Category: Writing Advice

Do Your Own Work

Most of the time I’m all encouragement and you-go-get-‘em on here. My purpose with this blog is to light a fire under writers and get them working.

If you are someone that has a strong desire to tell a story, and if the idea that you might die before you write it keeps you up at night, I hope you’ll dive into these posts and find all the tips, tricks, courage and positivity you need to get started. I will share what has worked for me and what hasn’t. I’ll share anything and everything I can related to writing process and getting your work done. I will not hold back and I’ll keep right on showing up.

But here’s the thing. It’s still your work.

No one else can do your work for you.

I’ve worked with writers facing many obstacles. Writers hampered by shame, often stemming from an incident around writing that happened in high school. Writers who have faced severe trauma and yet still have an overwhelming desire to share their stories. Writers who have never used a computer and want to write a manuscript.

When I’m working with a writer, I am never daunted by such obstacles. I’ve listened to their stories and shared tools with them, encouraged them to start, helped them practice setting boundaries with family, written them letters of permission on beautiful stationery — I’ve been willing to help in whatever small way I can. I know I’m just a spark. It’s their own desire to tell their story that will see them through.

But there is another type of writerly desire that I find very difficult to work with:

People who want to see their story out in the world, but aren’t willing to put in the work it takes to get it there.

No, for real, this happened:

One time a man came up to me when I was writing in a coffee shop. He had a burning question for a writer, and since he knew I was one, he thought it appropriate to interrupt and ask me. He told me he’d spent twenty years writing morning pages. (If you’ve never heard the term, Morning Pages are an exercise from the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. ) Now he had masses of notebooks full of his early morning thoughts and wanted to know what to do with them.

As someone who had practiced morning pages for over twenty years myself, and had recently abandoned the practice, I did have a few thoughts. I suggested he shred them or burn them. You see, the point of morning pages is to clear your mind, quickly — in twenty minutes or less — in order to make space for your true creative work to come through. It’s like practicing scales on the piano. The real work is what comes after the morning pages.

No, I was wrong, the man told me. He was sure that what he needed was an editor. Someone to sift through his hoard of notebooks, extract the gems, polish them and publish his brilliant book, all at no cost to him. He wanted me to tell him where to find such a person, or, maybe I could to do it for him? You see, he’d had a really interesting life and there were a lot of good thoughts on those pages.

Also, this really happened:

Recently, another man called me in the middle of my writing time (yes, shame on me for answering) and made me an offer. I could keep some of the royalties, if I wrote his father’s life story.

I was as polite and firm as I could be and clearly said no, but he still tried to talk me into it. Not only was I missing out on an opportunity to make a lot of money, including cash from the Netflix deal I was going to negotiate on our behalf, but I was refusing to help his father, who could sure use a financial cushion in his retirement years.

When I asked why his father didn’t write his own story, he told me, well, that’s a lot of work. And besides, his father doesn’t have my kind of connections.

There were so many layers of unchecked assumptions in making this request that I knew there was no point in challenging them. I simply got off the phone as quickly as I could. I’m sure in his mind I’m an unhelpful person who missed my chance.

My purpose in sharing this is not to give an old man with a good story a hard time.

No, my point is to tell you that a good story is not the thing.

A great idea is not the thing.

Lots of people have good stories and great ideas. Each Thursday, my small town weekly newspaper has enough good starting places for stories to keep a mystery writer like me busy for three novels.

Your passion for the story is the thing.

Your willingness to do the work, to put in the time, to overcome the obstacles, to hone your craft, to learn the next thing, whether that’s how to write suspense or how to make quote posts for Instagram or how to use a semicolon or how to write a query letter — these are the building blocks for getting a great story out into the world.

There is no end to these blocks. They will come up all the time, and, unless you are independently wealthy, you can’t subcontract all that stuff out.

Sure, you can learn from others. You can hire out some pieces. You can collaborate and trade. You can access free resources and choose to pay for others. You can judiciously ask other writers or industry professionals for advice (but only after you have done your own research.) You can attend conferences and festivals. You can join a writing group. You can hire editors and you can learn to edit yourself by trading pages with other writers. You can work with agents and publishers and publicists and social media brand managers.

But you can’t delegate your vision to any of these people. And if you try, it will fall apart.

