’ve got to get away from the screen. Go for a walk. Take a bath or shower or swim. Read a paper book. Play with the dog. Call a friend. Go for a drive while listening to music. You must break the loop and get your brain concentrating on something else. That’s why most of my “breakthroughs” happen when I’m in water or driving. My brain can’t think clearly when it’s in a loop. It keeps insisting that there’s only one answer to the problem, only one thing that could happen in the plot. Can you imagine there being only one thing that could happen in a plot? There are infinite things that could happen! Flying monkeys and evil twins and alien blancmanges! If you can learn to catch yourself in a loop, you can learn to break the loop. And then you can move on bravely, in writing and in life.
13. LEARN TO TREAT YO’SELF.
Whether you’re the kind of person who needs planned rewards for hitting goals while writing or who thrives on little surprises, it’s important to give yourself a present every day, as Agent Cooper said on Twin Peaks a thousand years ago. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a four-pack of interestingly colorful pens at Wal-Mart or an exceptionally huge Honeycrisp apple. Sometimes, yeah, it’s a pair of boots or a nice dinner when I’ve sold a short story. But you deserve happiness big and small, and if the world doesn’t provide it, it’s your job to make it happen.
Don’t count on anyone else to do it for you. Take charge of your own desires. RAWR.
14. LEARN TO FIX SHIT YO’SELF.
Know what feels powerful as hell? Fixing your own fucking toilet, that’s what. Not only do writers not typically have tons of money, we hate waiting around to pay some dude to fix something while we’d rather be working on our book in our pajamas. Right? So learn how to use Google and YouTube. Learn how to fix a leaky toilet, change your water filter, install shelves, and generally solve your own problems. Most parts are available to buy online. Most manuals are available free online. Google “DIY <anything>”, and you’ll find that little grandmas in Kansas can teach you how to make a bulldozer out of old spools and denture glue. A writer is a MacGyver of story. Now become a MacGyver of your environment.
15. ONLY SET GOALS YOU CAN REACH.
Okay, so I know I said NO DREAMKILLERS. But think of this more as a dream guide. The thing is, you are most likely not going to be the next J.K. Rowling. Dreaming too big can be dangerous. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you want to be a writer. And if you want to be a writer, you want to be a hella successful writer who sleeps in a bed of moneys and solid gold typewriters. The people you see succeeding have been working hard for ten years, most likely not under what you consider the ideal conditions. You’re only seeing the tip of that toil iceberg. There’s no such thing as instant success. You are not going to lob an elevator pitch at John Green and have him say HOLY SHIT LET’S CALL MY EDITOR AND GET THE MOVIE CAST WITH TOM HIDDLESTON.
So I’m a big believer in setting goals that are realistic, clearly defined, and quantifiable. That means you don’t say, “I want to be a successful writer.” You say, “My first goal is to write and edit an 80k book in six months. My next goal is to query literary agents and find representation by this time next year.” Clear, achievable, and easy to answer whether or not you’ve succeeded. It’s great if you want to be on the NYT bestsellers list, but that goal means nothing if you can’t break it down into realistic components and figure out what it will take to get there. If you haven’t read my 25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Writer (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/08/13/25-steps-to-being-a-traditionally-published-author-lazy-bastard-edition/), that might help.
16. LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NEEDING AND WANTING.
You need food, shelter, electricity, clothing. You want another season of Legend of Korra. Wanting is normal. In a world where most of our physical needs are met, we’re always looking for something to desire, to strive toward. The thing is, you have to figure out what’s worth your time and money and what’s just your brain being a petulant Dudley Dursley. Every object represents a story you’re telling yourself. Quite often, we hang our happiness on some stupid thingy. If I had that computer, I would write a hundred pages a day. If I had that couch, my house would look like Martha Fucking Stewart’s and be clean all the time. If I had that leather jacket, I would be cool like Fonzy. If I had new eyeshadow, I would look like Natalie Dormer and be beautiful all the time. If I hit list, I would be THE QUEEN OF THE WORLD. Your brain tells you these stories, these lies—not about the object, but about the possibilities.
