How to Build a Moat Around Your Writing Life

When normal life threatens to overwhelm your book project, learn how to build yourself a moat. |

Novels-in-progress are incredibly fragile things. Can we agree on that? 

When you're walking around with a novel in your brain, you're carrying this precious ethereal bundle of impressions and insights and ideas--scraps of dialogue, exquisite gestures, emotional through-lines, motivations, pacing--

And the rest of your life clamors around with air horns and parade bands.


Here's what we have to do, if we really want to write these novels. If we really want to give birth to the ideas in our brains.

We have to build a moat around our writing lives.

Twyla Tharp calls this The Bubble. Heather Sellers calls it Surround Sound. And I'm thinking in terms of moats full of alligators and very dangerous-looking algae.

But whatever metaphor you want, it looks like this:

When you're inside it, you can hear your novel's voice. You can hear it breathe. You're insulated from all the other things that you have to pay attention to or care about in a day. And for now, it's just you, and the living book.

It's a magical place. You feel like you can stop fighting. It's a place of nearly-pure focus.

Listen to how Twyla Tharp talks about it:

"You are coming close to an ideal creative state, one where creativity becomes a self-perpetuating habit. You are linking your art. Everything in your life feeds into your work, and the work feeds into more work." -- The Creative Habit

How seriously beautiful is that? 

Here's how Heather Sellers describes it:

"Think of writing a book as like buying one of those speaker systems that envelop you in sound. No matter where you are, you are surrounded. Similarly, you must allow the book you're writing to wrap itself around you and permeate every single part of your life. Your book should always be running in the background of your mind, even when you aren't literally putting words on paper in your studio." -- Chapter After Chapter

But how do we create that kind of environment? How do we get there?

I found my way into a well-moated writing life because I was having trouble breathing. 

I don't mean that metaphorically. I mean I had pneumonia. So for a couple of months, I was stretched out on a recliner, with zero physical energy and crud in my lungs.

I canceled my commitments, scrapped my plans. Realized that I would be pretty much useless for anything or to anyone.

And I was all set for some major self-pity wallowing... when it hit me that I had just found the ideal writing life.

Right? I couldn't go anywhere or do anything except hold down that recliner, nap, and scribble. 

So that's what I did. 

For the actual writing, I got my sick little fingers on a bunch of index cards. (I LOVE writing on index cards. They're so portable, so approachable. Not nearly as daunting as a spiral notebook.)

I balanced them on the arm rests of the recliner, and I wrote a daily quota of eleven index cards, front and back. I could fill a card; take a nap. Write another one; take another nap.

In the evenings, when the day's cards were full, I read books about writing. I took notes, talking back to the books. I thought of it as my own, private writer's retreat.

All the small parts of my day seemed to surround the book, and shelter the process of working. 

I wrote an incredibly solid first draft of that novel. And in spite of all the gasping, it's one of my favorite-ever drafting experiences.

Hopefully you don't have to wait for a case of walking pneumonia to create a writing bubble, a writing moat.

All you need to do is find a way to stay more in the work than out of it. 

How can we do this in miniature?

Well, it doesn't have to be big and dramatic: no lung x-rays required.

Instead it might be a string of little habits, little triggers, little writing rituals, that create a benevolent moat--protecting your one and only writing life.

- Surround yourself with things that make you think of your book. Words, sure, but also pictures photographs of characters or related imagery. Little trinkets and touchstones. Quotes from your characters. 

- Start writing when you get up, just a few sentences. Write before you fall asleep, a paragraph or two. James Scott Bell recommends writing down a question, whatever it is you're stumped on, before you fall asleep, and see if your brain has come up with an answer for you when you get up.

- Turn your lunch break into a writing bubble by reading bit of writing advice, writing a poem or a mini-essay, and then reading a bit of fiction.

- Stay connected to the writing world by listening to essays and podcasts about writing as you clean, as you cook, as you go for a jog.

- Have a collector's mind, everywhere you go. Look at the weather, at the scene outside your window, at the faces you pass by. Consider the sound of voices, the feel of words spoken around you, the incidental noise. Measure and taste everything that comes your way. Think in terms of what will I use, what goes into the book? 

- Or, you could go big and dramatic. You could block off a four-day weekend, be unaccessible to everyone, and just bury yourself in your work. Warm up with writing exercises, take long walks with your notebook, spend your afternoons diving deeper into your work.

... You could even diagnose yourself with a case of writer's pneumonia. It's a very serious sickness, and the only way to heal--and breathe freely again!--is this: To write your book. 

(I'm just imagining all of us turning down commitments like this: "No, I'm so sorry, it's a very worthy cause and all, but I have this book in my brain, and it's spreading to my lungs, and so I can't breathe. Maybe in a few months??" ... Actually, I'm pretty sure this is a legitimate disease. It sounds familiar, doesn't it??)

Whether you make a big dramatic moat around your days, or whether you find small bubbles of time that protect your book, it comes down to this:

Aiming ourselves at stories. Pointing our energy and our time toward words, toward writing, toward creativity, rather than away. 

Ooooh. Just think what would happen if we did that. Just think what we could write!

Use Your Obscurity to Become Staggeringly Good

How do you spend the days when no one is really watching you? |

If you're already on your way to being a household name, you can skip this post. But for the rest of us, I have a question:

How do you feel about being unknown? 

When I dove into writing full time, I had one goal: Proving myself.

For me, that meant being published by a well-known publisher. I needed to write a novel in a year flat, and then get picked up by an agent, and then a publisher. And I needed it yesterday.

