All You Have to Do is Write

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Writing, at heart, is simple.

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.

Thanks for reading!

What to Do When You’re Fresh Out of Ideas (A Love Letter)

The summer doldrums are here—and I’ve been fresh out of ideas. For anything. I haven’t posted on this blog, besides putting these newsletters up, in a couple of weeks. I was going great guns on Medium, posting a lot, and then I suddenly stopped.  I couldn’t think of anything to say in either place. And let’s not even mention the word fiction, okay?

This happens sometimes. You may have the will to write, as well as the time and the energy, but no ideas. And with no ideas, the will to write withers away.  I also think that this happens a lot for new writers. I remember wanting to write so badly, but not having the first clue what to write. So, in case you are in the same situation, and for my own sake as well as yours, I’ve assembled some ideas about how to come up with ideas in this newsletter.

Technique for Producing an Idea. There’s a classic old book written by an advertising guy back in the golden age of advertising, called, Technique for Producing Ideas. I read this book in journalism school and often follow its precepts. The basic one being: fill your brain up with every single bit of information on your topic, then set it aside. Go weed the garden or play with your kids or take your dog for a walk (see below). Just forget about it. And after a while, the idea you need will pop into your head! The book is still available and it is only $1.99 in Kindle. A quick read, really worth it.

Prompts. This is the tried and true way. Get yourself a prompt (there’s tons all over the internet or you can buy my prompt book) and write. The best way to use prompts is to choose one (without wasting a lot of time obsessing over which one), set a timer, and write for 15-20 minutes, without stopping. And I mean without stopping, people.

Make lists. For some reason, making lists is a great brain jogger. List ten things you did yesterday, ten people that interest you (famous ones, friends, family members, doesn’t matter), ten locations that intrigue you, and so on. List anything you can think of and then put the list in your writer’s notebook so you can refer to it any time and use items from the list as prompts.

Brainstorm. James Altucher, who is one of those people that is all over the internet but I’m not sure who he is, says to write down ten ideas every day. It is not bad advice.  Similar to list-making, just write down ten ideas about anything. You never know which one will develop into something.

Go for a walk. Something about walking jogs loose ideas for me. It is helpful to walk mindfully and engage your five senses to observe your surroundings. Take a notepad or your phone so you can make notes.

Go for a drive. I love driving, and it also often inspires new ideas to flood in. Again, be mindful. I find these days that I love the quiet when I’m driving, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago—I always had the radio or music on. But now I like the silence and time to think.

Quit worrying about it.  Yes, we live in a fast-paced world where you’re only as good as the most recent thing you wrote, but it is also okay to take a break. I was on the phone with one of my favorite clients yesterday and she shared how at the moment, she’s just letting things to do with her business go. She’s got a lot of distractions (good ones) in her life and so she’s just not worrying about things. I believe sometimes our brains need a break. And if we give them one, they will reward us with tons of new ideas.

Those are some ideas that might help if you, like me, are experiencing the summer doldrums.  How do you come up with new ideas? Leave a comment!

Charlotte’s Monthly Round-Up Love Letter

Okay, so I probably should have done this last week, because we are already six days into the month, but I just thought of it. I’m talking about a new feature I’m trying—a monthly round-up of what’s going on in my writing life. Hopefully you will find things of use to you.

Outside my office window, the blossoms on the cherry tree are already fading. I can’t believe it is May! My month in France seems like a distant memory. And it is—I’ve been home nearly a month and a half. I’ve been busy working on my rewrite (see below), organizing my office, teaching, and working with clients. Oh, I also do quite a bit of shepherding of small children. (In case you need catching up, my daughter and her family moved in with us in March.)  It’s like being a parent all over again, only at least this time I can go close the door to my office. (Never mind that my office is the most favorite place of the two miniature humans who now live with me.)

Often sometimes I long for the gentle pace of the days in France, but I feel pretty blessed to have so much going on here.  We’re settling into a good balance. And if all else fails, there is wine. So let’s get to it.

What I Read

Train Your Brain, by Dana Wilde.  This book covers familiar ground—what you think affects your life—but the author writes about the topic in a way that I found convincing and easy to grasp. I’m a total wonk for brain stuff, and she talks about it without getting too science-y for me. Woo-woo warning: the topic lends itself to the woo, can’t be helped, so if this is not your thing, stay away.

