Chunking It Down

You know the old question, how do you eat an elephant?  And the answer is, one bite at a time.  Well, this post is sort of like that.  Because we're going to talk, you and I, about how you write, which is somewhat like how you eat an elephant: you write one chunk at a time. Elephant-IMG_1981

I did a whole piece on this in my recently concluded Writing Book Proposals That Succeed teleclass (which, by the way, I'll be repeating in the fall), and it turned out to be one of the most helpful sessions, according to class attendees.

The Tiny Picture Frame

Anne Lamott, in her class book Bird by Bird, writes about how she keeps a small empty picture frame next to her computer.  And then when she needs reminding, she holds the frame in front of her monitor and peers through it.  This reminds her that all she has to focus on is that one little tiny bit of writing.  A word, a sentence, a paragraph.  Bit by bit, chunk by chunk, you focus on one little bit at a time.  And soon you have finished the entire thing.

A Vague Outline

One thing that will help you utilize this process is an outline.  It can be vague, or even detailed if that is how your brain works.   It can be as simple as a main topic with several sub-topics, or a main topic with questions for sub-topics.  Or just a simple list.  Whatever works for you.  But do write something up, however loose, because we're going to use it in the next step.

The Beauty of Prompts

I know, love 'em or hate 'em.  Doesn't matter how you feel about them, give this process a try.  Instead of using a prompt that someone else has written for you, you're going to write your own.  And yes, you smart ones have figured it out already.  You're going to use you topic heads and sub-heads as your prompt.  Focus on one topic at a time.  You can set a timer and free write or do it however you want.  But stick to the subject as much as possible and write.  As you're writing, keep a list of things that occur to you that you want to write more about or research more about.  Voila, new prompts

Cut and Paste

Once you've come to the end of your vague outline, you can now put things in order.  Pile them up.  Sometimes I label a separate piece of paper with each topic and pile everything related there, then cut and paste them back together.  Go through and write transitional material and hey, you've got a rough draft.

The Fictional Way

Fiction does not lend itself quite so easily to topics and sub-topics, obviously.  But you can still use the chunking process.   Just remind yourself that all you have to stay focused on is the scene at hand.   Build it word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.  And then one day you will look up and say, Hark!  I've written myself a novel!

What methods do you use to get your words out of your brain and onto the page?  Have you used the chunking method?

*Don't forget to sign up for my mailing list, which is the best way to keep up on class announcements and so forth.  I also write brilliant articles for it.  And you get a nifty free Ebook on creating Vision Boards when you sign up.  All you have to do is add  your name and email to the from to the right.

**Also don't forget that the price of my Get Your Writing in Gear one-hour Kick Your Butt sessions are going up at the end of the summer.  You can book now (or book for a friend or family member or for a gift) and use it any time.  Check out all the details here.

Photo by xandent, from Morgue File.

But I Can’t Be Happy

Does this ever happen to you? Flower_flowers_stuffed_250188_l

Suddenly and wonderfully, for no known reason, you feel a flash of happiness, or a rush of sudden joy.  Ah, glory.  You stop to revel in it.  And then…

Up pops that voice.

The one that whispers:

 Yes, but…

Yes, but, remember?  I can't be happy!

Why? I can't be happy because:

  • I still haven't lost the extra weight I'm carrying
  • I'm still not published
  • I'm not making enough money
  • I don't have a perfect love relationship
  • I don't have children and I really, really want some
  • I don't have my ideal job

All of which translates to:

  • I'm not thin enough
  • I'm not rich enough
  • I'm not published enough
  • I don't have enough
  • I'm not enough

To which I say: Enough, already!  You are enough, you have enough, you do enough.  I know, I know.  That's scant comfort when your buoyant joy is brought down to earth by that insistent voice.  So what's the antidote?

So glad you asked.  Here are my best strategies:

Recognize that its your ego talking.  Joy and happiness come from connection, from the divine, from being at one with the wonderful world.  The ego comes from a lifetime of misperceptions, imagined and real hurts, and crazy ideas that get lodged in our brain.  Just remembering this and recognizing that it is the ego squelching your joy is the first step.

