Writing Rituals That Work

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how, really, the only writing ritual that works is opening the file and starting to write. There’s no magic mug to drink from, or a systematic routine that will all of a sudden have you flinging words at the page. You just have to do it.

It is so, so easy and yet so, so hard.

We look for a magic ritual in order to make it easier, I think. So that we can believe there is a method to the sometimes-irritating madness of creativity. A way to beckon it to us. A way to make it happen day in and day out without ever a moment of hesitation.

So, sorry, no magic rituals here today.

What I do have, though is something far more valuable–the concept of foundational rituals. Things that aren’t necessarily writing-related, but will help you with it all the same.  Things you probably struggle to find time to add to your schedule and then easily brush aside, thinking they are not that important. But I’m here to tell you that they are! Using foundational rituals can mean the difference between a steady, productive writing practice and a haphazard one.

What are these rituals of which I speak? Really, they can be anything that grounds you, centers you or calms you, especially that overactive brain of yours. (How do I know it is overactive? Because I’ve got a crazy one, too.) Here are some examples:

Meditation. This is my number one foundational ritual. I’ve been meditating regularly for almost three years now. And by regularly, I mean I aim for once a day and usually hit 4 or 5. It’s like exercise–I can tell when I haven’t done it for awhile and need to get back to it. Meditation makes me calmer, less reactive, more centered. And I just about always get a great idea or two during a meditation session.

Journaling. I’m a lifelong journaler. I go through phases of journaling a lot and then slacking off, but I find the times when I’m journaling regularly I’m more productive and have a ton more ideas. No surprise there. Lately I’ve been following Michael Hyatt’s journaling template, with a couple of tweaks to make it suit me better.

Exercise. I know you know this one. I do, too. And yet I still struggle to do it regularly. Next time you’re balking, remember that it is just as good for your writing as your brain and your body. It clears the cobwebs and gives you more energy–exactly what we all need.

Intentional relaxation. By this I mean doing something you love instead of mindlessly perusing the internet or scrolling through photos on your phone. Go for a walk around the block, knit a few rows, leaf through a magazine. Just make sure its a real thing that you enjoy and that will relax you,.

Mindfulness / Breathing. Similar to meditation, though not quite as codified. Try taking a few minutes out of your work day to sit quietly and just breathe. Focus on your breath or what is going on around you. Tune into your senses. What are you seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, touching?

Observation. This is an excellent practice for writers. Put down your phone, close the lid on your computer, and just sit, watching everything that’s going on around you. Make notes in your journal about what you saw–you never know when something might come in handy.

Walking the Labyrinth. My buddy Terry Price is an expert in this and he’s got all kinds of good info on it at his site. Walking the labyrinth can be like a journey into your subconscious brain.  Ask a question before you enter. Every time I’ve walked it, answers have come.

And, in case none of these float your boat, here’s a link to an article in Time magazine that lists 10 things you should do for yourself every day.

Do you have any foundational rituals you use? Please do share in the comments.

 

Why It Pays to Prep For Writing a Novel (A Love Letter)

I am not big on preparation. I am more of a jump-right-into-whatever-I’m-doing kind of gal. I never read instructional manuals, instead preferring to just start pushing buttons and see what happens. I glance at recipes and often halfway through realize I’m missing crucial ingredients.  And, much to the consternation of my husband, I rarely follow maps.

Yet when it comes to writing, the best experiences I’ve ever had banging out a novel came when I had spent lots of time preparing ahead of time before I got to the actual writing. (And I’ve taught prepping for the novel numerous times.) But the last couple of novels I’ve written fell into the category of brilliant ideas that came to me like a lightning bolt from the blue, which meant that I was so eager to get to them that I just launched right in.

And so I did. With varying results. I wouldn’t say the first drafts were terrible, but in both cases they had some pretty big plot holes and character issues.  Which then required serious revision in the next go-round. And I’ll be honest, sometimes dealing with big issues in a rewrite is hard, hard work.

The rewrite I’m working on right now is…hmm….the second? Third? for my agent (I’m truly blessed that she is willing to work with me until I’ve gotten it right). And only recently, after much pondering, note-taking, and hair-pulling-out, have I gotten to the point where I understand some basic things. Like my main character’s motivation. And her flaws. What she truly wants, not just what she says she wants. Her love interest’s character arc. And so on.

And so, I am here to tell urge you to do some prep work for your novel, for freaking God’s sake. You will be so much happier when you launch into the fun of rough draft writing because you will have some idea of what is going on.

