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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Focus Your Goals

“A piece of paper with a resolution on it isn’t that important. Writing that resolution is. Writing makes your ideas more clear and focuses you on your end result.”—Scott H. Young

New Year’s isn’t that far away. The traditional time for resolutions, new starts, lofty goals you can’t possibly keep . . . Make your resolution this year something attainable, specific, measurable—in other words, make it a S.M.A.R.T. goal. Write it down. It doesn’t really even matter if you save that piece of paper because somehow just writing it down gives it a weight it didn’t have when it existed only in your mind.

To focus your goals, try this:

Set a S.M.A.R.T. goal. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, Time-constrained), write it down and seal it in an envelope. Put it in your desk or somewhere and don’t look at it again for awhile. Each month increase your daily goal by 25% or 50%. In three or four months, take a look at your resolution and see how you’re doing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

No Arguing

“It is a lot harder to establish a habit, particularly one that might cause you some distress or discomfort in the beginning, if you think you are doing it for life. However, you do need to give yourself a reasonable timeframe of daily writing to lay down the habit. . . .
The idea is to remove the negotiation from your brain. You have made the commitment, so you don't need to make any internal arguments with your hippocampus about whether or not you will write today. It has already been decided.”—Rene Hadjigeorgalis

Set a daily word count goal (a low one that’s easy to reach) and decide on a length of time you will commit to. If you look down the road from where you are now, it might feel like a prison sentence. You feel defeated before you even start, and as a result, you delay or completely avoid starting.

Look only at the immediate future with it’s easy-to-reach goals. 28 days is a good length of time to aim for. You can do pretty much anything as simple as 15 minutes a day, or 100 words a day, for 28 days.

You can do the same thing with exercise – especially if it’s something you’ve avoided as much as possible. Set a goal of walking only 10 minutes a day. Or even just 5 minutes. But commit to doing every single day for 28 days. At the end of that 28 days, it will seem pretty easy to increase it to 10 minutes a day for the next 28. It may take longer to reach the ideal amount, but if you take your time, you’re more likely to stick to it for the long haul.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dust Bunnies

“It doesn't matter if you are tired, busy, have dust bunnies to kill, need to paint your ceiling, have visitors, need to caulk the bathtub, or just can't concentrate because you believe your faculty colleagues are really aliens from the planet Zortex in disguise. Remember - this is only 15 minutes of your time during this habit establishment phase. Even if you just open the laptop, stare zombie-like at your manuscript, and add a period, you will be making great progress in establishing the habit of writing.”—Rene Hadjigeorgalis

I admit, I have dust bunnies that, if they organized, could take over the planet. But will 15 minutes out of my day really make a difference in their population? Probably not. Not even if I were dedicated to exterminating them (which, I hate to admit, I am not). But I am a master at distractions. Nothing can increase my interest in scrubbing the toilet more than an unmet word count goal.

(The secret is out now. I preach write every day, but I struggle to do that consistently just like everyone else.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Daily Habit

“When trying to establish a long-term daily writing habit, it is helpful to think of your first foray into this new territory as simply your establishment stage. In the beginning, it is most helpful to focus on establishing the habit than getting lots and lots of writing done. This is one reason for the advice to do brief daily sessions. Once you have established the habit, you can build up your time per session, or the number of sessions from there.”—Rene Hadjigeorgalis

Another piece in your plan to succeed (after the holidays, of course) is to rebuild the habit. You might even begin to lay the foundation of the habit this week. Set your daily word count goal for 50. Or 100. Something so easy to attain it’s almost ridiculous. You’re not focusing on quantity right now, merely establishing a pattern of behavior.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


“But seriously, if you make a really HUGE effort to go to bed 30 minutes or an hour earlier, you’ll feel the difference the next day!

“If you make an effort to plan your meals and have a good, solid breakfast (oh man, breakfast makes all the difference in the world for me!), you’ll really feel a difference.” –Susan Dennard

So, have a plan, huh? Other than saying “I’ll do better next year” or “I’ll write every day”, what does a plan to succeed look like? Of course it includes a specific writing goal for each day, or each week if you prefer. It also should include taking care of the whole you. Because if your life isn’t in balance, it’s even harder to be disciplined about writing.

When I was researching this a little, I fell upon a great blog post at Let The Words Flow. There are reminders to eat healthy—this means not skipping breakfast or surviving only on a breakfast of caffeine, to get some exercise and get the blood flowing to your brain—this doesn’t mean prepping for a half-marathon, it just means get outside in the fresh air (even if it’s raining or snowing) and walk a little, and to take care of your soul—which might mean an artist’s date (a la Julia Cameron), some new music to write or meditate to, or maybe make a muse candle (instructions).

What are some ways you can increase balance in your life?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Couch Potato?

"My block was due to two overlapping factors: laziness and lack of discipline."
—Mary Garden

They say we are often our own worst critics. I know I’m harder on myself (most of the time) than anyone else. So when I look back at the past two weeks, I think “wow, I was so lazy and undisciplined, what a loser.”

I do think some amount of laziness might have been a factor, but if anyone else had told me about their last two weeks, I highly doubt I would confirm their ‘lazy’ diagnosis. Most likely I’d say “don’t be so hard on yourself. You have a lot going on, plus it’s the holidays.”

If I’m honest about the past two weeks, I see that almost every evening was full of activities, volunteer obligations, writing group, holiday baking, visiting family and friends, and the like. Work has been busy enough that I haven’t taken my full lunch most days, let alone an official break in which I take my notebook to the lunchroom and write. When I finally did crawl into bed at night, I had multiple websites to update and build, emails that needed replies, not to mention mental down-time.

So, if I was to give advice to someone describing my past two weeks, what would I say?

“It’s okay if you take a vacation now and then. Plan it. Plan when you’ll return to work – and stick to it.”

I’m still not happy with myself for missing two weeks of posting quotes, but I have a plan for catching up by the end of the year, and a plan to stay on track in the future.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


"The easiest thing to do on earth is not write."
—William Goldman

True story.

Well, there might be three things on that list: not write, not exercise, and not eat healthy. Especially during the holidays. It’s so easy to say “I’ll get back on track after the new year.” “I’ll get back to eating better when the holidays are past. I’ll exercise more when, er, the weather gets better (hey, wait, we still don’t have any snow this year) . . . when I get caught up on my blogs . . .

Whatever the excuses, recognize them for what they are. If you plan to get back on track as a New Year’s resolution, then work on a plan now. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

Make sure to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. If it’s been awhile since you’ve veered off track, start easy and increase slowly, but steadily. Five minutes every day. Ten minutes every day. Thirty minutes Monday thru Friday. Whatever your ultimate goal, set habits now with smaller chunks of time and gradually increase the time. Make your minimum writing time each day brief and mandatory, like brushing your teeth.

(Hopefully you're not waiting to get back to brushing your teeth until after the new year . . .)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A relapse is just a challenge in disguise . . .

“Rather than viewing a brief relapse back to inactivity as a failure, treat it as a challenge and try to get back on track as soon as possible.”
—Jimmy Connors

Advice to self: Don’t beat yourself up for stumbling, just get back up again.

