Give Me Leave or Give Me Burnout

This is my partner cat, being helpful and giving me advice on my line edits. Never mind that Stephanie Draven’s website is up on the screen. A girl can take a break now and again.

In fact, that’s my topic today in the How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer series: time off.

I see a lot of writers on the internet saying things like this:

“It’s Saturday and the family is off to the park, but there are no weekends for writers.”

“Writers don’t get vacations.”

“It might be midnight, but I’m working because writers don’t have timeclocks.”

I’m sure you’ve seen it, too. Now, a lot of this is just toss-off stuff. People who are under deadline babble about all kinds of things. They’re kind of like the drunks at the bar at 3am, who’ve been there since Happy Hour, and keep arguing that it can’t possibly be last call. They’ve lost touch with reality. Don’t try to reason with them.

There is the syndrome of writers using vacation time from the day job to write. That’s something else entirely. Usually that’s a treat and a much more leisurely schedule than trying to get the writing done AND doing the day job.

My company offers us a very generous benefits package. They deliberately set out to create that for us. We get ten holidays, four weeks of vacation (if you’ve been there long enough), two personal days, forty hours of sick leave, plus another forty with supervisor approval. They are very good to us. And it’s not out of the goodness of their hearts.

It’s an investment in us as the primary assets of the company.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that, as a consulting firm, the company I work for has no product outside of the brains of its staff. We work hard. We work long hours, sometimes under grueling conditions with difficult clients. And they expect us to take time off to recover.

I don’t have to connect the dots here, do I?

As writers (or whatever discipline you’d like to insert here), our product comes from ourselves. Just as the industrial types have to sometimes shut down the factory for maintenance, we must give ourselves down time, as well. The problem is, writers are more or less self-employed. Nobody gives you a list of the paid time-off you can take.

Which means we have to do it for ourselves.

It would be interesting to know if any full-time writers do this – issue themselves a certain amount of holiday, vacation and sick leave. It would be an interesting way to keep yourself accountable. And to minimize screwing-off time, too. If you have a leave bank, then you could take the time off guilt free.

All theoretical for me right now.

Detritus Returned

David snapped this pic of me on the Pacific Beach boardwalk. I like how relaxed and happy I look.

And slim. *note to self: wear those black capris ALL THE TIME.

So, remember back in mid-March when we heard that car wreck? I picked up the things the next morning and photographed them. I had a number of conversations with people about it – in the comments, but also on Facebook and Twitter. My friend from college, Felicia, urged me to try to find the gal because of the Prada reading glasses – the thing Felicia herself would have been most sorry to lose.

I tried tracking the name on the receipt. No luck. My Google Fu is usually quite strong, but not in this case. A couple of prolific local tweeters even took it up to no avail. Nothing in the local news about it. So, I called the police non-emergency line.

Yes, the dispatcher acted like I was nuts for asking.

Finally, I managed to convey my non-stalkery desire to simply return this gal’s things (I didn’t mention follow-up articles on this blog – really hard to make that sound non-stalkery.) The dispatcher said she’d give my information to the Sheriff’s Deputy who was on scene and he’d call me.

He finally did, nearly a week later.

He also proceeded to interview me on precisely what my deal was. He asked what things I wanted to return to “the young lady involved.” By this time I’ve managed to glean that she survived. Totally unimpressed by my catalog of her detritus (I could practically hear him thinking “eye-pencil? she thinks this is important??), he finally says he’ll give my information to the young lady and, if she was interested, she’d call me.

Yes, he absolutely made this sound unlikely.

And she didn’t, for a really long time. By now it’s April and I’ve kind of forgotten about it, except that I have a little paper bag of her things in my office. I start to think about what I should do with it if she never calls.

Then, one day my cell rings and it’s her.

She’s young. So young that her thoughts kind of zing from one topic to the next. She tells me they rolled the car three times. When I tell her we called 911 when we heard the sound, she receives this information with wonder, somehow not processing this. When I say it’s a miracle she survived and wasn’t hurt, she says oh yes and how they were going 75 miles per hour. (It’s a 40 mph zone.) I wonder how she knows this, if she was driving, who “they” were, but she’s already flown past the subject. She wants her things, but – oh – she has no car now, cuz – duh – she wrecked hers! She’ll have to talk her dad into giving her a ride. I tell her where my house is. She says she’ll call when she can come by.

