Tag Archives | writing

Writing Every Day (5 Things I’ve Learned)

writing every dayIf you’ve been a writer for any length of time you’ve probably heard people argue about writing every day. Stephen King is a pretty famous proponent of the practice, insisting that he writes 1,000 words a day, no exceptions.

I don’t. So I’ve always cringed at that little bit of trivia. Then, a couple of months ago, I realized I write ALMOST writing every day in my journal without even trying. Writing in my journal isn’t work for me. It’s how I organize my thoughts and prepare for the day. So I decided to make it official and commit to doing it every day, just to see what happened.

Then I read about the Runner’s World run streak challenge. The idea is to run at least a mile every day between Thanksgiving and January 1st (#rwrunstreak). It seemed like a great way to keep in shape during the holiday season, a time that I traditionally get super lazy. So I’ve been doing it. Today is day 21. Three weeks! It feels good.

As I have worked to do these things every day, I’ve been fascinated to see how my relationship to them has changed. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it (whatever it is) every day:

1. You’re going to have to say it out loud

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to tell the people in your life what you’re doing. Because there will be a day (probably many days) when you need help carving out a little time and it’s going to be really hard to do that without a little help from the people in your life.

The scariest part about telling everyone that you’re trying to do something every day is that they might *gasp* be supportive. Even if it’s just a simple “how’d it go today?” people will ask. If you’re inclined to keep your work secret, this might be an uncomfortable situation. It was for me. But the simple act of saying I needed twenty minutes to write in my journal (even though it made my throat tighten up) turned out to be the difference between getting it done and not.

2. Your mood will no longer be a factor

When you commit to doing something every day you have to get over any excuses about how you’re feeling when it’s time to get the job done. Some days you will have a sore throat. Some days you will be tired. Some days you will feel sad, or hungover, or (fill in the blank).

But something really cool happens as you push through those excuses. They start to have less power. On my fourth day of running every day I woke up with a sore throat. I almost didn’t do my mile that day. But instead of letting a mild sore throat derail me, I sucked it up and pushed through. And I actually felt better for it.

3. You will discover that you have preferences

I like to write first thing in the morning and I like my Uni-Ball Ultra Micro pen.

It’s nice if I can get the running out of the way then too, but not as critical. I can always hit the treadmill while dinner is cooking if I have to.

As a runner, I’ve discovered I can’t stand thick socks. I like thin little ankle sock. I just do.

When you do something every day you figure out, real quick like, what little things help or hinder and because you’re committed to keeping going, you add or subtract those things from your routine without hesitation.

4. You will get better at it, whatever it is

There’s just no way around this one. If you do something every day, you will get better at it, but it’s also important to keep in mind that your gains might not be linear. That is to say, you will have good days and bad days.

For instance, on my thirteenth day of running a mile every day, I ran my fastest mile ever. The next day, I ran one of my slowest. I was tired from my stellar performance the day before. So tired that I was tempted to quit, telling myself that I’d earned a break, but I slogged it out. On the whole, I am getting faster, but I still have days when I run at a slow pace and that’s okay, because I know I have tomorrow to try again.

Also keep in mind that this little bit of truth holds true for our bad habits too. If you flop down on the couch after work every day, ignoring that little voice that tells you how you could be writing or running or whatever, eventually you will get better at ignoring that little voice. Something to keep in mind.

5. It helps to have an end date

Committing to do something every day is easier if it’s for a specific period of time. I’ve tried to run every day before, but without an end date, the task felt somehow overwhelming and I never lasted more than a few days. I mean, forever can be daunting.

It’s really helpful, psychologically, to know that come January 2, I will have met my #rwrunstreak goal and can stop if I want to. I’m not sure if I will. Maybe I’ll keep going. Or maybe I’ll take a one day break and then try to go another month. I haven’t decided yet.

As for writing, I just really like starting my day with my journal. And because I’ve been doing it almost every day for so many years, taking the leap to actually writing every day isn’t daunting at all. That one I will keep up.

Do you have something you do every day? Or is there something you might try to do every day for a little while? I would love to hear what other people have found with this sort of practice.

