The most wonderful time of the year

The tree in question. Also, the Flames vs the Avalanche and a black cat lurking in the corner.

The tree in question. Also, the Flames vs the Avalanche and a black cat lurking in the corner.

Christmas can be a hassle. I’m not a huge fan of how busy it makes us, or the things we do just because we’ve always done them. Those parts of Christmas can pretty much take a hike. But there are parts of Christmas that I cherish. I love spending time with friends and family. I love the experience of giving a great gift. And I love sitting in the gentle light of the Christmas tree to write.

This year, I’m doing some of those things! But others (primarily the latter) will fall by the wayside.

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On a patio in Palm Springs, fingers to keyboard.

I love writing. I tend to view vacations and time off as an opportunity to write, to really immerse myself in what I’m working on and make a bunch of progress. If I’m travelling, I’m making time to write (often by the pool). If I’m out camping, I bring my laptop or a printed draft and I’m making time to write. Even on my honeymoon (Madrid and Barcelona) in 2014, I made time to write. I don’t obsessively work, and I make sure to take time for the reasons I’m actually there (being with my friends or loved ones, soaking up sun, seeing new things and having new experiences). But a vacation isn’t a vacation from writing.

That brings me back to this Christmas. It’s KRH’s first. Bravely, we decided to host, with our 3-month old, who was also nursing his first cold. My wife and I were similarly ill, but we figured we could make it work. We bought a turkey and prepared to have all the grandparents over (all our immediate local family). As it turned out, preparing took most of my writing time in the run-up to Christmas, but I figured I’d find time later.

That is, until we ended up in the Children’s Hospital on Christmas Eve because KRH was wheezing. Wheezing, as it turns out, is one of those immediate warning signs for infants that sends you straight for medical attention. It was a scary evening, because when we got there the triage nurse judged him pale and mottled and got us seen right away. After some suction and nebulization, his breathing improved and his vitals remained strong, so they sent us home. Christmas morning, his wheezing got worse and we ended up back at the hospital for another round of suctioning and observation. The end diagnosis was a viral infection, so there wasn’t even much we could do except keep a close eye on him and wait for him to improve.

He has and is now back to being a cheerful baby (in fact he was even when he was wheezing) but mom and I are still sick and mostly exhausted after a bunch of late and worrying nights. We did manage to make the best of Christmas day and still have dinner with the grandparents.

It may shock you to learn this blog post is the first thing I’ve written in a little while! It is not a shock for me. I knew that I was going to have to take things a bit easier this Christmas. It’s been a long few months since KRH was born and there’s value in sleep, relaxation and time with family and friends. Working hard at writing is how I’ll achieve my goals, but I have a whole life to live in pursuit of more than writing excellence.

So for the rest of the year, my goal is recuperation. On January 1st I hit the ground running.

Progress and KRH

In the nearly five years I’ve spent writing seriously, I’ve managed to produce two complete novels, a series of novelettes, some short stories that won honourable mention in contests, and several other drafts ranging from wretched, squirming NaNoWriMo-level early drafts to decently enjoyable reads awaiting various levels of polishing. That’s compared to what I produced in about 15 years of writing before that: a pair of complete (I thought, actually only 3rd draft) novels, a scattering of other first drafts and a ton of fanfiction.

I write about this because one thing I’ve found integral in the last five years is tracking. It’s been so important for me to measure my productivity so I can figure out what I’m doing well and not, so I can make improvements.

At first, I started tracking butt-in-chair hours. That was, and still is, an excellent exercise for me. Some days can’t control my productivity level for a variety of reasons (my son is an excellent example!) but I can control how long I sit in the chair writing. It was only after I started tracking my time spent writing that I learned to build the habit of writing regularly, for example. It probably won’t come as a surprise, but I’ve spent more time writing in the last five years than I did in the twelve years prior. I learned, for example, that it takes me about 600-700 hours of writing to produce a novel (I don’t count time spent braining through a novel, of course, which is probably much more).

More recently, I started tracking productivity on a daily basis, be it pages edited or words written. This is where KRH comes in. It may shock you to learn that with a 10-week old in the house and me working full time, the total number of hours available to write have, for the moment dropped dramatically. So too has my ability to concentrate on what I’m doing, mostly because I’m now needed more often than I used to be around the house. It used to be I could do the week’s cooking, prep and cleaning a few times a week, and devote much of my other time to writing. Good luck with trying to change diapers, dress KRH or walk him down for sleep (or drive him around until he falls asleep, as has been necessary sometimes).