I hope you’ll forgive me for backdating a few quotes as I try to get back on track. I'm not trying to put anything over on you, it's just a way for me to be sure I've honestly 'caught up'. If you follow this blog via email, you’ll know what’s going on when you get emails with 3 or 4 quotes of the day several days in a row after a couple weeks of not seeing anything from me.

I could use the holidays as an excuse, or the busyness at work, but they would be just excuses. I suppose the holidays are somewhat to blame with the extra activities in the evenings, houseguests and holiday baking taking up time I might ordinarily use to write, but if I practice what I preach, I should get my 15 minutes of writing done first.

But I’m not here to beat myself up. I’m here to accept the challenge and get back on track.

So, with the space heater warming my feet and a kitty draped around my shoulders keeping my neck warm, here I go. . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Paper Training

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor's yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”—Anne Lamott

Linda Gerber’s blog today asked about distractions and solutions. Distractions is right up there on the list with procrastination and excuses. And the solution is self discipline, whatever you choose to do.

Distractions show up in all sorts of masks, with all sorts of justifications (most of which aren’t as urgent as they want you to believe). Don’t beat yourself up if you suddenly realize you’ve allowed yourself to be distracted and pulled away from your writing, but also don’t excuse it. Bring yourself right back to the page. (I thought of going further with the analogy of paper training a puppy, cuz you know me and analogies, but I think I’ll just stop here.)

Monday, December 12, 2011


“Some critics will write 'Maya Angelou is a natural writer' - which is right after being a natural heart surgeon. “—Maya Angelou

During a recent interview, I was asked a question: “Do you think anyone can become a writer?”

I do think anyone can become a writer if they want to bad enough. I think some people are better equipped than others at the start of their journey due to family influences and school and other factors. But I have no doubt anyone can become a writer with enough work.

But, I don’t think everyone is a natural storyteller. I think some people are born with a special filter through which they view the world. Possibly these kids are the observers, the ones who hang back and watch the action for awhile before joining in. Maybe they are the quiet kids, busy absorbing what’s going on around them rather than being the center of attention. Maybe they are the kids who tell stories about what they saw on Mulberry Street (Dr. Seuss). I’m not sure what young storytellers look like.

What I do know is when I share some of the ways I view the world, there are people who don’t get it, and there are people who do. The ones who do are almost invariable storytellers. I can stand in the express checkout line at Walmart and make up a story about each person in line in front of me based on what I see in their cart, who they’re with, and what they look like. I’m probably way off target most of the time, but the point is in the story I create, not in the reality of that person’s life. The more my story resembles a stereotype, the less likely it is my story comes anywhere near truth. But understanding stereotypes is just as useful as knowing how to break stereotypes, and knowing how inaccurate they are on an individual basis.

The point is the story. My kids and I like to play a game we call “The Random Game.” When they were younger, it was a way to pass the time while we waiting in line. Now that they’re older and shopping on their own, it’s not unlikely that they’ll send me a text with a picture of their items on the checkstand. We assess points on a whim (rather like Drew Carey on “Whose Line”). When we’re in the car, we make up categories – like “you’re at a church potluck and there are three items left untouched on the table afterward. What are those three items?”

Or “you stop at a thrift store and there is a clearance table at the front with 5 items on it. What are those items and what are their prices?”

Or my favorite – "you buy a used 1988 Caprice Classic. In the glovebox are 3 items. What are they?” The key isn’t in obvious solutions. It’s with the specifics that your score will increase. If you have an owner’s manual for that make, model and year, it’s not so random. But if, in your 1988 Caprice Classic, you find an owner’s manual for a 1972 VW Bug, that’s pretty random. Add to that something slightly obvious, like 3 packets of Taco Bell hot sauce, and something uber-specific like a Barbie doll leg, and you have a winner.

What do YOU think makes a storyteller?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dream Catcher

“Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.”—Goethe “It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else. ” ― Erma Bombeck

The idea that I was exposing my dreams or my inner self in my writing didn’t occur to me for a long while. I was writing fiction, after all. It was even longer before I understood that writing fiction was still a way to process the world and events in my life. When I encourage you to freewrite, to let your first thoughts spill onto the page, it is so you learn to tap into the rich well of your experience to give your writing depth and authenticity. Don’t shy away from the dark thoughts because somehow they will show up anyway. Better to have courage and write about them honestly and intentionally, using them to connect with your readers.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dream Box

“There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, 'Yes, I've got dreams, of course I've got dreams.' Then they put the box away and bring it out once in awhile to look in it, and yep, they're still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box. It takes an uncommon amount of guts to put your dreams on the line, to hold them up and say, 'How good or how bad am I?' That's where courage comes in.” ― Erma Bombeck

Are your dreams of writing a novel or a memoir in a little box somewhere? Do you content yourself with writing blogs and emails and crafting great Facebook status updates?

What dreams do you have in your box?

They don’t do much sitting in the box. There isn’t much hoping of making them come true if you keep them packed away for someday. (BTW – this advice applies to the ‘good’ china and Grandma’s pearl earrings. Don’t save them for a someday that you might not see. Enjoy them now.)

What are your writing dreams? Start on them now. Set small goals – daily, weekly, or monthly. Take baby steps. Sure there are risks, but anything worth having is worth working for. Every step gets you a little closer to realizing your dream.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Burn Out

“. . .spend your days trying to meet unrealistically high goals and burnout isn't far behind. . . . Set reasonable goals and meet them, and you will stay emotionally involved in your work and keep burnout at bay.”—Steven Berglas, Ph.D.

Holly Lisle’s email newsletter hit home with me today. She talked about burning yourself out with writing. I recognized myself in her words, setting ambitious goals, determined to meet them, then giving up because it was unreasonable to stick to those goals day in and day out without regard to the season, holidays, family, the occasional cold, etc. Basically, I set myself up for failure.

“Self,” I said, “if you can manage a thousand words a day for a year, you could finish a book.”

“No problem,” I confidently replied. “I wrote nearly 6,000 words the other day and stopped only because I had to fix supper for the kids.”

“Well, then, if you can write 6,000 words on a good day, you should certainly be able to write 3,000 on a regular day. You could finish that book in six months.”

“Deal.” And we shook on it. Well, not really, but you get the idea.

The first few days went well. Then the weekend came and the kids were home from school and I had to get groceries and . . . well, Monday came around and I hadn’t written a single word over the weekend. So I was 6,000 words behind with another 3,000 hanging over my head. It didn’t take long for me to start thinking up excuses to myself about why I hadn’t been able to write that day. Pretty soon I was avoiding my computer because I felt guilty and no hope of 'catching up'.

Hopefully you’ve avoided this trap.

A better way to set goals is to keep them low enough that you don’t have to stagger over the finish line dehydrated and cramping. Pace yourself. Set goals that are realistic and take into account the demands of daily life. If you have a blockbuster day, celebrate, but don’t carry the expectation that one prolific day leads to another. There are fairytales and fables and actual for-real studies that show you will be more prolific if you set a steady pace you can maintain. Bottom line is – don’t burn yourself out to the point where you are making excuses for not facing the page.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What Will The Neighbors Think?

“Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, "We *told* you not to tell." But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.” —Anne Lamott

So, let’s say you dug around in your memory closet yesterday and found a few things definitely worth writing about, but after a minute or two you put them back. “Lightning might strike if you wrote about that.” “What would the neighbors/my parents/Great Aunt Taloula think?”

If you’re journaling, remind yourself that no one reads what you write without your express permission. If you are writing fiction, slice it thin and spread it around (and change the names, of course). If you are blogging . . . well, in that case you may want to consider another forum for sharing what’s in your closet. Depending on who your followers are and how likely they are to call your mom and let her know you’re airing the family’s dirty laundry.

The thing is, if you’ve gone through something that needs airing, chances are someone else has, too. As a writer, you might be able to shed light into someone else’s closet and help them clean out some of their junk (read that as ‘process’). Think about what books like ‘Speak’ and ‘Shine’ have done for current issues.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Behind Closed Doors

“We write to expose the unexposed. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words - not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.”
—Anne Lamott

This reminds me of the “how to write when life sucks” blog the other day, but it is actually different. This isn’t about writing in the midst of suckiness, but rather about exploring past suckiness. The benefits of this are twofold: Many times we move past a rough patch and breathe a sigh of relief and don’t look back, leaving the emotions unprocessed. Stuffing it into the closet, so to speak. Digging around in the closet and pulling out the old ‘junk’ helps process it, or you may reevaluate your feelings about it when you first stuffed it in there. It can also be a rich source for your writing practice or WIP.

So brace yourself and go look behind that door. . . .

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


"Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible."—Leo Tolstoy

Although you need to know your character inside and out, it doesn't take much to reveal a wealth of information. Be cautious of overloading your story with too much backstory. A few well-chosen details can convey a character's history and experience. Write your first draft and include as much backstory as you want. When you edit, follow the iceburg rule for backstory—10% of what you know about your character should be on the page. The rest lends weight and helps you draw your character believably.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Flight of the Bumblebee

"People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don't know when to quit. Most men succeed because they are determined to." George E. Allen

Did you know bumblebees aren’t supposed to be able to fly? They are aerodynamically challenged. But go figure, they fly anyway, probably because no one told them they can’t fly.

This isn’t to say any of you have only mediocre ability as George mentions in his quote, but that we often perceive we have mediocre ability when we are in the midst of writing, and even when we have a final draft. After all, we’ve lived with our thoughts and imagination and that voice in our head all our lives, it seems pretty common to us. But what is common to us may be uncommon to someone else. Or if it seems ‘common’ to others, it is sometimes in the common voice that the greatest stories are told. When the writing disappears and the story comes to life . . . that is magic.

So don’t let anyone tell you (even yourself) that you can’t write. Just remember the bumblebee.

Now. Go. Write.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Writing Practice

“What writing practice, like Zen practice, does is bring you back to the natural state of mind…The mind is raw, full of energy, alive and hungry. It does not think in the way we were brought up to think—well-mannered, congenial.” ― Natalie Goldberg

There is definitely a time to write with clear purpose and direction. Writing practice is not that time. When you approach writing practice, it should be with the intention of capturing the most immediate, most alive thoughts in your mind. Don’t try to dress them up for company, or comb and spit-polish them so they find favor with finicky Aunt Ruth. Let them be wild and fresh and free, unconcerned with manners or propriety.

Like the Zen practice of Zazen (sitting practice), which is "opening the hand of thought", writing practice lets you write about those thoughts. Undirected awareness. An observation of the thoughts passing through your mind and awareness. Although I haven’t sat zazen, Debbie did, and she likened it to writing practice.

This is similar to journaling, although I used to journal with an agenda, and more often than not, an imagined audience. In writing practice, there is no audience. There are no requirements for logic or manners or circumspection. All that matters is gut-level honesty with yourself.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Clock Is Ticking . . .

“I don't think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won't be good at it.” —Anne Lamott

There is only one you in all time. You are the only person who has had your exact set of experiences. You are the only person who can tell your stories. Don’t let them be untold.

If you are afraid you won’t be good at it, the only way to get better is to start. It doesn’t have to be at the beginning. Just start. Plunge into the middle. Or the end. Or hopscotch around following your inspiration. The beauty of writing is you can write a really awful first draft in whatever order you want, then go back to polish and rearrange.

There is no time like the present. Today is the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be again.

Now. Go. Write.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Show Me the Butterflies

“What things there are to write, if one could only write them! My mind is full of gleaming thought; gay moods and mysterious, moth-like meditations hover in my imagination, fanning their painted wings. But always the rarest, those streaked with azure and the deepest crimson, flutter away beyond my reach.”—Logan Pearsall Smith

Do you ever want to capture something, a moment or a feeling, but when you sit down to write, it just feels flat? Sort of like when you try to relate a funny incident to someone and end up with a lame “I guess you had to be there.”

I think this problem comes from ‘telling’ about it instead of sharing the experience so others can feel the feelings. Think this takes too many words? Look at how commercials do it in thirty seconds or a minute. Or study some of the 2-3 minute youtube videos that grab your heart (check out Jonah Mowry: “What’s Goin On. . .” or “It’s Time”). They're really mini stories—a glimpse of the ordinary world, a glimpse of change, a conflict, or surprise, a resolution.

Next time you want to capture a moment, think about it as a story . . . . And instead of telling me about it, show me the butterfly.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Pay it Forward

“Nothing can be made to be of interest to the reader that was not first of vital concern to the writer.” – John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I discovered this quote when I Googled “how to write when life sucks”. My life doesn’t suck right now. But it has been a stressful few days. Which means it’s not easy to be motivated, not easy to write, not easy to even care about writing sometimes. That’s where my commitment (to myself and, posthumously, to Debbie) helps me out. Habit is what has me here facing the page when I don’t feel like I have much of any worth to say.

So when I Googled ‘how to write when life sucks’, I was a little surprised to see the John Gardner quote. I expected to see things like “just set aside your problems and write anyway.” Logical advice, but kinda fluffy. Not much substance.

Holly Lisle has a great workshop I want to get—“21 Ways To Get Yourself Writing When Your Life Has Just Exploded.” My life hasn’t exploded, but like Holly, I’ve been there, when even getting up in the morning and feeding myself were huge challenges I wasn’t sure I could overcome. I figure, if Holly can show me how to write when I’m in that state, those same tools can help me write when I’m just scuffed up a little.

John Gardner’s quote is a glimpse into one of those tools. I take what I’m feeling right now and give it to a character. Or maybe I should say ‘impose’ it. My poor characters have suffered migraines, strep throat, spilled milk, and paper cuts right along with me. Use your present state to fuel your writing. Pay it forward. If you’re feeling busy and overwhelmed, take five or ten minutes and put your character in that place. You may not use it in your final draft, but at the very least it will help round out your character. And if you’re lucky, your current angst can be extrapolated into your story for added depth.

