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! | lucyflint.com

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.

A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

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.)

34 Ways to Deliberately Grow Your Writing Practice (and Meet Your Edge!)

If you want to improve your writerly skills, without trading in a happy writing practice, I've got your back. Here's how to meet your edge, with grace and goodness. | lucyflint.com

Hello, my lovely lionhearts! Welcome back. We kicked off this month by getting excited about how we, as writers, get excellent at our work.

In other words, we talked about deliberate practice

If you missed it, here's the idea in a nutshell: Deliberate practice is about leaning forward in our work. Not just going through the motions, or merely putting in the time. It's about making each minute count.

My gut response to that idea is: Sounds awesome! But then I have to ask: Will this turn me into a very stressed out, jittery, grim sort of writer? Because if so, no.

Fortunately for all of us, there's a simple way to make deliberate practice sustainable. A way to bring as much curiosity and playfulness into it as we do perseverance and intentionality.

The key to it all is this little phrase: Meet your edge. 

As a process, it looks like this: Seek out the rim of what you are used to doing. Find the place where you would naturally want to give up, where you hit the limit of what's comfortable. 

Then take one step out of your comfort zone—not fifty steps out, not even ten steps out, just one step outside your comfort zone—

and work there.

THAT is how growth becomes doable, sustainable, practical, and, oh yeah, super dang effective.

Excited yet? Me too.

Now, because this kind of thing doesn't work at all if it isn't practical, I've brainstormed a bunch of ways to put this to work, right this minute, wherever you're at.

Most of them are pretty small moves, designed to make one aspect of your writing game a little bit sharper. And how you use them is up to you: You might take just one and focus on it for a week (or a month!) and watch yourself steadily improve.

Or grab a handful that seem to fit you, and work with them. Or try a new one each day, for more than a month of deliberate, edge-expanding practice. 

(Of course, everyone's "edge" is different, depending on where you are in the writing life. But take a look at each suggestion anyway, because getting even better at the basics is one way we can all meet our edge!) 

... Oooh, do you hear that? The next level of writing excellence is calling.


Here are 34 ways to practice writing deliberately!

1. Internalizing Story Structure: After finishing a novel or a movie, take five minutes to jot down the key structural points of the narrative. (I like using the three-sentence Story Spine model that Shawn Coyne describes at the beginning of this article.)

2. Dissecting Scene Structure: While reading a novel or watching a movie, pause after an especially loaded scene and take a moment to break it apart. How exactly did it begin and end? How did the writer build it to a climax, and what did it change for the overall narrative? Sketch out the skeleton of the scene to see how it was achieved.

3. Honing Dialogue: Copy out the guts of a dialogue exchange (just the stuff in quotes, without any of the extra descriptions or tags). Read those spoken words out loud, and get a sense for how dialogue sounds—especially the rhythms and beats behind a really good exchange. (This is great to do for published works you admire, or for tightening your own work.)

4. Analyzing Wordcraft: There's something about copying out someone else's work by hand. It helps you go from merely reading it, to seeing its nuts and bolts. Grab a work you admire and copy out an especially well-constructed paragraph. Study it phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence. (But obviously, um, don't take credit for someone else's work.)

5. Sprucing Vocabulary: Shake up the words that you tend to rely on by doing a deep dive into a book of poetry, a children's reference book, or your favorite dictionary. Savor the new mix of specific nouns and verbs, and push yourself to use a few in your next writing session.

6. Surveying Novel Skills: Grab a few favorite novels and check out how each author handles something you're having difficulty with. Try comparing story openings; chapter openings; chapter endings; dialogue; descriptive passages; or action scenes. Get really clear on how each author is choosing to address that area, and how effective their choices are—why they work, why they don't. (And there's nothing like forcing yourself to write down one clear sentence describing what you've learned, to be sure that you're actually figuring it out. So scribble down specific notes as you go!)