Even the biggest names in writing know that no one can do their work for them. (Yes, even those that can afford to hire ghost writers still need to do their own work in other ways.)

You need to hold the big picture. You need to know what you are doing and why. And you need to be willing to put in the hours, over the course of years, to work toward your vision.

An athlete might have a coach and a physiotherapist and a corporate sponsor. They might have national team funding to send them to the Olympics and a nice hotel to stay in when they get there. But they still have to run the race when the time comes. No one else can do that for them.

Writing is the same. No matter how much help you have, you still need to do your own work.

I really hope you will. Or at least that you are willing. For those that are, I’ll keep showing up here and share with you whatever I can that might help you along. (And if you have a burning question or a topic you’d like me to cover, leave a comment and I’ll try to cover it.)

For those that are looking for someone else to write, edit, pitch and sell their story for them so they don’t have to, please don’t interrupt me. I’m busy over here doing my own work.

[These days my work in progress is a mystery set in Montreal in 1947 that features one of my ancestors as a fictional sleuth. I send a letter to readers every month about this project and if you are curious about what I’m up to, you can sign up here. ]

15 Things To Do During Your Writing Time

In one of my earlier blog posts, here,I talked about the importance of scheduling your writing time, whether it’s twenty minutes a day or an hour twice a week. And then I told you the most important rule of writing. Really, the only rule of writing as far as I’m concerned: Show up for yourself.

Now What?

It is quite possible that now that you’ve carved out the time, you don’t know what to do with it. When you set the timer for twenty minutes and put your laptop on top of the dryer while your kid gets a precious allotment of screen time in the next room — or whatever it is that you’ve sorted out for yourself — you might well ask, what the heck do I do now?

My answer to you is it doesn’t really matter. Just do something.

But wait. You have this burning idea. You’ve got to write your memoir or your novel or your poetic study of wetland frogs and I say yes, you do. You do and you will. You have carved out time to finally write that idea that won’t leave you alone. It’s important — crucial even — that you do this. I I believe that if you have an idea that won’t leave you alone, it is the job of your lifetime to let that story out of you and into the world.

(And yes, I believe this even if your story never gets published or goes anywhere beyond your computer, but that’s a blog post for another day.)

But, back to this moment. Back to your writing time. Yes, you need to let that story out. But here’s the thing. It’s not going to all come out today. That pressure and expectation will not serve you. You’ll flame out in hurry and frustration.

What you are doing now is establishing a habit. Carve out writing time and show up. Start by touching on the topic in some low-impact way. What you are doing, really, is putting a stake in the ground and letting your inner critic, your inevitable creative resistance, your family and friends and your inbox know that you are serious. That you are determined, that you really are going to do this and that none of it will kill you (or them).

This is you, practicing scales before you perform a concerto. The concerto will come, with practice. With showing up. With time.

Here’s a list of 15 low-key things you might do in your writing time, either when you are first starting, or when you are between projects, or when resistance inevitably shows up and threatens to put a stop to all this nonsense once and for all. (Don’t let it.)

