By Francine Puckly
September has always been a month of beginnings for me, and this fall is no exception as I returned my son to college after a pandemic-induced, 536-day hiatus. The void left after both of my adult children had returned to their own lives was gigantic. I have cried. I have mourned the closing of that chapter of having my children home unexpectedly for many months.
But as this morning ushered in cooler temps and slightly lower humidity, I find I can breathe again and look to the day and the future with hope. Just as my adult children are excited to pursue their next chapters, I realized that so am I. Martha Alderson says in her practical writer’s resource The Plot Whisperer, “Beginnings are times of grandiose dreams of escape, success, change, and possibilities. This is true not only for the protagonist of your story, but also for you.”
I wish all of you out there who are experiencing doors closing the time to embrace the beginnings in front of you. Carve out time to sit—sprawl out on a blanket, stare at the clouds or the night sky, and open your heart to new inspiration. Unplug from other people’s input. Listen to your heart. Listen to your grandiose dreams.
Then nudge yourself to create a simple plan to tackle the new items bubbling up or perhaps the ones you have been putting off that need your attention. Reward yourself when you complete those tasks—with a long walk, a single rose for your desk, or that cute new teabag dish you’ve had your eye on.
Then do it again next week.
I was excited to be asked back to blog for my co-founders at 24carrotwriting.com this month. Check out the blog about making significant changes in my writing world here.
I am excited to be a guest acrostic blogger for my friend, Nancy Tupper Ling. Check out the other author acrostics on her website as well!
When my parents bought their farm, a ragged and worn Bartlett pear tree stood in their yard. Busted limbs. Rot in the base of the trunk. It had given many pears over the years, but it appeared that it didn’t have much more to offer. My mother gave the tree five years to live.
The tree blossomed on, defying her prediction, and delivered bountiful pear crops every two to three years and somewhat sparser crops in the years in between. As a kid, I looked forward to each September when I would walk barefoot around the tree and pick the ripened fruit from the ground. It remains my favorite fruit.
As you can see from the photos taken a few weeks ago, some 55 years later, there’s not much left to the Bartlett tree. The trunk has almost completely rotted out. Two-thirds of the tree’s branches have come down in various storms over the years. Yet this year, with just a few of its branches remaining, the tree produced 600 pears! Just as it has for decades. Against the odds. Despite appearances.
I am in awe of this ravaged, relentless tree. This fall, especially, it stands as a symbol of perseverance. A tree shouldn’t be the impetus for creativity, yet it is. I am juggling many flaming torches this year, but I doggedly work to wedge in novel-writing time and hold that time and space as sacred. A picture of the tree in my office is my reminder to slog on.
Some day a great wind or unseasonably wet snow may come and knock over the tree’s remaining branches or its trunk may crumble under the weight of another season of fruit, but it won’t go down without a fight.
For all of us, in innumerable and varying ways, 2020 has been perhaps the most challenging of years. We’ve been tested. We’ve allowed ourselves to get sucked into negative banter from all sides of all issues. Yet if we can block out that noise, we'll notice that we’ve endured. We keep fighting on.
There are exactly seven weeks left to this strange and unusual year. If you decided to bloom right now—to sleep, to carve out time for creativity, to care for your creative soul throughout the holidays by making your creative projects your top priority—what could you produce? The Bartlett whispers, “I bet you can’t top 600.”
Although this book was published three years ago, Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness crossed my radar for the first time a couple of months ago. I instantly connected with Brown’s voice and skillful storytelling, her research and content, and her advice for making changes in how we live and interact with others. I read it three times in the course of six weeks! In short, it was a revelation.
Braving the Wilderness addressed the uneasy and nagging feeling I had had for several years…if we’re all so connected—24/7, in every technological mode possible—then why are we no longer connected to each other in meaningful ways? Brown, with years of social research backing her up, discusses how being true to ourselves with respect to our beliefs and our emotional and spiritual needs will set us free. But before we can be free, we will likely cross into the wilderness and stand alone because we can expect to be mocked, shamed, or ridiculed for our positions and actions by the very people who claim to have our backs. But it is not until we brave the wilderness that we truly belong—to ourselves and to others.
Enlightening and uplifting, Braving the Wilderness is a must read for anyone who has felt ill-at-ease with how our culture handles dissension of thoughts and ideas, has experienced disconnection or loneliness, and desires a sense of belonging to oneself and the world.
I had been interested in work-for-hire projects for years but shied away from them while raising my children because of the tight turnaround times. But an opportunity presented itself in May when I was e-introduced to an acquisitions editor looking for a writer. The editor and I discussed a couple of projects then spent a few weeks going back and forth with writing samples before zeroing in on the word-a-day topic. The project was pitched to the editorial team and accepted, with me designated as the writer. You know you’re in trouble when an editor asks, “How fast can you write it?” As it turned out, I had seventeen days, which included the day we signed and sealed the contract! My work-for-hire experience had commenced. I had a ball writing The Word-a-Day Vocabulary Workbook. But there would be three important lessons learned on this book sprint.
