Category Archives: about me

All Good Things Must

For nine years I’ve had a dog. Boxer. White, with a left-side pirate patch and sad eyes. High-energy, clever, eager to please. But I’ve had so much more than that.

For nine years I’ve had a shadow, first following me around as I followed the kids, then trailing behind me as I did my work in an otherwise empty house when everyone else was at work or school. My shadow slept by my side while I wrote stories I thought no one would ever read, sat in the kitchen while I cooked, looked for me if I disappeared when he was napping.

For nine years I’ve had an angel whose need for exercise motivated me to walk, which turned out to be the best thing for my depression. He urged me to keep up with that little act of self-care and helped me get back to feeling like myself. And he jogged with me, at least until his aging body couldn’t run anymore.

And then we walked again, because I couldn’t lace up my shoes and run without him.

For nine years I’ve had a friend, someone I could talk to when there was no one else, who listened without judgement. He laid his head on my lap and gazed up at me, letting me know I was loved unconditionally, that I was never alone.

For weeks now, my shadow has been fading. He hasn’t been eating. He’s been in pain, though no one can tell me why. I’ve done everything I could to keep him with us, even when he didn’t like the examinations and medicines.

But he kept fading.

A few days ago, my friend gave up. He stopped trying to follow his family around the house and instead stayed in bed all day, only getting up when prompted—and then not at all. The light went out of his eyes, though he still listened, still responded to gentle affection.

I didn’t want to give up, but there comes a time when it’s cruel to force someone onward when their journey is so clearly over.

We humans take familiar things for granted—shadows, friends, angels. I think I’ve appreciated mine while I had him, knowing it wouldn’t last forever, but I still wish we had more time.

We don’t, though. Today it was time to repay all the kindness this beautiful spirit has heaped on my family all these years.

Jack spent his last day in the shade of the maple trees in his yard, surrounded by his family, before his trip to the vet. He died peacefully at 4:30.

It hurts. A lot. But he’s okay now. And we will be, too.


Success By Any Other Name

So. I’ve been off Facebook for a while. I’ve been away from here, too, but Facebook has been the big change.

I needed quiet.

It’s not the updates or the friends that I’ve been avoiding, or even the unavoidable drama. It’s about me and my anxiety. My depression. And above all, my creativity.

I’ve been struggling for a long time. As much as I love writing–as much as I NEED writing as a way to connect with the world, figure myself out, and say things I can’t say any other way–the business side of it has never been good for me. Marketing is an anxiety trigger (for reasons I won’t go into here), and when I found myself unable to do it without breaking down in tears I was getting insanely stressed out in a seemingly unending spiral of stress-anxiety-shame-stress-lather-rinse-repeat.

You see, I thought I was a failure if I never got back to the sales numbers and income that I had with my first books, so I kept pushing.

Because here’s you see on social media when you’re an author:

SELL MORE BOOKS! WRITE FASTER OR FANS WILL FORGET YOU EXIST! TAKE UP MORE SHELF SPACE! WRITE WHAT’S POPULAR AND GRAB NEW FANS! MASTER FACEBOOK ADS! HAVE IT ALL BY HITTING A LIST! BUY THIS COURSE! HUSTLE HARDER AND YOU CAN WIN THE GAME!

And I’m not saying those are bad things to want. They’re good things for the right person, and I’m glad there are people out there who can help.

But when I’m on Facebook and it’s all I see, I start to think that that’s the only way to define creative success these days. Amazon followers. Little orange flags. Instagram likes. Facebook comments. Newsletter subscribers. HUSTLE HUSTLE HUSTLE, and there’s something seriously wrong with you if you’d rather not be in the fast lane.

I needed some time off to get myself away from all of that to understand that I’m allowed to define success for myself.

Honestly, I still don’t know what that means. What I have figured out, I think, is that I can’t let writing become a constant source of stress or I’ll lose everything that made me fall in love with it in the first place. I can’t chase goals that will leave me mentally and emotionally exhausted, with nothing left to offer my family and friends at the end of the day. And that’s where I’ve been headed, honestly.

I do know what I want, I think. I want to take my time, writing gorgeous books that I’ve had a chance to fall in love with, exploring every bit of inspiration and insight that I didn’t see until the second (or third, or fifth) draft without worrying that I have to publish NOW to keep the balls in the air. I want to take days off when the sun is shining and the beach or the blueberry patch is calling, or when the kids are sick or have a snow day. I want to read more. Learn more. Be bored more. Explore stories that have no chance of selling but that I want to tell because they inspire me. Blog more, and not just about writing. Take more time to share other people’s ideas and projects and successes and help them achieve the goals that feel right for them.

I can’t do that AND be stressed out about ticking all of the marketing boxes. Some people can do it all. I can’t. And I’m not sure I want to, given what I know of what it costs me and my brain (bless it).

