On Regular Practice (A Love Letter Reprise)

(While I’m away teaching in France for the month, I’m running a few favorite letters from last year.  We will be back to regular, new programming the first week in October. Meanwhile, if you want to come to France with me next year, click here for a look at this year’s program.)

I have a busy life. (And I’m betting you do, too.) There’s my writing, client appointments, teaching, reading manuscripts, planning workshops, blogging and writing newsletters. And let’s not forget my gloriously time-consuming family, including four grandchildren under five who I want to spend as much time with as possible with while they still think Nonni is cool.

I love all this, every bit of it, even when I’m fretting about getting everything done.  But a funny thing often happens to me. People ask me what’s new or what’s been going on and I draw a blank. I know I’ve been doing a million things but I can’t get my brain to land on any single one of them. Does this ever happen to you?

I notice that this happens a lot when I’ve been writing regularly.  When people ask me what’s been going on, I start to say, “Well, you know, Bridget just found out that Cade is dating someone young enough to be her child.  And she’s tempted to  leave the small town he brought her to! But she can’t, because she has to stay to see this job through.” And then I remember—that’s not my life, that’s what’s happening in my book.  The one I’m working on every morning.

I’ve finally realized that’s what’s going on in my life—I’m writing.  Day in, day out (with the occasional every Saturday, when I can’t seem to focus, off).  There’s no drama, because I’m busy working.  Nothing to see here. Move along.  I’m practicing.

Practicing, as in sitting down to work at my profession every day and practicing, as in working to improve my work in my profession.  Because when you have a practice, as in something you do regularly, you get better at it.   You just do.  You can’t help but improve when you turn your attention to the same thing over and over again.

I’m happiest when I’m practicing.  And I suspect I’m not the only one.  I used to think that as a creative person, consistency would be boring.  That life needed to be exciting so I had something to write about.  But quite the opposite is true.  Nothing is richer and more fulfilling—and thus more exciting—than having a consistent practice.

I have two consistent practices in my life at the moment: writing and meditation. (I used to be consistent at walking but a pesky knee ailment has sidelined that for the time being.) I feel better when I’m practicing both. (But if I had to choose, I’d go with the writing.) As Mitch, one of my wonderful clients said last weekend, “I start to get edgy if I don’t write for a few days.”

Indeed. Me, too.

Leave a comment and tell me what you practice regularly. I’ll do my best to respond promptly, despite being in France!

And please do join the Facebook group! Just request membership here and I’ll approve you!

Also–if you’d prefer to have this love letter come directly into your inbox each week, just fill out the form to the right. You’ll also receive first notice of classes, book releases, and events.

A love letter about resisting the status quo

There’s a lot of noise in the world at the moment.  Political, and societal to be sure. But there’s also all the information we get from the interwebs constantly, all day and even all night long. And much of it is designed to ensnare us—to click onto the website, read the news story, buy the item, support the cause.

It’s the status quo.

And as writers, it is our job to resist.

But wait, you say.  You need all that information.  You need it in order to have something to write about, you need it to support your WIP (as in research), you need it because you must know what is going on in the world.

Yeah, I hear you. I’m a huge input person.  Next to writing, one of the things I love best in the world is gathering information. Set me up with a topic to research, a pile of books, and access to the internet, and I’m a happy woman.

But, there’s a limit to how much I—and you—can take in before it starts to become a detriment.  Before it starts to affect our concentration levels, and our focus, to say nothing of our emotions and energy, both physical and mental.

Which is why I say you need to resist its lure.

Because when you do, you gain so much. It is difficult in the moment—I’ve had to tell myself not to click over to the internet numerous times as I’ve been writing this—but what I’ve gotten in return is clarity and focus.  And far more enjoyment of the writing process.

And by resisting, you’re claiming your right to be different.  To be a person who stands for writing and creativity and art.  A person who dares to challenge the status quo.  A person who follows her own inner tune.

That’s not always easy in this world, but it is vital.  If you are going to do good work, you need to be able to hear your inner voice and you can only do that if you tune out the noise of the world.

So, let’s do it together. Resist the status quo! Turn to the page instead of the latest news story or blog post. And together we will change the world one word at a time.