So, when life sucks, or when you just have the blahs – write anyway.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


“It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.” Vaclav Havel

For those of you who participated in NaNo – congrats. Whether or not you made it to 50,000 words, it’s a big step to aim for that goal. If you didn’t make it this year, use what you learned to make it next year.

For those of you who didn’t participate in NaNo for one reason or another, consider signing up next year.

For anyone who wants to write, there is something to be learned from NaNoWriMo – take that first step, and then the next one, and the next. Instead of saying “someday I want to write a novel”, start now. Start by writing for 5 minutes each day. Whatever your final goal, break it down into daily goals. One giant leap seems impossible, but individual steps can get you there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Finish Line

“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

About 36 hours left to go in NaNoWriMo . . . is the finish line in sight? Even if you don’t think you can make it to the finish line on time, keep going, like a marathon. It isn’t about being the first, it’s about crossing the finish line. Walk if you have to, but don’t stop until you finish.

Whether you’re doing NaNo, a novel, a memoir, or a dissertation, don’t let yourself become discouraged because you can’t sprint the distance. Pace yourself, remember to refuel, walk when you have to; just don’t give up.

Monday, November 28, 2011

One Day At A Time

“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all that I can permit myself to contemplate.”—John Steinbeck

For four weeks now, most of my posts have been on the NaNoWriMo theme. How many of you thought about participating, then decided not to because how could you ever in a million years write 50,000 words in a month? Especially with a big ol’ holiday in the middle of it?

Have you ever thought: “I want to write a book.” Then sat down at your computer to start, and after a few minutes realized there is no way you could ever hope to write 400 pages. It’s too long. Too hard. ‘Real’ writers must have something I don’t.

Without dissecting the term ‘real writer’, they have one thing you may not – short-term goals. Even greats like Steinbeck needed interim goals because the main goal (completing a novel) is just too overwhelming to hold on to while you’re trudging through the trenches of daily life.
Completing NaNo probably seemed impossible to many, right up until they did the math and realized that you can reach that goal by writing only 1,667 words a day. If you single-space, that’s less than three pages of text.

Try it. Every time you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself, the only goal that counts is today. Worry about tomorrow’s goal when tomorrow gets here. (This actually works pretty well to manage stress and worry, too, but that’s another blog . . .)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Duct Tape

"One of the commonest mistakes and one of the costliest is thinking that success is due to some genius, some magic - something or other which we do not possess. Success is generally due to holding on, and failure to letting go. You decide to learn a language, study music, take a course of reading, train yourself physically. Will it be success or failure? It depends upon how much pluck and perseverance that word "decide" contains. The decision that nothing can overrule, the grip that nothing can detach will bring success." Maltbie Davenport Babcock

I’ll never let go.”
Stick to it.
It takes gumption (that is fortitude and determination).
According to Dave Barry, duct tape is one of the six fundamental forces of the universe.

Motivation is a decision and duct tape is the habit that keeps you on course. Remember the purpose you wrote down yesterday? Put a piece of duct tape on it as a reminder to stick to it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

“A habit is defined as the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire. Knowledge is understanding what to do and why to do it; skill is knowing how to do it; desire is the motivation or wanting to do it. To make habits, we need to develop all three components.”—Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People

What motivated you to start writing?
What motivated you to sign up for NaNoWriMo?
What motivates you?
Think about it.

The thing that motivates you is not always the thing that can keep you going once the novelty wears off, once the ‘hard’ part starts. Motivation is an emotion, and like any emotion it can wax and wane, and be eclipsed by other, stronger emotions. Motivation is the ‘desire’ part of the diagram above. To be a successful writer (and here I define successful as meeting your personal goals as a writer, NOT whether you publish or not) . . . To be a successful writer, you need to turn your desires into habits. Habits are behaviors. Habits are actions.

I’ve met many people who want to have written. Many of them have the knowledge to do it. Most of them have the skills or the wherewithal to attain the skills. The biggest difference between them and you is the habit of regularly putting words on the page. BICHOK.

What motivates you to write?
Keep that purpose in mind. Write it down and post it somewhere visible where you work. That motivation is a reminder of why your habit brought you to the keyboard.

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”—Jim Rohn

Friday, November 25, 2011

Objects in the Mirror . . .

“Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in... The edit.”-Will Self

Looking back slows you down.

Looking back distracts you from your forward progress.

Looking back might be deceiving.

This is one of those times when what you don’t know can’t hurt you.

Maybe what looks like a T-Rex when you glance in your rearview mirror is actually the Muse having a bad hair day.

So yeah, don’t look over your shoulder until you’ve come to a full and complete stop. Time enough then to do a makeover.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Turkey Day

(I’m posting this a day early so those who subscribe to my blog via email will get this in their inbox tomorrow morning instead of Friday, after the festivities are over.)

“Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence. “--Erma Bombeck

Erma Bombeck is one of my writing heroes. I grew up reading her column and her books long before I understood the irony in her portrayal of suburban home life. She not only influenced my writing (I regularly wrote letters to friends and family turning mishaps with the kids into Bombeck-esque essays), she also helped shaped my sense of humor and ability to find something funny about even awful things like the entire family being stricken with the stomach flu at the same time.

Take a break from NaNoWriMo today and write something fun. (Notice I didn’t say ‘take a break from writing’ —I still encourage you to find time to write for at least five minutes.) Write from the point of view of the turkey as my sister and I did years ago. Write about cooking your Thanksgiving dinner as if Chef Ramsey were calling the play by play. Write about your holiday as if your family were guests on Jerry Springer or a new reality show. Write about it from your dog’s point of view.

If you’re willing, I’d love for you to post your Thanksgiving essay here. I will do the same.

Happy Holidays!

Just Right

“The goal you set must be challenging. At the same time, it should be realistic and attainable, not impossible to reach. It should be challenging enough to make you stretch, but not so far that you break.”—Rick Hansen

The trick to setting goals is if we set them too low, they don’t seem worth the effort. “Anybody could do that.” If we set them too high, we don’t bother trying. “I could never do that.” We have to be like Goldilocks and set the goal just right. High enough that we have to stretch to reach it. NaNoWriMo does that. Once you break it down into daily goals, it seems doable, though you know you’ll have to plan and work hard to make it.

When you set goals, make them S.M.A.R.T.: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Constrained. You can do that with most anything, and writing is no exception.

A page a day = A novel in a year

Now. Go. Write.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bad Novel

“[Be] willing to write really badly. It won't hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: "This bad stuff is coming out of me…" Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It's no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can't expect to write regularly and always write well. That's when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer's block comes from. Like: It's not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn't happening, but let some bad writing happen... When I was writing "The Keep," my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: "How can I disappoint?"—Jennifer Eagan

The root of writer’s block debunked. I wholeheartedly agree with Jennifer Eagan. If we allow ourselves to write pure garbage for a first draft, just for the sake of getting some words on the page, it becomes so much easier to write. Try writing the most awful opening paragraph you can think of. Or consider entering the Bulwer-Litton contest – A “yearly challenge "to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels". At the very least, wander over and read some of the winners. How often has a bad novel been inspiration to write? “I could do better than that blindfolded and with one hand tied behind my back.” Right? As soon as we become aware of rules and guidelines and plot and structure and characterization, writing begins to seem really really hard. Like math. Or sit-ups.

