One of my favorite images on Instagram is one that reads, being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. Because, it is, isn’t it? This is not necessarily a bad thing. I was always the nerd kid that loved homework and writing reports. But it can be a tiring thing. Because from the moment I wake up, I’m thinking, when am I going to write? I should be writing. Why aren’t I writing?
Most of the time, taking time off from writing is not an option, because it is such a compulsion. And those feelings tend to extend to all the related things I do as well. Since I’m always trying to find more time to write, I’m usually playing catch up with client work, writing blog posts and newsletters, into the weekend.
But all that is about to change.
I’m having surgery in three days and I am bound and determined to take time off. For real time off. I’ll write in my journal or on my novel if I feel so compelled, and I have a couple long manuscripts to read, but beyond that, I’m not going to do anything. I’m going to relax and heal and read and do some drawing, knit and watch a whole lot of TV. (For starters, I plan to watch Outlander from the beginning.)
I’m not going to worry about blog posts or social media or anything along those lines—unless I want to. Which may or may not happen. I will most likely return to writing newsletters post haste, but don’t expect anything from me next Sunday. That will be four days post-surgery, so nope, nada. (Yes, I could easily set a newsletter up, as I did when I was in France, but for some reason that doesn’t feel right. If I’m taking time off, I need to really take time off.)
It will be interesting to see how this works out for me. I’m not good at taking time off, so we will see how long my grand plans last! But I truly do want to use this time to ponder and be open to new ideas, to think about where I want to put my precious time and energy from here on out.
I’ll end with a quote I just found in my journal: writing is my companion and I have a hard time letting it go. So at the very least, I will likely be journaling throughout these days to come! But we shall see.
An email came into my inbox this week with the subject Deep Inner Magic. Being a sucker for such things, I clicked. It was a promo for a webinar that didn’t interest me much, but the phrase stuck with me.
As I pondered why, I realized it’s because deep inner magic is what I believe happens to all the best story characters. The characters I love to read about in novels transform themselves in some way. They are alchemists—transmuting metaphorical base metal into gold.
We readers experience that transformation with them. There’s a tension in watching a character transform. The wise reader often knows exactly what the character needs to do, but it takes the character much longer to figure it out, since they are the ones doing the transforming. That tension sustains attention, and when a reader’s attention is sustained, the reader is much more likely to share the emotions of the main character. (All this is according to Psychology Today.)
And—wait for it—if the reader shares deep emotion with the character, they are more likely to mimic that emotion later in their own lives. Which is why reading truly is transformational, baby. And, I submit—why writing is transformational as well. Because I believe that we writers transform as we write our characters’ transformations as well. As the ancients used to say, as above, so below. Transformation in one area of life is always echoed in another. And if that isn’t deep inner magic, I don’t know what is.
But how do we make this magic happen?
You’ve heard it a million times before, but I’ll repeat it. Give your characters something they desire desperately—and then make it really difficult for them to get it. This is the simplest of story-writing advice, and putting it into practice is incredibly hard.
I think this is true for a couple of reasons. First of all, most of us have been trained not to go after what we want with everything we’ve got. And so we settle. We settle for a good enough life, a good enough marriage, a good enough career. But the characters we love to read about don’t settle. They go after what they want with a vengeance. And get pushed down, knocked about, and pressed to the ground in the process. Because so many of us don’t have experience doing that, it is hard to write about.
And second, we don’t like to torture our characters. I don’t know about you, but I fall in love with my characters, all of them, even the despicable ones. And then I want to make their lives easy and simple and sweet. However, sigh, easy and simple and sweet does not create deep inner magic. Or any kind of magic.
So, give your characters a fierce desire and huge obstacles to achieving it and watch the magic happen in your character, your reader, and yourself.
Life After Lifeby Kate Atkinson. This novel is the star of my October reading. I’ve heard how marvelous it is for years, but only just now got around to reading it. Ursula Todd is born, then dies, and is born again. Throughout the book you read her different lives. I don’t know how Atkinson made it work, but she did. Not a quick read, but worth it.
