Self-Care while Writing

Self-care is important on a personal level. Everyone needs different types of self-care, including writers. But when you hear the word, do you think bubble baths, face masks, a glass of wine and a soppy movie? Sure, that can be it if that’s what you need. But self-care is so much more than pampering yourself, especially if you have a mental illness — anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc. Self-care is learning coping mechanisms. Self-care not cancelling your next therapy appointment because you had an episode with hallucinations again and you’re ashamed of it. Self-care is forcing yourself to get up and shower when you’re too depressed to do anything.

Ultimately, self-care is so much more than what most people think. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s something I wanted to talk about, because mental health and self-care are for everyone. Everyone has mental health. And, as a writer living with severe mental illness, I find it’s important to take care of yourself during the writing process, especially if you’re writing a novel. They can take months, even years, to finish. And I find they can be quite consuming (especially when I’m manic and writing over 5,000 words in a day for several days in a row).

Even when I’m not manic, I find that when I slog over a manuscript for days on end without doing anything else other than sleep, I start to lose focus and clarity. But over the years, as I’ve learned to refine my writing process, I’ve also learned to care for myself and my mental health so I can continue to knock out word after word, sentence after sentence. Here are a few tips to help you do the same if you find you need to care for yourself:

  1. Learn to step away from your manuscript if you feel drained.
    Hyperfocusing on your manuscript will only burn you out and drain you of your creativity. You might end up getting stuck with writer’s block, feeling nothing but frustration. Step away for a few days to help you clear your head. Sometimes, when you narrow in on one thing (practically obsessing over it), frustration and depression can quickly take over.
  2. Make sure to take small breaks to eat, rest, take care of other chores, etc.
    Sometimes, we get so “in the groove” that we forget about what’s going on around us. Whether it’s to eat a meal or snack, to walk the dog, or to simply clean up your home a bit, be sure to get up and move around if you’ve been working on your manuscript for hours at a time.
  3. Don’t forget about other hobbies.
    Having other hobbies is another way to help you step away from your work, as well as help you destress when you’re frustrated with your own writing. Whether you’re into knitting, doodling in a planner, or any other pastime, enjoying a hobby for a few hours per week has actually been said to reduce the risk of depression.
  4. Take a walk.
    And not in a “Get outta my sight!” kind of way. Exercise is great for reducing stress and clearing your head, even if it’s a quick 10-minute walk. You can even do a short, 7-minute workout routine according to WebMD.
  5. Focus on the positive.
    Feeling down about your work, like you’re no good at it or your manuscript is a pile of garbage? Stop and find the good things. Find a passage that you feel is written well and read it a few times, or find other parts of your work that you enjoy. Recharge your outlook to a more positive view, and don’t be so hard on yourself.

Remember that everyone is different, and everyone has different needs for their mental well-being. These are simply things I’ve learned over the years as a writer. Do what you need in order to take care of yourself, and don’t forget: Mental health matters.

When Enough Is Enough for Your Novel

At what point is your novel is done? Completed? Finished? How many revisions and edits are enough? Basically, when is enough, enough?

I recently reread my own self-pubbed novel, The Days Without You, and damnit if I didn’t find another error—a missing word. Even though it was a teeny, tiny preposition that my eyes almost glossed right over, all I could think was, “Well, damn.” Fortunately, I didn’t find any others. But there are still things I consider changing. Long to change. It’s not that I didn’t pour over revisions and edits, round after round, to make my manuscript perfect. I put my heart and soul into revisions, trying to make every scene perfect and meaningful, adding something to the story, taking parts out. I never truly felt like my story was complete. Grueling, it was. But it does beg the question: How do you know when you’re done with revisions?

There are writers out there who will revise a novel for years. I, myself, spent years on The Days Without You. Let me just tell you this: You’ll probably never be fully satisfied with your manuscript, especially if you’re looking into self-publishing. At some point, you have to put it down for good and tell yourself it’s finished, even if you’re concerned about one thing or another. And let me tell you something else: That it’s perfectly fine. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Let me tell you something else: You thought that at some point you’d reach that ultimate dream that is a manuscript without needing a single change? You were wrong. A comma here, a semicolon there. You might think, “Maybe I should have changed this or that.”

Like previously mentioned, you need to make the decision to stop making those minute edits and changes. Here are some questions to ask yourself when it comes to making edits or revisions to your story:

Is this edit/revision adding anything to my story’s characterization, plot, etc.?
If the changes you are making alter the manuscript’s plot, characters, character goals, or other major pieces of your story (especially in a major way), you’re probably not done yet with revisions. Work through your characterization, any plot holes or any parts that drag or don’t add anything to the overall story.