Which she doesn’t.

I think about calling her back, to tell her we’ll be gone for a week. I think better of it. If she calls while we’re on vacay, I’ll just have to say so.

She doesn’t.

Then, yesterday afternoon, my cell rings. A female voice says “are you home?”

Um?

She hastens to fill the silence, “this is Carrie, the girl who was in the car wreck? I can get a ride to your house to get my things, if you’re home. Only I don’t know where your house is.”

So, I tell her again. Five minutes later, a shiny Honda Element pulls into the driveway. I walk out to the patio with the bag. I nearly bring my camera, but – it just seemed wrong. She’s younger even than I thought. Awkward. Shakes my hand and grabs the bag. Reaches in and grabs the Prada reading glasses case with a triumphant squeal. “This! This is what I really wanted!”

Nod to you, Felicia.

I’d envisioned our conversation when we met. How I’d tell her I wrote about her wreck on the blog and all the nice things people said. I think she might say something more to me, but she just bounces and says good-bye. She runs back to the car, opens the passenger door and brandishes the bag of things, doing this little hip-bobbing dance for her mother. The mother, by her unmoving silhouette, seems unimpressed. I’m kind of surprised she doesn’t get out of the car to meet me.

A moment later, they’re gone.

I’m left today thinking about stories and connections. About non-lethal life lessons and whether this carefree girl has learned anything.

I wonder, too, what I learned.

Let’s Go Fly a Kite

People fly these enormous kites on the beach around Mission Bay. Really neat to see them. Like fantasy creatures in the sky.

Vacations are kind of unreal anyway. We sleep until we wake up and then do things I don’t normally do, like walk across the street to Starbucks while the surf pounds in the background. Even though I spent some of my mornings checking in with work (big proposal going out) and keeping up with other email, I didn’t track twitter, or the blogs I usually read, or the comics, etc., in my dailies bookmark folder.

It felt good to be out of that swim for a bit.

Instead, we walked the boardwalk, paddled in the surf. We enjoyed long wine-filled lunches with fresh seafood and lolled by the pool. We did crazy, non-real-life things like toured an $8 million beachfront house. My normally full days emptied out. I didn’t work on any writing projects. I read several books. Emotional tension over things I’d been worrying about bled away.

The ocean is good for that.

The coming back, though, that’s always the bite. Even in the car I started revising my To-Do list. I received an email from my editor during the drive with line-edits on Sapphire. Meanwhile I still haven’t finished the two Revise & Resubmits I’m working on. The big proposal is still teetering on the edge of going out and now I’m being sent on a two-week jaunt through New Hampshire and Vermont starting next Sunday.

Yesterday was crazy full, jam-packed.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that it’s better not to do vacay at all. So I don’t notice the contrast. I also know this is the opposite solution to the problem.

Instead, I need to find ways to let every day have a breezy feel. To let the emotional tension, the relentless drive for more, bleed away. I want long walks and bird song. Less multi-tasking and more reading.

Maybe I need to fly more kites.

Road Trip!

We went on a road trip on Sunday.

Headed for parts unknown, but desertish.

One has to be careful with those unknown desertish parts, because here there be dinosaurs.
And something that I first thought to be the Easter Bunny, influenced perhaps by the Easter Sunday stuff all over the car radio. On second thought…. no, I’m not really sure what it is.
But you can buy a lot of petrified wood. Just in case you wanted to.
We escaped the dinosaurs, weird monuments and petrified wood lots and dropped down out of the mountains.
First sign of warmer weather? Saguaros!
Followed by palm trees!
The view from our balcony. Yes, it’s a gorgeous warm evening. Lovely.

Smiles and Staycations

David mentioned last week that I’ve been smiling more lately.

This is one of those things people say to you that can be more worrisome than happy-making. At least, it is for me. If I were more Zen, I could likely embrace the current smiling trend and be pleased about it.

Instead I started thinking about why I hadn’t been smiling as much before.

Last week, if I didn’t mention, I was on vacation. The way our company works, our contracts all end on December 31, if not sooner. They can’t go past December 31. Instead, a new contract must be created. Even though we start reminding our clients in October and November to get the new paperwork in, a lot of them wait until January to do it. After all, nobody really does any work after Thanksgiving, right? Then, even when the paper work is submitted, it can take weeks to wend its way through the approval process.

