Thanks for dropping in to Dascha Paylor’s author website. I hope you’ll enjoy the free short stories I’ve posted, and that you’ll check back for news. If you want to keep up with my latest blog posts on Medium and other platforms, you can sign up for my newsletter. I promise I won’t spam you.
I blog on writing tips and writing life. Because I am a life coach and retired counseling physician, I also write blog pieces on coaching topics. You can read all these posts in my publication, More Than Words on a Page. Some of them will be posted to this blog. I will also write original content here.
I freelance as a fiction editor for science fiction and fantasy authors. If you’re in need of editing services at affordable prices, click on the editing services tab above. I love helping writers make their stories shine!
Stay tuned for more free fiction. I’ll publish some here and there will be occasional exclusive content for those on my mailing list.
How to improve your own writing by helping other writers with theirs
I’ve always had a good intuitive grasp of how to write well
As far back as grade school, others asked me to read over their essays before they handed them in. This trend continued through high school and university, and I still get asked by family and friends to look things over. Now I do the same professionally for fiction authors.
I’ve worked hard to gain more knowledge, not only for my own benefit as a writer but to better help others improve their writing as well. It’s a never ending process.
Writers should always be learning
Part of learning as an author entails reading. You need to read both within and outside your genre. The more you read fiction, the more you’ll pick up, via osmosis, the feel of what good writing looks like.
You also need to read about the craft of writing. Intuition and osmosis will only take you so far. Often, if you read a lot, you can tell when something feels off in the way it’s written. But maybe you can’t articulate why and don’t know how it could be better written. Studying writing gives you the knowledge necessary for that kind of analysis.
In order to improve your own writing you have to be able to analyze what works and what doesn’t. This helps not only in the creative phase of writing but also in the editing process.
Learning is incremental
No one learns everything there is to know about any subject all at once (or realistically ever). We learn in increments. Ideally we’re able to put those incremental learning pieces into practice, allowing them to become embedded in our psyche so they can be pulled out at will, or even better, applied unconsciously.
The act of writing allows you, as a writer, to practice what you learn. Often, though, we don’t see the flaws in our own work, even when we’ve studied the skills necessary to do so. We’re too close to it, too caught up in the story to see how we could write it better.
The challenges lie in finding objectivity and applying learned skills when assessing your own work. For many writers, both are an uphill battle. We remain blind as to how to take our writing to the next level. One way to do so is to hire a coach or otherwise find someone with more experience to mentor you. This can be invaluable in your journey as a writer.
Equally, mentoring others will up your own writing game
Have you ever helped someone else with a problem and after doing so realized you knew more about a subject than you had previously thought? Did it clarify your own understanding of that subject matter? Were you then better able to apply it to your own situation or work?
When I was studying medicine the residents used to have a saying, “See one, do one, teach one.” It was common practice for those of us training to become practicing physicians to mentor those coming up behind us. Even if they were only a few weeks behind us, having joined a particular service just after us.
Not only did mentoring others help them, it solidified our own knowledge along with its practical application. It forced us to think about what we had learned so we could teach it to someone else.
The learning-by-teaching effect has been demonstrated in many studies. Students who spend time teaching what they’ve learned go on to show better understanding and knowledge retention than students who simply spend the same time re-studying.
Writing is no different. Reading about writing only goes so far. Trying to apply what you’ve read without solidifying it in your own understanding is less effective than if you mentor someone else with that knowledge.
The more I analyze others’ writing in order to give them helpful feedback, the better I become at seeing how my own writing can be improved. I also apply the knowledge to my writing process with greater and greater ease.
In addition to the work for which I’m paid, I choose to mentor others where and when I can. I do so in large part because I strongly believe in the philosophy of paying it forward. But I’ve also come to see that I get nearly as much benefit from doing so as the person I mentor.
Don’t wait until you think you know it all
First of all, if you do wait that long, you’ll never mentor anyone. Second, unless you’re a complete beginner, there will always be someone who can benefit from your knowledge and experience.