Tell it to shut the f*%# up.   Geneen Roth talks about screaming back at the ego in her work.  Tell it to shut up, tell it that its not welcome, tell it that it is interrupting.   You may be a kinder, gentler soul than I, and want to ask it nicely to be quiet.  Do whatever works.

Know that all you really need (and have) is the present moment.  In every moment, you can choose love or you can choose fear.  It is pretty obvious that choosing to listen to the ego is choosing fear whereas choosing love is letting joy overtake you.  This takes practice, but gets easier.

That's all I've got for you at the moment.  Silencing the ego is a lifelong practice.  But it is a worthwhile one, becasue in the end we are here to love and experience joy. Anybody else have any suggestions?

Photo by hagit.

The Mental Cleanse For Writers (And Others!)

Seems like every other person I meet these days is doing a cleanse. Everystockphoto-78603-m

I get it.  Stuff gets stuck in your digestive passages and other organs and affects you in negative ways.  You don't have as much pep, or as they used to call it, get up and go.  You feel a bit blah and depressed and you're not sure why.  And so on.

So, I'm all for the cleanse.  But I believe that probably even more important than a physical cleanse is a mental cleanse.

Think about it.

Just as food particles get stuck in your digestive system, so too do old ideas and energy get lodged in your brain.  Scientists say that neuropathways get carved in our brain, and in order to create new habits, we have to create new neuropathways.  So it stands to reason that a mental cleanse is an important first step in this endeavor, no?  And that by cleansing mentally, we create crazy room in the old noggin for new ideas and yes, new writing projects.

So here are my recommendations for your mental cleanse:

1.  Let go.  Easier said than done, but letting go of worries and fears is incredibly cleansing.  And it frees up tons of space in the old noggin.  So, instead of focusing on how you're going to pay your car insurance, or even something as simple as what to cook for dinner, let go and let God (or whomever or whatever it is you pray to).  Not only will you actually have room in the brain to ponder the next chapter of your book, amazing things will happen.  Because, that's what happens when you let it all go.

2. Forgive.   This is, of course, closely linked to #1.  Because forgiving is all about letting go–of resentments, of anger, of grudges.  And when you forgive you clear your brain.  And when you clear your brain, you've got more room for new stuff.

3.  Operate from your heart.  Just give the old brain a rest.  Center yourself in your heart and work from that consciousness for a change.  Life-changing.

4.  Trust your gut.  Another way to give your hard-working brain a rest is to listen to your intuition, which is traditionally centered in your stomach.  A few years ago, information came out that we actually have another brain there.  So use it.  Let the brain in your head take a break.

5.  Locate the place where you ego talks to you.  Mine speaks clearly to me from a location in the upper part of the right side of my brain.  I know, weird.  Anyway, observation is the first step to change, and by knowing this I can easily identify when it's my ego speaking to me.  The ego is a sneaky beast, and loves to hide itself.  So knowing when it is talking is vital.

6.  Befriend your inner critic.  First, you must meet him or her.  Give her a name and describe her.  And then see what kind of deal you can broker.  Can you get him to entertain himself while you are writing, for instance?  Or to be quiet while you're meditating?  Offer her a job–revising is a great one–and that will go a long way towards mollifying her.  For a wonderful example of someone who did this and wrote a charming post about it, go here.

7.  Deal with negative thoughts.  Nip them in the bud, release them to God, scour them out one way or another.  I believe they are as bad for your brain as alcohol is reputed to be.

So there are my thoughts on giving yourself a mental cleanse.  In truth, these are all practices I strive to follow every day, not just when I think the gunk has piled up a bit too much.  How about you?  How do you give your brain a break?

**PS–Don't forget my free coaching sessions.  You will be amazed at how much we can clear out in 15 minutes.  Click here to find a time.

Photo by ardelfin.

