motivation amidst uncertainty

(Thank you, Firefox, for claiming “amidst” was misspelled and leaving me uncertain about my spelling skills.)

As an assistant professor, I’m constantly living with uncertainty.

I know I’ll learn something from each lecture I give, but I don’t know what that will be until I give it.

I don’t know what reviewers will be assigned to each manuscript I submit for peer review and eventual publication. I write each paper to the best of my ability and hope the reviewers will be impartial and focus on scientific content, but each reviewer is human, as is the editor. And there is always the chance of outright rejection.

I work and write and work and write some more to create grant proposals, but I don’t know whether I’ll get funded, whether that work was–in some respects–for naught.

And, of course, there is the inherent uncertainty within research itself. You hear about the 95% confidence level or p<0.05 and other metrics. These are ways to quantify how certain (and, conversely, how uncertain) we are about our results.

Living with uncertainty is hard. Retaining motivation can be even harder.

Then I remember I learn something every time. So I apply what I've learned. I refine my lectures. I change my approach to the material. I gain a broader perspective on the diverse learning styles and backgrounds of students in my courses. I become a better advisor and mentor. I write better papers. I become a better evaluator of others' work. Eventually (hopefully) (someday) I'll land a grant.

Applying these lessons to writing is difficult. There's so much uncertainty in writing (does this idea work? can I finish this book? will anyone like it? will revisions matter? even if my CPs/betas love this book, what if no agent does? what if it gets me an agent but that agent can't sell it? what if the book lands a deal but doesn't get enough sales?). I'm burned out at the end of every day–many of which extend beyond 10 hours–which makes finding the motivation to keep working, even on something I enjoy, even on something as different from STEM academia as creative writing can be, a challenge.

Yet, in both academia and writing, I still find things I love. I discover and join invaluable communities. Sure, there's much uncertainty, but there's also much to gain.

I just have to focus on the rewards rather than the risks.

burnout

burnĀ·out, n.
physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress

To be quite honest, I’m burned out. Since the semester began, my academic job has taken over my life during the week (example: yesterday I got to the office before 7am and didn’t leave until 5pm). When I get home, I’m too wiped to do more than hang out with my spouse and attempt to do basic things like make dinner and clean dishes and otherwise keep the house tidy.

Over the Labor Day weekend, I planned to write ALL THE WORDS. I have a MS draft I’m tearing apart and putting back together. The book is mostly written. I just need to fix it.

Yet when I sat down to write, nothing happened. I stared at the screen. I gravitated toward Netflix or video games instead. Or flopped onto the couch with music and let my mind wander… to all the things I wasn’t doing. The writing I wasn’t working on. The research I wasn’t getting done. The grant proposals lying in stasis. The unfinished grading lurking over my shoulder.

I’m slowly developing a more manageable schedule for work. I’m hoping that schedule will weave in enough self-care time to motivate me to write again.

Until then, I don’t feel like much of a writer.

word vomit

It’s as ugly as it sounds.

A blank page is suddenly covered with words that probably go together but don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Notes might be mixed together with description and dialogue. After word vomit (sometimes sprints, sometimes not) sessions, I tend to end up with pages of white space randomly punctuated by words in brackets ([], my way of adding notes) and bullet points.

July, as a Camp NaNoWriMo month, is my word vomit month. Because I’m trying to get words into a first draft. They don’t have to be good words. They’re generally crappy words. But they’re words. They’re mine.

Through word vomit I get a better sense of my world, my characters, the events that force my characters to move forward and create waves of their own. I try different POVs, different verb tenses, sometimes even different approaches for the same scene if it’s a pivotal one.

It’s okay to have a terrible first draft. I’d argue it’s expected. (If you write good first drafts, you’re a sparkly unicorn and I admire the hell out of you.)

So whether you are a pantser or a plotter, if you’ve hit a wall and can’t seem to write anything, why not try vomiting words? As terrible an analogy as that is, sometimes you need to purge the “bad stuff” from your system–in my case, it’s paralyzing self-doubt more often than not–before the better words start to flow.

Some of my best writing sessions come after I’ve given myself a chance to word vomit.

how do you write like you’re running out of time?

As you may have gathered from the title of this post, I’m somewhat obsessed with Hamilton right now. And I want to write like I’m running out of time. Trouble is, 1) I’m low on inspiration right now, and 2) I don’t have a lot of time. You’d think #2 means I’d write a lot–because I’m running out–but somehow it means I write less. The inspiration’s hard to come by, sure, but the minimal amount of time available to me is in the way too.