Nantucket Wedding, by Nancy Thayer. I’ve been reading Thayer’s books since I was a young woman with small children, an eon ago, and she is still at it. She’s traditionally been one of my favorites but I’m finding this one predictable and a bit boring. Yet still, I persist.
10% Happier, by Dan Harris. After an on-air panic attack, the he ABC News anchor started searching for answers to his anxiety. He writes a funny and engaging book about his journey through self-help. Ultimately, he lands on, wait for it, meditation. So of course he’s near and dear to my heart!
Make Something Good Today by Erin and Ben Napier. In one of my free writes I had an idea for a story about a couple similar to this one and then I saw this book at the library, so I brought it home. The book exists for no other reason than that this cute couple has a TV show.
Oscar’s Oasis, Justin Time Go, The Cat in the Hat, Story Bots, and many more kids shows. Please don’t make me do a run-down of each of them for you.
Don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already. I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.
I have it. You do too. But the funny thing is, most of the time I look at you and think you don’t have it. And you most likely look at me and feel the same.
But every human being on the planet, except for maybe Queen Elizabeth or Elon Musk or Gwyneth Paltrow, has it. And it is a scourge.
It is the scourge of not-enoughness.
It manifests in many different ways. Such as, my writing is not enough, my talent is not enough, my body is not enough, my brain is not enough. I’m not smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, famous enough. I don’t have enough money time or talent. There’s not enough, not enough, not enough.
Name your favorite not-enough scourge and someone else shares it. Which is scant comfort when you’re trying to deal with your own not-enough crap.
But deal with it you must. Because otherwise it will eat holes inside you that turn into yawning black chasms of depression, disgust and all the other dire emotions. And you won’t get a lick of writing done.
Myriad are the ways in which we can battle our not-enoughness. Like meditating, exercising, eating right, reading a lot (but not the internet and definitely not social media), doing all the things we know are good for us and doing them regularly.
But the best way I know to battle not-enoughness is to write.
I feel enough when I’m doing my writing, period. Whether it is terrible (as first drafts are), or wonderful, whether the words flow like magic from a wand or they stay stubbornly locked inside me until I force them out, I feel enough when I have written something. Anything. I may go back to not-enoughness when I finish, but for the brief shining moments when I’m writing I can keep it at bay.
And then everything is enough. It is not only enough, the world is brimming with life and energy and vitality and good cheer and hopefulness and I am in love with it.
So that’s the best reason I can think of to pick up your pen.
This has been a crazy week. Besides the usual round of appointments and teaching commitments (which I love), my daughter had hand surgery after slicing a tendon and a couple of nerves in her thumb. Thus, I’ve been tending small children even more than usual. I know, you’ve probably had a crazy week, too. And even if you haven’t, there’s the constant onslaught of news to contend with.
It’s enough to make you run screaming and vow you’ll never write another work again. (Or paint another picture. Or plant another garden. Or knit another stitch.) Because who can write when life events are making you feel so very un-creative? So distracted and un-focused?
It’s so easy to go into overwhelm and decide it’s just too hard to write. Sure, you have a few minutes here and there to put pen to paper, but what’s the point? What difference do a few paltry minutes make? And so you don’t do it and then you just give up. You forget who you are at your core, and who you want to be, and you just go along the path of least resistance.
But I submit to you that taking those few precious minutes—or longer—is what will save you. And maybe the world, too. Because it is your writing that will ground you and center you and remind you of who you are through the darkest of times.
I adore my grandchildren beyond all reason, but this week as I changed diapers and made mac and cheese and picked up toys and coaxed a three-year-old to take a nap (which went about as well as you might expect), I forgot my creative self. Which I believe is my true self.
Except I picked up my pen and wrote for fifteen minutes every day. And then I remembered. That simple practice brought me back to myself and made it infinitely easier to hobble down the block after a toddler on the loose. And, make no mistake about it, writing is a practice, one that gets easier with every fifteen-minute spring you devote to it. A practice that makes it easier to commit to how you want to show up in the world, whether you observe from the safety of your office or go march to express your opinions. A practice that may some day bloom into a finished novel or memoir or garden or painting or sweater. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay, too. The sheer act of doing it is what’s important. Because that is what will steady you for whatever comes your way.