You might like to know, at bare minimum:

A lot about your characters. Use a character dossier, or try out The Story Planner, which has a ton of different ways to suss out a character, and nail the externals first. Then proceed to the internal—desires, motivation, flaws, etc. For my money, it all hinges on the characters. You can never do too much prep work on characters. Figure out as much about them as you possibly can, I say!

The setting. Get a good idea of the basic locations you’ll be using before you start. (You can add on as you go.) Where does your character live? Work? Hang out? Doe she live in the country or the city? How does this affect the story?

The plot. I like to work from a loose list that can be added to or rearranged. And lately, I’ve fallen in love with using index cards, which can easily be shuffled and changed up. It really is helpful to have some idea where you’re going.

Writing a novel is a back and forth process. You do some scene writing and then realize you need to know stuff, so back you go to your character dossiers and your plot list. And then you get ideas for scenes so you return to the writing. That’s the nature of the beast. But I strongly advise you to do as much prep work as you possibly can before you lunge into it.  The next novel I start is going to be supported by as much prep work as I can possibly do.

And I might even start using maps once in a while. Or reading all the way through a recipe before I begin cooking. Or read instruction manuals. Nah, can’t really see that happening.

Are you a prepared type of person or more like me? How does this affect your writing?

And if you are struggling with any aspect of writing a novel, from prep to rewriting, I do have a couple of openings on my coaching roster.  Pop me an email and let’s talk!

Write It Imperfectly, Do It Imperfectly

I was meditating this morning. My legs twitched. I was antsy in my seat. My eyebrow itched and finally I succumbed and scratched it. My back tingled. All these things took my attention away from my mantra–Hum Sah.   And then I started thinking about emails I needed to write and work I had to complete.

I was meditating imperfectly. VERY imperfectly. But, I consoled myself, at least I was doing it. Meditating imperfectly is better than not meditating at all. So, too, with exercise, right? And cooking, and gardening. And–you knew it was coming–writing.

It is important to let yourself write imperfectly. You know this. I know this. But do we remember it when we are writing? Do we let our fingers race across the keyboard, not worrying about how “good” the words are? Or do we stop and obsess about what should come next? What sounds right. What our readers, or agent, or editor will think when they read it?

I do that far too often. Hmm, let me think–maybe I even did it this morning when I convinced myself that one aspect of my character’s backstory had to be figured out in excruciating detail before I could go any farther. When I stepped away from the computer, I realized that wasn’t true at all.  I just needed to write it imperfectly–and then come back and fix it later.

Your job as a writer is to put words on the page. Period. They don’t have to be perfect words. They don’t even have to be good.  The only requirement is that the words come out of your head, through your fingers, and onto the page. Period.

Simple, right? And oh so hard. Just remember–imperfection is your friend. Put it on a post-it next to your computer: IMPERFECTION IS YOUR FRIEND. And remember this in the rest of your life as well.

Let me know how that works out for you, will you? Leave a comment!

The Relief of Routine (A Love Letter)

Routine. Since returning home from France a week and a half ago, I’ve struggled with establishing a writing routine. In France, I followed the same routine as I have here at home for many years: wake up, get coffee, sit down to the computer and write.  Okay, I will admit to looking at email while the coffee brews. My excuse is that this allows me to make certain there is nothing pressing to deal with (lame, I know). And yes, I DO GET DISTRACTED from my purpose to write, just like everyone else. But I’m pretty good about eventually getting down to it. After a couple hours at the computer, I eat breakfast, shower, and carry on with my day.

But, in my month-long absence, my daughter and her family moved in, complete with two small boys, one of whom loves nothing more in the world than hanging out with me in my office. And so, all of a sudden, my precious routine was totally disrupted. Jet-lagged and stiff in every muscle in my body after 14 hours on two different planes, I woke early and groggily sat at my computer in the living room. My daughter had organized a sweet office for me in a tiny room upstairs, but I couldn’t quite face setting up there yet.

For several days, I felt unmoored. Unrooted. Adrift in a strange new world, which was chaotic after the calm, focused days in France. I wasn’t getting any writing (or any work of any kind) done. But I was worrying a lot. How would I ever do any writing with all this going on around me? Would I ever return to my rewrite or the novel I wrote 30,000 words on in France? How would I ever accomplish all the things I want to do?

And then, finally, I set up my computer upstairs and the next morning carried a thermos of coffee up with me very early. And got to work. Jumped back into the rewrite. Suddenly, the world opened up again. I felt like myself again. Because I was writing.  The planets had righted themselves and my life was back on a firm foundation.

Because writing is the foundation of my life and if I’m not finding a way to work on it, I’m unbalanced. Yes, I heard the pitter-patter of little feet an hour and a half into my work session, and my grandson appeared in my office. But by then I’d gotten enough work done that I could cheerfully let him play with my colored pens while I dealt with email.

