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!
Once I had a writing friend who set her computer screensaver to show the words, “Why aren’t you writing?”
And, indeed, that is the question, isn’t it? It is the question at the heartbeat of a writer’s days. Why aren’t you writing? Why are you watching TV when you could be writing? Why are you mopping the kitchen floor when you could be writing? Why are you playing Spider Solitaire when you could be writing?
That question strikes to the heart of the creative tension that drives a writer. When we’re not writing, we feel we should be. It’s a tension that I’m not sure non-writers (or non-creatives, because I’m sure artists of all stripes feel this way, too) get.
Sometimes I imagine how wonderful it might be just to go through life as a normal person. A person who isn’t constantly thinking and worrying about writing. A person who doesn’t wake up first thing in the morning and start planning when she’ll be able to write. A person who doesn’t start thinking about when he will write tomorrow as soon as his head hits the pillow. To not have this constant pull to create something.
But, truthfully, I’d hate it. Because I don’t honestly know how non-creative people get through. Do you? My writing is my constant companion, the page that receives all my worries and joys and brilliant ideas (along with the duds). It’s where I process life, where I figure things out–and this goes for fiction, non-fiction, and journaling. And I don’t know what I’d do without it.
So if the constant tension to create is the payment for the writing life, I’ll take it. How about you?
Here’s reason #5,001 (I’m counting): that writing is a worthwhile activity: it’s good for your brain.
Allow me to digress a bit. I’m teaching myself to crochet. (Head on over to the blog if you want to see a photo of my first finished piece, a scarf heavy enough to qualify as a weighted blanket if it were an afghan). Every time I start a new project, I puzzle over the directions, which read like a foreign language—even to somebody used to deciphering knitting patterns like me. Then I need to Google obscure abbreviations I don’t understand, and often refer to two or three sites to figure out what I’m supposed to do. And finally I usually have to start the project several times before I get it right.
While I’m doing this I swear I can feel all the neurons in my brain firing. Learning something new like this is good for my brain! And if there’s one thing I desire to maintain, it’s my brain. Which is why I do crossword puzzles, read a wide variety of book genres from non-fiction to fiction, and try to get my butt out the door or to my stationary bike to exercise. (Yes, exercise is good for the brain as well as the body.)
But as I loop yarn around my crochet hook and congratulate myself for being a lifelong learner, I keep thinking about writing. The thought occurred to me that it must be an excellent thing for your brain to be engaged in. Because, think about how hard your brain works when you’re trying to figure out how to make a plot work, or what happened in your character’s backstory that created her motivation that powers the story. It’s hard to think up new worlds and create people to populate them. (And I believe that is the reason some struggle to find time to write—they don’t have the necessary brain space to do it, what with the crazy amount of input we get these days.)
So I went to the Google and looked it up. And found this: “challenging your brain activates processes that maintain brain cells and stimulate communication between them.” Boo-yah. But this is even better: a German study observed fiction writers at work and found that their brains showed similarities to people skilled at other complex actions, such as sports.
Sometimes I think we need excuses to take time to write (which is why I maintain that afore-mentioned list). So next time your partner complains about you burying yourself in your writing cave, you can haughtily inform him or her that you are improving your brain. Never mind that you’d much rather be writing than watching Fast and Furious #18 for the thousandth time.
Do leave a comment and tell me how you’ve improved your brain recently.
Note: these love letter are taken from my weekly newsletter. If you’d prefer to have them come right into your inbox, sign up to the right!
The best way I can answer the question of the title is to tell you two stories, the stories of my two attempts to get a literary agent.
Attempt to get an agent #1
The first story happened back around 2011-2012. I was seeking representation for my novel, Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior. Over the course of a year or two, I actively submitted to agents. Boy, did I ever get an education. I had many agents respond to my query (because writing queries happens to be one of my super powers). And then, often I’d never hear another thing. But some did ask for either a partial or my full manuscript. And I got great responses.
The agents complimented me on my writing, said they loved the sex scenes (it is not erotica, I promise), and enjoyed the story. But. And this was a big but–none of them thought they could sell the book because Emma Jean was too brash. Too opinionated. Too inclined to blurt out exactly what’s she’s thinking. Too “unrelatable,” as one agent called her. (Oh, and then there was the one who took offense to her getting drunk on a plane. Because, “nobody ever does that.” Yeah, right. That’s never happened.) I lost exact count of how many times I sent Emma Jean out, but it was somewhere around 60 submissions. Yes, 60. (Which isn’t even that many in the pantheon of literary rejection stories.)
