Welcome back to the Strength Building Series! So far, we've talked about what strength even means (because the wrong definition is the first step to sabotaging it). And then we focused in on building strength of imagination (because imagination is central to everything we do!).
And today—I'm really excited. Which is appropriate. Because today we're talking about how to increase our enthusiasm for our work.
I know! I know! I'm gonna have to simmer down so much to even write this thing...
Ahem. Okay. Being sensible.
So, first thing: why even bring up enthusiasm? Why is this a place where we need to build strength?
And one of the more mind-blowing things that she pointed out was: when it comes to sustainable momentum in our work, enthusiasm trumps discipline.
Yeah. It's still incredible.
And that shifted my focus from "How can I be more disciplined?" to "How can I be more enthusiastic?" Which is a pretty huge course correction.
Building enthusiasm. It's essential for the kind of work we want to do.
... And before anyone gets worried that I'm about to base all our hard work on a mere feeling, let's refresh on Julia Cameron's definition of enthusiasm. She says:
Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us. ...
Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. ... It is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.
Okay. If that was waaay more mushy-sounding than you really care for on a Thursday, let's look at it like this:
The way Cameron is using enthusiasm isn't about "how we feel right now."
It's about 1) commitment, 2) openness, 3) creativity, 4) process, 5) play, 6) joy and 7) yes, okay, love.
Which is why, to build enthusiasm, we're going to dive into the work itself (commitment!). No matter where we're at in it (process!).
We're going to mess around (creativity!) and try new things (openness!). And yes, it's going to be playful. It's going to be about enjoying what we're making. And even, dare I say it, loving it.
Sound good? Sound ... fun?
Here are my five favorite ways to build playfulness and enthusiasm for my work-in-progress.
Check them out, stay open, and don't worry about "doing it right." Just dive in and give these a try.
1) Embrace the Souvenir Method.
... I was about to say "this is one of my favorite things to do with a piece I'm working on!" and then I realized I'd just be saying this about everything I'm talking about today.
So I figured I'd spare you the repetition...
AND YET IT'S TRUE!
The souvenir method is a gorgeous little way to keep your mind and heart centered in your story. Plus it's fun.
.... Annnnd it gives you a rush.
Okay. Here's what you do:
First, get your mindset.
This is super important to remember: You're going to be visiting your draft-in-process as if it's a place. As if you're an explorer. You're going to be looking for souvenirs: things to take out of context and bring to a new place.
In other words: You are not about to spiral into a critique-festival. You're not going to indulge in beating yourself up. You will not, even for a moment, whisper to yourself that your draft is "crap." Okay?
This isn't about judging what's there. Not at all. This can be done with the messiest, crappiest drafts, I promise you. (Because I definitely have.)
Pick up your draft. You can start from any place. From the beginning if you like, or any chapter at all.
And read. Read slowly. Let yourself explore.
Read like you're looking at something new. Switch off your editing brain, and just experience the story.
While you're doing that, keep your eyes open for any line, any sentence, any phrase, that seems to especially capture the feel of a particular moment of your story.
- a passage that pinpoints a vital aspect of the setting
- a line of dialogue that shows off your protagonist's snarkiness
- an exchange or moment between two characters that hints at the truth of their relationship
- a key moment in the rise of the conflict
- any moment that sums up a character's personality
Don't think perfection here. Think "candid snapshot."
You're looking for moments that get the feel of your story, even more than the accuracy.
And—even more importantly—you're looking for bits and phrases and scraps that mean something to you.
You're looking for the sentences that register in your writerly heart. The little "aha!" feeling when a phrase resonates especially.
Another reader might look at what you've chosen and see a bunch of scraps of sentences, bits of paragraphs.
But when you read it through, you hopefully hear your protagonist's voice, or sense a moment between the two love interests, or feel the prickle of anxiety before a major plot point.
Go for resonance and atmosphere more than just "yes, this sums up the passage well."
Does that make sense?
Personally, I copy and paste what I've chosen into its own document. I play around with the formatting: I put little separators between each passage.
Sometimes I'll have three sentences from a section, and other times I'll just have lifted one little phrase. If one of the clips needs a brief note to remind me of context, I throw that in as well.
