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I’ve been working as a fiction writer from home for the past two years, and many times, when I tell people what I do for a living, I get this reaction: “I could never work from home. I don’t have the discipline.” The truth is that successfully working from home does require discipline. It’s been my experience that this discipline doesn’t come naturally. It took me a year to get my priorities straight and to find an effective work rhythm. Below are some practices that have helped me along the way.

Please understand that everyone’s work experiences will vary. What works for me may not work for you, and you might come up with tips that I haven’t discovered yet. Feel free to leave those in the comments. Also, working from home isn’t for everyone. Some people enjoy going to a place of work, and they are better producers in that environment.

If you do work from home, then I hope you find these tips to be helpful:

1) Be social. One of the greatest challenges that I face at home is not having colleagues to interact with on a daily basis. For me, social media has been a great solution to this problem, specifically Twitter. I’ve formed and maintained relationships with several people through Twitter. I’ve found that mindfully communicating with about 100 users, as opposed to trying to reach out to all 1.3K of the folks I follow, has helped me to share information, stay informed, and improve my craft.

As great as social media can be, I also strongly suggest meeting up with friends in person. Over the past two years, I’ve identified other people in my life who have flexible schedules. I schedule at least two in-person lunches or coffee dates with these friends during the week. I’m always amazed by how these appointments energize me and push me to hustle to meet my work goals.

2) Break the silence. Some people like to listen to music when they work, and that’s fine. I, however, need silence in order to write effectively. As much as I appreciate and love silence, I find that I grow weary of it over time. To combat this silence overload, I sometimes listen to classical (or lyric-less) music while I work on less mentally demanding tasks, such as checking email or cooking a meal. I also listen to podcasts when I work out or take an extended break. My favorite podcasts are those that stimulate my thinking, such as The Accidental Creative, TED Radio Hour, and Ravi Zacharias’ “Just Thinking.” I also sometimes listen to audio books and short stories.

3) Set a daily work goal. First, determine what a full day’s work looks like for you. Take an 8 hour chunk of time and just work. During this stretch, take a 5-10 minute break every hour, and a 30-45 minute lunch. The work that you accomplish during these 8 hours is your work goal for an ideal day’s work. Going forward, if you meet this goal or can come within 80% of completion, then you’ve put in a full day’s work. If you meet half of this goal, then you’ve worked a half day. Sometimes, you will have other tasks and activities and will only be able to partially meet your goal, which is okay. If you worked at an office, you would sometimes work half or partial days on account of meetings and/or other scheduled events. In general, since you don’t work at an office, try to hold yourself to a full day’s work.

4) Periodically reassess your daily goal. The more time you spend working from home, the more effective you will–hopefully–become at accomplishing your work. Every few months or so, reassess how much work you’re capable of completing in 8 hours. You will probably find that you’ll be able to up your workload as time passes. Either that, or you’ll affirm where your limits are and strive to maintain them.

5) Exercise your body. Yes, get up and do something physical. Walk, jog, swim, dance, lift weights, train on the elliptical, take a Pilates class–whatever gets you moving. Do it! I like to workout for 45-60 minutes, 4-5 times per week. At minimum, aim for 30 minutes, 3-4 times a week. An oxygenated brain is sharper and healthier than one that doesn’t get oxygenated. Not to mention, the kinesthetic break helps your brain to reset for your work tasks.

6) Structure your day. Understand that even in an office setting, you probably wouldn’t be off in a corner working for 8 hours straight. Shape your day by incorporating short, regular breaks, and treating yourself to a longer lunch break when you need to refuel. The key to structure is balance. Don’t work for too long without taking a break, but also don’t break from your work for too long.

You might try breaking up your daily work goal into chunks that can be accomplished in 1-2 hour intervals, and take small breaks afar completing each chunk. Everyone will structure his or her day differently. Some people have a more freestyle approach to structure, knowing what tasks they need to accomplish and squeezing them in as they can. Do whatever works for you, but be sure that your structure fuels your work. Ineffective structure can create a false sense of accomplishment that will ultimately leave you short of your daily goal.