The Art of Being Enough, Writer’s Edition

Heart-jasper-brickred-1772-l One of my favorite current spiritual messages is: you are enough.  Or, to put it more personally, I am enough.

I've written about this before (actually twice, here and here,) but it is important enough (there's that word again) to write about it again.

Because, as a writer, it is hard not to constantly question whether we are enough–good enough, clear enough, popular enough, and so on.  We are constantly buffeted by critiques, edits, and rejections, all of which combine to make us believe we are not enough.  And truthfully, everyone's writing benefits from a look-see by another pair of eyes, be it an editor or critique partner.

But to keep going we have to believe we are enough.  We have to forget about rejections, brush off harsh critiques and find the courage to return, once again, to the page.

How, when we are engaged in putting our words out into the world, do we do this?  How do we maintain a consistent knowledge that we are enough in our writing?  Here are a few suggestions:

1.  Know the difference between standing for yourself and egotism.

Standing for yourself = loving yourself and your work in a realistic way (like you'd love a child).

Egotism = false pride.  Pumping your work up, based not on reality but on emptiness.

2.  Get some distance from your work.

Your writing, unless it is in your journal, belongs in the world.   When it is ready, let it go.  Love it and let it go, as you would a child going off to college.  As a parent the hardest truth of your existence is this: you're training your child to leave you.  When you've done your job right, your kids leave.  So, too, with your writing. 

3.  Remember that rejection is way more about the person doing the rejecting than you or your work.

Unless the work is just flat-out crappy, rejection is truly reflective of the person doing the rejecting.  There are so many variables at work that you, in your limited view, can not understand.  Maybe the editor just bought an article like the one you propose.  Perhaps the agent hates novels that begin with mothers and daughters arguing (for murky reasons that are not clear even to her).

4.  Remind yourself of these truths.

Practice being worthy.  Practice being enough.  Say it:  I am worthy.  I am enough.  My writing is worthy.  My writing is enough. Feel yourself being worthy and let it spill out onto the page.  Don't all into negativity and fear, in all its sneaky guises.

5. Practice appreciation.

Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, reminds us that what we appreciate appreciates.  As in value.  She advocates taking stock of what valuable assets we already have and using them as the basis for changing our lives for the good.  You have valuable writing assets: talent, desire, inspiration.  Use them!

How do you remind yourself that you are enough?

Photo by oedipurphinx, from Everystockphoto.

There’s Power in Conflict

I volunteer with an organization called Step It Up, which connects high school students with experts in their chosen careers, and offers advice and support around jobs.  Over the last couple of months, I've done a couple of writing workshops for them, with a co-leader who is a teacher.

The last two days we've been working with the kids on writing cover letters and thank yous.  Specifically, my task was to help them find ways to get stories into their cover letters (and job interviews) to make them come alive.

As my co-leader Christine and I planned how we would do this last week, I told her it was very simple.  That there was one thing that every single story from the beginning of time had in common.

"What is that?" she asked.

I'm sure all of you reading know the answer, so say it with me:

CONFLICT.

The bedrock, bottom-line, starting point of all story.  Conflict.  Stories don't exist without it.

And yet, my co-leader, an educated woman with a master's degree who had taken tons of English classes and participated on the debate team, had never heard this simple fact.  Which doesn't actually surprise me because I've run into plenty of grown-ups who haven't either.

The cool thing is that Christine went off and put her new knowledge into place.  Yesterday she stopped me after the workshop and said, "Thank you.  This whole story thing has totally blown my mind and changed the way I look at everything."

Turns out she had spent the weekend with a group of girlfriends, and every time it was her turn to talk or tell a story, she found herself rearranging it a bit mentally so that she started with a bit of conflict.  And now she's thinking about how she can put conflict into her cover letter stories and jazz them up.

Its the power of conflict, baby.  Use it whenever you can, in the stories you tell, the letters you write, the books you are committing to paper.   Your writing and your story telling will be richer and more compelling for it.  Put the conflict on the page and keep it out of your life, is my motto.