Lesson #1: Self-care is the top priority.
Being an instructor and advocate of long-term planning practices, I created a wall chart and began establishing tangible tasks and deadlines for those precious seventeen days. I created a tentative plan to meet the contract deadlines, still not fully comprehending the scope of the work. While I knew how many words had to be completed each day and had a good idea how long it would take to copyedit and finesse the manuscript prior to submission, the time wildcard was research. As I stared at the chart, it was crystal clear. No matter how I sliced it, there was no room for error and, frankly, anything else for that matter!
In order to cajole myself into tackling the crazy daily deadlines, self-care had to be placed on my to-do list or there would be a rebellion of epic proportion. To survive nearly three weeks at the anticipated work pace demanded that I take care of my mental and physical well-being. So I rose every morning at 5:30 a.m. Some days it seemed a waste of precious time, but I never wavered from my morning ritual: meditation, Morning Pages à la Julia Cameron, and Pilates to stretch and loosen the ridiculously tight muscles. Only after those activities were completed did I sit down to write. I worked thirteen-hour days (except the last three, which were ’round-the-clock madness). I took a 45-minute cardio break in the afternoon and a short break for dinner. I quit promptly at 8:30 p.m. to spend the last hour of my day with my husband either chatting on the porch or watching a short sitcom. Then it was off to bed to read something light before dropping off to sleep. No movies. No novels. No social media. No news. There just wasn’t the time or emotional energy to squander. Remember that to take care of yourself, you might have to drop out energy-sapping activities that have become bad habits.
Lesson #2: Put your head down and don’t look up.
I discovered that if I could complete this manuscript on such a tight timeline, I could do just about anything! You know your inner critique? The one telling you that you’ll never be able to do it? The one saying you’re too slow, too old, too inexperienced? Turns out you can’t hear all of that garbage talk over the frantic tap-tap-tapping of the keyboard! If you can't create laser focus on your own, it can be simulated through the use of timers and accountability partners.
Lesson #3: Trust your gut. If it feels wrong, it is!
When I finally hit 'send' (with less than 90 minutes to go on my deadline), I vowed I would never, ever work under such a vicious timeline again. I had known early on—before the ink had dried on the contract, before I saw the contract--that I had overextended myself. Unlike my inner critic being drowned out by the work pace, my gut had been loud and clear. I had ignored it. Honestly? I hit the deadline only because I subjected myself to three days of insanity at the end of the project and because my husband shaved twelve to fifteen critical hours off my workload by completing some of the research. So if your gut is telling you something, listen.
Exciting and challenging projects will no doubt come your way, dear reader, but before you set off to tackle those dreams and tasks, be sure to:
When a fantastic book launches, you want to be one of the first people to run out and buy the book and then shout from the rooftops that it’s a must read! And while I am a few months behind on my open-air proclamation, it’s just never too late to pick up a great book and lose yourself in a refreshing story.
I fell in love with Rachel Lynn Solomon’s first two young adult novels, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone and Our Year of Maybe. She’s back with Today Tonight Tomorrow (Simon Pulse, 2020). On the cusp of high school graduation, two sworn nemeses pair up to decipher clues in a scavenger hunt and end up reexamining a web of emotions and assumptions about people and experiences.
Don’t miss this funny, poignant, multi-layered romp through Seattle and unlikely love and the opportunity for a witty and captivating fictional escape during these unsettling times.
To order Today Tonight Tomorrow, visit IndieBound Book Shop or Barnes and Noble.
For more information about Rachel Lynn Solomon or to attend one of her virtual events, please visit http://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com.
In my own unofficial poll of friends, loved ones, and colleagues during this COVID-19 pandemic, those with some semblance of contentment have three things in common. They have maintained their health (obviously!), established and adhered to a daily routine, and made sure each day incorporated creative time and space. It’s difficult to impose a schedule onto our days when they easily blend into each other without outside appointments and structure. Plus, we’re not terribly motivated to write or draw when we can focus on the drama and news surrounding us. But artists need to create.
My writing partner and I have had standing Tuesday writing sessions for years. We shifted these meetings from coffee shop to Zoom once the pandemic hit. What does a video writing session look like? We sit across from each other through our laptop and tablet screens and do our work. I’ve mentioned this to several writers. They are skeptical. They protest they are videoed out. The thought of virtual camaraderie depresses them. That is not the case for me.
