The Necessity of Downtime

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Productivity seems to be both the biggest challenge and biggest goal of just everyone these days. Without question, a not insignificant number of people have made fortunes teaching or, minimally, claiming to show people how to squeeze every ounce of productivity possible out of any given day. Yet, despite a little lip-service, typically in a short, breezy afterward or tucked away in an appendix, not much talk is given to downtime.

Downtime, it seems, is anathema to our current social situation. When people admit to taking time off, it’s often done furtively or with an explanation about how a child or spouse requires their presence. Writers, I think, come under more pressure than many to justify their downtime and often feel the pressure to be productive all the time. After all, lots of writers work at home. How stressful can it actually be?

The reality is that writing, even when you love it, even when the thing you’re writing at the moment may not be particularly hard, still demands a fairly intensive mental effort. You may not be driving to an office somewhere, but you still staring at computer all day, subject to deadlines and the majority of other stressors that accompany other professions. So, many writers wind up putting in time writing every single day, even when they know they need to take a break.

I’m no exception to this and I learned a hard lesson from it. I worked 14 straight days recently. I was productive. I made money. I made progress, albeit less than I wanted, on my novel. I did some research to find new outlets where I might place my writing. I read articles about writing and read books about the craft and business of writing. I was on, in one fashion or another, all the time.

Even when I wasn’t physically sitting in front of the keyboard, I was thinking about writing, or the things I would be writing, or analyzing the writing in the things I was watching on the TV. My theoretical downtime was becoming an extension of my working time. This might sound good, in theory, but not in practice. I paid a price for this.

This past weekend, instead of putting in some serious time on my novel, or working on the cover for that novel, or reading a novel, or any of the other things I had imagined I would do, I spent most of the weekend fighting a losing battle with a crippling headache and then recuperating from that headache. I accomplished next to nothing.

The point brave readers and fellow writers is this: downtime matters! Your body will revolt. It will punish you. It’s not just about getting enough rest or a balanced diet. I was sleeping 7-8 hours a night for the last week and eating plenty of the right stuff. The problem was that I never disengaged from the work. That’s the kind of downtime you need to take from time to time. It’s important and necessary. Don’t feel bad about that and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise…not even yourself.

Embrace Stress

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Everywhere you look today you see another admonishment to reduce stress because stress kills! Sure, stress kills. So does drinking water, eating food, working out and virtually every other activity human beings engage in, when they taken to extremes. Yet, maybe writers should be embracing stress.

Stress Isn’t Bad

Stress isn’t bad. Chronic stress is bad. What’s the difference? Stress is basically the body gearing up to deal with an external problem. Among other things, the adrenal glands start to produce adrenaline, which constricts blood vessels and focuses the mind. Remember how hyper-aware you were the last time you got startled badly. That was body reacting to stress.

At a moderate level, stress can actually enhance your performance in most activities.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, occurs when you’ve been under stress continually for an extended period of time. The constant stress leads to, among other things, a suppressed or compromised immune system, adrenal fatigue, mental impairment and some people fall into substance abuse. If you want a thorough overview, check out this article. If you’re experiencing these problems, then please do take a vacation, switch jobs or do whatever you need to do to de-stress for a while. Otherwise…

Stop Stressing About Stress

The idea of stress can become its own kind of stress. Anything you spend a lot of time worrying about contributes to the problem. Here is the good news. Unless your doctor is worried about your stress levels or you have symptoms of chronic stress, you can stop stressing about stress. (I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. Just saying…you know, for legal reasons.)

The media at large has a vested interest in doom-saying, flashy headlines. Things like “Stress Kills” makes for a headline everyone wants to read, because we’re afraid of things that might kill us. In the end, though, that headline is probably doing more to stress you out than the things in your life you should experience stress over.

Embrace that Stress

I say to forget the imaginary stress the world seems to want to fill you with and embrace the stress that helps you out. Use that amped up, focus-enhancing stress and make it work for you, rather than against you. Pour that stress into your writing. Or, better yet, make that stress the subject of your writing. After all, good fiction requires conflict. Then call it a day, have a beer, and relax.

The Entrepreneurial Writer

Image courtesy of Naypong/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Naypong/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The words “writer” and “entrepreneur” don’t appear together all that often. In fact, they almost never appear together. This failure to pair up those two words is unfortunate because, witting or otherwise, writers are entrepreneurs. They take an unknown product and must convince someone, often several people, that consumers will buy and/or read that unknown product. In writing circles, they call this querying or proposal writing or some other euphemism for what is, essentially, a pitch meeting done on paper.

For writers that produce articles, the process ends there with a rejection, a paycheck or a kill fee depending on how things go. You and the editor may hash out details or agree to a revision with a different angle, haggle over fees or bicker over the legalese in the contract, but you have effectively sold your product. The magazine or website then becomes responsible for distribution and promotion, though savvy writers do their part to try to drive readers to those articles.

For writers out there trying to get their novels and non-fiction titles into the hands of readers, the process continues into the marketing phase. Only, in writing circles, they call this touring or promoting or anything other than marketing. Whatever label gets slapped on the process, it’s still marketing, just like every other entrepreneur and start-up company engage in year after year.

Assuming you have secured a distribution channel, either through a publishing house or via self-publishing outlets, that will print and deliver physical or digital products to end users, the lion’s share of creating an audience is still on you. You must promote your product and whip people into a mouth-foaming frenzy that only your book can cure. This means, among other things, being able to turn features of your novel/non-fiction work into benefits.

Granted, non-fiction has a decided advantage here, but the principle still holds for novels. It’s not enough that a novel is in a particular genre or that it religiously follows the pattern of the monomyth (though that doesn’t hurt). You need to find that point of differentiation that convinces readers that they simply MUST have your gothic-horror romance over the thousands of other gothic-horror romance novels. Non-fiction can literally solve a problem, such as self-help books purport to do, or solve impersonal problems, such as providing the definitive analysis of X, Y, or Z subject. A publisher may devote some resources to marketing, but it is up to the writer to sell the public on the work.

If all of this sounds a lot like running a business, it should. You are the owner of a business called your career. Understanding the basics of entrepreneurship and marketing can help you see why it’s not enough to simply write well. You must also learn to sell well.

Happy 4th, Folks!

Image courtesy of artur84/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of artur84/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s Independence Day here in the US and that means there is a good chance that more grills will be fired up today than any other day of the  year and more fireworks (legal and otherwise) fired off than any other day of the year. All of which creates a state of wild glee in the 9 year old boy still living deep beneath the grumpier man that is me. Why? I suspect it’s because all boys love barbecued food, fire and loud noises … or maybe it’s just me. In any event, this week I offer no advice, no statistics, no actionable content or even anything relevant to writing. Instead, I offer you my good wishes for a safe holiday filled with grilled deliciousness, bright lights and loud noises.