On the Importance of Ritual

The other day a reader asked me if I ever wrote in long hand, much like Neil Gaiman is known to do. I do not–never. I hate the idea of writing something by hand knowing I’ll just have to type it again later, creating twice the work for me. But, I conceded, I do hand write my outlines, always. I tried to type one once because I always end up adding asides and run out of space on my papers, and I thought it would be nice to be able to just add in a line when I needed to but there was no magic in a typed outline.

So, always type a story, always hand write the outline.

Funny, right?

But it got me thinking about the rituals of writing. Any art, really, but writing is my magic, so that’s what I’m focusing on now.

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Any professional artist will tell you that you can’t wait for the Muses to speak to you, otherwise you’ll (almost) never get any work done. You have to make your Muses speak on days you just don’t feel like it. On days where you only have an hour, or less, to get the words done. You have to force the magic to make the art.

And there are ways to do this. There are ingredients to every spell and if you manage to figure them out, you can create the magic potion to get the art done even under the worst situations. A few years ago, I was stuck at jury duty for the full 8 hours. I got so much writing done that day, it must’ve been a record, all because I have my ritual to make the magic.

First, I outline. Now, if you’re a pantser, this part doesn’t apply to you. But for me, I allow myself at least a week to complete an outline before I ever start a new manuscript. You’ll have to figure out how detailed or loose your outline needs to be, that in of itself is its own magic spell. If too loose you leave yourself sitting at the keys, trying to figure out how to get from point D to point M. Too detailed you might feel like you’ve already written the story and lose your excitement to actually write it.

Secondly, if this is the start of a brand new book, not part of a series, I allow myself a day to start to curate a soundtrack for the book/main character. I know, this seems like one of those “I’m an artiste! I need my special music to write!” kinda things, but it’s not. For many, both reading and writing a book plays out like a movie in our heads and what is a movie without a soundtrack? You need the creepy notes that warn you the monster is coming. You need the pounding base to choreograph a fight and get your heart moving. You need the sweet strings of a romantic moment. But, I think, most importantly, it gives you the feel of the book or main character. This, for me, is what helps me get into the right headspace for a book, no matter where I am or what mood I am in. And with each book in a series, I add more and more songs to the list until it’s hours and hours long.

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I also have a few universal playlists to help me with certain types of scenes. If I’m in the middle of fights or battles, I have strong lyric-less soundtracks from movies or video games to help me. If I’m trying to get into the head of a strong, angry female, I have a playlist of what I call “angry power” songs, only sung by strong female vocals.

You could be trapped in the middle seat of coach, on a full flight, but you put your headphones on and turn on the soundtrack of your book, and bam! Watch the words flow. I won NaNo last year in that exact situation because I had my music.

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This also helps if you’re working on more than one project at a time. For example, I’m working on a witch book in my Matilda Kavanagh series and I’m working on a piece of flash fiction that is a spin off from my post-apocalyptic Ash & Ruin series. Neither MC is the same and both worlds are totally different. So, they have their own soundtracks to help me switch my brain depending on which one I want to write in.

Third, I always have something to drink. Usually it’s coffee, but sometimes just water. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. It adds to the level of comfort as you stare into that bright screen and create indents on your wrists as you pound away.

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There are other things, like I try to write in the mornings, but if I miss that window, I don’t skip on writing unless it’s One Of Those Days. It’s always easy to make excuses to get out of writing, but unless you’re under a contractual deadline, you’re just letting yourself down by putting it off or treating it like a chore. I mean, some days, it does feel like a chore but when it’s done, damn that’s a good feeling.

Figuring out your rituals to help you get shit done is important. It’s not being a fussy artiste, it’s creating magic. Allow yourself the special combo of ingredients that will allow you to create art no matter what the situation. Make no excuses for doing what you need to get it done and give yourself no excuses to avoid it.
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Speaking of… I have some words that need writing before dinner.

Author as Leader – 5 Tips to Position Yourself for Success

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The other day I was reading an article about a certain health care executive for my day job (which is in health care marketing) and I realized the exact same advice she gives for developing leadership skills in that industry could be applied to authors.