So I’m in the process of choosing new goals. It’s hard. It’s one thing to say that I want my writing to be about creativity rather than fame or finances, but I do tend to compare myself to others and feel like I’m somehow falling behind if I let myself be happy with what I have instead of CHASING THE DREEEEAAAAAMMMMM that it seems I’m supposed to have.

It’s a process, as is everything else in life. Maybe some day I’ll get there.

I’m not giving up on writing or publishing, or even marketing. I’m at the end of a (damn good, if I may say so myself) 7-book series under my pen name and would really like to see those stories connect with readers who will love them. I’d like to keep publishing, which means making money for edits and such, which means selling books.

I think what I’m trying to do, really, is give up on the stress,the time-suck, the HUSTLE, the bitterness, and the expectations of anything other than writing books that I’m proud to call mine.

I’m trying to get back to the pure joy of playing in my sandbox and then showing off what I’ve made in the hope that others will also find pleasure in it.

I’m trying to fall in love again.

We’ll see how it goes.


But It’s So Early…

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Confession: I actually like dark winter mornings.

The thing to do seems to be to complain about them—how hard it is to get out of bed when it feels like the middle of the night, how impossible it seems to wake up, how cold the house feels after leaving a warm, cozy bed. And those things are true. I want to stay in bed every morning, even if I’m awake before my alarm. My bed is so much more comfortable in the morning than it is at bedtime, my mind is so much more relaxed (not to mention my body). It’s especially tempting to linger when I know I’ve remembered to turn the thermostats down overnight and the house will be cold until I turn them back up and brought the house a little closer to the “comfort zone.”

The disadvantages of being the first one up.

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“Highway to the…”*

I could be miserable about it. And I think I would be if I felt like I was being forced out of bed, stumbling to the bathroom and being thrown into the chaos of waking kids up, making lunches, and getting our days started and then having to rush into my work.

But a while ago I started getting up an hour and a half before I wake the kids up on school days, and it’s helped me look at these mornings a little differently.

It’s hard to get out of bed, but when I do I usually have the house to myself. I turn the heat up and make myself a nest of blankets in my favourite chair to retreat to after I’ve stretched muscles that have cramped up overnight. I light a candle or turn on some electric votives and watch them flicker as I sit and plan my day. I meditate in a house that’s full of life but that sounds empty save for an occasional snore and the sounds of the cats running around (and body slamming each other repeatedly to the floor most days… morning is high energy time for some creatures in this house). I cook myself eggs and read or listen to a podcast instead of shovelling cold cereal into my mouth like I might manage if I were trying to fit my own morning around everyone else’s needs.

I take care of myself like it’s actually a priority.

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There’s something pleasantly lonesome in a dark winter morning, and a kind of calmness I don’t feel when I get up at the same time in the summer.

That’s not to say I won’t appreciate early sunrises when they come. Instead of candles I’ll have the sun filtering through coloured glass, casting bright shadows on the walls. Instead of cozying in with blankets, I’ll have a refreshing shower (which I’ll need if this summer is as hot as the last one was). It will probably be easier to get out of bed. Maybe I’ll even sit outside sometimes to drink my coffee if the bugs aren’t too bad.

But for now, I like this—the chill, the darkness, feeling grateful for my chair, my blankets, and sturdy walls to keep the howling wind at bay.

Quiet winter mornings make it easy to be thankful.

____

*That’s right. I live in Canada, but my thermostats are so old they measure in Fahrenheit and apparently date back to a time when the only thing that existed between 55 and 90 was “comfort.”


A Tail of Two Kitties

(No, I will not apologize for that post title. ZERO REGRETS.)

Tomorrow we celebrate the release of Covenant (Immortal Soulless Book Four)*. It’s been a wild ride so far, and I’ve met lots of characters I’ve fallen completely in love with, many of them unexpected guests at this particular party. But there’s one who has a very special place in my heart.

The series takes place in Newfoundland, though it’s a darker and more dangerous version of the island than what you see in the tourism videos. I use a mixture of real and invented locations, but every character save for one is entirely made-up. And that one character is fictional… but also not.

Is that confusing? Let me start over with the story of how a blotchy-faced kitten from the SPCA ended up on the pages of a book (and with his claws sunk firmly into the author’s heart).

It all started with a Facebook post. Two kittens alone in the wild, brought in to a shelter. Brothers. Adorable, as kittens tend to be. I saw the post and immediately wanted to adopt the one they were calling “Jiggy”, though it seemed obvious to me that that wasn’t his name. I sent the post to my husband, half-jokingly saying that we could name the black-and-white kitten Rorschach.

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WOOKIT DEM.

Was it unfair to play to his comic book-loving heart with a reference to Watchmen? Maybe. But in my defence I knew we weren’t going to adopt him. We already had two cats and two dogs, and a half-wild kitten seemed like a huge challenge we didn’t need. It was just a cute joke.

But I couldn’t forget that odd little face.

At the time I was in the process of revising Resurrection, book one of the Immortal Soulless series. And suddenly there he was. This kitten I’d seen in that Facebook post was transported to a fictional version of St. John’s. He escorted my protagonist into a diner, jumped up onto the counter, and made himself at home.