15 (Low-Key) Things To Do During Your Writing Time

  1. Write by hand. I like to work on big sheets of paper and with coloured markers. Or massive index cards. Or in a journal with a special pen. I write down ideas, brainstorm, doodle with words. (I firmly believe in the creative power of a healthy stash of office supplies.)
  2. Write a letter to a friend. Tell them about the story you want to write. (I borrowed this one from John McPhee’s fabulous essay in The New Yorker Draft No. 4.)
  3. Write a diary entry in first person, from the point of view of one of your characters. If you are writing memoir, write from the point of view of one of the other people in your story. How did your high school teacher or neighbour or parent perceive the events you are describing? If you are writing non-fiction, try writing from the point of view of a person (or why not, object) that lived at the time, or is impacted by the events or processes that you are writing about. (Yes, write from the point of view of those wetland frogs facing extinction.)
  4. Ask an outrageous question. Then write down possible answers.
  5. Write an alternate ending. What would Thelma and Louise be doing today if they hadn’t driven off that cliff? Would they even still be friends?
  6. Write the action of a scene in action/reaction point form, like a screenwriter would.
    Action: He jumped onto the couch.
    Reaction: She screamed and tried to get out from underneath him.
    Action: He grabbed a handful of her popcorn.
    Reaction: She started crying and called for Mom.
    Action: …
  7. Write a list of objects found in your character’s home. Pretend you are an auctioneer, or a crime scene officer, and make an inventory.
  8. Describe a change of circumstance in minute detail. The change in expression on someone’s face when they hear bad news. Bathers on the beach when the wind picks up and it looks like rain. The thoughts of a man sipping a drink and realizing he’s gone from pleasantly tipsy to absolutely drunk.
  9. Read. Writers are readers, and if they aren’t they need to be. (I promise to do a whole blog post on writers as readers at some point. I have very strong opinions on this subject.) If it’s all too scary, if the resistance is that strong, it’s okay to read. Sometimes reading is as good as writing. I will ask one thing though. Set a timer to go off 5 or 10 minutes before the end of your writing time. Then go back to your paper or your laptop and write something down. Write about what you read, your thoughts about it. Something. Anything. Yes. That counts.
  10. Go for a walk. Walking (or gardening) for me will often get the story moving again when I feel stuck in place by resistance. In her beautiful book If You Want To Write, Brenda Ueland advocates walking hours every day. I love this idea, though it’s rarely possible for most people. Write, or garden, or move your body in some way. Then come back to the page and write down your thoughts. Capture something, anything, of that walking session on paper.
  11. Notice. I talked about this in a post here. Notice the details. Notice people. Notice changes in weather. Notice sounds in different places, smells. Notice with all your senses. Then write it all down in great detail.
  12. Describe a bad smell.
  13. Eavesdrop and write down the conversation later. Then make up a story about who the people are and what they were talking about, no matter how mundane. There’s conflict somewhere, find it. Make it up and then convince yourself it’s true.
  14. Make things really hard for your character. No, harder than that. They have to give a speech? Give them laryngitis and a big red zit. They are hiding from a mad killer behind a dumpster? Make it start to rain, or snow. Making dinner for his girlfriend and her mother (who thinks he’s just not good enough for her precious daughter)? The power goes out. Try this in the middle of any scene where you are stuck. Make everyone just a little more uncomfortable and see what they do.
  15. Cut and paste. This is a favourite of mine. When I’m writing a scene set in a particular time in the past, I find magazines from that time, and make a collage of whatever might interest my character. Home renovations, interior decorating, fashion, housekeeping tips. Think of this as making a vision board for your character. It’s 1982, what outfit will they wear? How would they like to redecorate their house? I am pretty sure you can do this on Pinterest these days, but I like to do this the old fashioned way. I collect old magazines and physically cut and paste them. These quick collages provide significant detail for scenes later on.

I hope these ideas will give you a place to get started. To me, moving beyond word count means broadening the definition of what it means to write. In order to finish something you are going to have plenty of days where you sit at the computer and write. But I believe it does not serve you to push your face harder into the screen when you feel resistant or stuck, or at a loss for ideas, or like you can’t face the screen for one more minute. How is that helping? Give yourself permission to shake things up a bit and try one of these tricks. (Or make up your own!)

After all, if you are going to write that thing that won’t leave you alone, it’s going to take time. You’re going to have to keep coming back to the blank page. Why not make that time enjoyable, rather than a punishment?

Do you have a way to get yourself writing when you are stuck? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

If you are curious about my own writing process these days, I write a monthly letter sharing all the details about my work in progress. You can sign up here.

The Myth of Productivity (Or…Don’t Just Do It)

Just as I was getting ready to write this post about resistance and how I’ve learned to overcome it over the years, I smacked right up against a brand new brick wall around my own work in progress.

Funny how that works.

When I first started taking my writing seriously, I had one day a week to write. At the time, it felt like a minor miracle. On Fridays, our older son had a full day of kindergarten. We managed to swing the cost of a full day of day care for the younger one and there you have it – Writing Fridays.

On Fridays, I wandered the empty house, clearing clutter, tidying up and baking cookies. Every time I sat down to write, I had to fight against something that seemed determined to stop me. The harder I pushed against it, the harder it pushed back.

I could barely sit in my chair. Anything and everything seemed urgent, even though all week long I’d been looking forward to this time. The day I found myself doing laundry stain removal instead of writing, I had to admit I had a problem. I had to figure out how to get past the wall of resistance, or I was going to have to give up on my writing dream (and the expensive day care slot it was costing our family each week.)

