Is it procrastination or percolation?

Right now I’m supposed to be writing. I have some time cleared away for a session attending to my rewrite. But I’m not writing. I’m doing social media. (VERY important.) I’m making a list of all the things I want to accomplish in the next four months. (Before I leave for my next France workshop.)Emailing people who have expressed interest in attending.

In other words, doing everything and anything but writing.

But, here’s the deal.  I’m at a tricky spot that needs working out. I’ve looked at the chapter a couple times today and sat back in my chair and sighed. Furrowed my eyebrows. Twisted my mouth. Sighed again. Then clicked on over to check out Twitter.

Because in the back of my mind, things are percolating. Every time I look at the manuscript, I get a bit closer to figuring out how to work on it. And since I don’t know yet, I’m letting things percolate while I do other less brain-fatiguing work.

Creativity is a cycle. You can’t go full out on it 24 hours a day. You’ve got to give your brain a break. It is useful if you can actually refuel it by doing something you love to do. This morning on a phone call, I knitted, for instance. That was lovely–and knitting has the advantage of helping jar loose ideas.

My friend Patty Bechtold tweeted this Elizabeth Gilbert quote:  “Time, when treated like a bandit, will behave like one.” Sometimes, you just have to take the time to knit, to do your social media, to go for a walk, to weed the garden and let those ideas percolate.

It is not procrastination, it is percolation.

By the way, if you’ve got things percolating that aren’t making it onto the page, maybe you need a coach. Let’s chat!

I used to drink coffee from an electric perc coffemaker like the one in the photo. Those were the days. Man, that coffee was strong! Just the way I like it.

About Writing Workshops and Retreats (A Love Letter)

I talk a lot about writing workshops and retreats, because I love them both so much. But I’m aware that sometimes in the past I’ve used the terms workshop and retreat interchangeably, causing all matter of confusion and consternation.

So let’s discuss, shall we?

During a writing workshop, writers submit work, either ahead of time or by reading it out loud in class. The work is then discussed by everyone in attendance. (Hopefully in a respectful, helpful manner.) The writing workshop is the cornerstone of every MFA program, where it is accorded sacred status. That’s because writers learn a ton from this experience, both in the process of having their own work critiqued and in reading and reviewing the work of others. And, as writing is discussed, there are many teaching moments for leaders to point out issues of craft.

But the writing workshop isn’t just for MFA programs. You partake in a writing workshop if you are a member of a critique group, and in a mini sort of way, if you have a critique partner with whom you share work.  And, many writing teachers hold private workshops, myself included. At the France workshop I offer each year, we workshop writer’s pages which have been sent in the night (or sometimes at the last minute) before. But, we do more than that. We offer in-class writing assignments and fun exercises. And, we give mini-lectures, imparting our vast wisdom on the topic at hand. It’s a great mix.  We also do this on a smaller scale at local Portland workshops.

And then there are writing retreats, like the month-long one I had the luxury of taking in March. This is when the focus is solely on writing. Period. The point is to get as many words on the page as possible. Many prestigious places offer retreats, often called residencies, such as Hedgebrook, Sitka, Yadoo and more.(Here’s a Poets & Writers link to a ton of them.)

But, you can also create your own writer’s retreat. Find an Airbnb room someplace nearby and grab a couple days to devote to your work. You can go by yourself or with like-minded writers. I’ve done this in two different Oregon coast towns and, ahem, in France, and each time come back refreshed and energized. The fun part about going with other writers is that you work all day, then spend your evenings discussing your work or reading it out loud, and trouble shooting. Sometimes talking about thorny plot issues is just the ticket to unscramble them.

So, which one is right for you? It depends. Where are you in your work? Do you need quiet, uninterrupted time to get a lot of pages done? Are you working on your first discovery draft? If so, what you need is time and space to get it done and a retreat is a perfect solution. But maybe you’ve finished the first draft and are working on crafting more complete chapters. You have questions about how it’s all coming together. You want input. And you’d love to learn a bit more about craft. In that case, a writing workshop will suit you best.

Let me also put in a plug for the person who may not have a project in mind, or has several they are thinking about. A writing retreat might overwhelm. Because: all this time to write but do you write about? But a workshop could help you focus you idea and start to shape it.

So, there you have it.  I hope this is helpful. Which appeals to you more, the workshop or retreat, at this point in your writing?  Leave a comment!

And, by the way, there are still spots open in the France workshop this September, but they are filling fast. Contact me if you are interested in hearing more!

The Usefulness of Thinking Small (In Writing and Life)

I’m a big picture thinker. This is helpful when writing a novel, in which you need to keep an entire story arc in your mind. And it is great when you are planning your weekly schedule. But it can be overwhelming when you are trying to get words on the page. I start out writing a scene for Chapter Two, then realize how it connects to something that is going to happen in Chapter Ten and then the whole arc from two to ten is in my mind. And then it is hard to get back to focusing on the scene at hand.

A big picture

Does this sound familiar? I can’t see the trees for the forest! I’m always skipping ahead to what’s coming next. (And, ahem, when I think about it, I do this in life, too.  During a writing session, I’m constantly aware of when I’ll need to stop to start the rest of the day.  In the car, I’m thinking about what I need to do when I get home. This is one reason why meditation is so helpful for me.)

And lately, working on a rewrite of my current novel, in which I have to drop certain bits in and keep track of them, I’m driving myself crazy. I have a long list of scenes and instructions for fixing them, but I look at it and my eyes glaze over. I can’t find a way in.

But I’ve found something that is helping me and it is thinking small.

I’ve not reread the Anne Lamott book Bird by Bird in years, but there’s a part of it that has stuck with me.  She talks about how she keeps a tiny blank picture frame by her computer and when she gets overwhelmed, she holds that picture frame up to the monitor to remind herself that all she has to focus on is that tiny, tiny bit she can see through the frame.

And that’s what I need to remind myself of, over and over again. One way I’ve learned to do it is with index cards. Love those little guys, especially the smaller ones (3 x 5) that come in colors. (Yes, you could color code them, but I have such a right brain that I start out sorting them by color and then completely lose track.) For the rewrite, I’ve put one chapter on each card and then I can add notes to it as I need to.

Yes, I know, this is not revolutionary. Some of you have probably been doing this for years. And I have tried, but it has never worked for me before. (Which leads to another rule of writing–what works for you today might not work tomorrow. Doesn’t matter. Do what works in the moment!) But now it is enabling me to focus on one chapter at a time by containing everything to one small card.

This idea is helping me in life, too. As in, knitting. Have you ever seen a long page of knitting instructions, complete with abbreviations and lots of numbers? They are enough to make my poor brain explode with angst.  But now I copy just a few lines of instruction at a time onto an index card. And that’s all I have to focus on until I get to the end of that card.

Boo-yah. Knitting stress solved.

So, if you’re struggling with overwhelm, or big picture fatigue, try stopping things down. Experiment with the index cards. Or maybe post-it notes! Or maybe something completely different that only you have thought of! (If so, please share it with us here!)

By the way, I have room for a couple people on my coaching roster. Are you struggling with any aspect of your writing? I can help! Contact me and we’ll chat about it.

This post contains an affiliate link. Photo from everystockphoto.

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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