Now, the version in the story wasn’t exactly the kitten I’d seen in the photo. Rory (as he’s known in the story) was an older cat. He wasn’t rescued as a kitten and offered a good home. No, this guy was older and larger. Wiser. Tougher. Beat-up. A bit like this, looking like he should have a tiny cigar hanging out of his mouth:

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Sketchy character, that one

A cat who’s seen a lot, who’s suspicious of strangers, especially those who look human but aren’t quite what they seem.

I liked having him in the book. He fit. It worked.

And then my in-laws adopted his brother, and Jiggy the hard-to-rehome kitten was left ALONE AT THE SPCA.

Long story short: I drove out a few days later and came home with the kitten who’d already found his way onto the pages of my book.

But here’s where it gets funny.

That big, battle-scarred, streetwise cat from the book? He’s still entirely fictional in everything but his coat markings.

Because here’s what we ended up with:

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“BONJOUR, HOOMAN!”

Maybe he was the runt of the litter, or maybe I spoiled him so hard that he decided to stay a kitten forever. Whatever the case, Rorschach never went through the “huge feet, long legs” stage, and he never got particularly big for a male cat. He’s almost two years old now and isn’t nearly as large as his brother.

And he’s… different.

The kitten we never expected to come out of his shell now follows me around and talks to me when I get up in the morning. He hollers for me if he can’t find me in the evening. He likes odd foods and will try to steal your blueberry muffin if you don’t keep a close eye on it. He doesn’t blink much, which makes him look a bit nutty. He races around the house making strange noises, and if he escapes out the back door he inevitably freaks out and ends up stuck under the back deck.

Not exactly the cat who ended up in that first book, but an entertaining one nonetheless.

Rory only appeared in Resurrection once, and then only on a few pages. I honestly expected that to be the end of him. But if you’ve been reading the series you know that Imogen (the diner waitress who’s “his” human) showed up again at the end of Atonement. That was a surprise for me, but not as much of a surprise as what came next.

Imogen came back again in Covanant, and she turned out to be far more than she seemed at first glance. And Rory? Well, I can’t say he’s been thrilled about it, but he’s come along for the ride, and he even played a part in unravelling the mystery that plays out on the pages of Covenant.

…which means that a chance encounter with an SPCA Facebook post affected the course of this book series.

Does the real Rorschach know or care? I doubt it. I’ve told him, but I don’t think he was listening. He was too busy knocking stuff off the mantel and bothering his big sisters.

He may have had a rough start in life, but the real-life counterpart of a badass fictional feline seems quite pleased with his own happy ending.

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*knocks sea glass onto floor*

 


Resurrection is available for a limited time for 99 cents in ebook! Click here for links.

COVER1WITHTEXT

 

Since the night of Aviva’s murder she’s been forced to accept a new reality—burned by sunlight, dependent on the blood of the living, searching for her place in a dark world she didn’t believe existed until she awoke as a vampire. When rogue vampires arrive in her clan’s territory and threaten the uneasy peace of the supernatural world, Aviva finds strength in darkness and discovers gifts that are considered shameful in the eyes of vampire society. Powers like hers are dangerous, but they might be her only hope of standing between a pack of ruthless killers and the unsuspecting humans they prey on.  


 

*I think most of you know by now that Tanith Frost is my pen name. It’s not much of a secret.


What About the Symphony?

I wasn’t going to post today, but I ran across an idea in my morning reading (quoted in Thrive by Arianna Huffington) that made me think–and that I thought might be helpful for others, as well.

“No one imagines that a symphony is supposed to improve in quality as it goes along or that the whole point of it is to reach the finale. The point of music is discovered in every moment of playing and listening to it. It is the same, I feel, with the greater part of our lives, and if we are unduly absorbed in improving them we may forget altogether to live them.”

-Alan Watts

Quite the idea to process while I was going over my plans for the day, setting my goals, and generally trying to take steps to improve my life. Does this mean we should let go with the idea of improving ourselves, our circumstances, our productivity (*cough*), or our lives?

I don’t think so. But it’s a great reminder to look at why I’m setting the goals I am, why I’m creating new habits, and why I’m putting so much damned work into making my days work for me instead of letting them slip away.

Because, as with so much of life, it’s about balance.

I don’t have a boss. Nobody’s going to fire me if I’m unproductive in the short term. Maybe that’s why it’s easy for me to let a day go by and feel like I’ve wasted it (especially if I’m in a bad place with social media or other things that seem enjoyable, but really add nothing to my life). That’s why I need a to do list, why I set my top three priorities for the day, why I get my work done before I play.

On the other hand, it’s also far too easy to buy into the self-improvement hype that says you can do anything and everything if only you believe in yourself… which really means you’re falling short if you’re not doing, having, and being it all (and posting it on Instagram, obviously). To focus so much on what we should be doing to better our lives that we never actually stop to reflect on how far we’ve come or to enjoy the benefits of all this improvement.

