Prepare Yourself for a Writing Life Shakeup! These Two Epic Resources Will Change How We Outline and How We Produce

Grab these two resources, and prepare yourself for a writing life shakeup! |

Welcome to AUGUST, my lovelies! This is my birth month, so I always see August as a time to take stock, get clear on priorities, and then start afresh in September.

There's a whiff of new beginnings in this humid, cicada-loud, late-summer air.

... Besides, we're just about to hit back-to-school season. Cheap notebooks, colored pencils, and all that school-supply smell in the stores? Makes me want to take on all kinds of new projects!

With eerily perfect timing, I came across two books in the last few weeks which have ... um ... 

Oh gosh, how do I say this...

Massively rebooted my approach to novel-writing and production. 

Nope. That doesn't quite say it. 

I feel like I've been electrified, y'all. I am all charged up, frothing at the mouth, pounding my boots on the floor, and shrieking battle cries.

Yeah. That's about right.

... You know how it feels when you've been struggling to understand something, bruising your brain against it for a long time, and maybe-kinda-sorta giving up a little bit.

And then the perfect resource—with the right tone, the right insight, the right blend of information and rah-rah-rah—drops into your lap?

It doesn't happen to me all that often, but when it does, it's like my entire work-life has been baptized in caffeine and I am roaring to go. 

That is exactly where I am at the start of this month. It's like my birthday came early, handed me flowers, and then kicked me in the bum and sent me hurtling into my next year.

It came in the form of two perfect-for-me resources. The first was Jim Heskett's The Juggling Author: How to Write Four Books a Year While Balancing Family, Friends, and a Full-Time Job.

(Go ahead and let the miracle of that subtitle sink in for a sec.)

And the second was Libbie Hawker's Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.

... And basically you can just stop here, go and read those two books, and have your own writing life revolution. I'll wait, no problem.

Because they're just SO GOOD.

The Juggling Author helped me see that publication and production is a skill set. It's a way of thinking, a way of operating.

And merely getting better at the craft of writing, while essential, is not at all the same thing as getting better at the craft of production.

This is really, really good news! Because I've been secretly frustrated with myself that production isn't just kinda happening all on its own.

(That feels oh-so dumb to type out, but I know that some of you know what I mean!) 

There is so much to learn about writing novels and writing them well. And then there are all the mindset skills to learn so that you can keep on writing: how to deal with self-doubt, creative droughts, perfectionism, comparison, and creative stamina.

I've been focusing 99.9% of my time and energy and effort on dealing with all of that, and I feel like I've somehow trapped myself in a draft-after-draft neverland.

So I've spent that last 0.1% of time kicking myself for not also learning how to produce novels: how to complete them and polish them and send them out the door, again and again and again.

It's a different skill set! It isn't just going to magically happen, and it isn't going to feel like the obvious and inevitable outcome of novel-writing. 

It has to be learned.

And wow, that comforts me so much. Because we can learn anything, you know? And I am definitely on board for learning and practicing Jim Heskett's approach to continuous novel production.

Or as he puts it, becoming a perpetual motion fiction machine.

(I had to keep taking breaks from reading his book, just so I could jump up and down, and run around saying "!!!!!!" to my family. It just sounds so doable.)

And then, with my head still spinning and hope still dancing, I picked up Libbie Hawker's book on outlining (because Heskett recommended it super highly). 

I've learned a lot of good info about novel structure in the last few years, and I've also had a kind of meh relationship with outlining. So (she typed sheepishly) I didn't think that Hawker would teach me much. And I also didn't hold out much hope for a new outlining process, but hey, whatever, I'd give it a try.


Oh guys. If you haven't read Take Off Your Pants, you need to, stat. She has a way of figuring out a character's path through the story that was just magic for me. 

See, I've spent my summer getting a grip on my middle-grade trilogy, while also overviewing the other writing projects I've dreamed up. Trying to get a sense for all these projects and where I should focus next.

And then Hawker's book strolled up and showed me how to get fresh traction on every single story that's been humming in my head. How to clarify the narratives, build the conflict, and infuse each story with a sense of purpose.

... If you've ever outlined your novel, drafted it, and then felt like it still didn't work somehow (which is exactly how I spent 2016, by the way), then this book might be the EXACT ANSWER you're looking for. 

AND, if you've ever been frustrated about how to make your character's internal growth pair well with her external conflict, and you've been pulling out your hair over it, then this book is your (and your hair's) ideal solution.

I promise. SO GOOD. Gaaa! Okay, just go read it.

So now my mind is full of two huge gorgeous lessons:

1) How to outline beautifully and effectively, in a way that I can be certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will actually create a compelling story. 

(Woo! I get all swoony just thinking that. *fans self* Ahem.)

2) Production is a skill, and one that I've paid zero actual attention to. But it's one I can absolutely learn, and I have a stellar guide to help me.

Taken together, these two resources point me toward one massive conclusion:

I am going to concentrate everything I have on rebuilding, reoutlining, rewriting, and then producing and publishing my middle-grade trilogy.

As my cousin once said, I'm not just going to put my nose to the grindstone— 

I'm gonna put my everything to the grindstone.

Which means I'm about to become deeply obsessed with all things to do with the writing-and-producing process

I'm going into lab mode. I feel like my office is turning into a workshop, an operating theater, a blacksmith's forge. 

A place to test methods, try new things, move swiftly, learn on my feet, and—more than anything else—produce quality fiction.

In order to add as much fuel to that fire as I possibly can, I'm making a big change here on the blog: 

I want to shift the focus of my posts away from the big lessons that I'm learning about the writing life; and instead, I want to zoom in, ultra-close, to the writing process itself.

To go from the truth about the writing life to the truth about the actual writing. 

I'm gonna keep a production diary, y'all!

I don't know about you, but I am a total process nerd, and I LOVE seeing how other people think and work. I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and I find it enormously comforting to read about someone else's creative process.

Especially the trial-and-error side of solving creative problems. The mess of it. 