So no matter what is going on in your life, please don’t give up on your creative practice. You need to, I need you to, and the world does, too.
Sometimes at night I sit in front of the TV and I don’t have the energy to watch anything more than a thirty-minute sitcom, or a singing reality show, which I can digest in small bites and turn off when I get bored. Because the mental effort of engaging with a longer story takes too much effort.
Watching a story takes effort.
Sometimes I get in bed at night and read one page before my book falls out of my hands and clatters to the floor. It’s not even that I don’t like the book—it’s just that I’m tired and want to go to sleep.
Reading a story takes effort.
Sometimes I don’t think I have it in me to write. It is so much easier to consume words rather than create them myself. So off I go to wander aimlessly around the internet, which mostly involves sort-of, kind-of word consuming.
Writing a story takes effort.
Here’s the moral: anything to do with story takes effort. Studies show that you use more of your brain when listening to a story, and I surmise that the same holds true for reading a story and writing one as well. The more tension in a story, the more you’ll pay attention, the more you pay attention, the more you’ll feel the emotion of the characters in the story, and the more you feel the emotion, the more likely you’ll be to mimic the behavior of the characters in the story afterwards. Which kind of goes to show why everything to do with story takes such effort. It’s almost as if we’re living it ourselves as we watch, read, or write a story.
Because story changes us. Never forget that you wield that power as you write. I don’t know about you but knowing that motivates me to write. It motivates me to open the computer on days I don’t feel like it, to spend the time it takes to get a story onto the page. To make the effort. Because I can’t think of anything more powerful than the ability to change a person’s life with the words you write. Can you?
And so, truly, story is worth the effort.
Here’s a related prompt for you:
The story begins when….
(Remember, just use the prompt as a starting point. And you don’t have to take it literally.)
And if you would like to study story through the lens of the five senses, consider coming to Astoria, Oregon, for a winter workshop! We’ll be offering a week-long writing workshop in fun, funky and eclectic Astoria, Oregon, the first week in February. Great seafood, fun shops, a week devoted to writing and writerly camaraderie. We’re so excited, and we’ve already had several sign-ups. Space is limited, so check it out soon! You can read all about it here.
It was this: make your reader feel the emotion, not just your character.
Simple piece of advice, and yet it was halfway mind-blowing, mostly because I could see in many books I’d read lately where the reverse of this applied. In other words, just because you, or any other author, feel the emotion, doesn’t mean readers do. I thought of so many novels that had fallen flat for me and realized that this was the diagnosis.
The remedy for this is manifold, and encompasses many of the old familiar writing recommendations. However, as with so many things, viewing these old tenets through a new lens can make them more meaningful.
So how do you ensure that your reader as well as your writer feel emotion? Here are some suggestions.
–Show don’t tell. Yes, I know you’ve heard this one before, probably a million times. But it is so often repeated because showing brings a story to life and makes us relate to the character. Showing makes it much easy to be certain your reader is feeling the same emotion you do. Most often, this means writing in scene. Narrative summary most definitely has its place, but the bulk of your writing should be in scene.
–Use character types. Make your character sympathetic, or conversely, unsympathetic. Either extreme will arouse emotion in the reader. Classic ways to make a character sympathetic include making them unjustly accused of something, making them good at something, making them physically attractive, make them actively trying to achieve their goal, make them sacrifice for another, make them courageous.
–Rely on the power of character wants, needs, and fears. This technique has to do with motivating your character from the get-go. What motivates her? What does he want? What keeps her awake at night? Answer those questions–and then put your character in action to deal with her wants and needs and fears. A passive character will arouse very little emotion in the reader, just as a passive person often arouses very little interest in real life.