What’s her advice? I’m going to outline it and then talk about how I think it applies to us.

Build a network of great colleagues that represent a variety of connections in [the industry] – I think we writers do some of this without really thinking about it because we are so happy to be with our tribe, to meet people who understand what it’s like to have characters talk in your head, or conversely, to suddenly stop talking, and all of the other oddities that make us writers.  I met all of my fellow Spellbound Scribes on Twitter several years ago when we were all trying really hard to finish books by the end of the year. I think we were maybe connected by the #amwriting conversation. (Do any of you remember for sure? I remember we called ourselves #teamawesome for quite a while.) Sometimes, it’s just that easy.

Join professional organizations/volunteer – Networking should also be something we do consciously. Almost every major writing genre from horror and mystery, to romance, historical fiction and women’s fiction has at least one (if not multiple) professional associations. Join up. It’s okay if you don’t do much at first while you get the lay of the land, but then get active. Go to conferences. Join a committee. Volunteer to write or run something for them. The more you get out there, the better your chance of making friends and getting more out of your membership.

Identify leaders you want to be mentored by. Don’t be afraid to make a list of the top authors in your genre and make a concerted effort to meet them. Got to their signings or to conferences where they will be attending. Say hello. In the meantime, create lists on Twitter of the hot authors your genres and slowly get to know them through social media. That way, when you finally do get to meet them at a conference or signing, they will hopefully remember your name or at least an interaction we’ve had.

I’ll give you a brief example of how this has actually worked for me. A few years ago, I fell in love with Patricia Bracewell’s writing. I tweeted her and told her how much I loved her debut novel Shadow on the Crown. She wrote back and was very gracious, so I started following her. We’d tweet from time to time. Then about a year or two later, I got to meet her at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver. I told her my name and reminded her of our conversations. I was fortunate that we got to talk for a bit there. Then the following year, I asked her for a blurb for my book. She wasn’t able to give one, but she did tell her fans about my book’s publication. Now, next month, I’m going to be on a panel with her at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland. All because we stayed in touch via social media.

Mentor those just starting out. This is key in any industry, and it’s just a nice thing to do. Think about when you were a green newbie. Chances are good that someone took you under their wing, or at least took the time to answer your questions. Now, you are that expert, so it’s your turn to give back. Whenever I speak at an event, I make sure to hang around after to answer questions and I always let the audience know they can email me anytime (and I give out my business card). When they do email, I respond quickly. I may not always have the answer, but at least I can try to point them in the right direction. If you’re in a local chapter of a bigger organization, seek out the new members and do your best to make them feel welcome. Even if you don’t believe in karma, helping those who are new is the right thing to do.

Think big – We should all be planning our publishing empires. How many plot lines are in your head? How many series can you envision writing? Do you plan to branch out into other genres? Who might you want to team up with to co-author a book? If you write fiction, what non-fiction topics could you tie in and write about? Have you considered writing a companion book to one of your series? What about opening your copyrighted world for development by other authors, like Kindle Worlds allows?

Why stop with ebooks when print and audio are reasonable to produce? Have you thought about boxed sets (either producing your own from your books or joining with other authors)? What steps can you take to get into foreign markets in English? What about translations? Who can you talk to about merchandising or TV/film rights? Even if you know these things won’t happen for years, be thinking about them now. Cultivate contacts and learn new skills. That way, you’ll be ready when the time comes.

Anticipate changes – This is easier said than done unless you are a natural futurist, which I am not. I’m sure we all wish we could have foreseen the advent of self-publishing, but we can do our best to look for trends within the bigger industry or at least stay informed of what visionaries are thinking. Join newsletter lists, follow blogs, join Facebook groups. That is how you’ll know what’s going on, and over time, you’ll start to notice trends. Here’s one that’s been going on for a while, but is popping up all over again lately: traditional publishers (especially the Big 5) devoting fewer and fewer marketing dollars to mid-list and emerging writers. If you can recognize trends like this, you’ll be able to do something about them. In this case, maybe you set aside a percentage of your next advance to hire a publicist, or maybe you learn how to design your own ads.