When I'm done, I have about a page or so of moments from my story that set my mind and heart ringing. Moments that, when I read them together, as a whole, re-immerse me into my story.
Which is oh-so helpful for those times when I've been away from the work, and am trying to find my way back in.
2) Create a Gallery of Nouns.
This is one that I've used recently. It's fun and seemingly simplistic... but it's been part of my post-summer re-entry to my novel, and has helped so much!
Here's what I did: While rereading my draft so far, I paused every few pages, and doodled one of the nouns that had been mentioned in the story.
So, as I read, I made little silly sketches of things like: the cat a character dreamed about, the spider my main character chased from her room, the row of herbs on her mom's windowsill.
I gave each little drawing a label: "Olivia's splendid lemon cake," "a gorgeous straw hat for the beach," "the mailbox with one postcard inside."
And then I went through and colored everything in.
I didn't care that the drawings didn't look perfect—they were meant to just be light-hearted, quick, and fun. And when I sat back, I had a kind of visual catalogue of my story so far.
Images that stood in for character moments, points of tension, or just part of the opening setting that my characters will miss later in the story, when they're far away.
What's valuable about this technique is how playful and simple it can be. But it slyly involves our ability to visualize our own story, and to translate it into another art form: a doodle, a sketch, a selection of colors.
And there's something pretty magical about being able to see bits of your story laid out on a page.
3) Let Music Be the Food of Story.
If you've been a long-time reader, you've heard me mention this a time or three. But that's because it's my all-time favorite!!
And I'm especially smitten with it because this simple tool, more than anything else, saved my connection to my story over a long, difficult summer.
Because of some tough circumstances, I had to let weeks go by without drafting, yet I stayed open and connected to my novel idea. How?
With a playlist of music.
I've slowly built a playlist of songs that remind me of key moments in my trilogy. These aren't soundtracks, by the way. The playlist isn't focused on instrumental songs.
It's a compilation of pieces that somehow link me to a character as a whole, to a character's backstory, to a moment of the plot, to a key relationship, to a story transition... the possibilities are, of course, endless!
The lyrics don't have to be 100% applicable to my story moment. If a handful of key lines resonate, that's good enough for me.
It turns out that it's the atmosphere and the mood of the song that's absolutely pivotal.
It's hard to just talk about music, so here are three examples from my playlist:
Example 1: Scarlett Johansson singing "Before My Time."
Yes, it's from a movie about ice. But on my playlist, it's linked to the moment we meet an old resistance leader. When she comes on stage for the first time, she's tired of hoping, and tired of trying for change.
Some of the lyrics are spot-on for her character, but I especially love the weariness in ScarJo's voice and the lament of the violin. I can practically feel my character when I hear this. SO perfect.
It's a more chilling version of a familiar song from kidhood... which is why it's spot on for my playlist. In my mind, this song references a fairly evil character who creeps around within, yup, dreams. And he's just focused his attention on my protagonist.
He's tricked her once before into believing he could be helpful, so the lyrics in the song even hint a smidge at the character's backstory and their history together.
There's also a kind of fatal inevitability in the song that I love... It helps me remember how trapped my protagonist feels in this moment, and how high the stakes are for her. Oooh. So good.
It's more simple and haunting than their original version, and it's one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. *high five*
It's also totally perfect for late in the trilogy, when my protagonist has been through a lot. She and her ragged friends are working alongside a king, and they're all gearing up for a climax that's sure to be very, very messy.
But the feel of this song and a fair amount of the lyrics are just exactly right. And honestly? I still get chills listening to this song, thinking of my main character.
Whew! So. Those are some that have worked for me.
The main thing to remember is that you're looking more for atmosphere and mood than for lyrics. A few spot-on lyrics are excellent, of course, but it's the feel of the song that seals it.
So, see what you think. Basically, you'll know it when you hear it.
When it hits just right, I feel this incredible expansive rush, where I can see my characters in my mind, and—more importantly—feel what they are feeling, and hear what they are thinking.
I sense their weariness, or their uncertainty and fear, or their dogged hope.
I can't say this enough: building a playlist is RIDICULOUSLY FUN.
It feels like procrastinating, but let me say it again: nothing saved my work this summer more than this. You can totally justify the time, in other words. ;)
Once you have a playlist—even if it's just a handful of songs—you have gold.