Leave me a comment about what you’re writing–and resisting.

(FYI, this originally appeared as my weekly newsletter. If you’d like to get it delivered directly to your inbox, just fill out the form to the right.)

Tuesday Tip: Remember, it’s called a rough draft for a reason

I’m going back through the second draft of my WIP novel, checking for places where I have to drop things in. Most of these are little things, like another mention of a physical object that figures in the plot (in this case, a necklace), or pumping up a description that didn’t get fully mounted on the page.

But in one instance, I have a whole chapter to drop in. (Because, um, it features an important character that I failed to show anywhere in the novel. Duh.)

So this means I am writing rough draft material again for the first time in a couple of months. I’ve been rewriting and editing and getting the draft ready for beta readers. (Soon!)

And this morning I found myself laboring over every word.

WTF! I know better than this.  A rough draft is just that–the draft of a chapter or story or essay that is in its rough stages.  And just because the rest of my novel is almost ready for other eyes, doesn’t mean that this chapter needs to be.

I had to remind myself to just put the words on the page.  Let them rip. Write fast. Don’t worry about how “good” the words are once they land. Just get the damned thing written!

And that is my Tuesday tip for you–let the writing of your rough draft stink. Make it awful. Require it to be. Because once you’ve gotten those words on the page, you’ve got treasure with which to work.  You can rewrite and revise and edit to your heart’s content.  But not yet.

Remember there’s a reason it is called a rough draft and let it be, well…rough.

7 Writing Session Savers for When It’s a Slog

Writing has been a slog for me lately.  In the month of November, for Nanowrimo, I wrote over 50K words.  50,047, to be exact.  And since then I’ve written under 4,000.  Yeah. A slog.

Here are some of my excuses for not writing:

–Snow and ice storm

–Christmas

–My grandson’s birthday

Teaching a workshop on character and promoting next year’s France workshop

–Christmas

–It’s a slog

Because when writing is a slog, it is not so much fun.  And why else do we write, if not for fun? Because, honestly, this industry pretty much sucks.  The gatekeepers are mean, keeping us away from the citadel, and if we choose to go it alone we have to cultivate the mind of an entrepreneur.

But I digress.

This morning, I finally wrote one thousand words.  1,000 exactly because I stopped as soon as I hit that magic number. (My usual goal for a daily word count is 2,000, but I’ve followed my own advice and lowered my expectations.)  And that made me feel good. And I started thinking about the ways I help myself when writing is a slog. Such as:

  1. Admit it.  If you are in a not-fun stage with your writing, admit it. Don’t try to sugarcoat it. Fess up. The writing gods and muses love honestly.  Once you’ve realized what’s going on, you can deal with it a lot more easily.
  2. Write a word.  Just one word. Then another and another. And another. With luck, it will quit being a slog and you will start having fun. But if that doesn’t happen, at least you will have words on the page.
  3. Try a prompt.  Oh hey, I just happen to have a prompt book for you right here.  Sometimes a prompt is just what you need to start enjoying the work again, because it can take you in all kinds of unexpected places.
  4. Change your routine. If you usually listen to music, don’t.  Or vice-versa. If you usually sit in your office, try the kitchen. Or pack things up and hit the coffee shop.  Change it up and see if that doesn’t rejuvenate you.
  5. Get your ya-yas out.  Go for a walk. Hit the gym. Do some yoga.  Come back to the work with a fresh mind. Maybe you’ll have a fresh attitude as well.
  6. Read. Nothing gets me excited about writing like delving into a book. Fiction or non-fiction does it for me. Maybe it will for you, too.  (Right now I’m reading Gaining Visibility, by Pamela Hearon,  and Lisa Cron’s book called Story Genius).
  7. Give up. Admit you’re not into writing at the moment and don’t force yourself to do it.  But do this whole-heartedly, in a way that you’ll be at peace with. Not in a way that you’ll be torturing yourself with the dreaded words, I should be writing, every few minutes.

What do you do when your writing becomes a slog? I’d love to hear how you put the fun back in it.  And remember, one of the best ways to get enthusiastic about writing is to work with a coach. You can read more about that here.