I mean, so many things that I do don’t seem like parts of a symphony. I meditate, but I often find the process uncomfortable. I work so hard on my writing that the fun bit where I’m making up stories for my own enjoyment is dwarfed by the analysis, the problem solving, the revisions, the editing, the learning about writing craft–things that can be rewarding in the end, but are often stressful in the moment (and don’t even get me started on marketing, bookkeeping, or taxes). I don’t enjoy telling my kids to get off their tablets and enduring their grumbling, and I don’t enjoy getting them to clean up after themselves when it would really be easier and less stressful to do it myself. I don’t enjoy cooking or cleaning at all. And playing with my schedule and tracking results was rather tedious.

Why not let it go?

Because though I don’t always enjoy this stuff in the moment, it improves my quality of life in general.

Meditation is helping me stay in the moment and is helping me distance myself from emotions and physical pain that might otherwise consume me. Improving my writing means a better experience for my readers, and it offers me immense satisfaction in knowing that I’m learning and growing (and all that other crap makes it possible for me to keep writing, because income to cover editing costs is rather essential). The effort I put into making my kids do things they don’t like is helping them establish habits that will help them (and me) in the long run. Cooking puts food on the table, and while I don’t like cleaning, I do like a clean house.

And as for improving my productivity, I’m happier when I’m getting stuff done, and everyone in this house is happier when I’m not stressed about deadlines that crept up while I was procrastinating. I like knowing that I’m doing my best.

…And none of that is me disagreeing with the quote. It’s why this idea is so important.

Because I do get caught up in it. I feel at times like every minute has to be well spent on working toward a goal or doing something productive. I tend to become unduly absorbed in improving my life.

At times I need to be reminded to stop and smell the damn roses. To appreciate the “fog happiness” that my work offers if only I take time to step away from the stresses and appreciate it.

To actually live the life I’m working so hard at.

Who I am and what I’m doing right now are important and worth enjoying all on their own. This moment and this day aren’t just steps toward some end goal, and what I’ve got now is pretty damned amazing.

Not every day has to be perfect. Blah days and down days and unproductive days are normal and fine. But taken as a whole, there’s a whole lot to appreciate, even in darker times.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done to get to where I am, and my life is immensely more satisfying than it was five years ago. I’ll keep working on improving what I can as needs arise.

But this morning, I added that quote to my bullet journal. I put it on the January “memories” page, on the back of my habit tracker and directly opposite the spot where I note my accomplishments for the month.

Because it’s easy to note the good stuff without really stopping to go, “Yes, I did a thing that improved my life. I did a favour for Future Me, and she’s going to be thrilled about it. I helped make someone else’s life better. I did something I couldn’t have imagined doing a year ago. I improved a relationship even though it felt awkward in the moment. I changed my world in some way.”

It’s easy for me to just jump into the next goal, to not stop to listen and enjoy the symphony as it plays, and to become unduly absorbed in the improvements as though there’s some end goal I’m racing for.

This moment, right now, even with all of its stresses and problems, is what I dreamed of just a few years ago. There’s no guarantee anything will last forever. Every symphony ends. I’m glad to have been reminded to appreciate mine while it lasts.

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The Social Media Break

A few weeks ago, I sat down in my living room for a visit with two people. We talked… sort of. They both had their phones out, and their eyes were on the screens even when they were answering questions directed at them or offering distracted contributions to the conversation.

A few months ago, I’d have had mine out, too. It’s just kind of the way things seem to go these days. Even if we all start the evening with good intentions and our phones in our pockets, they come out as soon as there’s a question that could be googled (or someone gets a ping that says another conversation demands their attention, so everyone else gets theirs out, too, just to check). And then the devices don’t necessarily go away. There’s always another app to look at, a YouTube video everyone else just has to see while the phone is out, another response to that online conversation. A lot of us feel naked without our phones in our hands. Understimulated. Bored, even when we’re sitting with loved ones we haven’t seen in a month.

This post isn’t about criticizing anyone who’s committed to the always-online lifestyle. I get how appealing it is to have a constant source of (free!) entertainment. I know the pain of worrying about missing something.

And I’m not saying socializing online is bad. I have friends I’ve never met in person, but I consider those friendships as real as any I’ve had in real life. I credit social media with exposing me to a lot of ideas I’d never have considered if I was only experiencing life with the people who happened to live near me. A lot of us work or do our marketing online. Fairly important stuff, as it turns out.

Social media can be cool. I’m aware that Facebook is not, in fact, cool anymore. But neither am I, and it happens to be where my friends are. So that’s been my challenge.

And since I mentioned in a post a while back that I was taking some time away from it, I thought I’d share the results. (If you scroll back a little in my posts here, you’ll find that this wasn’t my first attempt. It has, however, been my most successful thus far.)

