Being a writer is a tough gig, as previously noted. Hugely satisfying, and the only thing you can do if you are called to it, but it is a demanding task mistress and at all but the highest levels, the pay is low.
So you might as well have fun while you are doing it. I’ve been pondering how, exactly, we creatives might have success setting the brain free. And below are some tips. Some of these may be familiar to you, but often it takes reading something several times before it really lodges in the mind. And some might be new to you. Consider them all and think about how you can put them to use in your writing life.
Write hard and fast for the discovery draft. Throwing words at the page with abandon, when time passes, and you don’t even know it, and afterward you’re in love with the world—this is why, I believe, most writers start writing. It is wonderful experience. It gets harder to achieve this state when you are writing professionally, but….you need to. This is when the magic happens.
Don’t confuse writing with rewriting. Don’t labor over every word as you write. Let the words rip. And also, don’t labor over the first chapters of the book, going back over it and over it. This is a sure way to get blocked. Write your discovery draft from start to finish and then you can begin revising. You’ll know much more about the book when you get to the end, trust me.
Write bad. If you are well and truly blocked, this is an exercise that will help set your brain free. Write one bad page. Force yourself to write the worst crap you can think of. Here’s the thing: you won’t. Because you are basically a good writer, so writing bad doesn’t come naturally. But once you allow yourself to write bad, that takes the pressure off.
How do you keep your brain and creativity free?
A (much) longer version of this was first published on Medium, which is a site that encourages longer reads. You can read that version here. I’ve got other posts on writing up there, too!
Like, staring off into space. Taking a nap to refresh your brain after all its hard toil. Going to the kitchen to look for a snack. Deciding what you really need is to take a walk. Or drink a glass of wine.
Okay, maybe those aren’t the best examples, though they are things we all do when the writing gets the better of us. But the topic of this post is all the productive things besides putting words into the actual manuscript that we writers have to do. (Maybe productive isn’t the right word. Because sometimes a glass of wine is just what the writer needs. Right?)
Such as (in no particular order):
–Figure out plot
–Organize word or Scrivener documents
–Delve into character backstory
–Freewrite about aspects of the story
–The internet research rabbit hole
–Interview people for research
–Freewrite to warm up
–Reread your work
–Ponder how to incorporate comments from readers
(What am I forgetting? I know there is more!)
And that doesn’t even take us into the social media and marketing realm, which is a whole other thing. But my point is this: all these other things are necessary to support your writing. You’ve got to take time for all of them, because otherwise your novel or memoir or story won’t exist. And sometimes it is hard to remember that. Some of that work can feel like busy work. But it is really not.
I think sometimes I writers skimp on some of the other things for that very reason. Because we don’t feel like we are writing unless we are really writing. Or we are so eager to get to the actual writing that we gloss over the importance of prep work (spoken by a writer who has come to accept her pantsing ways)
It often seems as if the entire online writing community is obsessed with word counts. And if everyone and their uncle is posting theirs, you can get a bit over-eager to get to your writing so that you can post yours as well. But word counts can set up a self-destructive cycle. A writer I know sometimes pads her sentences just to reach her word count. (Talking about a friend. Really.)
In the class I recently finished, Becca explained that writing to a word count isn’t the best option for most people, especially NFPs, who often work in a, shall we say, circular fashion. (Instead, she recommends tracking hours. Or minutes.)
But however you are tracking it, just remember: all those other things are important, too. Don’t be so eager to get to the writing, peeps.
Do you ever fall into this trap?
Do you want to finish a book? Are you stuck? Maybe you just need to get started. I’ve got space for one more client this summer. Is it you? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s chat.
Why do you write? Why do I write? Why does anybody write?
Funnily enough, I had plans to write a blog post on this topic and then, in that synchronistic way things sometimes happen, I had a coaching session that illuminated it feven more.
So, why do you write? This is a question you’ll often see asked in blog posts or hear in writing workshops. Experts will tell you that you need to know the answer to this as a starting point to your writing practice or career.
In truth, the question used to make me uncomfortable. Probably because I didn’t really know why I wrote. It seems so much a part of me, something I do, most of the time, every day. (Don’t get me wrong–I’m not always that on when it comes to writing fiction, but I am an inveterate journal writer.) So to me, the answer is well, duh, I write because I write.
When I’m uncomfortable, I sometimes sneer. Which is what I always did when the why do you write question came up. And then, I’d ignore it. Which is another thing I do when I’m uncomfortable. Denial is not a river in Egypt but Portland, Oregon.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about it again. What is the difference between the woman I knew long ago who made a feeble stab at writing, but quit as soon as it got hard (Read: rewriting and submitting) and the writer I know now who hasn’t published a thing but continues to improve his craft? Or what about the student I had many years ago who professed that he was only going to keep writing if he could get good at it–and his definition of good meant publication?
