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Writer, Pace Thyself

I bet you thought this post was going to be about story pacing. Not quite. But it is about learning your limits and working within them.

I’ve discovered the importance of pacing myself over the last couple of weeks. And unfortunately, I tend to be one of those people who learns the hard way. The painful way. This was brought home in an unexpected way. 

After many years of doing nothing more than breaking into an occasional jog (and that was on the back of a horse), I decided to take up running again. So in December, I started the couch-to-5k plan (which I highly recommend, by the way). I made it through the whole program and thought I was on the road to the old me again. I’d worked my way up to four miles on the treadmill, and then started running outside in my neighborhood (which has several fairly steep hills). I still felt great. Then a friend of mine asked me to start walking with her. “Sure,” I said, thinking that if a little exercise was good, a lot must be…well you get the picture. Remember, I have problems pacing myself.

We got right to work, walking four miles a day on the same hilly path I’d been running on (and yes, I was still running three days a week in addition to the daily walking). Gradually, I noticed one of my ankles had started aching. Hmm…must be arthritis. I’m getting to that age, after all. I popped some ibuprofen and kept on going. For about three more weeks. Then I realized something really was wrong. My ankle was not only hurting most of the time, it was now swelling as well. My husband advised me to dial it back. Huh! What does he know? Evidently more than I did. He talked me into going to a doctor where an ultrasound revealed I had posterior tibial tendonitis. Dead stop. No running. No walking. Ten sessions of physical therapy. Only then could I gradually start exercising again. Do too much too soon, and it would flare right back up. I went from a crazy pace I thought I could sustain indefinitely to realizing my body has its limits, and I’d better learn to respect them.

So what does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit actually. Because I find myself doing the same kind of thing: writing like crazy, followed by weeks of inactivity. I’m learning that, like my running, I have to pace myself or risk burning out. So here’s what I’m trying to do.

  1. Enjoy the process. Like with running, I need to stop the craziness and savor each page I write. I know that’s easier said than done when I’m anxious to get a manuscript out the door or have a deadline looming. I had five books out this past year, and I was really stressed from the hectic pace. For some people it might not be an issue, but it was for me. Tendonitis is no fun, whether it’s in my ankle or in my brain (figuratively speaking).
  2. Be true to myself. Realize that my pace is not someone else’s. Trying to pack myself into another person’s mold or follow their exact routine can make for an exhausting, unfulfilling career. Have you ever seen someone with short, stubby legs (that would be me) try to keep up with the long, lithe strides of a person who’s six feet tall? Not going to happen. I have to set a pace that’s right for me.
  3. Embrace my inner plotter/pantser. Are you a pantser? Then spending weeks trying to plot every last detail of a book could make you miserable or worse, cause you to throw in the towel. For some people, once that detailed outline is complete, so is the story in their minds. The joy of discovery is gone, and along with it, the motivation to write the actual book. Are you a plotter? Deciding to use the stream-of-consciousness, let-the-words-flow method could wind up putting you in a corner, curled in a fetal position. Yes, try different things and use what works, but don’t feel like a failure if any one method doesn’t fit your personality.
  4. Hope for the best, anticipate the worst. The idea that “Oh, I’ll get so much more writing done if I…” Hmmm…really? My days somehow fill up with “stuff,” no matter what I do. I recently said once my kids went back to school, I’d really get moving and crank out those pages. I’m finding that I’m getting roughly the same number of pages done now that I did when I was busy with other things. Looming deadlines tend to get me moving, more than anything. That may not be true for everyone, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get a hundred pages written on any given day. Refer back to point number one: enjoy the process.
  5. Finally, “Learn to love the skin you’re in.” I bet that slogan sounds familiar. There’s a truth to those words in everything you do, whether it’s running, writing or something else. Find your pace…your process…your method, and learn to love it. 

Have you found your writing pace? If so, I’d love to know how you got there.

34 responses to “Writer, Pace Thyself”

  1. Gwyn says:

    Fabulous post, Tina! I’m an all or nothing type of writer; when I’m ‘in the story’, I’m writing to the exclusion of everything else. The story prods me out of bed after only a few hours sleep, nags me when I’m cooking, chafes and irritates until I either give in or wrestle it into submission and lock it away. Once it’s locked away, however, the key tends to get lost. I know what’s coming once I find it, so often don’t even bother to look despite the pounding on the door and the muted whimpers and wails. What I do keep trying to find is a better way, but so far, no luck.

