Thursday, April 15, 2010

How Do You Achieve Balance?

Camy here! I’m talking about balancing your writing with your “other stuff” as opposed to balancing your checkbook or not tripping over your feet every time you walk (I do the latter quite a lot, actually ...).

Let’s face it, sometimes life gets just SO crazy busy you feel like you need to sleep for a YEAR to recover, except, oops, you only have time for a 2 minute nap before you have to do something else.

My creativity reeeeeaaallly does not like to be hemmed in by schedules. Or discipline. Or deadlines, for that matter. It will pout in a corner just when I absolutely need a burst of some artistic brilliance to explode out of my fingers onto the computer screen.

So I have learned to achieve balance between life and writing by compartmentalizing.

Now before you run away screaming, hear me out.

I’m not talking about anything rigid or (heaven forbid) disciplined. I’m talking about some tips and tricks to enable me to be efficient and appease the muse and talk to my husband once a week.

1) Figure out what time is best for your writing.

I posted last month about Your Best Writing Time, figuring out when during the day (or night) you are at your most creative or productive or both. This is really important when you’re trying to balance your family/work life with your writing because you need to know when your best writing time is and if you can possibly rearrange things so you get to write at that time.

If you can’t write at your best writing time, then figure out your second best writing time and if you can possibly rearrange things to write during that time of the day.

I write best from about 9 pm until 2 am. Problem is, my husband gets home from work around 9 pm and I naturally want to spend time with the love of my life.

So I will do all my email and marketing and other busywork during the day. When he gets home, we will usually hang out, talk, watch TV, oh and, uh, eat dinner :), but when he’s getting ready for bed, I’m back at my computer writing during my peak hours.

Also, he has his own evening out once a week. He plays on in co-ed volleyball league one night a week, and so on that night, we’re each on our own for dinner, and he gets home around the time he needs to shower and go to bed. I spend the evening writing.

In between volleyball seasons when he doesn’t have a volleyball night, I still have a “work night” once a week. He gets home, we eat dinner for maybe an hour, and then I’m back at my computer. Since it’s only once a week, I don’t feel too bad that I’m working instead of spending time with him. After all, he gets to watch his mixed martial arts fighting shows.

2) Use props.

I think that we, as writers, ignore the power of props. We’re so focused on the written word and our computers, we neglect other things that could actually help us write better.

When you’re writing, figure out what kind of props you could use that might make the writing easier. Often I need to get in right-brain mode in order to write, and for me, it takes a really long time for me to shift from my normal left-brain mode.

I am still searching for good triggers, but I’ve come up with a couple that help me. I utilize candles for soothing visual effect, a table water fountain for auditory effect, and lavender/eucalyptus aromatherapy for olfactory effect. This usually helps me get into right brain mode faster.

I also have certain music I will sometimes listen to, and certain snacks that tend to help me write better.

(Side note: Why is it that chips make me write better but carrot sticks only work so-so? I have really tried hard to substitute healthier writing snacks but as soon as I give in to a few chips, BAM! I crank out 20 pages. Sigh.)

I also tend to be easily distracted, so I will use a timer sometimes. It helps me because I don’t allow myself to do anything else except write while that timer is counting down. I can’t leave my computer. I can’t check email (I turn off my internet).

For those of you who shudder at the thought of a timer putting pressure on you to get words written in a specific amount of time (and I will admit to feeling that way too sometimes), think of other props you can use. When my roses bloom, I cut one and put it right next to my monitor. While that rose is there, it makes me smile to look at it, and it also reminds me to keep my butt in my chair and keep writing. It’s a combination of soothing and motivating.

3) Plan and prepare.

Do you need long stretches of time to get back into your creative mode? Then plan and prepare for it. Tell the family your intentions, silence the whining, make some casseroles for them to pop into the oven. Assign cleaning chores because Mom cannot leave her heroine in a burning building in order to vacuum. Do what you need to do to allow the house to run smoothly without you for a specified amount of time. The fam will usually be understanding as long as they know when the ending date/time is going to be.

Can you only write in spurts? Well then, plan and prepare for it. Bring the Alphasmart or laptop with you to soccer so you can write while they’re playing/practicing. Bring a notebook in the car to write while waiting to pick up the kids. Tell the kids they have 30 minutes to do homework and they can’t bother you until the timer goes off, and then tuck yourself away with your computer. Plan for meals that only take 30 minutes to cook (or use a crockpot) so you can have those extra minutes to write rather than cook.