Sad fact, you guys. Very few of these stories come true. Most often, when you get THE THINGY, you realize that nothing has changed. The little ping of happiness disappears almost immediately, kind of like the dollar figure placed on a car the moment it’s driven off the lot. Hope dies with possession.
But! If you can grok this and apply it, you lift a huge burden off your life. See, the media tries to tell us these stories to force us to chuck our money at bullshit we don’t need. If you spend less money on bullshit you don’t need, you’re less tied to a life of unhappy toil. So many people want to quit jobs they hate so they can pursue their passions, but they also want bigger houses and fancier cars, so they have to keep the jobs they hate. I’m on the side of buying less shit and working less so you can have more fun.
So, whenever you’re holding your debit card, look at THE THINGY. What lies is it whispering to you? Will possessing THE THINGY change your life? Is that life change worth the price tag?
17. CHECK YOUR COMPASS, CHECK YOUR MAP.
Have you ever read about how human beings can’t walk in a straight line? Basically, if you start walking toward your destination, you’ll end up off-course because the ground is rocky or one of your legs is shorter than the other or you get chased off the path by rabid badgers. That’s why you need both a map and a compass. You need to know where you’re going and have a way to regularly confirm that you’re on the right road.
Which, yeah, applies to writing and life. Complacency doesn’t get you anywhere. Refusing to change is like sinking into a swamp. Whatever you want, you need to consistently look at what you’re doing and how it’s working. Not getting your book where you want it? Maybe you need to take a class, go to a writers group, or go to a conference. Not getting an agent? Maybe you need to read more QueryShark or write a new book. Not selling as many self-pub books as you want? Maybe you’re not reaching the right audience or maybe you need a new cover or should pay for targeted ads. The point is, if you’re not where you want to be, figure out why and try something new to get you closer to your target.
18. INVEST IN YOURSELF.
So I inherited this life philosophy from my parents that boils down to: WORK 60 HOURS A WEEK UNTIL YOU’RE OLD AND BROKEN AND DON’T TAKE VACATIONS AND THEN RETIRE TO DIE SLOWLY AMONG YOUR DRAGON GOLD BECAUSE YOUR REWARD IS WITH BABY JESUS IN HEAVEN. And you know what? Fuck that.
Invest in yourself. Invest in activities and books that make you a better person. Invest in experiences that broaden your worldview. Invest in classes that push your mind and body. Invest in preventative medicine and probiotics and organic apples and good cheese. Jesus, is there anything more important in the entire world than your mental and physical health? Nope, nope, big glass of nope.
The key here is to maximize your investment. Don’t sign up for a year of yoga classes, buy thirty pairs of Lululemon pants, and then realize you hate yoga—just go to the free first class and then pay by the class until it’s a habit. Don’t go to freaking Harvard for your Creative Writing degree when there are free classes online. Don’t go on an expensive world tour trip for that novel you might or might not write when you can go to a writing conference in California and pitch the novel you’ve written as a tax write-off, network with colleagues, stay with a friend, and visit Disneyland while you’re there.
19. GET SLEEP, DUMMY.
Full disclosure: The only reason I was able to write my first book was because on the “Three Hours of Sleep a Night Plan” with a frachetty baby, I broke my brain. Now that my kids sleep through the night and I’ve got several books under my belt, I understand that quality sleep is absolutely not negotiable. But I have trouble sleeping, and if you’re a writer or a parent, you probably do, too. What to do?
Figure out why you’re not getting 8 hours of sleep. Are you too warm or cold? Are your kids too needy? Does your brain not shut up until 3am? Do you have to wake up at the asscrack of dawn? Now figure out what it’ll take to get more sleep. Maybe you need a mid-day nap. Maybe you need more blankets or a fan or a white noise machine. Maybe you need to make a deal with your spouse that while you’re first drafting, they’ll take care of midnight kid screeches. Point is, make sleep a priority and treat it like a problem in your book so that it gets solved instead of you just waffling about it and limping through life on five hours a night so you don’t have to confront it.
Honestly, sleep has always been a problem for me. I take 1/4 of a Unisom tablet every night so that I can get to sleep before midnight and stay asleep until morning. Minimum effective dose is your friend, meaning that you don’t need to comatize yourself with Ambien when a swig of ZZZQuil will do. Most sleep problems can be solved with $20 and a conversation.
