Five Ways to Spark Energy and Excitement for Your Work-in-Progress!

Enthusiasm is our best best friend when it comes to staying the course with our writing. So how can we boost our enthusiasm? I've got five super fun ways right here. | lucyflint.com

Welcome back to the Strength Building Series! So far, we've talked about what strength even means (because the wrong definition is the first step to sabotaging it). And then we focused in on building strength of imagination (because imagination is central to everything we do!).

And today—I'm really excited. Which is appropriate. Because today we're talking about how to increase our enthusiasm for our work.

I know! I know! I'm gonna have to simmer down so much to even write this thing...

Ahem. Okay. Being sensible. 

So, first thing: why even bring up enthusiasm? Why is this a place where we need to build strength?

To find the answer, think back for a sec to our Self-Care Series, when we talked all things Julia Cameron.

And one of the more mind-blowing things that she pointed out was: when it comes to sustainable momentum in our work, enthusiasm trumps discipline.

Yeah. It's still incredible. 

And that shifted my focus from "How can I be more disciplined?" to "How can I be more enthusiastic?" Which is a pretty huge course correction.

Building enthusiasm. It's essential for the kind of work we want to do.

... And before anyone gets worried that I'm about to base all our hard work on a mere feeling, let's refresh on Julia Cameron's definition of enthusiasm. She says: 

Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us. ... 
     Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. ... It is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.

Okay. If that was waaay more mushy-sounding than you really care for on a Thursday, let's look at it like this:

The way Cameron is using enthusiasm isn't about "how we feel right now." 

It's about 1) commitment, 2) openness, 3) creativity, 4) process, 5) play, 6) joy and 7) yes, okay, love.

Which is why, to build enthusiasm, we're going to dive into the work itself (commitment!). No matter where we're at in it (process!). 

We're going to mess around (creativity!) and try new things (openness!). And yes, it's going to be playful. It's going to be about enjoying what we're making. And even, dare I say it, loving it.

Sound good? Sound ... fun? 

Here are my five favorite ways to build playfulness and enthusiasm for my work-in-progress.

Check them out, stay open, and don't worry about "doing it right." Just dive in and give these a try.

1) Embrace the Souvenir Method.

... I was about to say "this is one of my favorite things to do with a piece I'm working on!" and then I realized I'd just be saying this about everything I'm talking about today.

So I figured I'd spare you the repetition...

AND YET IT'S TRUE!

The souvenir method is a gorgeous little way to keep your mind and heart centered in your story. Plus it's fun.

.... Annnnd it gives you a rush.

Okay. Here's what you do: 

First, get your mindset. 

This is super important to remember: You're going to be visiting your draft-in-process as if it's a place. As if you're an explorer. You're going to be looking for souvenirs: things to take out of context and bring to a new place.

In other words: You are not about to spiral into a critique-festival. You're not going to indulge in beating yourself up. You will not, even for a moment, whisper to yourself that your draft is "crap." Okay? 

This isn't about judging what's there. Not at all. This can be done with the messiest, crappiest drafts, I promise you. (Because I definitely have.)

Pick up your draft. You can start from any place. From the beginning if you like, or any chapter at all.

And read. Read slowly. Let yourself explore. 

Read like you're looking at something new. Switch off your editing brain, and just experience the story.

While you're doing that, keep your eyes open for any line, any sentence, any phrase, that seems to especially capture the feel of a particular moment of your story. 

Such as:

  • a passage that pinpoints a vital aspect of the setting
  • a line of dialogue that shows off your protagonist's snarkiness
  • an exchange or moment between two characters that hints at the truth of their relationship
  • a key moment in the rise of the conflict
  • any moment that sums up a character's personality 

Don't think perfection here. Think "candid snapshot."

You're looking for moments that get the feel of your story, even more than the accuracy. 

And—even more importantly—you're looking for bits and phrases and scraps that mean something to you. 

You're looking for the sentences that register in your writerly heart. The little "aha!" feeling when a phrase resonates especially. 

Another reader might look at what you've chosen and see a bunch of scraps of sentences, bits of paragraphs.

But when you read it through, you hopefully hear your protagonist's voice, or sense a moment between the two love interests, or feel the prickle of anxiety before a major plot point.

Go for resonance and atmosphere more than just "yes, this sums up the passage well."

Does that make sense?

Personally, I copy and paste what I've chosen into its own document. I play around with the formatting: I put little separators between each passage.

Sometimes I'll have three sentences from a section, and other times I'll just have lifted one little phrase. If one of the clips needs a brief note to remind me of context, I throw that in as well.

When I'm done, I have about a page or so of moments from my story that set my mind and heart ringing. Moments that, when I read them together, as a whole, re-immerse me into my story. 

Which is oh-so helpful for those times when I've been away from the work, and am trying to find my way back in. 

2) Create a Gallery of Nouns.

This is one that I've used recently. It's fun and seemingly simplistic... but it's been part of my post-summer re-entry to my novel, and has helped so much!

Here's what I did: While rereading my draft so far, I paused every few pages, and doodled one of the nouns that had been mentioned in the story. 

That's it.

So, as I read, I made little silly sketches of things like: the cat a character dreamed about, the spider my main character chased from her room, the row of herbs on her mom's windowsill. 

I gave each little drawing a label: "Olivia's splendid lemon cake," "a gorgeous straw hat for the beach," "the mailbox with one postcard inside." 

And then I went through and colored everything in.

I didn't care that the drawings didn't look perfect—they were meant to just be light-hearted, quick, and fun. And when I sat back, I had a kind of visual catalogue of my story so far.