For the record, when I asked the teenagers in the workshops what the basic element of story was, most of them answered, "conflict."  So there's hope for future writers.

How do you develop conflict in your writing?

**If you want to know how to develop conflict in your book proposal, consider taking my book proposal teleclass.  It begins June 7th, and the early-bird pricing is still on.  Check it out here.

Expansion and Contraction, or Glumping and Haiku

Convincing a group of at-risk teens that writing is not only a useful activity, but a fun one, could be a bit of a challenge, wouldn't you say?

Golden-dark-sunshine-25014-l And that was my charge at a workshop I co-lead on Monday for an organization I volunteer for, Step It Up.  The nonprofit hosts a Career Club for high schoolers, giving them practical information on job-related activities such as business site visits, resume writing, informational interviews, and writing cover and thank you letters.  After a few months of this training, they graduate to actual internship positions.

But first they have to learn to write those resumes and cover letters.  And in order to do that they need to get over their fear and hatred of writing.  Which was our goal on Monday.  We led them through a variety of creative activities (anagrams, how many images can you draw in the circles, etc.) to loosen them up and then got to the writing.

Here was the brilliance (it was my co-leader's idea, so I can say that) of it: in order to illustrate the writing process, first we had them glump, then we had them write Haiku.  Thus showing how the initial step is to put everything out on the page in one glorious brain dump, and the second step is to fit it into a specific structure, such as a Haiku.  Expansion and contraction. We had them free-write on one career-related word of their choice, and then compose a Haiku using that same word.

I started thinking how useful an exercise this two-step process could be for writers, to loosen yourself up and get the juices flowing.  Try it:

1.  Glump.  Set a timer, use a prompt or a word, and write.  Keep that hand moving across the page. Don't censor yourself or even think very much.

2. Review.  This is an optional step, but it can be helpful to go through your glump and highlight sentences, words or phrases you like.

3.  Write a Haiku.  Take the same prompt or word and write a Haiku about it.  As a refresher, a Haiku is a three-line poem.  First line is 5 syllables, second line is 7, third line is 5 again. 

The great thing about Haikus is that they can be lyrical and descriptive, or silly and fun.  I once had a weeks-long email exchange with my wonderful friend Suzanne, in which we entertained ourselves by writing only in Haiku. 

So try it and let me know how it works out for you.  Leave a Haiku in the comments if you feel so inspired.

And remember, if writing Haiku fails to inspire you, my Get Your Writing in Gear sessions are on special through the month of March

 

Photo by Ayla87, from Everystockphoto.

Prepping to Write a Novel

When it comes to fiction writing, lately I've been struggling.

First I was totally committed to writing one novel.  Oh, but no.  Then I decided that I absolutely, positively was in love with a different idea.  Until I desperately needed to work on yet a third idea, the best one yet!  This has been my fiction-writing life for the last few months, a little attention here, a bit of attention there, which adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

Have I ever mentioned how unhappy I get when I'm not writing fiction?  I exist in a semi-miserable state of dullness when I'm not fully engaged in a fictional world.  So it was vital that I get going on a novel.  And yet, every time I started in again, I'd do the same thing.  Commit to one idea for a bit, then another, then another. 

Part of it, I'm sure, stemmed from uncertainty about my completed novel.  I'm in the process of marketing it to agents, which is not for the faint of heart.  (Honestly?  I understand why the traditional publishing industry is imploding: many agents are so overworked they won't even bother to reply to your queries.  What's wrong with this picture?  Don't the agents rely on writers for their jobs?  Can't they at least manage a polite no?) Repeatedly, I am being told a variation on this theme:  love your writing, but your main character is not relateable enough.  Oh, and get this–being a writer is one thing that makes her unrelateable.

Anyway, it is hard to be creative when you're busy thinking dark thoughts about the publishing industry.  And certainly I had plenty of other writing to keep me busy.  So I kept going on my round-robin of dipping into different novel ideas.