When you find yourself stuck, give yourself permission to write crap. Like Anne Lamott calls it, the shitty first draft. It’s a long-revered concept in the world of writing.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lion Tamer

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight... it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’”—Annie Dillard

Not that it isn’t possible to skip a day, it is, but it takes more energy to get moving again. An object in motion and all that stuff. If you leave off in the middle of something you are ready to dive in the next day without dinking around looking for an opening. If you are away for a few days, weeks, or God forbid, months, that WIP will be feral and it will take you precious time to tame it to a point where you can start making progress again.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Relay Race

“COMMIT. That means not even doubling back to check something. I mean it. If you forget a character's name, who cares? Make up a new one and fix it later. (In fact, that's REALLY easy to fix. Find/replace, anyone?) If you double back, even if it's just for a few minutes, you will mess up your momentum. (Probably.)”—Veronica Ruth

This is good advice whenever you’re generating a first draft, and especially important during NaNoWriMo. The point isn’t just to flail away at words to reach an arbitrary (or not-so-arbitrary goal). The point is to keep up your momentum and capture the story while it’s fresh, to gain some distance between you and the words you’ve written, so you can come back to edit with a clear idea of The Big Picture and enough objectivity to recognize what’s good and what’s not so good.
If you struggle with this, console your inner editor with a cup of tea and some cookies and let him know his services are very much needed, but that just now he’s earned a well deserved break. Think relay race. You, the Muse, and the editor.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Good Day's Work

“Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I've got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.”—Sarah Waters

Five hundred words a day, five thousand, one thousand – it’s not the number of words on the page (unless you’re doing NaNoWriMo this month, in which case the magic number is 1,667), it’s the consistency and self discipline. Treat it like a job and keep at it until the whistle blows, even when it’s not a good day. If you need to, get dressed for work when you sit down to write. Inspiration will strike more often and more predictably when you consistently show up at the page ready to work.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dream Big

“Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.”—Pamela Vaull Starr

Don’t be afraid to dream big. Set smaller goals that will get you there, and measure your progress. Even if you don’t quite reach the dream, you’ll get closer than you could without setting goals.

Visualize success. The more clearly you can see yourself succeeding, reaching your goals, achieving your dream, the more likely you are to reach it. Positive visualization changes how you feel about yourself, which translates into action. If you believe it, you can achieve it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


“Talent without discipline is like an octopus on roller skates. There's plenty of movement, but you never know if it's going to be forward, backwards, or sideways.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Setting clear goals will keep you moving forward. If you’re a plotter, your goals will look like an outline and a daily word count. If you’re a pantster, your goals may be a daily word count, which you then plug into your outline.

Keep research and editing tasks separate from word count. Set time limits to prevent being sucked into Wikipedia and sidetracked by all sorts of interesting information which has nothing to do with your WIP. When you’re writing, you are writing. If you come across something to research, bracket it and move on. If you think you need to edit, make a note somewhere about what you think you need to address, and keep writing. Come back later to edit, preferably after the first draft is complete.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dumbo's Feather

"People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don't know when to quit. Most men succeed because they are determined to." George E. Allen

In my writing workshops, I talk about writing talismans. The official definition of a talisman (at least in this context) is a repository of magical energy, sort of like a battery. For writers, this ‘magical energy’ is inspiration, often credited to the Muse. I encourage participants in my workshops to find a talisman – something that holds creative energy for them; something that resonates inside them and inspires ideas. One person suggested it was similar to Dumbo’s feather.

In context with today’s quote, I hereby bequeath you with your own feather which will give you the ability to ‘fly’: It will provide confidence when yours lags, inspiration when the Muse is on vacation, the ability to achieve outstanding success through perseverance, and unflagging self discipline to BICHOK (one of the classic writer’s poses – ‘Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard).

If you should drop or lose your feather, go watch Dumbo, then hold the BICHOK pose daily.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


"If I had to select one quality, one personal characteristic that I regard as being most highly correlated with success, whatever the field, I would pick the trait of persistence. Determination. The will to endure to the end, to get knocked down seventy times and get up off the floor saying. "Here comes number seventy-one!" Richard M. Devos

Persistence. Determination. The will to endure.

Most of the time success in writing is being like the tortoise: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Write every day for a period of time you can sustain barring only a major crisis. It builds a habit that will carry you through the rough days. Your writing will be more consistent. You won’t burn out as easily as you can on a weekend writing binge.

Although NaNoWriMo may feel like a month-long binge, 1600 words a day isn’t an excessive amount for anyone who writes to publish. Think of NaNo as tortoise boot camp. The key is to write every day. If you do, by the end of the month you will have established a habit that will continue, even if your word count during ‘normal’ times isn’t as high.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Short Cut

"Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of "Lincoln's Melancholy" I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly."—Joshua Wolf Shenk

So, you’re slogging thru NaNoWriMo, falling short of word count some days, not sure what the point is, if all you end up with at the end is 50k of garbage.

A change in perspective might help.

NaNo is an exercise, a lesson in pushing thru, in hammering out a discovery draft with which you can craft a great story. Consider NaNo as boot camp, perhaps. (I can put on that drill instructor hat if it will help.) Instead of writing and editing and waffling and wondering and researching, you are pushing yourself to generate only new words.

I’ve experienced exactly what the quote above talks about. I spent three years working editing a story, believing that if I could just get that first part 'right', I'd be able to write the rest. After three years, a writing mentor suggested I consider that the scene I thought was my opening might just be the climax.

Suddenly the heavens opened up, light poured down, and angels sang. The story wrote itself. (Well, not quite, but it did unlock the unproductive spiral I’d tangled myself in.) If only I had signed up for NaNo, I might have discovered the story in 3 weeks instead of 3 years.

So scribble away with purpose. You are taking the short cut this month.

Now. Go. Write.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


“I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes... and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.”—Joyce Carol Oates

Sometimes we lose heart. Life has handed us a basketful of lemons, circumstances have worn our endurance thin, we’ve been disappointed or broken-hearted . . .Events conspire to derail our writing.

It is in those times it can be helpful to revisit your writing vows – the ‘for better or worse’ part, or possibly the ‘til death do us part’ bit. Even when it’s not easy, it’s good to write. The act of writing can help carry us over a difficult time.

Be kind to yourself, set easy to reach writing goals for each day, but do write each day. Journal, write an article or essay to vent some of the feelings, write a scene that has no connection to your current WIP. But keep facing the page. Because once that habit is broken, it takes a lot of strength and effort to reinstate it.

Think of writing in the hard times as making lemonade out of the lemons you’ve been given. Or, as a very good friend of mind says, “Spin the shit into gold.”