Am I looking at my manuscript with fresh eyes?
I believe it’s important to put a manuscript to the side, leaving it untouched, for some time. Whether that’s just a week or several months for you, it’s crucial to be fresh and new again when rereading a story. You’ll be better prepared to find the parts of your novel that need revising or—as much as we hate to admit it sometimes—major rewrites or removal, in some cases. Once you’ve written the first draft, take time to work on other things or hobbies and set your manuscript aside for some time.

Am I simply tinkering or fiddling with my manuscript?
If you’re at the point when you find that you’re only making tiny changes or alterations, it’s probably time to say, “I’m DONE, mother{insert callous, crude, derogatory word that I won’t put here}!” and start looking for professional editors or proofreaders if you’re going the self-pub route, or start researching agents if you’re going the traditional route.

The time comes when you’re not making your book better; you’re only making it different. Still doubting yourself? Find some beta readers and get feedback.

Art is never finished, only abandoned.

Leonardo da Vinci

Why Write?

This is a bit of a rambling post, so fair warning. When I was early in my writing career, back in my teenager days when I was writing bad Harry Potter fan fiction with my best friend at the time, I barely knew a thing about the craft of writing. (And no, I’m not knocking those who write fan fiction. There are some incredible fan fiction writers out there who even garner the attention of publishers. I was simply not-so-good when I was writing it.) But, I wrote because I loved to write and because it gave me joy. If you’re going to write, do it because you love the craft, because you love to learn and grow as a writer. I believe that as we grow, we become much more critical of our work as we realize the mistakes we’re making.

However, I had several years that I lost my love of writing. My college/late teen/early twenties era when I was quite sick due to my illness, and I even had to drop out of college after my junior year. I was so focused on recovery that I forgot about writing. Around my mid-twenties, I rediscovered my passion for the craft and really began to write my own original work. I wrote passionately and non-stop. I wrote about things I loved, topics that were dear to me. I managed to finish my first manuscript, but it sits in the archives now. That’s when I decided to read everything I could about the craft of writing. I learned quite a bit on structuring plot, creating characters, writing dialogue, and so much more. I wrote a second manuscript, which has grown to be what is now The Days Without You. After that was when I decided to go back to school for my degree.

I’ve learned a lot since those bad fan fiction days, but I look back on those days with fondness. Mind you, I’m about to turn 34 this month, so I’ve got some years under my belt. (I’m—partly—kidding. There are days I feel old when I make jokes about older movies and have to explain my jokes to those who are younger than I. Or, maybe I’m just bad at jokes.) I learned a lot while studying the craft of writing, earning my degree in English and Creative Writing with a concentration in fiction. I even discovered my favorite short story, thanks to one of my professor’s assignments, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you should write if you love it, no matter what skill level you’re at. I believe anyone can learn to write, especially those who are truly passionate about it. Those who find pleasure in the unique structure of a sentence. Those who enjoy a book for its world building or a movie for its rigid plot structure and strong character motivations. I recently read a cute little piece of advice on Instagram that if you don’t find joy in writing for others, write for yourself.

Write because you love to write. Because you love the way words fit together. The way different punctuation can give different meanings to a sentence. Just write.

Little Word, Big Meaning: Prepositions

Little words can have big meaning. What exactly are prepositions? Well, they are words that begin prepositional phrases. You may be thinking, “Okay, what the heck is a prepositional phrase?” Simply put, it’s a modifying phrase that includes a preposition and the object of the preposition (in other words, a noun). It is any word that introduces a modifying phrase that indicates time, place, direction, or introduces a particular object. There are approximately 150 prepositions in the English language, including words such as in, with, for, and about (just to name a few).

To give an example of a prepositional phrase:

She’s going to the movies.

“To the movies” indicates where the subject is going, making it a prepositional phrase. It includes the preposition “to” and the object “the movies.”

You may also see prepositional phrases with adjectives.

He’s taking her on a fun, romantic date tonight.

It’s also possible to hear people talk about prepositions followed by verbs. These are gerunds, which are -ing forms of infinitives that function as a noun in a sentence.

She won by cheating in the race.