Okay, so that last guy clearly had a reason for writing–to get published, and beyond that, show the world how great he was. And he gave up when it didn’t happen. And the woman who quit writing I sort of get–she liked that rush of adrenalin that often comes as you are doing first draft work and losing yourself to the words. But that’s not enough to create a writing career. The writer who keeps writing for the sheer love of it–that’s how I feel, too. I’d be throwing words on the page even if you told me they’d never go beyond my own computer. (Though I’ve learned something about my motivation that goes beyond this–more on that in a second.)
But why? What is this compulsion to write? After many years, I’ve figured out a few reasons:
–Writing helps me figure things out. I am not able to fully know my thoughts on a topic until I’ve written about it.
–Writing helps me make sense of the world. A story has a beginning, middle, and end, and by thinking that way I can order this crazy un-ordered world a bit better.
–Writing helps me know myself, a continual process even at this advanced age.
–Writing is fun. I know people who are aghast at hearing that. But then I know people who think snake massages are fun. (Seriously, check this out.) Or fishing. Or doing oil changes. For me, getting lost in a story world is pure joyous fun.
And there’s one more thing I just realized, thanks to my coaching session with Becca Syme. (It was part of the class she taught that is just finishing up, Write Better Faster.) As a person with a high influencer trait, one of the reasons I write is to have an impact. I’m not that motivated by money, but I am motivated by wanting to inspire people. Weirdly, that is one of those things that I was sort of aware of, but not really.
And here’s the deal: now that I know this, I can use it to motivate me. I can use it to motivate my writing. Boo-yah. As I’ve said a million times before, clarity changes everything. So there you go–the reason why you and to know why you write. Because it can help you feel better about yourself and if you feel better about yourself you’re going to feel better about your writing.
AmIright? I am right.
And, just because I love you all so much, here’s a video of that above-mentioned snake video. You’re welcome.
If you would like help with your writing, I have a couple of suggestions for you. I’m currently accepting one more coaching client this summer. Or, if you’ve got some wanderlust, you could come to France. If you are interested in coaching, email me at email@example.com. If you are interested in France, click here for more info.
I am my own worst enemy. This is true when it comes to writing or living. I cannot follow a system to save my own life. I come up with brilliant ideas that will make my writing easier or more organized or better and then I don’t follow them.
I was reminded of this earlier today when I posted on my Facebook group page about journaling and my technique of indexing journals so I can mine the pages for information. But then I remembered that usually about halfway through a journal I forget to add topics to the index and another few pages later I’m forgetting to number them.
I’ve taught classes on the importance of prepping before writing a novel but the last one I wrote I just launched into without much. (And ended up rewriting it a million times. I should follow my own advice.) Because, of course, every time I start a new novel, I do it differently.
I love putting information on index cards. Until I don’t. Then I love putting it on Evernote. Until I don’t. Then I decide everything should go into binders. Until that becomes too much trouble. Then I switch to file folders. Until I decide I hate that. And the process starts over again.
I’ve been known to buy numerous planners every year. I find one that is going to finally get me organized forever and ever and a month later I hate it and buy a new one. And that usually happens about 3 or 4 times. Unfortunately for the planner industry, I’ve finally gone digital and use my phone calendar.
And then there’s the whole bullet journal thing. I tried it once with great success, never to be duplicated again. And now I look at all the elaborate pages people make and I wonder how in the hell they ever do anything but journal.
I have five thousand icons on my desktop because if I file any of them away I’ll never find them again. I decide to get systematic and make folders for everything and then I use names that I can’t remember and so I make a new folder.
I start out the week making a to-do list in the spiral I keep by my computer for notes. But then I turn the page because I have to use a new page for my brilliant idea that just occurred. And then I make notes about the novel I’m working on. And by the middle of the week, my to-do list is buried so I grab a sticky note to write on. By the end of the week my desk is covered in sticky notes, so, of course, I grab a piece of scrap paper and write a new list.
It is kind of a miracle that I ever get anything done. But I do. I’m not sure how.
Do you have any organizing foibles? Please, please share them with me in the comments. It will make me feel better about myself.
It’s hard when you are a newbie, terrified of the blank page in front of you, that you might not have any worthwhile words to put on it, or that you don’t even know how.
Starting is hard when you are a seasoned writer, with thousands or even millions of words under your belt, for, amazingly enough, the exact same reasons as when you are a newbie.
It is hard when you’re at the start of a writing project, it’s hard when you’re in the middle, and it is hard when you’re nearing the end.