I wanted three novels published before I turned thirty.

(Spoiler alert: I'm thirty now. No novels published. Don't tell my former self, because she would flip.)

I had an allergic reaction to the thought of waiting. Massive anxiety struck whenever I heard that it could take three years, or seven, or ten. I don't have ten years! I thought. I need to be making a career now!

I spent way too many days hating the fact that: it takes time to get good. It takes time to write something worthwhile. And it takes time to get published.

I thought that all that time was my career's biggest enemy. And now?

Well, now it feels more like a secret weapon.

Because I finally realized that I can take full advantage of this season of obscurity.

I'm using it to get better.

Like... a lot. A lot better.

I'm using these quiet, off-stage years to work on building a better story and building a better character.

BUILDING A BETTER STORY. Ever notice how the first solutions you use in writing--the first words, the first images--tend to be clichés? Well, this was true of my entire first novel. 

The whole thing was one whopping cliché.

I didn't even notice as I was writing it (so quickly, so desperately). I regurgitated years of reading in one big unreadable book. 

I actually fell asleep when I reread it.

The thing about rushing, the thing about being in a panic to be done, to be published, to be chosen, is that you stop asking good questions. You stop considering new paths. You stop taking risks. You stop exploring.

Frantic writing doesn't make for fascinating stories.

What if we honor our obscurity by:

  • experimenting with different genres
  • playing around with new subject matter
  • exploring our own history, and writing it out as stories
  • taking risks in our style, voice, format
  • daring to write what's on our hearts
  • getting crazy-good at all the most essential elements of the craft
  • reading like fiends
  • annihilating clichés in our work
  • diving deeper with our chosen subject matter
  • researching like pros

BUILDING A BETTER CHARACTER. Yeah, not my cast of characters, but my character. Me. The who behind the writer that I am.

Can we be real for a sec? Waiting for something--waiting for something that you want very, very badly--has a way of exposing your personality.

When all I focused on was Getting The Thing That I Wanted--well, it wasn't cute.

I became the most selfish, fragile, and demanding version of myself. And oh, you couldn't even tell me that someone else just got published. Don't even try.

Here's a free tip: Selfish, fragile, demanding people do not write awesome books.

If all we do is practice various ways of saying I SHOULD BE PUBLISHED, then that's what our message is going to boil down to.

Me. MEEEEEE. Look at me. Praise me. Pat my head. Give me money. Clap for me. Because I deserve it.

That is not a great message for a book.

Also not great for a platform, a networking session, or a career.

Heck, I don't even like seeing it typed out there on this blog post.

The words that we say the most: those are the words that will end up being our message. That's what we'll be known for. 

The stuff we say in our heads, the words we mutter to our friends, the tweets we post, the Facebook exchanges... we're practicing our message all along. And we're creating our character every step of the way.

My goal: I don't want to be a self-obsessed jerk.

I finally realized that I can stomp around and be frustrated; I can feed envy and discontent and let them bleed me to death.

Or, I could see this as my chance. My chance to lean in, to grow, and to get better. To figure out generosity, gratitude, and courage. To value the people around me instead of seeing them as interruptions. To get better at celebrating, better at loving.

It's actually an opportunity, this whole obscurity thing.

There will be pressure enough later. Can we learn as much as we can about ourselves, our voices, our craft, our genre, our material, before the pressure is really on? 

And can we practice being the kind of person who has more to say than "look at me"?

Because the day will come when we find ourselves on a stage.

And if we use our obscurity right, we'll have a better story, a better message, and a better character to handle whatever fame and whatever fortune we get.

Twelve Mysteries for Your Next Rainy Day

A dozen excellent mysteries for you to curl up with. Because no thunderstorm is complete without one. |

Mysteries and rainy days just go together. Like Sherlock and Watson, like London and fog, like coffee and ... a lot more coffee. 

I've learned not to fight it. 

Actually, when I hear thunder breaking overhead, I get my feet tangled in my scramble to grab the nearest Agatha Christie.

I've heard someone say that, at its heart, every novel is actually a mystery.

And I love that definition. I certainly think it's true: at least from a writer's point of view. You're faced with so many mysteries: unraveling the characters, their motivations, the history of the story world, and then of course, how the plot works its way out. 

Even though the book I'm writing would never be classified as a mystery: that's what I feel like I'm writing, most days. When it's going well, I feel like I'm solving the mystery of the story itself.

Writers as sleuths. I like that.

Maybe this is why I read and watch more mysteries than any other genre. 

If you're looking for a good one, here's a list of twelve of my favorites:

1. The Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout. (Because I want to marry Archie Goodwin. I do. Fiction or not, I feel sure that we can work this out. ... Book-wise, I'm especially fond of The League of Frightened Gentlemen.)

2. Green for Danger, by Christianna Brand (World War Two, bombs falling over a hospital, patients dying mysteriously during surgery... So. Good.)

3. Mary Stewart wrote mysterious romantic suspense, which reads superbly on damp dark days. Pick up Nine Coaches Waiting, especially if you're a fan of Jane Eyre.

4. Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series is ridiculously fun: she's an eleven-year-old chemist, she's hilarious, and she keeps solving mysteries. (The series is for us grown-ups though, not kids.) Of the first four, number one is still my favorite: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. 

I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn't. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail. ... Then the utter stillness. I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. -- Alan Bradley / The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

5. Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas. Excellent if you like Sherlock Holmes era mysteries, but are ready for some new characters.