Saturday, November 12, 2011


“Write everything, everything that comes to mind, even if it's just pieces of different scenes. You can finish them later. You can even write, in brackets, [in this scene, Main Character has a food fight in the cafeteria with Childhood Foe, involving some applesauce in the eye] if you don't feel like actually writing out that scene. Then keep going as if you had written it. It helps.” —Veronica Ruth

This is great advice for anyone writing a first draft, but especially for anyone participating in NaNoWriMo. In fact, it’s the only way to reach your word count each day. Use brackets for scenes when you’re not sure of the details. Use brackets to help separate your research time from your writing time. It’s too easy to be writing along and decide you need to find out what particular native wildflowers bloom in Minnesota in the spring and get sucked into a never-ending quest for the ‘right’ answer. Just put [flower] in brackets and keep on writing. When your scheduled research time comes around, you can search for '[' in your MS, and find everything you need more information on.

Just. Keep. Writing.

Friday, November 11, 2011


“Don't look behind you. NaNoWriMo is a sprint-- a SPRINT, I tell you. It is full throttle, as many words as you can muster, every single day. You don't get to stop for water-- you have to throw water into your mouth as you run, and if you end up splashing yourself in the ear, SO BE IT.

So I think the sprint-race advice of, don't look back to see how close your opponent is, it will slow you down and you might lose, is applicable here. Except this time, your opponent is not another person, it's your own draft, chasing you with its sloppiness.”—Veronica Ruth

The hardest thing to doing NaNoWriMo is to commit to writing every single day. The second hardest thing is not editing. I think editing is sometimes a coping mechanism. If I try to write and feel blocked or uninspired, instead of forcing myself to write less than great stuff, I edit what I’ve previously written, somehow convincing myself that it is a virtuous chore that exonerates me from producing new words.

Besides producing the rough draft of a novel, NaNo helps us learn the self discipline necessary to complete a novel and not get mired in eternal edits in an attempt for perfection.

"Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another." –Walter Elliott

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spinning Silk

"With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes satin. With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown." –Chinese Proverb

This month, you’re eating leaves. Or, er . . . spinning silk . . .

I could let myself get carried away with analogies because I do love a good analogy, but I’ll restrain myself.

While I harp on discipline and writing every day, consider it as spinning the cocoon from which the silk fiber comes. You can’t harvest the silk fibers until the cocoon is done being spun. So as you’re writing during NaNo, you’re spinning a cocoon. On December 1 you can start unwinding the silk filament and editing it into the silk thread and turning it into a. . . um . . . silk novel. Or possibly . . . uh . . .making a silk novel out of a sow’s ear.

(This analogy may bear some editing of its own before it’s silky enough to make sense.)

In any case, just keep writing. Save the editing for next month.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Just Keep Swimming

"Remember, amateurs built the Ark, professionals built the Titanic"—Mark Lowery

You know that feeling when you’re not particularly inspired but you’re being faithful to your commitment, and then you hear that little voice whisper that if you were any sort of good writer, you wouldn’t have to force yourself to sit here and write. If you were a professional, you wouldn’t be writing garbage. If you were a talented writer, you would write this NaNo novel without having to do much editing.

Ain’t true. Not a word of it. I know published writers who have just as hard a time facing the page as anyone else. There is no antidote other than to follow Dory’s advice (only put ‘writing’ in place of ‘swimming’:

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.”—Dory

Tuesday, November 08, 2011


"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, 'press on' has solved, and always will solve, the problems of the human race." –Calvin Coolidge

Press on. With NaNo, with any writing goal (with any goal in life). Focus on baby steps and press on. Don’t think about how many days or how many pages in the finished project. Just focus on today’s goal. The words don’t have to be great. They just have to be on the page. The only thing that will get them there is persistence. No excuses.

No ‘trying’, as my teenager tells me in the morning when he isn’t up for school and is laying buried in his blankets. “I’m trying.” Like I tell him, trying looks like action. Action in writing means words on the page.

Now get busy writing those 1600 words before I have to put on my drill instructor hat . . .

“Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.” – Roy L. Smith

Monday, November 07, 2011

"In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins- not through strength but by perseverance."—H. Jackson Brown

One word after the other . . . not a river of gold, but a stream of plain water. So are canyons carved. Single drops of water create stalactites that become underground works of art. Think of your daily word count goal as drops of water. 1,666 drops of water today create one stalactite. 1,666 words tomorrow create another.

"Great works are performed, not by strength, but by perseverance." –Dr. Samuel Johnson

Sunday, November 06, 2011

"All great masters are chiefly distinguished by the power of adding a second, a third, and perhaps a fourth step in a continuous line. Many a man has taken the first step. With every additional step you enhance immensely the value of your first." –Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you want to write a novel (especially if you’re participating in NaNo), set daily goals and focus on those. Don’t look up at the mountain in front of you. If you look at the pinnacle, you may feel overwhelmed, you may feel you are not up to the challenge. But if you look only at the trail in front of you, and the scenery immediately to your right and your left, you are able to focus only on the step you need to take today. Tomorrow you can focus on the step you need to take tomorrow. In this way, the steepest trail can be completed.

Each day you meet your daily word count is a day closer to your goal.

Remind yourself every day you can do it.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

"I want to be creating new things, but the only way to create new things is to throw yourself into a situation where you're flailing and frightened." -David Usher

Hopefully NaNoWriMo doesn’t have you feeling frightened. Challenged maybe, anxious perhaps. Flailing definitely. If you feel that way, you’re doing it right.

Emotions are not a good indicator of the quality of your writing. Some days it may feel impossible, but on those days you lean into the harness and keep writing on faith. Resist the urge to read what you’ve written , especially on the difficult days. Keep your eyes on the goal and keep putting words on the page. If you’ve fallen behind, take a few minutes to calculate how many words you need to reach 50,000. Divide that by the number of days left in the month. It’s still early, you have plenty of time to catch up and meet your goal.

Friday, November 04, 2011

"How many pages have I produced? I don't care. Are they any good? I don't even think about it. All that matters is I've put in my time and hit it with all I've got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance." –Steven Pressfield

How many words can you crank out in an hour if you’re not editing? If you’re just putting words on the page as fast as you can think them? A thousand? Two thousand?

Try this: Sit down at your desk with your writing implements – computer or pen and paper—and look at the clock. Crack your knuckles, flex your fingers, yawn, take a drink of water, and look at the clock again. Ready? Set the timer for fifteen minutes and start writing. Don't stop to think, to ponder, to craft some great metaphor, just fling words at the page as fast as you can type. If you run into something you need to research, make brackets around a generalization and plan to come back later when you’re allowed to think. If you don’t know what happens next, skip a few lines and start writing what you can see no matter where it is in the story.

When the timer dings, count your words. If you’re using a computer it’s easy to check the word count. If you’re writing longhand, count the number of words in 5 random lines (not sentences, lines). Find the average. Then count the number of lines you filled during your timed writing and do the math. Close enough is good enough. How many words were you able to write during that time? Now do the math again to find out how long it will take you to write 1666 words.

Every day during NaNo, set the timer for the amount of time you know it will take to write 1700 words, then get busy meeting your deadline. If you know how long it takes to get your word count, you won’t be thinking about editing until the timer dings. Now you don’t have to worry about how many pages or if they’re any good. Just go with the timer. Once a week check your word count and maybe do a bonus session if you need to stay on target.