No matter how you are published, you’re your own best advocate, and you always will be. By taking that leader’s advice and incorporating these thing into your career as best you can at the moment, you’ll be positioning yourself for success. Our industry is tough, but if we can demonstrate the same qualities that make a good business leader, we will attract positive attention. Like anything else, you get out of your writing career what you put into it.

Does any of this resonate with you? Why or why not? What other advice would you give? What have you done to be a good leader in the writing community?

You Can Take a Break; You’re Still a Writer

The last two posts have been about being stuck while working on a writing project. I’ve seen a lot of this lately; so many creatives are struggling to work in the climate we’re all facing.

When I was young, a teenager, I reveled in my dark, black moods to create my best work. I even did better writing term papers when I was unhappy. And some people stay that way their whole lives — they need that dark place to tap into their creative muse to get words or other art done.

But as I’ve grown older, as I’ve turned this into a job, I’ve found it much harder to work when I’m in a dark place or when life is being difficult. I don’t want to create magic and monsters and adventure. I want to curl up and be alone with my dogs and husband and shut out the world. Even if I’m working on something dark or difficult and it brings me down while I’m working, so much so, that when I leave my office I have to physically shake it off, I don’t need to first be in that place to write those words.

I participated in Camp NaNo in April. I set myself a goal of 40k words. In the beginning, it went like any NaNo usually does. I had my outline and was ready to get started and felt good about my daily word counts. But, as the month went on, and things in my life weren’t perfect and outside things started to drain away my energy, I found each word that much harder to type. When I finally hit my 40k word goal, I was relieved. I had one day to spare, but I did it. Obviously, that’s not the whole book. But with everything else going on outside of writing, my hubs and I agreed we needed a week to decompress. So I promised myself if I hit my NaNo goal, I was going to take a week off from writing to get my head right again.

That was last week. This week, these are the first words I’ve written. We planned our “take a break” week from everything but the bare minimum at just the right moment. We run a business together and we had an emergency happen last week that, had I been writing, would have taken any energy away from my daily goals. We’ve weathered the emergency and I think the ship is righted and we’re going to be okay, but I am so glad I gave myself permission to take a break from my book.

This book is from my favorite series and if I had continued to write while dealing with so much, I think it would have suffered and when the editing came around, it would have been a snarl of a headache to fix.

I used to say you had to write every day when you’re working on a project. Yeah, take the weekend off, or a day here or there if you like working on the weekend, but don’t abandon the project because you’ll lose momentum and the narration and it’ll be so much harder to pick back up. But I needed that break. It’s okay to take a break. The book will be there when you get back and if you’re serious about writing, you’ll go back to it.

I’m 40k words in, the beginning is always a huge hurdle and I’m almost half-way done, so there’s no reason for me to be scared that I can’t pick it back up.

We have to give ourselves permission to take a break when we need it. Burn outs and break downs are real and horrible and if you can see one coming before it hits, you should do whatever you have to to avoid it. We all need self-care and sometimes that means dealing with life while your imaginary friends take a seat and wait for you to come back.

Well. This isn’t quite where I thought this post was going to go, but there you have it. I’m nearly 20 books into the business, so I think I can safely say that each book is different, each book will ask different things of you and you just have to trust your gut with each one. Some will come hard and fast and you’ll never take a break because you’re just trying to keep up with the words yourself, and others will take their time and give you the space you need, you just have to let yourself take it.

It’s okay. You’re still a writer. Every book has its own process.

On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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English Majors Unite!

The other day there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter. I know, quelle surprise!

A very successful writer was asked for a bit of advice from a young fan as a new English Major.

The writer’s response? English Major = “Do you want fries with that?”

I mean.

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She told the fan to get a degree in something that would get them a lucrative job and write on the side.

Yeah. Sure. Some people totally do that. But to completely belittle the fan’s already chosen path while also tearing down the service industry? REALLY?

You won’t be surprised to find out that I, myself, was an English Major. I have a loverly BA in English with a concentration on Creative Writing. A major I created myself because it didn’t exist at my school at the time. I was very lucky that my adviser was also the department chair at the time so getting it approved wasn’t quite the battle it could have been.