Sometimes I'm inspired by their solutions. Sometimes I just find courage in knowing that I'm not the only one in way over her head!

And sometimes, just being around the description of someone else's work is enough to kickstart my own momentum and get me back to my desk.

So this is my offering to other process nerds: a totally authentic look at the unpolished, gritty side of drafting.

I want to talk through what's working, how it's working, and what isn't working. To share resources right as I'm discovering them, and then to show what I'm learning about this whole production side of things as I learn it.

Making messes and writing about them: that's where I'm headed.

Be prepared for lots of sawdust on the floor, weird spills and stains and smells, burnt and pinched fingers, bruises and battle stories. :) And high-fiving. Hopefully lots of high-fiving.

If you're not a process nerd: hey, no worries. I'm opening the production diary under a separate tab, so I won't clutter up this blog feed with all my drafting updates. (And if you wanna check out the production diary, just check out that new tab at the top of the site.)

So, in a nutshell: this means that as of today, I'm going to stop posting how to have a lionhearted writing life-esque posts on a regular schedule. 

Instead, I'll frequently update that production diary—at least once a week, if not more often. Oh, and the posts will usually be short, instead of the monster-long articles that live over on this blog. ;)

When possible, I hope to come back to this space and share what I'm learning in the more coherent(ish) way that I usually do here—more of the big picture, heart/mind/courage discussions. 

But until then, if you'd like any cheerleading, inspiration, or motivation, do check out the Archives: I've basically posted everything I know about the writing life so far, so believe me, you've already got access to my best!

... OH I'm excited about this, my friends! And I do hope that my fellow process nerds will find it encouraging.

Because it can get lonely at the desk, am I right? So here's to a much less refined, less polished, more immediate look at how I'm approaching things.

Here's to all of us making messes, learning from one another, and then making new messes! Here's to learning the skills of production, and moving on to the next stage of our writing lives.

Here's to becoming perpetual motion fiction machines, lionhearted all the way.

(Psst. Hey. You. Yes, you, the one who's been on the edge of starting something new, because it's been tugging hard at your heart, but you're not sure about beginning or not... 

Consider this an invitation to dive in. Let's join hands, my brave friend, and jump.)

My Best Advice for Sticking with Nanowrimo (or Any Fierce Drafting Project!)

What does it take to survive Nanowrimo (or any fierce drafting project)? Hint: it's not just about words-per-day. |

Happy November, and Happy NaNoWriMo to all my crazy scribblers!!

I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I am doing my own version of a writing marathon. I'm taking aim at my long-suffering work-in-progress, and I'm going to marathon through to see how far I can get with it in November.

... Because if you're going to try and work at an astonishing pace, November is the time to do it! ;)

Before we get into today's post, I have a little housekeeping announcement for you lionhearts.

First off: thank you SO much for being kind and patient with me as I took October off to replenish. Oh my gosh. It was the BEST possible thing I could have done. I'm feeling so much better!

Secondly: I've been looking at my writing goals and my writing pace over the last year. 2016 has been a tough year for my work-in-progress. October's break from blog production helped out my novel so much that I've decided to make a change to the blogging schedule.

Starting this month, 
I'm going to post just two articles a month.

And we'll just see how that goes for a while. 

Why two articles? Well, for one, I can never manage to write short posts. You probably noticed, haha!

I've tried—really I have!—but I'm always wanting to cram them full of all the info and supporting detail that I can muster. ... I always figure that if a topic is resonating for someone, I wanna make sure they get everything valuable that I can give them on that topic.

But, I get it: that can be overwhelming to keep up with, both as a reader and a writer!

In the past year and a half (has it been that long?!) I've written about so many of the writing topics that are close to my heart. I have been able to say a lot of what I most wanted to say about writing. (Have you been able to check out the Archives yet? They're bursting!)

So a more gentle pace with blogging seems the way to go, at least for now. Expect to see me here on the first and third Thursday of every month! 

Sound okay? Any questions? Just let me know in the comments. (Also, if there's something about the writing life that I haven't really tackled yet, or if there's something you'd love to hear more about, please do let me know!)

And thanks so much, as always, for being the awesome bunch of lionhearts that you are. You encourage me so much, and I'm so privileged to be writing alongside you!

Speaking of writing... 

Let's talk about mega-fast drafting, marathon writing, and NaNoWriMo.

Whenever I charge into some speedy drafting goals—like NaNoWriMo, or my self-designed drafting marathons—I always start by getting really clear on my purpose.

NaNoWriMo is such a huge event: it's become one of those rites of passage for writers today. Something to aim for, something to try at least once. 

Which is great! But before you get swept too far along, you need to grab a little bit of time to check in with why you are doing it. 

What's the point? 

If you are doing this crazy cliff-dive of a writing exercise, what's the goal? What are you aiming for?

Here. I'll let you think for a sec. ...




The reason why I love NaNoWriMo, why I love drafting marathons, is because of the core goal.

The goal is what shapes the whole experience; the goal is what makes it.

Because the goal of NaNoWriMo isn't perfect writing. 

Heck, the goal isn't even GOOD writing. 

The goal is: Mass ink. 

Word-shaped blotches and sentence-like creations and LOTS of 'em. 

For a recovering perfectionist, overachiever, and overthinker, this kind of drafting marathon feels like the craziest kind of indulgence. Abandon expectations. Abandon most-to-all standards. In a race like this, they'll just hold you back.

NaNoWriMo is about momentum and velocity, and it feels more than a little dangerous at times. 

It's risky

It's risky in the same way that running down a steep hill is risky, and I do it for the same reasons—

To see if maybe I start flying.

Or if at least I'll feel like I'm flying. 

Only instead of wings, we're sprouting a glider made out of words and pages, and seeing if maybe, just maybe, our feet lift off the ground for a while.

When you're moving this fast through storyland, after all, it has a way of seizing you.

You start living half-in and half-out of two realities: There's your day-to-day "real" life concerns (food and errands and whoa, actual humans)—

And there's the world of your story, your characters pressing in around you, holding onto your sleeve, putting their hands in your pockets, telling you secrets.