And the only way I got back to it was by returning to my routine. Finding a way to make it work again, which really wasn’t difficult. If I hadn’t had that routine in place I’d probably still be casting about in the dark for a way to get my writing done.

It is easy to think of routine as boring and rote, the province of boring, rote people—certainly not creatives! But, ultimately, it is routine that will save you. Do you have a routine you follow? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment and tell me or head on over to the Facebook group  to talk about it.

By the way, I’ve got room on my coaching roster for one or two clients.  Email me if you want more info and we can set up a time to talk about it.

The Ritual is Opening the File (How to Get Your Writing Done)

I had a phone conversation with my dear friend Terry Price this morning. (FYI–he and I are planning a creative writing workshop in Nashville November 2nd and 3rd, so mark your calendars if you’re in the area).

We started talking about ritual and how each of us has heard fledgling writers ask questions such as:

–Do you write first drafts on the computer?

–Where do you sit when you write?

–Do you use pen or pencil to take notes?

–Do you write in the morning or in the evening or some time in between?

–Do you listen to music when you write?

–Do you prefer to look out the window or stare at a wall?

–Do you have a special ritual to complete before you start writing?

Yes, yes I do: it is called opening the file I want to work on.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these questions, and they are fun to find out the answers. The problem is that the questioners are barking up the wrong tree. They are hoping that if they hear the Famous Writer uses a certain kind of pen, they, too can use that pen and somehow the words will magically fly onto the page.  People ask questions like these because they are hoping for an easy answer.

Can’t blame them–who doesn’t want an easy answer? Especially when it comes to writing.

It’s funny, because through the years I’ve actually wished for some kind of writing ritual to ease me into the work. But I’ve never found one. Except for opening the file and starting to move my hands across the keyboard.

And that is how writing gets done, not through any magical rituals.

Do you have any rituals you rely on? (Like you’re going to tell me, after reading this post, right?)

How About Some Writing Prompts?

Many moons ago, I used to offer a ton of writing prompts. I wrote a tumblr blog called Inventive Writing Prompts (nobody ever said I was good at names, oh and I just checked and it is long gone). I’ve written a writing prompts book (please go look at it because nobody else ever does). And, if memory serves, I had a writing prompt Saturday feature for a couple of years. Gah! How did I ever keep up with that?

But, in my newsletter this week (you can sign up to the right if you’d like to get it–it’s a love letter about all the aspects of writing) I had a moment of panic when I thought nobody was reading what I was writing. That turned out not to be true, thank you all my lovely readers. And in that same newsletter I asked for suggestions. One lovely person suggested writing prompts. Duh! The light bulb went off in my head–I used to do writing prompts in my newsletter, too. I’m not going to do them there, but I am going to try to do a writing prompt post here fairly often (that’s me refusing to commit to a regular schedule in case you hadn’t guessed).

So, herewith, some writing prompts:

“What on earth happened to you?” he said to his wife.

If only it hadn’t rained, none of this would have happened.

Don’t ever say that to me again.

Write about the first time you got kissed–a real kiss.

Last night.

Wait, what?

Let’s try this again.

They sat in the charming bistro, arguing.

Write about something you (or your character) will never do again.

Your (or your character’s) favorite place in the whole world.

Okay, there you have them! Ten writing prompts to get those words out onto the page. If you feel like it, share the results in a comment. Or share: do you like writing prompts or hate them?

On Story Questions and Traveling Home

After a month-long writing retreat in France, I am home! The trip back was even more chaotic than the journey there, but we made it. So here I am at home in Portland, smack in the middle of chaos.  While I was gone, my daughter and her family moved in (that includes two small boys). We are putting on an addition to make room for everyone to live together but until that happens we are all crammed in together. Boxes are piled everywhere. Their dog terrorizes our cats, who spend most of their time down the basement now. My computer sits atop a table covered with paper and markers.

And in the midst of all this, I am pondering story questions. Allow me to elaborate. I’m reading Still Me, the third book in the series about Louisa Clark by Jojo Moyes. I’m not that far in and I’m enjoying it immensely. Louisa is a charming character who does funny things and dresses outlandishly. But I bought the book on the strength of having read the first two, and I don’t know that much about it. Since I hurriedly downloaded it for my Kindle before I left, I haven’t read the front flap or back cover copy. Usually that would give me a clue.

This morning I realized that I have no idea what the book’s story question is, based on my reading so far.  What do I mean when I say story question? I define it as the motor that keeps the reader turning pages, because she wants an answer to that question. She wants to know what will happen.

