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I get some of my best writing done when I’m on vacation. There’s just something about a change of scenery and unscheduled time that sparks my creativity. Regardless of the destination, my packing list always includes my laptop and charger, a notebook, sharpened pencils and pens. This past week, as I scribbled in my notebook with sand between my toes and the sound of waves lapping the shore, I realized I’ve come to rely on one other resource I didn’t have at the sunny shore – Wi-Fi. More specifically, YouTube that I needed Wi-Fi to access.
This is the first year that I wasn’t drafting a story while vacationing. I am, for the first time, at the revision stage of writing. But it wasn’t until I was in a place where Wi-Fi was abysmal that I realized I have been watching a LOT of YouTube videos while revising my work-in-progress.
My story is a historical fiction middle grade novel set in the mid-1700s. And while reference books, diaries, databases and other resources have helped me gain insight into what life would have been like for my characters during that time period, they simply don’t offer the sensory details I can glean from watching videos. YouTube, more than any other online video sharing platform I’ve explored, has been a gold mine for culling those specifics so I can craft a more immersive experience for my readers.
How were anchors on tall ships raised in the Age of Sail? Documentaries on YouTube had the answer to that question and anything else I could possibly need to know about sailing in the 18th century.
Can you see a certain mountain from a specific vantage point where my story is set? Drone video uploaded to YouTube by someone who lives there showed me the view.
Video tutorials have informed my writing about basket weaving, blacksmithing, canoe building and countless other pre-Revolutionary War skills. I’ve listened to music from that time period and audio clips of everything from bird calls to a storm at sea to the labored breaths of someone with pneumonia. I’ve even turned to video reviews, hacks, lists and tips lending advice about how to improve my writing skills or navigate meta data in the writing software I use.
If you, like me, get stuck when you’re trying to describe the sights and sounds your characters are experiencing in certain situations or settings, consider turning to online videos to help you through those moments. Here are a few tips to keep you on track:
- Be specific with your search terms. The narrower the search, the fewer the list of results you have to weed through to find what you’re looking for.
- Avoid what I like to call “just one more” syndrome. If you find one video with the information you’re seeking, I promise there will be several others that do the same. Don’t be tempted to watch them all. Once you find what you need, avoid wasting hours of your precious writing time by skipping over the others in the hope that you might find something even better.
- Pay attention to the runtime stamp. If you have two video options, preview how long each of them are and then watch the shorter one first. If you find what you need in a three-minute video, there’s no need to watch the 33-minute second video on the same topic.
- Consider the number of views and thumbs up indications. Most videos indicate how many times it’s been viewed, as well as how many of those viewers gave the video a thumbs up to indicate it was worth watching. I’ll always take my chances with videos showing 2,000 views and 1,800 positive reviews over the ones that have been viewed 20 times with eight thumbs down reviews.
- Stay on topic. It’s tempting to follow the “if you liked this, you might also like this” suggestions that pop up at the end of each video. While watching hours of sailing mishaps are undoubtedly entertaining (and sometimes, terrifying), I needed to remind myself that I was writing about sailing vessels that didn’t sink or run aground, so I didn’t have time to get sucked into watching off-topic videos, as tempting as they were.
- Watch the clock. If you’re like me, dedicated writing time is hard to come by, so set a timer to stay on task. When the alarm sounds, it’s time to trade watching for writing.
Not having Wi-Fi at the beach allowed me to focus on fine-tuning character-driven scenes. I came home with notebook pages of thoughtful dialogue, character insights, well considered action sequences and … a list of topics I needed to research on YouTube once I reconnected to Wi-Fi.
Habits are excruciating to make and oh-so-easy to break—especially the habit of writing. Most of us have been through one type of upheaval or another during the past 15 months that have thrown even long-established life habits out the window. For me, the most recent disturbance to my writing routine wasn’t the result of the pandemic, but the happier and more exciting process of moving house.
It was an in-town move. We found a house we loved in a ridiculously convenient location. It even has a writing room in it—one small enough that there’s no room for anyone else to intrude with toys or paperwork because there’s just enough space for my desk and a beautiful bay window overlooking the back yard. Visions of all the books I would write in that room burst across my vision the first time I laid eyes on it. This room was one of the major selling point of the house. But before I could start writing in my lovely little writing room, I had to, you know, pack and move all my worldly goods from one house to another. And then unpack them all and figure out how to organize everything in our new space.
The house itself is a dream, but moving—as ever—is closer to nightmare. Why do I have all this stuff? More importantly, why do my family members have all that stuff? My stuff is obviously important. Of course I need the couple hundred boxes of books we hauled over from the old house. But surely somebody else could do without something else to make this process a little faster? Anybody? No? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
And so for the past couple of months, time I would normally have devoted to writing has been devoted instead to the sorting, packing, moving, and unpacking of stuff. We are currently sleeping, eating, and generally functioning in the new house. But every single room has boxes in the corner. Or in the middle of the floor. This process will go on for some time. If you know the time limit on the excuse—don’t mind the boxes; we just moved!—please let me know, because I will be pushing very hard and possibly leaping past that limit.