The upshot is, we ending up working pretty hard and frantic to get everything required delivered with a 12/31 date and then we have nothing, or barely anything, for sometimes several weeks. This is one of the feast and famine cycles of consulting. Also, because we work on client billing, like lawyers, if there’s no client to bill to, there’s no working.

So, I’ve gotten in the habit of saving vacation and holiday for early January. Last week I took totally off. David was off school still, so we both hung out at home all week. We slept in until 7 or 7:30 every morning and went for a leisurely work-out. I wrote and worked on two different books all week. We went out to lunch, did some shopping, read a lot.

It was really my perfect calendar.

If I could work my life to follow that schedule all the time, I think I’d be very pleased.

Thus the smiling more.

What I think gets me about that is, I think I’m pretty happy with my life as is. I’m privileged to work from home, with generous pay and benefits, for a company I like with terrific colleagues. The job is flexible enough to allow me time to write. I have possibly the best boss in the world.

It should be enough for me.

I suppose that’s the nature of wanting something in particular, following a dream, chasing an ideal. You’re never quite satisfied with less than that. If you were, you’d stop trying. Dissatisfaction is the spur that drives us on, that goads us to want more than what we have.

And smiling when we have it? That tells us we’re going the right direction.

How Not to Write a Series

We didn’t go anywhere this weekend.

Lots of people did – packing up their camping gear or party supplies. David and I tossed it around, but we weren’t feeling the need to get away. Plus he’s still trying to get in the groove of the new semester, especially after the big Caribbean vacay. I’m back in the swing of writing, so we decided to hang at home.

And I decided to try something new: an at-home beach party.

One of my favorite vacations is hanging by the beach or pool (or a Tucson patio), reading and having drinks. So, once I hit my writing goals for the morning, I established myself out on our gravel “deck” with my Kindle and some wine. I finished some critique, got a bit of a tan and got to read Ilona Andrews’ new book Magic Bleeds. I’m loving the new installment, Book 4 in the series, and more, I’m really impressed by how they’re handling the series.

Much has been discussed lately about authors with faltering series. There’s a number of factors at play here. First both publishers and authors love a successful series because it’s good bread and butter work. An established series gathers a guaranteed audience. It’s fun for the author because she gets to really explore her world and characters. Readers love them for that same reason: tell me more, more, more.

But a few things can go awry:

1) The author never planned for the story to be a series. She can maybe eke the original idea into a couple more books, but then she’s spinning out of nothing. Sometimes there’s simply not enough depth in the original concept to carry the story that far.

2) Publishing pressure crushes the creativity. When an author is working on revisions for Book 1, on deadline to deliver a draft of Book 2 and a 10-page outline of Book 3, this can create unbearable pressure. Stories don’t always lay down and behave, which can lead an author to force it. And the story can suffer.

3) The author loses interest. I wonder sometimes about authors who are on the 30th book in the series. How can it possibly remain fresh, exciting and fun to write? But, by the 30th book, I imagine you’d have your pattern pretty established. Add these elements and tap it out. Doesn’t always make for as wonderful of a story though.

4) The cow is dry and the author keeps milking. Sometimes a series runs its course. It’s no longer fresh, new and full of juice. Everyone can think of television series that have done this. Sometimes a plot decision takes the story to its natural end and nothing can resuscitate it. Sometimes it just didn’t have that much juice to begin with. Sales decline, no publisher wants to pick up the next book. Time to move on to a new story.

5) As the overall story increases in length, less happens in each book. If you’re going to keep the series going and you’re committed to two books a year, which keeps you clothed, fed and with respectable shelf-space, it would be tempting to slow down the overall plot line. Instead of each book covering years in the characters lives, the pace slows to weeks and days. Sometimes over excruciatingly slow hours.

Anything that I missed here? I’d be interested in other observations of what can go so, so wrong.

Magic Bleeds is surprising me. This fourth book is possibly the best of the series so far, gaining in depth and resonance. I’m sure you can think of examples for each situation above. I’m thinking of one or more specifics for each, but not naming names. I love it when I find examples of a series that actually improves with age. So kudos to Ilona and Gordon, the husband/wife writing team that is Ilona Andrews — a fact that I think only increases the marvel and wonder of what they’re accomplishing.

(How do they not kill each other?)