In a way, it’s the point of a book. In a romance, the story question is, will the woman get her man (or vice-versa)? In a mystery, it is, who is the killer? In a thriller, the story question is, will the protagonist escape/outwit/best the villain?  Of course, in genre fiction, we pretty much know what the answer will be, but the question is always in our mind as we read.

And here’s a real-life explanation. Earlier this week, as I made my way home from France, all kinds of snafus occurred, as mentioned above.  After leaving our small town in the south, Debbie and I planned to spend three nights in Lyon, then take a train early Tuesday morning directly to Charles De Gaulle airport and connect with our noon flight.  But Tuesday happened to be the first day of a planned nation-wide rail strike, and we were advised to take an earlier train. Which meant leaving a day early, finding a hotel to stay at in Paris, and several trips to the train station to see about changing our tickets to Monday.

Turned out exchanging tickets was not so easy.  The bored clerk offered us only the opportunity to spend 273 Euros each for standing room only on a train that might or might not actually depart.  And so, because we had to make that flight, we rented a car and drove to Paris.

If you were writing about this adventure, the story question would be, will they make their flight? Will they ever get back home? Believe me, there were many times this was in doubt. One way to look at it is the simplest construct in all writing. Our goal/desire was to make it to the airport. All the snafus were the obstacles in the way that made the question arise: will they make it?

So back to Still Me. 

The story is about Louisa’s year in New York City, working as a companion for a very wealthy family. The story begins as she arrives in the states from the UK.  The idea is that she’s spreading her wings and trying new things in homage to her late employer/boyfriend, Will Traynor, who we met in the first book.

So at first I thought maybe the story question would center around her employment. But no, at least not entirely. There are some quirks there, but that doesn’t seem to be it. So maybe there’s drama in what she left behind in England? No, her family seems happy and she has a new boyfriend she loves with home she Skypes often. In my reading session last night, a new character was introduced, a man who reminds Louisa of her beloved Will. I suspect he has a lot to do with the story question. Will Louisa develop a relationship with him? Will she then stay in New York or go back to England? What is her true place in life?

Me not knowing the story question has not put me off this particular book. I trust this author and I love the characters she develops. But if I were reading a book by an unknown author not quite as adept at craft, I may have been tempted to set it aside.

Readers these days more and more often won’t have front flap or back cover copy to guide them–only description on a website, a sample from Kindle, or a “look inside the book” preview. So I think it behooves us to be aware of our story questions and make them clear from the beginning.

Of course, that assumes that we know the story question. Which can be difficult! But that is a topic for another time…..

Have you ever read a book where you were confused about the story question? Leave a comment or head on over to the Facebook page to discuss.

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Lessons Learned From a Month-Long Writing Retreat (A Love Letter)

First of all, Happy Easter! And if you are not into that holiday, then you can always celebrate the coming of spring. As a kid growing up in the Unitarian church, that was the emphasis we learned.

As you read this newsletter, I’ll be settling into an apartment in Lyon, France for two days, my month-long writing retreat in Ceret over. It was a great success. I wrote 33,000 words of a new novel and then switched gears to focus on a rewrite of a different novel to my agent’s notes. That required a lot of rearranging and so forth, and I’m happy to report that I got a new annotated outline done. So all I have to do now is plunge into the actual writing.

But beyond that, I learned some good lessons this past month. These are taken directly from what the five of us talked, stressed and obsessed about:

–Motivating your characters—giving them credible motivation—is all important. If your character’s motivation is weak or illogical, it throws everything off. But figuring out motivation is hard. Sometimes it takes a lot of thought and working through several drafts in order to truly understand your character.

–Arc in character, plot and scene, in other words, macro and micro is also crucial.

–Timelines are a bear. First of all you have to try to keep track of them. Then you need to monkey them around so they conform to the plot. It’s enough to send a writer to drink. Fortunately, this region of France is full of good, cheap wine.

–Having expansive time and space in which to concentrate on writing is truly remarkable.

–But, for me, probably the best part of this retreat has been the writerly camaraderie. The opportunity to discuss plot over Happy Hour is so helpful. One afternoon, I went to the upstairs apartment and blathered on my character’s lack of motivation. Jenni said one thing, Debbie said another and all of a sudden I said, “I’ve got it! I think I figured it out!” This is for a novel on which I am three drafts in, and I never would have discovered it without their input—and the strong espresso. Never underestimate how powerful writing community is. We writers work in isolation far too much.

I’m grateful for the time I’ve had to concentrate so deeply on my writing and also have a lot of fun. This week its back to the states. And it will be good to be home, too. And more writing surrounded by family and friends—which will be wonderful in its own way.