6. Speaking of which... The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Of course. Obviously. Of course.

Peering through the gloom, I saw the vague outline of a man, a shade blacker than the blackness of the open door. He stood for an instant, and then he crept forward, crouching, menacing, into the room. He was within three yards of us, this sinister figure, and I had braced myself to meet his spring. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / "The Adventure of the Empty House"

7, 8, & 9. And as far as obvious choices go: It is impossible to pick a favorite Agatha Christie. Right? I "narrowed it down" to: And Then There Were None (for most goosebumps while reading), Murder on the Orient Express (for sublimeness, for perfect murder, for happening on a train, and for this screen version), and Death on the Nile (because everything... check out the movie too). 

10 &11. If you want sweeping scope, layered narratives, gloomy landscapes, dark secrets, brooding family estates--basically if you want the best sort of thing for a thunderstormy day--then check out Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (!!!!) and The Moonstone. 

12. Last but not least: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey. I couldn't stop talking about this one when I finished it. (I just love the set-up: the story of an impostor who begins to unravel a family mystery...)

There have been doubles before. Hitler had several. Lots of famous people have doubles. The papers are forever printing photographs of the humble doubles of great men. They all look like the great men with the character sponged out. -- Josephine Tey / Brat Farrar

There you have it. An easy dozen for the next time you see thunderstorms in the forecast. 

Obviously I've left out only about two hundred excellent recommendations... (I didn't even mention Ellery Queen! How did that happen?! And has anyone else watched The Bletchley Circle?)

Care to fill in the gaps? What are your favorite mysteries to read or watch? I'd love some new titles to check out!

Escaping the Rut You Didn't Know You Were In

Search your manuscript for mini-ruts and brainstorm your way out. |

When I reread my current work-in-progress draft, I realized how often I set scenes in the rain. 

Um: so many times. 

And the rain isn't much of an obstacle, either. More of a mood-setter. An atmospheric thing.

When I stepped back and looked at the draft as a whole, I could see what was happening: when the action was slowing, or when it was about to build, I thought: let's make this scene stand out. Let's make it a little different.

And I hauled out the rain machines.

What I didn't realize as I was drafting: my "little different" was actually the SAME THING. 


(Okay, once I used sleet, but still. That's a lot of rain.)

It didn't turn into a big obstacle: no one got hypothermia, no one came close to drowning, and there were no floods. Not even a really significant puddle experience.

It was just my way of shaking things up. Without--it turns out--shaking them up at all.

Creative rut alert.

So I took two minutes and brainstormed other ways to mess with weather and atmospherics. There's gotta be more than just rain, right?

Here's what I came up with: 

  • storm rolling in, so the sky is all green and the air feels troubled and uncomfortable... gloomy-dark clouds, a tree creaking
  • what about a bird storm? too many birds. oooh, starling murmurations!
  • hail! the characters are outside a lot: hail would hurt
  • what about wind? strong destructive winds, slight winds, a breeze bringing cobwebs with it, wispy seeds blowing by on a bright day
  • unusual cloud formations: anvil head clouds, mackerel skies, red clouds at night
  • what about floods, mudslides, uprooted trees, sinkholes? 
  • forest fire...
  • solar eclipse, lunar eclipse 
  • a meteor shower, meteorite falling to earth, a convenient little UFO

Obviously I still had rain on the brain, but I also uncovered some more interesting ideas. Starling murmurations! That would totally suit my story.

I love a good excuse to go on a list-making tear. So I started looking around my stories for other places where I was stuck in a mini-rut.

Guess what. I found a few others.

  • I give fun characters red hair. All the fun characters. All the red hair. Whoops.
  • Mysterious characters get gray eyes. I like mystery. There are way too many gray-eyed people in these stories!
  • And, I'm embarrassed to say, I was so intrigued by the idea of a one-armed man, that I have one-armed characters in four of my six novels. Yikes. 

When we're in the thick of drafting, it's so easy to keep reaching for the same solutions over and over. Without even noticing that our favorite solutions are looking a bit... worn out.

So here's your Wednesday writing challenge: where do you fall back on the same way of shaking things up? What have you been overusing?

Take a few minutes and brainstorm new options for yourself.

It doesn't take long. (Plus it's pretty fun.)

And the next time you're drafting and need some pizazz, you already have your material. How nice is that?

You will feel like total genius. 

Future You is already saying thanks.

Why You'll Have a Dance Party After Reading This post

If your words, moods, body, and brain all appreciate exercise, why not have a ten-minute dance party? |

Mix up your writing day, shed that crappy mood, and fire up your creativity--by moving around.

To music.

Right now.

Some people call this dancing.

We're all pretty aware of exercise's physical benefits. (Unless you've been living under a rock. In which case, you also haven't been working out much.)

Seriously, though: it's too easy to forget that we live in our most important writing machine. It's our bodies that do all that writing and reading. Our ten typing fingers, our bloodshot eyes, our aching necks.

We've got to honor these word-loving bodies of ours. 

And then, all our dizzyingly creative brains: they need some love and support too, right?

Those words and ideas and bits of genius dialogue don't come out of thin air. We're brewing them in our brains. They're hanging out with our moods. Scuffling around in our memories. 

Can we all agree to love on our mental processes with some exercise? (Because seriously, the mental benefits of exercise are super-huge.)

So, if you're already in an exercise routine, good for you. Yay for gyms and running shoes and DVDs and whatever else it is that gets you moving.