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Please Don’t Send Your NaNoWriMo Manuscript to Agents

Well, it’s officially December, and for a lot of writers out there that means NaNoWriMo is over. Did you do it? Did you hit your goal? If you did (and, hell, even for those who gave it their best shot) I’m so effing proud of you. You did it! You should do something to celebrate: go out for drinks, get a massage, buy yourself a tub of cookie dough ice cream and go to town. The one thing you should not do, under any circumstances, is send your NaNoWriMo manuscript to agents.

Seriously.

I’m kind of surprised this even needs saying, but apparently there is a whole contingent of writers out there who slap out 50,000 words and start querying agents. WTF?

First of all, 50,000 isn’t even long enough to be considered a proper novel. And never mind that, you’re sending a first draft to an agent? I don’t even let my husband read my first drafts. First drafts are supposed to be shitty. And they are. Count on it.

Okay, okay, I’m sure you’re the exception. I’m sure that you are so brilliant that an agent will totally overlook the typos and inconsistencies in your writing. I’m sure they will be so enamored of your pages and pages of dialogue that they won’t be able to sleep and will sit by the phone until it’s 8am and they can reasonably expect you to be awake so that they can call you and beg you to be their client.

I’m also sure you’re insane.

Please, please don’t send your NaNoWriMo manuscript to agents. It’s not only embarrassing for you, it builds a bad reputation for every serious writer who used the NaNoWriMo challenge to kick off (or make progress on) a serious writing project.

Here’s what to do instead:

  1. Keep writing (until you get to about 80,000, depending on what you’re writing – check out this word count guide to see what the standards are in your chosen genre.).
  2. Then stick it in a drawer for about three months and do something else.
  3. Come back and read it through.
  4. Edit. A lot.
  5. Have some trusted friends read it. 
  6. Edit some more.
  7. Stick it in a drawer for another three months.
  8. Read it again.
  9. Edit again.
  10. Repeat steps 5-9 as necessary
  11. Hire a professional editor to do a final pass.

Then, and only then, start sending out your query letter.

Or don’t do all that. There’s no law that dictates what you have to do with your 50,000 words. You could serialize them on your blog, or self publish, or make yourself a suit by stapling the pages together then use the remaining pages to make a paper mache hat to match. It’s your art.

But if you want to go the traditional route of finding an agent and a subsequent publisher, you still have a lot to do.

Writing is work. To pretend it isn’t is insulting to us all.

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Setting Goals for a Writing Career

writing career goalsLast week I was at a Halloween party where a tarot card reader was telling fortunes. I love fortune tellers. I love to geek out over their predictions and try to suss out how much is coming from some cosmic source and how much they’re just reading me. So of course I was the first one to sit down.

She told me to shuffle the cards while thinking of my question and the one that came to mind was: how do I build my writing career? Well, she wasn’t the greatest card reader. She asked me to tell her my question, so I did, and the rest kind of felt like a therapy session. But there was one thing she said that stuck with me. She told me that if I didn’t know what my goals were, I would never reach them.

Um, duh. This is not rocket science. This is not even fortune telling. This is just plain common sense. But I had to admit, I don’t have any goals in place right now.

The thing is, I’m usually ALL ABOUT planning. I mean, if you follow along at all you’ve seen my bullet journal posts. You know I’m a total nerd for making plans and executing. But here’s what I realized: for the longest time my goal was simply to finish my novel and get it out into the world.

Well, it’s not out in the world yet, but it has been bought by a real honest to goodness publisher and has a publishing date set for March of 2020. Done and done. And while I wait for things to progress on that front, I’ve been working on another story. I just finished a draft of that one last week. It’s a mess, but its a story. So I’ve just been writing and writing without any real sense of what my goal is.

The Money

I know I want to make a living with my writing. Good news for me is that I don’t have to make six figures to make this happen. My husband makes a good living, so I really only need to bring in half of our household expenses. That’s a goal.

But there are just so many unknowns when it comes to writing and income. A person could write a dozen books in obscurity and then have a breakout hit that makes bank. They might get a book optioned by Hollywood and make some money that way. They might hit it out of the park on their first go, getting a six-figure advance on their debut, and then not be able to sell their next book because they didn’t sell out their advance.