Images that stood in for character moments, points of tension, or just part of the opening setting that my characters will miss later in the story, when they're far away.

What's valuable about this technique is how playful and simple it can be. But it slyly involves our ability to visualize our own story, and to translate it into another art form: a doodle, a sketch, a selection of colors.

And there's something pretty magical about being able to see bits of your story laid out on a page. 

3) Let Music Be the Food of Story.

If you've been a long-time reader, you've heard me mention this a time or three. But that's because it's my all-time favorite!!

And I'm especially smitten with it because this simple tool, more than anything else, saved my connection to my story over a long, difficult summer.

Because of some tough circumstances, I had to let weeks go by without drafting, yet I stayed open and connected to my novel idea. How?

With a playlist of music.

I've slowly built a playlist of songs that remind me of key moments in my trilogy. These aren't soundtracks, by the way. The playlist isn't focused on instrumental songs.

It's a compilation of pieces that somehow link me to a character as a whole, to a character's backstory, to a moment of the plot, to a key relationship, to a story transition... the possibilities are, of course, endless!

The lyrics don't have to be 100% applicable to my story moment. If a handful of key lines resonate, that's good enough for me.

It turns out that it's the atmosphere and the mood of the song that's absolutely pivotal.

It's hard to just talk about music, so here are three examples from my playlist: 

Example 1: Scarlett Johansson singing "Before My Time."

Yes, it's from a movie about ice. But on my playlist, it's linked to the moment we meet an old resistance leader. When she comes on stage for the first time, she's tired of hoping, and tired of trying for change. 

Some of the lyrics are spot-on for her character, but I especially love the weariness in ScarJo's voice and the lament of the violin. I can practically feel my character when I hear this. SO perfect.

Example 2: Lana Del Rey's wonderfully depressing "Once Upon a Dream."

It's a more chilling version of a familiar song from kidhood... which is why it's spot on for my playlist. In my mind, this song references a fairly evil character who creeps around within, yup, dreams. And he's just focused his attention on my protagonist.

He's tricked her once before into believing he could be helpful, so the lyrics in the song even hint a smidge at the character's backstory and their history together.

There's also a kind of fatal inevitability in the song that I love... It helps me remember how trapped my protagonist feels in this moment, and how high the stakes are for her. Oooh. So good. 

Example 3: Of Monsters and Men's live version of "King and Lionheart."

It's more simple and haunting than their original version, and it's one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. *high five*

It's also totally perfect for late in the trilogy, when my protagonist has been through a lot. She and her ragged friends are working alongside a king, and they're all gearing up for a climax that's sure to be very, very messy.

But the feel of this song and a fair amount of the lyrics are just exactly right. And honestly? I still get chills listening to this song, thinking of my main character. 

Whew! So. Those are some that have worked for me. 

The main thing to remember is that you're looking more for atmosphere and mood than for lyrics. A few spot-on lyrics are excellent, of course, but it's the feel of the song that seals it. 

So, see what you think. Basically, you'll know it when you hear it.

When it hits just right, I feel this incredible expansive rush, where I can see my characters in my mind, and—more importantly—feel what they are feeling, and hear what they are thinking.

I sense their weariness, or their uncertainty and fear, or their dogged hope. 

I can't say this enough: building a playlist is RIDICULOUSLY FUN.

It feels like procrastinating, but let me say it again: nothing saved my work this summer more than this. You can totally justify the time, in other words. ;)

Once you have a playlist—even if it's just a handful of songs—you have gold.

Play it in the car, listen to it while you cook, dance to it, take walks with it. And when you hear the songs, send your heart and your mind right into the center of your story.

You don't have to do any hard-core plotting (although I've definitely discovered plot this way). You don't have to jot down notes, or expand characterization (although, again, that has happened along the way for me).

You don't have to be "productive" with this tool at all. The biggest and best gift that it gives is a connection to the emotional and mental climate of your work.

It keeps it real and breathing and lively in your mind. 

And when that's true, allllllll good things can follow. 

4) Give It the Big Screen Treatment.

If the above strategies have been at all up your alley, don't stop there! This next idea can feel a little more tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it is pure fun and super helpful.

It also might keep you from sleeping, if you choose to do this right before bed. (So. Many. Times. I get all story-giddy and lie awake for hours. You've been warned.)

So: I love to dream up trailers for my book. As if it were a huge summer blockbuster.

I do this all in my head: I slowly fade in to some kind of panoramic story-view. Introduce characters in a moment, a glance, a funny line. 

And then I try to zoom in on the most tantalizing moments. The funniest lines, the jaw-dropping cliff-hangers, the moments of loss. You know. The way a good trailer does.

I cut from one moment to the next to the next in my mind. I imagine stirring epic music, or heart-stopping silence. Even a little slo mo, when it feels right.

... Basically I just have a blast. That's it in a nutshell.

And each time I do this, the resulting "trailer" looks different. 

What's glorious about this is how it, again, forces you to get visual about your story.

But also, it helps you focus on what movie trailers do best: excitement, intrigue, resonance. It helps you connect with the emotional points of your story. 

When I'm mired in too much thinking about structure and plot, and when my work starts to feel tedious, I retreat to this strategy. I pull up IMDb and watch a bunch of movie trailers.

And then, comfortable with the whole movie-trailer genre again, I close my eyes and dream up my own.

Seriously, my friends, when you start to get the hang of it, this can inspire enthusiasm like nothing else.

5) Believe In Where It Could Go.