When life gets in the way …

I’ll be honest, it seems that whenever I’m screaming on deadline, a family member dies. I know that’s kind of morbid, but it is a source of sadness, stress, and frustration for me. I can’t exactly tell my great-aunt not to die until next month after the book has been written.

Here’s some advice, which I’ll admit I don’t always take, but which sound pretty good:

(a) Take time away. Give yourself permission to lay down the writing entirely, disengage, undo that RedBull IV drip next to the computer, and go deal with the family crisis. It’s okay to leave the writing.

(b) Do what needs to be done. Take care of the funeral arrangements. Bail your brother out of jail. Repair the damaged roof. Go to the hospital.

(c) Do what YOU need to do to get back in the game. After the furor dies down somewhat—and don’t wait until everything is completely calm again, because that will never happen. Trust me—then do what you need to do in order to get your head back into writer mode.

I know this will sound really selfish and harsh, but for most of us, writing is a business. If you were working at a company, they’d give you a few days or weeks off and then you had to get back to work. No arguing or excuses or questioning, unless of course you’d like to quit.

Writing is the same way. Do what you have to do to get back into things. Maybe that means counseling. Maybe that means some time alone. Maybe that means a crying fit over the phone with your agent or a writing friend. Whatever it is, do it. Get back into writing. Pull on your Big Girl Panties (er…or Superman Underpants) and just do it.

You are a writer. You are a professional. Act like it and get back to work.

Okay, scolding is over.

Anyway, I hope this has been helpful and not just depressing and frustrating for you. The reality is, you can plan and prepare all you want, but something will always come up to unbalance your life.

The key is in trying to balance life during the times when there isn’t some crisis taking up your time, and to get that balance back quickly when the crisis is over.

How about you guys? Do you have any ideas for balance for your own life? I’m always looking for more ideas because God certainly knows I could still use help in this area.

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novels Single Sashimi and Deadly Intent are out now. She runs the Story Sensei critique service, is a staff worker for her church youth group, and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels and ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for giveaways!


  1. It's about time for Ruthy to get up! Actually, she has probably already cranked out a chapter by now.

    I have mocha java in the coffeepot and Irish breakfast tea in the teapot.


  2. Great article, Camy! I love the idea of a timer. I do a similar thing by mentally telling myself, "Okay, you have to write for an hour until 3:00, then you can take a short break to check email or Twitter." Then I do it again after another hour. But I really like the timer idea too! Whatever helps us to be self-disciplined.

  3. I really like your props. I use some of those myself. Good to note the differences between the left-side of the brain and the right. Hmm....

    Giving yourself permission to take a break and regroup is also good. Hard, but good. ";-)

  4. I laughed out loud at "a family member dies." I thought I was the only one that happens to! Seriously, my family hoards/doles crises like clockwork. I almost hold my breath every time I get on a roll. As for props, I was stuck on my mystery WIP and a friend gave me a giant magnifying glass. Whenever I get off track, I just hold it up and, like magic, I'm back in it. Finally, like you, carrot sticks have never produced what M&Ms do in a heartbeat. I give up. Great post!

  5. Excellent post! I love using candles and soft lighting. If I could orchestrate a thunderstorm, I would incorporate that into every writing session!

  6. I completed a novel during Nanowrimo one year using my timer. I'd set it for 15, 30, 45 minutes and write until it went off, often challenging myself to type faster so I'd have more words than last time. Great motivator.

    I write to music, but never thought about using other props. Good idea.

    Right now I'm struggling for balance between my day job, my novel, and other writing obligations such as judging contests, blogging, building platform. I need to figure out how to balance my evening hours to fit in work for my day job, family, writing, and some downtime. I'd love to quit the day job, but since that's the one that pays the bills, it's not going to happen.

    Great post, Camy. Thanks for the suggestions!

  7. Hi Camy

    What a great post! I love your comments about 'props.' I agree, music is great for getting creativity flowing. I also love browsing through magazines for pictures - I have fun imagining the story behind the shots.

    Look forward to hearing others' ideas.