But the truth is, I was driving myself crazy.   I wanted to be deeply engrossed in writing a novel again.  Yet I couldn't manage to make it happen.

Until a couple weeks ago, when my coach challenged me to move forward on this issue.  She suggested I ask for guidance.  I was to ask the universe for a project that felt good and authentic to me, would be fun to write and yet also easy to sell (might as well, right?)

And so I did.  When I walked, I asked for a novel idea.  When I did dishes, I asked for a novel idea.  When I showered, I asked for a novel idea.  I really, really wanted an idea for a novel.

Cue my other ongoing project, office organization.  Sorting through files, I realized I had lots of them full of notes for various truncated novel ideas.  So I made a stack of them and started reading through, with an open mind.  The very first one, a forgotten idea with some rough notes from several years ago, made my heart pound. 

And when I read over the notes I had in that file, I identified my problem.  I'd not done any prep work for the novel!  Worse, I'd not done it for any of my poor stunted novel ideas.  No wonder I was spinning like the Mac pinwheel when I set out to work on them. Oh, I'd started preparing character dossiers and plot outlines.  But something always pulled me away from it, and off I'd go attempting to write.  Which is like building a house without a foundation.

The thing is, I know better.  I've given lectures on how to write a novel in 30 days, which is dependent on having some pretty damn solid prep work in place before you get started.  I exhort my students to get to know their characters and write up at least a loose plot outline before getting started.  I blog about these topics!

But I think I've lost my center as I've been in the process of marketing my previous novel.  If anything can make you feel unsure of yourself, its submitting work to agents.  And beyond that, has been the lack of closure.  I'm not certain where I'm going with the original novel and that lack of certainty has made it hard to move forward.

Until now.

Because I'm on it, baby!  I've committed to working the idea that made my heart flutter, no matter what happens with Emma Jean and no matter where this new novel takes me.  Which means that the next step is some serious novel prep work.  And, since I generally blog about what's on my writing mind, that means I'm going to spend the next two posts (Wednesday and Friday) on this topic. 

I'm excited.  Nothing better than getting to work on a new project.

Chime in!  I'd love to hear your thoughts on starting a new fiction project.

Why Did You Decide to Become a Writer?

I'm playing around with a new character, whose life is defined by the books she reads.  And this has made
Everystockphoto_205924_m me ponder how intertwined my life is with the books I read.

I refer to characters from books I've read in my brain all the time, sometimes learning from their actions, or using what they do as a cautionary tale.  I remember incidents from memoirs and learn helpful nuggets for daily life from spiritual books. 

What makes books so amazing for me is the power they have to transport me to another world, to plop me down in a completely different setting and make me feel like I'm walking around in a new location.  Even good cookbooks can do this for me, like the latest one I'm using, which has me inhabiting a cattle ranch in Oklahoma.

What I've also been thinking about is how being an avid reader has made me who I am today, ie, a writer.  Because from the earliest time I can remember, I thought this ability of the written word to transport me to a new world was magical.  And I wanted me some of that magic for my own.  Since I was a teeny, tiny girl, I wanted to be a writer.  And that all stemmed from my love of reading.

Sometimes in my travels I run into people who want to be writers but never read.  Um, really?  C'mon.  You have to read in order to learn to write, to see how other people put words together on the page so they make sense.  To see how they compose a scene, to learn how to write dialogue.

But beyond all that, I can't even imagine a world in which reading and writing are not linked.  In which the desire to be a writer doesn't stem from an avid reading habit.  Can you? 

If you can, please tell me about it, I'm all ears.

No matter where your desire to write comes from, I'd love to hear about it.  What's your earliest memory of wanting to be a writer?  Of the magic of reading?

Have a Place To Go in Your Writing

When writing, it is important to have a place to go. 

For instance, Ernest Hemingway always ended a writing session in the middle of a sentence, thus insuring that he had a place to go when he started the next day.  I've relearned this lesson over and over again in my own work.  If I wrap up a chapter all nice and neat, the next day I flounder about as I start a new chapter.  But if I leave myself some room to work, things go much easier.  