A Gentleman in Moscow. I am loving this book. I bought it in hardcover for my husband a year ago Christmas. He read it and loved it but I ignored it. Finally picked it up and it’s so good. Amor Towles writes in an elegant style. He is also very good at dropping you into a scene, and explaining later. Something to emulate.

The Hazelwood, by Melissa Albert. Wasn’t thrilled with this one, though I had high hopes for it. I got confused with all the activity in the other world they enter and thought it went on a bit long. But points for inventiveness.

Digging In, by Loretta Nyhan.  This was a good garden-variety (hahahaha, I crack myself up) women’s fiction novel about a protagonist getting over the death of her husband through gardening. That she pisses off the home owner’s society in the process is a fun bonus.

On My To-Read List

Love and Ruin, by Paula McClain.  This is about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who was quite a star in her own right. She was a globe-trotting journalist in a time when that was relatively rare. I’ve always wanted to know more about her.

Willpower Doesn’t Work, by Ben Hardy. I hear this is a great book on productivity, which is a topic dear to my heart. I also recommend his newsletter.

What I’m Loving

My rewrite.  I was having hand-wringing fits about it earlier in this month. But, finally, I’ve reached some momentum on it again. I’m rearranging chapters and man, does that get complicated. My friend Mayanna says I need to get Scrivener for this. But when I’ve used it in the past I’ve ended up so frustrated I ditched it. Your advice?

What I’m Excited About

I never thought I’d want to teach writing. But when I got my MFA, there was a built-in component on teaching. From there I got hired to teach at MTSU in Nashville (distance program) and turns out I love it! I learn so much from my students and also from the process of figuring out how to share what I know.

Debbie (my teaching partner) and I taught a class on motivation yesterday and it was a lot of fun. Tricky topic—one of those ones that sounds so easy but is really quite complex. We’re teaching another half-day workshop here in Portland on May 19th, this one on arc—another tricky topic.

I love these classes because they are very hands-on. We build in lots of time for in-class exercises and discussion, which makes them more fun. And, I submit it is a better way to learn than to listen to one of us lecture on and on.

This is the same format we follow for our France workshops, and we just happen to have a couple openings. You know you want to come study writing (and write) by the shores of the Mediterranean in a charming town. Right?

What I’m Listening To

So, try as I might, I haven’t gotten on the podcast wagon. Because I’m so visual, I don’t process information auditorily well. That makes it hard for me to retain information I hear.

And, I don’t listen to music while writing because it distracts me. So, sorry, no play lists from me. But I do like to listen to music at other times and since we were gifted an Echo from Amazon (which we usually just call the Alexa, since that’s the name you use to get her to do something) we’ve been listening to a ton of it. So far, we’ve not been able to stump her, although my son said he asked her to play Frank Zappa and she didn’t know him. Shocking!

On The Blog

Spring Cleaning Your Writing

Is It Procrastination or Percolation?

The Usefulness of Thinking Small (In Writing and In Life)

Writing Rituals That Work

Write It Imperfectly, Do It Imperfectly

The Ritual is Opening the File (How to Get Your Writing Done)

How About Some Writing Prompts?

On Story Questions and Traveling Home

I’m hoping that May brings a lot more of the same—writing, reading, working with clients—only that more of it will be done outside! What about you? How is your writing going? What have you been reading? I’m always in the market for new titles. Leave a comment and tell me everything.

(This post contains some affiliate links)

How About Some Writing Prompts?

Many moons ago, I used to offer a ton of writing prompts. I wrote a tumblr blog called Inventive Writing Prompts (nobody ever said I was good at names, oh and I just checked and it is long gone). I’ve written a writing prompts book (please go look at it because nobody else ever does). And, if memory serves, I had a writing prompt Saturday feature for a couple of years. Gah! How did I ever keep up with that?

But, in my newsletter this week (you can sign up to the right if you’d like to get it–it’s a love letter about all the aspects of writing) I had a moment of panic when I thought nobody was reading what I was writing. That turned out not to be true, thank you all my lovely readers. And in that same newsletter I asked for suggestions. One lovely person suggested writing prompts. Duh! The light bulb went off in my head–I used to do writing prompts in my newsletter, too. I’m not going to do them there, but I am going to try to do a writing prompt post here fairly often (that’s me refusing to commit to a regular schedule in case you hadn’t guessed).