I’ve been using Jamie Raintree’s Writing and Revision Tracker over the last year. It was a useful tool in tracking both words written and pages edited, especially when I completed significant edits to the two novels I thought were complete when I started this year (some requested, some merely me realising the novel wasn’t as done as I thought). Simply keeping track of these things makes me more productive.

Now, because of KRH, measuring my productivity is going to be more important than ever. Going forward, I’m going to be measuring progress on my current project, and displaying it with this handy little bar below. You can expect it to advance to 100% and jump back down to 0% several times, because I’ll use it to track my progress for each draft rather than the entire project. I’m not yet certain how many drafts this novel will take. My current draft is a quick read-through to fix timeline errors, names and other things that changed in the course of the draft, and add new scenes. It should be pretty quick and I still hope to finish it this year, probably mostly around Christmas. I’ll make weekly updates as I go and report on anything I’ve learned as I do.

Frustration (part 2)

I feel as though this could be an ongoing topic!

When last I talked frustration, it was because KRH was in a frustrating phase. Lots of tears and not a lot of sleep, which is a combination that wasn’t much fun for anyone. Furthermore, he wanted to be held all the time, by which I mean, literally every second of every day. He also wanted to be nursing for about 90% of that time, even though he wasn’t really eating, just sucking. My wife slept in the easy chair a few times, just so he could stay attached to her.

Since then, we’ve had a bit more success. We’re learning to burp him harder and longer to help with gas. We’ve changed her diet to try and cut out some of the foods that might bother him. And we’ve learned new techniques to help get him to sleep, namely switching between walking and bouncing him before putting him down.

All this, though, requires both time and energy, and my wife and I had a 4 am conversation one morning, the result of which was that she needed more help. So, at least for a while, some things changed. Less time for me at the library and the gym. Naturally I don’t enjoy those things, but if she needs the help then I’ll be there. We’re still trying to make time for me to do the self care things I need.

I was able, last week, to finally finish my NaNoWriMo draft. It took about 6 weeks and came in at 81500 words. That’s not bad for 6 weeks. I’m about to engage in a first read through and fix to tidy up some details that changed in the telling, and also to add a few missing scenes. Some of the work on it was done one-handed while holding KRH. Turns out my typing speed while holding a baby isn’t that good, but I felt really good about the effort of holding a sleeping child and writing. It was a reminder that, although the two goals of a successful writing career and parenting a young child can feel mutually exclusive, they’re not totally so.

Still, over the next while I expect to be somewhat disappointed with myself about the amount of time I have with my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard. There’s not really a good way around that; I have expectations of myself, both for writing and for parenting, and the parenting will have to come first, especially for now. Still, I can and will find the time to keep working, even if it won’t be at the pace I want. And really, a lot of parenting will come down to managing my expectations about a lot of things, and treating myself with more empathy. I think that might be a good skill to learn anyway.

 

NaNoWriMo: A retrospective

Here we are, a week after NaNoWriMo 2016 wrapped up. I’m pleased to announce I finished and won. But it did come down to the wire. I’m going to dig into that a bit. Below is the handy graph of my wordcount from this year.

2016-nano

So a couple of things jump out at my from this year’s graph. First, there were big periods where I didn’t write much. That’s not super unusual for me. This year, I lost days around November 8th, and had numerous days where I either didn’t write or only wrote a few hundred words.

Let’s compare this year to last year. That’s an interesting comparison, because last year I had to have my appendix removed right before the month began, and when November kicked off I’d gone back to work early, was struggling, and still managed to write the most words ever for a NaNo.

2015-nano

So a couple of things stand out for me. First, much like this year, in 2015 I had a big chunk of time where I couldn’t manage any words. I also had a fair number of days where I didn’t write or only wrote a little. In fact, like in 2016, I never really pulled ahead. Now, in 2015, I crossed 50k on the 23rd, mostly on the strength of a weekend where I wrote about 10k. To finish off the month, I had another weekend, where I wrote about 14k. If you remove those surges, the two graphs are pretty much similar.

I think this is important for me to understand just how the two months compared. I went to a similar number of events both years, roughly twice a week. However, in 2015, I was able to get more words out of them. Also, I was able to devote big chunks of time on weekends. This year, I found myself generally unable to do that, mostly because of the need to change diapers or feed my wife or any of the other small but innumerable tasks KRH requires. Really, I think that (plus being tired) are the only differences between 2015 and 2016. Also worth noting is that in 2015 it took me almost 55 hours to reach the 74k words I did. This year it took 30 to get to 50k. Pace wise, that’s pretty darn close. Now, this year’s manuscript is simply worse, but I feel like having an infant gives me a pass this time around.