7) Exercise your mind. In addition to exercising my mind by listening to podcasts on breaks, I enjoy reading the news and following various blogs on a daily basis. I have found that taking 30-60 minutes to do this every morning refreshes and energizes my mind before setting out to hammer out my word count. I also like to always be reading a book, and I aim to complete one book ever 1-2 weeks.

8) Enjoy the perks. When you work from home, you lose the perks of working in the office, like having colleagues, attending work events, having a set schedule, and having a boss. Yes, having boss can be a perk, especially to people who thrive when someone holds them accountable for their tasks. When you work from home, however, you gain other benefits, like skipping the morning commute, working in your pajamas, having access to your kitchen, petting the cat, having a flexible schedule, being able to squeeze in domestic duties during breaks.

Don’t let the perks detract from your work, but rather appreciate these perks, and use them to nourish your work. For me, getting to work in my bathrobe is one of my favorite perks. My robe makes me feel warm and comfortable, and it settles my mind so I can create more effectively. On some days, however, I need to wear my regular clothes because the comfort of my robe can be too distracting, particularly if I’ve suffered from a poor night’s sleep.

9) Get out of the house. By the time my husband comes home from work, he just wants to sit on the couch and relax at home. I, having been in the house all day, sometimes want to get out. I’ve found that getting out during the day helps me to strike a balance here. I might go to the gym, rather than workout from home, or I might run out for groceries on one of my longer breaks. Physical distance from the workplace can be quite energizing, but when I’m out, I almost always have to fight the temptation to leave my work behind for too long. I like to stop and ask myself, if I had a boss, would she approve of me taking time from work to complete the task I’m doing?

10) Respect your workday. When I first started working from home, I dove into all kinds of volunteer work and offered myself freely to friends in need of personal favors. As important as it was for me to help others, I quickly realized that I wasn’t getting my work done. I was frustrated that others weren’t respecting my time, but the truth is that I wasn’t respecting my time. I’d ignored the schedule component of my flexible schedule.

Once I learned to respect my time, I began to schedule volunteer activities for evenings and weekends, just like I would if I were working at an office. I also began to limit my personal favors to emergency situations only. If a friend can hire someone else to complete the task she’s asking me to do, then she might just need to do that. Also, if my friend wouldn’t dream of asking someone who goes to a physical place of work to complete the same task, then why is she asking me? Yes, I work from home, but I do work. At first, it was difficult for me to not take offense to personal requests, but as I learned how to respond to these requests–kindly yet firmly–I became less frustrated.

As per emergency situations, I’ve come to define a true emergency as a special situation that can’t be planned for ahead of time. Emergencies happen, but not nearly as frequently as some might imagine. Exercise your best judgment when trying to distinguish between true emergencies and situations that can be managed without your assistance.

Basically, effectively working from home comes down to finding out what works for your work, and sticking to that. Producing good work from home is a struggle, that I can guarantee. I can also guarantee that the struggle is worthwhile. For me, it’s astoundingly rewarding to meet my daily mark, while also having a home cooked meal ready for my husband.

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I remember fondly learning about the Freytag Pyramid in elementary school English. The pyramid was a great introduction to my understanding of plot and climax, but as I got older, and the stories that I read became more complex, I discovered that this neat little pyramid just didn’t cut it. But through college, my lessons on plot never seemed to present anything different. Even recently, I attended a presentation in which the pyramid was brought up by industry professionals when discussing plot. That’s when I began to seek out some other analogy that would help me to better understand plot structure. 

I love a good roller coaster as much as I love a good book, and just this weekend it hit as to why that might be. Both roller coasters and (many) books are structured to give those who dare to enter a thrilling ride. I’m generalizing here, and I’m well aware that not all books and roller coasters are created equal. But for many books, I think that a roller coaster may be a more relevant analogy for plot than is the old pyramid. 