Most important of all, your writing will improve almost as dramatically as that of the person you’re helping. Not only do you get to feel good about giving another writer a helping hand, you get to help yourself in the process.
Over the last several months I’ve mostly been conspicuous by my absence from the writing world. I’ve written a few pieces for The Friday Fix on Medium. Here’s a free link to Careless, a 50 word microfiction. I’ve kept up with publishing Tempest in Under 1000 on the same site (more on that in a bit), but otherwise been pretty silent.
There’s been a lot going on in my world, even prior to COVID. Most recently, my daughter-in-law underwent an emergency c-section and I spent 6 weeks living with my middle son and his family, taking care of everyone 24/7. While I loved doing it, I’m exhausted and glad to be home. Fortunately I’ll still get my Grammy fix with visits and sleepovers. We’ve been operating as one household throughout COVID, so we will continue in the same vein.
I’m just now really starting to get back into trying to build a work routine again. I need to knock off another 20,000 words or so to complete the first draft of the final novel in my YA SF series (all of which will publish together when complete). I also have several short stories in progress and two more novels in development. Where to start?
One of the most exciting things for me right now is that Tempest is rapidly growing. I had envisioned this publication as a community of writers who would support and nurture one another. We are now approaching 60 writers and I am publishing between 3 and 6 (the max) stories per day. Currently I read and lightly edit every story that is published and I am seeing my writers grow and develop. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Because our numbers are growing rapidly, I have started a Facebook group to facilitate interaction among us. I’m also looking into ways to hold some free online writing workshops. I’m so excited to see my little publication growing and connecting people who love writing to one another.
The Facebook group is closed, but anyone who wants to write for Tempest can, by replying to the invitation, which you can access here. To write on Medium you need an account but you don’t have to be a paid member. Once you have signed on as a writer, you can request membership in the Facebook group. Just make sure, if your Medium moniker is different from your Facebook name, to let me know who you are. Here’s a link to the post on the group.
Here’s a little information for those thinking of joining Tempest as a writer. Originally all stories were meant to be under 1000 words. Medium’s ever-changing algorithm has made it so that short pieces make no money, so I have created a new category allowing stories up to 5,000 words. You can go as short or long as you like within these parameters. We’ve even had some one sentence stories!
Writing has always been a solitary endeavour, but even (especially) writers need connection. Right now, during the pandemic, when getting out of the house has become more difficult, connection is increasingly moving online. I’d love to see you join us at Tempest!
Fight scenes and battles don’t have to be the bane of your existence
The thought of writing a battle or fight scene used to terrify me. I’m just no good at visualizing all the elements involved. My eldest son is a great strategist. He’s so good no one will play games against him anymore because he always wins. He can picture not only a battle, but an entire campaign. He’s so far ahead of everyone else we might as well not even be in the room, let alone the game.
My critique group called me on my battle avoidance. Well, really, it was just the leader, and she’s a good friend, so I had to listen. I avoided writing battle scenes like a cat avoids water. I was completely out of my depth. Jolene gave me a piece of advice that reversed my fear and empowered me.
Limit the scope of the battle
You don’t need to write everything that is happening on the field of battle. The reader doesn’t need a panoramic view. You don’t, as a writer, have to understand all the strategic ins and outs of what a real battle would entail.
Of course, some writers excel at depicting the entire scope of physical conflict whether writ large or small. Writers like David Webber (Honor Harrington) leave me in awe. They also leave my meager skills in the dust.
So how can you give readers a real feel for whatever conflict you’re describing without having to become a fight aficionado? Limit the scope to what your point of view (POV) character can see. Only write what they directly experience.
Here’s the current draft of a battle scene from my work in progress (WIP). It’s written from a healer’s POV. He catches glimpses of the fight from behind cover. He also views it from a healer’s perspective, rather than a soldier’s. Bereshon is joined by 16 year old Kara, a student in the compound where he teaches.
Bereshon stepped back into the Council chamber to chaos. A full-fledged battle was underway, with dozens of Red Illuminata locked in combat. Kara, who had come through after Bereshon, shoved Anya back through the Portal as soon as she appeared, before joining the fray.