7. Clarifying What Didn't Work: When you encounter a novel or a movie that you hate (or even just felt meh about), push yourself to pinpoint exactly what didn't work for you. Where, precisely, did they fall off track? What could they have done differently to improve the whole story? The more specific and comprehensive and relentless you are with this, the more you build your own story-rescue muscles.

8. Taking Action: I don't know if you're this way, but it's easy for me to read helpful writing books without taking any real action. Next time you find some helpful writing advice, instead of nodding and then maybe forgetting about it (though with great intentions, of course!), challenge yourself to take whatever extra step is required to put part of it immediately into practice... right away.

9. Listening for Cadence: Read your own work out loud. This is common advice for a really good reason—the ear can catch what the eyes sometimes miss when it comes to pacing, rhythm, and overall coherence.

10. Improving Description: Take an extra five minutes to sharpen a descriptive passage in your work. Challenge yourself to choose extra-clear nouns and vivid verbs. Make each sentence as specific as possible.

11. Interviewing Characters: Take the character who feels the weakest in your project, and give them five minutes of your undivided attention. Imagine them sitting with you in the room. I mean, really. Try to bend reality. Freak yourself out a little. And then jot down anything that they decide to say to you. (The more I come back to conjuring up my characters, to making them real and alive and right next to me, the more amazing my story becomes.)

12. Expanding the Brainstorm: The next time you need to brainstorm something, push yourself to come up with twice as many ideas as you think you'll need—in half the time. Try fifty ideas in five minutes. You just might astonish yourself at how creative you get in that last minute.

13. Sharpening Observation: Take a familiar object and come up with five new ways of describing it. Try using senses you don't usually apply in this case. Brew new metaphors; create an unusual significance.

14. Noticing the Details: After you've been away from your writing desk, challenge yourself to create a clear, accurate, two-sentence description of something you've just experienced: maybe the quality of light in your kitchen, a summary of the conversation you just had with friends, or the feel of the weather outside.

15. Enlivening Setting: Challenge yourself to make a list of what makes a place (real or imagined) feel unique. And try to work the senses that you tend to forget about—maybe the quality of the air, the less noticeable sounds, the textures, the smells. 

16. Visualizing Specifics: Sketch a five-minute map of one of the settings that you're working on. A piece of storyscape that you haven't mapped yet: maybe a road, a section of a city, or even a room—in as much detail as if you were going to literally build a set for it.

17. Defining the Problems: When you're facing a story snag or other problem in your work, take a few minutes to very clearly articulate what's wrong. Force yourself to get specific and succinct about exactly what isn't working and why. (It's too easy to have a vague sense of unease and then rush off to fix it, without being certain about what has gone wrong. But finding clarity can be half the battle!)

18. Stimulating the Imagination: Take five minutes to think about how well-fed your imagination feels right now. What are you missing? What are you craving? Brainstorm a mini list of creative inputs that sound amazing—do you need a great nature documentary, a trip to an art museum, a visit to the best bakery in town, a travel book with tons of pictures, or a TED talk festival? Get clear on what you need, and block out time soon to do it. 

19. Nurturing Curiosity: Grab a reference book at random and browse it for 5 minutes. Let your imagination get excited. (Seriously, do it. You never know where your next incredible idea is going to come from. It could be waiting for you in that reference book!)

20. Journaling Your Life: One way to keep growing as a writer is to take notes on your own life. If you don't yet have a journaling practice, try writing just one page a day—maybe first thing in the morning, or last thing before you go to bed. (If that's too much, try half a page. You can seriously handle half a page.)

21. Redirecting the Overplan: If you tend to fall down the overplanning spiral of hundreds of to-do items on dozens of lists, this is your deliberate practice! The next time you catch yourself overplanning, go ahead and finish your list. Then walk away—into another room or just outside. Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind for a sec. And then decide, from your gut, what the top three-to-five items should be. The things that honestly, truthfully, you-know-it-in-your-core matter the most. Write those down on a tiny slip of paper. And begin by working only on those things. (This works for me every. single. time.)