In my next few posts, I’m going to share my strategies with you in detail. (And I’d love to hear yours, in the comments!) We’ll start today with one block I’ve butted up against time and again. The Myth of Productivity.

Creative work is not valued in our get it done world.

Crush your goals!
Make every minute count!
Like a boss!
Learn a new language while you sleep!
Inbox Zero!
Do more with less!
Get ‘er done!
Just do it!

You don’t have to look too deep into your Instagram feed to get the message that what matters in our society is getting s**t done. Doing more, doing it faster, checking it off the list. There are plenty of writing methods that will encourage you to take this crushin’ it #girlboss-style approach to writing, but I believe this will lead to more resistance, not less. When you battle resistance head on, it only grows.

In an earlier post I encouraged you to be unrelenting and inflexible in setting, and keeping to, your writing schedule.

Yes, you absolutely have to show up. But once you get there, allow space, and grace. Make it more of a dance than a battle. If resistance shows right up with you, let it be there. Sit through the discomfort. Do one small thing. Then show up again for your next scheduled writing session. And the next.

All the messages you’ve ever received will tell you this is unproductive time. Keep showing up anyway.

You might be bombarded with negative messages within your own head about wasting time. If you have had to negotiate this time, or pay for child or elder care, if your spouse is doing both dishes and bedtime, if your friends are watching Netflix together on Zoom, these messages might be all the more persistent.

The temptation to get up and “do something productive with your time” will be almost overwhelming. Before you get up, I want you to remember something.

These thoughts? They are just thoughts. They are loud thoughts, and kind of mean thoughts, but they are just thoughts. It’s okay for them to be there. It’s okay for you to stay in your seat and co-exist alongside them. Imagine parallel playing with resistance like you are both 2-year-olds at the day care sand table. You’re there. It’s there. Both doing your thing. Full on engagement will only lead to someone getting whacked on the head with a plastic tractor.

Try this: Talk back to those thoughts.

“It’s okay to be unproductive sometimes. It will help me be more productive later. ”

“I know you are scared, and that’s okay. I know you are trying to protect me. I can see that and I appreciate it. And I’m still going to be here for half an hour and do a few things. Won’t be long. Please try to keep it down so I can concentrate.”

Also, remember to drop the expectations. Maybe yesterday you wrote a thousand words. Maybe you wrote a thousand words every day last week. Today is new. Who knows what will happen today?

Productivity and creativity don’t always go hand in hand, especially not at first. (Like when you first start writing. Or when you start a new stage in a project. Or when you suddenly find that everything that was working for you no longer works. These are all good times to drop the expectations.)

Productivity, as our society defines it, is the shortest path from beginning to end. Creativity is more of an exploration. What happens if we go this way? Or this way?

Let’s redefine productivity.

How about we say, for the next six months, productivity means setting your writing time and showing up, over and over again. Show up and check that box off your list. Show up and try something. Explore.

Give it six months. Let’s see what happens.

Remember, we’re in this together. I’m facing the same thing right now with my own work in progress. I’ll share some of my more specific strategies in upcoming posts, but these are just my strategies. I don’t pretend to know that they will work for anyone else.

I’d love to hear yours in the comments!

The Bad News for Writers

Way back in the Before Times, when we were allowed to gather in groups, I taught a writing workshop in a library. I called it, ‘Get Your Work Done,’ and we covered all the things that get in the way of writing.

What is it that stops writers, or would-be-writers, from getting down to the work they are so drawn to?

In my last post, I talked about the importance of scheduling writing time and showing up for yourself, session after session, month after month. I encouraged you to find 20 minutes a day, or 45 minutes, two or three days a week, in order to write.

When I said this at the library workshop, hands started to shoot up.

“But — but — but…” People said.
(And maybe you said “But!” while reading my last post.)

The “Buts” were along these lines:

“But my husband…”
“But my wife…”
“But my kids…”
“But my grandkids…”
“But my parents…”

I listened to a few of the Buts, and then I put my own hand up to stave off the onslaught.

“It is okay to spend a few hours each week doing something creative that your loved ones don’t necessarily understand, approve of or think is a valid use of your time.”

There was an audible gasp from the back of the room.