Bereshon, no use in a fight, ducked behind a podium to his left, yelling at Kara to retreat through the Portal. Instead, she joined him, leaving insufficient cover for either of them.
“It isn’t safe here,” Bereshon said, simultaneously surveying the room and damping down the adrenaline surging through his system.
“That’s why I’m here,” Kara answered. She leaned out from behind the podium to fire a Repulsion. “Who else is going to protect you?”
Despite her brave words, Bereshon could see she was frightened. He reached out a hand, not quite touching her. “I have just Calmed my own nerves. I can do the same for you.”
At Kara’s quick nod, Bereshon touched her forehead and triggered just enough parasympathetic response to ease the worst of the fear, while still leaving her alert and ready to act. He turned his attention back to the battle.
Several Elders lay on the floor, unmoving. Bereshon tapped Kara’s shoulder to get her attention. “I have to reach the injured.”
“Are you crazy?” she answered. “Do you see what’s happening out there?”
Bereshon did see. Bodies flew through the air, some by choice, some flung against walls and dashed into furniture and each other. One pair of Reds was strangling each other. Before he could stop her, Kara stood up from behind the podium and felled both of them with simultaneous Repulsions. He dragged her back down beside him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“They were killing each other.”
Bereshon sighed inwardly at her innocence. “Kara, people die in battle. Don’t put yourself at risk.”
Kara snorted at him. “You mean like you? How are you going to get to people lying in the middle of the action?”
Bereshon once again returned his attention to the destruction occurring all around him. Kara was right. He would have to wait. He watched as Guarnot Levitated above the confusion.
“Why’s he doing that?” Kara asked. “He’s making himself a target.”
Guarnot moved his hands rapidly, as though conducting an orchestra. Two attackers rose from the floor, their bodies flying through the air at speed toward one another. Their progress slowed as they made motions of their own. A look of disgust crossed Guarnot’s features. He made a twisting motion and then a downward thrust. Both men flipped upside down before crashing to the floor head first. Neither rose again.
A Repulsion narrowly missed Guarnot’s own head as he curled into a roll, mid-air. He plummeted downward, his feet lashing out at the last second. His victim’s head snapped around so hard, Bereshon was certain his neck must have broken. Guarnot, however, didn’t wait to see the result of his attack, instead soaring back into the air.
“Holy bliks!” Kara said. “Did you see that? Will I be able to do that?”
Before he could answer, a scream of pain drew Bereshon’s attention. He turned to see Rehal clutching a gaping wound on his left shoulder. A quick glance showed Migne, holding a blaster, and then the blaster flew from his hand, across the room. Bereshon returned his attention to the Eldest. He had to reach him.
Kara nodded. “Go.” She inched out around the podium and started to fire a rapid series of Repulsions.
Keeping low to the ground, Bereshon scuttled behind the Council chairs. He had almost made it half way when the chair in front of him launched into the air, smashing into Lycan, who also seemed to be trying to reach Rehal. Bereshon froze as the Green leader collapsed, and then pulled himself back into a crouch. Their eyes met and Lycan gave him a quick nod.
Bereshon, heart pounding, started to move again. He could see a sheen of sweat on Rehal’s forehead, and when he reached him, felt the thready pulse at his wrist. He was going into shock.
“Take care of Zebel,” Rehal whispered, trying to pull his arm out of Bereshon’s grasp. “He looks worse off than me.”
Bereshon glanced across the room. Zebel lay, half propped against a chair, blood pouring from a head wound. He didn’t appear to be conscious. “He’s also far enough away that I might not make it to him. Be still.” He simultaneously used a deep Calming to place Rehal into a light sleep and Delved. The wound was deep into the shoulder with both muscle and tendon damage. Bereshon drew on a combination of his own strength and Rehal’s to regenerate the macerated tissue, ignoring the stench of burned flesh. Slowly the muscle regrew, the blood vessels and nerves repaired themselves, answering Bereshon’s coaxing, his will. He knit the skin back together before making a last check of the Eldest’s vital signs. Reassured, he withdrew and looked up.