So, long story short, I never did secure representation. Instead, a friend told me about the small press that had bought his book, and on a wild tear one day, I submitted my book and promptly forgot about it. Six months later they accepted Emma Jean for publication. I sold my book without an agent.
Attempt to get an agent #2
Two years ago, I had another novel ready to submit. This one had a sweet, relatable main character and was set in a bakery. A slam dunk, I figured. I had recently joined the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association, and in one of their emails I noticed that an agent named Erin Niumata of Folio Literary was accepting submissions. I read her profile and decided she was the agent for me. So I sent her the query for The Bonne Chance Bakery. I got a reply back so fast I thought it was an auto out-of-office deal. But no. It was from Erin. And she wanted to see my full manuscript.
A week later, we talked on the phone, and she said the magic words, “I am calling to offer you representation.” Woot woot! So this time out I got my agent on my very first effort. Dreams do come true. I was right about that slam dunk thing. My two experiences couldn’t be more different. Which is why I love to tell these stories. I think they are both encouraging in their own ways.
How you can get an agent
The moral of the story? Yes, it is hard to get an agent. But it can be done, as long as you:
Have a finished novel that is as good as you can make it
Understand how the publishing world works
Write a kick-ass query letter
Practice your pitching
Have some determination and patience
I can teach you the first four points in my upcoming How to Get an Agent Class. It is a teleseminar, easily accessible by phone or computer the night of the class or in a recording after. And there are two options–class only or class + my critique of your query.
For a relatively small investment of time and money, you just may land yourself the agent of your dreams. Find out more and sign up here.
Ah, the excitement of beginning a new writing project. The energy! The enthusiasm! The high hopes! This, you think, is going to be the best novel yet, the best essay, the best short story, the best article. You whip open your computer, open a new file, place you hands on the keyboard and….sit staring at the monitor. The idea and the energy that swirled around it has dissipated. Crap. That’s when you decide the kitchen floor needs mopping or the chocolate in the cupboard needs eating. Or the couch needs you to take a nap on it.
The description above is often me. I am a big picture person and I love dreaming up new ideas. Oh, the plans I have for novels, classes, non-fiction books, and programs scribbled in my journal. And yet few of them see the light of day. Part of that is because, well, time. There isn’t enough of it to do everything I want to do. But part of it also is because its easy to scrawl some notes on a page and much harder to actually take those notes and shape them into something. Like a book.
But I have learned a thing or two about getting started over the years of writing several novels, a few short stories, numerous articles and ten years worth of blog posts. And so herewith, I offer you a few ideas:
Take the time to do some prep work. It can be so thrilling to be in the thrall of a new idea for a writing project that you launch right into the writing. And yeah, then about a few chapters in you get stalled because you have no idea what you’re doing. I’m all for getting words on the page, but I do find it helpful to know at least some things about your story before you begin. Things like characters, setting, theme (okay, that one often takes awhile to gel), and at least a vague idea of where the story is going to go. By the by, last year I taught Mapping the Novel at the Sitka Center and I’m seriously considering teaching it online later this year. Email me if you’re interested and I’ll make sure you get info about it.
Know your genre. Are you writing a romance, or a mystery or women’s fiction? Maybe a thriller? There are certain conventions for each one that it behooves you to know. And beyond that, knowing these conventions can help you when you’re trying to figure out the steps of the story. In a romance, for instance, the hero and heroine have to meet. (Duh.) But that’s one of your most important scenes, right there! All you have to do is figure out the details.
Do some free writing. I know, I know, I told you not to jump right onto the page. But free writing is different. It is writing about your project, brainstorming on the page. I could not write anything without this process. I write morning pages just about every day, and often they are devoted to figuring out the intricacies of whatever I’m working on.
Expand your input. Try some alternative approaches. For instance, I’m reading a fabulous book called The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide for an Inspired Life. It is all geared toward using tarot cards for your creativity, i.e. your next writing project. Author Jessa Crispin has designed spreads for finding inspiration, checking your direction, being blocked, and all kinds of things. Fun! And helpful. You might also try looking up your character’s birth date on an astrological chart for more insight, or research your setting on Google images or Google earth.
Use the power of lists. I can’t live without my lists, and I use them voraciously with my WIPs. Often my plot outline is a simple list of upcoming scenes, but that’s enough to guide me. I make lists for what’s going to happen in a chapter or scene to clarify before I start writing. And I make lists of things to remember. Constantly. There are a lot of moving parts to a novel.