Why is it getting started so damn hard? And what can be done about it?
I don’t know the answer to the first question. Why should it be so hard to get started putting words on the page? I suspect it might have something everything to do with fear, though even that doesn’t make a lot of sense because: there you are writing, and nobody has to see what you’re working on until you choose to let them.
So what’s the big deal? Why is it possible that every other chore, not matter how trivial, can take precedence over your writing? How the stupidest of internet articles can suddenly seem like the most vital of things to read when you’re confronted by the blank page?
Maybe it is the fear you’ll get lost. Lost in the wonder of creating a story, lost in another world, gone far beyond the boundaries of your current reality. Which is what writing does for us, right?
Anyway, we could debate the whys all day, but long ago I learned that sometimes there is no why and it is fruitless to waste time trying to figure it out. The more helpful route is to learn what can be done.
How to make starting easier.
The tried and somewhat tired advice is to tell yourself all you have to do is work for 15 minutes. Or 10. Or 5. The theory being that once you start, you’ll get absorbed and go much longer. And this is, indeed, true. But it still doesn’t get you off the internet and working on your writing.
There has to be a spark that propels you there eagerly. Or at least dutifully. Or you’ll never start those first few minutes, right? I have some suggestions, and most of them are what I call foundational work–the kind that creates a backdrop of energy and excitement for the work, so that instead of stalling, you can’t wait to get started.
Know where you’re going. If there is any one thing that will help you get started, it is knowing where you are going. If you don’t know where to go next in your writing, you’ll wander before you even get to the page. How to make sure this happens? Make notes when you end your previous writing session so you know what’s up next. If you get to a place where you don’t know (this happens), take time to write notes or a journal entry to figure it out. Because this will lead you to:
Power of momentum. The magic “M” word. Can’t beat it. Once you get momentum, you are off and running, baby. You leave off your writing session sadly and can’t wait to start again next time. Which is what we freaking want. Momentum happens when you are writing regularly. Which is why every writing instructor on the planet encourages you to do so.
Follow the juice. Go where the energy of the session takes you. Maybe you’re all excited about writing the wedding scene, but the funeral scene comes next and you are a strict chronological writer. Don’t force yourself to write what you think you should. Follow your excitement. (For the record, I have a hard time doing this, but I’m always pleased with the results when I do.)
Write everywhere in the piece. I often take sketchy notes in the body of the file for the next scene. These may cover a lot of ground. Similar to the above point, it can be tempting to force yourself to start at the beginning and trudge along. But you don’t have to–read your notes and start where you know what to write. It may be the middle of the scene, but who cares?
Write around the work regularly. By writing around, I mean taking notes and journaling about your work in progress. I could not write anything without doing this. I am constantly making notes to remind myself and using journal entries to figure out plot and character ideas. When I’m in the thick of it, as I was yesterday working on my rewrite, my desk is covered in sticky notes. Come to think of it, I couldn’t work without sticky notes, either.
Okay, those are my thoughts on starting. Got any others to add to the mix? Leave a comment!
Writing, like so many creative endeavors, is a strange gig. We writers do everything we can to avoid working on our projects, but then when we finally get to it, we don’t want to stop. While in many arenas, obsession is not considered a good thing, we creatives tend to cultivate it. I’ve recently written about the strange paradox that the more you do of something, the more you want to do and can do. Which leads to…dum dum de dum….obsession. So here’s a handy guide on how to make it happen. (And let it be known, I’m talking about the good kind of obsession here.)
How to Get Obsessed
Make a commitment to your work and then follow through on it. I know no better way than this to get obsessed. Go to the page every day, or as often as you can, and you’ll find yourself gaining momentum. So often, you find what you need in the writing itself. You may not think you know where the scene is going, but once you start writing, it shows you. But you won’t find it if you don’t sit down to the page. So do it, even when you aren’t inspired. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself obsessed. You’ll be thinking about your work all the time. Using every few spare minutes to work on it. Coming up with brilliant ideas right and left.
Why You Want To
Because there is no better feeling on earth than that which you get from working steadily on a creative project. Have you ever focused intently on your writing, and after your session felt like you were in love with everything in the world? That’s the writer’s high that you get when you’ve got momentum in your work. When I’m on a roll like this, everything in my life works better. I smile at the cranky grocery store check-out clerk and let all the negativities of the day slide off me. All the things on my to-do list get done–because I’m so happy I don’t mind doing them.