    Love Nicola x

  8. Great post, Camy! I really needed to read this. I have been making so many excuses as to why I haven't been writing. I'm going to try a few of your suggestions and see how I do.

  9. Wonderful, helpful tips!

    I need to implement some more - thought I'd be able to write more since I'm not working....WRONG...seems like something always gets in the way - aarrgghh!

    I normally handle this by praying - at least THAT makes me feel better LOL! And, of course, brings God into my situation(s).

    Thanks for the tips.

  10. Camy! So much to think about on this Thursday morning! I loved your post last month about finding your PRIME writing time.

    Mine happens to be mid afternoon, but hey, I have a JOB I'm at that time : )

    I'm negociating with my inner writer to see if I can bump that time to early morning or evening.

    And oh, letting things get in the way?


    Having ADD makes me much akin to my son's coonhound...on track until a leaf rustles, a squirrel jumps in the tree, the goats get get the picture.

    I have to baracade myself in the *bat cave* as the kids have named it, give the dog a cookie so she won't sit and stare at me, and yes, turn off the internet.

    You've made excellent points, Camy-cakes. There is never a perfect time to write. You have to make it.

    Chips aren't on my diet, but I discovered these great bagel thins by Thomas! They taste great, only have 1 point - for the Weight Watchers among us - and loaded with fiber (heh,heh,heh). I brought a variety with a tub of *I Can't Believe It's Not Butter*

    I leave the real goodies up to Ruthy. I hope there's carrot cake on the menu today!!

  11. I love your ideas of finding the best time for writing, scheduling it, arranging for it, and using writing prompts. I'm bookmarking this article.

    Boy have you got my gears going!

  12. I guess I don't have much of a life, because I'm absolutely loving having an editor tell me, Get these edits back to me next week.

    My best writing time is usually in the morning, which works well, because my kids are usually in school in the morning. In the summer I just tell them I'll spend time with them at lunch and afterward, and they get to watch TV while I write. That works well, except when they argue over what they want to watch--and I refuse to get them their own TV's!

    I'm living the dream ...

    Although there are times when the kids get sick, have to be taken to the doctor, relatives visit, and things like that. That's when I don't get any writing done. And honestly, I have made almost no progress on new projects in the last year! I think I need to start logging my hours and keeping up with what I'm doing every day! When I'm not doing edits.

  13. Would anyone like a bowl of Total with me? I have bananas, too?

    Thanks so much for this article! I have found that Internet eats up more time than anything, and yet we think we need access to it "just in case we need to look something up."

    Since I finished manuscript 1 (whoo-hoo!), entered a couple of contests, and wrote an outline for manuscript 2, I've been in the total doldrums of writing. And the deal with a relative dying? That can apply to anything. Spouse emergencies, unexpected kid stuff, work events, spring yard work, basements that need to be cleaned out, etc.

    BUT, on the upside, I checked the mail yesterday, and behold! I got the chocolate I won a week or so ago!!! Thanks for mailing it, Audra, and thanks, Seekerville, for making my day on MANY levels! I'll add that chocolate to my "writing props" stash . . . ;)

  14. Sorry, love to comment but I have BOL

    Baby on lap (new baby grandson)

    I'm officially off work and work and any other work until next week. Hope to come back ready to hit the ground running. (probably will need a week to catch up on rest!)

    I really don't know how anybody works and takes care of family and home AND gets writing done on any kind of deadline. God's blessings to all of you/us who do!

  15. Balance is such a struggle for me right now. Thanks for the great tips!

  16. Great post, Camy! And so timely, seeing as how I am on deadline. I like using my NEO when I need to crank out a bunch of words. Then later, I'll load them to my laptop where I can flesh out the scenes in more detail. Also, I like most any kind of tea, cocoa, chocolate, pretzels or these really tasty flavored rice cakes. And candles. And music. And sunshine! LOL

  17. Thanks for the great tips, Camy. I'm by nature a night person too. (I knew you were, having bumped into you in Cyberspace at 1:30 a.m. California time more than once. :-)

    As I mature (sounds better than "get older"), I'm noticing a shift in my body clock. I tire earlier at night and wake earlier in the morning, so I'm experimenting with getting up earlier. I don't wake raring to go, though, so I use the first part of the day to answer email, read blogs, and visit my loops--a reward for bidding my pillow farewell. By the time of day I used to get up, I've already removed many of the temptations that used to pull me from my writing time. I then crank the classical music that time warps me to the 1870s and write for hours during my best writing time.