We do NaNoWriMo because, when we drop the bar of our expectations, and when we run in the biggest writerly wolfpack eversomething happens.

We literally achieve liftoff.

Even if you don't "finish" NaNoWriMo, even if you don't "win," you still get the experience of making a run for it.

Barreling across the plains of story, galloping faster than maybe you ever have before.

Do it for the rush, for the thrill, for the crazy swooping sensation in your stomach as your story grabs your hands and waltzes you across whole continents.

Let your NaNoWriMo goal be: that rush. 

Chuck perfection and standards; burn your outline if it gets in your way; and do whatever you can to get close to the heart of your story.

Don't worry, quite so much, about words per day. Filling out that word count graph can feel like the main goal, but I promise it's not the main thing to worry about. 

So instead of asking, "How can I crank out even more words," try asking: What can I add to this scene that would thrill me? 

Because the best way to write a ton of words is to answer that question. That's when your word counts will start shocking you.

Ask some follow-ups: 

  • How can I love writing about this character more? What quirks, traits, inner darkness, or outer hope can I layer into them that would keep me engaged while I write? 
  • What curve to the conflict would pull me to the edge of my seat? How can I weird up the story a bit? How can I add all my favorite story traits to it? What would keep me entertained?
  • What settings would I just love to pepper my story with? What do I want to explore with words?

Start answering those questions in your draft, and you'll find that the words and the masses of ink take care of themselves.

For the record, this is my best advice for NaNoWriMo, or for finishing any draft well. This is what has always worked the best for me.  

When you're worrying about quality, remind yourself that your real goal is just: tons of words on pages.

And if you find yourself worrying about how to write tons of words, throw that goal out the window, and just ask: What gets me excited, really excited, in a story? 

And start sprinkling—no, dumping—that into your draft. You'll feel the difference immediately. 

You just might start flying.

I'll check back in with you in two weeks with a big inspiration post, which I'm super excited about!

But til then, if you're looking for more NaNoWriMo cheerleading, check out this post on diving in, this post on the main NaNoWriMo fear (and why it's not true), and this undervalued—but super useful!—writing strategy.

Finally, here are 50 plot twist ideas... one of them is sure to bail you out of your next plot conundrum!

Best of luck—and happy flying!!

When You Absolutely Can't Keep Writing, Try This

Has desperation set in with your manuscript? Here are your desperate measures. Four strategies to help you keep going when you thought you just. couldn't. even. |

And then. The day comes when your brain feels as lively and full of words as a rubber pancake. 

And you hear yourself saying the dreaded words: "I think I've hit a wall."

What do you do? When your eyes are buggy, your fingertips numb, and your grip on the language isn't exactly a grip?

What do you do when you can't keep writing, but there's too dang much of the draft still to go?

You throw out every single standard or expectation for this draft that you're still holding on to.

ALL of 'em.

(Don't panic. You can bring your standards back when things are moving again. But for now, you just don't need them. For now, the goal is: Unstick this word machine and get it back on track!)

Here are four tricks I use to lower the bar, shake up the draft, and get my story moving again.

1. Forget about paragraphs: Start writing in list form.

What?! Like, with bullet points?

Yes! Certainly! Why not?! 

If your story is stuck, and you have no idea what should happen next, list the possibilities.

Right there in the draft. Yes, really! 

And let your characters talk back to you about each one. Conduct a little story interview.

Explore the different options: not by thinking about them, but by writing. 

Write down what you love about the different options. Write down what draws you deeper. And when a possibility makes your heart beat a little faster, start writing your draft in that direction.

2. Don't worry about writing actual sentences either.

Judy Reeves writes about the power of creating a run-on sentence: every time you'd naturally write a period, try putting a comma, and then keep on pushing.

She says, "Follow the last word with another specific image that takes the writing further, then do it again and again." 

When I first heard that, I thought, Yeah, right, whatever.

Then I tried it, and whoa: She's totally right. It unlocks doors. And it helps me feel more like an explorer-writer, and less like a this-has-to-be-done-CORRECTLY writer.

Which is really good news for getting past walls in the draft.

3. When your story's really on the rocks, talk to yourself.

Last year, I hit an absolute wall in my manuscript. Half the characters were stranded in a farmhouse, with unknown and undefined villainy pressing in around them, but they didn't have any kind of game plan... and neither did I

I was so stuck. After a LONG time of staring at my notebook, I switched tactics: I started talking to myself about the story... in narrative form. 

I started scribbling like this: "Okay, Lucy, so they're all at the farmhouse waiting, but who wants to just watch characters wait? So what SHOULD they be doing? Is anyone getting ready for the climax? Because they totally should be. Okay. Which characters are really involved in this section, and what skills do they have? What are they worried about? Is there some narrative something I haven't cashed in yet? A subplot that hasn't gotten its due in a while? How's Claire doing? What about that one guy--we haven't heard from him in a while. Maybe I should explore... "

I know. It doesn't make for exciting reading. But I kept on writing like that. Letting my pen keep moving, asking myself questions, searching for what should happen next.

And guess what. After quite a few pages of rambling, I found it. 

I wrote my way out of that problem, and back on track. 

(Yes, some very strict people might argue that this isn't actual WRITING on my actual STORY and should therefore NOT COUNT... but let's all check our writing-a-first-draft guidebooks, shall we? It isn't about being strict.

When I revise, I'll be able to consider all the possible ways of filling that narrative hole: All my talking to myself is a giant placeholder. A placeholder studded with actual ideas.

And since my goal was finish the draft and not solve this plot dilemma right now and perfectly, this solution totally worked.) 

4. Switch your writing medium.

If you've been writing on a computer, try writing by hand. (I did all of last year's Nanowrimo by hand! I promise it can be done!) 

If you're already writing longhand, try swapping your notebook for a stack of index cards. Or even little sticky notes.