The fight was nearly over, most of the attackers already overcome. A number of Elders lay unconscious on the floor, but Migne had made his way to the far door.
Before he could exit the room, Moeshel launched himself at the Violet, knocking him to the ground. They struggled briefly, but then Moeshel stiffened and then went slack, his eyes staring blindly at the ceiling. Migne shoved the Blue off and pulled himself up, glancing briefly back at the fighting soldiers before stepping out the door.
After that the last few attacking Reds were quickly overcome, but they had done their job. Migne had escaped, and Moeshel’s mind seemed to have been burned away. Bereshon had ministered to the other Elders and was Delving him again, when Anya returned to the Council chamber, now secured and Warded against further attack.
The reader experiences what the POV character does
By limiting the action to what Bereshon directly experiences, I have managed to convey the action of the fight scene without having to describe it in detail. Because he is a healer and not a soldier, we also only have his understanding of what he sees.
Decide on the essential components you want to convey. Here I wanted to display the way a Red Illuminata fights and to see Bereshon’s healing in action. I also needed to show Migne’s escape and his use of powers alien to the Illuminata (the mind-wipe).
Drop your reader in the middle of the action
Anyone in the midst of a real battle only sees a small portion of what is happening. If you want your reader to feel as though they are there with your POV character, they can only see what that character sees.
If you’re great at strategy and constructing elaborate battle scenes, go for it. From my perspective this actually pulls me out of the story and I often skip those parts of a novel. Lots of readers love this; I’m not one of them.
For those of us with little battle acumen, limiting the field of view is a perfect solution to writing fight scenes. For my money, it also keeps the battle narrative short enough to keep me reading and interested.
Don’t avoid writing fight scenes. Pick a vantage point and set your imagination to work. You’ll be surprised at how easily your battles will become to write.
Love it or hate it, Glee has something to teach writers. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks binge watching the show. It’s my guilty pleasure when I’m sick. The show most closely follows the lives of Rachel Berry and Kurt Hummel, but the character who interests me most is Mercedes Jones.
Mercedes never doubts her talent
The glee club is the collective underdog of McKinley High School. Its members are victimized regularly by other students, from being thrown in dumpsters, to being locked in port-a-potties, to having slushies thrown in their faces.
The club’s members, misfits one and all, find acceptance and, in a sense, a home with one another. But even within this group, rivalry abounds. This rivalry is epitomized by Rachel Berry, the self-styled star of the group.
Throughout her high school career, Mercedes never gets out from under Rachel’s shadow. She is every bit as talented as Rachel but spends most of her time in the background.
Despite this, Mercedes never once doubts her own talent. In one episode in season one she says, “Oh, hell to the no! Look, I’m not down with this background singing nonsense! I’m Beyoncé, I ain’t no Kelly Rowland!”
This young woman knows who she is and what she’s worth, no matter how others see her or how many obstacles are placed in her way.
She fights for her place
Though Mercedes sometimes approaches fighting for recognition the wrong way, the point is that she never gives up the fight. She demands her rightful place, vocally, with varying degrees of success. “Why is it that no one ever wants to hurt her feelings? You know, it’s always been The Rachel Berry Show around here, but it’s not gonna be for me. No, not my senior year.”
Mercedes perseveres until she makes it
She lands a recording contract out of high school, and though it falls apart, she doesn’t quit. She keeps going until she becomes a successful recording artist.
She gives back
As Mercedes career blossoms, she returns to McKinley High to encourage young singers coming up through the Glee club that had nurtured her. She understands that to be her best, she needs to be a mentor.
What this means for writers
Writers tend to lack a consistently positive view of themselves and their work. I don’t know about you, but I can travel the road from, “This is great. I really am a writer,” to, “I’m not that good. No one will publish this,” in under sixty seconds. I bet most of you can too.
We suffer from impostor syndrome. We hope we’ve got what it takes to make it, but how much do we really believe it? How many stories do you have hidden away that you’re too afraid to risk submitting? How often do you look at your own work and negatively compare it to that of published authors?
