March 25th, 2016

Women's History Month - Y.S. Lee

Y. S. Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency novels (Walker Books/Candlewick Press), a quartet of mysteries featuring a mixed-race girl detective in Victorian London. After earning a Ph.D. in English literature, Ying realized that her true love was gritty historical detail – something she tries to make the most of in her fiction. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario. Visit her at or on Twitter @yinglee

“I’m stuck.”

Hello, friends. This week, I felt tired. I was easily irritated. I slept poorly, drank too much coffee, and didn’t get enough fresh air. It follows that I also didn’t write as much of my novel as I’d hoped – and not for lack of honest effort.

In the past, I’d have been angry with myself. I’d have decided that I was a slacker and an impostor, and found ways to punish myself. It would not have occurred to me that a) I don’t treat others this way, and 2) I would not tolerate this treatment from someone else.

However, in a small but encouraging sign that change is always possible, I didn’t fall for the own-worst-enemy routine. Instead, I decided to be gentle with myself. I gave myself an hour off. And when that hour was over, I went to my writing shed and happily fixed a scene that had been troubling me for 2 days. It really works, not being a jerk to oneself.

In an effort to step back and protect myself in future rough weeks, I’ve made a checklist called, “I’m stuck/tired/lethargic/don’t feel up to writing, WAAAAAH.” As its name so subtly suggests, I’m aiming to train myself to refer to this list every time I feel stuck, etc.

When I mentioned my checklist on Twitter, I got an immediate response and fell into a really interesting private conversation with another writer, which made me think that I should share my list here. It’s geared to me as a self-employed writer, of course, but I think it’s much more broadly applicable.

So, on days or in moments when I feel stuck, etc., my goal is to step back and consider: why do I feel this way? Is it a) low mood, 2) mental fatigue, 3) physical fatigue, or 4) a combination (or something else entirely)?

Then, I have a list of strategies for each type of problem.

Low mood

Focus on self-care: go for a walk, practise yoga, or make a cup of tea and drink it while looking at the garden.
Do a couple of small tasks that cost little energy and are satisfying to check off on a list (viva the bullet journal!).
Organize something small; choose something that gives positive concrete results.
Think about another aspect of my life that I could change, with satisfying results, and make a plan to take care of it.
After an period of self-care, try slipping into a writing session. Even a couple of hundred words can be a triumph.

Mental fatigue

Take a short break from work.
Focus on something concrete and personal (NOT for the children!).
Maybe do something domestic: garden, bake, tidy.
After a break, turn towards the WIP: where am I in this project? What tweaks do I need to make? Make notes towards the next writing session. Maybe slip into that writing session, or maybe not.

Physical fatigue

Rest, already!
Read (secondary sources or go over the existing WIP).
Think about an aspect of the WIP and where it’s going. Once the brain is humming, slip into a writing session.

If progress on the WIP remains elusive

Work on a secondary project (mine is currently a picture book)
Make a list of scenes, flesh out in the historical detail in the existing WIP
Read secondary sources
Figure out how to start the next writing session with a sense of momentum, inevitability – map out where I need to go

That’s my checklist-in-progress. It’s far from exhaustive, though, and I hope to build on it. What do you do, friends? How do you manage work slumps and protect yourself from your harshest critic?

Today's post first appeared on Wednesday, May 27th, 2015, at It is re-eprinted with the author's permission.

Women's History Month - Vashti Farrer

Vashti Farrer is an Australian historical fiction writer.

There has never been a time when I haven’t been conscious of writing - as a woman, even if it has only meant having to think like a man or a little boy when my protagonist was male. Clearly, they have a different outlook on life and that needs to be reflected in their speech and behaviour. Germaine Greer may have urged us to give our sons dolls instead footballs to bring out their more sensitive side, but mine was adamant he would have preferred a football.

I first encountered an obstacle in trying to write as a woman, when I married. Before that I’d had adult short stories broadcast on the ABC and published under my maiden name / pseudonym of Vashti Farrer. Having married, however, we moved to Canberra where I approached The Canberra Times seeking to become a book reviewer. Yes, but they said, not as Farrer. It was newspaper policy apparently to pay married by-lines, so any work I’d produced in the past had to stay there, because even with an unusual Christian name, the average reader would now regard me as two different people.

Needless to say I swallowed my pride and accepted cheques addressed to Mrs.

Years later we moved back to Sydney and I contacted The Sydney Morning Herald and was again accepted as a reviewer. “I suppose you pay a married by-line?” I asked. “Whatever for?” said the editor. I explained, thinking the newspapers were co-owned, but she said, “I’ve never heard of anything so ridiculous!” So I went back to being Farrer. When the Society of Women Writers NSW Inc was asked to appear before a Parliamentary Inquiry into restrictions placed on married women I gave evidence explaining what had happened to me only to find, on returning to Canberra, that things had changed. Now, the Times would allow my Farrer by-line which then caused several raised eyebrows in our former babysitting club because the gossip was that we must have divorced!

Children presented another challenge to writing. I’d foolishly thought that a career writing from home with small children would be easy. After all, I only had to wait till they were asleep. Haha! I hadn’t envisaged the days when I would finally manage to get the eldest to take a nap while I juggled breastfeeding the baby and typing up the final draft of a story with one hand. Tricky.

We couldn’t afford a nanny to allow me the luxury to write in peace and by the time I had three children and needed to undertake research I would end up taking all three to the Australian War Memorial where the library section in those days was divided into small glassed offices. This allowed me to hand the older two their colouring books and pencils and settle the toddler with his toys on the floor. It only happened a few times and luckily they seemed to sense that this was not the sort of place where you made any noise.

Deadlines were always a problem. Children have the strange habit of demanding that their needs be met first. This of course meant having to wait till they were in bed to sit up, sometimes till 2 am to finish a review or story. On one occasion my husband was away and it was 9 pm before all the bedtime stories had been read and the lights out. Then, and only then, did I sit down to write a short story I had to post to a competition the following morning. Fortunately it was all in my head, so to speak, so it flowed onto the page and I finished it at midnight. I was delighted when it came second, but couldn’t help thinking that the young man who won it, probably didn’t have to contend with the obstacles I’d had to get it written.

Motherhood, by definition, carries with it a certain amount of guilt, like a permanent shawl around the shoulders. Another time I told the kids I had to get a story in to The Canberra Times by 5 pm, (it was then 4.55). I charged into the office, thinking, “All systems go!” only to hear the 2 year old say to his siblings, “Shut up, darling, mummy busy!” and I felt terrible. No doubt I’d committed my kids to years of psychiatrists’ couches for my neglect - because of being a mother trying to write.

But all three grew up realising that writing was important to me. So when they were teenagers, and I said I had a story to finish for a competition, and if they could get their own lunch and not worry about me, I’d make it up to them by taking them out for a slap-up afternoon tea. Okay so it was bribery and I thought no more about it as I tapped away at the keyboard. Then suddenly the door of my study opened and a disembodied arm came round and deposited a mug of coffee on my desk. Then another arm, equally disembodied, came round and lowered a plate with a sandwich on it onto the desk. This was the point at which I realised that maybe they wouldn’t end up on shrinks’ couches.

Now I’ve come full circle. My kids are proud of what I’ve written, but even more so, my grandchildren are. They tell their school mates and teachers. I’ve managed to dedicate a book to all but one of them (and I’m working on that) and they are inspired to write stories of their own. They ask for tips and regularly report on plots and ideas. So, writing as a woman, may have had its problems in the past, but no longer.