It's easier to look at a small piece of paper and say: "Okay, so what might happen next?" And even a very tired brain might roll its eyes, and say, "Well, sure, I can write THAT much."

Whichever method you try, remember this: The point of a rough draft (especially a Nanowrimo draft) is to GET SOMETHING DOWN ON PAPER.

You're getting the idea down. You're exploring possibilities. 

It is supposed to be rough. The edges are meant to be jagged and frayed. There are supposed to be plenty of holes! 

So when you feel like you can't keep going, do a quick expectations check. Figure out which standards you're still clinging to, and drop 'em! 

Don't just accept imperfection: rush out and find it! Give it a huge hug! Because it's your best friend when the writing is hard.

You can fix the holes later, I promise. And it's so much easier to fill holes in a finished draft.

Resuscitating a permanently-stalled one, on the other hand, is brutal.

Write messy. Write muddy. Fall down a lot. And keep on writing.

The Worst Thing I Ever Did for My Writing

When you're a beginning writer, you don't need to think about agents. Or publication. Or reviews, sales, awards. I promise. (And this is what happens if you let the worst advice drive your career.) |

This post is all about me trying to keep you from getting hit by a bus. Okay? So if I get my serious voice on, that's why. I love you and I want to keep you from being writerly roadkill. All right?

This is one of the absolute worst pieces of writing advice that I ever received. And, I'm ashamed to say, I acted on it:

Just before I started writing full time, an acquaintance of mine--a talented, experienced writer--told me that I should be able to write a novel in a year.

Okay. Here's the truth in that: Many professional novelists can and should create a novel in a year. If novels are what put food on your table, it's a really good idea to write one a year at least. 

But for someone who is just starting to learn about novel writing, this is HOWLINGLY TERRIBLE advice. 

Especially if that new writer is also a high achiever, perfectionistic, Type A sort of person. One who is full of terrors and insecurities about her own legitimacy. Who isn't sure she should be "allowed" to write full time. 

This is very bad advice for that sort of person.

This is one of the beliefs that most crippled me as a writer.

I started writing full time in an absolute panic. I was desperate to prove myself. And I had that advice of hers hanging over my head. I had to crank out this novel.

It took me much too long to let go of that belief. Embarrassingly long. 

And as a result, I've been learning to write a novel completely backwards. 

I can't tell you how badly I wish I could time travel back to see my terrified pre-graduation self.

I'd sit that version of me down in a chair, probably pour some coffee down her throat, and then force her to take notes while I tell her this: Don't try to write one word of an actual novel for at least six monthsMaybe even for a whole first year.

Instead, do a bunch of quality writing exercises, I'd say. Give yourself a starting time for your work day, and stick with it. Write exercises for an hour each day. Work up to two.

Fill the rest of your writing days like this: read books on craft, read about how novelists think, and how to build a writing life. Read hundreds of novels.

And then jot down great and crazy and terrible ideas for novels and characters and situations and settings. IDEAS. Don't try to write the novels themselves.

I would tell her, very seriously: Give yourself time to adjust. Time to learn about this life. To learn about novels. Learn about the underpinnings of structure, about the crazy mystery of it all, and how full-time writers think.

Learn about creativity, get yourself a good non-fiction reading habit, become a kind boss to yourself, and start getting rid of your perfectionism and your envy


That would have transformed my writing career. 

Instead, I wasted years and years trying to create a publishable product before I understood the basics of how novels actually work.

Before I even knew--truly knew, not just assumed--what kinds of novels I even wanted to write.

I bolstered my belief in this lie every time I heard about publishing wunderkinds, about writers my age or younger who were publishing quality stuff.

I'd go back to what that acquaintance said, stare at a calendar in despair, and then go back to my study and thrash around. 

Nauseating, right? 


Well, I can't go back and change that terrified kid's mind and convince her that she needed to grow into this.

To tell her--convince her!! brainwash if necessary!!--that by trying to cut to the end, she was actually giving herself a lot more work, heartache, despair, and bitterness. 

So can I at least convince you? 

Please, please, please. Take the time to learn about novels and writing and your own amazing mind. Do not aim, at the start of your career, at agents and publication. Not immediately. Not yet.

First novels are allowed to be terrible! They are allowed to be awful, wonderful, ramshackle things! They can take a long time to learn to write! They are supposed to sit proudly in drawers with all their battle scars, as proof that you are a learning, growing writer. 

They are not required to be written breathlessly in your first year. And first novels are not required to make you tons of money, fame, glowing reviews, screaming fans, and more money. 

They are only required to help you lay a solid, true, healthy foundation for your writing career.


If you think you're an exception to this: well, you might be.

But just so you know (and even though it makes me CRINGE): I was convinced I was an exception too.

And I stayed convinced in the face of a lot of warning signs. 

I thought that my job was to crank out my first (amazing, best-selling, award-winning, money-making) novel in a year. I thought that was what I was supposed to do.

But here's what I know now.

My job, for at least that first year, was to learn what made a great novel great, what made a bad novel bad, and how to work every single day. My job was to get into the habit of coming up with lots of wild and wonderful ideas and to write down those ideas.

My job was to create a system of habits that named me a writer.

Without reference to publishing, agents, reviews, or awards.

My job was not to write a novel in a year.

If you are new to this, please give yourself time to learn. A LOT of time. Plenty of grace-filled time.

Commit to learning deeply. Learn how your brain works, let yourself write a zillion exercises, explore the kinds of themes that bubble up. Surprise yourself.

Don't be driven by what you imagine you should write or how quickly someone else says you should.

There will be time, later, for professional speed. There will be time to write faster.

There will be plenty of time for you to prove yourself. You'll get there.

But it is silly, pointless, and so heartbreaking to try to do that first thing.

How to Talk about Your Writing (Without Throwing Up)

You have to give up trying to justify your writing to the people who ask you about it. |

So you've done the hard work of beginning a writing practice. You're chugging along with some good ideas, forming strong writing habits, and cultivating a pleasant outlook.

Maybe things are going okay. And then someone says, "So... you're a writer? What are you working on?"

