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!
I recently had lunch with a friend who was unhappy with her current life circumstances now that her children had grown and left home, but she didn’t have any experience in exploring what she’d like to do in this next chapter of her life. Our chat came around to a couple of guidebooks that have been exceedingly helpful to me over the years. My friend has undertaken this journey of exploration in 2020. I hope you will find these tools helpful as well! Happy goal-setting!
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Julia's twelve-week course is designed to teach artistic and spiritual recovery by guiding you to listen to your inner artist, recover your sense of identity and power, and build compassion, strength and independence. Her tools will help you explore excuses and establish intention to make healthy changes that will nudge you along your authentic journey.
12 Days of Christmas for Writers with Julie Hedlund.
I love this 12-day ritual developed to evaluate the year coming to a close, celebrate and build on our successes, and let go of the things that didn’t quite work out the way we hoped they might. Julie starts her videos and exercises each December 26th, and you can sign up on her email list to receive a new video/exercise each morning. But fear not! It’s never too late to do these exercises. You can find her videos on Vimeo and catch up any week of the year. And be sure to get on her mailing list for December 2020!
The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz was first published in 1959. This is a gigantic overview of dreaming big and goal-setting--the ultimate bucket-list creator!
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Originally published in 1989, this book remains a hallmark for defining and living one’s life with intention and purpose. Start with the end in mind and build your life with consciousness.
Welcome to 2020 and the great expanse of fresh new days and small and big adventures yet to be realized. And it’s a Leap Year! Let us not squander the gift of an extra day.
New Years blogs and goal-setting advice abound but what’s most important as you set off to define your 2020 goals and aspirations is that you are clear about yourneeds and desires and that you don’t get caught up in the races other people are running. Determine your race. Set the training schedule accordingly for your journey, not anyone else’s. And once you set your plan, run your race. Pretty simple, right? It should be. But we’re human. And it’s easy to get caught up in what we think we should do instead of what we want to do.
Goal-setting is a solitary pleasure. Note my choice of the word pleasure. It truly is a joyful task. Each January I look forward to establishing and revising my “rolling” five-year goals as well as my annual and quarterly plans. I rarely attain everything I set off to do but that’s okay. I have a much better chance of living intentionally with my trusty roadmap in the glove box. Sometimes life forces me to take detours, and other times I choose to meander along the scenic route. Regardless of where life directs me, there is much joy in the journey.
So as you contemplate the year ahead, take joy. Carve out a space of solitude, pour a glass of sparkling cider or steam up a mug of hot chocolate, pull out a fresh pad of paper, and brainstorm what you would like from the days and months ahead.
by Francine Puckly
December is a busy month for all, and with holiday hubbub, time spent with family and friends, and reruns of The Sound of Music reminding me to hold on tight to my favorite things, I made a list of some of the things I enjoy:
Family and friends, traveling, scribbling, gardening, walking, baking
“I’m fairly certain that given a cape and a nice tiara, I could save the world.”
(Quote by Leigh Standley of Curly Girl Design)
WRITING IS BETTER WITH:
Sid and Cora (the family cats), dark chocolate, and a steaming mug of Celestial Seasons Morning Thunder or Harney & Sons Earl Grey Supreme. Once I've finished writing, I enjoy seltzer with lemon or a big, fat glass of Riesling (summer) or Pinot Noir (the rest of the year).
I believe food is mood and weather dependent, but I've never turned down mangoes or blackberries, grilled portabellas, eggplant parmigiana, her mom’s cream puffs, spinach artichoke dip, Georgia’s espinaca or her Aunt Margaret’s pound cake, cinnamon rolls, or a good New York style cheesecake with cherries on top...to name just a few.
On the music front, I love everything from jazz to current pop to new age to 80’s dance music. When I'm particularly stressed, Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” plays over and over--any season of the year--until the nerves and anxiety have settled, and my day almost always ends with Dan Gilbson’s “Seaside Piano”.