    And where did I get the idea to identify my best writing time? From your great post last month. Thanks for making a difference in my life.

  18. Camy, You always have such great advice - funny, witty, educational and more:) I hear you are a wonderful writing teacher and mentor, too. Thanks for all the inside info. I'm taking notes!

  19. Thanks for this. Great stuff here.

  20. By jove, I think you're on to something, Camy! I never thought about creating an ambiance for writing.

    My little den is a disaster and I've been so busy that I've tried to ignore it as I open my laptop but I feel so agitated that I'm starting to get distracted...or worse...not even wanting to go in there write. I needed this blog post as intervention.

    New goal: have it spiffied up by the end of the weekend and store up some props that will tickle my creative bone.

    Thanks for the advice!

  21. THWACK

    Just what I needed Camy! Thank you.

    One question though - about that vacuum thing...

    Anybody tried a Roomba? I don't see them advertised any more... Maybe that's the answer for me... It has to get done, that's for sure but yuk.

    My best time of 'day' is when it's dark. See you other night owls soon!

    Thanks for a great post. Needed it.

  22. Hi Camy!
    I just blogged a few minutes ago about my need to get organized now that I have a three book deal and here you are showing me the way!

    I usethe alarm on my cell phone as a timer, but have not been doing that lately. Will start again right now. Great post!

  23. Hey Camy ... BOY, could I have used this a few months ago, but it's STILL timely as I wrap up the final five scenes of my book ... a book which has been a real challenge in "balance."

    LOVE the idea of props, and I am huge on this too. Mine are candles, hazelnut coffee (all year long!), lip gloss, bathroom breaks where a current book I'm reading awaits me, foot warmer in winter and ear plugs year round (for when my hubby who works two feet away from is on a speakerphone conference call ... YIKES!!).

    However, now that the weather has been lovely, I sit outside on our lower deck (deep in the woods) and write on my laptop, although I do still have to use ear plugs occasionally because of this realllly noisy Pilated Red-headed Woodpecker and a Cooper's Hawk who squawl like crazy at times! Ah, the trials of a writer ... :)

    Great post, Cam!


  24. Great post, Camy! My best writing time is from mid-day to late afternoon. Once I've taken care of chores, phone calls, dressed and had my quiet time, I'm raring to go. Otherwise this stuff hangs over me. But when a deadline looms, I find any time is the best writing time. LOL

    I don't use props. Music distracts me. I'm sensitive to perfumed candles and even real flowers. A bummer. I've used a timer for e-mail, but not for writing. The ticking distracts me from the story.

    My husband and I chat early in the morning, on our walk and at dinner, but I tend to spend the evening with e-mail while he watches TV or reads. Upon occasion, I indulge in HGTV and stay up late reading, my down time. Besides a walk, I try to get to Curves three times a week. I often fail.

    Looking at each day as a whole pie and noting where I spend the biggest slices of my time helps me see if my life is out of balance. And what I need to do about it. But like you say, Camy, it's not easy!


  25. I love your sense of humor! I think I keep a pretty good schedule, but the thought of a deadline just about makes me shudder. ;) Not, that I would pass one up though. :D.

    No ideas for you, just a thank you!!

  26. I think we all struggle in this area, Camy. Trying to find balance in a world that pulls at us from many different directions.

    I'm always amazed at how Jesus seemed to find balance his life even in the midst of extreme turmoil. He always seemed to find time to pull away from the grind for those quiet times with His Father ... and so should we. Then, the rest of life will seem more manageable and creative. Great article.

  27. My props or choice are a Black Thai Tea Fusion Latte and a table at Caribou Coffee. :)

    Wonderful article.

  28. Timely reminder for me, Camy, what with kids and grandsons due to arrive mid-afternoon--for the third or fourth visit since Christmas! Daughter and s-i-l are coming on FamilyLife business over the weekend, so we'll be keeping the grandkids--ages 15, 13, and 10. Try writing with THAT going on around you!!!

  29. Camy!

    My computer likes yours today! Oh happy day!!!!

    This was to the point and
    considerably brilliant. Good job, Toots.