But I'd also say: use your writing breaks to move. Your writing will love you for it. 

And why not dance, which is pretty much the funnest way to move ever. (I just said funnest. It's okay.)

Crank the tunes and shake it for ten minutes.

It's simple. You can do it right there. You don't need to change clothes or make a huge plan or overcomplicate it. You can do something super brilliant for your writing, your words, your body, your self, right now. 

Dance when you're stuck. When you've been sitting for an hour. When you've been overthinking it.

Dance when you feel a MOOD coming on. When you're in a creative rut. When all you're doing is snarling. 

When you take a break, when you need a change, when you want to eat all the chocolate: dance.

Oh, and don't even tell me that you're a bad dancer. Please. I am The Worst of Dancers, and I have my own little dance parties all the time. (I danced all through the process of writing this post, for instance.)

Because there's this, too, my lionhearted friend:

If you can't dance awkwardly and foolishly at your writing space when no one is looking at you, then how can you write your awkward and foolish drafts that no one else will read?

We gotta practice bravery some time, right? 

So be a bit foolish. Be a bit crazy. Get your heart pumping. Embrace your awkward. 

And welcome the words when you're done.


Here. Get some fantastic inspiration from Love Actually and Hitch. (Because I couldn't resist. I really couldn't. And because our Mondays needed that.)

Good? Yeah. I thought so. Me too.

Time for us both to step away from the screen, and dance it out.

You and me. Really. Right now.

(Take that, Monday.)

28 Tricks for Tough Writing Days

When you hit a slump, when you have a day where the words aren't coming, try one of these tricks. Or try four. Or try all twenty-eight. |

Maybe you're in a slump, maybe you don't know what happens next, or maybe you'd just rather not. Maybe your brain is all dried up, or maybe your words ran away. 

For one reason or another, you need a different kind of writing day.

Here are twenty-eight tricks for those tough writing days. Yeah. Just imagine them with a big bow on top, and maybe some chocolate and fancy pens: a little gift from my writing life to yours.

Some are creative adventures, to refill up your imagination. And some are ways to reframe the work itself, and hopefully to get you writing again.

Any one of them could be a nice boost to a writing day. Combine a few, and you'll have a great creative retreat.

Ready? Have fun!

1. Start by acknowledging that it's a rough day. Sometimes I put too much energy into fighting a weird writing mood, instead of finding ways to go forward. (It helps so much if you're not fighting.)

2. Post a few photographs of writers you admire around your workspace. Imagine them saying witty, kind, encouraging things to you. Believe them. Write.

3. Visit a quirky nearby museum. Even if--especially if--you know nothing about the collection. Write about what you see. Give a piece in the museum a role in your story. You never know what you might stumble across. 

4. Write from a different vantage point. Sit on your garage floor, or climb up onto your roof, or toss some pillows into your bathtub and write from there. (I discovered the bathtub as a writing place during a tornado warning. It's awesome. Like a cocoon.)

5. Go write in a bookstore or a library. Write while you're surrounded by other words. Let them cheer you on.

6. Switch genres for a while. Try writing your next scene as a poem, a graphic novel, a play, a children's picture book, an encyclopedia entry, a comic strip. 

7. Seek some sympathy from a writing friend. Maybe you just need a bit of human interaction! Buzz around on Twitter, send an email to a writing buddy, or hang out on writing blogs. (Hi, friend!)

8. Change the music that you're listening to as you write. (Or, start listening to some, if you usually don't.) Try soundtracks, try classical. Try nature noises, or opera. Or some crazy electronica stuff, or whatever else the kids are listening to these days. Switch it up. Get a new beat in your ears.

9. Browse one of your favorite novels. Flip around and just study the paragraphs, the ways the chapters begin and end, the flow of the dialogue. Use the same strategies to help kickstart your next writing session.

10. Take a break and tidy your workspace. Clear out the clutter. Get rid of the dirty dishes (whoops, is that just me?). Moving around is always good, and your mind just might appreciate the clear space.

11. Set a timer for ten minutes, and write a sentence that runs for a page or three. Every time you'd like to put a period, just add a comma, and keep going. (Got this trick from Judy Reeves. Try it--it's amazing what it unlocks.)

12. Play around with hand lettering. Letters are our medium after all! This is a great way to let yourself play a bit, to lighten your grip on the day, while still staying close to words. (If you need inspiring, just go here. Then get doodling!)

13. Spend some time with a quality book about writing or creativity. (Try A Year of Writing Dangerously, Wonderbook, or Steal Like an Artist.)

14. Go write in a coffee shop; go write in a restaurant. Mix up your environment. Eavesdrop like a writer. (And eat some good food, or get some caffeine. See what I'm really up to?)

15. Visit your nearest art museum. Drink up the colors, all the shapes. Find a piece that reminds you of your story. Sit. Write. (No art museum nearby? Behold, the Internet!)

16. Find your favorite line in your current project. Treat it like a famous quote from an amazing writer. (Because you are!) Print it out in a marvelous font, or hand-letter it yourself. Post it. Believe in the power of your words.

17. Take a break and go bake something. Cooking always jars a few words loose in me. And hey, even if it doesn't for you, you've got something yummy coming out of the oven in a bit. I call that a win.

18. Write crap. Really. Aim super low. Overuse all the adverbs we're not allowed to use anymore. (Very! Really! Like, totally!!) Make all the mistakes. Reach for every cliché. Just lower that bar all the way to the ground. It's freeing, and one of my favorite ways to get unstuck.