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    • Gwen, I think your process may be the same as mine. I’ll write like crazy for a period of time, kind of like a water spigot stuck in the on position. Once it’s off, though, it’s really hard to twist that handle and start the flow back up again.

      I just wish my faucet were a little more controllable. 😉

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  2. Eek! My comment just got eaten by internet gremlins… I’ll start again. 🙂

    I’m sorry about the ankle injury, Tina. I hope you’ll soon be well enough to build up to 5K again and get that runner’s high.

    I find slow and steady (or just steady) is working for me now. I was considering NaNo again this year, but I’ve decided the pace is too frenetic. The goal I set after reading Anne Marie Becker’s post last week was at least 650 words a day till Dec 31, starting on Monday. Three months to write a book is still fairly respectable, I reckon!

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    • Vanessa, hugs on those gremlins, I seem to be battling those constantly. Usually after I’ve typed up a nice long post!

      Steady is where I want to be–it’s my ideal. And I’ve done NaNo for years, maybe that’s part of my broken on/off switch (or maybe that broken switch is why I like NaNo so much, lol).

      Thanks for the good thoughts about my ankle. Hubby is out of town, and so I snuck in a quick 1.25 mile run (around 2K) yesterday on my treadmill. Yeah, I’ll never learn. On the bright side, ,while my ankle twinged right afterward, I iced it right down and it didn’t swell at all last night. I’m finding if I don’t run, though, I eat. A lot. Switching one vice for another, I supposed. 😉

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  3. Rita Henuber says:

    Owie on the ankle. Take care of yourself.
    What you are saying is very important. It’s information that hasn’t been imparted recently to the new author.
    My pace very much mirrors yours. Writing what I love and doing it for myself has been my biggest advance in progress. What I write isn’t going to trip everyone’s trigger. It trips mine. *grin* If I don’t write one day it’s okay. The next day I am so eager to get back, I’m happy to sit at the computer.

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    • Yep, Rita. This! If I didn’t love what I was writing, I’d have a hard time sustaining any pace at all. That’s something I didn’t say in the list above, but it really should be on there. You’ll be much more likely to maintain your pace if you’re passionate about what you’re writing–as in the genre, subject matter etc. Thanks for this. And it’s obvious you love what you write, because you’re awesome at it! Can’t wait to read your newest release!

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  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    So sorry about your ankle, Tina!

    Dealing with chronic health problems and burning out in a job have taught me the value of slow and steady, of balance and equilibrium, of planning and schedule. It’s the way I live, and the way I write. Some might find my approach disgustingly regimented, but it keeps me on an even keel, which is essential for my health. I have to live work/life balance, not give it lip service.

    So, my writing time is scheduled, too. I write a couple of hours every day, first thing in the morning before work, when my mental and physical energy is at its best. And I’m a slow writer; it takes me a long time to finish a book and I release one book per year. I know this is the way it has to be for me, but I must admit that I occasionally look up from my path on the Tortoise Track and envy my more hare-like sisters their productivity. 😉

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    • Hey Tamara, look who came out ahead in that tortoise/hare race. 😉

      My books are quite a bit shorter than yours (well, my romantic suspense is a bit longer than my Harlequins), so I should be able to do four books a year. I’m just a stickler for getting things done waaaay ahead of time, which is where the stress comes in.

      I have a prolapsed mitral valve with regurgitation that is a chronic problem. I have to have it monitored yearly, etc. I have palpitations that actually get worse if I haven’t exercised in a while. So it’s a good incentive to keep to some kind of regimen.

      Your approach of balance sounds wonderful. It’s amazing how our bodies can give us those warning signs that we’d better heed.

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  5. Liz Talley says:

    Hmmm…sounds like we were learning the same lessons, but mines a little different. My back! Ack! Sitting too long and too often in the chair. I’m not moving enough because I don’t work like a spigot, I’m a slow drip, writing everyday and then doing my writerly duty and promoing, twittering, FBing, blogging and generally wasting time on the computer the rest of the time. I’ve had to relearn how important it is to get up and move.

    So, yeah, I’m thinking more about my health and trying to limit the amount of time I spend in chair.

    As for my writing, I have weekly goals and I get them done by writing every day. I call it my job, so I treat it that way…even if I’m in my jammies. Now, I’m just intensifying the actual writing time and limiting my “playing” time.