Those are some of the ideas that help me. What works for you? Leave a comment!
And don’t forget that I’m offering free connection calls this month. Let’s chat about writing! You can sign up here.
I realized that, if you’re like me (and since you are a writer, you probably are, in some small way at least), it takes you forever awhile to make up your mind about things. Because, as writers, we must ponder the overall story of every thing that crosses our paths. Am I right? Also, there was this holiday, at least in the states, called Thanksgiving, which, since it is most often a family affair, can either be a wonderful distraction or a horrible distraction, depending on where you fall down on the idea of family. But either way it’s a distraction. And perhaps, like me, you were out of town with limited wi-fi.
For all these reasons and more, which, since you are a writer you are free to make up yourself, I am extending my Black Friday sale. So, fanfare please:
How about we get your writing flowing and your stories onto the page with my writing coaching deal!
Buy 4 sessions, get 1 free
Buy 12 sessions, get 2 free
Buy 24 sessions, get 3 free
This deal ends on Friday at midnight Pacific Standard Time, for real this time. You can find out more information about coaching here.
Oh, and you can buy it for yourself, or a family member, or a friend. And you can use the coaching sessions any time.
Contact me if you have questions or would like to schedule a phone call to discuss coaching.
I’m leaving for France (Paris and Ceret) soon. I’m not one of those people who pack and repack a week ahead. No, you’ll find me throwing clothes in the suitcase the night before.
But, and this is a big but—when the time comes for me to commence said throwing, I will know exactly what I’m going to take. (Okay, because I’m a terrible packer and a confirmed right-brainer, there will be last minute changes and additions.) Because I’ve been thinking about what I need to take clothes-wise, book-wise, and technology-wise all month.
Chance favors the prepared mind. And the prepared packer. And the prepared writer.
At least I think so.
I know there’s an endless debate between pantsers and plotters. (For the record, a pantser is one who flies by the seat of his pants when writing, and a plotter is one who plans everything out.) And, seeing as how I have a completely somewhat loose approach to organization and house cleaning and the like, you would think I would fall down on the side of pantsing.
But I have learned through many years of experience that when I pants, I get into trouble. Not that I don’t love it, because I do. What could be better than allowing your mind and fingers to ramble down shady lanes and sunny byways in strange worlds? But the key word here is ramble, because that’s exactly what I do. Ramble along with no worry for the strictures of plot or character. Or showing a cohesive setting. Or anything but my rambles.
And one cannot write a novel without worrying about plot or character or setting. Or one can, but one will need to do a lot of rewriting when one is done. I do love rewriting—but not when I have to figure out how to make a shapeless lump into a story.
So, I plot. And write up character dossiers. And draw maps of locations and diagrams of houses and offices. I call all of this prep work and I actually enjoy it. Sometimes I think I enjoy it too much, as I can get so engrossed in it that I never quite get to the writing of the novel.
It occurred to me, as I pondered what clothing I should take to Europe, that it might be helpful to share what I consider to be the bare minimum of novel prep work, because it’s been awhile since we discussed this. So here you go (and remember this is a minimum. You can do a lot more if you wish):
Character Dossiers. I fill them out for all of my main characters and do at least the rudiments (appearance, personal traits) for the minor ones. Because all story starts with character, this is time well spent and often helps me come up with plot ideas as well. It is also helpful to know who is going to tell the story and if it will be in first person or third.
Setting Sketches. I need to be able to see where my character lives and works. This goes for big setting, such as the overall city she lives in, and small setting, such as her home and office.
A Loose Outline. And by loose, I mean loose. I’m not one of those people who plans out every single beat and action and character thought. I do like to leave some room for surprises. A simple list of potential happenings will do.
Really that’s it. I know, you don’t see research on the list. That’s because, like technology, I’m on a need-to-know basis with it. When I don’t know how to do something on my computer, ask the Google How do I do _______________ ? I always get a quick answer. Same thing with research. At least for the first draft you do not want to get mired in a lot of facts you might not really need. (And if you’re writing an historical, my hat’s off to you. And you’ll need to do a lot more research.)
Since I just finished my rewrite, I’ll be prepping a new novel myself soon. Can’t wait.
While I have you, are you a pantser or a plotter? What do you think are the advantages of your approach?
I’m back. It didn’t seem like much of a hiatus, at least from this end. And I’m still not finished with the rewrite. But I’m making excellent progress and feel very good about it. (And, so you don’t think I’m all fakey optimistic, let me just remind you that I sat out most of July working on it because I didn’t know how to approach it.)