Image by Thomas Helberg.

What it Takes to Be a Writer: Part One

asok_project365_mydesk_1059218_hWherein I talk about what it takes to be a writer, in my humble opinion, anyway.  To finish a book project, or even an article or short story.  To get the book out in the world, either into the hands of an agent and editor, or publish it yourself, which is a whole other enterprise. To hit the bestseller list. To rinse and repeat, which you’re going to need to do to build a career as a writer. What it takes to accomplish whatever your dream is.

Fresh off teaching a recent workshop in France, I’ve been pondering this.  Working with writers, listening to their hopes and frustrations opens my eyes over and over again, because their concerns echo mine in my own writing practice.  We are all gloriously different, right? And, at heart, we are also all very much alike.  To that end, here are two arenas in which many frustrations lie:

  1. Mindset
  2. Butt in chair

Let’s look at mindset,  otherwise known as the way you think, first.  It is easy to groan about this, to hold up your hands and say “Don’t tell me I am what I think!” But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that it’s true. If you think you can do it, you will be able to. But if you don’t think you can, you won’t. Sigh. You really do need to master your mindset about your writing.

But here’s a lot of the reason why—because after thinking about it, you need to do it. I know. Duh. But if you’re busy telling yourself that you can’t do it, you won’t. It’ll be too much pressure. You’ll get bored and wander away, take up archery or long-distance swimming or bird-watching.  Thoughts wear grooves in your brain and if you keep thinking you can’t, then your brain will believe you. And you won’t take time to write, because, well, you’re convinced you can’t. Or that you’re a bad writer. Or that the odds are stacked against you.

I follow a young woman named Jennifer Blanchard.  She is always ranting fervently about mindset and how important it is, how one must write down their goals every day, or at least re-read their goals. Etc., etc.  Part of me loves this stuff. Loves it. And part of me—the part that actually has to take the action—rolls my eyes at it.  But the thing is, everything she says about mindset is true.  You gotta get your brain in the right place to be a writer.  And that means doing whatever it takes, be that rereading your goals every day or monitoring those pesky negative thoughts.

Most of all it means you have to believe you can do it. Because if you don’t believe, you won’t make the time for it.  You’ll read knitting blogs (like I do when I get blocked), instead. Or you’ll decide the kitchen floor needs mopping. Or the cat’s nails need trimming. And the thing is—you won’t even realize why you’re indulging in these procrastination activities. You’ll convince yourself that it’s because there’s that spot of dirt, right there on the floor where everyone can see it.  Or that you absolutely must read that blog because you have to figure out where you went wrong on the sweater you’re knitting.  Or that the cat pulled up a thread on your gorgeous slipcover. Like that.

What’s the antidote to this? In truth, a lot of it is in taking action, which I’ll get to in a moment. Because the more you write, the easier it becomes and the easier it becomes, the more you’ll believe you can do it. Yeah, there is definitely an endless loop going on here.  But here are a couple other hints about mindset:

  1. Visualization has scientifically been proven to help. Not visualizing the moment you stand at the podium and accept your Nobel Prize for Literature, but visualizing yourself actually sitting at the computer writing. Thinking about how it feels as the words flow and your fingers range across the page.

Here’s an article that gives a good rundown on how to do it, and here’s one from Psychology Today on its benefits.

  1. Meditation and positive thinking. Activities that go hand in hand with visualization are meditation (you knew I was going there) because it quiets the damn monkeys in the brain enough to allow you to think positive thoughts about your writing, and affirmations. Yeah, I know. Dopey. I get it. But you can use them in the most casual of ways, as in when you’re thinking how you just can’t seem to get the scene right instead of berating yourself for being an idiot who can’t write, turn it around and tell yourself you know the story and you can figure out the scene. Just tell yourself that the rest of the day. C’mon, you’re a storyteller, right? So tell yourself a positive story. That’s all an affirmation is, in truth. You’re going to be telling yourself something all day anyway, it might as well be something positive.

