Clearing My Head ~ Outside the Margins with Kelly Jensen

Join Prism Book Alliance® as Kelly Jensen goes Outside the Margins today.

One of the things I figured out fairly early in my writing career was that I worked more efficiently when I stuck to a schedule. I already knew I wrote better in the mornings. More quickly and more sensibly. I can write in the afternoons, but the words feel more sluggish, so it made sense for me to mark off mornings as writing time and afternoons as “everything else.”

It took me a lot longer to work out the fact I needed more regular breaks—in fact it took my right shoulder seizing until I couldn’t lift the arm, and constant pain in my neck, shoulders, back and arms to figure out I was doing something wrong. Yes, I’m the sort who has to be nearly dead to go to the doctor. I’ve had hives closing my throat before visiting an emergency room only to be told if I’d waited half a day longer, I’d have been too late. Anyway, not being able to move your arms seriously interferes with the ability to write a book. What’d I’d actually done was aggravate a whiplash injury received during a bad fall in my self-defense class and now had a pinched nerve in my neck. This meant three months of physical therapy and learning to write in shorter bursts—and we still had three Chaos Station books due.

So I did my PT, rearranged my desk—raising my monitor and getting a decent chair—and resolved not to sit until I couldn’t move. Initially I failed, mostly on purpose. It’s really hard to extract yourself from a scene when the words are flowing, so I’d sit there for three hours or until my arms went numb. Then I’d spend the rest of the day nearly incoherent with pain and do it all again the next day. I went back to PT and they told me to take more breaks. I tried. But I had books due and novellas I wanted to write and a constant round of editing and revising. The cycle repeated over the course of a year, some good days, a lot of bad days, until I was spending more time unable to talk because of PAIN than I was enjoying life.

I had to make changes. I went back to PT disguised as massage therapy. Once a week, a very nice woman rearranges things in my neck and back. My payment is one evening on the couch incoherent with pain in exchange for a relatively pain free week. It’s actually really awesome—when I remember to go regularly. I also started walking every day. If it’s below zero, I wear layers. If it’s raining, I wear a coat. During the summer, I added a second walk, a morning one, in case it was too hot to go out in the afternoon. I went back to yoga. I started running every second day during my morning walk. I hike on Thursday afternoons.

MtMinsiThe view from Mt Minsi (Delaware Water Gap, PA)

Basically, as my general pain level decreased, my activity level increased. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was how much I would enjoy these breaks. How much I would come to rely on them. They are now a completely necessary part of my day and I get all cranky if I have to miss one of them, because for as much as I needed to get away from the computer to move my body, I also need to clear my head.

I ran cross country in high school. I used to swim competitively. I didn’t get a car until I was twenty-four because I was happy riding my bike everywhere, including an occasional fifty kilometre trip from Melbourne to Eltham to visit my dad for the weekend. I’ve backpacked through Europe and around islands in New Caledonia. I’ve studied self-defense and karate for years. I should have remembered how much I enjoyed being physical, how much I like exercising. But when you’re deep into a book, worlds collide. It’s often hard to remain in touch with the physical.

When I first added the morning walk, I worried it would interrupt the flow of words. That stepping away from the computer would spell an end to my creative pursuits for the day. It actually worked quite the opposite. I now need that time. I look forward to it. I write for an hour to ninety minutes, head out for an hour, walking or running, and write for another hour or two when I return, refreshed and energized. I’ve had time to think over what I’ve just written and what I want to write next. I’ve made mental notes and have half of the next scene hanging in my head ready to put into words. Walking and running time is thinking time! Instead of thinking on the page, where I’d often end up cutting a scene in half, tossing the thinking portion, I now sit down and write a lot more useable words.

Charlie, from my current WIP (Cheez-It book), knows how it works:

He had an idea, now he needed to think it through. That meant putting on his running shoes. His calves complained as he stretched, and his lower back tried to convince him that couch surfing was a better form of exercise. Never mind the fact Sunday’s nap-a-thon was probably responsible for every twinge back there. Or for aggravating the twinge from bending over for three hours as he laid pavers down the front walk on Saturday.

By the time he got to the corner, he felt less like a jar of marbles being shaken too hard. When he got to the end Bierys Bridge Road, his stride had lengthened and his breath had fallen into a regular rhythm. There was a sort of path alongside Monacacy Creek that meandered all the way all the way into Bethlehem. He didn’t usually run that far, but with as much thinking as he had to do, he needed to put a few miles beneath his shoe soles.

With the sun poking through the budding trees and the cool mist rising from the water, he dropped into that space where his legs did one thing, his mind another. He breathed and ran and drifted. The outline of book six floated through his head, a tangled mess. He picked at the snags, one by one, until a couple pulled free.