For those of you who might be scratching your heads when I mention the Freytag Pyramid, here’s an illustration of what I mean. In a nutshell, pyramid plot structure dictates that the story should begin in a state of normalcy, become complicated and conflicted, rise to a climax, and then return to a changed or renewed state of normalcy. I love this pyramid explanation of plot, and I think it’s a great way to get novice readers and writers to understand structure.

But I think a roller coaster is a more appropriate analogy for novels, especially the high concept ones. Here’s why: A roller coaster usually has more than one peak, or pyramid, if you will. I can’t think of any novel that I’ve recently read that didn’t have multiple climaxes. Yes, many stories contain a single major climax, or pyramid peak, that encompasses all of the others, but there are other climaxes.

In this way, each drop of a roller coaster is its own pyramid. Notice how many roller coasters begin with a huge drop. In stories, this first major drop is the first major incident in the novel. It’s the event that turns the main character’s world upside down. It’s the event that sets the tone and the course of action in motion for the rest of the story. In many ways, this first event is like that first gut-wrenching drop of a roller coaster ride. As a friend pointed out, this biggest drop should actually come at the end of the story. As you can see, just as roller coasters are limited by the laws of physic, this analogy has its limitations.

Secondly, roller coasters, like stories, contain loops–events that literally reverse the events of the story. These loops are the moments at which the reader realizes that a certain character isn’t who she said she was, or those moments at which the main character is set back on his or her journey. We could say the same of twists, too. Story twists, like roller coaster twists, throw unexpected motion into the plot.

Thirdly, many roller coasters have a big drop or surprise toward the end. In stories, this final surprise is the main character’s final obstacle. Oftentimes, this obstacle is surprising and unexpected. For instance, it’s when the villain who we thought was killed comes back to life, grabs his gun, and aims it one last time at the hero. Good stories, like good roller coasters, save this thrill for the end, executing it at the moment at which the audience least expects it.

And finally, a good roller coaster will gently drop you off at the exit, unharmed, but changed and exhilarated. Isn’t that just how a good story should leave you off? 

This roller coaster analogy is particularly helpful to me when I think of my role as a writer. I’m an engineer, a job title that is a lot easier for me to understand than “pyramid builder.” I guess writers are pyramid builders to some degree, setting our stories into place one brick at a time, but when I think of myself as a roller coaster “engineer” I can visualize my role better. I can see the design. I can feel the weight of responsibility in building my tracks properly. I can almost hear the screams and can picture the thrilled looks on my riders’ faces. As a story engineer, I understand better what it means to gain my readers’ trust while leading them through a perilous journey that makes harrowing amusement park lines well worth the wait.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all misjudged someone at some point in our lives. Fact: I have. Yes, I’m sorry. Yes, I’ll try not to do it again.

As a writer, I’ve also been on the receiving end of several misjudgments, five of which I’ve listed below. If you’re writer, then I hope you can laugh at this list. If you’re a friend of a writer, then please bring your sense of humor along and read the list below. Hopefully, it will help you to avoid saying or implying any of the statements below to your writer friends.

1) “You’ve been trying to publish your book for years. Maybe it’s time to do something else with your life.” Let’s breathe some perspective into this statement. Many bestselling novelists spend years, sometimes decades, shopping their books before a publisher takes interest. Yes, some writers break into the market right away, but many many many others have to tough it out. Bear in mind the nature of the product that writers are selling–books. I don’t know about anyone else, but it usually takes me 3-10 days to read a book, shorter if I have a day off and nothing to do but read.

When writers query agents and editors, we’re asking our recipients to take several minutes, sometimes hours, out of their obscenely busy lives to sit down and read our book. Bottom line: Sales in the publishing industry move slowly. Books take eons to write, eons to sell, eons to edit, and eons to get read and reviewed. That’s a lot of eons.

2) “You should stop complaining about your rejections. Think positively.”  Writers talk about their rejections because they learn about the market through those rejections. We hear “no” a lot, and each “no” helps us to get closer to “yes.” Sometimes we need to talk through those “no’s.” For writers, “no” isn’t always a bad thing. It hurts to hear it so much, but it helps us in the long run. Thanks for listening as we talk through the pain.