So, herewith, some writing prompts:

“What on earth happened to you?” he said to his wife.

If only it hadn’t rained, none of this would have happened.

Don’t ever say that to me again.

Write about the first time you got kissed–a real kiss.

Last night.

Wait, what?

Let’s try this again.

They sat in the charming bistro, arguing.

Write about something you (or your character) will never do again.

Your (or your character’s) favorite place in the whole world.

Okay, there you have them! Ten writing prompts to get those words out onto the page. If you feel like it, share the results in a comment. Or share: do you like writing prompts or hate them?

What it Takes to Be a Writer: Part Three

You’ve revved up your brain, planted your butt in the chair, and now you’re ready to write. I sometimes envision this moment as that of a piano player: you place your fingers on the keys, expecting great music to pour forth….and nothing happens.

You freeze. You don’t know what to write. Or the words won’t come. Or you are so damn critical of the words that do come that you shut down the computer and decide to go clean up dog poop in the backyard.  Because dealing with that kind of shit is better than dealing with the crap you’re putting on the page.

Ahem. I have news for you. Writing crap is good.  Writing crap is desirable (at least in a first draft). GETTING ANY WORDS ON THE PAGE AT ALL IS YOUR ONLY GOAL.  So do it. That’s my first bit of advice:

Write Crap

Just write, even if that means reminding yourself how awful you’re doing as you go. My first drafts are full of all caps exhortations about what terrible work I’m doing. Like: THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE AND IT’S REALLY STUPID. Once I’ve gotten it out of my system, I can carry on with the rest of it.

Here is an unedited glimpse of what I wrote yesterday as I tried to get going:

Okay I’m just sitting here with the cat, staring at the computer.  What the f#%k. Staring never got the writing done. Just write something. This is where prompts are really handy!   Start with the image.

And I did. I started with the image and the scene flowed from there.  Writing crap, and reminding yourself of it, is incredibly freeing.

Write Crap Often

Like, every day. We already talked about making time and conserving energy for writing in part two.  Do your best to write as often as possible. It makes a huge freaking difference, I’m not kidding.  Doing this, you gain momentum. You have that lovely feeling that half of you is living in your fictional world.  And because of that, you’re in love with the real world you actually do inhabit.  And when you are in love, you want to spend more time with your beloved, correct? So you will be eager to return to writing your novel.  And that, my friends, is the power of writing every day. (Even if it’s crap.)

Plan Ahead

I’ve proven to myself over and over that I procrastinate and get distracted when I don’t know where I’m going.  This is why I like to write a loose outline for the plot of my novel, and why I’m such a huge fan of character dossiers.  The other thing I like to do is write notes to myself. I do a lot of “writing about” the project in my journal, and I just about always write little notes to myself in the manuscript as to where to go next.  Then when I open the file first thing in the morning, I know where I’m going. I often diverge from my plans, but at least I have a way in to get started.

Employ Systems

There’s lots of help out there for writers.  You can download Freedom, which will turn off your access to the internet for a predetermined amount of time.  You can use a Pomodoro timer that allows you to write in spurts (or just use your phone’s timer).  You can use Scrivener.  The point is, there are all kinds of tools out there that will help you in your daily writing. Find the ones that work for you and use them.

So there you have it. What are your favorite tricks to get words on the page?

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.

No Excuses: September Writing Prompts #2

I’m in a prompt kind of mood (or at least I was when I wrote this post, before I left for France) because later on this fall I’ll be coming out, with a wonderful co-author, with a writing prompt journal that you will be able to hold in your very own hands! Exciting, no? But in the meantime, because its Monday and you need to write this week, here’s a week’s worth of prompts for you. Go to it.

–He never knew that his aunt had turned into a hoarder, but now he edged along a narrow path that skirted the huge pile of junk in the living room.

–It will all be over soon.

–I don’t like you, but I love you. Seems like I’m always thinking of you. (With thanks to the Beatles.)

–The pile of notebooks threatened to topple over at any second.

–But, after all….

–You main character’s favorite way to spend her free time.  Drinking wine, pursuing a hobby, watching TV, having sex, hiking, reading, what?

–My neighbors collect gnomes and have them all around their yard. Sometimes they find new ones that friends have left in odd places. What do you collect and why? How about your main character?

Okay, you’ve got your marching orders for the week. Go to it! And if you write something you want to share, put it in the comments!