Overcome resistance. You can do it.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

“There's an old folk saying that goes: whenever you delete a sentence from your NaNoWriMo novel, a NaNoWriMo angel loses its wings and plummets, screaming, to the ground. Where it will likely require medical attention.” –Chris Baty

Resist the urge to edit. I know it’s tempting. I know you think you can control it, that just a word or two won’t hurt. But beside injuring a poor innocent writing angel, it shifts your energy from creating to judging. From writing to editing. There is a time and place for judging the quality of a word or sentence or image, a time to edit that image, but NaNoWriMo is not that time.

Focus on fresh words, on forward momentum. Every time you slow down to edit, you lose momentum. I bet you didn’t know it, but NaNoWriMo makes use of Newton’s first law of motion: An object in motion tends to stay in motion. An object at rest tends to stay at rest. Which means it takes more energy to start something moving than it does to keep it moving.

Writing is motion. Editing is not.

Once you are writing, it is easier to keep writing. Once you stop to edit, you will have to exert more energy to start writing again. The point of NaNoWriMo is the harness the power of the first law of motion and use it to complete the first draft of a novel.

Now get into motion and stay in motion. A NaNoWriMo angel somewhere will thank you for it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

“You can't do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh.”—John Singer Sargent

Although this advice comes from an artist, writing is painting with words. Sketches are small pieces—writing practice. Writing sketches is a time to play with ideas and characters and description. If it’s outside the boundaries of a WIP, there is less risk. Write about people you see during the day. Don’t be hampered by lack of facts. Make stuff up. Draw assumptions and weave a story. You’re not writing about the person standing in front of you in line at Walmart. You’re merely inspired by them to write about a fictional character with only a surface resemblance (and even that is subject to change once you start writing).

Sketch characters, settings, ideas, descriptions, bits of dialogue, whatever captures your fancy. Think of it as a scrapbook you can draw ideas from.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

“Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper not eternal bronze: Let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes." –Jacques Barzun

Here’s another NaNoWriMo mantra for you. If you find yourself caught up agonizing over a word, a piece of dialogue, a scene, remind yourself that anything you write during this free-for-all counts and it can be changed later. Chances are, when you come back to read it, the words won’t seem half so terrible as you first thought, plus you’ll probably have a much clearer view of what needs fixing. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If Hemingway threw away 91 of every 92 pages, and Faulkner allowed himself to write ‘bad’ stuff, what better argument do you need to allow yourself to write the story as it unreels in your head and fix it later?

Just Do It.

Monday, October 31, 2011

"Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything good."—Willlliam Faulkner

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, you will need a mantra (or three) like this one to pull yourself over the rough spots. If you hit a snag don’t stop writing. Shrug your shoulders and dive back in and write whatever crappy sentence you can as a placeholder to get you to the other side. It’s not about making a gorgeous first draft. It’s about writing as fast as you can, leaving the editor and the critic in the dust. Just get the story told first. Then you can go back and clean it up, polish it, dress it up for company. Focus on the story, not the specific words. If you get to a scene you can’t see clearly, write a few sentences about what you think goes there, and then move on to the next scene.

If you’ve never written this way before, give it a try. It’s exhilarating. It’s like flying. And believe it or not, the editing process isn’t any harder than it would be if you took lots of time to carefully craft each sentence. Yeah, the sentences may be beautiful, but the story may demand a whole different direction. If you sprint, you don’t spend a lot of time polishing sentences, paragraphs or whole scenes that you’ll end up throwing out later. Once you have the story out there, you can decide what to keep and what to toss, and then focus your energy on polishing only the parts you want to keep.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

“I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done.”—Steven Wright

(If this is where you’re starting, email me. We need to talk.)

This quote is actually in honor of NaNoWriMo. Tomorrow is the deadline to sign up, and you can officially start tomorrow night after you put your trick-or-treaters to bed. 12:00:01am to be exact. There’s still time to join the fun and accept the challenge. You’ll have to spend more than five minutes a day, but you could probably do it in an hour or two a day. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. That works out to be about 1,700 words a day. That’s about 2 ½ pages a day if you use standard margins and don’t double space, or about 7 formatted pages.

The point to this type of writing is to focus on getting words on the page. Rough draft. The plan is to come back later and edit. Your inner editor cannot be part of this sprint. Your pace should be fast enough to outrun the editor and the critic, and to keep up with the muse. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. If you don’t know where the commas go, just poke them in wherever you feel so moved and weed them out later. Paragraph breaks, sentence structure, research for place names or location details – all that can wait for your second pass. Teach yourself to use brackets to note where you need a [tree] and you don’t know that what you really want to say is ‘eucalyptus’. You can come back in December and search for ‘[‘ to fill in the blanks.

Last year more than 30,000 participants crossed the finish line. Sign up, join the fun, and you could have a completed novel to edit before the end of the year.

“I think the scene—full of smack-talk and muffin crumbs on our keyboards—would have rightly horrified professional writers. We had taken the cloistered, agonized novel-writing process and transformed it into something that was half literary marathon and half block party.”—NaNoWriMo website

“We called it noveling. And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed. If my friends and I could write passable novels in a month, I knew, anyone could do it.”—NaNoWriMo website

Saturday, October 29, 2011

“Nobody cares much whether you write or not. You just have to do it” ― Natalie Goldberg

If you don’t show up at work, there will be consequences. If you don’t pay your bills, someone’s gonna notice and something not so great will happen. If you don’t do a yearly physical, someone will bug you about it. There are lots of things in life we do because we must, because something bad will come of not doing it. Our spouse may pester us to make a doctor appointment, the kids will ask us to come to their games, the cats will not let you forget to feed them, to dog will ask to go out . . . but no one is going to make you sit down and write. You either make the time to do it, or you don’t. No one will care (except maybe your muse).

If you are a writer in your heart, you will feel the lack, a restlessness perhaps, or a frustration. Or maybe a vague dissatisfaction with life.

Take some advice from Nike: If you want to write, “Just Do It.”

“I write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would die.” –Isaac Asimov

Friday, October 28, 2011

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones”.—Stephen King

Good writing isn’t about a fancy vocabulary or poetic turns of phrase. It’s about communication. Your words shouldn’t call attention to themselves, but rather disappear into the fabric of the story so that your reader feels as if he has experienced what you’ve written and not seen it performed.

Good writing is about the images it evokes, the emotions it stirs up, the cadence of the language as it lulls with a soft rhythm or excites with staccato sentences. Play with how language fits together but avoid using fancy, frilly words in place of solid ones.

Stop and ask yourself: “Who is the narrator? What is her education and experience? What word would she use?”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”—Michelangelo

When I first started writing I thought once I had learned the craft, I would be able to outline and draft a book without a lot of wasted words. I actually believed that for a fairly long time (I’m talking years). I still catch myself behaving as if this is true and it interferes with getting words on the page.

It interferes with lots of people I work with in the form of writer’s block. They stare at the blank page feeling as if they could only find the ‘right’ opening line they could avoid having to edit or rewrite. I’ve seen this with people writing fiction, nonfiction, a dissertation, an essay, a technical article or an obituary.