Which leads me to…
20. STOP MAKING EXCUSES.
I have a saying my kids hate, which is DON’T BRING ME PROBLEMS; BRING ME SOLUTIONS. Instead of, “Mommy, I can’t find my shoes,” look for your shoes. Instead of, “Mommy, he took my shoes,” tell me what you think I should do about it. And that goes for adults, too.
Instead of saying, “I don’t have the time to write,” put down the channel changer/XBOX controller and make the time. Instead of saying, “I don’t have the money to go to the conference,” apply for the scholarship or sell your old SLR on Craigslist. Instead of saying, “But I need this long-winded chapter on sex robots,” make the sex robots so important to the book that you can’t cut it. Basically, stop complaining, put on your big kid pants, solve your problems, and get out of your own way.
One of the most formative things that’s happened to me as an adult was when I was moping around the house because every time I drove by this horse pasture, it made me feel horrible. When my husband asked me why I was so sad, I said, “Because all I ever wanted as a kid was horses, and I still don’t have horses.” “So have horses,” he said. “Go take a lesson or schedule a trail ride or whatever.” And then I started my list of excuses: time, money, I needed a helmet, who would watch the kids. And my genius, brilliant, psychologist husband said, “If not now, when?”
Holy shit. I mean… IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
And… yeah. When? There’s no perfect time to take a chance. But every day you waste coming up with excuses is another day that you’re not acting on your dreams. If there’s something you want so badly that you feel shitty for not doing it or pursuing it, find a way to do it and a path to pursue it.
21. FIND YOUR TRIBE AND AVOID ASSHOLES.
I was a lonely, introverted kid and a bitchy, emo young adult. No one understood me. Everybody was phonies. I was basically Randal from Clerks. Then the internet came along and changed everything. Now, whoever you are and whatever you dig, there are other people just like you, and you can find them. And as an adult, you get to choose who you spend time with.
Let me repeat that: You get to choose the people with whom you spend your time.
If your family is jerks, you don’t have to give them your attention. You don’t have to be Facebook friends with them or stay on the phone with them or go to shitty reunions where everybody gets drunk and fights. You don’t have to be in a Mom’s Group that you hate or on a bowling team you hate or on the neighborhood HOA. I don’t care what your mama said or what your guilt is telling you, YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AROUND PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU MISERABLE.
Ok, maybe at your job you do. But in your free time, you never signed a contract to put up with assholes.
Whether it’s because I’m a woman or a Southerner, I was taught that you were nice to everybody, took abuse with a smile and an apology, and kept pushing that rock up the hill even when it made your life worse. Now? No one gets to treat me that way. No one automatically deserves your time and respect.
22. FIND OUT WHAT BLISSES YOU OUT AND DO IT REGULARLY.
Ok, maybe not if murder is what blisses you out. But there is something in your life that makes you completely blissful, and you probably don’t do it enough. For me, it’s horseback riding. I come home limp as a noodle with a kindness buzz that lasts for hours. Better than Valium! Here’s a trick: When you were in elementary school, what 3 things did you enjoy the most? They are most likely the same things, or close. For me, it was horses, reading, and playing on the playground alone. Still my favorites.
The way society is structured right now tells us that the only way to get exercise and “play” is to go to the gym and do repetitive bullshit. Ugh. So find a local soccer league, hit the ice skating rink, get into rock climbing. If you liked playing with dolls/action figures, try a LARP or D&D game or something online, like Storium. If you liked designing outfits, get a sewing machine and make your own clothes. Being an adult doesn’t mean your soul dies and you do only responsible crap and TV; it means you get to choose how to spend your time in the way that refills your well. No guilt. No embarrassment. Find a way to your flow, your bliss, to that place where you forget to worry. It’ll help your writing, I promise.
23. BUILD YOUR OWN ROLLER COASTER.
Life is like writing: you need to be excited about what’s happening next. If you’re not, engineer your own thrills. Every year in February, I have a little breakdown. Like clockwork. It’s dark, it’s cold, I haven’t seen the ocean, I’m dying inside, WHATEVER. Tears. So we plan our yearly trip to the beach. Once it’s on the calendar, I calm down. I just need to know that freedom is on the horizon.
