This Is the Essential Holiday Survival Guide for Writers! (Part ONE.)

I can't even begin to believe that it's December, so we won't start on that. Ahem.

How's everyone doing post-Nanowrimo? Fingers recovering? Brains regathering energy? You all okay? 

I love letting a theme guide each month's posts, but when I looked around for a central theme for December, nothing really fit. Instead I had a handful of posts that I really, really wanted to share with you before the year was out. Writer to writer.

So that's what our December will be: a heart-to-heart before the end of 2015. 

Sound good, lionhearts? Awesome. Let's dive in.


December can throw even the hardiest writing practice for a loop. Check out this essential survival guide for three ways I keep writing through the holiday season. | lucyflint.com

Let's be honest: with all the holiday festivities, it might be the most wonderful time of the year, but it's also one of the hardest times of the year for keeping coherent thoughts in your head.

Aka, writing novels

It is hard, hard work to keep writing in December.

I wanted to write myself a Survival Guide, just to round up all my little tricks for getting myself and my characters through the next few weeks in one piece. (More or less.)

Are you up for that too? High five.

Here are the three things I'll be focusing on to get through the month.

1. Preserving the time to write.

For most of the year, I tend to keep a pretty strict writing schedule... but everything gets messy in December.

There are ideal times for shopping, and there are times when shopping is unthinkable. Errand-running of any kind during December is usually best right in the middle of when I usually write. 

And then all the wonderful (and wonderfully exhausting) parties start up, and both time and energy for writing seems to disappear.

So it pays to make a new plan for finding writing time in this month, and letting it not look like all the other months.

This is when I start planning my writing time on a weekly basis, instead of a daily one. 

  • I'll try to group my errands together, to make the most of my breaks from work.
  • The hectic, errand-full days only get a little writing time: I'll try to work for a while before going anywhere, but once the errands start, I let myself stop for the day.
  • But on the non-errand days, I go big. I do all my good writing day things, and try to work as deeply and well as possible.
  • The day after a big party, I let myself start later (I don't regain energy very quickly!), but try to have a stellar afternoon.

Nothing really shocking here, right? The point is: try to work with your schedule, and with your own energy requirements. And just get really intentional about that, before all the chaos starts.

For years I insisted that December's writing schedule should look exactly like every other month's, and when I kept getting derailed, so much frustration ensued. 

Which isn't really what I'd like to be up to, when everyone's dancing around with candy canes. 

So let's not do that this year.

By all means, stick with your schedule for as long as you can. But when things get busy, it's time to get creative with the schedule too.

2. Finding the words.

Sometimes, though, the writing time isn't the problem. 

Sometimes, when everything gets mega-busy, it's just hard to hear the words.

Honestly, if part of your brain is working out what presents to get, and if another part is thinking about cookies and party menus, and if another part is wondering if your ugly Christmas sweater is ugly enough, and if another part is deciding which charities to give to, and if another part is realizing that your decorations are all looking a little tired, and if another part is debating what the Christmas cards will look like this year, and if another part is ...

You get my point.

Brainspace is extremely crowded this time of year. 

So even if you do plunk yourself at your desk for three hours or thirty minutes, you might not have so much actual writing happening.

This is hard. And for me, this is a lot harder (and ultimately more discouraging) than finding the time to write. 

I used to beat myself up about it. But now I've changed my tactic.

When the actual writing doesn't seem to work, I start making lists. (Yes, I've said it before, but I'll keep saying it! I've rescued myself with listmaking so many times.)

You can use lists to approach any part of your project, no matter what project it is.

It makes the best use of your time, and it also helps calm down your ping-ponging brain. It just feels more manageable than trying to sculpt paragraphs.

What kind of list? Try these:

  • Twelve things your character wants to do but shouldn't
  • Twelve things your character should do but doesn't want to do
  • Ten unusual details about the most common (or the most important) setting in the book
  • Five things your protagonist wants to say to your antagonist
  • Five things your antagonist wants to say to your protagonist
  • Twenty startling things that could happen in the very next scene 
  • Eight possible names for that shadowy minor character you just invented
  • Twenty possible titles for the novel
  • Fourteen lovely things that your future reviewers will say about you and your book ;)

See what I mean? Whatever is next, if you feel a bit blah about it, or if you can't quite envision it, no worries. See it as an opportunity. And start making lists.

Then when you do come back to work with a full brain, you'll have a lot of ideas to work from.

Honestly, I've shocked myself by being able to make lists in the weirdest circumstances. I can list when I'm barely awake, I can list in the middle of a crowded store, I can list when my brain feels full of other things. 

Use the hyper holiday energy in December to turn yourself into a list-making ninja. (Because I promise, it's a strategy you can rely on the rest of the year, too.)

Other ways to find the words this month: 

When all else fails: Read. Bring a book with you everywhere, and sneak little fiction snacks, staying as close to the flow of narrative as you can. 

Pour language into the cracks of your days, so that when all the activity dies down, your head is full of words again.

3. Getting out the nets.

Here's the really good news: If everything else goes belly-up, and you have no time to to write, and if the listmaking doesn't work and all you have is blank pages--

There is one more thing that we can all do in this crazy month.

We can turn into clever little explorers, and seek material

Here's the truth: I spend most of my time trying to be as reclusive as I can possibly be while staying mentally healthy. (It's a delicate balance.) 

December flips that formula upside down. It's bad news for my writing, but it's really really good news for my mind and creativity, when I choose to see it that way.

Holidays bring along with them all the raw ingredients for a zillion new ideas. They're a huge factory for the stuff of stories.

And if you bring along big mental nets for catching these ideas, you'll end this month with a pile of excellent material.

It comes down to paying attentionTaking notes. Jotting down what you hear, what you see. And staying alive to all the juxtapositions and paradoxes and beauties in this season.

Think like a collector. And make use of every errand, every outing, every party.

Speaking of parties, yes, I'm on Team Introvert, and every party—however happy—can feel like a slow death. Here's the idea-gathering strategy that helps me through:

Interviewing.

Seriously. Give this a try. Casually interview the people around you.

Ask interesting questions—ask about things that, as a writer, you genuinely want to know about.

Find out more about your cousin's unusual specialty, or the niche that your friend's husband is working in.

Ask everyone about their hobbies—not just what they do, but why they do it, how they got started, what the high points are, what they've found out.

Ask about the places they've been, where they've lived, where they travel to, and what it's like.

Ask about how they met the host, or how they met their spouse. Amazing stories come out of this.

These people know things, and better yet, they're usually quite happy to tell you.

Find the most eccentric person at the party, and get 'em to talk. What happens next will be GOLD, for you and your work. I promise.

Excuse yourself from time to time and go jot down notes, get down phrases, and write down how their facial expression changed, how they used their hands while they talked, or what details stood out to you.

You're a clever reporter, taking notes on life. You're a writer-explorer, doing field research, collecting samples.

And oh yes, you're also being an awesome guest, and not dying a slow introvert death.

Good plan, right?

When you see it this way, any outing can be an investment in your work. It can give you unexpected ideas, glimpses at rich characters, and snatches of dialogue.

Even though it's time away from the desk, it can at least be super productive for you.


Whoa, we just covered a lot of ground! But seriously, those are some of my best, most trusty holiday survival tips. Just going back through them helps me feel calmer about all the craziness to come!

But if you want to hear the real difference-maker for the holidays, come back for Part Two on Monday. Okay?

In the meantime, what about you guys? What's served you well during chaotic times? What keeps you grounded? I'd love to hear more from you in the comments.