It’s Okay to Put Your Writing First for Twenty Minutes

I imagine that your days are pretty full, even without writing. We’ve all got our things we need to do: work, family, exercise, household management, life admin, leisure, friends, sleep. It’s not like any of us are sitting around.

If you’re going to find a few hours each week to write, that time needs to come from somewhere. It means changing a pattern. Dropping something you’re doing already, or doing less of something else, in order to prioritize your writing instead. It means asking for help.

It might mean asking your spouse to do more around the house; to take on the bedtime routine or do the soccer drop-off a few nights a week so that you have time to write. It might mean watching less TV or giving up a weekly social night, which can involve saying no to friends and family. It might mean going to bed later, or getting up earlier (very quietly, so you don’t wake anyone else up.)

If you are a grandparent, it might mean saying no to last minute babysitting requests from your own children. (I recognize that this is doubly difficult, since you need to say no to both your kids and your grandkids. And yet, I ask you, if you are not going to do the writing that is calling you now, when exactly are you going to do it?)

You might not answer the phone at certain times. You might not be free for coffee or volunteer work when people used to always be able to count on you to say yes. You might actually need to leave work on time.

You are going to carve out two hours a week in whatever form you can, and you are going to put your writing first.

Your People Will Not Like This

When you start prioritizing your writing time, the people around you might not like it very much. (They won’t like it at all.) You’ll probably get pushback. (You definitely will.) You might have to handle hurt feelings. Someone you love dearly might get mad at you and you’ll have to navigate discomfort and conflict.

In order to start down the road of writing this thing that will not leave you alone, you are going to have to hold boundaries and advocate for yourself and your creative time. You are going to have a difficult conversation or two. You are going to need to change some patterns.

You are to going to need to plop yourself down and write for twenty minutes. You are going to need to walk out the door at the time that you have freed up for yourself, and go to your selected writing place and write, even in the face of disapproval, or annoyance. In the face of the unwashed dishes, your unwashed hair, and the thirty-two unopened emails.

I can hear your “Buts” already.

You are an adult, you say. You have responsibilities!

I am not asking you to shirk them. I’m not asking you to neglect your children or let your house go to ruin or get fired from your job. I am suggesting that, if you want to write, you will need to negotiate with your spouse or children or parents or employer to carve out a little time.

I believe that most healthy relationships can handle this level of boundary-setting. After all, you’re not setting out to do anything dangerous or immoral. You’re just writing.

If negotiating this with your spouse or parents or children feels dangerous, please do not do it unless you have reached out for crisis intervention and support. If it feels scary, because it wasn’t okay to have boundaries growing up, then it’s time to learn. (I had to do this. It was not easy (still isn’t) but it’s easier than ignoring the call to write.)

How do you set boundaries with loved ones? Google some strategies and try them, ask a friend or colleague that seems to have mastered the ability, or ask a professional counselor for help.

Do Not Ask Permission

You are not asking for permission to engage in the act of writing. You are simply arranging some uninterrupted time for yourself, on par with your partner’s floor hockey nights.

You do not need anyone’s permission to write. You’re not hurting anyone by writing. (I would argue that, if you feel called to write, you are hurting those around you by denying the call.)

You are not asking permission. You are arranging time. You don’t need anyone else to think what you are doing is important. It’s important to you. That’s enough.

It might be in your kitchen or against the steering wheel as you wait in the car outside the indoor soccer gym or in the chair in the orthodontist’s waiting room — I have written in all these places and more. More pleasant might be in the guest bedroom/home office with the door closed against interruptions, or maybe a coffee shop during Cub Scouts. It could be at the dining room table with headphones on. It does not need to be fancy.

Inner Resistance is Not Outer Resistance

It’s important not to confuse your own inner resistance to creativity with the outer resistance of families and friends. Inner resistance is something all creatives need to learn to face, over and over. (Sorry to say, it doesn’t really go away, but you can get deft and working around it. I’ll cover that in my next post.)

Inner resistance can feel insurmountable, and yet it comes from nowhere. It’s easy to want to blame the people around us, since we can see them after all. They want to keep us from our creative truth, those meanies! But while it can feel like sitting down to write for 20-30 minutes is an epic battle against an invisible enemy that is out to stop us no matter what, that enemy is not your spouse, your child or your grandchildren.