My favorite movies tend to be ones that make me laugh or leave me with a sense of hope and happiness, so the list is topped with Elf, The Wizard of Oz, The Help, The Book Thief, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Somewhat recent favorites are Cinderella, Bad Moms (because a woman needs a little senseless humor the day after she drops her first child at college), and Hidden Figures. Our DVR is programmed to record every last Modern Family and Black-ish. I was rather addicted to Downton Abbey in its day, and now I get my "passionate period drama" fix with Poldark and The Crown.
by Francine Puckly
After several stumbles, a close-call coming through the ceiling, and one broken finger, I decided it was high time we installed a floor in our attic instead of walking around on beams and occasional planks we strategically placed to hold our storage boxes. Having the floor installed meant I had to clear a space for the workers to lay at least half of the floor before shifting everything to the other side to install the rest. And clearing the space meant I had to come to terms with stacks of empty cardboard boxes we were saving for storage and gift giving, boxes and bags of baby clothes and blankets from my 14- and 11-year-old children I couldn’t part with years ago, and hoards of holiday decorations teetering on disaster.
Anyone who has tackled 900 square feet of clutter knows the heart palpitations it can inflict. And I put this off until the last bitter moment when I received the call from the contractor saying he would be there first thing the next morning.
To fully understand the level of my anxiety when surrounded by so many boxes, let’s be clear that my grandmother, God rest her soul, was a full-fledged, Guinness-World-Records-setting pack rat. The one memory I have of her two-bedroom townhouse (the rest of them I’ve clearly blocked) is my walking through a box-filled kitchen into a box-filled family room with an 18-inch path to navigate to the stairs (lined with boxes) to use the bathroom (also filled with boxes). In fact, the day my mother and father arrived to move my grandmother, she had done no packing or sorting. My mother sat down on the front step and bawled, overwhelmed with the task in front of her that had to be completed eight short hours. Years later as I assessed the attic mess in front of me, I finally understood my mother’s anxiety and was sobered by the fact that I had done this to myself. While I had not hoarded quite as much as my grandmother, I still had a seemingly insurmountable task in front of me.
No coward soul am I, Emily Brontë whispered in my ear. So up to the overheated attic I went. I started by chucking 47 empty boxes from the corner—which we desperately missed this past holiday season…who knew?—and the cats and kids ran for their lives as they dodged falling objects from the attic opening. This was followed by pulling down twelve boxes of baby clothes, several old window blinds and curtain rods stored years ago “just in case”, a giant box of my baby clothes from several decades earlier, fourteen years of my children’s artwork, boxes of letters received from friends and family in high school and college, and several boxes of holiday decorations that hadn’t been used in at least six years. Ruthlessly I sorted, sorted, sorted. So much collected over the years because I couldn’t make decisions.
In the writing world, I have done this to myself as well. I’ve hung onto old drafts of manuscripts because I might need to refer to them “some day”, and I’ve collected stacks of craft books, notes from teachings and lectures, and magazine articles which are old news at this point in my career. I hang onto these collections as if they will provide some sort of solace in the days, weeks or years to come. They won’t.
I finished the attic in November, and keeping with the notorious theme of the New Year—a time to clear, de-clutter and organize—I have set out to conquer my ever-expanding writing space with cute folders and boxes, and, more importantly, the recycling bin. Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it?
So as I belt out, “Should all manuscripts be forgot, and never thought upon…”, I clear the space and open the way for new ideas and new writing in this New Year.
by Francine Puckly
I don’t believe in mid-life crises, but my back does. Twice in the last six weeks I’ve been the proud sponsor of a herniated disc that prefers to roam around and rest on a nerve. This pressure makes movement of the leg and hip joint impossible, unless you have an affinity for stabbing pain and cold sweats. I’m immobilized for a week’s time until the disc decides to move back between the vertebrae where it belongs.
The latest attack hit last week—harder than before and 48 hours before my eight-year-old niece and twin four-year-old nephews were scheduled to arrive for a summer visit. I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be laid up and fought the debilitating pain all the way, determined to clean my house, wash and fold the laundry, and vacuum the pool.