Let’s not forget about compound prepositions, which are made up of more than one preposition. For example:

as well as
aside from
in front of
out of

Here is a list of some common prepositions:

  • aboard
  • about
  • above
  • across
  • after
  • against
  • along
  • amid
  • among
  • anti
  • around
  • as
  • at
  • before
  • behind
  • below
  • beneath
  • beside
  • besides
  • between
  • beyond
  • but
  • by
  • concerning
  • considering
  • despite
  • down
  • during
  • except 
  • excepting
  • excluding
  • following
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • inside
  • into
  • like
  • minus
  • near
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • onto
  • opposite
  • outside
  • over
  • past
  • per
  • plus
  • round
  • save
  • since
  • than
  • through
  • to
  • toward
  • towards
  • under
  • underneath
  • unlike
  • until
  • up
  • upon
  • versus
  • via
  • with
  • within
  • without

I hope you found this post helpful. If you have any comments, questions, or anything to add, please leave a comment!

Time Tells All: Understanding Tense

Past. Present. Future. Many folks think there are just those three tenses. There are actually different subsets of each tense, such as continuous (also called progressive), perfect, and perfect continuous. Each tense and its subsets are all written a different way, and all have different meanings. Now, tense differs from grammatical mood, such as conditional, subjunctive or imperative. That’s something we’ll touch on another time.

Tense is essentially when the verb is happening. It relates to time. Did it already happen in the past? Is it happening now in the present? Will it happen in the future? I wrote. I write. I will write. The four subsets of tense are:

  • Simple
  • Continuous (or Progressive)
  • Perfect
  • Perfect Continuous (or Perfect Progressive)

I’ve created a chart to show examples for all the tenses and their subsets. Feel free to save it, download it, share it, etc.

There’s also the topic of infinitives with tense. As a refresher, the infinitive form of a verb is the most basic form—its “to” form: to write, to read, to walk. When a verb is followed by an infinitive and you’re changing tense, only the main verb should change. This happens with words like “want” or “need,” and they are frequently followed by an infinitive to show the desire for a particular action. For example, the verb want would look like this in the various tense:

Past Simple: I wanted to write.
Present Simple: I want to write.
Future Simple: I will want to write.
Past Continuous: I was wanting to write.
Present Continuous: I am wanting to write.
Future Continuous: I will be wanting to write.
Past Perfect: I had wanted to write.
Present Perfect: I have wanted to write.
Future Perfect: I will have wanted to write.
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been wanting to write.
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been wanting to write.
Future Perfect Continuous: I will have wanted to write.

When it comes to writing a novel, consistency is important. You don’t want the current action to jump back and forth between present and past, but things that happened previously (as described by the narrator, whether that’s first person or third person) can be written in past tense. Most fiction novels are written in past tense, although I have seen some in present tense. Some great novels, actually. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich (based on the Tony award-winning stage musical by Steven Levenson), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are all great examples of stories written in present. Here is a passage from the opening chapter of The Hunger Games to show you a novel in this particular tense:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.”

Notice that not every sentence is in simple present. The narrator, Katniss, tells some things in perfect continuous present: “She must have had bad dreams. . .” She also describes her mother’s former beauty in simple past: “My mother was very beautiful once, too.” Much of the text, however, is in present tense. So, no, not every sentence has to be in simple present if you’re writing in that tense. Just bear in mind when the action is happening in your sentence.

I hope you found this post informative and useful in explaining tense. Questions? Comments? Leave a comment for me! They are much appreciated.

How Long Should My Novel Be?

If you’re just starting out, or maybe you need a refresher, you might be wondering about the proper length of a novel. The short answer? Somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000. This is the standard, expected length for a first novel, especially if you’re looking to traditionally publish via an agent. Although anything over 40,000 words is typically considered a novel, the expected minimum length is 50,000.

Stock Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels.com

Again, that’s the short answer. Your word count will vary based on the genre you’re writing. For example, genres that involve a lot of world-building (read: Science Fiction and Fantasy (and we’ll include Historical Fiction in that, too)) will require a higher word count. Why? Because the world the characters live in needs to be believable, or what’s known as suspension of disbelief.

I want to note that these figures are based on standards established by the publishing industry authorities. While it’s true you should, at least, aim for a standard word count for your particular genre, keep in mind that every novel will vary; don’t be discouraged or frustrated or upset if your final product doesn’t meet or exceeds industry expectations. The following numbers are approximations or “comfortable” ranges.

General Fiction: 50,000 to 100,000

Sci-Fi & Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000

Romance (Mainstream): 50,000 to 90,000

Sub-genre Romance: 40,000 to 100,000

Historical Fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 (but more so on the 100,000 side)

Suspense & Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000

Young Adult: 40,000 to 80,000

Middle Grade: 25,000 to 40,000

You’ll find varying numbers on different websites, as different publishers and experts (I don’t claim to be a publishing expert, just a thirty-something girl with a degree in English and writing fiction.) have different ideas on the “proper” word count for a novel based on its genre. Your novel may differ from , but if you’re looking to traditionally published, be prepared to explain or justify your reasons for going outside the expected word count. But again, every story has its own word count, so write your story naturally—the way you write.