19. Go on a photograph safari. Take a walk and snap dozens of pictures. Or photograph objects in your house. Get back into your eyes. Look closely at the actual nouns all around you. 

20. Try writing by hand on small pieces of paper. I've had really good luck writing passages on little sticky notes, and I've done a whole novel on index cards. It's a much smaller canvas to fill, and somehow the words come running out.

21. Practice gratefulness. Write a thank you note to a writer you admire, encourage a writing friend, or go be kind to your local librarians. The hard days are a good reminder that there are a lot of us struggling forward, day by day. Go love on someone else who works with words. 

22. Go take a shower. Or go do the dishes. (Or anything else mundane and familiar that requires water.) I have no idea why, but this always works when I'm stuck on a plot snag. (Bonus: things are clean when you're done.)

23. Declare a reading holiday. Take time to just get drunk on words. Brew some tea, get out that novel you've been looking forward to, and read.

24. Take a long walk to get the blood moving, and then flop down and stare at the clouds for a while. Let your mind drift. And then tell yourself your story. Like you're telling it to someone who is sure to love it. Connect back to the heart of it, away from computer screens and word quota charts. Just focus on the story itself.

25. Spend some time curating a list of fantastic quotes about writing, quotes about the power of words, quotes that motivate you. Everyone needs at least a bazillion of these, wouldn't you agree? (You know I love writing quotes! I did a series on thirty favorites.)

26. Wander a cemetery for a while. Read the names and epitaphs, and think about all the lives--all those stories!!--represented there. Maybe it will inspire another scene for you; or maybe that sense of life's fragility will give you the courage to write this story with the time you have.

27. Write out all your plot problems or creative frustration in a journal. Write down exactly what's hard, and consider how to fix it. Interview yourself. Maybe something will break loose or maybe not, but either way: you're writing now. 

28. Or just let your goals go for the day. Relax by watching some movies about writers. (Stranger than Fiction, anyone?) Let yourself off the hook. Get some rest. Eat some healthy food. (Or not.)

And try again tomorrow.

Can We Stop Being Weird About Writer's Block?

Are we blocked? Are we lazy? Let's get real about writer's block. |

Confession: I promised myself that I would never talk about writer's block. I mean, we've heard enough about it by now, right?

We've heard the debate: Does it exist, does it not exist. Are we lazy, are we unprofessional, or is inspiration a huge mystical thing and we haven't done the right sacrifices...

I'm tired of people saying, "I don't feel like writing today THAT MEANS I HAVE WRITER'S BLOCK, DOESN'T IT."

Oof. No. That's not what it means. 

And, on the other side of the spectrum, there are the people who shout: "Writer's block is just a construct. No other profession hides behind this. Be a professional."

I find that point of view extremely . . . unhelpful. (I'd like to hear what they have to say to a runner with a broken leg. Is that just a construct?) 

I believe that inspiration can be sought and found. I've done some excellent writing on days when I would have given my teeth to not write. Sometimes I go to my desk kicking and screaming.

But: I do think that there are times when we just can't write. There are times when your writing project cannot and will not go forward. 

The blocks that I've hit fall into three categories. And because I'm clever and subtle, I'll just call them Small, Medium, and Large. Here's what they're like, and a few ideas for how to get around them. Okay? Let's go.

The Small Blocks

What it feels like: These are the days you look at your computer or your draft, and you just feel this huge upwelling of "meh." This is your internal, "I would really rather not." It can keep you from your writing for a day or two... And that can grow into a few weeks. 

What that might mean:

  • This is hard.
  • I'm not prepared.
  • I'm really out of love with this part of the process.
  • Chocolate.

What you can do about it:

  • Writing is hard. So, this is an accurate assessment. Look around at how you're moving forward, and see if you're making it harder. Are you putting restrictions on your work that maybe you don't need right now? Can your deadline be adjusted? Is your topic too restrictive? Do you maybe need to bring in a bit more play, try to have more fun?
  • Get your tools out. Are you writing from an imaginatively dry place because you didn't research? (I do this all the time! Ack!) Maybe you need to browse a reference book or four, maybe you need to do a little Internet rabbit trailing? Or, maybe it's a writing skill that you need: grab a book on scenes, on structure, on dialogue. You can learn anything. Take the time to go for it.
  • You might be getting near burnout. Try working on a different part of the project. Try cajoling yourself back into it with some playful exercises. Give yourself an intentional, guilt-free day off to try and get some perspective. Read for fun. Take a nap. Clear your head for a bit, and then go back to it. Reward yourself for every step forward.
  • Eat the chocolate. Always. 

The Medium Blocks

What it feels like: It feels like there's an actual obstacle between you and your work. Your brain is fizzing-full of anxiety. Or, your brain is wiped clean of any real ideas. You go through your usual tricks, but the words are all coming out sideways. There is angst. Deep frustration. In spite of faithfully showing up and "trusting the process," you feel like you're just spinning your wheels.

What that might mean:

  • I'm not going to make the deadline.
  • I'm panicking.
  • The topic is wrong. Or the point-of-view is wrong. Something's just... wrong.
  • I can't keep working because I'm just making it worse.