I didn’t track the results of this experiment like I am with my productivity stuff. It was just something I needed to do, and I did it (mostly). I didn’t like how much time I was wasting scrolling through my Facebook feed, refreshing it when I ran out of new things to look at. I knew while I was doing it that I was wasting time, that I’d be miserable after, that I should stop. That I wanted to stop. It didn’t matter. It was a thing that I did, one that occasionally rewarded me with an interesting (but almost always useless) hit of information or entertainment.

As Manoush Zomorodi notes in my current non-fiction read, Bored and Brilliant, “I wasn’t using my smartphone to connect. I was using it to escape.” We’re not talking about me using the service intentionally or productively for personal or business purposes. I was getting nothing out of it (except the pleasant little chemical blips in my brain when my efforts were rewarded with a comment or interaction). But it was there. So I was there, too, even though I knew it was bad for me.

Scary.

And then there’s Messenger. I always felt less guilty about spending time having conversations with friends than I did about mindless scrolling and reading, but my desire to always be available was hurting me. The fact that I was responding to every message right away was eating into work time. A lot.

And worse, I had my phone in hand when I was with the kids and they wanted my attention. I wasn’t neglecting them, but it was getting to the point where I was a little concerned that they might engrave just give me a second I’m talking to someone on my gravestone some day.

Now, I expect my family to respect the time and space I need when I’m working, reading, or doing something that’s important to me. I don’t want to raise kids who expect everyone to drop everything any time they want to talk about what Dan TDM is up to today. But I do want them to know that they’re more important than anything that comes through my phone, work-related or not. And when I’m with family or physically present friends, I don’t want to be distracted by thoughts of what I might be missing elsewhere.

Some of you probably know what I’m talking about, but obviously this isn’t a problem for everyone. You might be reading this and shaking your head, with words like willpower and self-control rattling around in your head because you have those things and I so clearly don’t. I’m not going to try to explain it.

Just know that I had a problem, I recognized that it was a problem, and I decided to do something about it.

Moderation isn’t my strong suit, so I went very nearly cold turkey off Facebook, only checking in occasionally with my reader group and posting once in a while to my author page. I deleted the app (not for the first time). I told friends that if I didn’t answer messages, it wasn’t because I was ignoring them. I just wasn’t checking my phone. I turned off messaging on my author page because a) the system is glitchy anyway, and b) my email address is readily available on my website if anyone really needs to reach me.

I was already in the habit of not keeping my phone in the bedroom. I had an alarm clock radio to wake me up, which meant that checking my phone was no longer the first thing I did every day. I’d seen the benefits of postponing that kind of distraction, even if some days that only meant delaying it until I got downstairs and gave in to the urge to check for notifications. Oh, and I’d turned off sound/vibration notifications for Messenger and incoming emails a while back, too.*

So what happened when I really tried to kick the habit, left my phone plugged in most of the time, and started going up to a week without visiting Facebook?

I started finding 99+ notifications when I did drop by Facebook, and found that almost none of them were anything I actually needed to click on. But when I was on there all the time, I’d have spent a lot of time clicking, anyway.

I missed out on finding out that my mom got a new car. And then she told me in an actual conversation. So that was cool.

I stopped checking in with author groups that are full of information I feel like I should know, but that I never use. So yes, I’ve learned less. I’ve also wasted less time learning stuff I won’t use, and I know where to find that information when I decide I do want to use it.**

I stopped feeling anxious when other people seem to be doing, being, and achieving more than me. I settled into my own goals and my current focus on writing, and I let go of my panic over all the promotion everyone else seems to be doing. For the first time in ages, doing my personal best started to feel like enough.

I realized that most of the people I interact with online aren’t really my friends. Those interactions of convenience are really fun, and I genuinely like a lot of those acquaintances. They’re funny and insightful and inspiring when I bump into them. But me dropping off their radar hasn’t made any impact on their lives, and not getting their news hasn’t hurt mine. I’m a lot less lonely than I thought I’d be without them.

I kept in touch with the people who really are my friends and those who made the effort to message me directly, but spent less time disagreeing with strangers and getting pissed off by posts from people I don’t really care about (but who nonetheless get under my skin). My stress levels dropped accordingly.

I had online conversations when it made sense in my schedule, when I wasn’t supposed to be working and when real life people didn’t need my attention. When I could give those online friends the attention that they deserved.

I started paying more attention when I watched TV and movies, and was actually there with the people I was watching them with.

I saw fewer ads for stuff I don’t need and suffered through less of that horrible feeling I get when I realize how targeted Facebook’s ads really are (don’t even get me started on how damn creepy that gets).

I missed Stephen King’s birthday. There’s no up-side to that, except that I’m 100% sure he’s not personally offended by me not posting about it.

I started reading more. Instead of having my phone in my hand while I cooked or when I relaxed after supper, I had a book handy. I started choosing nonfiction books on random topics that caught my attention and found that going deep in a topic in book form was way more satisfying than getting the Cliffs Notes version from a short article.