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I am damn proud of my degree. I have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. Believe me, getting dyslexia under control has been much easier than my dsycalculia–there was no way I was going to be a math or science or business major. But guess what? As a self-published writer, I am running my own business. My husband also runs his own business, but I also help with that. I run the office for both of us. And my degree helped me, believe it or not.

English degrees teach you critical thinking, creative solutions, and so much more.

Now, do you need an English Degree to be a writer? Of course not. I know many writers who are also something else. Writing isn’t paying the bills just yet for them. But it might some day.

Did I need an English Degree to be a writer? To be a good one, yes.

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I can say with a little confidence that I had “raw talent” when I was younger. When I got to be creative with my English assignments, I always did well. I actually remember my senior English AP teacher writing “I can’t wait to see what happens next!” on a paper I turned in. It was an amazing feeling. I really thought I could write. I thought I was a good story teller.

Then I went to college.

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I had professors who were published novelists and playwrights and poets.

And they let me know raw talent wasn’t enough then and it wouldn’t be enough in the future. They tore my papers apart. I had one professor (the aforementioned adviser) who knew I was turning in the first drafts of papers and would automatically deduct a full letter grade because of it. I went to him, demanding to know why I kept getting B’s on my papers and he told me. He told me even if the paper was an A on the first try, that just told him the second try would be that much better.

My poetry was ridiculous. It was flowery and vague, like I didn’t want my reader to know what I was talking about. My professor shredded my poems until I learned to paint a damn picture that he could see.

I am the writer I am today because of the lessons those professors gave me. It was well worth the time and money. Maybe I would have gotten to that point as an English Minor, or just taking a couple of classes for fun, who knows? But I know being an English Major changed my life and I am damn grateful for it.

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Do you need to be an English Major to be a successful writer? Of course not. Or maybe you do. None of us are the same. Some of us need the instruction, some of us don’t. Some of us will write a NYT bestseller in our 20s and others will do so in their golden years. You are special and different and need to decide what is right for you. Don’t let some random person–even if they are a NYT bestseller themselves–tell you what is the right path for you.

Oh, by the way, I was a waitress all through college. It was the most thankless, degrading job I’ve ever had and I worked in insurance after college. Never tear down the service industry. Customers are assholes and service industry people are overworked and treated like shit every day. Everyone should have to wait tables on Mother’s day, or run a cashier over the holidays. People would be far, far nicer and learn some damn manners.

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Now. Thanks to that English degree, I’m putting out my 16th novel (under this name), and it is up for pre-order now! If you were a fan of my Ash & Ruin Trilogy, this is a companion novel, maybe you’d like to take a peek?

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Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Kobo Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | ibooks

 

Resist || Create

Hey guys. How’s it going? Are you doing okay? It’s been a whirlwind, right? Everyday we brace ourselves to see what else is going to happen. It’s exhausting, right?

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We haven’t been political on the blog, not because we don’t care and not because any of us are supporting the current administration, just because sometimes we all need an escape for a few minutes and there’s nothing wrong with that. So we’ve tended to post lighter things, stuck with topics about writing and craft. Tried to make this a nice break space for you.

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But holy shit does each week get harder and harder to keep that up.

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On Saturday I participated in my local march, like many of you did around the world. It was inspiring and invigorating. I tend to be one of those borderline introvert/extroverts who is happy to say yes to making plans but then is secretly really happy when you cancel so I don’t actually have to go.

On Thursday night, I found out our little town was in fact having a march (yes, I could have gone to LA but crikey that one was crazypants huge), so I was going to go! I was so excited and rage-faced and ready! Then Friday night I waffled. My husband couldn’t go because of work and I didn’t know anyone going (which turned out to be wildly untrue) and did I really want to go? I’ve donated and spread the word about causes and called my reps weekly, I don’t have to do this one thing. I was going to talk myself out of going. But then as it came closer and closer to go to bed to wake up in time to get downtown I knew I had to go. I had to. I couldn’t miss this. This was important.

And then, when I was standing in our crowd as it got bigger and bigger the closer to the start time we got, the organizers said we were one of nearly 700 marches, in every single state, in 80 countries. Can you imagine if I’d convinced myself to stay home? I would have missed being part of history. I would have hated myself.