What you can do about it:

  • Find a way to get yourself more time. To breathe. Deadlines are awesome to get you moving. But if you've taken a wrong turn, they might just help you get lost faster. Lighten your load, any way that you can.
  • It is really hard to imagine new things when you feel like you're writing your way off a cliff. Take a few days to recapture your perspective. Why did you start this story in the first place? What was it that you loved about it? Go for a long walk, and just think about the good parts of your story. Find a way to get back to the heart of what you're writing: take the time to do that.
  • A lot of what we call "writer's block" is really a huge detour sign. It's the part of the creative process that says, "You can't get there from here. You can't go that way." This is a really good thing. See it as a chance to look at all your options. Have you gone off a better, original track? Or are you a slave to your original vision, while your story wants to try a different way? Freewrite. Do a lot of freewriting. Give yourself a week to explore other ideas, other angles. Run down all the other paths for a while. Keep your grip light. When something you jot down gets you excited, keep going!
  • Perfectionism is writer's block's BFF. They show up together. You have to kill perfectionism. Really. Be merciless. Drafting is about making messes, making mistakes, and doing the wrong thing. You're going to have to redefine success. Success is: another day with words in it. Accept that your novel will not get better in a straight line. In fact, give yourself permission to totally screw it up. Write that down on paper, and sign it. Post it by your desk. I'm serious. I have to do this all the time to keep going.

The Large Blocks

What it feels like: A large block is a total inability to deal with words. (Sometimes accompanying a total inability to get up in the morning.)

I've hit this kind of block three times in my writing life. And each time, something else in my life had gone very wrong. So a large block might come calling if you're in a season of pain, depression, or a huge life transition.

What that might mean:

  • I'm in a state of total exhaustion.
  • Words are broken. I have zero faith in writing, zero confidence in my ability to write.
  • I can't write. I have nothing to say.

What you can do about it:

  • Let yourself off the hook. With everything. Take all productivity demands off the table. Put all projects on hold. This is serious: seek physical and emotional health more than any writing goal. Sleep. Sleep a lot. Binge on Doctor Who for hours (or some such thing). Do the gentlest, kindest things for yourself. Other professions let people have sick days, right? Take care of the writer; don't worry about words for a while.
  • If you've been hurt by someone (if your words have been taken and twisted and used against you), it can be really hard to put pen to paper. Really, really hard. I've found my way back to words through reading Billy Collins's beautiful poems. They're simple, charming, and moving. They got me believing again in the power of a few well-placed words.
  • In moments of huge transition, it can happen that you lose a sense of who you are. I once fell very suddenly and (it seemed) irrevocably out of love with writing. Ready to walk away, for good. So I did stop writing. Instead, I read. For two months. And then, out of the blue (it seemed), I had a new novel idea that was so precious it took my breath away. If you can read a whole bunch, I'd say just do that. Read yourself silly. Give it time. Don't force yourself to make any decisions about your writing future: just give yourself a lot of words to read. And wait to see what happens.

Dealing with blocks. You have to be your own doctor, to an extent. Diagnose yourself; discover what works for you.

If you're in this writing game for the long haul, you'll be doing this from time to time. So it's a good skill to have: you're learning to listen to your life, to look for signs of growth, signs of trouble. Keep practicing--you'll get better at it.

And you'll find your own best ways around the obstacles you hit. For me, the way around even the worst of blocks boils down to this:

Let yourself play. Stay curious. Seek health. Surround yourself with words. And give it time.

Do you have any anti-block strategies to share? Writer's block stories? Let's keep encouraging each other! 

Wanna keep reading? Check out: Beating the Writer's Paradox and How to Keep Going.

My Super Grown-up Anti-Fear Technique

Sometimes when fear shouts, we shout back. Sometimes when it throws things, we . . . duck. |

Sometimes I fight fear by being louder than it is. By snarling back. By singing fight songs and shouting rah-rah-rah and doing a few high kicks. Sometimes that's what works.

But sometimes, when fear throws itself at me, I duck.

A few years ago, I was ready to walk away from writing. I'd tried, I'd failed (or so I thought). I wouldn't miss writing, and writing wouldn't miss me.

And in the midst of my certainty that I was done-done-done... I got this beautiful novel idea.

A middle-grade fantasy meets magical realism meets historical meets I'm still not very sure what.

I fell completely in love with this story. 

But for some reason, every time I worked on the draft, I panicked.

I got all skittish. Twitchy. I found myself backing away from the desk. 

Something about this project ignites all kinds of fear for me. And I'm still not 100% sure why. 

Maybe because it's full of the things I care most about: moments of beautiful truth, light versus dark, what it means to be a family, and finally a bunch of outcasts fighting for the sake of a city (which seems to be what I write about, time and time again). 

It's quirky, funny, very dark, very bright. It haunts me.

I was terrified to write it.

After a few weeks of "writing"--which was really me wandering around and doing anything but write--I figured out what to do.

I didn't get serious about making progress no matter how I felt. I didn't post motivational quotes all over my work space. I didn't make a big show of cheering myself on.

I went to bed.

I glanced over at my desk, over at fear, and I said, "oh, don't mind me." I dragged my papers over to my bed, arranging all my reference material. Off-handedly. Casually.

This isn't a big deal, I told myself. Probably I'm just going to nap. 

But I didn't. I snuggled under those covers, I turned my bed into a writing cave, and I wrote that story. 

I coaxed myself forward, one page at a time, one paragraph at a time. "I will just write this next sentence," I'd say. "And isn't it nice and cozy in here?"

Fear was still nosing around at my computer, so I just stayed in bed. I stayed in the place where I felt like I was whispering my story, like I was telling secrets. I ate cookies. I said, "We'll just see what comes next."

And that's how I got the draft done.

Ducking fear every step of the way.

