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Writing Tips From Janet Fitch

The following is a guest post by Janet Fitch, author of Paint it Black and White Oleander (an Oprah’s Book Club book). Her upcoming book is titled Marina Makarova, and is set in the years of the Russian Revolution. On Janet’s own blog she shares her writing based on single word prompts. Here are her thoughts on writing while under the influence of children:

1. The number one essential tool for the new writer/parent–The Baby Swing. If you didn’t get one, GET ONE. Put the baby in there, and guaranteed, 45 minutes of peace to get some work done. Buy the one that takes the whacking big D batteries, those suckers last forever and you’re going to be using this a lot.

2. Give up on cleaning. Triage your precious spare time. First, write. Then, take care of the animate–kid, spouse, dog. Tend to the inanimate only when you have to. Give up gardening.

3. If you have help for a few hours, or if the kid’s at pre-school–LEAVE THE HOUSE and go work. It will remove the temptation to do the laundry or wash the dishes.

4. Find a mother’s helper babysitter, a junior high kid who can use a few bucks and will keep your toddler amused while you’re home. Be prepared for your child to love that kid more than you.

5. Don’t be a prima donna. Forget unbroken stretches of time. If you have a few minutes to write, grab them. When I first started writing I couldn’t work if someone was in the house. Then I couldn’t work if someone was in the room. Once I had a kid, I could work at Grand Central Station. Just give me 15 minutes.

6. Art projects are a godsend. “Draw me a spaceship, honey.” There’s five minutes, ten if you’re lucky… Get them to include details, like rivets and eyelashes. Don’t forget to expand the assignment. “Draw me the inside of the spaceship.” “Draw me the controls of the spaceship.” “Draw me the planet the spaceship comes from.”

7. Why do they always want to draw on the couch with the Chanel lipstick? Can never be the Maybelline. But when you need five more minutes, what the heck. “Looks good, honey.”

8. Bedtime should be inviolable. Make sure there’s an early enough bedtime that you can see your spouse for an hour, and then go to work for an hour or two. Even if you have to go to bed after your spouse. Suck it up. You both wanted to be parents.

9. Forget gourmet cooking. You’ll learn to make something pretty good out of semi-prepared stuff from Trader Joe.

10. Deflect guilt. Embrace the concept of the good-enough mother. Keith Richards left his kids with Anita. You’re mother of the year by comparison.

11. Do not enroll your child in more activities than you can reasonably cover without feeling resentful of losing your life driving to soccer games. Art classes are once a week. Soccer practice is three times a week. Do the math. (And do not feel you have to pay attention to your kid while you’re sitting there–a well-known book critic and I met at YMCA kid’s swim class when I saw her annotating an advanced reading copy. You’re just the driver.)

12. Books on tape are a great way to get some reading done while you’re nursing.

13. Take notes. Someday you will forget all this, and need to write a scene with an hysterical nursing mother.

14. Dads working at home will get more respect than moms working at home. Accept this sad fact. My daughter’s friend had a work-at-home songwriter father. She would look at the closed door of his studio and whisper, “Shhh, Dad’s working” like he was doing open heart surgery. My own closed door was opened fifty times a day with requests like “Mooooommmmmmm, will you pin this?” or “Mooooooooooommmmmm, why does Daddy have a penis?”

If you can at all possibly get out of the house to work, do so. Even if it’s just into the backyard. In the treehouse. With the ladder up.

15. Don’t overlook the great national resource–Other Mothers. Other Mothers like Disneyland, Other Mothers will take your kid along with theirs to see those crappy movies about Christmas and stuff. You’ll have to reciprocate eventually–like taking their kid on New Year’s Eve, say, or for their anniversary. But overnights are way less of a pain than shlepping kids around and sitting through Snow Dogs. They’ll keep each other amused. You’ll get some writing done. WELL WORTH IT.

16. Earplugs. Headphones. Parents are notoriously cued into the tone of distress in a child’s voice, the sound of things crashing in the kitchen and so on. If you want to get anything done, headphones are a godsend. Take them off every half hour or so just to check the tenor of things, make sure nobody’s crying.

17. Childproof everything. DUH. The better your childproofing–and the sturdier your sense of indifference to a royal mess–the more you will be able to concentrate on your work.