Belief in yourself is a choice. Mercedes chooses to believe, no matter what life throws at her. No matter how many times she fails to get what she wants or needs.
Success is built upon belief. Belief is what makes you sit down and write every day, whether anyone reads your work or not. It’s what makes you strive to be better, to learn more. It makes you put yourself out there to critique groups and to submit your short stories to publications— a hundred times if necessary.
It’s what keeps us writing when no one is reading our work.
Rejection is a fact of life for writers
No matter what you write, it’s tough to get published and tough to make if even if you do. It’s easy to become discouraged by rejection after rejection. It’s even easier to not submit at all and not have to face those rejections.
But you’ll never make it as a writer if you don’t put yourself out there. There will always be writers better than you. There will also be writers who are worse. Comparing yourself to others isn’t helpful. That only allows you to reject yourself and your writing before anyone else can.
Think about why you first started to write
Did you think you had something to say? Were you in love with stories and wanted to create your own? Were you inspired by your favorite author?
Whatever your answer to these questions, the fact is something made you a writer. It created a passion within you and enough of a belief in yourself that you started.
Nurture that belief. Fan its flame. Believe in yourself as a writer and know your worth, no matter how others see you or how many obstacles stand in your way. Stand up and say, “I am a writer.”
Imagine you’re going on vacation. You start out with a positive attitude, knowing you’re headed for a week away. You’re driving down the freeway, excited to spend a week seeing the sights at your chosen destination, when you’re confronted by a barricade saying “Road Closed.”
You immediately turn your car around and go home defeated, right? Of course not. Who would do that? If you’re old school, you pull out your map and find another route. More likely you ask Google Maps to reroute you and you successfully reach your destination, though perhaps later than planned.
That’s the only logical and reasonable choice of action. Yet when confronted with roadblocks in other areas of their lives, people tend to give up, rather than find another way.
Successful people don’t let roadblocks stop them
It would be great if whenever we wanted to accomplish something all we had to do was make the decision to do so and then cruise to the finish line. I don’t know about you, but my life doesn’t go like that.
For me, it’s more like
Decision to accomplish something
Take a few steps
If I gave up when life put barriers in my way, I’d never accomplish anything. Quite aside from perseverance in the face of difficulty, I’d like to propose something radical.
Try to see roadblocks as gifts
Yup. You read that correctly. I’ll repeat it just so you can be sure it’s not a mistake. Try to see roadblocks as gifts.
We don’t learn or grow when life is proceeding smoothly. That’s not hyperbole. It’s a statement of fact, and one I used to teach patients at the university where I worked for most of my career as a counseling physician. Today I teach the same lesson to coaching clients.
If everything is going well, we have no reason to grow. We don’t become better people or more accomplished unless challenged to do so. That means we have to face adversity.
I’m not saying I wish difficulty on you in every endeavor you undertake. But, in the kindest way possible, I want you to experience some. I want you to hit roadblocks. I want you to wonder how you will ever accomplish your goals. Most of all I want you not to see roadblocks as a reason to give up.
Get out your metaphorical map and look for an alternate route to your destination. Brainstorm. Bring others in to help. Think outside the box. Throw the box away.
If solutions don’t come easily, take a break. A real break. Go to a movie, or play a sport or a video game. Anything to give your mind a rest. Then come back to your roadblock again. Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary.
You wouldn’t give up on your holiday. Don’t give up on your goal. Cling to it with the same tenacity. You may have to retrace your steps and make many false starts before you find a clear path, but if you persevere you’ll get there.
Don’t create your own roadblocks
While I believe we all need a few setbacks along life’s freeway to build both resilience and problem-solving abilities, life throws enough at us without our adding to the difficulties.
It’s amazing how often we create the very roadblocks we let defeat us. I know people who, for example, wait until the last minute before they tackle major projects.
With a deadline looming, they run into an extra hurdle they hadn’t figured in to their timeline. They haven’t left themselves any cushion with which to deal with the hurdle and are left scrambling. Often they fail to reach their objective.