Okay. This final enthusiasm-builder might sound more than a little goofy. BUT I've read this advice from several other writers (James Scott Bell and Heather Sellers for a start), and so I had to give it a try.

... And when I did, I couldn't stop smiling. 

Here it is: Make up endorsements for your work-in-progress, from authors you admire.

Yes really!

(IMMEDIATE DISCLAIMER: Don't, for the love of pete, publish them or pretend that they are real or everyone gets into trouble. Okay. Just had to say that. Common sense. Right. Okay.) 

Anyway: Write that kind of endorsement that would just thrill you. What you'd dream of them saying.

Write endorsements that emphasize those key parts of the story that they most loved. Everything that you're aspiring to in your work.

Type the endorsements onto a mock title page, and print it off. Hang it in your work area, or put it somewhere else where you can see it. 

Read them often. Smile.

... This isn't about getting our hopes up, or setting our hearts on something perhaps won't happen. Dream endorsements are a long shot, sure. 

But the strength of this tool is a lot like the strength in affirmations. When we state the direction we're heading in, it helps us change course. Saying out loud what we want can keep us on track.

Plus, if these "endorsements" make you smile... then why not? 

The main point is: they are a fun way to help you remember your goal. Your vision for the story.

The fact that, all this work, all these words, all these hours, are going into a craft you're making to give other people an experience.

Maybe you're trying to make them laugh. Or make 'em cry. (In a good way.)

Maybe you want to whisk them off to strange lands for strange adventures. Or maybe you're trying to open their eyes to what's in their backyard.

You want them to think. You want them to feel

Write little blurbs for yourself that point you in that direction: that help you remember you're inventing an experience. It's about a heart, about emotions.

This little endorsement-writing trick can seem so small, so silly.

But it can lift us above the daily grind, just when we need it most, and set our focus back on the big picture.


And there you have it! Five ways to strengthen your enthusiasm and stay playful with your work-in-progress.

All five of these have been absolutely key at different points in my writing life. They have cheered me, excited me, steadied me, and brought my stories back from near-death.

Pretty dang exciting, frankly. 

Which ones have you tried before? What will you try next?

Do you have any favorite ways to stoke writerly enthusiasm? Pass 'em along!! We all need plenty of good tools for this!

Explode Your Creativity (and Just Have a Lot More Fun!) by Strengthening This One Dynamic Skill

An essential skill that's usually in desperate need of strengthening, if we want to create better stories ... and a more satisfying writing life. | lucyflint.com

Have you ever read a book that felt like the author was standing waaaaay too far away from you?

There's this weird kind of distance—like they're standing outside of their own book. That incredibly tedious, frustrating sensation that the writer is writing about their story. 

Know what I mean?

Their scenes feel like static, lifeless things that the writer is pointing to and explaining to me.

... Instead of whisking me up and sticking me right in the middle of the story itself. 

Confession One: With this kind of book, I don't last long as a reader.

Confession Two: And I can totally become this kind of writer, when I'm not careful.

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

Spoiler alert: I'm not about to dive into the differences of "showing versus telling." And I'm not going to unpack the more descriptive styles of writing as opposed to the more stark.

Nope. What's on my mind is the big, overarching, world-shaping superpower that we all have access to as writers. 

Imagination.

Today we're gonna dive into how we can strengthen that oh-so-vital aspect of our craft.

But before we start, WHY does it feel so silly to talk about imagination? Like it is so very uncool and unadult.

After kicking off this series on strength-building, I feel like I've just waltzed into a weightlifting class and announced, "Today, we fingerpaint!"

And yet. Training our imaginations has a lot more to do with athletic prowess than anything goofy or simplistic. (Not to knock fingerpainting. Fingerpainting is awesome.)

After all, my friends, we're creating people and conflicts and settings and whole worlds in our minds

That's one heck of a barbell to hoist off the ground.

Okay? So let's not belittle ourselves by sneering at the term "imagination."

It's just the name of the muscle we happen to use for this incredibly powerful work we do.

How We Get Toned, Build Muscle, and Increase Imaginative Flexibility

As I come back to my novel after a turbulent summer, I'm realizing how much time I've spent away from the inner workings of my story. I've used my creativity to solve daily problems ... instead of using it to dive into my characters' world.

So my imagination has lost a whole lot of muscle mass. It's gotten scrawny. It skips the stairs and heads for the elevator. And its joints are all stiff and inflexible. 

So when I ask it to work hard on my novel, it kinda gasps and shakes and then looks around for a bag of chips.

No bueno.

I want my novel to thrive this autumn. Right? And you want yours to be amazing too, I'm sure. 

Which means it's time to build some serious strength in imagination!

So ...

So, how do we do that?

Well, a lot goes into this, for sure. We could talk about nurturing our curiosity, pouring ourselves into wonder, and taking ourselves exploring on artist dates, all of which are essential components to a full imagination-health routine. 

But I think that there's one skill that's more vital than all the rest.

Something that can totally dry up when we forget how important it is. When we start "coasting," and skimp on our attention to it.

But when we practice it over and over, ohhhh, look out.

Our writing gets richer, stronger, and generally more awesome.

I'm talking about the simple yet incredibly challenging practice of fully visualizing what we are about to write.

This is the practice of taking a scene that exists as an idea in your head, and then experiencing it. As if you were there, in the scene. 

Being present inside it, as completely and totally as possible.

THAT.

Yeah. Like I said: it's simple. Yet super challenging. 