I draw a few things from this. One, if I can make it through the first 8 weeks of KRH’s life and keep writing at the same pace as before, that’s a positive sign (Though I plan to get more efficient). Two, if I don’t spend as much time writing as I did before KRH, I have to learn to be satisfied with that, at least in the short run. That’s not something I’m good at, but it might be necessary to keep my sanity. I’m going to experiment with James Clear’s advice on consistent goal setting, especially when it comes to setting an upper limit on my goals (sustainable). And we’ll see how that goes. I’ll report back on it come the new year.

Frustration

As we reach the 7th week of KRH, I feel as though a major feeling in our household these past few days is frustration.

That might not be fair on our behalf. Last week, KRH had some nights where he’d sleep for 4-5 hours at night, and my wife was starting to feel human. KRH was also acting happy and less fussy, so we had a view of the promised land. This weekend, he slept more erratically and only when someone is holding him, and therefore we slept less. He also caught me a pretty good one via headbutt to the mouth (he’s surprisingly strong), and lately seems to cry immediately when I hold him. So some frustration is inevitable, because my wife feels like she can’t put him down, and I feel like I’m not being all that useful.

Now, when I’m not feeling frustrated, I know this is likely just a phase. KRH is growing and still very young. And surely we’re not the first parents to have a frustrating baby, especially at 7 weeks. In fact, I think we’re doing well, given the challenges of having a baby that age. In fact, we tell ourselves (and even believe it) that most of the time he’s a pretty good baby. It’s not like he does anything to frustrate us on purpose.

So where does this leave me with writing? Not exactly where I want to be. I was hoping to have finished my NaNoWriMo draft by now, and to be into a quick first pass of rewriting. As it turns out, I’m still 10k words away from the end of the draft, and it’s going to end up in worse shape than I’d anticipated. That’s okay because I think I know how to fix it, but the last week or so hasn’t been all that productive. And that has to be okay. Fingers are still striking keyboard. Words are still getting written. There are going to be days where I’m lucky to get in just a little work.

Here’s an example. Sunday was busy. I didn’t sleep that great, we had to go to brunch at my parent’s home, we needed to get groceries and cook for the week, and I was feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Now, I could have made better use of some of my time, but I didn’t because my head was in a frustrated space. So, at the suggestion of my wife, I managed 15 minutes of writing in the car on the way to brunch. It was only about 500 words, but that was 500 words I was unlikely to have written otherwise.

There are going to be days like that. Weeks and months, too. The purpose of this blog is to talk about being a writer who is also a parent, but really I’m a parent who is also a writer. Writing is my heart job; and I’ve been writing seriously for a couple of years and spent a lot of blood and sweat, tears and toil. But in becoming a parent, I’ve taken on an obligation to my wife and son that I simply can’t blow off. In some ways, they’re competing jobs; both will take as much time as I can give them, and I’ll always feel dissatisfied with how much time I can put into them. But right now, there’s a clear winner in priorities and that’s being a parent.

 

NaNoWriMo and KRH

National Novel Writing Month has been a big part of my writing for a long time. 2016 is my 12th year taking part in the mad dash to write 50,000 words in a month. It is in no small part how I learned to put butt in my chair and fingers to keyboard even when I was feeling tired, or lazy, or just like not working. It’s also been an amazing community, where I’ve met many good friends, not to mention my wife, who is currently one of the Municipal Liasons for my NaNoWriMo region. So it’s safe to say that NaNo is a deep part of my life and my identity as a writer.

So when my wife and I realized KRH would be arriving shortly before November, we started to make plans. She, as the one who would be devoting the bulk of her time to feeding and generally caring for KRH, wisely reduced her word count goal. I decided to forge onward and try and make 50k. My reasoning seemed simple enough. Babies sleep a lot, right? I knew I’d be writing tired and often getting up to change diapers, so I planned to get my writing in 15 and 30 minute chunks, when KRH and my wife were sleeping or feeding or so on.

As I often do in preparation for NaNo, I laid the groundwork for November by doing a ton of cooking. I filled our freezer (luckily we have a big one) with ham, chilli, bacon-wrapped chicken thighs, frozen lunches, and easy ingredients. I estimate I made enough for almost 200 meals (and indeed, we’ve been eating out of the freezer for almost a month and there’s still a fair amount of food left). I also planned my novel using the snowflake method, as I always do.