3) “I read your first draft. It was bad. Your book will never get published.” Writers sometimes get overly excited when they finish a project, and they want nothing more than to share that project with their friends and family. But, alas, they oftentimes end up sharing early drafts, and these tend to be raw and in need of polishing. Good writers will rewrite their drafts, but sadly, their friends may forever have the early versions burned into their minds. We’re sorry. Please don’t judge us by our drafts.

4) “I’ve heard freelance writers actually make money for what they write. You should give that a try. ” Freelance writing is a legitimate life pursuit, but telling a fiction writer that s/he should try to freelance is like telling a neurosurgeon that he should quit his job and take up aerospace engineering. Okay, my analogy isn’t exactly balanced, and some fiction writers actually do freelance on the side. But many times, success in either of these fields requires complete dedication to one or the other, not a part-time dedication to both.

5) “Writing, that sounds like a fun hobby, but don’t you think it’s time to get a real job?” Non-writers, kindly lock yourselves inside a room, one that has a bathroom in it, and generate 2-5K words a day from nothing but your God-given imagination. Then, come out of that room when you hit 80K words, but only for a day. After this day of freedom, return to your room and edit all 80K words into a sensical novel. When you have something sensical in hand, I’ll ask you if you still think that writing is a hobby. I’m not a psychic, but I’m pretty sure I already know what you’re going to say.

The list goes on, but I’ll stop there. Yes, people have actually said, or strongly implied, these statements to my face. No, I’m not mad at them, and I hope they’re not mad at me for the–many–silly things I’ve said over the years. And just so I’m crystal clear on this, I love my non-writer friends. I need them. I hug them. I love them, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

Writing is one of the few professions out there in which rejection is an everyday–and sometimes every minute–occurrence. I figure that’s the tradeoff for getting to spend your days cozied up to a computer, tapping out tales. If that’s the case, then I’ll take my rejection and eat it too. But I’ve still got to deal with it. All writers do. The question is, How?

I hear lots of writers say that you’ve got to be thick-skinned to endure the deluge of rejection that litters your manuscript’s journey from hard drive to hard cover. I agree, as long as thick skinned means resilient. All too often, thick skin gets confused with a hard heart. That is, writers become so “tough” that they’re hearts become hard and they grow cynical. Cynicism takes many forms, like anger toward agents, a complete lack of faith in the publishing industry, and the despairing belief that one will never get published. How do I know this? Let’s be real. I’ve been there, bought the t-shirt. But I had to overcome all of those thoughts–and many others–if I wanted to truly become rejection tough.

I’ve found that the key to becoming rejection tough is to to let the rejection sting and to push through the sting. I know, it sounds counterintuitive, to let yourself feel any degree of pain. But it’s this pain from rejection that keeps you humble and, if you allow, it pushes you deeper into your pursuit. When experiencing rejection heartache, it’s important not to wallow. And NEVER allow feelings of rejection to keep you from writing. Keep going, and trust that the pain will fade.

Basically, make like an olympic ice skater. When you fall, get up, and keep moving to the music. You can cry when the performance is over, but you better show up on time for practice the next day if you’re going to try for gold again.

Remember, a feeling heart is necessary for any form of artistic expression, and fiction writing is an artistic expression for many writers. You can’t, and shouldn’t turn your heart off, no matter how much rejection you experience. As paradoxical as it sounds, if you want to survive in this profession, you’ve to get strong and stay soft.

Also, keep in mind that you’re not alone in your rejection. Here is a list of some of the most initially rejected best selling books of all time. Some of these books have 100+ rejections! Imagine if these authors had stopped writing at rejection number 99.

Today, I presented on the topic of “Writing” to a few high school classes at a private school. It was a great experience, and I think I learned as much from the students as I hope they’ve learned from me.

Basically, I talked about my writing experiences over the years and shared some lessons I learned along the way. Here are my notes:

Writing is free…except for these four things:

1) Experience – The raw material of life and of writing.
2) Time – A precious resource that God gives to humans. Needed for all endeavors.
3) Inspiration – The spark, the structure, the feeling, the need, the pull, the drive.
4) Literacy – The practical skill necessary to write. Thank an English teacher today.