As for meditation, just try it. Really. It is ten or fifteen minutes out of your day, and if it helps you become a better writer, isn’t that time well spent? I highly recommend downloading the Insight Timerfor your phone and using it. You can set interval bells so that the fifteen minutes doesn’t seem to stretch to fifteen hours, and there’s all kinds of cool ambient sounds you can meditate to, as well as a selection of guided meditations to try. Plus, it’s like social media for meditators. You can create a profile and interact with others all over the world.

Okay, so, alas, one cannot sit in one’s recliner and meditate and visualize and think positive thoughts all day and become a writer.  Would that we could. So I’ll discuss part two of the topic of what it takes in a blog post slated for Wednesday.

Until then, happy mind-setting. Or meditating. Or whatever.

And do tell what you think it takes to be a writer.

Of Course You Can Do It: September Writing Prompts #3

September is Writing Prompt Month! Actually, I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds good, doesn’t it? Here are your prompts for the week:

–What a fool he was. Yet still she was in love with him.

–Rise and Shine! Bright, shiny new day!

–Oh God, do I have to?

–They argued all day and all night and then got up the next morning and argued some more. What are they arguing about and why? Figure that out and then write a scene.

–He had the most unlikely business idea. And yet, it was brilliant.

–What is scarier: clowns or mimes?

–And when it is all over, at last I’ll be able to….

Okay, go to it! And have fun.

To Keep You Busy While I’m Gone: September Writing Prompts #1

pencil_notebook_writing_237689_lJust in case you were thinking, while the cat’s away, the mice will play, no such luck.  To give you something to do other than sit around and sob about my absence, I’ve decided to set up writing prompt posts for every Monday in September, with seven posts for you. One for each day.

You know the drill. Set a timer for 10-20 minutes, and write without stopping. Use the prompts as a warm-up tool, or to inspire you, or when you are blocked. Okay? Here goes:

–Pink, yellow, purple, brown. Mary shook her head as she sorted the yarn her mother had chosen.  She’d suspected it for a long time, but now she was certain: her mother had to be color blind.

–The road trip was tedious, especially when they got stuck in traffic for 30 minutes and Kevin started telling her to be patient.

–The small child turned the item over and over in her hands, then looked at the person who had handed it to her. “It’s called a watch. You tell time with it.  People used to wear them all the time.”

–A group of brightly colored hot-air balloons sailed over head. She was so delighted with them, she ran through the fields, chasing them.

–He was a mean, ugly person with a twisted sense of humor. Yet still she loved him.

–Down the rain fell, harder and harder.

–If there was one thing your main character could change about the place she lives, what would it be?

Okay, have fun. Look for a guest post coming up soon. And look for another edition of prompts next Monday, September 12th.  Oh, and here’s a little teaser–there just may be something in the way of a prompts journal coming up later on this fall!

Happy writing!

Meanwhile, I’ll Be Busy Making S*&% Up

Writing a novel is, at heart, all about making shit up.

That phrase–making shit up–became the constant refrain of my Mapping the Novel workshop at the Sitka Center last week.  (It was the BEST workshop ever, mostly because of my wonderful students, but also because of the fabulous staff and the spectacular location. I could go on and on.)

In order to write a novel, you’ve got to make a lot of shit up. You just do. But then you have to shape the stuff you made up into some kind of form.  And that was the premise of the workshop–that you’ve got to let your right brain roam free but also learn the structures through which you will corrall it.

It is easy to get hung up on any part of the process (she said, having experienced getting hung up at many points along the way). But bear in mind that structures are part of craft and can be learned. You can study plot, scene, character, style, and theme. It’s hard, but you can figure out how to apply it so you make a novel with a cohesive whole.

What is harder, arguably, in this day and age, is the making shit up part. It’s the part where we let our brains run free, and allow our hands to follow them, putting word after word on the page–even when we don’t know where the words will lead us.

The making shit up part is why we become writers.  I mean, who sets out to write a novel because he wants to master plot? There may be a few of you out there, but I’d wager a bet that most of you want to write a novel because you’ve experienced the glory of writing, how good it makes you feel to lay down those tracks.

The making shit up part is fun–and its also sometimes really freaking hard to get ourselves to do.  But really, all you have to do is go do it.  Take a prompt, any prompt, set a timer for 10 minutes and go write! Do it now. Go make shit up.  You’ll be glad you did.