Play it in the car, listen to it while you cook, dance to it, take walks with it. And when you hear the songs, send your heart and your mind right into the center of your story.
You don't have to do any hard-core plotting (although I've definitely discovered plot this way). You don't have to jot down notes, or expand characterization (although, again, that has happened along the way for me).
You don't have to be "productive" with this tool at all. The biggest and best gift that it gives is a connection to the emotional and mental climate of your work.
It keeps it real and breathing and lively in your mind.
And when that's true, allllllll good things can follow.
4) Give It the Big Screen Treatment.
If the above strategies have been at all up your alley, don't stop there! This next idea can feel a little more tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it is pure fun and super helpful.
It also might keep you from sleeping, if you choose to do this right before bed. (So. Many. Times. I get all story-giddy and lie awake for hours. You've been warned.)
So: I love to dream up trailers for my book. As if it were a huge summer blockbuster.
I do this all in my head: I slowly fade in to some kind of panoramic story-view. Introduce characters in a moment, a glance, a funny line.
And then I try to zoom in on the most tantalizing moments. The funniest lines, the jaw-dropping cliff-hangers, the moments of loss. You know. The way a good trailer does.
I cut from one moment to the next to the next in my mind. I imagine stirring epic music, or heart-stopping silence. Even a little slo mo, when it feels right.
... Basically I just have a blast. That's it in a nutshell.
And each time I do this, the resulting "trailer" looks different.
What's glorious about this is how it, again, forces you to get visual about your story.
But also, it helps you focus on what movie trailers do best: excitement, intrigue, resonance. It helps you connect with the emotional points of your story.
When I'm mired in too much thinking about structure and plot, and when my work starts to feel tedious, I retreat to this strategy. I pull up IMDb and watch a bunch of movie trailers.
And then, comfortable with the whole movie-trailer genre again, I close my eyes and dream up my own.
Seriously, my friends, when you start to get the hang of it, this can inspire enthusiasm like nothing else.
5) Believe In Where It Could Go.
Okay. This final enthusiasm-builder might sound more than a little goofy. BUT I've read this advice from several other writers (James Scott Bell and Heather Sellers for a start), and so I had to give it a try.
... And when I did, I couldn't stop smiling.
Here it is: Make up endorsements for your work-in-progress, from authors you admire.
(IMMEDIATE DISCLAIMER: Don't, for the love of pete, publish them or pretend that they are real or everyone gets into trouble. Okay. Just had to say that. Common sense. Right. Okay.)
Anyway: Write that kind of endorsement that would just thrill you. What you'd dream of them saying.
Write endorsements that emphasize those key parts of the story that they most loved. Everything that you're aspiring to in your work.
Type the endorsements onto a mock title page, and print it off. Hang it in your work area, or put it somewhere else where you can see it.
Read them often. Smile.
... This isn't about getting our hopes up, or setting our hearts on something perhaps won't happen. Dream endorsements are a long shot, sure.
But the strength of this tool is a lot like the strength in affirmations. When we state the direction we're heading in, it helps us change course. Saying out loud what we want can keep us on track.
Plus, if these "endorsements" make you smile... then why not?
The main point is: they are a fun way to help you remember your goal. Your vision for the story.
The fact that, all this work, all these words, all these hours, are going into a craft you're making to give other people an experience.
Maybe you're trying to make them laugh. Or make 'em cry. (In a good way.)
Maybe you want to whisk them off to strange lands for strange adventures. Or maybe you're trying to open their eyes to what's in their backyard.
You want them to think. You want them to feel.
Write little blurbs for yourself that point you in that direction: that help you remember you're inventing an experience. It's about a heart, about emotions.
This little endorsement-writing trick can seem so small, so silly.
But it can lift us above the daily grind, just when we need it most, and set our focus back on the big picture.
And there you have it! Five ways to strengthen your enthusiasm and stay playful with your work-in-progress.
All five of these have been absolutely key at different points in my writing life. They have cheered me, excited me, steadied me, and brought my stories back from near-death.
Pretty dang exciting, frankly.
Which ones have you tried before? What will you try next?
Do you have any favorite ways to stoke writerly enthusiasm? Pass 'em along!! We all need plenty of good tools for this!