I started being a little more present in my own life. That night when my companions both had their phones in their hands and the conversation fell into regular lulls as they read posts or had other conversations, I enjoyed the cat who had plopped himself on my lap. I paid attention to how soft his fur was, tickled his little pink toe beans,  and tried to figure out how he managed to be solid and liquid at the same time, oozing into every little space between me and the chair. (I decided that his variable physical state had something to do with the constant vibrations coming from his throat. Or that he’s actually some sort of fuzzy amoeba.)

I stopped losing track of time so often. And I got a little more of my crap done.

And I realized that the things I do are real and important even if I don’t share them with everyone I know. Crazy.

That’s not to say I’m some kind of mindfulness devotee now. I’m still highly distractible, especially when there’s work to be done. Meditation frustrates me. If I’m sitting still, my brain’s working at top speed. My memory is still crap. I have trouble getting to work (though cutting out a few potential distractions has been very helpful). I’m still constantly searching for any kind of mental stimulation, and reading has picked up a lot of the slack that the Facebook void created.

That last sentence might look like six of one and half a dozen of the other, but I’m enjoying seeking out information that interests me instead of accepting whatever happens to be presented. Who knew cannibalism was so fascinating?!*** And yes, I’m missing out on a lot of current events-type news. But I’m learning to say, “No, I didn’t know, can you tell me more?” when someone asks “Hey, did you hear about…?” And that leads to a conversation, and to something I can find information about from sources I trust. So that’s kind of cool on both fronts.

It feels like more of my mental energy is going into ideas now. I’m daydreaming more. Noticing more. I’m thinking about story problems instead of reaching for the nearest distraction to numb my pain when I hit a speedbump in my draft…

…Sometimes. The temptation to just shove the problem aside and go read an unrelated book or write a blog post will likely never go away, and I’m starting to accept that it will always be a struggle.

The first few weeks were hard, but I was actually surprised by how quickly checking on my Facebook group turned into something I put off because I didn’t want to face the stressful information flood of my timeline and useless notifications. I’m actually way behind on posting there. Sorry, guys. (Side note: They’re an amazing bunch of people. I can’t quit them.)

So yeah. Taking time away from Facebook (and Twitter, which I never really liked anyway) has absolutely been beneficial for me. I feel less scattered, and more in control. I like the fact that I’m reading more. I like that I’m not saying just a second every time a member of my family wants to talk to me, and I’m so much calmer when I’m not reading a steady stream of opinions, complaints, and pointless arguments every day.

Is it sustainable? Probably not on a professional level. Being discoverable is kind of essential if I want to meet people who might want to buy my books. There is information out there that I need, and I’ve always liked picking up ideas from unexpected sources. I likely wouldn’t be where I am in my career without the people I happened to meet online when I was in the right place at the right time. I’m missing out on learning what other authors are doing to promote their work and on making connections with people who I might be able to help some day. I’ve likely gone too far into Full Hermit mode, and the pendulum needs to swing back a bit so I don’t become totally closed off and clueless.

But on a personal level?

Yeah. I actually think I’ll stay away for a while longer. And then I’ll creep back slowly. I’ll leave groups and unfollow people who aren’t really adding anything to my online experience. I’ll try to start getting photos printed for myself instead of just posting them for everyone else. I’ll focus on making sure that when I do post, it’s adding something positive to someone else’s newsfeed.

And I’ll limit my time. Instead of setting one day a week or a few hours a day aside as social media-free, I’ll only be on there for a set amount of time. I’ll use that time to make it work for me, and I’ll do my best to remember that my phone is my tool, not my master.

I mean, I’ll try.

It’s all I can do.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some kitty cat toe beans to tickle.

 


 

*I highly recommend both of these ideas if you’re interested in cutting back on social media distractions. Having a bit of clear mental space in the morning helps me remember that exposing myself to the quicksand flood of newsfeeds and tweets is a choice, not a foregone conclusion, and it makes me think about the real world first. It also means my phone screen isn’t the last thing I see before I go to sleep. And turning off notifications means that I choose when I get messages. They can’t distract me from my work or whatever else I’m doing unless I let them. For me, setting those boundaries is in and of itself powerful.

**By which time all of the information I’m not learning now will be obsolete anyway. Another note: Checking in with these groups actually feels like work now. I’m at least temporarily off the obsessive treadmill of constantly needing to keep up with information. Whether that will be a good thing in the long run, I have no idea. But I am spending more time actually writing books.

***Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt. So entertaining. Really.


The Sticky Stuff

I’ve tried a lot of productivity methods and planners that didn’t work out for me. Here are a few things that have helped. None of them work perfectly or keep me on track all of the time, but they’ve made a huge difference nonetheless. If you have questions or would like to see a separate post on any of them, please let me know!