18. Get your kid a library card very early. It’s important to instill respect for the written word, so they have some idea how cool you are.

19. Make sure to have intellectual conversations with adults on a daily, or near daily level. Facebook isn’t enough. You have to keep your vocabulary above the high school level, and talking to four year olds all day isn’t going to help.

20. Teach them about commercials. That the toys are crap, the food is garbage and that advertising is hypnosis, designed to stimulate demand. We used to chant, “You need it, you want it, you gotta have it” during the kiddie commercials. Ask them, “how big do you think that [fill in the crap toy in the cereal] really is?” They’ll show you ten inches tall. Tell them to look at the hand that’s holding it, to look at the thumbnail. This serves twofold purpose–first, it keeps your time and patience from being constantly swallowed up by demands for an overwhelming range of crap, and second, well– hey, you’re a writer. Last time I looked, most of us were still paying off our student loans.

21. Share rejections with your child. Model how it is to be a determined, creative person–how every week, people say ‘does not meet our needs at this time’ to Mommy, and she shrugs it off. “Screw them,” Mommy says, and keeps on going.

22. You have a right to create art. Think of it as a child. It will die without your attention. It’s a child that no one else can care for. It will only eat if you feed it. Someone else can make Kraft Mac and Cheese just as easily as you. But no one can write your book for you.

Writing Productivity: Create Impeccable Systems

The following is a guest post by author Sage Cohen. Her new book, “The Productive Writer,” was released in December. She will be checking in throughout the day to answer questions about how to be a more productive writer, so if you’ve set writing goals for 2011, and could use a little professional advice on how to reach them, now’s your chance! Also, everyone who leaves a question or comment on today’s post will be automatically entered to win a signed copy of Sage’s book. Enjoy!

Happy New Year, writers! If you’d like to be even more productive in 2011, you can expedite success by making the most of every minute of writing time you have. Following are two strategies that can help.

Track your time carefully

To get a handle on how I spend (and waste) time, I use a daily time sheet, which is a table that I create in Word, print out, and fill out by hand. I keep one for each project, as well as one that illustrates the big picture every day. For each task, I record start time, finish time and total time taken. I also note its category, such as: writing; family; business; self-care.

This may seem daunting at first, but it’s actually quite easy to do; and very quickly it will become second nature. Once you have a clear picture of how you’ve spent every hour of every day for a week or two or three, you’ll know: how much time it takes you to do the work you’re doing, how much time you’re wasting, and how much time you’d like to reassign to your writing practice.

Schedule your time effectively

You may or may not be a “perform to a schedule” type of writer. Largely, this will depend on who you are, how you write, and what you’re writing. However, I believe that

no matter what type of writing you’re doing, whether there is an external deadline or not, a schedule can help.

I have come to appreciate schedules as little maps of the possible to guide us in the deep and sometimes overwhelming waters of time. When I have a big project (let’s say a book) and a somewhat long-term timeline (let’s say six months) and some other significant work and family commitments (including a full-time freelance writing career, part-time teaching, a toddler, three cats, and two dogs) the fact of the matter is that I need to see––clear as a successful simile––where and how the writing time for the book is going to fit into my life. So I make a treasure map for arriving at the doorstep of this finished book on the date promised. When taken out of its romantic mood lighting, this map is simply a schedule.

What I mean by a schedule, for something like a book, is that I set both targets and timing. Let’s say the book has twenty chapters, and I plan to write one chapter per week over the course of twenty weeks, then spend the last four weeks revising. I’d block off in my computer calendar the hours I expect to spend writing that chapter each week. (Don’t know how much time it takes to write a chapter? No problem; use the time-tracking log suggested above to find out.) For me, the greatest value of this process is having hard proof that there are actually enough hours in my life to accomplish what I have set out to do.

When I see those orange blocks of “write book” time floating through the days and nights of my computer calendar, a sense of calm comes over me. I can see my path of progress; I can trust it will get done. And even if I don’t choose to stick to the schedule in a given week, or ever, I still have that visual map of how my current life could shift to accommodate something new – and a general sense of what will be required of me to make that happen. And that lends confidence and comfort as I enter the unknown.

