Good Books for Creatives: Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Let me preface by saying that I’m very skeptical of self-help books and writing advice. Books that combine both tend to be on my permanent no-fly list. Thus, I went into Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills fully ready to abandon the book as soon as it suggested a specific morning routine, 4-30 am wake time, or any similarly unicorn practices.

That didn’t happen. What did happen was a series of frantic highlighting on my tablet, and said tablet being brandished at every family member available as I proclaimed, “She gets it! No, really, She Gets It. Ohmygahd.”

This is how Jessica’s book is different from many other books for creatives: it doesn’t promise to transform you into a productive individual and a morning person with a bulletproof schedule. The full title of the book is Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life – and it literally does what it says on the cover. The core premise of the book is not to transform your life; it’s to give you the tools with which to manage the life you’ve got. To, indeed, grow gills instead of expending your energy paddling towards a shore that may not even be there.

If I could summarize this book in one sentence, it would be: “You do you; here’s how.” There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. No affirmations (unless that’s what works for you). No morning pages (unless that’s what works for you). Basically, Jessica has you take stock of the goals you want to achieve, then take stock of the life you’ve got, and then work on ways to slot the former into the latter. Oh, and she’s totally on to you, frequently reminding the reader that just reading this stuff without doing won’t bring change. (As I said, she GETS it.)

A drawing of a person swimming, in various shades of blue. Growing Gills. How to find creative focus when you're drowning in your daily life. By Jessica Abel. Link to the author's website.For me personally, Growing Gills became a tool with which I went from being afraid to restart art after recovering from a long burnout, to working on my art on a reasonably regular basis without neglecting my paid work, family, or health. Equally importantly, I believe that I’m a good chunk of the way to figuring out the balance of productivity and sustainability that works for me.

So whatever your goals, if you can use more balance in your life, I strongly recommend you check out Growing Gills. Oh, and if you made a New Year’s resolution to “work on [insert thing here] more in 2019,” make sure to go and say hi to the Should Monster.

My Novel is 0.1% Coffee, 0.1% Firebird Trans Am

This is official: my book is 01.% coffee and 0.1% Firebird Trans Am. Photo by David Bares from Pexels

This is the kind of thing you do at the end of the work week, when the brain is refusing to produce any more remotely creative content. You run a search to see how often certain words occur in your manuscript. (Don’t judge me.)

Here’s what I found:

  • Once we get past the articles, prepositions, pronouns and some common verbs, the most commonly used word in the story is the name of the story’s protagonist’s friend and mentor, Weatherman – which is suitably representative of his importance in the protag’s life, considering that Weatherman himself is off-screen for large chunks of the story at a time. By comparison, the protagonist’s own name, Rain, is used half as often (to be fair, it’s a first-person POV story)
  • Interestingly enough, the names of most recurring characters used in the story are very close together, frequency-wise, even though I tend to think of all of them not having that much screen time. Notably, Rain’s car, Firebird, gets as many mentions as anyone else, in the region of 140.
  • There’s a chance that Rain smokes more than he’s willing to admit, seeing as word “cigarette” alone is used 66 times, and “smoke” another 45. To be fair, he’s not the only smoker in the story: I’m willing to bet that a good chunk of these can be attributed to his doppelganger.
  • Coffee, though, is definitely the most important substance in the story, with the word used 128 times in a roughly 130,000 word manuscript. This is official: my book is 0.1% coffee.
  • I’m going to finish on an uplifting note. Rain’s history and personality combined give light, fire, and darkness all important roles in his story, both symbolically and literally. Well, I’m happy to say that, no matter how dark the story can get sometimes, it’s literally not all doom and gloom: combined, the words “light” and “fire” are used more than twice as much as “dark” and “darkness”.

Residue of the Writing Process (ft. a threatening Pusheen)

A lot of my current process-sharing is inspired by Austin Kleon. This post is no exception – it is directly inspired by his blog titled The Residue of Creativity.