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It was a great day. And I was so wonderful to see so many diverse faces and when people honked and waved at us as we marched, we were pleasantly surprised to see so many of the drivers were men–cheering us on!

But then the week has gone on and while we’re still fighting and spreading the word, every day something else comes out to steal a little bit of our fire. It’s hard. I was fully ready and excited to start work on a new witchy story this month and can’t seem to find the inspiration for it.

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I have 4 other story ideas on deck for current series I have out that I could work on and save the new story idea. But I’m finding it so hard to find my motivation to actually do it. The last time depression and sadness worked for me as a muse was when I was a teenager. People think pain pain makes good art, and it does, but security and support and happiness can make some amazing art too.

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But we have to try, right? Just like I couldn’t talk myself out of going to the march by myself, I can’t talk myself out of writing, out of creating art and escapism for myself and my readers.

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So, I guess that is the point of this post. Don’t give in to the sadness. Don’t give up. Keep up the resistance. Rise and rise again, everyday, get up and keep moving. Even if it’s just one step, one page, one action. That’s how they win this, through attrition. Do not give in.

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The Meaning of Life

adventureDon’t worry, I’m not going to get all deep and philosophical on you. Not today at least, 😉 One of my goals for 2017 is to have more of a social life. I’ve been really neglecting that part of living for the last few years while I holed up at home working to make my writing career come to life.

Now that it has, the meaning of the phrases “I have no life” or “get a life,” have been on my mind a lot. But I’ve come to realize that for writers (or at least for me) “having a life” means something different than for others. Bear with me here.

Like 95% of other writers, I have a full-time job. That means my writing/marketing, domestic duties, and social time are crammed into weekends and the five hours a day that aren’t spent sleeping, commuting, getting ready for work, or working. (I know, wah, first world problems.)

I’m in my mid-to-late 30s, so when I do go out, it’s not the same way I used to think of “going out.” I’m so beyond the bar/club scene of my early 20s, I never want to think about it again. Most of my friends are married and have kids (I have neither), so we don’t interact in the same ways we used to.

Given this, I guess it isn’t  surprising that many of my friends are now people I know only online (*waves to Spellbound Scribes*) or who I know from writing groups. I think part of that is just the way the world is going and part of it is because as writers, we’re online so much anyway and we naturally flock together.

Once you are out of college, making friends gets way harder. That is one of those things I wish someone prepared you for beforehand. Having a life morphs into finding your tribe, which for me, just so happens to be mostly online. (Without the internet or social media, we might be having a very different conversation.)

The more I thought about it, I realized, I do have a life, just not one that fits traditional parameters like a hobby, sport, or regular social gathering such as drinking or going dancing or playing poker. It wouldn’t play out well on a TV show. Let me explain:

  1. For me, reading and research are kind of hobbies, even though they both also feed into my second job as an author. They are both solitary pursuits and that suits my introverted self just fine.
  2. I interact with writing friends online on a regular basis by email, social media, blogs and messenger. I’ll be honest, I trust and like some of them way more than some of the people I’ve known IRL for years.
  3. I meet with my local Romance Writers of America chapter monthly, and several of the members have become my friends outside of the writing world. I am immensely grateful for them. Because that group doesn’t know a stranger, I’ve even come out of my shell more.
  4. I go to several conferences a year, so I have the chance to interact with my tribe face-to-face and also meet new friends. This also gives me a great chance to travel, usually by myself, to places I otherwise wouldn’t get to see.
  5. Just because I’m single doesn’t mean I don’t go out. I take myself to dinner frequently (dear God, I am an expensive date!), get a monthly massage, and sometimes go to the movies if there is something I really want to see. I’ve even been known to go to the art museum by myself.

Based on this, I think what I’m wanting to focus on is throwing in a few more “just for funsies” type things that don’t involve either of my jobs. Going to see a play/musical, taking a class not related to writing, something like that. I have a life, I would just like to enrich it.

How do you define “having a life?” How do you work in a social life with the rest of your life? What do you do just for fun? 

PS – Thank you to Shauna for posting for me in late December when a personal matter left me temporarily unable to think of anything else.