If you have any questions about tracking or scheduling time – or about how to be more productive in any aspect of your writing life – please feel free to post them here. I’ll be stopping by throughout the day today and will be happy to answer them.

About Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of The Productive Writer(just released from Writer’s Digest Books); Writing the Life Poetic and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs about all that is possible in the writing life at pathofpossibility.com, where you can: Download a FREE “Productivity Power Tools” workbook companion to The Productive Writer. Get the FREE, 10-week email series, “10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity” when you sign up to receive email updates. Sign up for the FREE, Writing the Life Poetic e-zine. Plus, check out the events page for the latest free teleclasses, scholarships and more.

Don’t forget – one lucky reader will receive a free signed copy of Sage’s new book, “The Productive Writer.” The winner will be chosen at random. To enter, leave a comment or question for Sage by clicking the “comments” link at the top of this post. Good luck!

For Writers Who Become Parents

The following is a guest post by Chris Meeks, award-winning writer of short stories, novels and plays. I’m a particular fan of his short story collection Months And Seasons which contains a story about how women named after times of the year are the only women worth dating. Here are his thoughts on writing and parenting:

April wrote me that she’s due to give birth soon and asked if I’d be a guest blogger. I happened to be one of her professors at USC in the Master of Professional Writing Program. Her request brings up the one subject that is rarely whispered about, let alone spoken of, in graduate writing programs: how do you write once you become a parent?

Parenting, too, is on my mind because I’m seeing the whole life cycle right now with my mother dying just a few weeks ago. I suppose that puts me in the batter’s circle for the next up to the plate, though I feel young and healthy and my daughter’s twelve and I just came back from a parent-teacher conference and I’m not ready to bat. I don’t want to even be in the ballpark.

If you’re in a writing program, it’s all you can do to write that novel, biography, memoir, play, screenplay, television show, collection of poetry, or creative nonfiction book. You don’t want to hear about more demands on your time and attention. You don’t want to learn the big secret no one told us when my wife and I brought our newborn son home twenty-three years ago: babies don’t sleep through the night.

(Spoiler alert: In a matter of days after you bring baby home and after waking up every few hours, you’ll be a zombie. Stringing a subject and verb together will be a challenge. “Car ride” will constitute a whole sentence, as will “I smell it” and “My turn.” Soon you’ll learn about running to 7-11 at midnight for diapers that you pay good money for and they get pooped in, good for nothing anymore.

(You won’t be discovering character arc but you’ll learn about the percentage of side effects of different vaccines versus the debilitating effects of different diseases if you don’t get your child vaccinated and what should you do? When reading the paper, you suddenly notice stories about kids in freak accidents, and you get chills. Your life is forever changed.)

To put in some nonparenthetical parenting, you soon feel the luckiest person in the world. You’ll be amazed at how personality shows up within weeks. After a year, you’ll have witnessed your baby becoming a person, and you won’t be able to put your finger on when it happened. This little creature, brimming with curiosity, is learning all the time and so are you. Your nonparent friends will get quickly bored by each new thing you’ve seen, and in another few years, you’ll be making new friends: the parents of your child’s best friends. You’ll be buying birthday cakes and booking clowns.

I can also say your writing will grow and become richer and more important. I happened to recently interview my own former professor, David Scott Milton, and I asked him how his children has affected his life as a writer, and he said, “It may be obvious, but it’s nevertheless true, that you are not fully human until you have kids. There are aspects of being a human that don’t resonate or flourish until you have kids of your own. I remember as a young man finding Shakespeare’s King Lear the least satisfying of his great tragedies. Years later, when I had kids, the play moved me more than anything Shakespeare had written. I realized that only a father could have written it as Shakespeare had. The love, the confusion, the pain, the connection we have to those we have helped bring into this world is profound, even shattering. When Lear cries over his daughter Cordelia’s body, it is monumental and can only be fully felt I think by someone who is a parent.”

I will also tell you do not forget two things: your spouse and your goals in writing. You and your partner need to give exclusive time to each other, and going out a minimum of once a month sans baby if not every few weeks is mandatory. If you’re not maintaining your relationship, it’ll suffer easily. As much as you will at first hate to find a babysitter, find one.

