Tag: 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.