Even though I finish my work digitally, the first drafts are almost invariably written down longhand. As a result, stuff piles up, which can be fascinating to look at later. Here’s some of the residue of my writing work, starting with a blatantly staged shot from a few years ago that I called “A Novel: Exploded View.” (Staged or not, all the stuff in here is from the real process).

A Novel: Exploded View

I also had a delightfully teenage period when I’d use the inside covers of my moleskines as a scrapbook to paste images relevant to the story (including my protag’s face claim).

On occasion, my friend and my partner added their own illustrations to drafts made available to them. Both tended to focus on the protag’s ongoing fear of the dark, but seemed to take different sides:

Finally, taking dialogue notes on Pusheen stationery results in the darling cat saying some shockingly threatening stuff. (Transcribed in the captions, as I don’t expect you to read my handwriting.)

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P.S. Just watching a slideshow of these notes makes me want to start a project where I put the most threatening quotes from my book in the mouths of adorable creatures pictured on stationery…

On Showing Up, or the Year I Lost My Fear of Writing

Some 1.5 years ago, I walked into a therapist’s office and said a bunch of stuff that can be summed up as “I can’t work on my art because I’m too stressed and/or depressed, so can you please fix what’s wrong with me so I can work again.” What followed was a very productive six months, in which not only did I get better, but also became able to see what was wrong with my original request.

Then came the hard part. Teaching myself to work on my art again without repeating what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a five-year-long spiral into a burnout. I’m not saying it was all bad: during those spiraling years, I’d conceived a series of six novels and wrote 2.5 first drafts, two of which got edited to different degrees of completion. I even got two manuscript requests for the first novel: in one case, I proceeded to revise on request but was still ultimately turned down; in the other, I got signed to a small publisher, but they went out of business.

Looking back, I now realize that if I ever wanted to quit writing (or, quit trying to become a published novelist, anyway), the autumn of 2017 was the perfect time for it. I had just moved house. First-Novel had been returned to me after the publisher folded, without as much as an editing note. The first draft of SecondNovel had been untouched for months.

I didn’t quit in the autumn of 2017. Instead, I opened up First-Novel and decided to give it a quick read-through and polish before starting to submit again. A couple of months later, still in the early chapters, I came to realize that it would take more than a quick polish. It would take months of consistent work.

It was around that time that I chanced upon Growing Gills, a book by Jessica Abel, with the very relatable sub-title How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. I’ll talk about it in detail at a later date. For now, I’ll just say it was a great help, and probably the most useful thing it had taught me was to plan for the life I had, not the magical time-managing unicorn life in which I half of every day writing, and the other half on paid work, while remaining sane, healthy and in functioning relationships. Another uber-useful trick was weekly reviews, preferably with an accountability buddy (a ritual in which I was eagerly joined by a friend of mine, an inspired yarn artist).

A lot of things had happened since autumn 2017, and the novel edit was going unimaginably slow – but I persisted. (Almost) every week, goals would be set. Some weeks I’d meet them, some weeks I wouldn’t. It didn’t matter, because there were then the next week’s goals. My goals changed based on my ability to handle them: from “target wordcount to edit” (quickly abandoned, as some parts needed much more work than others), to “hours to spend editing” (abandoned at first because even that felt as too much pressure), to simply “open the file and do some editing on X days”.

It was probably the first time in my life that I consciously adjusted my ambitions downward and, well, kept calm and carried on. Even as it became obvious that the edit I was working on would take many more months than expected. In mid-2018, I said I give myself to the end of year. Now it’s December, and it looks like I’m only halfway done, and I unanimously ruled that it’s okay.

Also, for the first time since I’d decided I was going to be a published novelist, I had come to accept that perhaps I’m not going to be a published novelist, or, won’t have a career as a full-time writer, at least. Perhaps I would simply continue working on my books a few hours a week, and enjoy it. Maybe I could just dabble. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to be a capital-w Writer after all. Weirdly enough, none of those thoughts were very scary. (Confessing them right now is, though.)

The whole “maybe I don’t have to be a writer” thing was sitting really well with my brain. I looked around for other things I could do, including a distance learning course in psychology. I seriously considered a few interesting job offers that came my way – and while they haven’t led to anything (yet), it felt very liberating to actually consider them, not shoot them down as a knee-jerk reflect because “I can’t have a full-time job, I’m trying to make it as a writer!”