James Scott Bell sums up this kind of imagination practice so well in his book Plot & Structure: "Be an actor." He says: 

I'll ... try to live the emotions. I'll act out the parts I've created. Almost always what I feel "in character" will make me add to or change the scene. ...
     Vividly imagine the scene, step by step, in your mind. Let it play like a movie. But instead of watching the movie from a seat in the theater, be in the scene.

Be. In. The. Scene.

So—we've probably all done this to some degree. There are scenes and moments in our stories that tend to just drop into our imaginations, right? And other pivotal scenes can be easy for us to tumble into and experience vividly.

But I know that, for myself, I tend to not make this immersive imagining a key part of my writing routine.

Instead, I get by on low-grade visualizing. Barely seeing it in my head, I instead think my way through: I guess the character could say this, and then he'd reply with this, and so she'd counter with this

But too much of that, and writing just feels like manipulating ideas of people, notions of conflict, rough sketches of setting.

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

Instead of the kind of story that makes its readers stay up waaaaay too late at night finishing it.

The kind of story that haunts readers and inspires their dreams.

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

It keeps us from standing outside a scene and writing about the action. Instead, it plunges us inside it, so that we create the scene. First in our heads, and then on paper.

And our readers? Better be prepared to be carried away.

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

This is a practice, so be super patient. Especially if you're as rusty at it as I am!

Be incredibly kind to yourself, refuse to expect perfection, and just keep coming back to it.

As you do, here are five things to remember that might make all the difference for you.

1. Be willing to move slowly.

It's when I'm trying to hurry through my work that all pretense of richly imagining the scene just goes straight out the window. 

I'll have the merest glimmer of the scene in my head as I pound it out on a keyboard.

Now, I'm not at all against writing fast: I think it's the coolest thing ever, and I want to get better at it. (Because THIS!)

But as we get ready to write quickly, our preparation time is a key moment for visualizing. 

That's when we can slow down, and take the time to fully sink into whatever it is we're about to write. 

If you're tempted to rush, like I can be, it's good to take a deep breath and remember what it feels like to be totally blown away as a reader.

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

It's terribly easy for me to fall into a rut with what I imagine for my scenes. If I could get away with it, I'd have faceless, undetailed characters and nearly blank settings. I'm stronger on voice quality and emotional beats and overall action. 

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

Ack! I have to remind myself to not leave them out.

So, as you plunge your imagination into the scene, feel into all these lifelike details: 

  • The sensations of the air, the temperature, dampness or dryness...
  • The quality of the space—claustrophobic, exposed, oppressive, frivolous, light...
  • All the sounds: of gadgets, people, movement, weather, animals, distant traffic, or hollow stillness...
  • Scent. It's so easy to forget! The smells of the people, the rooms, the outdoor spaces, fabrics, foods, mustiness...
  • And then of course, the feel of the emotions: tension, excitement, nerves, hope, shame, uncertainty, expectation...

We could probably come up with a list five times as long as this. (Which would be awesome, but really overwhelming too, haha!) 

The point is: try to be as present in your visualization of the scene as you would be in real life.

Notice what you notice. Feel what you feel. And figure out alllll the little details that affect you.

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

It can help to remember: this might be really uncomfortable.

Sometimes, when I'm visualizing a scene, something in my head says, "Hold up. This is a really strange thing to be doing. NOT very normal. Not very adult. So let's not." 

Right? 

It's important to remember that, especially when we're new to this kind of imagination training, it might seem really weird, or childish, or wild, or uncertain. 

But it's still worth it.

Basically? Keep on going, even when it feels strange.

Even if something in you wants to say, "Ack, that's enough, right? We have a general idea of this scene. Let's just hurry up and write it already." 

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

Strength happens every time we don't quit when we want to quit.

Just like when we're jogging a longer route than usual, or wobbling in a yoga balancing pose, or lifting a weight that's right at our limit—we will want to quit.

We cry, "Okay, enough, I'm done!"

But if you push through the discomfort, if you hold on, then you get better, stronger, more flexible, more stable. 

You're inventing worlds in your mind, my friend. It takes strength and skill. Keep going. It's worth it.

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

When it gets tough or challenging, it's so easy to think, "I need back-up!"

So we drop out of our intense imagining, and go find: a good Google image spread, or a Wikipedia page, or maybe check out that one Instagram account, or go make coffee.

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

But the longer we can focus allllllll our attention on this, the more rich and deep and well-constructed it will be.

So if you need more details in your scene, just make them up. Even if they might not be accurate or will need updating later.

If you're getting bored and this visualizing feels tedious, add something that puts you back on your edge. Raymond Chandler would send in a man with a gun. Personally, I like to throw in something weird, off kilter, askew.

What would most re-engage your attention? Send it in there.

5. Whatever else you do, don't hold back the most essential part of the scene. 

Deeply imagining a scene is a choice. And a skill. I've felt it get easier with practice... and then much harder when I'm out of practice.

So when we engage with this, we're increasing our skill, for sure. 

But we're also re-choosing and re-committing to our own story. 

We're deciding to live in it. Inhabit it. Participate inside it.

When I do this, I'm pushing myself to experience my story not just as a reader, but essentially as a character. 

I become someone who can peer into the absolute central workings of it. I get to witness all the exquisite moments that won't make it onto the "main stage" of the finished page. I spend my working hours wandering other realities.

And that is when I feel like the writing life is the most incredible, satisfying, and adventurous life that there can be.

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

What we have to remember is that this isn't just an exercise.

It isn't just a strength-building, creativity-enhancing strategy.

It's a way of life. A way of working.

And it's the most literally mind-bending part of our craft.