22. Accepting Rest: It is impossible to work well for long when you're overtired. If meeting your edge means showing up for your work well rested, then take a nap. If it means napping every day, then nap every day! 

23. Revolutionizing Your Mindset: Take five minutes at the start of every writing session and practice believing in yourself. (I know. It sounds hokey, but it could literally change everything for you, especially if you've been struggling. Read the second half of this post if you need more convincing.)

24. Protecting Boundaries: Step back from one thing this week that you know will drain your energy/creativity without giving much back to you. Practice saying no. (You have my permission to get addicted to this: protect your writing time and energy, my friend!)

25. Deepening Self-Kindness: If it's easy for you to be harsh with yourself, then meeting your edge is gonna look a lot like practicing grace. Take two minutes to write yourself an encouraging note, and post it by your writing spot. Work on consciously agreeing with it when you see it. High five yourself.

26. Focusing Consistently: Do a little distraction clean-up. What tends to slice into your focus while you're working? Texts? Music? Internet? Notifications? Whatever it is, eliminate your pet distraction for a week. (And then another week. And then another...)

27. Bettering Your Work Space: What's the one thing that bugs you the most about your writing space? Is there something that's just a little out of place, that keeps slowing you down, that needs a little extra organization or cleaning or attention? Take five minutes to make it better.

28. Braving the Blank Page: Teach yourself to conquer the blank page by practicing with five-minute segments. (No kidding!) Pull out a blank sheet of paper. Commit to having no standards whatsoever for the quality of the writing you're about to do. If it comes out all wonky, that's great. Seriously. Set a timer for five minutes, and the moment you start the timer, just write. It can be about how your day went; it can be the secret history of every little knick-knack on your writing desk;  or it can be about your favorite character in your current writing project. Anything. Write till the timer stops. Repeat, until blankness no longer scares you. This has actually worked for me, I promise. (When we stop being afraid of the blank page, we become literally unstoppable as writers. Think about that for a sec.)

29. Holding Space: Practice accepting the truth that the writing process is messy. It just is! Allow a bad sentence (section, chapter, subplot) to exist in a draft for now. Let yourself be okay with the roughness of a rough draft, instead of tumbling into a hyper-perfection-seeking cycle. 

30. Refusing to Be Bullied: The next time you feel like comparing your work with someone else's work, or comparing where you are in your writing life with where someone else is: Stop. The next time self-doubt comes prowling and wants to sharpen its claws on you: Stop. Comparison and self-doubt do not have your back, and you don't need to listen to them. Be on your own team. Take a deep breath, and accept yourself and where you are. You are exactly where you need to be, my friend! 

31. Increasing Your Writing Stamina: Start adding a little more time to your writing sessions, or working a smidge past your usual stopping point. Maybe add 50-100 more words than you normally aim for, or working 5-10 minutes longer at a stretch.

32. Knowing When to Pause: If you tend to work yourself too hard and burn your brain to a crisp (you know who you are!): one way to meet your edge is to give yourself an honest-to-goodness break in the midst of your work. Take three-to-five minutes and step away. Close your eyes, or give yourself a chance to stretch, or go outside and stare at something non-digital for a while. 

33. Extending Attention: Instead of giving in to the impulse to rush (we all fight it!), try sticking with a writing project a little bit longer. Maybe spend five more minutes on a paragraph you're tempted to hurry through, or one extra week on a development stage that you're itching to skip over.

34. Releasing Finished Work: And sometimes, the thing we most need to practice doing, is letting something be done, instead of endlessly nitpicking at it. Everything on earth has a flaw in it, my friend. What is it truly time for you to release?