For success in life, you must write well.

To write well you must read…a lot.

How many times a day do you eat? Just as the body needs food to fuel its activities, your brain needs words and ideas to fuel the intellectual activity of writing. Library reading lists and websites like Goodreads are good starting points for finding books to read.

Also, you don’t always have to open a book to read. Product descriptions, internet articles, billboards, street signs, and instructions are everywhere. Read them! And also, do open a book, as books are generally more densely packed (nutrient rich) with words and ideas than are these other mediums.

To write well, you must know the rules.

The writing handbook: a necessary resource for learning the rules of writing. If you plan on doing any kind of writing, which you will all have to do…like today, get an up to date handbook, and read it cover to cover. Absorb it. Love it. Go back to it, over and over.

You can get free handbooks online, or you can find them at the library. I highly recommend buying one, if you can. Having the hardcopy in front of you will make you more likely to page through it.

P.S. Learning the rules and learning how to intentionally break them for impact are two entirely different things. Learn the rules first. I mean, really learn them. Perfect them. Then, we’ll talk about breaking them.

Recommended handbooks and online resources:
Rules for Writers, Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers (print handbook). Get the most up to date edition, and read the whole thing.

The Purdue Writing Lab Online (Owl) – A comprehensive, searchable handbook.

The Blue Book of Grammar Online – Online grammar rules and examples.

Grammar Bytes Online – Grammar Practice and Worksheets

To write well, you must observe and reflect well.

Observe. Notice everything. Look closely. “Listen” with all five senses. Research. Study. Explore. Fight the urge to judge. Trend spotting, pattern recognition, and generalizing based on observable truths are fine, but judgments tend to block observations. Visit this blog post for fun observation activities:

Reflect. Make sense of your observations. After an experience, research session, or observation, try to find the meaning. What truth(s), if any, did you learn? What’s significant or interesting about the things you noticed? Why? How have you changed? How has the way that you perceive life changed? Do you think of people differently? If so, how? Do you think of yourself differently? Have you learned anything about human behavior in general? Have you learned anything about how the world works or doesn’t work? How does this experience link to other experiences in your life? Are you seeing a bigger picture? A greater story?

Your reflections may change as you have more life experiences. You may not see the bigger picture for years and years and years. Also, you may not be able to reflect right after or during some experiences, especially if they are traumatic. If this is the case, then go back to observing. Reflect when you are ready.

A cool side note, maturity–true maturity–oftentimes turns negative reflections into positive ones. Time + Distance = Perspective. Perspective = Understanding. Understanding = The ability to see the positive in the negative. And you thought you’d never have to do math in English class. 😛

To write well, try keeping these principles and tips in mind:

Pre-writing and Writing Tips

1) Start with “F.” Revise to “A.”

2) Keep it simple.

3) Organize by paragraph. Make one point at a time, and give each point its own space.

4) Say the most with the least.

5) Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

6) Tell the truth.

7) Make a point. Make it interesting. Think.

8) Intent precedes content.

9) It takes roughly 10,000 hours to master a complex skill. Writing is a complex skill.

10) Know your subjects. Name them.

11) Watch your mouth. Pretend your subjects are listening in on what you’re writing about them.

12) Be consistent.

13) Use, but don’t overuse rhetorical devices to add flavor.

14) Appeal to the sense, all five of them if you can.

15) Value your reader’s time.

16) Value your own time.

17) Writing is a process. This process mimics the life process.

-Prewriting/Planning = Conception, fetal development, parent preparations

(nebulous, nervous, unknowing, anticipating)

-Rough Draft = Birth (exciting, raw, new, needy)

-Revision = Growth and maturity (painful pruning, talking back, fighting)

-Polished Draft = Mature young adult

-Publishing = Child leaving home to affect the world

Revising and Publishing Tips

1) Writing is rewriting.

2) Get to the point. When revising, look for where the essay or the point truly begins, and cut out everything before that. Try looking at the second or third sentence of each paragraph, as oftentimes, that sentence is your topic sentence, and the ones before it can be cut.