Almost 3 weeks in, I’m prepared to say that I’m going to reach my 50k words, but not like I thought I would. First, I find my time is in large part spent taking care of my wife, rather than KRH. We’re breastfeeding and haven’t yet pumped enough for me to give KRH a bottle, so he spends most of his time with my wife. So it’s my job to do everything else, including feeding the cats, warming up or making food for my wife, filling her water bottle, doing errands and chores and whatever else needs to be done. I’d say I’ve changed my fair share of diapers, but if I’m honest the vast majority of caring for KRH falls on her, not me. I’ll admit that when I pictured this time, I imagined it as a little more egalitarian, but this is what’s been working for us so far, including as I went back to work, first from home and now back in the office full time.

She, in turn, has insisted that I make time for writing. I’ll be honest and say that if not for her doing that, I probably wouldn’t be getting anywhere near as much done as I am. My tendency has been to hover around her in case she needs me for anything, and while she certainly did need me during the first few weeks, she’s now able to do more, and that means shooing me off to the library or down to the treadmill to write for an hour or so at a time. That’s enabled me to keep up my wordcount and I’m basically on track for 50k this month.

Another key part of NaNoWriMo this month has been events. I’m lucky (thanks again in part to my wife) that my chapter has a robust slate of events, two a week, usually several hours long and sometimes longer. That enables me to build up a buffer for the days that I don’t write, and there are always days like that. So events are not only opportunities to be social and chat with fellow writers and sometimes eat chicken fingers, but also hugely productive.

I think that so far this has been a success. My wife has already reached her word goal (and hopes to make double it) and I’m ahead of schedule to reach mine. I call that a success.

Parenting after Trump: my manifesto

I sat down to write this article on Saturday morning. I hadn’t written a thing since Tuesday. I don’t intend to use this blog to talk politics, but I can’t not respond to this election on a personal level, or how it’s going to relate to KRH. I don’t live in the US (I’m Canadian) but the election left me feeling fearful and a little broken. It wasn’t that I had no idea this could be the outcome. I just didn’t spend any time considering what it would be like afterwards.

So now it is afterwards and I’m feeling terrified. I’m scared a lot of people (People of colour, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities) are going to get hurt. I’m worried about the wave of racism and misogyny Trump is normalizing. I’m concerned about his fitness as president, and I’m scared about his plans (or lack thereof) for climate change.

All of this is filtered through my relationship with KRH. I fear the world I’m going to be raising him in. I worry about what he’ll see and absorb and have to live through. And living in Canada is no defence. It will come north. There are people who are happy to bring it and they already have.

For a few days, this worry has been terrifying. I’ve felt depressed and hopeless, even as I see other people rallying and hardening themselves to fight. Now I have to be done feeling paralysed. I’ve decided to create a manifesto for myself, about how I want to react in the days, months and years ahead. Here it is.

I will include diversity in my writing 

As a white dude, I’ve never struggled to find characters like myself in books, TV and movies. But not everyone is that lucky. About two years ago I realized my work didn’t reflect the world around me. Since then I have tried to educate myself about people different from myself and include them in my writing. I’m never going to stop doing that and I’m never going to stop learning how to do it better than I have been.

I will use my privilege to help and defend others

I’m a white, able-bodied male with a wife and child. I also identify as queer, but I generally appear pretty heteronormative. That puts me pretty close to the top of privilege mountain. I need to be aware of that privilege and I need to learn how to use it to help people who have less of it than me.

I will speak truth to darkness

I will name racism, misogyny and more by what they are when I see it. I don’t know if I’m tough enough to seek out these things and challenge them outside my circle of friends and family, but I will do what I can to educate the people around me. Furthermore, I will listen to and amplify the voices of LGBT, PoC and disabled people.

I will reflect these beliefs with my vote

The ballot box is where we have a huge impact. I will always vote, and I will vote to reflect my values of justice, equality and lifting up those less fortunate than me, rather than voting for what might help my wallet.

I will share my values with KRH

This is maybe the most important part, but. It’s also going to be the toughest. You’ll note I didn’t say I will raise KRH to have my values. I believe strongly in equality, but I also believe that I can’t just tell my son to be a feminist, or to be inclusive, or any of the other important things I believe in. Instead, I have to teach him about compassion, and empathy, and that although other people may look or act different, that we cannot fear the other. I believe that if I can model these things for him, and to help him understand why I find racism and misogyny so abhorrent, that he will choose to make those beliefs his own because they are right, not merely because I told him so.

So that’s it. My own private manifesto. I look forward to the day I can start to discuss these sorts of things with KRH, though at the same time, I really hope that by the time he’s old enough to understand them, the world will be on a different track.