When sharing these sentiments with a close friend with whom we have shared history of making art, I said something like: “You know, even if I had all days in which to write,I don’t think I can do writing as a full-time job. It’s just not something I can handle for more than a few hours a day. ” It felt very true at the time. Over the years, writing for me had become so wrapped up in Meaning, Identity, Purpose and many other capital letter words, that I’d need to battle anxiety at the start of every writing session. Even when I was free to set my own goals, the best I could do was “do some editing on X days.” It was clear that I could only handle this stuff in small doses. And that, I have decided for myself, was also okay.

Then I went on a writing retreat. Three days in a beautiful country house with quiet rooms and catered meals. No workshops, no feedback sessions, no structure aside from optional mealtimes. I was free to write all days – or not write all days. Among the fellow writers I shared the house with, some would lock themselves in their rooms and hit word targets, while others would freely admit to spending an afternoon napping or reading, instead. There was no shaming or pushes for productivity.

So, for three days, I was in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere, with nothing to worry about, and free to do anything I wanted. I could nap, read, walk in the country, play on my laptop… What I did was work on my book. For three days, I worked for 5-6 hours a day, and was genuinely shocked at how natural it felt. There was no “cold start” anxiety to overcome. There was no watching the clock to see if I’d done my hours yet. No arbitrary targets I had to hit before I could go and relax. I just wrote and edited. Full time. And it was great.

Upon return, I had to resume work on a large paid project with weekly deadlines that I could only hit if I spent 2-3 hours every morning working on said project, and nothing else. Having wrapped it up and taken some time to unwind, I ran an experimental day in which the same 2-3 hours before lunch were dedicated to writing. It went swimmingly. Even without the country house, I edited comfortably for hours, and could’ve continued after lunch, too, were it not for the paid work needing my attention.

So, inspired by that success, I made plans for the week, this week that I’m at the start of right now. Spend the first half of the day writing, the second half, on paid work. Even with a few hours’ exercise budgeted into every other day, this schedule lets me finish work by the time my partner gets home, so we can spend evenings together. Somehow, after a year of planning for the chaotic life I had and doing my best to just show up, I’m now looking at a schedule that looks suspiciously like the magical time-managing unicorn life I had dreamed of, but knew I could never actually have.

So… let’s see how it goes?

Analog Stuff is Sexy

During the latest chapter edit, I found myself googling a lot of analog audio devices, mostly to make sure I was using the right words for stuff. And I’ve got to say, one of my favorite aspects of writing about an amateur radio station set in a post-apocalyptic setting (so amateur it makes Fallout 3’s Three Dog and his Galaxy News look cutting-edge) is the sheer sexiness of the things involved in it.

I’m also in the middle of reading The Revenge of Analog by David Sax, which is a truly fascinating account of the revival of such things as LPs, physical film,board games, and, of course, paper notebooks, with my dearly beloved Moleskine front and center in that last section.

But before you run off to read about analog or purchase new notebooks, join me on a quick tour of my novel’s radio station, Cloud FM. All words are mine, while the pictures are scavenged from different corners of the internet, proof positive that many people out there agree with me: analog stuff is sexy!

On the desk, there are two pairs of headphones, some boxes and wires I don’t know the purpose of, and a record player, stacked with a handful of black LPs.

There’s also a console with lots of sliders, like you’d see at the side of a stage, where the sound guy does something mysterious while a band is rocking out.

The headphones,the proper over-the-ear kind, with brown leather earpads, cracked but still soft, are plugged into a large reel-to-reel player.

And one more, just because I was really happy to see that people still make these things…


A light bulb hangs from the ceiling, in a weird black lamp shade. It takes me a moment to see that the lamp shade is made of a molten vinyl record.


Photo credits, in order: GratisographyBjørn Egil Johansen via Wikimedia Commons, Pxsphere, Pascal via Flickr, Everfalling via Flickr, and TheLightStore on Etsy.