I know that I tend to take the opposite route. After all, fear bullies us around plenty. I like bullying back, when I can.

But some manuscripts are too fragile for shouting.

When things are hard--when they are really hard, when it's storming inside--here's what you do. 

Be ridiculously nice to yourself. Do outrageously kind things for you and your writing life. 

Do whatever it is that makes a safe zone around you. Tell yourself whatever it is that you need to keep you safe. 

What would that look like for you? Light some candles. Crawl under your coziest blankets. Buy yourself a few armloads of fresh flowers and put them all over your office.

Maybe you surround yourself with photographs of everyone who believes in you. Or maybe you eat all the chocolate, or maybe all the cheese. (And then have some carrots with dinner, okay, because health and stuff.)

Create a safe place. Tell yourself it's okay. And believe it, when you say it.

And from that safe place, with the blankets around you and the candles lit and the good music on:

From that place, you write. 

The Case for the Really Long Read

Save your brain: read a ginormous book. |

Usually, my game plan for my reading life is simply this: To read more good books. 

Chuck the dull ones. Soak up the good ones. Learn from all of them.

Usually this means that I am trying to cram books into my life: more books, better books, and reading them faster.

But once a year, I slow the pace of my reading plan. Once a year, I block off a month. 

And plunge into a single, long book.

I started this habit several years ago, after reading the article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In it, Nicholas Carr investigates how our Internet habits are affecting the way we think, read, and process information.

He quotes Bruce Friedman (who sounds plenty smart himself), who says: "I can't read War and Peace anymore. ... I've lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it."

Okay. That terrified me. (Although, if you didn't make it past my fourth paragraph, I guess you'll never know that.)

Most of the books I read are between 250 and 400 pages. And since I try to keep books moving through my hands, I never took the time to dive into one that was, say, 900 pages or so.

But that article made me think. There are so many fantastic yet huge books out there. And I wasn't reading them. 

Would I lose the ability to read long books?

(Just thinking that makes me start hyperventilating. Like my brain is disappearing. Ack! Ack!)

I made a decision to start.

I began with the massive (and beautifully translated) Les Miserables. I blocked off a month. I made a little chart of how many pages to read on which days. (Because I cannot resist a little chart.)

And I dove in.

Yes, I did get a little restless. Yes, I was reading a hefty chunk each day.

But I also fell in love with Victor Hugo. I loved how the world of his book wrapped itself around me. I loved how deeply I could fall into the story, how well I could know the characters--so many characters!

After that month, I made a list. I rounded up the names of other long books. The ones that usually got bumped from my reading list, because they were just too dang long.

I've spent a month each year ticking one more title off the list. The Three Musketeers and Moby-DickThe Pickwick Papers and Anna Karenina

Every novel contains a bit of the world inside it.

These long novels have much bigger worlds.

And on the rainy days, the days when you want to crawl into a reading cave and just disappear for a while, consider curling up with a super long book. Let it swallow you up for a while.

Let it pull you toward a deeper writing practice. A deeper love of books. And a bigger appetite for language.

What's your favorite heavy-weight title? What's your most recent long read?

3 Ways to Build Your Story When You Just Don't Wanna

For the days when you just can't manage to write: 3 creative ways to re-engage your story brain. Bonus: they're totally fun. | Keep writing, from

There are days when you find that you're just sick of words.

Maybe you're exhausted. Maybe you've been thinking too darn much, and your story is in danger of going all crooked and stale on you. 

You know you need to jazz up your creativity a bit, but . . . ugh.

Can't -- muster -- the -- energy.

Hey, it happens. And when that mix of moods hits me, I fall back on three ways to keep exploring my stories.

What's so great about these? Well, they're totally bottom shelf. Super easy, no strain, no muss, no fuss.

You can do them when you're pretty darn tired, you can do them when you can't put two words together, you can do them when you don't want the hard mental work of actual writing

These are for the too-busy-to-write days, the bored days, the cranky days, the I'd-rather-nap days. The rainy days.

Bonus: They're totally fun. It's like fingerpainting for your soul. Okay? Let's dive in.

1. Hit Pinterest hard for some visual inspiration.

If you haven't tried this yet, now is totally the time for you to explore Pinterest as a writer.

Yes, Pinterest is the place to get enough ideas to stress yourself out over every birthday party for the rest of your life. And Pinterest can help you get to a state of serious discontent over your interior design skills (or fashion, or crafting, or whatever). 

But you will also stumble across a zillion amazing illustrations. Concept art. Photographs. Links to articles about crazy settings that just have to make it into your novel.

I've never heard another writer confess this, so I might be the only one, but: I am total crap at imagining faces.

Can't do it. I get very vague impressions about hair, and maybe height, and physical gestures. As far as actual details, as far as all the things those character exercises in books want you to list? I can't imagine them. And it feels forced to just randomly say, uhhhh, she's blonde, and um, blue eyes? Maybe brown? Oh I don't know. 

It hasn't worked for me. Those details don't seem to stick.

But here's what has worked: browsing illustrations and photography on Pinterest.

love seeing the amazing character illustrations, wading through them by the dozen, and pinning bunches of possibilities to a secret board devoted to my work-in-progress. It helps me figure out the mood I'm going for, the range of possibilities for each character.

I'll browse concept art for some weird location ideas, portrait photography for more true-to-life character ideas.

Or I'll do a more specific search: like today, scanning photos of creepy forests. (And not getting spooked one bit. Or wait. Maybe I did.)