Leave a comment and let’s discuss your favorite way to make shit up.

**I had a couple of great photos from Sitka picked out to go along with this post but some reason, WordPress doesn’t want to let me upload them. If you want to see a ton of them, go to my Instagram page (and follow me while you’re there–it is one of my chief social media outlets).

Write On, With Confidence and Hope, Even Through Christmas*

My color-changing tree in full color.
My color-changing tree in full color.

Yes, I know.  It is the holiday season, and whatever holiday (Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, a pagan solstice celebration, your own made up day) you celebrate, odds are good that things are a bit, shall we say, busier than usual.

And, if you are anything like me (I presume you are, because we writers do tend to have certain traits in common) when things get busy, what’s the first activity to go? Yep, writing.  This is clearly ridiculous because writing is the most important thing in the world to me (besides my family, of course).   So why do I let my writing practice lapse at the first sign of being busy? Let me count the reasons:

  • Because writing takes concentration, and when I’m busy I don’t have enough bandwidth in my brain to work on my project.
  • Because in the crush of Christmas activities, writing easily becomes the least urgent item on the to-do list, so it doesn’t get done.
  • Because going out to Christmas parties and staying up late wrapping presents throws me off schedule and it is hard to get up as early as I usually do.
  • Because people visit from out of town and expect me to be at their beck and call, and really? I want to be. I want to spend time with them.
  • Because I ate too much sugar/drank too much wine/insert favorite Christmas vice here and now I don’t feel so good. Surely you don’t expect me to write?

You probably have a few choice arguments of your own to add to the list.   But I’m here to tell you why you don’t want to pay any attention to those arguments and carry on with your writing throughout this season, and how you can accomplish this.  First the whys:

  • Because for me, this is one of the most creative times of the year. The dark days of December engender all kinds of new thoughts and plans and ideas. If I didn’t spend time writing, I’d lose all those.
  • Because when I’m Not Writing, I’m an anxious, miserable mess. I feel like there is something missing.  I feel weird and out of sorts.  Now, listen, the holiday season messes with our emotions enough—do you really want to add an additional layer of anxiety onto it?
  • Because I don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel when I start writing again. I want to maintain the momentum I’ve created by writing every day or nearly every day.
  • Because it will make me feel better.
  • Because it gives me an outlet. When Great-Aunt Matilda tells me my hair looks awful for the tenth time, I can put my anger on the page and let it simmer there instead of inside me.

 Yeah right.  This is all well and good, but how in the universe am I supposed to accomplish keeping up with my writing.  Funny you should ask.  I have a few suggestions.

  •  Lower your standards. Of course, your writing is brilliant and you must labor over every word to make it so.  But cut yourself some slack this time of year.  Allow yourself to write crap.  Which brings me to my next point…
  • Do just a tiny bit. So you usually are a writing machine and you devote mountains of time to it every day.  This season, write a pebble’s worth.  As in, make yourself sit down for five minutes and be satisfied when you are done. Because…
  • You need a placeholder. By lowering your standards and lessening the amount of time you require yourself to spend, your keeping your hand in. You are maintaining the momentum and upholding your intention to write regularly.  This will serve you very well when Uncle Ralph leaves and your schedule returns to normal.
  • And also bear in mind… One of the things I love most about my Christmas tree this year its color-changing lights. When the push of a button the lights switch from colored to white.  This appeals to my fickle nature.  And you can make the concept work for your writing, too. How? By switching the lights.  Try writing in your journal every day during these busy times instead of writing a scene.  Write to a prompt, or write a memory
    My color-changing tree with white lights.
    My color-changing tree with white lights.

    from your childhood.  Let the writing be different and fun for a few weeks and see what comes out.

And please, if you have any of your own tricks and techniques for maintaining your writing, share it in a comment

below!

*My knitting readers will realize that this quote sounds familiar, and it is—I based it on the famous Elizabeth Zimmerman  quote, “Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crises.”

**By the way, in my last newsletter I offered Complaint Free bracelets to the first 10 people to ask.  I still have a couple left.  If you want one, hit reply and send me your address!