This kind of failure is fine, and can provide opportunity for learning. Seeing our weaknesses and choosing to act differently in future can turn a failure into the impetus for success.
But that’s often not what I see, as those same people go back and make the same mistake over and over again, blaming circumstances or others for their failures.
The only permanently impassible roadblock is your own failure to learn from your mistakes
If you fail to adjust your approach when time and time again it prevents you from accomplishing your goals, you are ultimately the biggest roadblock in your own path.
This all comes down to your attitude. If you have a negative attitude, assigning blame to everything and everyone but yourself as you continue in behavioral patterns that block your success, you will never achieve all you could in life.
A positive attitude, taking responsibility for your choices and using the understanding gained from doing so will keep you from placing unnecessary roadblocks in your own path. Instead of wasting energy trying to clear those, you can look for creative solutions to the difficulties life throws your way.
Each roadblock you clear better equips you to clear the next. You become more able to problem-solve. In fact, you may become the person others come to when they can’t see a way past their own roadblocks. Instead of giving up in defeat, your positive attitude may propel you to successes you can’t yet imagine.
Positivity is the Cadillac of attitudes
Adversity will always be part of your road to success. If you see it as a gift rather than a dead end, not only will you grow as a person, you will grow as a professional. Kick your negativity out of the car before you get behind the wheel. Then put it in gear and drive!
Your antagonist should be as well fleshed out as your protagonist
How many great books have you read in which the antagonist is poorly defined, or worse, a caricature of a villain? I can’t think of one. In the best stories, the antagonist is as memorable and engaging as the protagonist.
Think of Darth Vader, Severus Snape, Voldemort. What about Sweeney Todd, The Phantom (of the Opera), Magneto, and Harley Quinn? What is it about these villains that make us love to hate them, or even empathize with them?
Creating a villain who oozes evil isn’t enough to keep readers engaged
Especially not for the length of an entire novel, or, heaven forbid, a series. Cardboard cut outs become tired and annoying in a hurry. They’re not interesting to read and, more importantly, they don’t engage the reader’s emotions, and emotion is what keeps eyes glued to the page.
Give your antagonists nuance. Make them complex, fully fleshed out people with as much backstory as your protagonist. Know them as well as you know your hero. Try some of the following to make them real people who engage your readers and keep them turning the page.
Give villains a backstory readers can identify with
Create sympathy for your antagonist. In the television series Once Upon a Time, the evil queen, Regina, starts out as a kind, caring person. Her backstory shows a young Snow White inadvertently betraying her love for a stable hand, and Regina’s mother killing him. We understand what has hardened her heart and created her hatred of Snow. However much we hate Regina, a tiny part of us sympathizes with her.
Write from the antagonist’s point of view
Let your readers into your villain’s inner world. Remember, each character in your story is the protagonist of their own story, including the antagonist. They often believe their actions are good and just. Thanos, from the Marvel Universe, is motivated by a desire to cure poverty and suffering. He just happens to believe the way to do that is to wipe out half of all living beings in the galaxy. We can both simultaneously hate this character and understand that he is operating from what he perceives as a motivation for good.
Show your villain’s inner conflict
Very few villains are single-minded automatons bent on destruction. Perhaps the most iconic conflicted villain of all time was Judas, who betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees. He loved Jesus, and yet believed him to be dangerous. He handed him over to be crucified, then hanged himself, unable to live with his choice.
Darth Vader is another famously conflicted antagonist who, in the end, finds redemption when he saves his son Luke from the evil Emperor. The Star Wars franchise continues this theme with Kylo Ren, who, also conflicted, takes the opposite path, murdering his father.
Create similarities between your villain and hero
Give them similar backstories. What led one to good and the other to evil? In Megamind, both Megamind and Metroman were sent to earth as infants. They received very different welcomes and upbringings, and this set their life paths.
Maybe your antagonist and protagonist share certain character traits. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie and Darcy share an overabundance of both faults. Perhaps both hero and villain, for their own reasons, are chasing the same goal. Classically, Cinderella and her stepmother are both trying to impress the prince.