–Remember style. Word choice is important! And so is sentence structure and grammar. Don’t use gentle, serene words to describe a character’s anger and don’t indulge in long, flowery sentences to evoke it, either. Neither will get your reader actually feeling the anger. Instead ,you’ll probably get him to close the book and wander away
–Ladle on the conflict. Always easier said than done. We fall in love with our characters and hate to torture them. But torture them we must. Because, there is no story without conflict. And whether you realize it or not, the books that keep you turning pages are the ones that create tons of conflict–whether it is emotional or otherwise.
Again, none of this is probably terribly new for you, right? But think about each point specifically in terms of how you can ensure the reader is feeling the emotion. Question yourself: is it just thinking this is a good idea for your character? Is it possible it is just you who is feeling the emotion? Are you going deep enough to make the reader feel it, too?
I know this is something I’m going to be paying a lot more attention to in the future. Let me know if it resonates for you.
Last weekend, I hit a creative wall. It wasn’t full-blown writer’s block, mind you, but a wall. Maybe a half-wall. I’d been working steadily and strongly all week on a couple of chapters and finished them. That got me to a natural stopping place before the next action began.
Only problem was, I wasn’t sure of what that next action might be.
It’s easy for me to tell when I’ve hit a wall because of a couple things: First, I’m resistant to sitting down at the computer or page. And second, I’m not thinking of the work much. Not connecting with it mentally in odd moments throughout the day, as I usually do.
And when that happens, the forward progress stops.
And let’s just pause here and remember: writing is hard work. Committing to any kind of writing project is challenging. It is also exhilarating, engaging and exciting. But those things are challenging to manage, too. So: hard work. Give yourself a break, okay?
That’s recommendation one for what to do when the creative wall hits. Take a break. Go relax and do something that refills the well. NOTE: generally wandering about on the internet or checking email does not count as refilling the well. Neither does scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. I’m talking about doing something that inspires, energizes or relaxes you.
You might be familiar with a more formal version of this concept from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way. She calls it an artist’s date, and recommends you do it once a week, by yourself. I’ve always had a bit of a hard time with this concept, mostly because it adds one more thing to a burgeoning to-do list and I risk feeling guilty about it if I don’t do it. Then it’s not rejuvenating, it is guilt inducing.
But you can do a mini-version of it without making a big production about it. Depending on what you enjoy, pick up a pencil and draw. Bust out the watercolors (maybe your kids have some you could borrow?) Pick up your knitting. Plan a garden. Bake a cake. Cook a gourmet meal. Go for a walk to the park. Swing on the swings. Read a book, or leaf through a magazine.
The point is to indulge in some intentional relaxation, doing things that make you happy. (And note I’m not including watching movies or TV on this list. Yes, I realize you might find it relaxing, but I’d guess you take plenty of time for all kinds of screen time already. Just saying.)
But, here’s the deal. (And this is why I often don’t allow myself to relax.) Don’t let all this intentional relaxation go too far. Because if you do, it can quickly turn into a full-blown block. So that’s recommendation two: don’t indulge in this creative-wall-relaxation for too long.
Which brings us to recommendation three, which is to force the issue. Sometimes you have to twist yourself back into the writing flow, that’s all there is to it. Give yourself some good old-fashioned tough love to get yourself back into it.
Here are some things to try:
—Free writing to prompts.You can take a prompt from your WIP if you like, or use a line of poetry, or search the archives on this blog (see tags on the right column) to find some. Set yourself a timer for 15 minutes and go to it.
–Mind-mapping, which, as you likely know, is a right-brained way to outline.
–Meditation. Quit your bitching and just do it (she said to herself as well as everyone else). It will free your brain and open you to new ideas.
–Journal. Because getting your whiney crap thoughts down on paper is always a good idea.
–Read. Something, anything. Words in, words out. Sometimes reading a novel or memoir or short story will give you an idea that will get you started again.
And then, of course, if none of these work, then go back to recommendation one and start over again. Just remember not to give up. Because you really, really, really do not want this brief interlude to turn into a long bout of writer’s block.
Good luck. Let me know how it works out for you. Leave a comment!