These days, I know myself well enough to understand that I need an experience to look forward to every month. A conference, a vacation, a speaking gig, an overnight date with just my husband. I love travel. I love airplanes. I love seeing new places. So if I look at the calendar and see nothing but a month of deadlines, driving the kids around, and my husband being out of town, I try to find something for just me in there. If you’re a writer and can connect such an outing to your work, all the better: tax deductible!
24. BE A LEAF ON THE WIND.
The path to your dreams is not a straight line. It’s curvy and jagged and doubles back, and sometimes you have to run away from mantis shrimp. And that’s okay. I got an art degree, worked in project management, ran a gallery for my friend while she died of cancer, was a stay-at-home-mom for four years, got a rad $10-a-pop job writing reviews of posh products for moms and kids, and wrote two crappy books before I sold the third one, which wasn’t crappy. Each of these steps was utterly integral to my career as a traditionally published novelist.
When I urge you to learn how to say no, I mean how to say no to shitty stuff that you don’t want to do. The flip side is that you must know when to say yes, even if it’s scary or inconvenient. Say yes when it’s exciting, when it makes your heart sing and your palms sweat. Say yes to that sudden trip to Germany, to that online teaching gig, to that short story anthology. If you get offered the chance to write non-fiction but you really want to be a novelist, maybe that non-fic gig will open doors. Writing for an RPG, speaking on a panel where you feel hopelessly outgunned, interviewing someone a tier up from you: there are all sorts of ways to help build your network and skill set so that you can level up toward your goals.
Be easy to work with. Be pleasant. Hit your deadlines. Do what you say you’re going to do. Don’t be annoying or needy. Take measured risks. Think sideways. Don’t write to trends. Don’t get angry in public. Don’t punch down. Or up. Help elevate others. Give praise. Give thanks. Give an RT or a Share. Introduce yourself to new people, and not only those who can help you get where you want to be. People notice when you’re that kind of person. What you put out in the world? Comes back to you.
Most of all, remember that no matter what, everyone’s path is different. The thing about writing is that where success happens, the path is burned behind. Successful writers are basically fire slugs, and our slime is deadly. You can’t follow in anyone’s footsteps. You can’t write to trend or break an agent’s rules or corner some poor editor in the bathroom stall. You’ve got to put in the work.
Which leads me to…
25. WHEN IN DOUBT, GO BACK TO THE BARRE.
Yes, this isn’t ballet, and I know that because I suck at ballet and am not turned out at all and was told at age 7 that I was too fat. Yay! But I do know that I’m least happy as a writer when I start comparing myself to other people and getting envious. She got the big blurb, he hit list, she had another sale, he got a big award, she stole my title. I love social media for the connection with other writers, but there are some days when all the announcements and humblebrags and lists and cover reveals make me want to sad-scarf nineteen cakes and sleep for a week. That’s normal. But the worst thing you can do is send yourself into a jelly-spiral or rage-yap. Do not start badmouthing people or the whining about the industry. Do not announce your rejections. Do not blog about how awards are bullshit. Do not make yourself feel better by tearing people down.
Nope. Go back to your laptop. Get back into your story. Lose yourself in the words. Remember why you even give a shit about writing in the first place. Reread your favorite book. Pick up On Writing by Stephen King. Remember how FREAKING MAGICAL it is that human beings figured out how to create an alphabet and language and then print that shit on dead trees that we can carry around with us and shove at our friends, screeching, OMG YOU HAVE TO READ THIS.
Writing? Is amazing. Books? Are miracles. You? Are a god.
And there is nothing wrong with closing down Facebook and Twitter and pouring a glass of wine and writing your heart out. In fact, it’s often the very best thing you can do.
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Any questions? And would you read a book on this topic, plus a shit-ton of writing advice?
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Delilah S. Dawson’s next book is HIT, a YA about assassin teens in a bank-owned America, out from Simon Pulse in April. Right this moment, you can see all her stuff at www.whimsydark.com. She writes the Blud series, Servants of the Storm, short stories, comics, and Geekrotica under the pseudonym Ava Lovelace, including THE LUMBERFOX and THE SUPERFOX.