Spring Cleaning Your Writing

It’s sunny and warm in Portland, and there’s no better place on earth when such is the case. (People visit here in spring or summer, fall in love and move. Then the fall and winter rains set in. Rah roh.)

This year, more than any I can remember recently, I’m feeling very spring-y. Maybe it is because I spent a month in France earlier this year (seems like a distant memory now), or because there are so many ongoing changes in my life. But whatever it is, I’m feeling like shaking the cobwebs out of my house, my brain, and my writing. Time for a refresh!

Here are some things I’ve been thinking about cleaning up:

Mindset. This word is becoming cliched, which is too bad, because I like it. Wave the word under my nose and I’ll follow you anywhere. Maybe because I’ve always believed how important it is to maintain a positive mindset, even if I can’t always do it. Things I’m looking at: Am I constantly complaining about how little time I have to write, or actually sitting down and getting to it when I do have a few minutes? Am I fretting about how “good” I am or am not? am I complaining about how hard it is to complete this rewrite? I need to pay attention to the crap my brain spews at me and change it to a more positive message. I’m reading a book called Train Your Brain that talks about this. There’s not a lot new in it, but she explains it in a simple, logical manner. I like.

Process. Remember how glorious it was, when first you started writing, to get so absorbed in your work that time passed and you had no sense of it going by? Yeah, me, too. That feeling is why so many of us write. And it is really easy to get led away from it. Happens like this: you start obsessing over every word and sentence, polishing your prose relentlessly before you move onto a new scene. Uh-uh. There’s a process to follow for your writing and it goes like this.

–Write a discovery/rough/first draft. Make it crappy. You won’t have to try too hard to do this, because it will be crappy. Discovery drafts are. That’s why there are called that. You’re learning the story and getting it down on the page.

–Rewrite the draft. Go back over it, ponder, rearrange, deepen characters, makes sure your plot is working, look at theme, and then write a second draft.

–Rewrite again. And again. And again–for as long as it takes.

–Revise. When your characters and plot and everything else is working, then you can start polishing.

So take a look at where you are in the writing process and clean it up. Are you writing a discovery draft, but toiling over every line? Cut it out. Write fast. Get that story on the page. Are you ready to revise (see below) but still tinkering with character motivation and arc? You need to go back to rewriting.

Polishing. Remember that you need to wait to do this until the final run-through! Though one caveat is if you know you use too many adverbs, you can start being aware of that as you write. But no obsessing! Here are some things you might want to pay attention to:

–Strong verbs. Are you using them? Or reverting to the same old, same old variants of “to be?” The blog post I wrote on this years ago is still one of my most popular ever, so I think it is something we all struggle with. But also something worth spending time on.

–Adverbs. Gotta love ’em. I do. And I use them way too much. There is a place for the use of adverbs, there really is, but the key concept is to use them judiciously. That way they will have some oomph and impact.

–Sentence structure. Make sure yours is varied, for one thing. Nothing is more monotonous than reading the same sentence structure over and over again. And, also consider shortening up those babies. Here’s a great blog post that explains more.

Reading. I’ve been trying to spend more time reading books and less time on the internet, reading forgettable articles. Besides Train Your Brain, mentioned above, I’m finally getting around to reading A Gentleman in Moscow, which I highly recommend. There’s a satisfaction in sinking into a novel or memoir that you just don’t get from quick hits on the interwebs.

Foundation Rituals. All the “boring” stuff, like meditation, exercise, eating healthfully, getting enough sleep. Yada, yada, yada. You’ve heard it all before a million times and so have I. (And I’ve written about it.) But these things really do make a difference. And at this time of year, it is easy to get re-inspired to walk more and eat all the seasonal produce that is coming into markets. Right?

So, that’s the spring cleaning I’m thinking about. How about you? Leave a comment and tell me how you’re cleaning up your writing! And if, in all this cleaning, you realize you might need a little help with your writing, maybe I can help. Hit me up and let’s chat about your work.

Photos from everystockphoto. 

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!

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?

Lucky Me/Grateful Me/How Good It Is To Be a Writer

Arles-sur-Tech

So, we’re coming up on the end of our third week here in Ceret. After Saturday, we have one more week here, and then Debbie and I have three days in Lyon before heading back to the states.