    And the mocha java is to die for.

    Thank you, thank you for both!

    And only half a chapter, thanks. :)

    A slow day, all in all.

    No carrot cake today. Sorry. We're doing Ants on a Log...

    Three malted milk balls atop a chocolate drizzled pretzel log with two googly eyes, chocolate-dipped chow mein noodles for legs (we're studying insects at Ruthy's) and two tiny chow mein noodles for antennae.

    And sugar cookies.

    Bug-shaped, of course.

    But they're amazing homemade sugar cookies with lots of homemade Ruthy frosting.

    Really good stuff.

    Good job, Camster.


  30. These are terrific suggestions. This is particulary important for those of us trying to squeeze in writing in between a full time job, and a fully active family. I literally need to sit at the computer and immediately become productive, and that can be challenging. I've been using the props of eucalyptus and classical musical. I'm going to add the table fountain soon!

  31. Oh goodness, I feel like I haven't done a very good job of achieving balance lately. I devoted my entire day Wed. to cranking out the rest of my draft, and what do you think happened Tue. night? The baby in my belly kept me awake for 3 hours. My brain was complete mush on Wed., so I decided to adjust my goals and scrunch them to a later date.

    I may have to plan one of those long stretches you talked about where I lock myself away somewhere and let my family manage until I emerge with a completed manuscript. :-)

  32. Preach it sister! All great advice!

    But I'm still laughing hysterically over the chips. Of course, they're now on my grocery list.


    You know one thing I've done recently is turn off the TV. I used to love working with background noise, but I've found that I get distracted in my old age. I don't even use music much anymore. But mainly, that's because I'm too lazy to turn it on once I'm seated and working. :)

  33. Regina, congrats on finishing the book! What an accomplishment!

    And Jill, I don't know if we've officially congratulated you yet on the Seeker blog, so CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR 3-BOOK DEAL!!!!!!!!! I'm so, so happy for you. :) :)

  34. Your post is all great info, Camy! When I returned to the work force 4 years ago, I've had to figure out how to compartmentalize my life.

    BTW- I'm glad there's someone else out there that uses the word "compartmentalize" in reference to organizing their lives. I've gotten some really strange looks when I've used it in the past.

    That whole balancing act was hard to do, especially my first year back teaching, but I finally figured out that if I left work at work- even if I had to stay a little past quitting time- then I was able to get more writing done. Now, I only bring work home when I absolutely have to, and when I'm at work...I work...always moving and I don't take any breaks except my 25 minutes for lunch.

    You know, God has blessed that philosophy for me in that I almost never miss my deadlines at work. (That's a big deal because the paperwork is endless, and I'm not known for being organized often.)

  35. Excellent post.

    I try to remember one foot in front of the other when bombarded by crisis issues. One step. Then the next step. Don't look beyond that.

  36. Thanks, Jody! I'm glad to hear from someone else who uses a timer!

    Sheri--I don't think I could write without my props! Also, I change my props often so that they don't get boring.

    SG--I forgot to mention M&Ms!!!!! I can't eat just a few. Next thing I know, my butt is gigantic and I've got 30 pages done on my manuscript.

    Sherrinda--Oooh, I love the sound of thunderstorms! I actually might try to find a rain sounds MP3 to listen to while I write. Thanks!

    Lisa--that is so awesome! I didn't think about how it makes me write faster, but that's an excellent point! My day job was the worst time suck when I was in biology work, but I learned to write in short time bursts during the day, and that helped me write 3 full manuscripts while working full time. You can do it! God will help you, too!

    Nicola--magazine pictures is a great idea! I will definitely try that!

    JC--I hope they work stupendously for you!

    PamT--Praying helps me too! I've found that I tend to be more productive when I've done my Bible reading for the day, too, so I've been more consistent about that.

    Audra, you reminded me of that dog on the movie UP: "Squirrel! ..." LOL Those bagel chips sound great, esp if they have fiber!

    Cassandra--thanks! I hope you come back and tell us how things work out!

    Melanie--LOLOL I work better on deadline, in general, too! It gives me a good kick in the pants. I just worry that my creativity isn't at its best when that happens, so I'm trying to be more deliberate about harnessing that creativity more often. I also have found that logging my hours not only is good for my taxes, but it also spurs me to be efficient with my time!