And, if you're like me, those simple words can be slightly terrifying.

When I started writing full-time, I responded very earnestly to questions about my work. I described where I was with my current draft, maybe sketched out a little of the plot, and--heaven help us--how I felt about it all. 

My goal in these situations was: to be honest, to try and sound like my work was legitimate, and to not throw up on their shoes out of pure nervousness.

It didn't always go well.

And here's what I've found out: The reason behind talking about my writing was all wrong. Way off.

It's good to be honest. It's good to not barf on someone's shoes. Very healthy goals. Nice job, Lucy.

But that middle one--did you notice that? Answering the "what are you writing" question in a way that would make me feel all warm and special and like my work is valuable... that NEVER went well. 

Never. You have to believe me on this.

Give up justifying yourself to people who ask about your work.

When you're talking about your writing, you'll find you have three types of listeners.

  • Category One: The nice people--friends or benevolent strangers. They tend to say helpful and encouraging things. 
  • Category Two: And then, the jerks. These are the ones who say things that make you feel like you've been chewed up and spit out. 
  • Category Three: These are the people who don't fit neatly into either category. Usually, they mean well (in a vague kind of way), but also manage to convey some serious doubts about the validity of what you're working on.

And if you go into these conversations needing them to crown you as a valid writer, as someone who is genuinely working hard, who has justified her place in the universe--

Then you can get into trouble, no matter who you're talking to.

Category One is obviously the nicest. But if I am fishing around for a certain kind of reaction, it's really easy for me to talk too much. Either I'm venting all my insecurities (NEVER a good move), or I'm spilling my guts about my story.

If all I do is hash out my writerly anxiety, no amount of their saying "No, you're a great writer!" is gonna stick.

And if I talk too much about my actual story, a really strange thing happens: When I arrive at my desk the next day, my characters are seriously unhappy with me. 

They cross their arms and say, "Why, why, did you tell all our secrets out in the open?" You might not believe me, but I promise: the work does not go well when I overtalk my plot.

Category Two: SO MUCH FUN. (Kidding.)

If you need someone else to validate you, and then open your mouth only to find out that you're talking to a total Anti-Writing Jerk...

Oh. It's just not going to go well. 

It is shocking what people will say. The best reaction I ever got from a Category Two was the woman who told me that she would evict her daughter if she ever did what I was doing. 

(And yes, it was very clear that I was talking about WRITING, and not, say, prostitution.)

It can be very, very hard to face your work after chatting with a jerk.

And then Category Three. The ones who essentially hope things go okay for you... but they also have very serious doubts about what you're doing. And why. And how successful you'll ever be. And basically...

Well, basically they doubt everything.

I have the most trouble with this reaction. Maybe because it's more common than overt jerk-ness, but also because it's too close to my fears about writing.

That I'll never make any money from it. That it isn't a "serious" career (whatever that is). That it is a waste of whatever intelligence I have.

And this is the person I find myself having inner arguments with, whenever I sit down at my desk. The kind of people I try to explain myself to, rising to the challenge of their strained "oh--how nice." 

Justifying why I write. What I write about. How I work. 

It's never a good route.

So I changed my goal.

I've had way too many crappy conversations about what I do. (Seriously. SO MANY.) 

And I've talked to too many honestly nice people, who have nevertheless sucked all the writing energy out of me and left me spinning. (Again: So many times.)

Finally, finally, I've wised up. I changed my goal.

It's not super complicated. My real, main, underlying goal, in any conversation about my work, is this: To be able to write the next day.

To be able to sit down at my desk after having this conversation about what I do, and to do my work.

No drama. No arguments. No wheedling. No justifying. No seeking validation.

I'm a writer. Writers write.

I don't need to find anyone who can give me that title. It doesn't exist somewhere outside of myself. No one hands out "Oh, FINALLY you're a writer now!" certificates. 

I've decided: this is a valid career. This is the thing I'm doing with my life.

Regardless of making absolutely zero money with it, for a long time now. Regardless of how it turns out.

Whether other people think it's worth my time, or whether they very plainly don't.

When you know this--when you know it down to your toes--then these conversations about your work just don't have that kind of power over you anymore.  They don't tie your stomach in knots and then leave you eviscerated.

Which means: You're free to do your work.

You can talk to your friends without sharing too much, without writhing in insecurity. You can be honest and concise, without ticking off your characters.

You can look at the jerks with sympathy. (My guess is, there is something in their lives that they didn't give themselves permission to do. And now they poop on everyone else's parade. Which is ultimately very sad. And it quite literally stinks to be them.) 

If you can't muster up sympathy for the jerks--or even if you can--you can write about them. Congrats, your novel just got a new character.

And the conflicted well-wishers, the kindly nay-sayers... Well, you can shrug them off too.

Your career isn't in their hands. Your ability to practice your writing until you're incredibly good, your time dreaming up characters and storylines... all of that is separate from them. It's only up to you.

So stay strong.

Look. It's gonna happen. You'll have some weird conversations about writing.

You're going to give too much information about your work to some people, and their reactions will haunt you. You'll blurt something out to a sneer-face, and be paralyzed for a week. Or you'll cheerily tell someone about your work, and their indifference or their constant questions will make you exhausted and doubtful.

But it comes down to this: You're a writer. You are facing a white page, a blank screen, and you're filling it with ideas. Words. Vision put to paper.

That is no small thing.

Actually, it's a big freaking deal.

And so there are going to be people out there that try to put the brakes on what you're up to. (Big deals tend to draw this sort of person out.)

Don't let them.

You have to decide, right here, right now, that you're a writer. 

You have to have the goal of writing. No matter what anyone says.

Because these aren't the only critics you'll face, right? So refuse to give anyone the power to stop you from working.

You're a writer. An explorer. You're diving into the unknown, again and again.

You actually do have the guts to do this. Don't let anyone's reactions convince you otherwise.

Wanna keep reading? Check out these posts: Voice Your Astonishment and The End of Excuses.