It gifts us with the ability to write our stories from inside of them. Instead of from a distance, like we're merely pulling puppet strings.

If we’re not imagining, we’re settling for less. Less from our stories, less for our readers, but also less of an experience as writers.

When I think of fully imagining a scene, I'm reminded of this quote by—guess who!—Julia Cameron, in her book Walking in This World. (She's referring to the start of a larger project, but I think it applies equally well to this idea of visualizing our stories.) 

She writes: 

Horseback riders who jump the Grand Prix fences of terrifying heights talk of "throwing their heart" over the fence so their horse jumps after it. We must do the same.

That image just grabs me. Can't that be how we pursue this?

Let's not make visualizing just one more static exercise for mere technical improvement. 

Let's turn it into an opportunity to throw our hearts more fully into our scenes.

And let the action and the details and the writing itself jump after it—to great heights.

The One Cure for Your Biggest Idea Droughts

This is the strategy that will bail you out, again, and again, and again. | lucyflint.com

If you do everything you can, and you're still stubbornly stuck without a good idea, the best thing to do is stop.

Really.

And go do something else.

Go play.

Or go pamper: Take ridiculously good care of yourself. 

Go move. Take a walk, a run, a hike. Dance.

However you do it, it's time to give your project (and yourself) some space.

Take a micro break. Both James Scott Bell and Julia Cameron talk about writing down a question you have at night, and then getting up and writing about it first thing in the morning. 

Wonderful things can happen in your brain overnight. And in the morning, you write 'em all down!

Mmmm. I love that kind of near-effortless idea making!

Or, take a macro break. Like this:

Once, at the end of summer, I quit writing. I was done.

Out of ideas for workable novels, out of ideas for the drafts that were waiting for me, out of ideas for how to fix anything, including myself. 

So for three months, I just read novels. (And felt a bit depressed, but we can skip that part.)

I read and read and read, and I didn't even try to think about new ideas.

And then one October night, I got an idea literally out of a clear black sky.

I was staring at the stars when the crux of a novel dropped right into my head. It fueled a beautiful, dreamy project (which I plan to come back to one day!).

Better than the new project was that feeling: of being unstuck.

Of being hopeful again. With another trail of ideas showing that the writing life was still mine.

So sometimes? Sometimes you really do just need a break.

Give yourself some grace. Do something good for yourself.

And that idea you've been desperate for? Might show up when you least expect it.

You've Already Done Your Hardest Research (So Let's Turn It Into Idea Gold!)

You've done so much living and learning that your heart knows a TON. (With clear, vivid imagery attached, of course!) Let's get it all down, so it can fuel your most amazing ideas! (Idea Camp going strong y'all!) | lucyflint.com

"Write what you know" is probably one of the most clichéd sayings in writerdom.

I've heard a few different takes on it, as well as a thorough defense of its opposite: Write what you don't know. (Intriguing, right?)

Like any cliché, it can get a little irritating. (Yes, I've definitely rolled my eyes at it.)

But. When we really lean into "write what you know," it can be one of the most powerful and freeing guides to our writing.

Also? It can generate a bunch of quality ideas.

Which is why it totally belongs in Idea Camp.

Here is the truest true thing about my best work: it all is closely tied to what I know very well. 

Especially what I know well emotionally. The stuff that I've seen to be true in my life. What I know about people, about power, about place, about change.

About family. About loneliness. About myself.

THAT is the kind of what you know that drives really good ideas, and really compelling stories.

Writing what we don't know is magnificent when it comes to new settings, fantastical beings, and villainy. 

But as writers (and observers! and artists!), part of our job description is to truthfully share the things that we know the best.

Meaning: What our hearts know.

When I encounter that kind of knowing in a novel, it rings in my head and heart long after I finish reading. You know the feeling? 

When another writer has taken the time to show exactly what it looks like: to be here, to be alive. To feel small, to be alone, to try hard. To get bruised and then to get up again. To fight for what matters. 

THOSE are the stories we need. And that's what it means (to me, at least) to write what you know.

Which means some of the best stuff that you will write comes straight out of your own past. 

The strongest, brightest, strangest, sharpest memories.

The places and people and relationships and circumstances that you knew most intimately. 

That is what will drive your material. And that is going to lead to your best, clearest writing.

Mmmmmmm!! I'm excited.

Let's hear from two helpful guides before we dive in.

First, Heather Sellers makes a fantastic point in Chapter After Chapter, when she talks about the difference between ideas and images:

When most writers try to write down their ideas for stories, they usually only capture a tiny bit of the work from a faraway, not creative place in their minds. ...
   Do not save up ideas. Do not write about the work from a distance. Instead of writing notes about an idea like
story about babysitter, write: Dana said, "You didn't pay me last time, either, Heather." And she smacked that gum which seemed to be a weird striped gum, green and purple, both. 
   Write down what you hear. Write down what you see. ...
   Transition out of ideas and into
images. You will be amazed at the results you get when you start doing this. 

Let me just say: she is totally right about that.

It is so tempting to leave our ideas in those distant terms. "Write about my second grade teacher. Write about recess in sixth grade. Write about my friend-who-wasn't-a-friend in high school." 

But for Idea Camp, we're aiming at appealing, useable concepts with velocity. 

Velocity shows up only when we're working in images. In sounds, smells, textures. In the emotions, in exactly how they feel. 

So, for this list we're about to make, paint your images as richly as you can. 

What's going onto the list? Memories. 