3) Stick to the point. Revise by premise or thesis. Premise = the simplest statement of truth you are trying to convey. In fairytales and fiction, the premise is the moral of the story. In formal essays, the premise is the claim your paper sets out to prove. A thesis is a premise plus the main point(s) that the paper will address in order to validate the premise.

4) Make friends with your recycling bin, and feed it regularly with the garbage you are bound to write.

5) Humility is a lifelong pursuit. Pursue it. Your writing and your life will benefit.

6) Slay your darlings. Revisit the sentences, points, and paragraphs of which you are the proudest. You’ll most likely be deleting those.

7) Know your demons, both grammatical and logical. In addition to studying a handbook to help you overcome your grammatical issues, read up on logical fallacies, and identify the ones with which you struggle. Oversimplification and hasty generalizations are biggies for many students.

8) Listen to all criticism, but only respond to what’s going to improve your writing. 9) Discernment takes a lifetime to cultivate, and gaining it comes with experience.

10) You are the only 24-7 editor that you will ever have.

11) Learn from rejection. In the writing world, “no” means “not yet,” but it oftentimes feels like “never.”

12) The author is always responsible, even when she’s not.

13) Don’t depend on tutors, writers, teachers, editors, or friends to tell you how to improve your writing. These people can help you along the way, especially with larger projects, but in the end, the baby is yours.

14) Give it time. Let it sit (if life permits). Be patient. Time + Distance = Perspective.

15) When you think you’re done, you’re probably halfway there.

16) Forgive–yourself and others. Mistakes are inevitable in a fallen world.

Fiction Specific:
1) Reveal the least amount of information with the most amount of intrigue.

2) Character growth is not limited to the page. Remember, you are a character in God’s story. As your own character grows, your characters on the page will grow.

3) Study story structure and character types (archetypes). To help with this, read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

4) When creating characters, blend archetypes for complexity.

5) Make each character likeable and detestable in at least one way.

6) Enter late. Leave early.

To write well, you must write. Enjoy it.

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to write for enjoyment. Ideally, the more you enjoy something, the better you’ll want to become at it. Journaling can be a fun way to practice writing.

You may keep one or several journals to capture life moments and reflections. You can also publish your journal online via a blog. WordPress and Blogger are websites that will host your blog for free.

Types of Journals
-Birthday (Family, individual)
-Time Capsule Journal
-Favorite Quotations/Quotable Moments
-Inventions and ideas
-Travel Journal
-Food Journal
-Diet and Exercise
-Daily activity log
-Daily Journal (with reflection)
-Prayer Journal
-Sermon notes
-Reading Journal
-Major Milestones (getting license, graduation, first day of college, wedding…)
-Freestyle Journal
-Creative Writing Journal
-Gratitude Journal
-Friendship Journal
-Hobby Journal: recipe/cooking, craft, music, movie, sports, shopping, photography
-Finance Journal
-Current Events Journal

Structure your journal entries to promote both observation and reflection.

-Use headings to encourage consistency.

-Sample Heading Sections:
-Date, time, place, event, speaker, occasion, theme. *Always date your entries! Dates help when it comes time to reflect.
-List of Important people or characters
– Key events or summary of what happened
-Thoughts and feelings before, during, and after key events
-Memorable moments (quotes, life lessons, realizations, funny observations)
-Changes, developments, or differences when compared to the last event
-Sensory details that stuck out to you

Allow yourself to deviate from the structure when necessary.

Give yourself space and time for spontaneous thoughts. Creating a “miscellaneous” or “notes” section can help you to do this.

To write well, you must write now.
Write down everything you remember from the presentation. Stick to observable details, what was said, what you heard, visuals, etc.

Now, reflect. Write down your gut reactions. What did you get out of the lesson? How will you use the information you learned? Did you find it useful? Why or why not? What are your feelings about the topics presented? Be honest. Your reflections can be positive, negative, or both. Remember, reflections change with time. Your reflections today might change as you mature, learn more, and experience more.