The Importance of Self-Care for Writers

So this week’s post is coming to you a little late thanks to a mild injury delay.

Yesterday, as I was doing something as simple as brushing my hair up into a ponytail, I felt one of my upper rips slip out of place. 

I know, sounds super weird right? If it’s not something you’ve ever done it probably sounds bad. But it’s not as bad as it sounds and yet is still pretty painful. Our upper ribs are in a pretty shallow divot in our spines so it’s pretty easy for them to slip out. If you’ve ever felt the ache of a joint that needs to pop, it’s like that, only you can’t really pop it. Sure you could use a foam roller or twist this way and that to try to crack your back, but that’s not really the same thing as being out of alignment and fixing yourself. You really need a professional for that.

As writers–and office workers–we’re facing a keyboard, hands forward, shoulders rounding, for hours. Yes, we do try to be conscious of posture and we all know to get up from time to time and stretch and walk around, but not everyone is very good about that *cough*.

Even me. I’m married to a personal trainer, I know that back problems run in my family, so I am very conscious of my back and taking care of it and exercising regularly. But once, a couple of years ago, after marathon weeks of writing, I was bent over, pulling something heavy out of my oven and I felt a sharp pain in my upper back. When I stood up, I couldn’t take a full breath without feeling a white hot shot of pain near my shoulder blade. I’d slipped a rib.

It’s easy enough to get fixed, you just go to a professional chiropractor and get adjusted and everything realigned. It’s still gonna be sore for a day or two but you better hope they can see you quick if you ever do it. Sitting around with this isn’t comfy. It feels like someone is pushing on your back and every deep breath is painful so you have to hope you don’t sneeze or yawn. Yeah, you just yawned. When it happens, you want it fixed immediately, even if that’s unreasonable.

You know I participated in NaNo this year and if you’ve been following my posts you know I had taken a long break from writing before that so after NaNo I knew I needed to go in to be adjusted because I could just feel my back tensing, I had some knots I couldn’t work out, and it was just time. 

But I put it off.

And yesterday my rib slipped out doing something so routine and simple.

So I couldn’t sit at my desk to write a post. I couldn’t pour over my outline that I was determined to work on. I swore like a sailor every time I sneezed as I waited for my 3pm appointment. And my chiro tsked tsked me when she felt how knotted and tense my back was. I hadn’t been taking care of myself.

Yes, I get my workouts in. Yes, I watch my posture as I write. But there’s more we need to do. There’s probably more you need to do. We all need to remember that it is both okay and important to take care of ourselves while we’re getting work done and while we’re taking care of others. It’s not selfish (and really, it’s okay to be a little selfish from time to time), it’s vital. You can’t get other things done if even breathing causes you pain. 

So don’t be like me. If you need a break, take it. If you haven’t stretched, go stretch and try to do it every day. If you need a massage, damnit, get one. If you need to be adjusted, go. Just because we sit to work doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a toll on our bodies.

Are You a Successful Writer?

There are a lot of ways to measure success. For some, just accomplishing a goal, like finishing a book, is a success. For others, it’s getting that book published. And for others still, it’s a measure of money that determines if they’re a success.

In the publishing world there are a lot of misconceptions. Some still hold that self-publishing isn’t as prestigious as traditional publishing. It certainly is a much harder road to travel if you aren’t already a well-established author and/or personality with a base of readers who are going to jump on the publication of your book and boost you through the sales rankings. But, even without that, self-publishing is just as viable an option.

I didn’t have a base when I started publishing. I still get a little defensive when someone asks me if they can find my book on a shelf at Barnes and Nobel. My first year I counted every single sale because they were so few and far between.

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But.

Since then? In the seven years I’ve been self-published? I’ve made more money from book sales than many, many traditionally published writers. I carried my household as my partner built his business.

But.

Like so many industries, book sales are cyclical. And the lows feel very, very low. So most writers have a second job if their partners can’t carry the financial load alone. Yes, I said “second” job, not “day” job because writing is a job. A lot of writers can’t let go of the idea that writing isn’t a job because we often think of writing as a vanity—a hobby. But it’s not. It’s a job. There are days when I’ve had a marathon of words or a particularly difficult scene to write, and I’ve walked away from my desk exhausted, struggling to remember words, and needing to veg out. Just like a “day” job.

There was a second misconception there: that a successful writer shouldn’t need another job outside of writing.

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This one is hard for me. Not that I think that of other writers, but that I think that of myself. Like I said, financially, I’ve been successful in writing, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the cycles of book sales. And I’ve had side hustles related to writing; I offer professional beta reading and content editing. But that’s not steady work for me. My partner works very hard and we’ve traded carrying the financial load throughout our relationship. But I knew it was time that I looked for a second job outside of writing again.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. I was doing so well, I shouldn’t need to do this! But. I just can’t, as prolific as I have been, I can’t pump out a book a month or every other month to keep up with the new generation of self-publishers who do this. I’m not formulaic and my stories take energy and power from me. I can only give so much.

But as soon as I made this decision, and as soon as I saw the first money in my bank account from this decision, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I almost passed out from relief it was so over-whelming.

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And now I don’t feel guilt from taking time to write. I’m actually excited to get back to writing. No, you shouldn’t ever feel guilty writing, but I’m just telling you where I was in my headspace. I want to enjoy writing and I can’t if I feel guilt, even if that guilt is totally self-imposed.

So if you’re in the place where you think you aren’t a “real” writer if you have a “day” job or if you’ve been a writer and can’t quit said day job to be a full-time writer or if you are a full-time writer and realize the bills are closing in and need to get a second job, none of it matters. None of it takes one tiny piece of your success away. I’ve met best-seller listers who are baristas at Starbucks.

You can’t write if you can’t pay your bills.

So go get that side hustle and be proud of it, just don’t forget to claim your writing time. That’s the job you really love, give it the attention it deserves.

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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.