James Scott Bell talks about how this kind of memory list can work. This is from Plot & Structure (awesome book, by the way!): 

Early in his career, Ray Bradbury made a list of nouns that flew out of his subconscious. These became fodder for his stories. 
   Start your own list. Let your mind comb through the mental pictures of your own past. ...
   Each of these is a germ of a possible story or novel. They resonate from my past. I can take one of these items and brainstorm a whole host of possibilities that come straight from the heart.

(How much do I love the idea of Ray Bradbury's list of nouns?? Ahhhh. So much.) 

I love Bell's point: that these memories have a natural resonance.

Also, the things that our hearts have learned are tied to real, factual moments: Nouns. Verbs. Images. 

The concrete stuff that we'll communicate in our writing.

So today, we're going to start our Memory List. You can start with a bunch of nouns, if you like Bradbury's approach, and see what comes up. 

Or—because I like a good question to chew on—check out my list of prompts below.

Think through your past with each question. And if that feels totally overwhelming (it does for me!), try scanning  your history in seven-year chunks. Age 0-7. Then 8-14. 15-21. And so on. 

Try to answer each question with as much imagery as you can. Let your heart talk.

... But before we make our lists, one more quick thing. This is meant to be a list of things that you feel willing to write about. This isn't about the stories and memories that we're not actually ready to write about.

So if there are dark, sad, terrible truths in your past that you don't feel ready to share, then they don't belong on this list. Okay? Keep processing, keep healing. You don't have to write about those yet.

This list is truly just for the things that you're ready to bring out in stories. (Also, if this is you, then I wish I could give you a big hug. Truly.)

Ready? Grab your pen and paper, grab a fresh document on your computer, and let's dive in!

For each span of years, think about what stands out the most in your memory. Especially: 

  • What places meant a lot to you? Where did you live? Where did you visit? Where else did you go: school, church, camp, friends' houses, family, vacations... Describe them with as much imagery as you can remember. The sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  • What were you most afraid of during these years? (Again, press for the images, not just the ideas...)
  • What embarrassments do you remember?
  • What most delighted you? 
  • What happened on the "happiest day of your life" in this time period? What made it a great day? What were the highlights? Capture the sensory details of that kind of day.
  • What achievements did you have? What are you still proud of? 
  • How did you like to spend your time? What hobbies, what activities? 
  • Which people and which relationships were the most important to you (in good ways or bad ways)? Who was helpful? Who, um, wasn't? What specific memories do you have about these people? 
  • If you could go back and do something differently, what would it be, and why? What would happen next?
  • What haunts you from this time? And what do you still feel happy about? 
  • What else do you remember? What else won't leave you alone? Nothing is too small of a detail.

What I love about this list is that we've already done the emotional research.

This is the stuff we know! We've already done the hard work of learning it and living it. It's time to turn those experiences into vivid scenes, characters that resonate, high moments in our novels.

What I love about using our memories for ideas is how versatile they are.

They can be the tiniest ideas that we sprinkle into our stories—the little things we add to make the scene feel more real, vivid, and lived in. 

Or they can be the whole point of the novel itself. The theme. The main characters. The villain. The setting. The conflict.

That's why no memory is too big, too small, too localized, or too weird. (I love the too weird ones!!)

After you've taken your first run at this list, give yourself a bit of a break—a few hours, a few days—and then read it through and add more to it. 

Hopefully you'll see situations, characters, circumstances, details, moments, and settings that are just begging to be used.

Maybe you'll write them in clear, memoir-esque detail.

Or you'll use your history, but totally transformed, turned inside out and backwards. Reinvented. Fantastical. The funhouse-mirror version of your past. 

This is ridiculously fun to do, by the way.

When I think of ways to switch up my past and use it in a story, I get the most incredible glee. It's still one of the best parts of being a writer, being able to use (redeem, vindicate) your past.

Okay. Want to get even more crazy? YES YOU DO and so do I.

Get out your two lists from the last post: your Major Interests List and your Curiosity List

Let's have some fun. Choose an item from two of the lists, and mash 'em up in your mind. Or pick an item from all three! 

Do a little mix-and-match action, and just see what starts to come up. Try to imagine it as fully as possible: full images, full senses. 

Jot down notes, and chase anything that quickens your heart. 

Like: how much do I love the mash-up of my stern, much-wrinkled second grade teacher, who was always writing my name up on the board for talking (memory list), plus the circus (curiosity list)?

Stir in a bit of how cooking and sharing meals bring us together (major interests list), and suddenly I have some AMAZING images, unusual characters, and hilarious conflicts brewing in my mind!

This is the fun part! Let yourself loose, and see what connections you can make between the three lists.

Maybe there's your next novel in there. Or a whole series.

Oooooh.

Happy idea finding!


Want to do a little more digging into how you're already an original, full of ideas? (Because you totally are!) Check out these two posts: they're right up your alley! How (and Why) to Put Your Heart on a Platter and Stop Dodging Your Best Work (Celebrate Where You've Been)

If Writing Is a Battle, Here's the Book You Need to Win the Fight

If you ever feel like you're battling it out alone at your writing desk, then this is the book recommendation you needed to hear. Get a coach, cheerleader, and master strategist in your corner. | lucyflint.com

When you're doing something over the long haul—and I mean the LONG long haul, like sticking with amazing writing resolutions during 2016, or something impressive like that—it helps to have someone really solid in your corner.

Preferably someone who has had a ton of experience doing the same thing, who doesn't waste your time with a lot of blather, but instead gets right to the point with exactly what you need:

Smart encouragement, a discussion of strategy, or a for-your-own-good butt-kicking.