Once things settle down next month, in a new house with a devoted office for my writing use, I imagine some aspects of writing will become easier. I hope to set a schedule such that I write a little every day–ideally on my WIP, but if I write anything, that’s a win–but that’s next month.

In the meantime I’ll be traveling internationally for work, and I’m not sure where I’ll find the time to write. My schedule will fluctuate every day, and I won’t necessarily be in the same place.

Any tried and true tips for making time to write with a busy schedule? Send them my way!

get that query critiqued

A short (and late) post today to emphasize one key thing for the querying writer:

Get that query critiqued.

However good you think it is, your query can ALWAYS improve. Always. I guarantee it. And the only way it’s going to improve is through fresh eyes. I see potential in other queries that I can’t find in my own. I’ll think my query is just fine until feedback makes me realize how much I needed that critique.

Since it’s not easy to get critiques — especially much-needed ones — I’m going to emphasize one more key thing.

When you receive a critique, you should allow yourself time to go through the grieving process. I’m not kidding. You may be angry and/or reactive the first time you read someone else’s comments. That’s okay. But don’t act on that anger. Let it rest. Give it time to sit. Do something else.

Same goes for feeling insecure about yourself as a writer after receiving a critique. It wasn’t given with malicious intent (or if it was, stay far away from that person). It wasn’t given to make you feel small. It was given to help, to support, to lift your writing to the level they know it can reach. (I don’t say this because I’ve conquered this issue. I say it because I’m still struggling with it.)

And then revisit those comments. Think about them like you would a critique you’d given someone else. Sure, the person might not have gotten everything right. You’re the writer; you deserve the first and last say in your own words. But they may point out something you never would have seen. And even if you disagree with the way they suggest you solve some problem, the fact that they identified that problem is important, and you should address it.

The querying process is a rough roller coaster ride. But keep trying, keep writing, keep querying project after project and harness the talent and insight of a community of writers.

I honestly believe learning how to write better (and how to pitch better) isn’t a waste of time.

word sprints

Hello fellow IWSG members! I have a positive post this month! FINALLY.

So, what’s a word sprint?

As far as I can tell, it’s a concept that arose with NaNoWriMo: you set a time range with other writers–10 minutes, 15 minutes, an hour, or any other interval you want–and you write as many words as you can in that time. Some people set goals before they start, others simply try to get words on the page (I’m one of the latter). At the end, you check in with the other sprinters and compare word counts.

They. Are. Magic.

There’s something about writing with other people for a set amount of time that lets my fingers fly. I wrote 2700 words the other night thanks to word sprints. I didn’t expect to write at all that evening, and instead I got scenes that formed in the heat of the moment, scenes that deviated from my original thought process but were so much better for it.

No, really. I had a nebulous idea in my head for one scene, and another scene simply started with the mental image of a house’s eaves dripping with melting snow. Now I have an incredibly important character for my MC’s development, a better sense of my MC’s voice, and a greater love for this WIP in general.

I needed those word sprints that night.

I’m not saying they’ll always be magic. You may have a block you can’t get past even with a deadline, or you may be between ideas (whether for a scene or a character or for entire WIPs). But when you feel like you can’t write–and you want to–they’re a great thing to try. Get on Twitter, look for others who want to sprint or are already sprinting, and get those words onto the page.

You may write something you never saw coming.

prioritizing

I can’t explain why, but it seems like IWSG Wednesdays sneak up on me every month as of late. Maybe it’s the timing with holidays? Maybe it’s all the other things going on in my life right now? Last month around this time I found out my cat has cancer. This month I’m down with a cold and working a long week as the semester starts up again.

So today’s post is about priorities.

Right now I’m prioritizing work responsibilities because there are SO many of them. The holidays piled up a bunch, and a new semester always comes with its own list.

I’m also sick, so I’m prioritizing getting better. I’m going to bed early instead of pushing myself to write a few words before I eventually crash for the night. And I’m giving my brain a chance to rejuvenate from all the stresses of the last few months by not forcing myself to write when the inspiration isn’t there.

Writing is good. Writing is important. You need to tell your stories. You need to tell them the way you want to tell them. You need to hone your craft. If scheduled writing time every day helps you, you should stick to that. But you also need breaks. And you need to know when other things are more important than writing.

Hopefully by prioritizing other things when needed, you’ll find the breathing room to prioritize writing at other times. (Keep a notebook or a similar kind of app on your phone handy, though. You never know when inspiration might strike!)