The moral of my story today is that if you get the chance to go on a writing retreat of any length even one day, do it!

Have you ever taken a writing retreat? What was the result? Leave a comment!

Letting Go of Words, Work, and Writing

A friend wrote from Mexico last week. She said she was having a hard time letting go of the words she was writing.  There were sentences she liked in her essay and she didn’t want to delete them.  She suggested this might be something I’d like to write about.

And she was right. Letting go is one of my favorite topics.

I myself am not terribly good at letting go. You might even say I have a hard time with it. I carry extra weight. My house holds extra clutter. My brain is full of chattering monkeys at any given hour of the day.  And yet I’ve had the glorious experience twice in my life of spontaneously letting go of something that had been bothering me. 

The freedom, lightness, and expansion that follows is astounding. In the aftermath of the letting go, you just don’t care. And not in a bad way. In a deeply peaceful way. You’re certain that whatever is to happen will be what is supposed to be.

How did it happen?How did I achieve this amazing state?  Beats me. I’ve tried to replicate it many times. And, of course, the essence of letting go is elusive like that. The more you try to force it, the less likely it is to happen. So while I’ve not been able to exactly reproduce these wonderful experiences, I’ve come up with some ways to at least deal with them. And I will talk about those as they relate to writing.

Letting go of words, as in the situation my friend wrote me about.  You like those words you put on the page, damnit! And you don’t want to get rid of them.  The antidote: create a hold file, into which you carefully copy and paste those precious words and sentences. I do this for every project. And I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually gone back to the file and extracted something I’ve deleted. But it makes me feel better to know I’m not just flinging them to the winds of cyberspace.

–Letting go of negative self-talk, the kind that can keep us from the page and/or keep us from expressing ourselves once we get there. The antidote: well, this is a lifelong quest, so I don’t have one all-purpose answer. But I do have some suggestions. Meditation helps a lot. A lot lot.  Exercise helps, as does EFT (tapping) or any kind of work that helps you get out of your brain and frees you up to put words onto the page.

–Letting go of the actual work, as when it is time to submit to an agent or editor. The antidote: you just have to grit your teeth and do it.  Sorry.

Really, all three of these types of letting go are practices that we writers need to do over and over again So you might as well get used to the process. Oh, and if you’d like to read more about letting go in general, I found this article to be helpful.

Are you good at letting go? Or bad at it, like me? How does it affect your writing? Please leave a comment!

Photo from everystockphoto. I found a crow picture in honor of the crow who lives in the house behind me here in Ceret. You can see his photo here and here.

Losing Faith in Your Writing, Part 2 (A Love Letter)

Dear Writer,

This week, I was happily working on my next novel—ten chapters in—when I got a cheery email from my agent. “Notes coming tomorrow!” That would be notes on my previous novel, which I’ve rewritten twice, working with her.

Ruh-roh.

Because if she was sending “notes,” that meant there was more rewriting to do. The email I really wanted to get would be the one that said we were ready to start sending it out. And then the notes from her and her team arrived, recommending rewrites more extensive than I had imagined.

And I have to confess—it threw me. I read and re-read the email, but no matter how I spun it, there was more work to do. And it felt like being rejected all over again. Like my book wasn’t good enough. Like I wasn’t good enough.

It was all I could think about for a little bit. Rejection is like that—it overwhelms you so that all you can do is obsess about it. I had a hard time moving forward for half a day or so. Couldn’t quite process what I needed to do for the rewrite, couldn’t get back into the flow of the new novel. Spent time feeling sorry for myself. (In the middle of a month-long writing retreat in the south of France, I might add—how ridiculous is that?)

Until the obsessive fog cleared and I started thinking more clearly. And then I realized something. A couple of somethings, actually. First, my agent is determinedly helping me make this book deeper and richer. When first I wrote it, I thought of it as a simple romance. And now it is moving into women’s fiction territory.

And second, I have a top-flight agent willing to take this time and energy and care with me and I’m complaining? She wants to help me make this book as good as it possibly can be.  She has, in a nutshell, faith in me. So shouldn’t I have some faith in myself as well?

Yes, yes I should.

Last week on the blog, I wrote about a friend who spun in many different directions, never landing on one, because she lacked faith in herself. This week the spinner was me. The one who counsels other writers never to lose faith, to keep going, to get to the page regularly.

I should know better, right? Well, yes. But I share my story to emphasize that it happens to all of us, all the time. And the only trick is to let it wash through you and then carry on. Take a day or a week to spin, instead of a lifetime.

And then get thee back to the page.