But what I can’t do is continue devoting all my time to unpacking. I am still a writer, so I still must write. I knew this when I stopped writing to pack, and so I made a plan. I work best with goals and deadlines, so I took a look at my summer and found an occasion when I knew I would be free of all other obligations for several hours in a row. Then I marked the time down on my calendar as my get-back-to-writing date. I will continue unpacking, organizing, and arranging my house for the foreseeable future, but that task will not be allowed to usurp my writing time past June 12. Because on June 12, I go back to writing.
So, how about you? I know you’ve had writing routine upheaval at some point. How did you manage it and get back to your story? If you’re still struggling with that issue, try pinpointing a date on your calendar as go time. Then tell a writing partner, friend, or family member about the goal you’ve set. Getting back to normal won’t just happen. We have to work for it.
The pandemic challenged us in ways none of us could have anticipated, including how and where we write. Since we ended Write by Midnight, each of the Write Owls have received their COVID-19 vaccines and the communities we live in are seeing businesses opening their doors again. After writing from home for more than a year, often with little humans and spouses around more than they usually are, we’re ready to venture out to libraries, book stores and cafes to get our writing done in new spaces. Are you ready for a change of scenery too? Are you in a position to get back to a writing routine that reflects your pre-pandemic life? If so, now’s the time to reassess your goals, set new ones and create a new routine.
This past year has challenged everyone to get creative when it comes to managing their lives from home. As someone who has juggled a home-based writing career while mothering two kids for 15 years, even I have had to adapt. But successfully working from home, especially if you share that home with other humans, is an evolving process, even when there isn’t a global pandemic adding stress and obstacles to the mix. It always requires commitment, organization, the ability to set boundaries and priorities, and flexibility. Here are my tips to making the best of it.
Commitment. The first thing I did when I started working from home was remind myself that writing is my job. It’s not a hobby. I earn income as a writer, pay taxes on that income and have a separate bank account for expenses related to writing. But it’s a very different kind of writing than the creative writing I’m doing to become a published author of books for children and teens. No one is paying me right now to do that kind of writing, but I believe it’s just as worthwhile. I committed to finishing a manuscript and now I’m committed to revising it so it’s the best I can make it. I’m committed to improving my skills and developing my craft. My creative writing time is valuable and precious and I recognize that I’ll only accomplish my goals by continuing to treat it that way.
Organization. My freelance writing work is unpredictable. I may have no assignments one day and multiple assignments the next. To best manage my time, I sit down each Sunday with the calendar on my phone to plan the upcoming week. Then, based on what I know I have on my plate, I write out a schedule for what I need to do each day. I’m a detail-oriented person, so my schedule is subdivided into half-hour increments and includes time for freelance work, creative writing, non-writing-related appointments, 15-minute breaks, a lunch hour (or half-hour on really busy days) and every-day tasks such as walking the dog, preparing dinner and, before my kids could drive, taking my kids to school and their extra-curricular activities. I review and update the schedule each night to reflect any changes that may pop up on any given day that will affect the rest of the week. Having something on paper that I can review quickly each morning keeps me focused and productive, especially when I’m juggling multiple projects for several clients that may all be due the same week. I’ve tried other tools to organize my time, but the old-fashioned paper method works best for me, although I do use my phone for appointment reminders and timer features to stay on track.
Setting Boundaries and Priorities. This part of my writing process has been the most challenged during the pandemic. Pre-COVID, I rarely had trouble setting boundaries or priorities. When my kids were infants and toddlers, their well-being and healthy development were unapologetically prioritized over my writing time. Once they started kindergarten, I only worked while they were in school or while my husband was home to take care of dinner and bedtime routines. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself in unchartered waters. My husband and both kids weren’t just home; they were home with no obligations. My husband’s job shut down and the schools closed, but I still had freelance assignments coming in. For the first time, I had to be firm with setting boundaries. (I know you don’t have school tomorrow, but you can’t stay up until 3 a.m. playing video games and FaceTiming your friends because I still have to work tomorrow. I know you want me to come on a bike ride with you because, yes, the weather is gorgeous, but I have a deadline to meet.) I also had to prioritize tasks based on deadlines. I would focus on accomplishing the tasks that had firm deadlines first and made my peace with the fact that other tasks sometimes just had to be left for another day. Which brings me to my last tip…
Flexibility. Even with the best intentions and scheduled plans, life happens. Kids get sick. Storms knock out power. The meeting you thought would only last 30 minutes stretches into two hours. Global pandemics, as we now know, can happen. Being flexible when the unexpected happens is the only way to survive working from home. If you’re organized and know how to prioritize, re-working a schedule to still meet a deadline is possible. But sometimes you just have to remember that tomorrow is another day. In those moments, it’s okay to dig into a pint of ice cream or go for a walk or play with your kids. It’s important to remember you’re human, and we all need to remember to give ourselves a little grace from time to time.