The Power of a Passive Idea File

You've gotta be an idea factory. Grab your inspiration *before* you need it. |

A novel isn't just one idea: It's dozens of ideas. Hundreds. Thousands, even. Because behind every little dialogue interchange, every scene's climax, every character choice: there's an idea.

You've gotta be an idea factory. Always coming up with those tiny ideas that work together to form the scene, the chapter.

And when you're long-hauling your way through a rough draft, you can go clean through all your intriguing ideas in just a couple of sessions. 

When you hit a wall, you can brainstorm your way out, or, you can grab a little idea snack. You can have a few files of inspiration ready to go. 

Inspiration before you need it. How gorgeous is that??

Think of it like stocking your pantry: If you've got the good staples on hand, you can always whip up a good meal, right? Well, this is food for your writing.

I have three main files for storing inspiration. Simple documents that are bursting with ideas--enough to keep me writing novels for the rest of my life. ... Bookshelves better buckle up.

The Title File.

What is it: Well, it's a list of titles for works that don't exist. Titles for novels, story collections, poems, essays, chapters. I've started to look at titles as their own genre, their own little art form. They're like a miniature story themselves, a story starter, a teaser. 

Have you felt this way before? The right title can make a story world, or story situation, spring up all on its own. Practically effortless.

Here's what I do: Whenever I feel like it, I'll create a little list full of titles. Try it. It's pretty dang fun to sit down and generate a bunch of really quirky book titles.

There's nothing on the line, no pressure. You get to just be your creative, freewheeling self.

If you're stuck, there are a few things you can try. Look at a bookcase, and start mixing up the titles in your mind. Scramble the words to create new titles, and write those down.

Or, switch up your environment, and pull titles from your new surroundings. Like for me, right now? A Stack of Untended Dishes. An Afternoon of Unwashed Coffee Mugs. The Unlucky Lamp: A Mystery. See what I mean? Of course they can be a bit goofy, a bit too mysterious or silly. That's just fine.

And then, when I need it: If I'm stuck on a scene, or if I'm about to dive into a writing exercise but have ZERO ideas for where to begin, I'll dip into this file. And whatever title I pick, I let it suggest conflict ideas, imagery, a mini story-world. And those ideas fuel the writing that I do next.

The Character Name File

What is it: Okay, not just any old names. These are names that have a kind of deeper feeling for me. Hard to explain it. There are names that I hear and they're just names; and then other names grab my imagination and start it spinning.

A really good name suggests a kind of physicality, a certain kind of inner narrative voice, a sense of motive.

And if I sit and think about that name and everything it implies for me: well, my fingers start itching, and words start trickling.

Here's what I do: Well, there are great name books out there, definitely. This one has been a life saver many times. 

But browsing a name book can boil my brain after a while.

Will you be shocked if I say my favorite source for names is the dictionary? (Nah, you're not shocked. You know I read the dictionary.) I'll read a definition of a less-familiar word, and the combination of the word and its meaning suddenly sparks a character in my head.

Like the word heddle. An old word, a weaving term. It comes from an Old English word for "to lift," or "heave." And somehow in reading that, I could see an old woman, working to change things politically in her storyworld, working to make a broken system better... 

And yep, Heddle is a major character in my current work-in-progress.  

So the dictionary is awesome. But you can find a good name anywhere--road signs, street names, overheard conversations, historical figures, cemeteries (yes, I've done this--try it, it makes you feel good and spooky and writerly), or your good old family tree.

And then when I need it: I'll drop a new character into a scene that's having trouble. Apparently when Raymond Chandler got bored with a scene, he'd send in a man with a gun. Well, I send in a quirky character with some weird skill or attitude or information or a bone to pick with the world... and then I'm off and running again.

The Image and Phrase File.

What is it: This is the file for the strange little phrases that whisk through your mind sometimes. You know what I mean? Chance descriptions, unusual images, just little flecks and flickers of an idea. 

They dash through your mind before you go to bed, or when you're staring out the window. They pop into your mind when your in the middle of a conversation, forcing you to actually act like a writer and go scribble it down. Bits and pieces that don't attach themselves to your work-in-progress, but which are too good to pass up.

Always, always write them down. And then pile them here.

Here's what I do: I don't really work to generate these. But whenever my mind is all warmed up and tossing out freebies, I catch them and keep them.

And then when I need it: When my writing is sounding dull, when my descriptive abilities start sagging, or when my imagination is just tired and worn out: I browse this file for a while.

I'll emerge with a way to juice up the description, or a new take on characterization.  

See? Easy. You can add to these three files whenever you feel like it. Once a week, or at the start of each writing day, or whenever you need to write but are taking a break from your main project.

It gives you that pleasing feeling of writing in miniature, of being mildly productive. And then when you need it on a heavy drafting day: well, look at that. Your bacon is already saved.

And when you REALLY need a inspirational push? Grab a title, a character name, and two or three images. And that, my friends, can save a writing day.

So, what do you think? Do you already keep inspiration files like these? What other ways have you been squirreling away ideas for future use? Let's share tips in the comments!

Wanna keep reading? Check out these posts: Write Through Your Problems and Be a Generous Writer: Empty all your pockets.

How to Be a Kinder Boss

If you're self-employed, you're your own boss, right? Here's how to be a better one. |

I kind of love the rush I get, filling out forms that want to know who employs me. You know? Confronted by this: Employer: ______________________. 

And in my head, I sing out: Oh, I'm self-employed! I work for myself! I'm a savvy little boss lady! I've hired myself to work for no pay for about nine years, that's the kind of boss I am.

I might, occasionally, have little nervous breakdowns about it.

Or, I should say, I used to. 

It's only recently that I've fully realized the implications of that. I'm my own boss.

Which means that I have the power to shape my days. I decide how I think about work. I set the emotional environment in my "office." I decide what everyone on my team does--and by "my team," I mean myself, wearing all the hats that every writer (and every self-employed person) must wear.

I'm the boss, the full committee (from idea-maker to skeptic), every level of worker. I'm the marketing department, the intern, the fetcher-of-coffee, and the janitor. 