There are just so many unknowns around the money side of a writing career that it’s hard to hitch my goals (and my eventual joy or depression) on whether I hit some arbitrary financial goal. It’s not about the money. (That said, if you’re curious, this website does an interesting breakdown of what some writers are making.)

So I’m inclined to set other goals, centered around inputs I can control, and hope the money comes sooner rather than later.

Books Per Year

When I first met with my agent he asked if I thought I could put out a book every year. I’ll admit I flinched. He adjusted: how about a book every two years? Well, this idea is actually really appealing to me. At that rate, the odds of making money go up. Not only is a writer more likely to get to that one book that is a big hit, but with each book you gather a few more readers who like your books and might be inclined to buy them when they hit the shelves. They might go back and buy your previous books.

Some writers write four books a year to reap the benefits of accumulated work, but there’s just no way I can do that. Maybe if I had started writing before I was a mom, before I started spending five hours a day driving these little people to various practices and appointments, not to mention a husband that I actually like spending time with. Oh, and my two blogs. There’s no way.

But a book every two years? That I feel like I could plan for.

Three-Month Chunks

I started thinking about how, as I pushed to wrap up the draft of my second story, I was writing about 2,000 words a day without sacrificing too much in terms of life balance. At that rate I could put out a rough (and I do mean rough) draft in three months.

But then, I’m supposed to get notes from my editor on my first novel this week. Contractually I have four months to make the edits, but I’m hoping I can do them in three.

Then, I will switch to outlining novel 3. Yep, I already have ideas in the works, I just need some focused time to get it all worked out. I have never made outlining my main writing activity. I didn’t outline novel 1 at all (which I’m pretty sure is why it took my nine years to write it). Novel 2 I outlined while working on novel 1 and that baby was SO much easier to write. Turns out I’m a planner (big surprise, right?)

Anyway, I’ll spend three months outlining novel 3, then jump back to do another draft on novel 2, then work on a first draft of novel 3. I sketched it out on some graph paper. Here’s what it looks like:

writing career goals

The question is whether I can actually keep up this schedule. Because if I could, I would be sending a manuscript to my agent in January of 2020 AND January of 2021. I haven’t accounted for time editing in response to my agent’s feedback. Because I don’t know how long it will take to get feedback. There are frankly just too many unknowns. But if I could…

Writer Goals

All of this is to say that it’s hard to know how to set goals as a writer. There are so many external variables, so many things we can’t control.

How do you set goals? Do you go with dollar amounts? Do you maybe go for awards or accolades of that sort? Number of copies sold? I’m so new at this, would love to hear your thoughts.

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The Lesson of the Super Suit Scene

I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene from the movie The Incredibles (the first one). In case you haven’t seen it, it comes near the end of the movie, when the big bad is attacking the city. It’s the Super Suit Scene.

I Am The Greatest Good…

The movie cuts away from our main characters (Mr. Incredible and his family) and jumps to Frozone, the sidekick. As you can see, in the clip, it would have been really easy to simply show the man getting ready for a night with his wife, when – bam – a robot comes stomping down the street. Done. Six seconds. And scene.

But no. The scene goes on for another forty seconds in what is arguably one of the best moments of the movie. In that forty seconds, without EVER seeing the wife that he’s arguing with, we get to know this character and what his life is like:

He lives in stylish condo.
He is a dude who cares about his appearance.
He is married to a woman who keeps his shit together for him.
They have the kind of relationship where they can just yell at each other from the other room (also – she is probably in the kitchen cooking, which is why she doesn’t come to argue in person – which leads one to believe that he’s not much for helping out in the kitchen).
They host dinner parties, but have busy lives that make it the kind of thing you have to plan far in advance.
He is prioritizing being a super hero.
She knows his priorities and isn’t happy about it.
They have had this argument before.

It’s an awesome scene, because all of those things we learn about him are things we can relate to. Who hasn’t had an argument with their spouse from the other room? Who hasn’t had priorities that our spouse didn’t understand? Who hasn’t found themselves rushing around to find their shoes/keys/super suit?

And they could have totally just cut it after those first six seconds. Those were enough to explain his presence in the next scene, but instead they ran with it, and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

Giving Our Sidekicks The Time

It has me thinking about my own minor characters. What scenes have I cut after the first six seconds (so to speak)? Would those scenes be better if I let them run a little? What could I learn about the character if I did? Would those things make them more relatable? Would it serve the story as a whole?