I have a couple of brilliant thoughts on rewriting to share, but first, let me tell you a few fun things that happened while I was gone:
I got a bee sting while valiantly defending my three-year-old granddaughter from said bee. Her mother is allergic, and we’re not yet sure if Liv is. She’s been stung once, but often the allergic reaction doesn’t occur until the second or third sting. I sure didn’t want to be responsible for anything happening, so I was glad the bee stung me. But it turns out I’m having a fairly intense localized reaction, with my arm red and swollen to about the size of an elephant’s leg. And it itches like a mo-fo.
I have a dying root in a tooth. If you’ve never experienced this, it is hard to explain the agony. And I thought being pummeled by my massage therapist was bad. Also, a helpful note: do not get a toothache in August because every dentist in town is on vacation. I’m in between dentists because I needed to find a holistic one, aka, one who will not fill my mouth full of mercury. I already have plenty, thank you very much, and I just went on a nasty three-month cleanse to get rid of it. Anyway, I have an appointment two weeks hence. Meanwhile, I’m swishing with coconut oil and Listerine and salt water, and using clove oil and Orajel. Also taking lots of ibuprofen, which I know is terrible for me but c’mon, this pain is intense.
Aren’t I a fun date?
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that over with, on to the gems of wisdom about rewriting. Here goes:
Every book is its own beast. You have to honor the shape of what you have, you really do, and listen to how the book responds as you work. Some planned changes just may not work when you actually get to it. For instance, I figured out this elaborate backstory for one of the characters that was just perfect. I planned to fit it in in dribs and drabs. But when I actually got to places it might go, it didn’t fit. So I had to let it go.
Rewriting happens in macro swaths, such as rethinking a character, but the meat of it is in the micro. How a character reacts to the character you’ve rethought, for instance, which you show in dialogue or action. I’m struck this time through what makers of magic we are–erase one observation from a character’s head and you’ve changed the whole scene. Amazing. Which reminds me of something that used to happen all the time when I was in a writer’s group. I’d bring in a rewrite and people would wax poetic about how much better it was–when really all I’d done was change one or two tiny little things. But that’s the power we wield.
It really helps to have someone you can hash out ideas with. I was truthfully sort of scared of my agent at first, but this time through we’ve talked a couple times and emailed about what I’m doing. Also, when Debbie and I went on our writing retreat, we discussed our stories on breaks and at night. It really helps. Find someone with whom you can brainstorm–or just moan and whine to.
Okay, that’s it, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’m going to go take some more Ibuprofen and ice my elephant’s leg arm. But, I’ve missed you. So please tell me what you’ve been doing this summer and how the writing is going.
Feel the fear and do it anyway is one of the great all-time phrases ever. And I certainly can’t take credit for the words. It was the title of a book that came out years ago, by Susan Jeffers, and I clutched that book to me like a life raft at the time. I was reminded of the book again last weekend when the minister of my church referred to how she also found it life-saving back in the day. (Books really can change lives, never forget that as you write.)
I’m heading off to teach today, and I’ll be honest, I’m nervous. I’m not nervous about the material because I’ve taught it a million times (just not in this format). But I’m nervous about logistics, and getting there on time, and about how I’ve put everything together, and what to wear, and the biggie–what will people think of me? Will they like me? If you stop and think about that one for a minute, it is the most ridiculous fear on the planet. We can’t control what other people are going to think of us. We can be kind and open but if someone takes an instant dislike to us, there’s not much we can do about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken an instant dislike to someone–and later become close friends with them. Yet this is one of the most crippling fears people have. Oh, we humans are a funny lot.
And here’s another funny fear: that of putting words on the page. Or paint on the canvas. Or stitches on the fabric. We creatives face the blank page and panic. But why? Because all those thoughts about how people will react to the words on the page (which actually aren’t even there yet) crowd in and stop us. We tell ourselves we don’t know how to do it, as if everyone else has innate knowledge of it that we don’t share. That’s simply not true. They learned it by doing it, just like everyone else. The one exception is my four-year-old grandson. He comes up with the most amazing facts and when I ask him where he learned that he just shrugs and says “I just know it.” Which is, come to think of it, probably the best attitude any of us can take. Shrug and tell yourself “I just know how to write a novel.” “I just know how to put paint on the canvas.”