Your writing needs to remain important, too. It’s easy to feel guilty when you’re writing that you’re not being a good mother or father. It’s also easy to say, “I’ll do it when he sleeps through the night … when he goes to preschool … when he graduates high school … when I become a grandparent.” Writing needs to be as important as spouse and baby.

Before I had children, I’d made a specialty of interviewing authors for newspapers and magazines, and one of my first interviews was with Chaim Potok, who’d written The Promise and The Chosen. I’d asked him, “How do you manage to write with children in the house?” and he said something like, “Writing is something I’ve always done, and so my children have grown up knowing that’s what I do. They’ve learned not to disturb me while I’m writing unless it’s an emergency.”

I have to say that while my children have grown up seeing that I write, I take the Starbucks approach. I can work amid a lot of hubbub and coffee.

I also learned from screenwriter David Franzoni (Amistad, Gladiator), who told me he awoke at five a.m. to write for a couple of hours before the household awoke. The first few days of trying that, I thought I was insane. I wanted to be in bed. Yet my son and wife would sleep until seven, and I found those two hours before I had to help with breakfast and go off to my full-time job were the most productive of the day. I wrote more than professional writers I knew who had no children.

In fact, you learn how to write efficiently when you have the time. April happened to ask me about this less than an hour ago, and so I’ve written it on the spot, wedging it in before my dentist appointment and picking up the cat from surgery.

My mother happened to encourage me to write and had been proud of my books. She’d just finished rereading my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century days before she fell and broke three ribs, and falling again led to her demise. When I went into her bedroom after she passed, I found the diary I’d given her last year in hopes she’d write about her life. She had written only one page in it during the whole year, and it was dated “Father’s Day 2009.” She wrote of her sons that, “They all turned out to be good fathers. Chris is realizing it’s good to be strict.”

Well, I’m stricter than I started out as. Your children will feel more firmly grounded when they know the clear rules that you abide by.

And a rule for yourself: keep writing. Find the time when he or she naps or goes to bed for the night or before anyone wakes up in the morning. You will flourish.

–Christopher Meeks, December 2010

Guest Post by JJ Keith

The following is a guest post by JJ Keith. Her blog, JJust Kidding

, is about parenting her own two children. Here she shares her thoughts with us on how she balances writing with being a parent:

In the haze of being as stay-at-home mom to a newborn and a toddler my writing has been relegated to more of a hobby than a profession, but a hobby that I pursue vigorously and without frivolity. Whereas I used to zip off my thoughts on the fall television line up or the latest incarnation of the Warp Tour, I now am now shifting through the clenching intensity of motherhood.

JJ with her little one

I am not one of those people who’ll boast that I didn’t know what love was before having children. I knew what love was. At the end of my pregnancies I delivered babies, not a newly complicated and warmer version of myself. I can still blather on about how “The Event” is a poor man’s “Lost” or how Florence and the Machine stacks up against Garbage. The difference is that these days I have less time to simply “feel.” I am so busy wiping tears and butts and spilled milk that when I finally get fingers to keys I don’t give a rat’s ass about how “Survivor” is getting stale. I want to eff the ineffable.

I write in the evenings in my bedroom after my husband gets home from work. Often my daughter sticks her chubby fingers under the door to protest my isolation, so I usually just leave the door open and assume I’ll be interrupted. Or else I write in the middle of the night under a spotlight of wakefulness in my slumbering household. I knew what love was before having kids, but didn’t know that gathering my thoughts might ever be a luxury.

I should be doing more freelancing. I should be learning about search engine optimization and lining up buyers for my copy. I need the cash. I really do. But I can’t bear to use the few hours a week I get to write to create lists of holiday travel tips or things to do with a toddler on a rainy day. I can’t. Or at least I need to get a little hungrier before I try. I work too hard for that time to use it to write anything other than what delights me.

Instead I have a middling mommy blog where I publish only what I feel like writing. I use it as a space to paw at the meaning behind my life of sippy cups, soggy diapers, thigh rolls and snot faces. If it’s not cathartic then I don’t have time to write it. My mommy blog is not the most prestigious use of an advanced degree in writing. It’s not earning me any bragging rights or a mention in the alumni newsletters, but it’s what I do when I’m not taking care of my kids. It is the entirety of my writing career, at least for now.