I don’t know that I will ever write anything as brilliant as the Super Suit scene, but it’s good to have goals.

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Four Easy Ways to Make Scrivener Instantly Awesome

Scrivener 3.0Last week I had lunch with a writer friend who recently took the leap and downloaded the Scrivener app. I was so excited for her, because, well, I’m such a Scrivener nerd. I pulled my laptop out right there in the restaurant and showed her a few of my favorite little tricks, just enough to get her started without being overwhelming. And it seemed to me that others out there might be interested. So here we go:

Four Easy Ways to Make Scrivener Instantly Awesome

1. My number one favorite way in which Scrivener helps me with my writing is with the daily word count. Especially if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year, you have to check this out. It allows you to enter your writing days (for example: I write Monday through Saturday and take Sunday off), and then calculates how many words a day you have to write to hit your goal. If you miss a day it recalculates automatically. It’s AWESOME for keeping on track with writing goals.

2. Second is Scrivener Snapshots. This has changed the way I organize versions of my story in ways I didn’t even appreciated when I started. Used to be, every time I changed something significant in my story, I would save a new version and my files were cluttered with drafts and I could never find anything. Scrivener Snapshots made all that a thing of the past.

3. Similar to how I used to save drafts, I used to have files stuffed full of research, both on my computer and in my web browser, and I could never find anything. In Scrivener, you can drag and drop whole websites into your research files and never have to go looking for shit ever again. You can even access them when you’re offline. Awesome.

4. Then, once you have all that research, you can open it easily without losing your place in your writing by using Quick Reference Windows. Sometimes I’ll use this function to open an image so I can look at it as I’m describing it. Sometimes I use it to reference historical facts, or orient myself geographically in a city. You can also use it to open another chapter and view it beside the one you’re working on. So handy.

Using those four basic tools makes Scrivener instantly awesome, but there’s much more, when you’re ready…

For Instance

You could just type “Scrivener” in to the search bar here on my website (top right there) and see everything I’ve ever written on the topic, but here are a few of my favorite, slightly more advanced, tricks and tips:

Color coding your files/chapters
Using the Corkboard View
Word frequency function (great for highlighting those pesky adverbs)
The handy name generator
Track your work history
Get nerdy with meta-data

And the coolest thing about Scrivener is that I keep discovering ways in which it makes my life easier (well, my writing life at least). To keep learning with me, consider signing up for my newsletter (to get these posts in your inbox every Friday), or follow me on Twitter (where I share links to all kinds of good Scrivener info).

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Google Maps Street View: An Awesome Writing Tool

Google Street View Writing Tool
Before I jump into this week’s post, I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who gave an opinion on last week’s post. Your feedback is so helpful. It’s looking like the orange background is going to win it, but I’ll let you know when I make my final decision. Okay… onward!

Today I want to share a brilliant new writing tool I discovered while working on my novel: Google Maps Street View. It’s so obvious I’m kind of embarrassed that it took me so long to take advantage of it.

Using Google Maps to “See” a Place

Around page 98, my main character drives through a small town outside of Barstow. In editing, I realized that I didn’t really illustrate the scene very well. I couldn’t, because I had never been there, and therefore had no concrete details to share about it. Then it occurred to me – I don’t have to go there.

I pulled up the town on Google Maps, chose a corner that made sense for my scene to take place on and dragged the little yellow man into place to get the street view. So awesome. It was all tall signs and squat buildings in dusty shades. I “rolled” down the street a bit to see how the road slowly transitioned from sun-bleached town to lonely desert. There were two traffic signals.

A Word of Caution

Researching a place this way, I couldn’t smell the air, or notice how the people interact. I couldn’t feel the heat of the day on my face. I couldn’t hear the whistle of a train in the distance. There’s a lot you can’t get from “walking” down a street virtually, but if you’re just looking for a detail or two to set a scene, it’s amazing.

That said, I would never have used this trick for getting to know the main setting of my story. If I had tried to portray an ostrich farm without actually going to one, the story would have surly rung hollow. Because it’s those precise details (the heat, the train whistle) that make a reader feel like their with their narrator in the world of the story.