Despite the pain and the tears, I pressed on. What stopped me in the end wasn’t scrubbing a shower stall or bending to unload the dishwasher—but blueberries. I couldn’t get out of the car to buy blueberries from the local fruit stand. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t reach the door once it was open. One side of my brain rationalized the situation. “They’re just blueberries. It’s not important.” But the other half of my brain screamed, “Oh, for God’s sake! I can’t even buy BLUEBERRIES!”
I sat frozen in the driver’s seat and looked for blame everywhere except at myself for not heeding my chiropractor’s advice: no lifting, no twisting, no gardening. Take it easy and let this pass. I had ignored everything and everyone. Even if all I wanted was blueberries and a clean house.
I closed the door—after five or six minutes of reaching and missing—and drove home without the fruit. I grabbed an ice pack, popped some ibuprofen, and laid down to rest. I cried for a long time—a mixture of feeling sorry for myself and releasing various causes of disappointment—while seaside piano music ebbed and flowed in the background.
Then I surrendered.
So instead of doling out frozen drinks with miniature umbrellas and whipping together lunches, afternoon appetizers, and dinners for all, I spent the time with my guests propped up on a chaise lounge unable to move. My children, niece and nephews whirled around me at a high rate of speed, shouting amongst themselves and calling “Watch me! Watch me!” to the adults as they launched themselves into the pool in various poses and gyrations. My husband took care of all of my needs, as well as the needs of our guests. While I hated not participating directly in this mayhem, I tried to be in the moment and enjoy life as it swirled around me.
Lessons, lessons. Always a lesson in life. And this weekend delivered. Because I was forced to be physically still, I became mentally and emotionally still. I saw more, laughed more, and had more meaningful conversations. I made wrong things right with my loved ones and said the things I should be saying every day. I can only imagine this is how a terminally ill person must feel!
I’m on the road to healing now, and I’m grateful to be able to perform simple movements I used to take for granted—putting on socks, turning off the lamp next to my bed, hanging up my towel. But I’m also a wee bit nervous to return to my former ways of packing every minute with motion, to-do lists, and the need (or habit) to please others. If I change nothing I am sure to experience another setback with my back and hips. There are physical changes I must make, true enough, but there are lessons in slowing down that plank stretches or core building will not replace.
Did the lesson to slow down and savor life stick? I don’t know. And that’s what makes me most concerned.
by Francine Puckly
Ah, summer reading lists. I used to enjoy creating my personal list every Memorial Day weekend in anticipation of the long weeks of summer sprawled out in front of me. I had visions of digging my feet into sand (or the grass in my backyard) and whiling away the hours with book in hand.
But as with most things in my life in the last ten years or so, I started getting carried away. I couldn’t put the brakes on. The list became a goal. It grew longer and longer. And it was impossible to complete it, leading to feelings of guilt and failure. “Guilt associated with summer reading?!” you say. Sadly, yes.
Last summer I set out to read the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. The entire series. I couldn’t read one book of the series. I had to read them all. Why I do this to myself, I’ll never know. I read 53 pages.
So this summer I’m trying to resist the urge to stack books two feet high in the corner of my bedroom or to create a list of thousands of pages for my “summer reading pleasure”. Instead of pulling together a list ahead of time, I’m picking up a book here and a book there from the library, the local bookstore, or from friends at the ball field.
This practice has led mainly to beach reads from authors such as Elin Hilderbrand and Luanne Rice. And I’m okay with that. I’m not tackling Shakespeare or Homer or Steinbeck, but as I sip my iced tea, I’m savoring the tales that other writers have taken the time and care to pen.
Isn’t that what reading is all about?
by Francine Puckly
My husband and I purchased our home just over 14 years ago--new construction nestled amongst dense trees. It presented a landscaping challenge that left me anxious and overwhelmed. A few years into my efforts, I had successfully completed gardens for the perimeter of the house and the front walk—they were not quite up to professional standards, but they were respectable. The rest of the untamed property, however, taunted me whenever I stepped into the yard. It would take days or weeks to landscape and even more hours to maintain each season and each year. I did the only thing that seemed logical. I sought out a landscaping company to do it for me!