How to Get Un-obsessed
Okay, honestly, being obsessed with your work all the time is not the best state of being. For a couple of reasons: first, you need to get out from behind the computer to experience life so that you have second to write about. (In other words, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Or Jackie a dull girl.) And second, that old myth about the tortured writing staying up all night to work ends up with said writer collapsing and then not being able to write for another month. So the key is to get a steady burn going. Step by step we travel far, as my Mom always said.
It’s a good idea to take breaks often. And by breaks I mean intentional breaks. Not lollygagging across the internet, but doing an activity that means something to do you. That will refresh you. And for God’s sake get up from you chair and walk and stretch once in awhile. (Which I have a difficult time with, partly because of pain in my knee.)
And also, know that at some point, your obsession will end. It just will. That’s part of the creative cycle. You can’t go full out all the time, and nor do you want to (see first paragraph in this section.) If you’ve suddenly lost the urge to write, maybe your brain just needs a break. Listen to it and give it one.
Are you obsessed with your writing? Leave a comment or discuss on the Facebook page.
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.
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.
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.
I was meditating this morning. My legs twitched. I was antsy in my seat. My eyebrow itched and finally I succumbed and scratched it. My back tingled. All these things took my attention away from my mantra–Hum Sah. And then I started thinking about emails I needed to write and work I had to complete.
I was meditating imperfectly. VERY imperfectly. But, I consoled myself, at least I was doing it. Meditating imperfectly is better than not meditating at all. So, too, with exercise, right? And cooking, and gardening. And–you knew it was coming–writing.
It is important to let yourself write imperfectly. You know this. I know this. But do we remember it when we are writing? Do we let our fingers race across the keyboard, not worrying about how “good” the words are? Or do we stop and obsess about what should come next? What sounds right. What our readers, or agent, or editor will think when they read it?
I do that far too often. Hmm, let me think–maybe I even did it this morning when I convinced myself that one aspect of my character’s backstory had to be figured out in excruciating detail before I could go any farther. When I stepped away from the computer, I realized that wasn’t true at all. I just needed to write it imperfectly–and then come back and fix it later.
Your job as a writer is to put words on the page. Period. They don’t have to be perfect words. They don’t even have to be good. The only requirement is that the words come out of your head, through your fingers, and onto the page. Period.
Simple, right? And oh so hard. Just remember–imperfection is your friend. Put it on a post-it next to your computer: IMPERFECTION IS YOUR FRIEND. And remember this in the rest of your life as well.
Let me know how that works out for you, will you? Leave a comment!
A friend wrote from Mexico last week. She said she was having a hard time letting go of the words she was writing. There were sentences she liked in her essay and she didn’t want to delete them. She suggested this might be something I’d like to write about.
And she was right. Letting go is one of my favorite topics.
I myself am not terribly good at letting go. You might even say I have a hard time with it. I carry extra weight. My house holds extra clutter. My brain is full of chattering monkeys at any given hour of the day. And yet I’ve had the glorious experience twice in my life of spontaneously letting go of something that had been bothering me.
The freedom, lightness, and expansion that follows is astounding. In the aftermath of the letting go, you just don’t care. And not in a bad way. In a deeply peaceful way. You’re certain that whatever is to happen will be what is supposed to be.
How did it happen?How did I achieve this amazing state? Beats me. I’ve tried to replicate it many times. And, of course, the essence of letting go is elusive like that. The more you try to force it, the less likely it is to happen. So while I’ve not been able to exactly reproduce these wonderful experiences, I’ve come up with some ways to at least deal with them. And I will talk about those as they relate to writing.
—Letting go of words, as in the situation my friend wrote me about. You like those words you put on the page, damnit! And you don’t want to get rid of them. The antidote: create a hold file, into which you carefully copy and paste those precious words and sentences. I do this for every project. And I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually gone back to the file and extracted something I’ve deleted. But it makes me feel better to know I’m not just flinging them to the winds of cyberspace.
–Letting go of negative self-talk, the kind that can keep us from the page and/or keep us from expressing ourselves once we get there. The antidote: well, this is a lifelong quest, so I don’t have one all-purpose answer. But I do have some suggestions. Meditation helps a lot. A lot lot. Exercise helps, as does EFT (tapping) or any kind of work that helps you get out of your brain and frees you up to put words onto the page.
–Letting go of the actual work, as when it is time to submit to an agent or editor. The antidote: you just have to grit your teeth and do it. Sorry.
Really, all three of these types of letting go are practices that we writers need to do over and over again So you might as well get used to the process. Oh, and if you’d like to read more about letting go in general, I found this article to be helpful.
Are you good at letting go? Or bad at it, like me? How does it affect your writing? Please leave a comment!
Photo from everystockphoto. I found a crow picture in honor of the crow who lives in the house behind me here in Ceret. You can see his photo here and here.