The thing is, if you’re afraid of something, it’s probably yours to do. That is one of the truest things I’ve learned through the years. And so here’s my best advice as to how to deal with fear:
That’s the best antidote to fear that I know. It doesn’t have to be big action, it can be something little. Tiny, even. Because teensy actions pile upon each other and cumulatively become big actions. I remember reading Susan Jeffers book back when it first came out and being so fearful that the thought of taking action was simply overwhelming. Back then, I could never have imagined publishing a book. Leading writing workshops in France. Or teaching others. But little actions built up. I went to a meeting of a writer’s group. Joined a critique group. Put words on the page regularly and started shaping them into something more than journal entries. Took the scary step of showing those words to others. And one day I found myself on the plane to Paris (alone–something else I couldn’t have imagined).
Before I started traveling regularly, I had a fear of flying. I’d grip the arm rests and hyperventilate during take-off and landing. But then I realized that if I ever wanted to go anywhere I better get over the fear. It is still not my favorite thing to do, but its not the worst, either. Doing something over and over helps quell the fear (though I still get nervous about logistics, that’s for damn sure).
Write a word, make the phone call, visit the gallery you want to represent you. Send the query, ask someone for something you want, whatever it is that fear prevents you from doing. Sit down at the computer and write the next scene of your novel or memoir. Because here’s the best part–once you’ve done that thing you’ll be flooded with the most glorious feeling of sweet relief. Because you’ve overcome fear. In many ways, I think it is the life journey we all share.
How do you overcome fear? Please share.
I’m off to teach at Sitka today, which is located on the beautiful Oregon coast, so I won’t be back in this space until next week. But follow me on Instagram for lots of photos!
The image is The Scream, by Edward Munch, of course, and it is in the public domain.
Years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Madeleine L’Engle, author of one of the best books ever, A Wrinkle in Time, speak. I brought my sister, a designer along. L’Engle was inspiring, gracious, and fascinating and when her talk was over, my sister turned to me and said, “She makes me wish I was a writer.”
Isn’t that wonderful? L’Engle had presented such an incredible picture of what it’s like to lead the writer’s life that even non-writers got swept up in the vision. And to me, it just reinforced what I already knew: that writing is the best passion in the world. There’s nothing I love more than being totally enraptured by a story I’m writing, or completely wrapped up in putting together an article about writing.
But there’s another reason beyond both of these, that I love writing. And that is because it constantly and consistently brings me back to myself. Through throwing words at the page, I write my way home, over and over again.
It’s easy to get lost these days. There’s a cacophony of noise out there—social media, news headlines, videos, a contentious and distracting presidential election. It is way to easy to drown in all of the input our poor overloaded brains take in on a daily basis and to feel confused, puzzled or out of sorts—without even knowing why. When this happens to me, I pull out my journal.
It is all too easy to sneer at journal writing as the purview of the wealthy who have nothing more important to do than write delicate entries about their fragile emotions. And yet, when one is in the grip of emotion, confounded about how to respond to the anxieties of the world, there is no better antidote than throwing words on the page. I went through a period, many years ago, when I wrote in my journal every day. That hasn’t been true of me for a long while, but I do journal in fits and spurts, regularly enough to call myself a journaler. At the start of this year, for instance, I filled an entire spiral with words. And then one day I was just done and I didn’t journal again for a long time.
Most often these days I don’t journal because I’d rather be writing fiction. If one has limited time to write, one must choose what one is going to write carefully. Also, if one wants to write fiction but is blocked, one can easily use journaling as an excuse! All those caveats aside, I do think every writer should consider keeping a journal at least sporadically, because it is so tremendously helpful in getting the crap out of your head and onto the page.
For the record, I come from a lineage of diarists. My maternal grandmother, who I don’t remember because she died when I was barely three, recorded a diary entry nearly every day of her adult life. (Those are her journals in the photo—they hold pride of place in a shelf in my office.) To my great disappointment, they tell very little of her inner life, but rather, drily note who visited, what she made for dinner, etc. (And to what will likely be my descendant’s great disappointment, my diaries tell very little of what happened in my world, but rather are dedicated to me figure out emotions and stories on the page.)
There’s all kinds of journaling you can do. I could write helpful snippets about writing morning pages , or keeping a gratitude journal, or writing unsent letters,, or writing about your day. But I’m not going to, because honestly, the best thing you can do is grab yourself a journal, open it up, and write. Start where you are now, wherever that is, and end when you’re finished. That’s all there is to it.
Do you write in a journal? Come on over to the blog and tell how you use it!