If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that not all techniques work for every writer. Not only that, but what works for one writer one time may not work the next time. The system you use to write your novel the first time out just doesn’t fit the next time out. The way you wrote your article, following a template you thought you’d always use, suddenly doesn’t work. Or any of a million variations on those themes.
And yet, if you’re anything like me, you might keep trying to do things the old, tried and true way. Because it worked once, so why shouldn’t it work again? (Because the muse is a mysterious and fickle creature, that’s why, but we forget this.) And you may also be as resistant to change as I am. But recently I’ve had an experience that is earth-shattering in its importance.
Ready for it?
I’m no longer exclusively writing my novel chronologically.
Let’s back up a bit. I’ve called myself a plotter (one who plans ahead) for years, but I’ve come to realize that I’m really more of a pantser (a writer who flies by the seat of her pants). I like a loose outline so I have an idea where I’m going, but if I get too technical, I’ll get bored. Be that as it may, I’ve been a strict chronological writer with every novel I’ve written. I tell myself it’s because one scene has to flow naturally from another. I need to know what’s come before so I can figure out what to write in the future. Right?
But two classes I’ve taken are changing that. The first class I took last spring, and it was called Write Better Faster by R.L.Syme (highly recommended). The class takes the approach that we are all different (duh) so accordingly, different writing processes will work differently for each of us. I learned a lot from that class but my two biggest takeaways are that A. I am an external processor (which is why I like to talk out loud to myself) and B. I learn and create from the middle. Pantsers, unite! I really am one of you! And I can finally say goodbye to slavishly trying to fit my scenes into a precise order dictated by some structure expert who has probably never written a novel in his life.
Class #2 I’m in the middle of, and it is called the Devoted Writer, taught by Cynthia Morris. Cynthia emphasizes fun things like free writing (set a timer, and write without stopping) and mind mapping (a right-brained style of outlining), both of which I’ve used to varying degrees of success. But, I’m telling you, I have now drunk the Kool-aid big time. I’m a convert. I’m using mind mapping and free writing for everything I write, including this newsletter.
As I was working on my novel the other day, an idea for a new scene popped into my head. I duly made notes about it, as I do, but the feeling I needed to work on it would not go away. “But it’s not in order,” I cried. “Tough,” I answered back. “Do it anyway.” And so, I did. You might have felt the thunder rumbling and the earth shaking, so big a departure this was for me. It feels very freeing, and also a little scary. Lighting out for new territory!
So I’m starting to take a look at all the ways I do things, and try to keep myself open to new techniques and styles. And, by the way, doing the free writing is fast becoming a foundational practice for me. It feels like a way to keep me connected to myself and my writing in 15 simple minutes a day. And make no mistake about it, most of what I write in my free writes is crap, plain and simple. It’s the process that is so mind blowing and illuminating.
(I wrote a blog post that tells more about free writing at the start of the week. Check it out here.)
So please do tell—have you made any changes in the way you approach your writing lately? Leave a comment and tell me. I’d love to hear about it. I’m open to more new ideas!
What are your priorities as a writer? Do you have a firm sense of them? Knowing what comes first in your career and life can help you take hold of your time management.
I started thinking about this after reading an article in the May 2018 issue of the Romance Writers Report, the magazine of the Romance Writers of America. It was written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who, as many of you may know, is a very prolific writer. Bear in mind that her priorities as a writer might be different than yours–but that’s the point. You need to figure out what works for you. (Also note that these priorities are for indie writers. She seems to take a somewhat dim view of traditionally published writers.)
So…she lumps marketing, if it makes you happy, into #5. I should think a traditionally published author might want to substitute marketing for publishing new words in #4. And then, of course, there are those of us who teach and coach or, gasp, have a day job. That has to fit in there somewhere, too. Right?
But I feel like these guidelines are an excellent starting point for a discussion you might want to have with yourself, your spouse, or your family. Think about it. Roll it around in your mind, talk about it. You don’t have to figure it all out at once. But I do think it is good to have a firm grasp of your priorities so you can pull yourself back when you deviate from them.