Now Write

You’ve negotiated the time, now use that time to write. Don’t know how? It’s true. You may not have done this before, or at least not for a long time. Give yourself a chance. You’ll learn. Your first writing session, like the first of any new venture, will be about creating the space, going through the motions: Get to the place, open the computer or notebook, write a few things down. Write a list, write a goal, write the exact colours of the shawl the woman across from you on the bus was wearing. Write about how she tied that shawl. Where do you think she got it? Or did someone give it to her? Write that story down.

Writing will come with practice. You’ve carved out some space and time. Now commit to yourself. Keep showing up. Allow yourself to be a beginner. You’ve already started.

Write something. Anything. Write one sentence. There now, see ? You’ve already started.

The Myth of Flow

Photo of fountain pens, notebooks and a vase of flowers on a wooden table.

I first started taking my writing seriously in 2006 after spectacularly walking out of my day job. I had one week of day care that was already paid for, and after that my day job would become parenting two pre-schoolers. Any writing would happen while they were sleeping.

A novel had been developing inside me for almost a year. I worked in a brewery and, inside my head, I plotted out a mystery novel set in a brewery as I went about my day. (Creepy? I guess so. But I’m a crime writer. It’s what we do.) I knew the victim, I knew the killer, I knew the clues. All I needed was time to write.

But now, suddenly, I had that time. Five whole days with day care already paid! I thought that, if I worked every minute of those five days, I could get the novel out of my head and onto the computer. It had been dammed up in there for ages, and now that I had space and a little time and no distractions, it would just flow out.

That very first week I came smack in the face of a very common (and mostly untrue) myth about writing.

Writing Should Flow. (Shouldn’t it?)

I mean, how hard can it be? I had an idea, a story arc and time. All I needed to do was turn on the tap and it would flow out. Right?

I learned, only gradually, that writing is not typing. That the romanticized image of the writer in the garret, wrapped in shawls and sipping tea, (or in skin tight jeans, hyped up on espresso, or in a moth-eaten cardigan drinking scotch straight from the bottle, you pick) typing away, the words flowing steadily from their mind to their fingers, is not the reality.

That book, Confined Space, did eventually make its way from my imagination, through my fingers, into the computer, and then out into the world. But it was in fits and starts over the course of several years of dedicated early morning morning writing sessions. I had to learn how to write, like a musician learns scales. I had to learn how to structure a mystery novel. I had to learn how to edit my own work.

You would not expect to sit down at a piano and play the solo from a concerto, along with a full orchestra in front of an audience on the first try, and yet we expect that of ourselves when writing a manuscript.

Myth, Meet Reality

In order to finally get that book, and all the others I’ve written since then, out of my head and into the computer, I’ve had to overcome what I call the inner expectation of the Myth of Flow. I’m going to tell you how I did that, because even if your inner expectation — your inner myth — is of a different flavour than mine, the answers I landed on might be helpful to you, too.

Drop the Expectations

Looking back now, it seems completely unrealistic to expect myself to write a novel in five days. I know, I know, there are stories of it being done. In fact, if you Google “How to write a novel in 5 days” you’ll come up with thousands of results, mostly from people who will happily take your money so you can learn their “method”.

Hey, I’m not dissing the 5-day method. Not at all. I’m not saying my method is the best, either. But the method I have figured out is the best for me. Me, married and with two teens at home, a half-time day job, a household to manage and writing commitments to meet. What works for me? Writing for two hours, five days a week, will net me a book every 18 months. (Longer for historical fiction, since I’m a bit obsessive about research.)

No waiting until I retire. No waiting for summers. No subliminal music to listen to as I sleep. No saving for a 5-day retreat to Sedona. (Though I have been to Sedona and it’s lovely and I do have an idea for a novel set there.)

That’s what works for me. What will work for you?

Set a Schedule

I suggest you start small and keep your expectations very low. Are you the kind of person that needs to do something every day in order for it to stick? Then maybe start with 20 minutes a day.

Do you have more time on certain days and less on others? Maybe try 45 minutes, two or three times a week.

For example: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 am to 7:15 am.

The important thing is to find an amount of time that feels easy and stick to it. You want to meet the goal and feel like it was completely manageable. Make an agreement with yourself that once you’ve met that goal, you’ve done really well. You’re all set until the next scheduled writing session. Shower yourself with praise — give yourself the gold star! Then move on with your day.