  • Goal setting. Even if I don’t always hit my deadlines, knowing what I want to accomplish and how/when I intend to get there is the biggest idea that’s helped me in my work. I set goals for finishing books, set 90 day goals for work and home projects, and choose my top three goals for every week and every day.
  • Prioritizing. This connects to those top three daily tasks. By writing down what I’d want to accomplish even if nothing else got done, I remind myself what my priorities are and how I should be spending my time.
  • Weekly planning. Having a nice quality planner that I can decorate (or not) as the mood strikes me makes me want to use it. And taking time on Sundays to get a bird’s eye view of the week ahead helps prevent surprises and crises along the way because I know what’s coming and what I need to accommodate for. I plan meals for the week, too, so I’m not running to the store/scrambling to figure out what to eat/saying “screw it, let’s get McDonald’s” too often.
  • My bullet journal. I’ve tried other daily and weekly planners, and use a pre-printed weekly planner for family stuff. But for my personal needs, nothing beats a blank dot-grid notebook. It holds my long-term goals, project notes, ideas, reference pages for everything from school schedules to clothing sizes, weekly review notes, reading lists, brain dumps, reading notes, monthly/weekly/daily plans… it’s my brain on paper, basically, allowing me to externalize a lot of the things that I’d otherwise forget or be distracted by as I tried to juggle them all in my mind. My daily pages have space for my top 3 tasks, a reminder of the larger goals I’m working toward, to do list (with unfinished tasks migrated to the next day so I don’t lose them), my desired vs actual schedule, notes, and gratitude lists. Weeks include the meal plan, grocery list, goals, a look at next week’s events, and “to do” items I want to transfer to my days. And if I need it to do something else for me, I just create a new page for it or change my week/day’s layout.
  • Figuring out where analogue and digital work best for me. Planning apps, whether it’s iCal for scheduling or Scapple for brainstorming, just don’t work for me. I plan and brainstorm best with a pen in hand and pages I can flip back through, make charts on, doodle all over, and connect with on a physical level. I find that for me electronic notes seem to get lost or forgotten easily, and I find it harder to see connections between unrelated items in separate electronic documents than I do when they’re on physical pages. I remember things better when I mark them down in my own handwriting, and just reading them back in that format often jogs additional ideas that weren’t quite there yet when I made the note. BUT. I don’t draft on paper. Trying to do so drives me batty. I need to type so my hands have a chance of keeping up with my brain, so I can rework sentences as I’m writing them (just part of my personal process), and so I can easily search for previous scenes and information (GOD BLESS SCRIVENER xo). I plan my scenes on paper, then write them on my laptop. (Note: when I keep a journal, it’s on paper. And quickly turns into a bit of a scrapbook stuffed with movie tickets, candy bar wrappers, and movie tickets. It’s hard to do that in an app. I should get back to it some day…)21886923_10155476411810325_826380582_o
  • Limiting social media time and access. Social media is a problem for me. I can lose hours scrolling and clicking on Buzzfeed lists only to discover later that I gained nothing from that time except maybe a headache from staring at the screen, but the temptation to “just take a quick look” can be unbearable. I mean, come on. There are Ten Things I Don’t Know About David Hasselhoff’s Bellybutton? Click. It goes beyond simple willpower and self-control, and I’m aware that it’s not healthy. I try not to carry my phone around with me. I removed the Facebook app from my phone to make access at least a little less convenient. And I try not to let myself post until my work is done for the day, as the temptation to check for notifications is far worse after I do. Social media can be great if you like what you get out of it. For me, the costs aren’t worth the rewards on most sites, so I’m limiting my time. Side note: I am reading SO MUCH MORE now that scrolling’s not an option! Still in kind of a fiction slump, but good HEAVENS am I finding some interesting non-fiction…and none of it about the Hoff’s navel.
  • Daily exercise, ideally outdoors. I realized the importance of this several years ago. It has a huge impact on my mood and mental health as well as my physical condition. Taking forty minutes or an hour out of the day seems counter-productive in terms of getting work done, but I’m not bringing my best self to the office if I don’t get physical activity and fresh air into my day. It’s also a great time to let my mind wander–and if I don’t get that, I feel like a shaken-up soda bottle that’ll explode at any second. I need the release valve.

    21894966_10155475852070325_1932274789_o

    I have extra motivation to get out. This is the face that follows me EVERYWHERE until he gets his walk.