Right? But the boss--the boss sets the agenda, the feel, the pace.

Here's the truth (and you've probably guessed it already): For a lot of years, I was a pretty awful boss. 

I figured that to make my team run well, I needed discipline, restrictions, deadlines, discipline, hard work, high expectations, and a lot more discipline. 

For some reason, my team kept burning out.


Is anyone out there like me?

If so, a word of advice: Don't do this.

Just ... don't.

It's an understandable trap. I mean, you read these amazing novels and then you look at your own prose. And your fledgling work-in-progress is a pretty mixed bag. A lot of crud, and then some wonderful parts that make your heart lift right out of your chest ... followed by, yep, more crud.

It's an automatic response to want to whip that mess into shape. And maybe whip yourself into shape along with it.

But the funny thing is, whips don't work especially well. 

About a year ago, some pretty crazy circumstances hit my life. I became so exhausted that I couldn't work, I couldn't do anything. Really. Anything. 

It took a while to get back on my feet, but when I did, I realized that a terribly strict boss just wasn't going to cut it. Out of necessity, I became a really kind and understanding boss instead.

Guess what. My writing life got a whole lot happier. And the weird side effect: My writing TOTALLY improved as well.

Crazy, right? Being kinder to yourself. Who would have thought. Sounds like everyone who's talking about self-care these days... well, they might be on to something.

I still have a long way to go before kindness becomes my home base, but I've learned a lot. And it's been so worth it.

Want to renovate your own self-management style? (Don't wait for a total breakdown!) Here are some of the qualities of a kinder boss:

1. A kind boss is not a pushover. Okay, so kind doesn't mean stupid. They know when you're full of crap, and when you're being honest. So, probably you can't go watch TV all during your writing time. But on the flip side: you are definitely allowed to go take a walk to collect your thoughts. 

2. A kind boss wants you to grow. Both as a writer and as a person. So, they're not really interested in beating you down just for the heck of it. 

3. A kind boss realizes that you have a life outside of work. Extenuating circumstances? Yep, they happen. A good boss knows that. They let you off the hook when something major comes up, or they help you find a way to work around it.

4. But a kind boss does expect you to do your work. And they'll gently push you to do your best. Accountability isn't a bad thing.

5. A kind boss does not write UGGGGGH in the margin of your work-in-progress. Ever. (Um... whoops.)

6. A kind boss knows the difference between a healthy challenge and an impossible stretch. This can be a hard one to figure out. But after some testing, the kind boss understands when a task is hard-but-doable. Or when the task is really just out for blood. Good to know the difference between those two.

What do you think? Any of these traits resonate with you? What's on your good boss list?

Wanna keep reading? Check out The Truth about those Interruptions and All Marathons Have a Finish Line.

Please encourage a self-employed buddy by sharing this post.

Go out and get yourself a cup of coffee.

When you tune in to your writerly brain, any outing can be a writing retreat. |

Here's your weekend assignment. Go out and get yourself a cup of coffee. (Or tea. Or hot chocolate. Or whatever.) And turn your cafe visit into an adventure--a kind of writing expedition.

There is a long, long tradition of writers working (or not working) in places where drinks are served. Even if you've had a crappy writing week--especially if you've had a crappy writing week--this is still a writing ritual you can participate in.

Plus: you get a coffee. It's a win, all the way around.

Play it up if you like: Try out a new place, where you won't run into anyone you know. Dress mysteriously. Bring a new pen, a blank composition book.

And then eavesdrop. Write down the dialogue you hear around you--without any descriptions, just as a series of quotes. 

Immerse yourself in the place, the feel of it. How would it translate into a paragraph in a novel, or a scattering of phrases in a short story? 

Jot down notes on a napkin. Write down descriptions of the faces you see, descriptions of the voices, the scream of the espresso machine, the particular jangle of the bells hanging over the door.

Try to capture it in just nouns and verbs, in concrete terms. Get it all: the screaming toddler in the stroller, the hypercool teenager immersed in his iPhone, the overparticular-about-the-quality-of-the-espresso customer. The newspaper headlines, the array of pastries, the funky baristas, the warmth of the coffee hitting your veins. 

Be the writer in the corner who notices everything. The spy in plain sight.

After all, this is your dream job, right? Have a dream job kind of outing.

Imagine deeper meanings behind every casual gesture you see. Decide what would happen if a few of these characters were forced to face a certain conflict, a totally unexpected challenge. Mess with the whole scene: shake the coffeehouse in your mind like it's a snow globe, and see what happens as all the elements resettle.

If nothing else, just write down a string of random nouns. Scratch your pen over some paper, and feel that bit of word-glee bubbling in your brain (or is that the caffeine?). 

Go be a person, go be a writer, go get some coffee.

This Is the Writing Book that You Really Must Read

Need a writing book to help you Not Go Crazy? I've got a recommendation for that. |

So I'm a Type A kind of person. And I have this teeny tiny problem with perfectionism sometimes. Occasionally, I get a bit tightfisted, a bit controlling, with my work and my schedule.

When I started writing fiction full time, I thought I was going to lose my mind.

Writing novels--with all their mess, their sprawling and tangled and totally non-linear process--well, it didn't so much work with my personality.

And I still don't know what would have happened to my novel ideas (not to mention my sanity) if I didn't have Page After Page, by Heather Sellers.

This is the writing book that you need right now. |

You guys. This is the book I would hand out to each and every writer I meet, if I could.

I'd love to just have a stack, ready to go, and whenever anyone says, "Oh, hey, I'm interested in writing," or "I know someone who likes to write," I'd whip out a copy and say Here! Take this! Read it! IT'S YOUR PARACHUTE!

I'd probably get a little overexcited. Can you tell?

Because when I started writing, I could find plenty of writing books that talked about aspects of craft (how to plot! let's write dialogue! hone your description skills!), and publication (you need an agent! here's how to market! let's write a query!). 