Also, I think it’s one of the biggest perks of being a writer that you can go anywhere and investigate anything in the name of research. Show me a writer who hasn’t worried about the FBI scanning their browser history and I’ll show you someone who writers boring stories.

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“142 Ostriches” Is Getting Published!

debut novel getting publishedI have been holding out on you, dear readers. For almost two months now I’ve been dying to tell you the news, but I didn’t want to jinx anything. I’m superstitious like that. But the paperwork has been signed, it’s all official. My manuscript was purchased and will be published by Kensington Publishing.

Shortly after the offer was made, I had my first phone conversation with my editor, Kensington Editor-In-Chief John Scognamiglio, and he explained how he feels my book should be released in the spring, and since they already have their spring slate for 2019, my book will be coming out in the first half of 2020. It feels like FOREVER away, but I know the time will pass quickly. And there are benefits to having such a long lead time. For one, my second book should be well on its way by the time the first one comes out, which will be fun.

Another plus is that I have plenty of time to prepare for promoting the book. Already I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on the six-page marketing questionnaire sent to me by my editor. It asks everything from “Who do you think will buy your book?” to “Are you a regular contributor to any magazines or newspapers?” It’s a surprising amount of work, and I’m only just getting started.

Right after I jumped into the questionnaire, I saw that Jane Friedman recently published a new book called The Business of Being a Writer. She’s one of the few writing/publishing experts I pay close attention to because she always cuts to the chase and seems to know what it is I’m hoping to learn. So I bought her book. And it totally delivered, so I gotta give it a plug here.

Not only does the book walk through contracts in a way that really helped me understand what I was looking at, she also talks about how royalties break down, how to build a platform and network to promote yourself, and what to expect overall when one is trying to build a career as a writer. Definitely worth a read.

Anyway, next step for me is to get an author headshot. Ug. I kind of wish I could just stick with the image I use on everything already, but it’s getting pretty old, and it’s only going to be older by the time the books comes out, so I’m biting the bullet and getting it done tomorrow. So tonight is all about the beauty rest… I even got my nails done. I’ll share my favorites in an upcoming post and get your thoughts.

I’m sure there will be much more to say about all this publishing stuff as time goes on, but for now I’m too busy celebrating to write much more. Cheers!

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Five Good Sentences – The Key To Getting Unstuck

I’ve been struggling with my new story. I just can’t seem to find my way into it. I have an instinct that having some kind of structure to work into might help, but I can’ seem to crack that nut. Yesterday, I spent two and half hours of precious writing time just staring at my computer.

This has never happened to me before.

Stuck

If you follow along, you know I have been working on this project, I’m calling it Novel 2, for a long time. Whenever I would get frustrated with Novel 1, I would stick it in a drawer and work on Novel 2. Then, in 2016, I took a month-long break from Novel 1 and did NaNoWriMo, so that was another 50,000 words there. Over the years, I have amassed a lot of pages. One might even say a first draft, but then… but then…

First drafts can only go so far. Then it’s time to start rewriting and I was effing stuck. I don’t believe in writers block, but getting stuck is real as a mo-fo. To try and get unstuck I had a little gripe session with my bestie, then took a step back. How can I be so stuck when I have so many pages of writing? I told myself (without considering if it was really true) that somewhere in those pages, there must be SOMETHING I can work with.

Getting Unstuck

And then I remembered something I heard Tom Barbash say while I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He said something about a writer who would read his first drafts hoping to find five good sentences he could work with.

As luck would have it, as I was googling Tom so I could share a link to his bio, I came across this video of discussing this very topic. Check it out:

I thought to myself: five good sentences is a pretty low bar.

Five Good Sentences

So I put aside all judgements and all worries about how and the hell I’m going to structure this story, what the POV will be or how our narrator knows what she knows, and I just read it.

And you know what? It’s not all bad. I mean, it’s pretty bad. It’s a crappy first draft, but there are way more than five sentences that I can work with. And that is really encouraging.

Just like that, I’m unstuck. I still don’t have answers to all those questions I mentioned, but I’m just going to keep writing and trust that the answers will come. Because writing is kind of magical like that. Our job, as writers, is just to show up, put our fingers on the keyboard, and make space for the magic.