This is the easiest exercise on the list. You can do it if you only have the energy to keep your eyelids half-open and drool, so if it's a rough day, go for it!

It's amazing what happens when I see a face that rings just right for a character. Suddenly the character in my mind takes on more shape. She feels more certain, more definite. Now I know her physical specifics, all the details that I need to describe her well.

And when I'm ready to sit down and write, her voice is that much clearer. 

2. Match music to your characters.

I started doing this exercise over ten years ago, as a game.

A couple of friends and I were studying Shakespeare for a semester. As it came close to finals time, we were pretty well steeped in the nine plays we'd read. We knew our stuff

And I had this CD. It wasn't the kind of CD that made you think: Aha, Shakespeare, forsooth!

(All right, all right, it was Linkin Park. But it was a long time ago, and I was maybe a little angry sometimes, and also my tastes have changed. No judging. Thank you.)

Here's what we did: For each song, my friends and I listened carefully to the words, and then we assigned it to a character from one of the plays.

Yes, really. This one was Hamlet, and that one was totally Ophelia. And this other one had to be Antonio from Twelfth Night. We even had one for Banquo's Ghost in Macbeth

Obviously, some of the songs were a bit of a stretch. (A lot of a stretch.) We made our case for each one, arguing on the basis of a few strong lines, or the general idea behind the chorus. 

But it got you thinking: how might the rest of the lines fit the character?

Was there a plot line in the play that might be stretched a bit, to make those lines fit? Or maybe the character's motivation in the play was totally different from what we'd been thinking...

Maybe Iago had a softer side? And maybe Leontes in The Winter's Tale had been poisoned? The more we listened to "his" song, the more we were sure of it.

You see where this is going, right? 

Here's how I still use this one: I'll put on Spotify Radio or Pandora. And I assign every song I hear to a character in the story. And I pick a point in the story where it fits them.

I love this exercise, because it's still pretty low-impact. You can do it while you're doing dishes, or going for a run, or driving. You're just listening to music, and thinking vaguely about your story. No big deal. 

But you'll find yourself wondering about emotional aspects of your story. You'll start thinking differently about character motivation, about their backstories. 

Lines from the song will jump out, and at first you'll think, "Nah, that doesn't fit them..." And then it will hit you. Of course it fits them! And actually, that answers your questions about what should happen right after the plot midpoint... 

Don't be surprised if you find yourself scribbling notes. Don't be surprised if you actually start getting excited. I won't tell anyone.

Best of all? After doing this exercise, the next time you hear that song, you start thinking of your story.

Which means: your story is more alive for you.

And if you're accomplishing that on a dreary day--well! Good for you.

3. Binge on movie trailers: have a story element feast.

Okay, again this one might be just a me thing, but it's one of my absolute favorite ways to build my story.

I have a movie trailer festival. (Right? Sooooo hard, but someone must, I suppose! And because I love trailers to a ridiculous degree, this exercise really kills me. But anyway.)

I watch a whole bunch of movie trailers. (IMDb is super for this.) They don't have to be anything like the story I'm working on. A wide variety is great.

Why do I love trailers so? They're presenting the hook of the story, the premise in miniature.

The whole point of a trailer is to get you ready to pay to see that story. To experience whatever they've described.

Which means: they're putting in some of the high points, they're peeling back the cover on the conflict, they're showing off their special effects. If possible, they even make you love the main characters. They make you curious.

What does this mean for you, writer?

It means that you're feasting your eyes and ears on key story moments. The emotional highs, huge effects, witty dialogue, cliffhangers, possible revelations, anxious character moments, conflict so sharp it skewers, and about seventy explosion sequences... 

Okay, so you've done all that? Eyes feeling a little buggy? Getting the story lines confused a bit? Perfect.

Now close your eyes, and dream up the trailer for your story.

It doesn't matter if your novel isn't done. It doesn't matter if there are huge gaps.

It doesn't matter if your novel doesn't feel at all exciting. It doesn't matter if your characters feel lifeless.

Think about a darkened theater. Think about how you feel, when you're craving an amazing story.

And then let the trailer write itself, on the screen of your closed eyelids. Bring in the scary music. Let things happen in slow-motion... or super fast.

Let your characters talk. Let their dialogue feel heavy, important. Let them talk like they're both going to be nominated for an Oscar.

Crank up the volume on conflict: let the characters start running through rubble. Blow some stuff up. Even if you didn't think you were writing a blowing-up kind of book. (Hey, you're just messing around, right? Splash a bit! Have some fun.)

Maybe this one will take some practice, but it can be the most rewarding of them all.

Why? I think because you'll find that you start believing in your story a bit more. You'll want to add more big moments. Because it will start catching at your heart, like the best movies, the best trailers. Because it will make you lean forward a bit.

You just might give yourself chills.

And even if there's a ton of work still to do on your novel (and when isn't there?), you'll have a renewed belief in the power behind the story. And you'll be writing toward that power--and not just to check list items off a sheet.

And that is the sweetest feeling of all.

I hope you'll try these exercises, friend. They've saved my bacon again and again, pulling my heart back toward my stories, back toward my characters.

I hope you start seeing your characters walking around, and that your settings come alive. I hope you start compiling a playlist of songs that are perfect your novel. And I hope you start dreaming up movie trailers.

And when you're back at your desk, you can channel all that new imagery, all that new dreaming into a living, breathing, heart-grabbing novel. 

If you want to keep reading, check out: Let's Go Get Our Inspiration and The Side Effects (to Writing Hard).