Writing In the Summertime

Writingoutside

My outdoor writing space

It is hot here in Portland, mid to upper 90s all last week and more of the same this week, with temps predicted to reach into the 100s by the weekend.  We usually get some hot hot weather during the summer, but this is very early for a heat wave and it is lasting a long time.

My office is upstairs (I'm in process of moving it downstairs, but that project is taking forever) and that automatically makes it hot.  (We, like many Portlanders who live in older homes, don't have air conditioning.) But it also gets stuffy, the air stagnant, and because it is full of boxes (the afore mentioned moving project), its not a very inspiring space at the moment.

In self defense, I moved my computer and all my notes downstairs last weekend and then one early morning around 6 AM I got the idea to move my operation out back.  I set up on the outdoor table on the deck and listened to the birds sing and wrote my heart out.  I started out a few weeks ago setting my Iphone timer for 15 minutes and telling myself I was just going to write, simply as a way to get to the page.  But now, I think it is safe to say that these daily outside writing sessions are turning into my next novel–and that my daily writing practice has transformed my writing life.

Firtreeoutback

The tree above me

I now set up outside every morning and it has quickly become my favorite time of day.  It is peaceful and cool and quiet aside from the occasional dog barking and I am getting a lot of writing done every morning.  It is amazing to me what a change of venue can do for your writing.  Some people love to go work in coffee shops, but me? Not so much.  I'm far too distracted by people and noise and activity.  Besides, I do my best work early in the day, in my pajamas, and that doesn't work so well anywhere but home.

By 7:30 the sun hits my back and lights the screen and I can't see so well and I'm starting to flag anyway.  But the point of all this, besides encouraging you to look at where you write and how well it is working for you, is to share a few tips I've learned (relearned?) as I start writing a long project (i.e., a novel), again.  

1.  Call it Daily Writing Practice.   Some times the daily writings  are just random scenes, sometimes they actually turn into a scene for my WIP, and sometimes they become me obsessing about where I am in the WIP.  But gradually, the daily practices have turned into real, consistent work on my next novel, and the sessions have lengthened out considerably.  But at the beginning, I just called it daily practice and all I had to do was write something, anything for 15 minutes. Whether or not your writing sessions pertain to your WIP is up to you—but if it doesn't, that's okay.

2.  Keep a Writing Log. I've started a daily writing log, wherein I write about my feelings and thoughts on what I'm writing.   I wish I'd done this during the writing of my most recent novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery.  Now that it is finished, that novel exists in a sort of magical haze for me, and I've convinced myself that writing it went smoothly from the idea to the end.  But a few days ago, I opened, by chance, one of my daily writings from last summer–and read a whole long rant about how stuck and frustrated I was on the progress I was making.  Because, the thing is, when a novel is done, you forget the day to day grind that went into it.  Because the Bonne Chance was somewhat magical in origin, with the entire story essentially downloaded to me in the shower, it has been easy to forget the hard parts. Instead, I labor under the delusion that the writing of it was easy and sure in every letter and word.  While parts of it were, much of it wasn't.  And it is reassuring to remember that as I struggle to start anew.

For a look at how a major literary figure used a diary, check out this great Brain Pickings piece about the journals John Steinbeck kept while writing the Grapes of Wrath.

3.  Set Word Count Goals.  Once you get beyond the random daily writing practice (and its okay if you never do, truly), it is fun to set yourself some goals.  I was hitting 1K words a morning with ease, so today I notched it up to 1,500.  It helps to give me some kind of framework for what I'm doing.

4.  Give Yourself a Place to Go the Next Day.  If you are working on a long project, write a sentence or two about what happens next, so that you know where to start the next day.  If you are doing random writing, choose a prompt so that you don't go in search of one on the internet and get distracted.

 5.  Stay Organized.  For some dumb reason that I will probably regret, I like to save each days' writing in a separate file, labeled with the date.  I think I like to see the files pile up in the folder I've created for them.  What I will likely soon do is put all these pieces together into a file labeled "full manuscript."  But I am notoriously terrible at organization, so you can probably figure out your own system that works well for you.

Okay, that's it!  I hope you are making progress on your WIP or enjoying writing something.  Do you have any tips for sustaining a regular writing practice?