Although I’ve seen Michelangelo’s quote above (and more often the one below) used regarding writing, it wasn’t until today when I read an article on that I suddenly understood just how it applies to writing. The author of that blog added this: “As the writer, you must first create the block of stone. Only then will you be able to see the statue waiting to be released.”

This article says to write about four times more than you plan to have in your finished piece. Sounds like a lot, huh? I don’t know that my numbers are quite that high, but I’ve written a boatload of words for each story that didn’t make it to the final cut. Often times I write something that I know won’t be in the final cut merely to inform myself about the story. No words are wasted. If they don’t make the final draft, they are still part of the iceberg that helps weight the story and make it real.

Show of hands – who has heard of the iceberg theory on writing? (Here’s a great article explaining it in a bit more depth.) In short, an iceberg shows only about an eighth of its total mass above the water.

When you face the page, remind yourself that every word your write is information. Even if it doesn’t make the final draft, it is part of what gives your writing depth and history.

Writing practice (yep, I'm waving the ‘write every day’ banner again) helps to create the block of stone from which you chisel your angel. Instead of random writing prompts, choose prompts to fill in the history and the below-the-surface details that make your writing rich. When you face the blank page, remind yourself to start anywhere, don’t wait for the ‘right’ words, just use some words. If you decide this piece belongs in the final version you can come back later and polish it.

“I saw an angel in the marble and carved to set him free.” –Michelangelo

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.” —Anne Lamott

Depending on where you look, there are claims that there is only one plot, or three, or seven, or twenty two. But even if it’s a hundred and twenty-two, that’s still a pretty small number considering the number of books that have been written. The challenge then isn’t coming up with a story that’s never been told, but a new way of telling the same old story. The differences will be in the details filtered through your unique personality and experiences. Like bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope, the same plot can be retold a hundred, a thousand times, and still have a new angle, a fresh feel, an emotional connection to readers.

Writing practice is collecting all those bits of colored glass to be used to give your story its own flavor

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

A common mistake regarding this advice is to take whole chunks of life and try to turn it into a story. Even if you’re writing memoir, a whole chunk is indigestible and very often it is also flat. Thinking in generalities creates a distance from the reader because of the lack of detail.

We may say something like “I had an idyllic childhood.” But how did that look? What made it idyllic? Was it truly perfect? In my workshops I recommend Anne Lamott’s 1” picture frame as an antidote. If you want to show me your childhood was idyllic, pick a single example. Zoom in and crawl over every nuance of the scene like the ant mentioned yesterday.

This level of detail is useful in fiction because even invented characters and stories and scenes are made up of a variety of specific moments we have experienced previously. They are sliced thin and spread out over lots of stories and scenes, used in different contexts than we may have experienced them in reality, but because we are using real detail, they will have the ring of truth for the reader.

Employ a bit of creative license in memoir and combine this level of detail from two or three similar experiences into a single scene that underscores the illustration you are aiming for. Or use real sensory details from other memories and layer them into a memory that has mostly dialogue or emotion to bring it to life.

An actor portraying a character experiencing the death of a family member is encouraged to dig into their personal experience for a place to draw the emotion from. If the only death they’ve experience is the death of a pet when they were nine, they take that and extrapolate it into the emotion they are portraying. In fiction, we do the same thing. Even in fantasy, in a totally made up world, the characters (even the non-human ones) will experience recognizable emotions.

Writing practice is a good way to fill up your repertoire. Write about emotions and experiences and people. All of it will be useful no matter what you are writing.

“I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down the funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship's rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.” —Anne Lamott

Monday, October 24, 2011

“The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what you mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”― Natalie Goldberg

In an art class a number of years ago, we were given an assignment with two parts: Take off your left shoe and set it on the table in front of you. Draw it.

Then we were told to draw the same shoe a second time, but this time not to think of it as a shoe. Think of it as some unfamiliar object and ourselves as an ant, crawling over each and every line and shadow.

Once the drawings were all turned in, the instructor put them up on the wall. Without fail, every shoe that had been drawn as a shoe, was a sad imitation, and sometimes had more resemblance to the black ovals on Charlie Brown’s feet than to a real shoe.

The other group, the ones drawn without a label in mind, were many times better. They had shadows and highlights, scuff marks, stitches, crease in the leather, knotted or frayed laces . . .

Empty your mind of clich├ęs and stereotypes. They are good for generalizations, but not for authentic renderings of anything – shoes, people, or ideas.

Next time you are writing, try to write as if you were an ant tracing every line of the scene. Sure, you’ll have to edit it, but you’ll also have a wealth of rich detail you might never have discovered if you had glossed over the details and described a generic scene without individuality. Write the scuff marks and knotted laces.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

“What I've learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there's the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, "Well, that's not very interesting, is it?" And there's the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there's William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant . . .” —Anne Lamott

Have you ever listened to the voices in your head? Not the characters. If you write stories if goes without saying you listen to your characters. But those other voices, that committee in your head that offers opinions on pretty much everything you think or write about.

I heard someone once describe that committee as the seven dwarves. There was a television sitcom a number of years ago that was mostly made up of the aspects of the main character’s personality, all weighing in on the events of his day. Stephen King referred to his Muse, or possibly his council of Muses, as ‘the boys in the basement.’ If his Muse is a group of rough guys hanging out in a basement, what must the rest of his committee look like? When you are writing and you think “this stinks. I should delete the whole thing”, assign that voice to one of your committee members, possibly the critic, who never has anything good to say about your writing or anyone else’s (unless he’s comparing your atrocious scribbles to someone else, because even though they stink, they don’t stink as bad as you do).

Then there’s the voice that tells you to put a comma here, break the paragraph there, stop and pick a better word. That’s the editor, and his job is useful, but he has to be made aware of his boundaries because he often thinks he has more authority than he does. He and the Muse often can’t work together without arguing, at which point the writing grinds to a halt.

There may be other voices, too, like Anne Lamott’s Reader Lady. Or maybe your mother pipes up now and then when you write a particularly graphic scene of some sort, cautioning you to mind your manners.

Pay attention to the voices that speak up while you’re writing, and if necessary, call a meeting and hand out pink slips to a few. To those you keep on, make sure they’re aware of their boundaries. Make them work for you, not against you.

Who is on your committee?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.” –Vita Sackville-West

I discovered a blog I started last year after the death of my friend and writing partner Patty. I can’t tell you why it suddenly came into my mind to go look at it, and then to read each of the ten or so posts I wrote. But I did. It was comforting to see that much of what I said then is almost identical to what I teach now about writing. What was even better, was to read those distant words, aware that they were mine, but distant enough that I could not remember writing them or feel the immediacy of the emotions I felt as I was typing those words, and yet have them stir up fresh emotions, almost as if I were reading and reacting to the words of some other writer.

In writing about our present, we capture the moment and offer it to others as a sign post – “I’ve traveled this way and felt about it this way” – as a reassurance that they aren’t alone on their journey.

If you’d like to read a few early writing blogs from me, go here.