A local landscape designer visited, and we walked around and talked about ideas for each area. I was encouraged about the possibilities, but in the end I could not afford to have him complete the landscaping for me. He did, however, leave me with the best piece of advice I’ve ever received: you can’t tackle the entire piece of property at once—if you do, you’ll work a little bit here and a little bit there but nothing will be complete—so start small. Pick one tiny area to garden and don’t get sidetracked by anything else.
While I wanted to conquer the entire lot, I knew deep down that he was right. I could do a little plot. That was easy, right? So I chose to tackle the area just below my writing window--a section of our property I stared at every day from my desk while trying to conjure up plots and evil characters. I fondly named this my Writing Garden. A few daylilies, a couple hostas, a lovely fuschia spiderwort. Each week I watered the plants deeply, tended to the weeds, and trimmed the spent flowers. In the fall I added a potted mum to spice it up and dropped in a few spring-blooming bulbs. Each year I added a new plant or two to the left or right of that plot. Ten years later I have an enormous garden that showers me with blooms from April to October. It took time, but it’s beautiful.
This landscaping advice sank into my writing over the years as well. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I remember to start small. One scene—often my favorite scene—from which I build characters and setting. A small seed sown in the rich soil of my mind. The entire project will take weeks, months or even years to complete. But I will start with one tiny plot. One flower, one hosta. One character, one scene. And it will grow into something fantastic.
by Francine Puckly
What do you do when you feel like giving up?
The dilemma of knowing when to keep fighting and when to walk away has plagued the human race for thousands of years. In the early years of our species, these indecisions pertained to things such as deciding if an animal was too large to pursue for dinner. Now our difficulties are often more subtle, such as a friendship or love affair that has turned sour, a business endeavor that is failing, or a fifteen-year-old car that has been faithful as the day is long but requires an expensive repair. Or it could be wrestling with when to slide a manuscript into a drawer or, even more sobering still, when to abandon the writing process altogether.
This discussion came up recently in my critique group. Several of us were physically and emotionally drained from having planned and executed an annual writing event, and others of us were licking open wounds from disappointing critiques with agents and editors who were not excited about our work. At some point in your personal regrouping process the question inevitably arises: Should I continue?
Should I continue to invest hoards of precious time in something that “may never happen”? Should I continue to work on a manuscript that still has flaws despite my best effort? Self-doubt creeps in and you ask yourself, What if I don’t have the talent or the fight left in me to bring this manuscript to print?
For me there is the sobering reality that I’m not as young as I used to be. I am not the wide-eyed, optimistic, and naïve thirty-something who set off to conquer the publishing world with her brilliant prose. I had lofty goals as to how many books I could bring to market, and now I realize I don’t have nearly as many books in me as I thought I did ten years ago when I began this journey.
But what I have with me are eight dear writing friends who, despite the foul verbiage I throw down on the page, doggedly stick by me through thick and thin. They read and celebrate my work, again and again. They laugh with me at my social blunders and public “mis-speaks”, hug and support me through family crises, and show up month after month with black ink on the page, ready to share, ready to listen, ready to keep on keeping on.
It’s a scary place, this one of reevaluation and self-doubt. And the decision is and must be an individual one, despite encouragement from others. Could I abandon ship? I suppose I could. But as my goals partner, Martha Calderaro, says, “If I were to stop here, I would regret seeing where this path would eventually take me.” She’s right. I’ve come too far.
So I keep writing. Not because of my ego’s desire to see my books in print, but rather because what else can I do? I would be miserable without pen and paper. Yes, this is taking a long time. Far too long. But Markus Zusak’s wise words from “The Book Thief” are posted by my desk: “It’s much easier, she realized, to be on the verge of something than to actually be it. This would still take time.”
For more blogs, check out Francine's past blogs on goal setting and other writing topics at www.24carrotwriting.com.