When that little voice comes up and says, “But, but, but, but — not good enough, not long enough, you need to push and push and make this happen,” remind it that you have a schedule. Remind it that good writing happens over time and with practice. Tell it that you are not in a hurry, that you plan to enjoy this process. Tell it exactly what day and time you will be back for more writing. Then get on with your day, knowing you’ve done what you can for now.

Write During Writing Time

What should you do during your writing time? This topic deserves its own blog post, so I’ll add that to my list of things to do during my own writing time. For now, I’ll just give you a few suggestions. If you’re writing a novel, why not take one of the elements of a novel and work on it for a while, and then gradually move on and build on what you’ve written. Maybe you want to start with a few paragraphs describing the setting. Or start by interviewing a character to get to know them. If paragraphs feel intimidating, start with a list. You’ll build on it later.

Or, start with plot. What happens in this story that you are writing? Pretend it’s something that happened to you and you are texting a friend about it and write that down.

Sound easy? Good. Why not start with easy? Make it gradually more difficult. Allow yourself to be a beginner. (This is true for experienced writers too. Each novel comes without an instruction booklet.) What is most important is that you finish your writing session feeling like you’ve done something. That way, you’ll look forward to coming back, and the next time you will show up and do it again.

Expect to Edit

There’s this beautiful memoir called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominic Bauby. Do you know it?

Bauby was editor of French Elle when a massive stroke left him with locked-in syndrome. He could think and remember perfectly clearly, but could not speak or move any part of his body except for one eyelid. He dictated his memoir to his caregiver by blinking out each letter.

In order to accomplish this, he needed to have each word, each sentence, lined up in his mind. Then he needed to remember them, and spell them out with his eyelid, one letter at a time.

Intense, right? But here is the thing, you are likely not afflicted with locked-in syndrome like Jean-Dominic Bauby. You can get your words out now, and edit them later. The expectation that the words should come out as they will appear later in the printed book is not realistic. All professional writers expect to be edited. While some writers can produce a rough draft that is close to the finished product, many cannot. It’s just not their process.

I need at least three drafts before I will even consider sharing what I’ve written. Yes, even for this blog. Editing is part of writing. Expect it, plan for it, count on it. Editing is what makes it okay for you to write during your allotted time, let what is there come out, and then move on, knowing you will have an opportunity to fix it later.

Write Now. Don’t Wait for Flow.

Sure, flow states happen. Of course they do. They are more likely to happen with practice. And while they feel good, I’m not ready to correlate good feeling writing time with good writing. Sometimes the best writing I do comes from a place of discomfort, from having to work a little harder for it, from a writing session that frankly felt pretty crappy in the moment.

Flow is not the key. The key is setting your schedule and showing up. Over and over and over. Show up. Keep your expectations low. Do your work in the moment. Expect to edit it later. Put it away and get on with your life. Then show up for your next writing session.

Until next time, I wish you regularly scheduled, tolerably pleasant writing time.

During the months of October and November (in 2020, this year of the pandemic) I am giving away four books by local BC writers to subscribers of my newsletter. You can join in on the fun by signing up here.

Why is Writing SO Hard?

As I write this, the sky is filled with smoke from fires in Washington and Oregon, smoke that is reaching all the way across Canada. It’s hard to go outside, even to walk to the car, never mind go for a walk. Living in a rural area, the fact that we can still get outside and hike, go to the beach and the many parks in this area has made the pandemic somewhat bearable.

Now it really feels like the world is ending. That the smoke is so dense and the fires are not near here reminds me that we are all in this together. We all breathe the same air and it’s the only air we’ve got.

I’ve got the whole day to write, and aside from a few calls, the only thing I plan to work on is a few blog posts. But I am struck down with WHY BOTHER? Why bother writing? Why bother sharing with others?

Why bother doing something that can only count as a luxury, when the ground is literally on fire? What is the point, when so many are having trouble even breathing? When the places in our communities where people would congregate to escape the smoke – the churches, libraries, community halls and rec centres – are all closed or have limited access because of COVID measures?

For several weeks I’ve wanted to write a series of posts about how to overcome writing avoidance and resistance. For some of us, the need to write is urgent. We are called to this. Desperate to tell stories — our stories, others’ stories, the stories borne from our imaginations — and yet, sitting down to write is a battle.