Already, we are talking sadly about how fast the time has gone. How hard it will be to leave. How much fun we’ve had. How much writing we’ve gotten done. How wonderful it has all been.

And I am sad that this writing sojourn will be over (I refuse to use the word soon in that sentence). But I am also so, so grateful to have this opportunity. I tell myself how lucky I am. But then I stop and think about it. Years ago, when I was living in Sun Valley, Idaho and leaving to return to college after a semester off a friend told me, “Remember, you make you own luck.”

I think I believe that. Yes, we are lucky to be here, but it also takes work. It takes work to find the housing, figure out the travel connections, make the arrangements and so on. But more than that, it takes believing that you can do it. As Debbie, my business partner in Let’s Go Write, good friend, and mastermind of this trip says, “You just have to decide that you’re going to do it.”

(Sort of like writing, right? Would any sane person embark on the process of writing a novel? Or a memoir? Or even a short story or essay? Well, no. But then I’ve always said that writers are the best, most interesting people around so if we are all crazy I guess that is okay.)

Green shutters in Ceret

This is starting to sound preachy, and I don’t mean it to. My intent is to open your mind, and expand your horizons and make you start believing you can do it, too. I’ve been coming to France once a year (this year it will be twice) now for six years. The first time I came, I flew over by myself and made my way to the Air BnB room in an apartment by myself and I was scared to death. I’d gotten used to traveling alone all over the states, but I’d not traveled internationally by myself ever. For that matter, I hadn’t traveled internationally for 30 years.

I managed just fine, of course, because one does. But hailing a taxi was scary (my landlord did it for me), trying to figure out what track the train left from was terrifying (luckily, Debbie met me there), and who knew you had to haul all your suitcases up a tiny staircase once you got on the train? Plus, the French speak very fast and half the time I was left staring at someone trying to talk to me with my mouth open in the universal expression of, “huh?”

But I also remember the feeling of exhilaration that overcame me that first year. How excited I was that I could actually manage to do this. And that feeling has not lessened in all my journeys here since. I still sometimes find myself in a car on a narrow French road lined with plane trees, thinking, I’m in France, I’m in France, I’m in France.

So if I can do it, you can do it (and if you want to come for a writing workshop, consider sojourning with us in September in Collioure.)

It is work, luck, and writing that got me here.  Besides my family, writing has gotten me all the best things in my life–travel, adventure, friends, fun, excitement. As I sit here gazing out from behind my computer to the French sunshine, all I can think is how lucky I am, how grateful I am, but most of all, how good it is to be a writer.

Where has your writing taken you? Leave a comment, or join the Facebook group and we can chat there.

The Haze of Writing Forgetfulness

My view as I write each day

We arrived here in France two weeks and three days ago. Since then, I’ve written ten chapters on a new novel at a pretty good clip. Except for the two days last weekend when I stalled myself out.

I’d written up to the point I had outlined. And then realized that several other scenes needed to be inserted before that point. Which meant much rearranging and figuring and deep thinking.  Which eventually turned into procrastinating, otherwise known as forgetting all the advice I consistently give in workshops and to coaching clients.  Because I’d decided what scenes I needed to write. I was just having a hard time actually writing them.

And what is that advice about writing that I consistently dish out? It is quite simple: get thee to the page and write. Just freaking write. Don’t worry about making it pretty. Don’t worry about having it make sense. Just write. We are way past the age of typewriters, and rewriting is easy–that’s what God made computers for. And spell and grammar check. Getting something, anything on the page gives you a basis on which to build a draft.

I know that. And generally, I follow it. Knocking out ten chapters at a fast pace is proof, right?

But then I got myself blocked. And I forgot. Literally, forgot.

The pet crow who lives behind me

It wasn’t a matter of not walking my talk. It was that, in the moment of facing the page, I totally forgot. There was  a gray concrete wall in my brain between the idea to write fast and get something–anything–on the page, and the act of doing it. And instead I fiddled. And thought I had to have everything all figured out before I wrote the scene. Told myself I was stuck. Ate a piece of chocolate. Stood up and went looking for the pet crow who lives in the house behind me.

The funny thing is, I’m surrounded by writers here at the retreat who are following my advice. Who are busting out the pages, even though it goes against their usual grain of carefully rewriting and revising as they go. So I should have remembered. But I forgot.

