Stay Focused During a Rough Patch

I like my routines, and being tossed out of them usually has me dreading those first few laggy days of getting back on track. This is an issue that’s come up again and again in my life, so a few years ago, I wrote out a list of the things that help me stay focused when I don’t get as much writing time as I’d like.

There’s been a lot going on for me lately, so it’s been helpful for me to look back over these ideas. Hopefully you’ll find a few of them useful, too.

1. Back up your writing.

It’s something we should already be doing regularly, but an unexpected event is a good reminder to back up your work. Knowing that you’ve got a copy of your book tucked away in case the worst happens can put your mind at ease while you’re out of commission. Backups are also helpful if you go on a regrettable editing spree while under the influence of cold medication.

2. Read selectively.

I usually read a wide variety of stuff, but when I can’t put in my usual writing time, I turn to books that keep me connected with the style of story that I’m working on. Right now that means space operas, especially those that have female heroines or include family drama. I spent some time last month with Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home and Beyond the Empire, by K.B. Wagers, and I’m planning a reread of the first two Vorkosigan Saga books during my holiday travel. Sticking close to the genre I’m working in keeps my head in the right place to go back to my own cast of characters.

3. Think in stories.

Under normal circumstances this advice would be like reminding myself to breathe, but like a lot of habits, it tends to fall by the wayside when I’m distracted by the nonfiction side of life. My favorite quick little game is to make up factoids about the people and places around me. Thinking out a scene as I go to bed helps too, but I avoid using my regular characters when I’m doing that. The point is to keep my story muscles in shape; coming up with stuff for the book when I can’t really work on it is an exercise in frustration.

4. Write everything down.

This is another one of those “yeah, of course” habits that I let slide too often while I’m not in working mode. I try to keep a pen and paper on hand, but I tend to come out of trips or other down time with a lot of new entries in the notes app on my phone. If a relative uses an interesting turn of phrase, write it down. If the NyQuil gives you dreams full of great, bizzaro images, write those down too. My recent diary entries include family stories and snippets of things I heard on the radio during a few long drives.

These ideas have a lot in common with my regular way of working, but when times are hectic it’s important to remind myself to do the things that come more naturally during day-to-day life. If I let myself zone out for too long, I’m in for days of disappointing output once things get back to normal. And just knowing that I’m taking a few steps to keep my writing practice in shape makes me feel better about sitting back down at the keyboard later on.

If you’ve got any slump-busting tips of your own, please share them in the comments. I could always use the help!

The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those books that I thought I knew all about long before I read it. (I was totally wrong.) Even if the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s been adapted enough times that you might be familiar with the basics of the story.

The hero, Rudolf Rassendyll, travels to a small, isolated European country because he’s curious about its connection to an old family scandal. He meets the new king, who’s a distant cousin, and the two are nearly identical. When the king gets poisoned the night before the coronation, Rudolf takes his place to keep the throne from going to a popular rival. And then there are hijinks.

The Prisoner of Zenda, illustration by Charles Dana Gibson“God save the King!”

Old Sapt’s mouth wrinkled into a smile.

“God save ’em both!” he whispered.

It’s got everything I look for in an adventure novel: sword fights, romance, double-crosses, a scene-stealing villain, snappy dialogue, and more sword fights. There’s some depth to it too, though. Rudolf faces down most of the temptations of ruling a nation, but another character is forced to remind him that he isn’t the only one with a duty to fulfill. And while he overcomes a lot of obstacles by being brave, smart, or good at stabbing things, the bad guys still might have won if they hadn’t completely misjudged Rudolf’s motives.

Since Rudolf is a first-person protagonist, we get this great balance of bravado and vulnerability from him. He’s risking a lot for a man he just met, and some of the king’s critics have valid concerns about his rule. But Rudolf begins the book by telling his sister in law that “to a man of spirit… opportunities are duties.” He’s the only person with a chance at making things right, and if he fails, the princess he’s fallen for will be forced to marry a traitor.

I can’t say a thing about the ending without spoiling it, although to me it felt like things wrapped up in the only way they could.

zenda cover

I have a beautiful old copy with illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson, but you can get The Prisoner of Zenda for free in various ebook formats.

The sequel is a little trickier, but I’m totally in love with that one too. I’ll explain why once I’ve had a chance to read it again.

Five Reading Tips for Writers

In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between my reading habit and my writing. Here are some tips for others who may be interested in doing the same thing.

1. Review The Books You Read

I review at least half of what I read, preferably right after finishing the book. Going over my reactions (and poking at the reasons for them) has been a big help when thinking about my own work, especially in terms of characterization and structure. I know a lot of folks love Goodreads for this, but I often feel more comfortable being candid with my journal.

2. Copy Out Passages That You Love

If a short passage from a book really hooks me, I write it into a small notebook along with the title, author, and a page reference in case I want to find it again. I tend to pick vivid descriptions, snappy dialogue, and bits of exposition that reveal character traits in a compelling way. Flipping through those writing samples always perks me up when I’m feeling uninspired.

3. Keep Track of Good Words

I often use index cards or receipts as bookmarks because they double as scratch paper to write down any great words I come across while reading. (There’s a highlight feature on my Kindle that’s also perfect for this.) When I finish the book, I copy the particularly evocative or useful words into my journal.

4. Vary Your Reading

Since I’m writing a sci-fi novel right now I read plenty of genre stories, but I also like a wide variety of other books. Histories and biographies can be especially great for generating ideas. Reading outside my usual range helps me learn about style and structure, and it’s also lead to some new-to-me author obsessions.

5. Read Out Loud

I often read my own work aloud when I’m struggling with a scene, but it’s also a useful thing to do with other books. Reading the occasional passage out loud forces me to slow down and pay closer attention to the flow of the language. It also shifts my focus from the events of a story to the way they’re being expressed, which can change my whole perspective.

If you’ve got any reading tips that can help the writing process, please share them in the comments! I’m always looking for new things to try.

Horror Stories You Can Read Online

If you’re looking for something to get you in the Halloween spirit before this weekend’s round of costume parties and horror movie marathons, try one of these:

The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allan Poe
I love the tight focus and the thoroughly cold-blooded narrator, and I’ve always wondered what Fortunato did to provoke such a drastic reaction.

The Yellow Wall Paper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I like this story best when I imagine that the ending wasn’t inevitable, that things would have gone differently if only anyone had listened. Point-of-view madness makes it the scariest one of the bunch.

The Mask, by Robert W. Chambers
Art and alchemy have tragic effects on a love triangle. This one went in a different direction than I expected, but my inner mean person wishes it had ended a little sooner.

The Haunter of the Ring, by Robert E. Howard
After a meeting with friends provokes a strange reaction, one of the characters explains that he’s afraid of an inherited curse. This story hooked me quick and kept the twists coming.

For maximum effectiveness, be sure to read these in a dark room during a thunderstorm.