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The Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Four writers I fell in love with (left to right): Kirstin Valdez Quade, Tom Barbash, Peter Orner and Elizabeth Tallent, with Zzyva editor Oscar Villalon

I am exhausted. In the past month I’ve slept at home, in my own bed for only four days. It’s my own fault. I planned this summer’s schedule, but honestly, when I did, I didn’t expect to get into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had applied before and not been invited, so I didn’t bother planning my summer around it. So when I did get in (high five!) I had to rearrange my plans and things got a little hectic. I regret nothing.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is a conference. Every day starts with writing workshops. After a lunch break, participants come together for craft talks, panels, and readings. Basically, as a participant, you start with your workshop group at 8:30am, eat, then get back to learning and absorbing until well after dark when the authors do readings under the stars. Then you race home to read and make notes for the next morning’s workshop. It’s a marathon of a week. Not for the faint at heart.

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Edan Lepucki reading early in the week.

I learned so much, and met some amazing writers, but since I usually try to keep things focused on the practical here, I thought I would share a few things I learned (or learned again) about workshopping. These ideas apply to anyone giving or receiving feedback on their work, so don’t feel like you have to go to a conference to use them. Just grab a writing buddy and start helping each other out.

Here they are:

1. Before giving feedback, read the work at least twice. The first time through, just read. Don’t even hold your pen. If you can, take a break after the first read, then come back with your pen and set to work.

2. Aim for four comments/notes per page. I like to put check marks next to things that work for me, and sometimes that’s all I have on a page, but it can be hard to get feedback, so hearing about what works is just as important as hearing about what doesn’t.

3. Don’t push your own expectations onto the story. Pretend you’re reading the New Yorker. If you don’t understand it, consider that maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not getting what the author is going for. Maybe they are jumping POVs on purpose, or slipping around in time to represent a character’s state of mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.

4. If you get conflicting feedback from readers, see it as a sign that something isn’t landing on the page. The analogy, given by (the incisively thoughtful) Charmaine Craig, was that of a fever – it is just a symptom of infection. You have to be the doctor and get in there to diagnose and then cure.

5. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t figured something out (like theme or who the murder victim is). Your confusion will be your reader’s delight because the story won’t be telegraphed. As you discover the answers, so will your readers. Your story will be better for it.

Those are some of the highlights.

And with that I will simply close by encouraging everyone out there to apply to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And if you don’t get in, keep trying. It was such a great experience.

And one more photo from a little hike I took mid-week. So pretty:
Squaw Valley Community of Writers

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I Want to Be A Badass

I married into soccer the way other people marry into Catholicism. World Cup is like Lent – we don’t mess around. But in all seriousness, I’ve really come to appreciate the sport. It is a beautiful game, and I enjoy watching, but the thing I love most of all, the reason I keep coming back to sit next to my husband on the couch is this moment:

The moment right after a hard-won goal is scored and the striker loses his damn mind is absolutely captivating to me. I can almost feel that adrenaline pumping in my own veins, feel the exaltation so good it hurts. Almost.

As writers, we don’t really get that moment. When things are going really well we can slip into that magical zone where it doesn’t feel like work, but never have I ever been so overcome with my prose that I’ve slid across the floor on my knees, fists balled, screaming to the heavens.

Writing is like a sloth playing soccer. Though I’ve never actually played a game, and I’ve never (literally) been a sloth, it seems to me an apt metaphor. It’s not that we don’t struggle, or get tired, or sometimes put the ball right where we want it, it’s just that all the emotions of a ninety minute game are stretched out over years (sometimes a lot of years).

I crave that feeling. I wish I could cram the experience of writing a book into ninety minutes. I want to be a fucking badass, sliding across the grass knowing that, hell yes, that just happened. But it’s never going to happen at my laptop, and I don’t know how to manage my disappointment at that.

Am I alone in this? Any other writers out there get that craving for adrenaline and pressure and putting it all on the line? If so, how do you blow off steam? Have you found a way to bring that intensity to your writing? How can we balance the fact that our job is to sit quietly, alone, at a screen all day, when sometimes we want to run and yell and be a total badass? I’m not being rhetorical here, I really want to know…

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