    Good post and a good reminder that pacing is important 🙂

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    • It sounds like you’ve found your pace, Liz!! Congratulations! Yikes on the back pain, though. I just bought an old sewing machine cabinet to use as a writing desk. It’s one of those really old-fashioned types with a manual metal pedal underneath. I’m ending up sitting kind of sideways because I feel funny resting my feet on the pedal (because it makes a wheel on the side turn). So I think I’m going to have to use it stricty as decoration and go back to my old desk for writing.

      And way to go on writing every single day. That’s my goal. My process right now is getting the job done, but it’s not ideal and not how I’d like to write long term. And ACK on the promo stuff. My editor would cringe if she knew how little actual promo I do. I play around on facebook and post a book cover or two periodically. I know I should do more–it comes with the job. Hope she’s not reading this. 😉

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  6. Ouch! I hope you’re back out there again real soon and at your own pace.

    This is a great post! Everyone has a totally different process and what works for me is not going to work for everyone.

    I’m a hybrid. Detail plotting make my mind shudder and not knowing what’s around the corner is frustrating. I usually review my last scenes at night when I’m lying in bed waiting for DH to finish his shower routine, and, as I close my eyes, I’m thinking about the next scene. Often, I grab my pen flashlight and start making notes. These notes help jump start my writing, especially on days like today, when I don’t get to my desk until other priorities are taken care of.

    Writing for you is also a gem. And not worrying who is doing what is another.

    AJ another turtle who stops and smells the flowers along the way.

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    • Autumn, I think I’m a hybrid as well. I do up an outline once I’ve written the first three or four chapters, but I normally end up veering away from it. But at least it’s there as a cushion so I’m not biting my fingernails wondering what to write next. It also helps me kind of work through the conflict and see if it can sustain the book.

      I love your flashlight idea. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in bed unable to sleep because plot ideas are rattling around in my head. In the morning, though, I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I thought about the night before. It drives me crazy. Hmmm…maybe I can get one of those miner-type head lamps. 😀

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  7. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I’m trying to learn what my pace is.

    I have to have a book written by March 1. That’s never happened to me before. My previous manuscripts were of the “it’s done when it’s done” variety. I could write skip a week if I wanted. Now, I’m forcing myself to write some each day. It doesn’t feel quite natural yet, but I’m hanging in there.

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    • Me either, Beth. I feel like I’m still learning as well. I’m a little bit afraid that this gush/drought contrast is what my natural process is. Oh, I hope not. Once I sold my first book, I’ve had delivery dates built into my contract for every subsequent one. So they have to get done, somehow.

      At least you’re learning to write every day. I actually feel better when I do that (which is why it frustrates me when I go back to my old habits). I have a book due the end of November. I’m hoping to have it done in October, but the weeks seem to be flying by. Hugs and some serious hand-holding for your March deadline. Sounds like you’re well on your way to meeting it!

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  8. Elisa Beatty says:

    Ouch, ouch, ouch on the ankle, Tina!!! (Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay as indestructible as we were as little kids? Aside from the occasional skinned knee, kids seem to bounce back from everything.)

    I do need to find some sort of pace…just regular writing time would be good. I’ve bitten off FAR more than I can chew at work this year, so finding any time to write is going to be tough between now and February. Aargh. Still, I’m determined to do NaNo.

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    • Elisa, yes I do miss that younger, bouncier me! Especially at times like this.

      Hugs on the schedule. I don’t know how on earth you keep up with all the things you do! And I’m right there with you on NaNo. It seems to be an obsession with me. I’m even trying to get my current book done just so I can start with a clean slate.

      Here’s hoping your schedule eases up a bit so you can find more time to write!

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  9. Good reminder, Tina. I have a hard time pacing myself. After publishing five books in seven months and spending 16 hours a day with my butt glued to the chair, my health has declined. A few weeks ago, I realized I needed to get some balance back in my life, so I joined a gym and have been going five days a week. I’m already feeling a lot better. It’s amazing the things we let our compulsions do to us.

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    • Five books in seven months? Laurie that is amazing!! I thought *I* was spending a lot of time in the chair at 6 or 7 hours a day (too much of that time is internet time, admittedly).

      Go you on the gym membership. I do feel better when I’m moving my body. Okay, so I normally feel better AFTER I’ve moved my body and the hard part is over with, lol! While I’m doing it, all I can think about is when I can stop. But either way, it gets the job done.

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  10. June Love says:

    Tina, sorry for the ankle issue. I learned the hard way, too. Plantar fasciitis. Yep. Kept thinking if I continued walking it would eventually get better. The pain is what made me go to the doctor.