Give your antagonist a story arc
You can give glimpses into the villain’s past to show the arc that brought them to their role. Alternatively, a story arc concurrent with that of the protagonist’s journey can be either redemptive or a further descent into evil. Redemption can be complete or muddied by lingering negative traits. You could have a villain move toward redemption, then step away, completing their original agenda. There are so many variations on this theme.
Darth Vader starts life as Anakin Skywalker, who enters Jedi training with good intentions. He descends into the role of villain and ultimately is redeemed by his love for Luke.
However you go about it, you must make your antagonist a fully fleshed out character, as complex and compelling as your protagonist. The worst fate for villains is for readers to feel emotionally untouched by them. Love them or hate them, it doesn’t matter, as long as readers viscerally connect. Your job as their creator is to make that happen.
I’ve never met a New Year’s resolution I couldn’t let slide and then let go. In fact, I truly believe that for myself, and likely many others, the very act of creating such a resolution sets up an inner resistance which inevitably leads to failure.
New Year’s resolutions don’t work
A quick Google search turned up multiple references that cite a measly 8% success rate for January First resolutions. If you’re among that 8%, more power to you. But what about the rest of us — the 92% who fail miserably? How are we to reach our writing goals for 2020?
We need to reframe our commitment
Reframing is a great tool for changing your mindset about just about anything. Basically it involves choosing to look at something from a different perspective.
Instead of deciding that January first is D-Day for your bad habits, let go of that date completely. If you initiate your plan on the first, great. If it happens another day, that’s great too.
Your goals need to be specific
Sit down with pen and paper, or open a file on your computer. Personally this is one of the few things for which I like the old fashioned method.
Think about what you would like to accomplish with your writing this year. Break it down into 3, 6, 9, and 12 month goals
Maybe you want to complete a novel. Maybe you have decided to write 1,000 blog posts. Maybe both. Break your year’s goals into quarterly milestones. Hence, 3, 6, 9, and 12 month goalposts.
Make sure your goals are realistic
Once you’ve set your goals it’s time to find out how realistic they are. It’s crucial to be honest with yourself here.
To reach your 3 month goalposts, what must you accomplish each month? How many days, and how many hours will you work in a month? Remember to be honest, not idealistic.
Compare the time you realistically will spend working to the time required to accomplish your goals. If they match up, great. Make sure you build in extra time for unexpected events that will slow you down
What if your goals aren’t realistic for your time frame
Congratulations! You’ve realized the need to adjust your goals before they flounder and fail.
Sit down again and look hard at what you want to accomplish over the next 12 months. How can you pare it down or otherwise adjust it so that it becomes realistically doable?
Unrealistic goals will fail
We don’t like downsizing our goals. We all want to dream big. There’s nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to give up on your grand design. You do need to be realistic about how long it will take you to achieve it.
Your one year plan may need to become an 18 month plan. As frustrating as that may feel, it is far more likely to result in your reaching the finish line than setting pie in the sky, unreachable goals.
The best New Year’s resolution is no resolution
Plan your route to success. Devote a solid block of time to creating a realistic course of action to get you there. When you cross that finish line you’ll be glad you did.
One of the most common problems I saw as a physician at a busy university health clinic was students stressed out around their workload. These students would work ten to twelve hours or more a day and still not be able to keep up.
They gave up on all their leisure activities, everything they had enjoyed in high school, time with friends, literally everything.
By the time these students reached my office, they were exhausted, burned out wrecks who continued to put in insane hours studying.
The problem with working long hours
People commonly believe that if they just worked longer they would do better at whatever it is they do. Writers are in no way exempt from this belief. Employers often demand it of their employees, not understanding just how erroneous this belief is.
Your brain is like a muscle. If it’s overused, it tires and becomes less efficient. Think about lifting a 5 pound weight. Now lift that weight 20 times. No, wait, lift it a thousand times without a break. Can’t do it? Well, that’s what you’re asking your brain to do if you don’t give it a rest.
Your brain is subject to the law of diminishing returns
The tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved.