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I've scheduled a writing session, usually first thing in the morning because that is when I like to write fiction, and come to it unprepared.  And it is dangerous, for me at least, to be unprepared because that is when the internet and email beckon.  (I have this bad habit of clicking over to my email inboxes or yahoo home page when I stop to think.  I tell myself it is to give my brain a break, but…you can be the judge of that.)

When I am unprepared for a writing session, I lack clarity on what it is I want to write.  And clarity is one of the most important things, in writing and in life.  (Clearing is actually one of the seven practices of the prolific and prosperous writer that make up my Writing Abundance workshop.)  Without clarity, I have no place to go on the page.

But clarity can be ridiculously easy to come by, at least the kind required to know where you going when you turn on your computer and get ready to write.  It just takes a little advance thought.  So here are my best strategies for having a place to go on the page:

1.  Make Notes Ahead of Time.  In advance of your writing session, go through what info you've collected and make notes, either of where you are at or what you want to start.  If you know you are going to be working on a character sketch for your new novel, make a few quick notes.  Your amazing subconscious mind will take what you've written and start working on more.

2. Read Your Work Over.  Re-read what you've read, the night before if you can.  (This works especially great if you are going to get up and write first thing.)  Reading your work over reminds you of where you are, so you don't have to reinvent everything during your writing session.

3.  Make Like Hemingway.  Don't write to the end of a chapter.  Stop a few paragraphs short.  You can even go so far as to stop in the middle of a sentence, like Ernie did.  This automatically gives you a place to go.

4. Carry Your Work With You.  When I'm in the full heat of working on a novel, I carry the little spiral that I use for notes around with me everywhere.  Not only is it at the ready if I have an idea, but there's something about the act of carrying it around that acknowledges the novel's importance and keeps it front and center in my brain.

So those are my thoughts on always being ready.  What are yours?  Comment away.  And keep the phrase, have a place to go, in your fertile brains because I'm coming back to it tomorrow.

When Something Isn’t Working

When something isn't working, there's a reason.   Doll_head_snow_264063_l

I know.

Duh.

But how many times have you sat at your computer, beating your head against your desk, trying to make something work that isn't working?  Trying to force a character to do something she doesn't want to do, or writing a scene in a location that just doesn't resonate with you, or creating a plot point that seems forced and unnatural?

I've done this a million times, doggedly writing even when the nagging voice inside of me informs me that something is wrong.  Something isn't working.

And often it takes quite awhile before I listen.

It happened again earlier this week.  I've been diligently getting up to work on my novel first thing every morning.  I love, love, love the idea for the plot of the novel.  But I've not been able to wrap my brain around the protagonist.  No matter what I did, I couldn't bond with her.  Couldn't feel her voice inside me or get it onto the page.  But I kept writing, telling myself that the voice would come.  Except finally, one morning, I realized that what I was writing was so dull and lifeless that nobody, even me, would want to write it.

Now, I know full well that it is not a good thing to listen to such voices when you are writing. Except for when it is.  

When you are writing and writing and begin to feel like your driving a car on snow and you can't get any traction, it is maybe time to take a wee break and ponder. Which is what I did.  Luckily, on the day I decided it was time to hit the brakes and quit spinning my wheels, I had an appointment with my coach.  We discussed the problem in detail and I finally realized that I was trying to force myself to write about a character in a profession I knew nothing about and didn't care to learn.  So that gave me the freedom and the courage to start over–not with the plot, but with the character.

But, here's the deal.  If I hadn't been writing, I wouldn't have figured out that it wasn't going to work.  If I had sat around thinking about it, I'd still be sitting around thinking about it.  I wouldn't have discovered that there was a reason for my writing paralysis.  And so, even though in some ways I've gone backwards, today I'm a happy camper. 

Because knowing what's wrong lights a path to change it.  And, figuring out that there is something wrong in the first place is sometimes the most illuminating moment of all.

What about you?  How do you figure out when something is wrong?