A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde

Image Credit: Photo by fotografierende from Pexels

Character motivation. It’s an important part when creating a character, especially your protagonist or antagonist (if you have a physical antagonist), as this is what will drive your characters’ actions. Now, your character’s motivation doesn’t have to remain the same throughout the story. It can change as your character learns and grows with each major plot point.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a useful tool when crafting motivations. It’s commonly referenced when talking about character motivations. For a more in-depth read of these needs, head on over to ThoughtCo.

Tier 1 covers physiological needs, including water, food, warmth or shelter.

Tier 2 includes safety needs, such as the need for financial or emotional security, or the need for freedom from fear.

Tier 3 is the need for love and belonging, including friendships and intimate relationships.

Tier 4 covers the need for esteem, like the need for a feeling of a job well done, a sense of accomplishment.

Tier 5 is for self-actualization, the need to achieve one’s full potential, whether that includes hobbies or a career. It’s what drives us to do better in both our jobs and our creative abilities.

Image Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

The movie Legally Blonde is a great example of strong character motivations. If you’ve never seen Legally Blonde with Reese Witherspoon, I highly recommend it. Not only does it portray strong character motivations and the plot is constructed well. If you want a fantastic explanation of the three-act story structure, head on over to K.M. Weiland’s The Secrets of Story Structure (Complete Series) at Helping Writers Become Authors. She not only explains all the important plot points in a three-act structure, she gives fantastic examples from film (such as one of my favorites, It’s a Wonderful Life).

But, enough about plot structure. We’re here to talk about character motivations.

Legally Blonde starts out with Elle Woods, a blonde, seemingly ditzy, well-to-do fashion major and president of her sorority, Delta Nu, getting ready to be proposed to by her boyfriend, Warner, who is preparing to head to Harvard as a law student. At least, she’s expecting a proposal. Instead, he dumps her, based on his own motivation to be a senator by 30. He explains to her that he needs to “marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Warner’s breakup with Elle is the Inciting Event.

Elle is absolutely devastated and heartbroken at being dumped. Her friends try to cheer her up by taking her to get her nails done. There, at the salon, Elle flips through a magazine while waiting her turn. In the magazine, she sees Warner’s older brother and his new fiancée, a first-year Yale law student. She realizes a law student is what she “needs to become” in order to win back Warner. Here, we see the Key Event.

With renewed determination, she sets out learning how to get herself into Harvard Law as a student. Now, her motivation is to win Warner back. She ends up with a 179 on her LSATs (the highest you can get is 180), and the admission board decides, “Elle Woods, welcome to Harvard.” This is the First Plot Point.

Now at Harvard, Elle goes about trying to get Warner back. Early on, however, she learns that Warner is engaged to his former prep-school girlfriend, Vivian Kensington. She’s doing terribly in her classes, as her focus isn’t on school, but on Warner. Elle overhears Vivian talking about a party and asks about it; Vivian lies and tells Elle it’s a costume party. Showing up to the party in a “bunny” costume, Elle is made fun of by Vivian, but Elle has a smart retort. She then finds Warner, who brings up how busy he is with classes and brings up school. She replies, “Oh, I know, I can’t imagine doing all this and Callahan’s internship next year.” He tells her that she’ll never get the grades to qualify for one of the internship spots, that she’s not smart enough.

“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?” she says before walking away. Herein lies the Midpoint. This is a pivotal moment in the movie, as Elle’s motivation changes. She’s determined to prove that she can succeed in law school and that she is smart enough. She buys a laptop, studies hard, and begins to do well in all her classes. She is no longer reacting to being dumped by Warner; she’s taking action to prove herself, showing Maslow’s need for self-fulfillment.

The movie goes on, and Elle is given a coveted spot as one of Callahan’s first-year interns helping out with a murder trial. I won’t give away the ending, for those of you who have never watched it, as we’ve already covered the two main character motivations of Elle Woods seen in Legally Blonde. To sum up: first, she wants to win back her boyfriend, Warner. When Warner tells her she’s not smart enough, we see Elle’s second motivation: to prove herself in law school.

There’s so much more to this movie than what described above, which is why it’s one of my favorites. It’s structured well, has strong character motivations, and, overall, is just a fun movie to watch.

Style Guides: Which One Should You Use?

