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!

Four lessons from When Words Collide

For the fourth year in a row, I came away from When Words Collide feeling fired up and ready to go, so this weeks blog post comes early. A lot of things went right, I met a lot of great people, and I learned a lot. There are a few key lessons I want to remember going forward, so here they are.

1. Nobody has all the answers. 

This is a really key point. Nobody knows everything, and if they think they do, then you probably shouldn’t listen to them. During his two-hour talk on the writing process, Brandon Sanderson shared tips about things he wishes he’d known he started writing. First on the list? “Know when to ignore the person telling you what to do.”

This is a point that Brandon really illustrated well. There is no one true path to anything, no carefully guarded secret that will bring you success. A conference like WWC is all about sharing experiences, and there was a real wealth to draw on. I heard Robert J. Sawyer talk about his 7 netbooks, heard Jodi McIsaac speak about her impressive marketing methods, and enjoyed Hayden Trenholm, Ian Alexander Martin, Adrianne Kerr and Robert Runte’s perspectives on querying. None of them have The Answer, but having heard their opinions, I can decide my own path.

2. It’s hard to put yourself out there. Do it anyway.

No, really. We’re not writers because we’re social butterflies, but to get what you want, you’ve got to talk to people. You’ve got to get out and do it. I spoke with agents, editors, and above all, lots and lots of other writers, and every time I did, I learned something, even if it was just about my fellows.

It’s more than that, though. If you want to be published, eventually, you’re going to need to seek feedback on your work. Try a blue pencil session, or submit to a slush pile panel. This isn’t a thing that came naturally to me, but after pitching for three years in a row, I was only nervous for a few hours leading up to the pitch, instead of spending the weekend terrified of five minutes on the Sunday. You will learn to be more comfortable and to do more, and you don’t have to leap in and do it all at once.

3. Writing and publishing are always changing.

Be prepared for things to change, because they do. The market will change. The tools will change. Change, change. And not just Amazon-Hatchette big-time events. Trends will come and go, too. Last year, everyone I spoke to couldn’t stop telling me about trilogies. Pitch a trilogy, everyone said. This year, I heard in half a dozen places that the market is saturated with trilogies, and that single books are better. Should you let that change what you write? Probably not. Chasing trends means you’ll be left in the dust. But it should affect what you propose, and to who.

Maybe that’s why conferences like this are so important. By next year, things will be different. You can’t follow the day-to-day events, but if you’re writing for a market, you’d better know what’s going on in that market.

4. Don’t stop writing

Here’s a golden rule, one that I heard reiterated a dozen times. Keep writing. Brandon Sanderson told a very enraptured crowd about his writing schedule, in which he rises late in the day, writes, spends time with his family and children, and then writes more once it gets late. Even at a conference, he gets in some words, describing himself not as a fast writer, but as a consistent writer. Robert J. Sawyer has seven netbooks that he keeps in difference places so he always has access to them, so he can always keep writing. Jodi McIsaac’s top marketing tip was to keep writing, because new books sell old books. It’s easy to get caught up in the business and the networking and everything, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the writing.

A final note

My short story Aurel Stonegate received honourable mention in the Robyn Herrington Memorial Short Story Contest, and was published in In Places Between 2014. I was lucky enough to attend the judging panel with the other winning authors, and I want to congratulate them all on their wonderful work. Also, thanks to Calgary’s Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, Calgary Crime Writers, the Alberta Romance Writers’ Association and the Alexandra Writers’ Society for hosting the contest, to the administrators, and to the judges. The end result is wonderful. 

Seven reasons not to write novels, and why we should anyway

Spanish novelist Javier Marias has seven reasons not to write  novels. I highly recommend a read of them, because although they are a bit cynical, I can’t help but detect a bit of cheekiness to them. For brevity’s sake, here they are.

  1. There are too many novels and too many people writing them.
  2. Because anyone, whatever his or her profession, can write a novel, it is an activity that lacks merit and mystery.
  3. Writing a novel won’t make you rich.
  4. The novel is no guarantee of fame.
  5. The novel does not bring immortality, largely because immortality barely exists any more.
  6. Writing novels does not flatter the ego, even momentarily.
  7. Isolation, a fear of the blank page, the vast amount of alcohol a writer consumes, and so on.

Perhaps this is more than seven reasons, and perhaps there’s more than a bit of tongue in cheek there. But this leads Marias to one reason he can see for to write novels. From the article.

“Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be. This means that he can live in the realm of what might have been and never was, and therefore in the land of what is still possible, of what will always be about to happen, what has not yet been dismissed as having happened already or because everyone knows it will never happen.”

There’s a bit of temptation to get to up in arms whenever a published writer tells unpublished writers not to write. It smacks a bit of gatekeeping. But Marias is right in that if publication, fame and profit is the goal of writing, then the vast majority of writers will be disappointed. But there are a lot of writers who grind away at our works, odds be damned. Do we hope to defy the trends?

I’ve ruminated in the past about readership as a goal of writing. But I’m not sure that really gets at what this is about. We all write for different reasons, but as tongue in cheek as Marias may be, it’s easy to look at his list and feel a bit discouraged.

So I wrote my own damn list. Why I should write novels. It’s below.

  1. I enjoy the feeling of having written. Sometimes, I even enjoy writing.
  2. For me, writing is a social activity, and I hugely value the friends I’ve met through it, not to mention my fiancé.
  3. Because I’ve got so many stories that need telling.
  4. Taking something that exists only in your brain and making it real and tangible is a real joy.
  5. I love the feeling of knowing someone has enjoyed reading something I’ve written.
  6. Because while I know my writing has improved, I know it can get a lot better, and getting there is exiting.
  7. I’m certain that if I work long enough and hard enough, lots of people will enjoy my novels.

Sometimes, re-affirming why we do what we do is a useful exercise. If you decide to write your own list (and it need not be seven points long) then please share them in the comments below. Happy writing!