What I didn't find was a book on Not Going Crazy, which was the thing I needed the most.

 Fortunately, I was working as an editorial intern when I realized I wanted to write full time. And my kind boss (who probably knew my quirks better than I did at that point--my white knuckles gave me away) handed me a copy of this book.

These pages are marked up with ink of every color. Some chapters are underlined in near-entirety. I've done most of the exercises three or four times. And every time I reread it, I find sentences that hit me fresh. Ideas and helpful ways of thinking that, when I apply them, change everything for the better.

Major recommendation: Page After Page by Heather Sellers. Soooo good! |

Heather Sellers talks about what your life needs to look like so that your writing gets done. But she isn't a hysterical, strict, mean-spirited person, sucking the fun and the imagination out of everything. Nope. Her view of the writing life is a very generous, happy, and passionate approach.

The chapters are short and quick to read, so you'll zip right through. (And if you're in a major writing slump, my best advice is: Binge-read this book. Go straight through it. You'll be much better on the other side.)

She talks about anxiety, how to deal with other people's attitudes toward your writing, what kinds of tools you need. She talks about when writing isn't for you, and what to do when you're frustrated about writing. She talks about how to deal with your moods.

Because writers have some moods

She'll tell you how to find your best material for your work, how to discover what you already know. She'll tell you what your apprenticeship in writing will look like, how long it will take, and why that's okay.

She talks about all kinds of things that kept me writing when I wanted to stop.

Best of all, she helped me see that if I didn't have a healthy writing life, with a healthy writer's heart, then all the books on craft and marketing wouldn't make any difference at all.

If the blank page scares you too much, then who cares about dialogue practice? Who needs an agent?

So. That's my writing challenge to you, friends. Snag a copy of this book, at a library, at a bookstore. Check it out, and then please do tell me what you think of it! I have a hunch that it will be a game changer for you too.

Wanna keep reading? Check out Me + Future Lucy and Lighten Up.

You're Already a Magician

When you dive in and begin your creative work: spooky good things start to happen. |

If you're in a creative field for about, oh, five minutes, you'll hear this quote:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe*

When I began writing Book One of my trilogy, I was escaping two huge novel projects. We're talking fifty-page outlines, and 500-page drafts. HUGE. I wrote Book One like a runaway.

I had a couple of plot ideas, three character names, and a murky idea for a villain. A city name that I thought sounded fun. And that was about it.

I dove headfirst into NaNoWriMo, and by flinging myself at the blank page day after day, I came up with a story of over 50,000 words that completely dazzled me.

I found out that I didn't need a massive strategy. I didn't need dozens of plot complications listed out. I didn't need scene diagrams. Somehow, I already had the whole story inside me.

And it just took diving in to find it.

So what is it, this boldness of just BEGINNING? You're saying to yourself that anything is possible. That this is a road you are willing to go down. 

And when you do that, three things show up.

You're a genius.

When you dive in, with a whole heart, with all the boldness cylinders firing, you just get smarter. Really! You do. When problems show up, you find a way.

Because there are always problems. And there is always a way.

You find in yourself a cunningness. An openness to unusual solutions.

What's the prerequisite for solving a problem? Believing that you can. Believing that there exists an answer, somewhere, and that it is graspable. 

Funny what you'll invent, what you'll create, what you'll make, as long as you believe that you can. Answers arrive out of thin air, exposing what you didn't know you knew.

You're powerful.

When you really go for it, you make your own momentum.

This is a crazy good thing. Stoke it, build it, add to it in any way you can.

And never ever take your momentum for granted.

A strong beginning builds its own energy and strength. An oomph that can move you over hurdles in your way.

And hey, you're putting ideas into the world, putting words down on paper, that didn't exist there before. No matter how you slice it, no matter how you feel about it, that's powerful. That's big stuff.

You're a magician.

As you come up with your genius answers, and as you build momentum, weird things start showing up.

Characters start talking to you. I mean it. Really talking.

You start seeing things that aren't there.

No, I'm not getting spooky on you. I think another word for all this is "overactive imagination." But for once, that's a really good thing. That's exactly what you want!

Yes, you, with the overactive imagination: Please bring it over here and start writing your novel.

I think that when you've voted YES for your creative work in a really solid, hands-down, not-gonna-back-out way, your brain takes a little bit of time to catch up. (Maybe to get over its surprise.) But then when it does--oh baby. When it does.

It brings all kinds of stuff out of its attic, out of the basement. Ideas and imagery you didn't know you had in you. I mean--you really didn't know.

Character voices and mannerisms, crazy settings, and astonishing conflict ideas that you can't explain in a purely rational way. Because they feel like they came from something outside of you, not you at all.

And instead of scraping the bottom of what you can imagine, you discover depths below depths.

Dive in.

Sometimes, if we don't start when we should, all that genius, power, and magic goes the other way. It goes backward, works against you.

Personally, I'm always spotting flaws in my works-in-progress, in my project plans. I see why things don't work. I'm a terrible skeptic when it comes to most ideas: the first thing to my lips is why we can't. I am full of resistance, mule-minded, with a very hard head, heels that have lots of practice digging in. 

And I can practical-mind all that magic away.

Spoiler alert: This is not the way to enjoy writing novels.

Sometimes, you really just need to leap, whole-heartedly. In spite of flaws, in spite of doubts. And you figure it out as you're falling.

Sometimes, you really do learn to fly on the way down. And, when you don't, sometimes the crash landing isn't as awful as you thought it would be. You learn. You build a better flying machine.

Sometimes, you really just need to begin.

What is it that you've held back from beginning? What is on your "one day, maybe I'll..." list? 

What would happen if you--started?

Wanna keep reading courage-building posts? Check out Throwing a Party for Discomfort and Feed the Bears. And then dive into your week, lionheart! You can do it!

Boost a friend's Monday by sharing this post! Let's all be magicians this week.

*So I've heard that this Goethe quote is commonly misattributed, and that the quote actually came from W. H. Murray, but either way you slice it: it's a stirring quote.