Right? 

Well. The book The Art of War for Writers, by the mega-experienced James Scott Bell, has filled that exact role for me over the last few years. 

I love this book. And it's always exactly the thing I need! 

I'm a sucker for a good, extended metaphor. James Scott Bell draws on over 20 years of writing experience, and blends that with the classic by Sun Tzu: The Art of War.

(Sun Tzu's guide is not a writing book, by the way. It's about fighting. Just so we're clear.)

Why reference an ancient Chinese military expert, when we're trying to figure out a writing life?

Because every writer is in for a fight: against her own resistance, against the odds in this industry, against doubts and naysayers and dozens of other obstacles

So even though military strategy isn't a natural comparison for me, it makes for a solid and helpful framework.

The Art of War for Writers is divided into three sections: Reconnaissance (which is about "the mental game of writing"); Tactics (which is about improving your fiction craft); and Strategy (which is all about your publishing career over the long term).

(...If you have a nerdy streak like me, it might give you an extra thrill to think of your writing in terms like reconnaissance, tactics, and strategy. We're doing dangerous work at our desks!)

The entries are short. Most are two to four pages. Just long enough for Bell to explain his point, and for its pithiness to strike a chord in your writerly heart. 

It also happens to be the perfect length to read before diving into your day's writing, or maybe it's exactly the thoughtful note to end on, after your session. 

Orrrrr, maybe you'll just binge-read the whole thing on a weekend and feel like you've been to an incredible mini writer's conference. I'm not gonna stop you.

In the words of James Scott Bell:

You have it inside you to fight this fight.
Write, think about what you write,
then write some more.
Day by day. Year by year.
Do that, and you will jump ahead of 90 percent

of the folks out there who want to get published.

Right? I mean—right??

That's the kind of call to action you want, if you're going to see your writing resolutions through, if you're going to charge into the rest of 2016, and do it writing.

Grab this book for the best kind of coach, strategist, and cheerleader, all in one. 


And if you want a bit of that writing advice right this second: I really enjoyed these two interviews from Joanna Penn, talking with James Scott Bell on Writing, Self-Publishing, and the Business of Being a Pro Writer, and also on Writing Discipline and Mindset for Authors. Really great tips and wisdom in these!

(And I always love Joanna Penn. Add her podcast to your list, if you haven't already. She keeps me cheerful about the future of my writing career!) 

This Is How You and I Are Gonna Remake the World

We're gonna dive in and do this well; we're gonna fling ourselves into a fictitious universe and write our way out. Here's some courage for that crazy road. | lucyflint.com

It takes an incredible amount of focus, energy, and determination to fling your brain into a fictitious universe. 

I mean... think about it. We are creating a different reality and then trying to jump into it

That takes some work. Right?  A ton of focus, courage, boldness, willingness, and all the imagination power you can muster.

Also? It's Monday. 

So let's get a pep talk from a bunch of other creatives, other world-jumpers. 

Below are thirty of my favorite quotes for the writing journey. Quotes for this mysterious, shadowy, reality-jumping side of the writing life.

Think of it as a big shot of caffeine for all of us who are chasing our stories.

Woo hoo!


One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. -- Annie Dillard

Don't be so afraid of giving yourself away, either, for if you write, you must. And if you can't face that, better not write. -- Katherine Anne Porter

To write truly good stories, stories that will satisfy you as well as your readers, you must do something no writing teacher, no book, no guidelines, can help you with. You must take risks. Knowing your craft can help you tell a story. But only by taking risks can you make art. -- Marion Dane Bauer

Good writing comes from writers on the edge. -- Ralph Keyes

You have to write your own book. The one only you can write. No one else. This takes fearlessness, but the exciting good news is doing the book teaches you the fearlessness you need. -- Heather Sellers

We have to be braver. ... Quotes for the writing journey on lucyflint.com

You have it inside you to fight this fight. Write, think about what you write, then write some more. -- James Scott Bell

Always attempt the impossible to improve your work. -- Bette Davis, note to self

Sometimes the mind needs to come at things sideways. -- Jeff VanderMeer

Write. Write badly, write beautifully, write at night. Stay up way too late, ruin your skin, forget to shave, grow your hair long at your age, and write and write and write and write. Make a mess. Don't clean it up. Do it your way. ... This is your book. -- Heather Sellers

I believe that solitude, perhaps more than anything, breeds creativity, breeds originality. -- Elizabeth Berg

I am learning to see loneliness as a seed that, when planted deep enough, can grow into writing that goes back out into the world. -- Kathleen Norris

You find yourself writing your way out of loneliness, writing your own company. -- Barbara Abercrombie

The uncharted path is the only road to something new. -- Scott Belsky

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. -- Rudyard Kipling

I get ready every night. I pack for the trip. I load my dream mind, hoping I will wake in the morning inspired, clear, and refreshed. I read good books. I have my journal by my bed. Every night, I'm getting ready for my writing morning. I point myself that way.  -- Heather Sellers

The primary purpose of imagery is not to entertain but to awaken in the reader his or her own sense of wonder. -- Tom Robbins

How all good writing is built. ... Quotes for the mysterious, shadowy side of writing on lucyflint.com

I don't know anything when I start. The only thing I know is that I'm starting. -- Richard Bausch

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. -- E.L. Doctorow

Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase. -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Writers steer by wonder and desire. -- Heather Sellers

All writing is dreaming. -- Jorge Luis Borges

The impulse for much writing is homesickness. You are trying to get back home. -- Joan Didion

Embrace passion as a daily practice. -- Donald Maass

You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. -- Betsy Lerner

Be Careless, Reckless! Be a Lion! Be a Pirate! When You Write. -- Brenda Ueland

There is so much about the process of writing that is mysterious to me, but this one thing I've found to be true: writing begets writing. -- Dorianne Laux

Be the fearless, shadowy, wild writer that you are. ... Thirty quotes for the mysterious, shadowy side of writing on lucyflint.com

Yes! Yes! THAT!