Thursdays, I write for ninety minutes, go to yoga, then pull on my hiking books and head out into the blue. I live in the Pocono Mountains (a chain of hills in north eastern Pennsylvania we like to call mountains) and have a huge number of trails within a half hour drive.

BigPoconoBig Pocono State Park, PA

I now live for Thursdays. I’m writing this post on a Thursday and it’s sleeting outside. Hiking isn’t going to happen today—it’d be too slippery out there on the mountain trails. I’m planning to do my second favourite head clearing activity: taking myself to the movies. I’ll get there an hour early and circle the mall several times getting in my walking time before the movie starts.

My daily word counts haven’t really increased over the write-until-I’m-numb days. But my weekly word counts have. I’m now pulling a nice weekly average that enables me to write a novella in two weeks and a novel in six to eight. This is the same productivity I enjoyed before I messed up my neck—and I put it down not only to the increased activity, but this head clearing I mentioned.

We spend most of our week absorbing stuff—books, TV, movies, games, videos, podcasts, social media, work stuff. Add in a current WIP, a book in edits, promoting the backlist and the constant swirl of new story ideas and sometimes my head feels so full it hurts. Spending one afternoon unplugged from everything helps me sort and file.

As I write this post, I’m also on an “enforced” holiday. I finished writing the Cheez-It book last Friday and decided to take a week to sort and file before starting revisions. I also know I’ll be looking at line edits for a Counting Down (coming March/April 2017) in November, so this last week of October is a great time for me to take a break.

I’ve really enjoyed having, so far, five consecutive days of head clearing. It took until Tuesday for me to stop fretting about the mess waiting for me when I start revising the Cheez-It book. I’ve made notes and I’m ready to start next week. I think I’ve outlined one new project a day while I’m on my break, but I’ve done it longhand in one or another of the story notebooks I have lying around the house. I’ve also done a lot of reading and a lot of cleaning. It’s a really pretty time of year, so I’ve been out there walking too.

HenrysWoodsHenry’s Woods, Jacobsburg State Park, PA

If there’s a point to this post, other than to take you outside the margins and let you in on the not so secret aspects of a writer’s life, it’s that I believe everyone needs to spend time clearing their head. My daughter has been stressed about school this year, so I’ve switched her off a couple of nights a week. She plays board games and watches movies with me. She resented me for it at first. I was taking time away from her online pursuits. But now she looks forward to these breaks as much as I do.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and have somewhere to take yourself for a mile or two, why not give it a try? Go for a walk. Lap the mall before taking yourself to the movies. Or just forget to take your phone with you one day and live in your own head for a while.

I’m going to leave you with a final excerpt, this one from Block and Strike (coming January 6, 2017). I think we could all use a little Max-Space in our lives!

Sundays he ran Pennypack Trail. Last Sunday he’d walked out there, stupidly breathless after covering the mile from his apartment to the park. This Sunday he took the mile at an easy lope, opening up once he hit the trail. The newly green trees, weeks from forming a canopy, let enough sunshine through to dapple the ground. The scent of mulched leaves and dirt competed with the river. Max could even smell his own sweat, which he counted as a good thing. It had been too long since he had the drive to really push it, to stretch his legs and just run. The path wound beneath his feet and the trees jogged alongside. He inhaled and exhaled in a steady rhythm and, when he hit his stride, the place where pace and breath matched perfectly, the world fell away. He entered Max-Space.

Max didn’t think when he ran, he daydreamed. His mind flew far from his small existence and expanded over a place where he could be anything. Anyone. In Max-Space, he had the courage to be who he wanted to be. People liked him and he was happy. He often carried a slice of that joy home with him, at least for a little while.

He reached the mile post he’d designated as his turning point. One day, he wanted to catch a bus to the top end of the trail and run the whole ten miles, down to the Delaware River. That was his intermediate goal. Sometime after that, he’d run both ways, do the whole twenty. Complete a personal marathon where the only audience was his dream-self, the Max that lived somewhere wonderful. The joy of such a large victory would keep him warm for a week or more.


~Kelly Jensen

About Kelly Jensen

If aliens ever do land on Earth, Kelly will not be prepared, despite having read over a hundred stories of the apocalypse. Still, she will pack her precious books into a box and carry them with her as she strives to survive. It’s what bibliophiles do.

Kelly is the author of a number of novels, novellas and short stories, including the Chaos Station series, co-written with Jenn Burke. At lot of what she writes is speculative in nature, but sometimes it’s just about a guy losing his socks and/or burning dinner. Because life isn’t all conquering aliens and mountain peaks. Sometimes finding a happy ever after is all the adventure we need.

You can chat with Kelly on Twitter @kmkjensen or visit her blog at where she rambles on about anything and everything.

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

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