I can see and hear my writing partner as she works in her creative space in her own home. She’s there. It is oddly comforting. I’m grateful I can speak to her if I get frustrated with a scene or chapter, but her presence also forces productivity because I can’t just pop up and start folding laundry, now can I? For those of you who can’t make the virtual leap, Julie Cameron suggests in her book The Sound of Paper that we enlist collaborative colleagues and friends to “book end” our tasks. Make a call at the beginning of your endeavor to announce that you are about to begin, and then call again when you’ve completed the task both to report in but also to express your thanks for keeping you on task. You could text, but a phone call is better. It has more weight.
Take one minute and complete the following exercise:
We learn to carve out the mental space and physical time to work on our projects simply by doing it. Every day. No matter how painful or frustrating it is. However it looks for you, enlist a new form of accountability into your daily routine. Happy creating!
In a matter of days, we find ourselves thrust into a pandemic and an onslaught of cancelled travel and social plans and suspended live entertainment, from sporting events to concerts and musicals, due to COVID-19. Some of our employers have asked us to work from home, and schools and colleges are moving to remote learning. While the ground is still shifting, we have a pretty good idea of what’s to come—we must keep our public appearances to the most necessary interactions only.
It’s easy to get sucked into the black hole of the 24/7 news cycle and frenzy of opinions flying left and right on social media. But…we’re writers. This may be a forced retreat, but it’s a retreat nonetheless—a gold mine of extra time for those of us who are fortunate enough to remain healthy and avoid this virus and other seasonal illnesses.
It’s time to get back to work..
Take an objective look at your schedule. In the month ahead, how many potential extra hours will you pick up from cancellations? How much time will you save from shortened commutes or reduced driving in general? Now, what is your plan for taking advantage of these extra hours? You could quite literally block off all of those cancelled events and pencil in WRITING TIME.
Pull out a notebook or sheet of paper and quickly sketch out the next four weeks. Set your goals. Be specific. Do you have queries to send? Send them. Agents are still reading email. Are you trying to finalize a synopsis? Draft it. Polish it. Send it electronically to critique partners and ask for their feedback. Do you have more chapters to complete in your novel? Get going on them.
Post your weekly and daily goals in your office or keep them close by on an index card. Move your projects forward. Find an accountability partner while you’re at it!
Grab your favorite cuppa, shut out the outside world, and do what you do best--write.
My Five-Year Planning Workshop is coming up at Pioneer Valley Writers' Workshop (PVWW) in Williamsburg, MA on February 29th and these are a few of the questions Joy Baglio, founder of PVWW, asked me at the beginning of 2020. I hope all readers and aspiring writers will find these answers helpful!
Happy writing and creating in 2020, whatever your schedule may look like!
At what time of day do you usually write?
With a family schedule to juggle, the bulk of my writing time is in the 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. timeframe, with 10-2 being the most popular time slot! I do most of my correspondence and office paperwork later in the day, after I’ve used the best of my creative brain for novel writing.
What medium do you use?
I’m a long-handed writer for ALL first drafts. For some reason, the creative juices flow more authentically and freely with pen and wide-ruled composition notebook than with a computer keyboard. My composition notebook pages are numbered and I keep an index with scene names and other identifiers so I can quickly find sections I’ve written. I’ve migrated to Scrivener for typed manuscripts. As a non-linear writer, this is a perfect tool for me to write scenes out of order and arrange the flow of the novel as I go.
Where do you usually write?
2019 was the year I secured a dedicated writing space in my home (yes, it took a full year to pull it together!), so that’s where I do a majority of my work now. I also have writing partners — useful for keeping one's butt in the chair — and we meet at coffee shops, libraries, and bookstores to work on our separate projects.
What duration of time?
I try to dedicate 2-4 hours a day on weekdays for writing with 20 minutes a day over the weekends to keep my creative energy flowing. But life happens and my weekday schedule does not happen as regularly as I’d like. An absolute daily minimum is 20-30 minutes. The longer I go without touching my manuscripts, the more intimidated I am. So daily writing keeps the intimidation at bay and the words flowing.
What accompanying snacks/beverages?
Earl grey tea/London Fog is a must to start my morning! A big, refillable bottle of water keeps me company during the day, as well as apples, pretzels and chocolate!
What's your first step in getting started?
With a mug of tea in hand, I begin my day with a quick peruse through my calendar/planner followed by a review of the last few pages of my composition notebook. The first words I write each day are usually thoughts about the story/character/plot and within 10-15 minutes I’m able to begin writing new material.
What's one tip you'd offer to anyone struggling to establish a writing routine?
Little and often makes much. Your routine doesn’t have to begin with large chunks of time. Twenty minutes a day is 10 hours a month. That’s a lot of words!
For more blogs, check out Francine's past blogs on goal setting and other writing topics at www.24carrotwriting.com.