... And here's the last one, which is a long, granddaddy of a quote, but here we go anyway because it's lovely:

    If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.
     You must write every single day of your life.
     ... I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime.
     I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.
     May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories. ...
     Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world. 
-- Ray Bradbury


There it is, my lovelies. The best kind of sustenance for this journey we're on. 

Your turn: Any favorite quotes that help you be a reality-jumper? a dweller in a fictitious time and place? 

Which of the above quotes will you be using to dive into your alternate reality this week? 

Happy dreaming, my friends! Happy writing, lionhearts.

Making It Easy to Write

While it will never be confused with a piece of cake, writing *can* be made easier. The trick is to keep your mind warmed up. Always. | lucyflint.com

Yeah, I know. The words easy and writing don't usually belong in the same sentence.

And maybe writing will never be truly easy, but I think that we can all agree that--on the best days--it can be easier rather than harder.

When my writing is going okay, I lean deeper and deeper into this practice of staying connected to the work. 

Because isn't disconnection half of what's hard about it?

If my characters are strangers, if I can't remember the knack of their voices, if I've lost the atmosphere of their world, and the thread and threat of the conflict has evaporated...

That's when writing feels impossible. That's when I start giving up.

But when the world of the novel stays alive in my mind, when all my mental machines for writing stay on and humming, when the engine is warm:

Those are the enchanted times when I get three new ideas during dinner, when I step out of the shower with a paragraph written in my head, when I hear a chance phrase from someone else and solve a major plot concern instantly.

We want to keep that engine warm! It's a massive game changer in this whole enterprise.

We have to never stop writing. 

No, I don't mean we're tied to our desk, and I don't mean we never have a day off. I mean that we never let the engine get truly cold

In Chapter after Chapter, Heather Sellers describes the practice of "positioning," a term she got from her writing friend Eric. 

She says that he decides exactly what he'll be working on the next day. He makes a list, staying businesslike and professional about it. He sets out the files he'll need, getting everything ready for the next morning.

"Purposeful book authors ... lay out their things, mentally and physically preparing for the next writing day. ... Everything is set up for the next day, like dominoes, and in the morning [Eric] just has to get his butt to the chair, flick his finger, and the process immediately has its own momentum."

Heather describes her own positioning process while writing a collection of short stories: every evening she would review her notes, touch the printed pages of her draft, and glance over her outline.

Nothing intense. Just a nightly visit to her writing studio.. But this kept the book alive in her mind, day after day after day, in spite of massive changes in her personal life.

James Scott Bell, in Plot & Structure, describes his habit of writing 350 words in the morning, practically first thing.

He says it's a good jump forward on his quota of words. But I think it also keeps that story alive, by immediately connecting writer to words at the start of the day.

I've found half a dozen ways to stay connected to my story, and to keep that writing engine warm:

  • When I'm in the thick of drafting, I always start the day's work by rereading what I wrote yesterday. (I'm not allowed to cringe too much.)
     
  • If I'm drafting by hand (and I usually am), I also type the previous day's work. Usually, I tweak it a bit as I go, and this light editing gets my brain all kinds of warmed up.
     
  • When I get up from my desk during the day (you know I have those dance parties!): I jot a few notes. Whatever I already know about what comes next: any details, any fragments. It's like a quick Polaroid of what I was writing toward. 
     
  • If I have to leave for a longer time--doctor's appointment, coffee date--I'll take a much more complete snapshot. I layer in more details, roughing in a view of the rest of the scene. Even if a whirlwind of distractions follows, that next bit of writing is safe. And it doesn't take much for me to get back into the groove.
     
  • At the end of the work day, just like Heather Sellers and her friend Eric, I make a plan. I'll look at my notes, my outlines. Maybe tidy up the clutter. Set out all the working pieces in places of honor. 
     
  • ... And when I'm really, really working hot, when the days feel like I'm living more in the book than in the "real world," more in ink and paper than in oxygen and carbon, I do one more thing: I sleep next to the manuscript. It's right there next to me in bed. Yes. I do realize that this is TOTALLY weird. But there's something about the notebook sitting there, with all those words. It feels like the book is truly alive, like my brain is still connected. The last thing I want to do is break that spell. So instead, I try to put a huge sign on my subconscious, saying: I'm Still Here. (It's a little less weird if you think of a newborn baby sleeping in the same room as its parents. See? That's normal, right? And you never know when the manuscript might wake up in the middle of the night and need you to rock it back to sleep...)

If you've ever had a block. If you've ever had a rough day. If you've ever totally lost the thread of what you're working on because life showed up. If you've ever been in a groove and then so unexpectedly fell right out of it. 

If that's ever happened to you (and that's all of us, right?), then you owe it to yourself to lean in. To make the most of the good times. 

Learn how to stay connected to your work. Refuse to take the good days for granted. Don't start skipping out. Don't trust the sunshine to stay forever.

Keep the engine warm; keep moving forward.

Make it easy (or at least easier) to write.

Do you have strategies for staying connected to your book? I'd love to pick up some new tricks... Do share!