    Regina--I'm totally with you on the internet! That's why I have to turn it off or I'm done for! I hope you get back into writing soon!

    Debra, it's always hard to write with babies! I hope you can get some rest and get back into writing!

    Julie--you're welcome! I hope these help you!


  37. Deborah--you poor thing! But I'm sure you'll meet your deadline no problem! I also love tea! It's my favorite when I'm writing.

    Keli--hello fellow night owl! :) Hey that's cool about your body clock shifting. I hope that happens to me too!

    Laura--aw, thanks so much! You're sweet!

    Lynn-you're welcome!

    Kav--awesome! I hope it works out swimmingly for you! It made a huge difference when I started using props for my writing.

    KC--LOL I'm glad you liked the post! OMG I would LOVE a Roomba! Can't afford one right now, though... sigh.

    Jill--LOL great timing, huh? I actually have three alarm clocks and timers that I use ... yeah, yeah, I'm a bit overboard, but it works!

    Julie--you were actually one of the reasons I wrote this b/c I knew you had to balance all kinds of stuff to write this book! And a foot warmer is a fantastic idea! I need to try that!!!

    Janet, your discipline puts me to shame! :) Where can I buy it???

    Casey--you're welcome! Deadlines can be hard, but you can also sometimes use them as a challenge, which can have surprising results!

    Mark--great point! I need to remember that, because I tend to be too caught up in my stress to remember to stop and take a time out.

    Erica--sounds yummy!!!

    Myra--I wouldn't even attempt it! Give yourself permission to just step away from the writing and enjoy the fam!

    Ruthy--those sound yummy! If a little messy to make ...


    Michael--I hope that works for you! I had to really spend a lot of time trying out other stuff before I figured out that the sound of running water was a prop that really worked well for me.

    Sarah--give yourself permission to focus on other things, especially with a baby! I don't know about you, but any out of whack hormones make my writing really hard. I tend to be less productive during certain times of the month. :)

    Missy--I'm telling you, chips work like a magic pill!!! Which is both frustrating and quite nice.

    Dianna--Good for you! I did that, too--I never brought work home with me, and I'd rather stay late to get things done so that I could feel free to write when I got home.


  38. Tina--good advice! I always forget that when I'm in firefighting mode.


  39. Great post, Camy.

    I love to use props and pictures to get me in the writing 'mood'. Sometimes I'll use music too. I have a picture book I develop for each book, pictures of the scenery, people, maybe even a computer file of movie clips.

    I don't know what my best writing time is. I've ONLY had the opportunity to write late-nights, so...I guess I'll get to try that one out in years? Nights are working for me, though, when I have the opportunity.

    And I'm easily distracted too.
    Thanks again for the great post. I'm saving this one :-)

  40. Pepper, actually author Shelley Adina also uses picture books for every book she writes! I saw one of them, and she's done it up really fancy and cool, almost like a scrapbook.


  41. I am always interested in how other writers manage to juggle the myriad of things in their lives, but I have to say, quite frankly, that if this is Camy's idea of "Balance", then I'm a little confused. I probably just don't have all the facts about the rest of what she does in a day, but it doesn't sound like she's got much time for hubby, no matter what she says,(Is ther really much time or energy for intimacy if she's sending him off to bed most nights while she stays up?) and obviously, kids are not a part of this picture.

  42. Tracy, it's hard because my husband goes to work around 9 am and comes home around 9 pm every day (he works about 9-10 hours and goes to the gym for about 90 minutes, and it's a 30 minute commute each way). We have dinner and then he goes to bed between 12 and 1 am. So I am spending time with him during the time he's home, but that just doesn't happen to be very much. I'm not sure how often other people spend with their hubbies so I don't have anything to compare it to. I know someone like Mary, whose husband works their ranch, spends as much time with her husband as she can, but it fluctuates depending on what needs to be done and the season.

  43. My normal isn't someone else's normal and my balance isn't someone else's either. So probably it isn't a good idea for me to judge anyone else's.

    So I won't. Good advice I imagine.

  44. I thought the 'compartmentalizing' an excellent idea - applicable to every aspect of life. (Leave your work at the office and all that.) Also, the use of props is an interesting one that I might try. I guess you make a very good point that everyone is different and you have to do what works for you.