Don’t cringe at the words self-care. It is just about eating right, exercising, and sleeping enough, which are baseline activities that will do more for your writing than just about anything. And maybe you are an extreme introvert who doesn’t give a rip about any damned loved ones, in which case you can knock that priority out. But I do try my best to take care of myself, and I do love my loved ones, so I am pretty good with her outline up to #3, but after that I’d diverge, adding:
#6–Things that Make Me Happy and Healthy
In truth, I’m pretty good about the latter, given that much of what makes me happy is spending time with loved ones. And going to France every year, from where I just returned. Honestly, what tends to get shoved aside when things get overwhelming is my own personal writing–and I know I am not alone in that.
How about you? Do you have priorities firmly planted in your mind, or maybe even written down somewhere? Care to share them? I’d love to hear what they are in the comments.
(If you want to read more about this topic from Kristine, go to her site and search for “burnout” or “sustainability.”)
All you have to do is put pen to paper, one word at a time. As Margaret Atwood says, “A word after a word after a word is power.”
And yet, we make it hard. We resist that power. We make judgements about ourselves and our pages. Which, of course, just makes it harder.
I’m pondering all this because I’m taking a class called The Devoted Writer from Cynthia Morris. The heart of the class is free writing for 15 minutes every day. She provides a prompt, and we write to it. Simple, right?
Well, yeah, it is, actually. There’s a lot of great supporting information about free writing and mind mapping in the class (I’m only two days in, so I’m excited to see what else she covers) but the heart of the class is, I repeat, free writing for 15 minutes a day.
I know free writing. You know free writing. You set a timer and move your hand across the page without stopping, no matter what. If you get stuck instead of stopping and staring off into space you keep writing. No matter what.
I’ve used free writing a lot for brainstorming and idea generating, warm-ups, stuff like that. But I’ve never used it for my “real” writing–when I’m working on a novel or a blog post (like right now). Because, you know, those things are real writing. Serious. Important. Too serious and important for silly ole free writing.
But here’s what Cynthia Says about free writing:
“This is the method to write anything, anytime, for any purpose. And, this practice powerfully, yet simply sets aside the inner critic to bring you into a writualistic space.”
(She adds a “w” to the word ritual, to make it writual, which I love.)
When I started the class, it was with the intention to do the free writing exercises to help loosen me up, nab ideas, all the usual suspects. I had no intention of using it for anything else. But Cynthia’s enthusiasm is contagious and so I’ve been experimenting with it. I gotta tell you, it is pretty magical.
I’ve always been a proponent of fast writing–or at least the idea of it. But it is too easy for me to fall into the rut of fast writing for a few minutes and then taking a break. Because there’s fast writing and free writing. With free writing, you are committed to keep going until the timer goes off. With fast writing, you can stop yourself any time. But applying the guidelines of free writing to any kind of writing project is really quite liberating. And efficient. My God, with concentrated bursts you can get a hell of a lot of writing done.
You need a prompt to free write and there are tons all over the internet. You can also make up your own–which is especially helpful for when you are engaged in a novel or story. (This morning I needed insight into a character’s issue. I started with the prompt, Amos has a problem.)
So go try it right now, even if you’ve tried it before and think it is stupid, or only for journal writers, or whatever. The key is to keep your hand moving across the page or fingers clattering across the typewriter. If you get stuck, I find a useful phrase is “and then.” Just write that over and over again until you get back on track. And remember, go with what comes out. Your words don’t have to relate to the prompt at all. It is just a starting point. Start with 15 minutes and then experiment. For writing chapters or scenes, maybe 20 or 25 minutes might work better for you. The key is to keep your fingers move across the keyboard, or the pen moving across the page. Do not stop! I cannot stress that enough.
And please do try it on whatever project you’ve got going. I used it for this blog post. Nailed it in one session–though of course I did need to go back and edit. Because, of course.
Let me know how it is working for you or if you have any questions in the comments. They’ve been wonky in the past but seem to be okay now. One note: you do need to click on the individual page of the post in order to comment.