I offer this as a cautionary tale, because your brain, too, might play tricks like this on you. Fortunately, in a desire not to squander my time here in France, I have come to my senses and started throwing words on the page once again.

And I remembered another truth, which builds on the first one: the things you need to know will come to you as you write. Yes, I believe in planning ahead. But some things just reveal themselves to you on the page, plain and simple. And if you’re stuck, the best advice is to start writing.

I do not know why it is so hard to remember this. But I will do my best not to forget again.

Does this happen to you?  Please leave a comment and discuss.

And, by the way, are you interested in coming to this wonderful part of France for a writing workshop? We have space in our September events in Collioure! Take a look and email me if you have any questions.

Otherwhere: Almost Summer

It has come to my attention that next weekend is Memorial Day. Could somebody please tell me how that happened? And, though summer doesn’t officially start until after the solstice, we all know that Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of long, lazy days, right? Well, if someone could show me a universe in which adults actually got to enjoy long, lazy days I’d move there in a nanosecond.  In the meantime, how about some fun links to peruse in those stolen moments of your busy, crazy days? Here goes:

Writing

How to share your work and get discovered.

Creating your character’s world.

How to gain more confidence.

Tips for writing that novel.

Some words on setting.

How to start writing a novel if stuck.

Should you let your creativity rest?

Travel Porn

In honor of upcoming workshops I’m teaching, here’s some Oregon Coast porn (there’s still a few spots left in my Sitka workshop) and France porn (one spot left, but we have someone seriously interested so act now if you are, too).

Author Blogs I Like

Rachael Herron

Emilie Richards

Kathleen Tessaro’s nice piece on how she got published.

Joshilyn Jackson. (Lots of fun, but hasn’t been updated for a couple of months.)

That’s all I’ve got for author blogs (though I feel like I’m forgetting a couple of obvious ones that I read). Do you have any that you read? What I like in an author blog is getting a glimpse into their life, besides stuff about their books.  I don’t mind some self-promotion because, duh, that’s the point, but I do like a bit more than just marketing.  Share your favorites in the comments.

The Virtues of Finishing a Writing Project

stop_symbol_plate_238801_lSo, I’m four scenes away from finishing the most terrible Shitty First Draft ever, in the history of man, written.  I started this novel on a sunny afternoon in Collioure last September when I got a sudden inspiration.  I’ve been working steadily on it since then, taking pretty much the whole months of December and February off to deal with more pressing tasks.

The big news about this draft is that it is so bad I nearly abandoned it. I even wrote a blog post about it.  I felt I’d made so many changes in the book that it wasn’t worth it to continue, that I should just start over.

But then I started thinking. As one does.

And I remembered various bits of advice and quotes I’d read.  Like these:

“Finish your novel, because you learn more that way than any other.” James Scott Bell

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish.  You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” Neil Gaiman

And then there are Robert Heinlein’s Rules for Writing, the first two of which are apropos to our topic here:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write.

I felt bad about the prospect of abandoning my poor crappy baby. A baby born in France, no less.  So once I finished the rewrite on my macaron novel, I heaved a heavy, tortured sigh and went back to the horrible WIP, telling myself to just hit the high spots and get something, anything, on the page.

And that’s what I’ve been doing every morning.  I got the idea for this post a couple of days ago.  Back when I was actually enjoying working on the novel for a brief, lovely period.  That was short-lived. This morning I gritted my teeth as I typed every word. (The fact that I had to do a blood draw and COULD NOT HAVE COFFEE until after it may have had some influence.)

But, I will say this.  As the above quotes say, I am learning a lot from busting through to the end.  Ruby, my main character, is finally starting to have a bit of a voice, and I understand her a lot better. Other characters are coming into sharper focus as are overall themes.

Despite the awful writing session this morning, I’m feeling pretty cheerful about it all. Because this afternoon, as penance for not writing a full 2K words, or anything even close to it, I sat down with legal pad and pen to see if I could figure out how much farther I had to go.  And that’s when I realized I had only four more scenes.

Four scenes, people.

I can do this.

And I will be a better person for it. More to the point, my writing will be better as well.

There will be wine at the end. Lots of it. Just saying.

 

Okay, so dish: have you ever abandoned a project?

Photo by brokenarts.