One month in

Today makes four weeks since KRH was born. I’m still writing. That’s good.

So maybe it isn’t the total success I had hoped for. I had hoped to devote a lot more time to writing than I’ve managed. I intended to get back to writing the first day after KRH was born, and use all the free time I had to put in short word-sprints. That certainly hasn’t happened.

Here’s what is working. My wife, bless her, is being excellent about allowing me to get away to the gym and the library (my current writing space). When I’m at home, I feel much more compelled to hover around in case I’m needed. Certainly, that allows me to change diapers, burp KRH and keep my wife fed as needed, and that’s been needed in the last four weeks. I’ve also been quite lucky to be able to take two weeks vacation, and then take work from home with some frequency over the last two weeks. But while that’s been helpful, my wife is determined that I be able to get away to write and take care of myself.

Hence, the library. It’s a much easier space to go to, turn off my phone, and concentrate. It’s nicer that new library recently opened about a three minute drive from my house, so it’s a nice, comfortable space. I’ve never had a problem finding a chair or an outlet, and it’s quiet enough that I’m rarely distracted there. This has made an impact on my productivity.

Another thing that’s been helpful is the fact that it’s National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo holds a special place in my heart; my wife and I met during it and we’ve been participants for 12 years. She helps run the local chapter and we have many friends who we see often for meet-ups and write-ins. Writing can be a hugely solitary act, so writing as part of a community can be really helpful. Going to some events has been really helpful, because it’s a set time to get some words in. We don’t stay as long as we usually do, and one of us is usually holding KRH while the other is writing, but writing is still happening for both of us. Given that NaNoWriMo taught me how to butt-in-chair and write even when I don’t feel like it, this is really just re-learning a useful lesson.

As such, I’ve managed to write about 45,000 words of the first draft I’ve been working on since mid-October. It’s my usual level of NaNoWriMo quality, which is to say it’s riddled with typos, continuity errors and more, but it’s a big part of my creative writing process to be able to work on a first draft this way. The rest of the year is about making those drafts into something worthwhile.

After those four weeks, am I happy with my progress writing since KRH arrived? No. But here’s my secret; I’m never happy with my writing progress. No amount of success, no number of hours spent, pages edited or words typed ever feels like enough. I’m not where I want to be, so I always feel like I could be doing more. But given the circumstances, I feel satisfied with where I’m at. For now, that’ll have to do.

Writing with kids

After a somewhat lengthy hiatus, I’ve decided to reactivate this blog. For the most part, it was a distraction from actually writing. Also, I wasn’t really all that sure I had anything to really share.

A boy who takes after his father, obviously.

A boy who takes after his father, obviously.

My son (who I’ll call KRH) was born three weeks ago. He’s a healthy baby who’s quickly enchubbening. And despite my fears to the contrary, I’ve found that writing does actually go on after children.

Now, this may be premature. I was off work for two of those weeks, and KRH spent a lot of that time sleeping. I’ve also been working hard to support my wife, who is doing the difficult and important work of spending most of her time feeding and holding our son. Nonetheless, I found it encouraging that I’m still able to find some time to work.

Before KRH came along, I spent a lot of time worrying that writing wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t able to find a lot of people who wrote about writing with children. A lot of the things I did find were like this, which featured lines like “I have pretty consistently failed to have enough energy for parenting, fiction writing, freelance writing, and other obligations in my life.” and “Plan for six months off.  Having a baby was sooo much more work than writing a novel.” They don’t mean to be negative, but to me it came across that way.

Now, I had no illusions that this was going to be easy. But children and writing are two of the driving goals in my life, and in this case they may be at least contradictory. The thought of giving up six months of writing (and admittedly I’m not the parent KRH needs the most of, right now) is agonizing to me, especially if we go on to have two or three children, as is currently our plan. Blip or not, I’m filled with the overwhelming need to chase my chances now because I don’t know if there will be other chances down the road. And I’ve spent ten years learning how to be a regular, devoted, committed writer.

I’m re-starting this blog to follow my journey through writing as a father. Maybe this experiment will be a failure, and I simply won’t have the time to both be a good parents and a good writer. But I don’t believe that to be true. I think this is possible, and that it’s also possible to stay healthy, happy, and not sacrifice important relationships to do it. That’s not to say there won’t be sacrifices, because there will. I’m already making them. But I believe this is possible, because I need to.

Check back once a week on Wednesdays for my latest posts. I’ll talk about what I’ve done, what I’m finding works with KRH, experiences, lessons, and so on and so forth. Thanks for reading!