Tag: writing tips

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. ]

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 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.