There are many different style guides per country. But what is the purpose of a style guide? Consistency and clarity. They maintain a standard style of writing. You’re probably already familiar with Modern Language Association’s handbook or “MLA”, as it is commonly used in academic writing. There are, however, other commonly used style guides, depending on the type of writing you’re doing.

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style
    If you’re writing a book, editing in the publishing industry, or are a publisher yourself, this is your go-to. The Chicago Manual of Style is currently on its 17th edition and is the standard for publishing fiction and non-fiction books. For a watered-down version of CMOS, check out Turabian Style, which is aimed at students writing academic papers.
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook
    Better known as “AP Style”, this style guide is used frequently in journalistic settings. It’s essentially the media bible for newspapers, magazines, and broadcast writers. We even use it at my work in the marketing industry. The aim of the Associated Press Stylebook is to keep writing clean and concise.
  3. MLA Handbook
    As previously mentioned, the Modern Language Association Handbook is your big go-to for academic writing. It’s frequently used in teaching and gives guidelines for citing sources in research papers. The MLA Handbook has been updated recently to take on the challenges of today’s world, such as web publication, and it is currently in its 8th publication.
  4. The Elements of Style
    The Elements of Style has been around for quite some time, since 1918, although it was revised later by Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White. Its aim to for writers to craft clean, concise prose, without all the fluff. Brevity is the name of the game. The guide itself is short and to the point, and it is beloved by many authors and writers.

While there are other style guides out there, the above are your main four (for U.S. style guides, at least). Many of these guides are available online, meaning you don’t have to reference a big, heavy book whenever you’re writing or editing.

Happy writing!

Writing Tips for Beginners

It’s possible to learn how to write. Writing is not some inherent skill you’re born with. Let me correct that — writing well isn’t a skill you’re born with. It takes a ton of practice, patience, and perseverance. You know why well-known authors are famous? They didn’t give up. They believed in themselves and their work. J.K. Rowling was rejected countless times before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published. Now look at the success of the series!

If you’re thinking of getting into creative writing, let me forewarn you: it’s not an easy thing. And, it’s more than a small hobby; it’s a lifestyle. That’s just my take on it, however. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot. Getting a Bachelor’s degree in English and Creative Writing helped my knowledge of the craft. Not saying you have to have a degree in it to be successful, just saying it helped me, personally.

Already into writing? Going back to your roots as a beginner can be helpful, I’ve found. I try not to be overly confident in my writing nowadays, like I was when I first starting writing novels. When I finished the very first draft of my very first manuscript, I thought it was a masterpiece. I was so proud to have finally written a full-length novel that I rushed into self-publishing. Looking back on that manuscript, I cringe. It’s now safely stored away in the vaults of my computer files, locked away for my eyes only. Perhaps I’ll revisit it one day.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    Practice is essential. Think of the adage “Practice makes perfect.” It’s almost like playing a sport or a musical instrument — you have to practice if you want to be any good at it. You don’t just wake up one day as Joshua Bell and play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 61 on a multi-million dollar Stradivarius violin. The same principal applies to writing. You have to practice writing to grow as a writer.
  2. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike.
    Good writers write each and every day. They don’t wait for inspiration to strike; they just sit down at their computer (or tablet, notebook, etc.) and just get it done. If you wait for inspiration, you may be waiting for a long time. I’ve found that figuring out my plot structure before I start writing a story helps me get moving a little more quickly.
  3. Read. A lot.
    As the great Stephen King put it, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.” Being a good reader is essential to being a good writer. Writing in a particular genre? Read that genre. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to limit yourself to that genre — variety is the spice of life — but be sure to read in your chosen genre.
  4. Have some patience.
    A quality story won’t just happen overnight. Writing a book is a long haul. A good novel takes lots of rewrites and editing, and that’s all part of the writing process.
  5. Start out small.
    This goes along with practice. Don’t start out trying to compose your opus magnum. Start out small. Try writing short stories or scenes, or play around with building worlds or characters.
  6. Try to set aside time each day for writing.
    By making writing a regular habit, it’s easier to stay in the groove of it. I know, I know. Some days, life just gets in the way. It happens to all of us. But no matter what, try to write each and every day.
  7. Set goals.
    I find it helpful to have a word goal when I sit down and write, as opposed to writing aimlessly. It gives you something to aim or shoot for. If you’ve never done (or attempted, at least) NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo, try it sometime! It’s an easy way to set simple goals for a month at a time.
  8. Play around with POV.
    Try writing in various styles and POVs to find your groove. The first manuscript I wrote was in first person, preterite tense, but quickly realized I prefer to write in third person limited.

What tips do you find useful as a writer?