In effect, there is, for each of us, an optimum time frame for working. Past that our brains become increasingly less efficient. It doesn’t matter how long we stare at our computer screen, we aren’t going to work better or produce superior results after we reach that point. In fact, our work deteriorates and our brains are too tired to allow us to see it.
I particularly remember one student. She was in third year and a don in her residence. She devoted every minute of every day either to her duties or to her studies. She came to me with her grades plummeting. She was burned out and desperate for a fix. So desperate that she actually listened when I explained the law of diminishing returns to her and agreed to try a new approach.
Her change didn’t come easily. We had to start with small things. I talked her at first into sitting with her books for no more than 50 minutes with a 15 minute break before sitting down again. The next part made her cringe. I required her, at first, to take a minimum of 30 minutes to herself every day. This 30 minutes was in no way to benefit anyone else or to further any kind of work.
She took this hard, but desperation won out and when I saw her a week later, she had faithfully followed my instructions. She looked a little better, and said her focus and concentration were somewhat improved. That’s when I hit her with a bigger demand. She had to not only take an hour to herself each day, she also had to take one full evening off every week. Again, whatever she did could not be for anyone else’s benefit or in any way related to work.
The next time I saw her, she said she had taken an evening and gone to a movie with a friend. It was the first movie she had seen in longer than she could remember. She had also written a test that week and had done better on it than on tests prior to taking time off.
As the year progressed, this student took weekends away and in general built better study habits, with time off throughout each day. She never worked more than 50 minutes at a stretch and her marks skyrocketed. She made the Dean’s list.
What happened was that her brain became less fatigued. Her concentration and ability to understand and process what she read improved dramatically. Instead of staring at her books hour after hour with nothing sinking in, her reduced study hours became increasingly productive. Her brain worked better.
How this helps you as a writer
What I did with this student was to take advantage of an understanding of the law of diminishing returns (originally posited with regards to economic principles) as it applies to the human brain. It applies equally to you and your writing.
If you sit endless hours in front of your computer without a break, your brain will become less and less efficient. You may still be outputting words but I guarantee you their quality will diminish as your ability to concentrate and create slowly dwindles.
The effect is cumulative, not just over a day, but over days, weeks, and months. It can take a significant amount of time to recover from abusing your brain in this manner.
If you want to get the most out of your brain, to allow you to be at your productive and creative best, you must walk away from your keyboard regularly.
Write for an hour at a time at most
I know the temptation is there to keep going when you’re experiencing flow. Cheat by a few minutes if you must, but know that having ideas flowing when you stop makes it easier to start again when you come back. This is the principle behind stopping writing for the day before you finish writing everything you’ve thought of. You have a place to start the next day.
Set an alarm to go off 5 minutes before you’re supposed to break. That will give you time to finish your immediate writing and find a good place to pause. If necessary, jot a quick note to yourself to tell you where to pick up again when you return.
Take at least 15 minutes away from the keyboard
Don’t spend those minutes thinking about what you’re writing. That’s not a break. Play a game. Talk to your spouse or a friend. Make a cup of tea. If you’re disciplined enough, watch 15 minutes of a show. Don’t worry, you can come back to it on your next break.
Set a hard limit on your daily writing time
Remember, writing ten hours a day is not only inefficient, it also burns you out over time. You need to have other things in your life besides writing. Just. Walk. Away.
Refill the tank
Go out and live. You’re not going to write well if you’re constantly operating on fumes. Living life refills your tank and heals burnout. Get back in touch with the things you used to love doing but gave up because you convinced yourself you had more important things to do. Spend time with friends.
Nurturing yourself is essential to well-being and the ability to create on a regular basis. It’s a mistake to think otherwise. I would be willing to bet that much of writer’s block is due to empty tanks. However much you love writing, there needs to be more than a keyboard in your life.
Create increasing returns
This implies flipping decreasing returns on its head. By limiting your writing to set blocks of time and taking real time to yourself you’ll improve your ability to concentrate as well as your creativity. Don’t “lift weights” until your muscle (brain) quits.
Allow your brain to function at its best every time you sit down to write. You may find you actually write more and the quality of your writing may improve as well.