There’s always something that gets in the way. Today, for me, it is grief. Grief that all my places of reprieve – my garden, the trails, the city park, long walks with my friends – have been taken from me. How long will it be? Days, weeks, months? The grief would keep me from writing if I let it, but I will not let it.

You see, I have, for the most part, figured out how to get around the resistance that comes up with writing. It’s taken me years and a lot of practice, but I have found a way that works for me. The only thing keeping me from retreating to bed today and watching Faulty Towers until the sun comes out is that, by writing down what I’ve learned and sharing it here, I might help someone else.

Someone who feels that same urgent call to write, but gets caught in the weeds of resistance and expectation. Faulty Towers will have to wait. This post feels as urgent as climate change all of a sudden.

Has this happened to you?

When you really want to write, it stays with you all day. For me it used to go something like this: I’m going about my day and everything I do — the kids, the day job, chores and social obligations and exercise— for all of it, I’m just biding my time until I can get to the writing.

But then it comes time to write, and first thing I do is open up Twitter. It’s like my chair is on fire and it’s torture to sit down and concentrate. I’ve spent hours or days looking forward to this moment and now that it’s here, I’d rather do anything else. Literally anything. Scrub the bathroom tiles? Empty the litter box? I’ll do it! Anything and everything is better than writing.

Maybe for you it’s more of a seasonal thing. You’re a teacher and you can’t wait for summer so you can write. Or, maybe it goes on for decades — you’re waiting to retire and you’ll do all your writing then. But when the fateful time comes, when it’s just you and the table and chair and the blank screen, you can’t get anywhere. Before you know it you’ve joined three boards and trained as a hospice volunteer and you’re way too busy to even think of writing.

Why is writing so hard? What is that anywhere-but-here feeling and how can we get over it?

The long answer to these questions is coming up in the next few weeks, but the short answer to what stops us from writing is: resistance and expectations.

We think writing should be easier than it is, because know how to write. We write all the time. We write emails, we write Facebook posts, we write to-do lists and instructions, procedures and legislation. Sure, maybe our grammar is not the best, but we know how to write. How hard can it be?

When we finally sit down to write, it turns out it’s harder than we expected. The rewards that we’re after — the acknowledgement, the accolades, the bestseller lists — these are a long way off. There are no gold stars for sitting in your chair and forcing out a thousand words. There’s nothing finished, so nothing to check off a to-do list. And these are just the internal expectations.

What about those around us? They love us and want to protect us from hurt, and this writing thing we are so hell-bent on seems to be causing us a lot of pain. Plus, our long-suffering loved-ones are used to more of our attention. Why pay extra for a babysitter when all we’re doing is writing? Why aren’t the dishes done? Why can’t we take the grandkids this weekend?

Really, if we just stopped with the writing already, it would be easier on everyone. External expectations like these have stopped many a would-be writer in their tracks.

Plus, there’s that brick wall of resistance that comes up every time we sit down to write. What is that and where does it come from? Is there any way around it? Does it ever go away? The guilt, shame and anxiety. Oh, and let’s not forget the fear in all its glory. (Did I leave the stove on? Will my mother disown me when this gets published? Will this ever even get published? I’m terrible at this and should stop. I always wanted to do this and now I’m terrible at it and who will I be if I’m not a writer?) I’ll stop now. You get it.

We are going to talk about all of these things, and how to overcome them in the coming weeks. Since it feels like the world is ending out there though, I don’t want to leave you hanging for the answer.

The answer to all of it – ALL OF IT – is routine and practice. Find a routine and settle in to it. It could be half an hour, three times a week. In that half hour, you write. Keep your expectations low. Just do something. Write a list of ideas. Interview a character. Pretend you’re writing a letter to a friend about the story in your head, and write it down.

Keep it simple, quiet and regular. Show up when you say you will. Your body and mind will come to expect it. Your loved ones will get used to the idea. Your inner critic will cross its arms and let you do your thing, whatever. Even the wall of resistance will move back a few feet and give you a little bit of space.

That’s all you need. A tiny bit of room to breathe. That’s all any of us are getting right now anyway. Take it. Do something with it. It’s yours. You can watch Faulty Towers later.