    Pacing yourself is so important, and your post is fantastic. My goal is to be steady. Treat each writing day as a job. However, right now, I try and grab time to write when I can. Yesterday was a great writing day. Today, other things demanded my attention. I do find when I write every day the words come a little easier. The story stays on mind a little more, too. Out of sight, out of mind isn’t a good thing when it comes to my writing.

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    • Ouch on the plantar fasciitis (wow, that’s quite the word to write). My hubby had a heel spur, and it hurt like the dickens, he said. He had to wear this boot at night that flexed his foot. It evidently worked because it’s better now. Whenever it flares up, he sleeps with his foot pressed tight against the footboard, because it mimics how the boot flexed his foot.

      And great point on the out of sight, out of mind thing. I think that’s why it’s so hard for me to get writing again after weeks of being away from the story. I can’t “feel” my characters anymore, if that makes sense. So I have to read back over several chapters to get back in sync with the story. If I could only write more consistently… Oh, and yay on your great writing day yesterday!

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  11. Vivi Andrews says:

    Ugh! Sorry to hear about your ankles!

    I’m a binge writer, so my pace is Full Speed Ahead until I finish and then I collapse in a puddle for a few days or weeks until the next binge. Not for everyone, but for me it’s the only way to go. Now back to the ms!

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    • Oh, Vivi, I’m definitely a binge writer too. And if that momentum would carry me through to the end of a book, I’d be thrilled to call that my process and be done with it. My problem is I’ll go at the beginning of the book until about chapter four with gusto–you couldn’t stop me if you tried.
      I can also power through the last four chapters as well. It’s that middle portion that gets me. I haven’t quite gotten the hang of Hope’s writing-to-the-middle advice–which I really believe is the key for me. Someday, though, I’ll get there.

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  12. Kate Parker says:

    Tina, sorry about the ankle. I have a knee I’m trying to rebuild, so I can relate.

    And I hear you about loving what you write. I do, and I find I have to write every day. I can’t go all out for any length of time, but the next day I’m at it again.

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    • Hugs on the knee, Kate. It seems our legs fall apart faster than the rest of us, doesn’t it. When your knee is all healed, I hope it’s “better than it was before. Better. Stronger. Faster” (ten points if you can guess what that’s from–and yes, I’m really dating myself, lol). Seriously, coddle that knee a little bit, and it’ll come around.

      And I’m so glad you’re writing what you love AND that you’ve got your process down so well. Yay!

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  13. I posted a comment and it didn’t show up. Oh no! I’ve been marked as spam! I don’t even like Spam that much. The smoked is okay.

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  14. Kristina Mathews says:

    Tina,
    Sorry about the ankle injury. I admire people who run. Have no desire to join them, though.

    I have to say, I do better writing everyday. I credit the Winter Writing Festival for helping me establish that routine. I find if I write about 1,000-2,000 words a day, I can keep the story going in the write direction. I mean, right direction. (Subconscious, not intentional typo). I’ve tried NaNo and Fast Draft but they don’t work for me. I have had some success with 1Kin1Hr, and then going back over what I wrote.

    Hopefully by the next RSSWWF I will have finished this one and it will find a home so I can start working on the next one.

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    • Hi Kristina! So very happy that the WWF was a help. I’m really looking forward to that again this year. I’m determined to participate in the sprints this year, unlike last year, when I was maxed out.

      And yes, writing every day would be my ideal as well. I hope to one day get there (and I’m better now than I was two years ago). Good for you finding that balance!

      Sending good thoughts that you’ll finish this manuscript and move right on to the next one. And that you find homes for all of them, of course!

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  15. This really hit home for me. I’m just now starting back on my regular workouts after an overuse injury to my right ankle (if three miles is good, five must be better!). And I’ve been writing like mad until, the more I worked, the less I got done. So, I read a bunch of books. Took the kids to Disney. Now, I’ve got to get back to it and see if I can figure out how to pace myself.

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    • Julia, sounds you’re learning the exact same lessons as I am. So sorry about your ankle. Believe me…I know how it feels. I think stopping for a while can also help recharge your batteries and get you ready for a more balanced approach (says one who hasn’t quite made it there yet). 😉

      Oh and as for the workouts…I did a very gentle mile and a half run on the treadmill today, and the ankle held steady. No swelling tonight. Yay! Hope you’re well on your way to mending as well!

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