  • Having a routine. This isn’t important for everyone, but as it turns out, it is for me. A routine means I’m working consistently, not waiting on inspiration or a time when I feel like working (which honestly never happens). It also means I’m not using my mental energy and willpower on deciding what to do next. I know what to expect and what to prepare for. I know where my brain needs to be focused, so even when it’s difficult I’m a little less inclined to give up and do something easier. It also helps me remember to do routine tasks that I might otherwise forget, like feeding the dog (right after he goes out in the morning) or watering my plants (Tuesdays, with apologies to those who died in my pre-routine days). Summer vacation was a great reminder for me of two things: how great my kids are, and how desperately I need the routine that school provides for all of us. That said, I’ve learned that scheduling every hour of every day also doesn’t work for me. It’s too much pressure, and I instinctively fight against it. It works for a lot of people, though, so don’t write it off if you haven’t tried it.
  • Working in my office. Interruptions are my kryptonite. I can’t wrangle my brain into a focused state if I anticipate visitors, deliveries, or people talking to me when I’m trying to put ideas on paper. Like, it’s insane how my mind clutches its pearls and reaches for the smelling salts at the idea of distractions…. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because it takes me so long to get into that focused state that my brain knows it’s wasting its energy if it fights that good fight only to have to start over because MOM WHAT ARE WE HAVING FOR SUPPER*. Not so stupid after all, maybe, even if it doesn’t help me much when I have 30 minutes to work and can’t get anything done. In either case, once I do get focused, I become quite irritable if I’m interrupted for any reason. So the best plan for me is to stick a Do Not Disturb sign on the office door and close that door, physically marking a separate time and space for focus.**
  • Writing down distractions as they pop up. Whether they go into my bullet journal or onto a post-it note, I write down every idea that threatens to derail me. Need to call the school about that thing? Write it down, do it later. Missed a birthday? Whoopsie-doodle, better make a note to get in touch with them later. Forgot to take the chicken out of the freezer? It’ll still be there when this work sprint is over. Writing it all down means it’s not taking up memory/mental processing space, and putting it somewhere visible takes away the worry that I’ll forget it. And if it’s a fun idea, I can use it as a reward and take care of it on my next break. WOOHOO LAUNDRY YASSSSS!
  • Sorting out my values. This is a huge, ongoing thing for me, but it’s making a difference in how I do everything. It’s easy to accept other people’s definitions of success and ideas of what a good life looks like, but if they don’t align with your personal values, they’re going to lead you to making choices that either don’t motivate you or make you miserable. Making a six-figure income is a pretty standard definition of success, and you can find loads of books, podcasts, and advice on how to do that as an author… but for me it would require changes in my life that I’m not ready to make. You can also find a lot of books/podcasts/posts on how to crank out more stories, faster. A fine goal, but what excites me is immersing myself in my stories and characters in ways I can’t manage if I’m rushing them out the door. I can’t have both at the moment, so for now I choose to go deep instead of wide. Hitting the NYT bestseller list is an amazing achievement, but it requires investment of money and promotion time that I’m choosing to spend on other things. My values and needs aren’t better or worse than anyone’s who chooses those other goals. As long as we’re both excited by what we’re doing and not hurting anyone in the process, we’re both successful. But if I chased their goals or they felt forced into my idea of a balanced life, we’d be miserable. Taking time to make a conscious choice about this has alleviated a lot of stress for me. It’s something I’ll have to keep coming back to (I’ll likely want to focus more on commercial success after the kids are out of the house, or maybe travel and new experiences will become a new value), but knowing what I want right now makes it easier to say no to things that don’t align with those values. And I hope that in the long run it will help me stop comparing my achievements to other people’s. (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is a great place to start looking at this if you want a fun, irreverent read that contains a ton of f-bombs and a lot of interesting ideas about pain, choices, and values. The audiobook version is excellent, too, though NSFW.)
  • Getting enough sleep. It’s not always good sleep, but I aim for 7.5 to 8 hours in bed a night. I limit caffeine intake after about 2:00 in the afternoon and try to stay off my computer/phone/tablet for an hour before bed***. I’ve had some bad experiences with non-restorative sleep and with loss of sleep time because of work or babies. I have no intention of going back to that kind of exhaustion if I can avoid it. My brain might screw up a lot on a good day, but it’s nothing compared to days when I’m sleep deprived. I’m having trouble with sleep quality these days, but at least I can try to control the quantity.

That’s about it, I guess. Some of it’s practical, some of it’s a bit more ephemeral, but it all works for me. And these are things I won’t be changing during this experiment (unless I have to to test something else out).

I should note that none of this turns me into a productivity machine. No matter how well I plan and prioritize my day, my brain will try to keep me away from writing, and making myself focus will be at best frustrating and at worst painful. I will likely never find a trick, a drug, an idea, or a coach that can turn me into an eight-hours-and-ten-thousand-words-a-day writer.

But at least I’m going into battle prepared, and I’m getting a lot more done than I used to.

If you’ve got thoughts on what helps you get stuff done, go ahead and leave them in the comments! We’ll take a deeper look at what’s happened since I cut down on social media in a future post, plus anything else that seems relevant to the experiment.

Next week: The results of week one of the Godawful Early Schedule. Dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN…


 

*Answer: It doesn’t matter, just eat it.

**I haven’t always had an office door I could close. Before we moved to this house two years ago, I didn’t. I tried working at a desk in the living room, but you can imagine how that went. I ended up constructing a makeshift office space in the basement out of stacks of plastic storage bins, boxes, and pet carriers, with a sheet strung up for the door and my upstairs desk hauled down to serve me there. It wasn’t paradise, but for the first time I had my own space. It made a real difference.

***I’m running into a problem with this now that I’ve figured out how to borrow library ebooks. I’m like a kid in a candy store, reading a lot… but I can’t transfer most titles from the app to my Kindle Paperwhite, so I’m actually reading from a tablet before bed some nights. CURSE YOU, CANDY STORE.

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