Deliberately Practicing Deliberate Practice

This all comes down to being on the lookout for your own edge. Where do you feel yourself shrinking and saying, Nah, no, not today, not feeling it, not now

Where is it easier to slump right now—in your craft, in your emotional health, in how you set up your work? How can you encounter that edge of yours, and work there?

Again, this is not about leaping way past our edge, about doing things that are unwise, or working where we are honestly not ready to work.

Instead, it's about noticing where we want to dodge something that feels a little too hard, a little too real, a little too taxing. Something that's a bit uncomfortable.

And instead of skipping over it, we focus in.

Take a deep breath. Choose to smile through it. And work right there.

Where can you bring extra curiosity, attention, playfulness, and grit, into your writing work this week? If you have more ideas for ways to "meet your edge," I'd LOVE to hear them, so please post a comment!

[Special Guest Post!] Find Your Theme, Fix Your Life: Another Great Reason to Write

Find your theme, fix your life: Another great reason to write! (Special guest post with Jessica Lourey!) on Lucyflint.com

Hello, my lionhearted friends! And welcome to June!!

I don't know about you, but I am READY for a chilled-out summer and a slower pace.

Here on the blog, that translates to a broader focus. We're going to take this month to kinda zoom out from the day-to-day of a writer's life. And instead, we'll take a look at the big picture.

Because lately, I've caught myself pawing through my writing years, trying to get a grip on my own trajectory. And I've been asking myself: what happens to a writer across many projects? What kinds of seasons happen in a writer's creative life? 

And how do all my crazy projects and ideas mesh together, anyway? 

Lucky me: To look more at that last question, we have a special guest post today with Jessica Lourey.

Jessica Lourey

I am SO excited to introduce her to you: she's published fifteen books and she has something pretty awesome to say about the themes that show up in our work. I'm so glad we get to hear from her!

So check out her post below, and be sure to hit the comments to say hi to Jessica in person!

Then you'll definitely want check out her TEDx Talk (it blew me away), as well as her latest book.

(And whaaaaat, she also has a coloring book for writers? I know I won't be the only one scrambling to get my hands on that!)

Are you excited? Let's dive in. Here's Jessica:


My 15th book released a few weeks ago. It's called Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, and it walks readers through the lucrative and life-changing process of transforming life experiences into powerful fiction. 

I stumbled across this fact-to-fiction process by accident. The year was 2001. I had a three-year-old daughter and another on the way. I was teaching full-time and loving life.

Unexpectedly, inexplicably, I lost my husband.

I go into more detail in my TEDx Talk, but in general, here's what happened after his death:

I had to write to survive. I needed to transform my fear and pain into something coherent.

I wrote one book, then another. I'd written three whole novels and received 423 rejections before I landed my first agent. Fifteen books later, I'd give up wine, bread, cheese, and my left foot before I'd quit writing.

But even after all that passion and practice, if I'm honest with myself (and you), it's not exactly ancient history that the idea of drafting a novel felt like being dropped into central Africa's Congo Basin with a compass and a paperclip.

Naked. 

Rolled in honey.

With everyone whom I've ever wanted to impress watching via a live feed, gathered together in a room, eating popcorn and laughing so hard that they spewed schadenfreude all over the television. 

In fact, after I began my first novel I spent much of my writing time feeling overwhelmed at the scope of what I'd taken on and like a ridiculous fraud for even pretending I could write a book. I grew up in rural Minnesota, for crying in the night. Not only did I not know any writers, I hardly knew anyone who liked to read.

But there was personal treasure to be mined in the writing of a novel, I sensed it even then, rubies of resilience and emeralds of hope, and so I read what I could on the art of writing, sought out mentors, and read fiction like a chef trying to puzzle out the recipe by tasting the meal.

After five years of trial and error, I finally arrived at a method to reduce the time and stress of writing an experience-based novel while increasing the joy in the writing and the quality of the story.

More importantly, I discovered that writing fiction allows me to process much of my personal garbage so I can live healthier and happier.

Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, by Jessica Lourey

You'll find that most if not all your best novel ideas are already growing, ready to be plucked, in the compost pile of your mind. (Your compost pile is that fertile, loamy, crap-filled place where you tossed your baggage in the hopes that it would decompose on its own. It doesn't. You have to stir it up and spread it out. It's just the way it works.)

All writers end up with a unifying theme across the books that they write, and that theme is the most indigestible nugget in their mental compost pile, the personal challenge they were put on this earth to overcome.

For example, I write about the poison and power of secrets. In every. Single. Book. (It took me eight novels to realize my recurring theme.)

I come by this meta theme honestly. I grew up in a house built on fear and secrets, liberally sprinkled with alcoholism, psychedelic drugs, swingers, and naked volleyball parties. I packed my first bong before I was ten and mixed a mean whiskey water by age twelve. To this day, I think my parents' worst fear was that I'd rebel and grow up to be a right-winger.

(My parents would be mortified if they knew I was writing about them or my childhood. This, along with an instilled allegiance to secrets, has kept me from writing nonfiction up until this moment. How am I finally breaking free of this, you ask? The advice to write as if your parents are dead seems too harsh. I'm instead writing as if they're illiterate.)

My experience of working through and spreading my mental compost pile via novel writing is not unique.

At a recent writing conference, a successful noir author confessed to me that all her books are about that pivotal, cathartic moment when a person tests his/her limits. John Irving's recurring theme seems to be younger men who are seduced or abused by older women. Parental abandonment appears in every one of Charles Dickens' books. Amy Tan tackles mother/daughter relationships in her writing.

You will find some version of your own experience-based theme in all the novels you write.

Don't worry if you don't know your life theme right now; discovering it is one of the many gifts of novel writing. 

Just know that wherever you are at in the writing process, you are doing the right thing. The good work. 

Write on, with love,

Jessica Lourey
www.jessicalourey.com


The above is partially excerpted from Jessica Lourey's Rewrite Your Life: Discover Your Truth Through the Healing Power of Fiction, available May 1, 2017, wherever books are sold.

Jessica is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She also writes sword and sorcery fantasy, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, a coloring book for writers, and magical realism, literary fiction, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a sought-after workshop leader and keynote speaker who delivered the 2016 "Rewrite Your Life" TEDx Talk.

The Great Setting Round Up: 65 Possible Settings For Your Work-In-Progress!

Dreaming up new settings is usually the last thing on my mind during a drafting marathon... which is why I've pulled together 65 ideas for settings, ready to use! Check them out, and see if you find the next location you were looking for. | lucyflint.com

When it comes to inventing settings, I run out of imagination pretty fast. Especially when I'm in the middle of a drafting marathon. I'm spending my efforts juggling characters and conflicts, and I'm not really paying attention to where these characters and this conflict are happening.

Basically, I'd love to just set everything against a green screen and go from there!

But the dedicated writer in me knows that setting is a huge opportunity for shaking up a scene.  

And since many of us are spending November drafting as quickly as possible, I thought I'd do a kind of setting round up, to help all of us out.

I'm not saying that these are all brand-new setting ideas you haven't considered before... but there's probably at least a few that might be good contenders for that one scene coming up.

Some are pretty basic, others are a bit more quirky ... and some are pretty out there. (Hey, why not?)

A lot of these ideas will depend on your characters and your story, and how the prompt would best work for you. Others are more scene elements (like weather) that you could layer into an existing setting to give it a little more oomph.

But whatever you're writing, I hope you'll find some fun ideas here to help you along!

Sound good? Here we go! In no order in particular, what if your scene took place in, on, or near: 

  1. A tree: in the trunk, or below the roots, standing on a massive stump, climbing the branches, or even up in a tree house
  2. A quarry or a mine
  3. A furnace or boiler room
  4. An ornamental garden
  5. Wherever they house the transportation: garage, airplane hangar, rocket storage facility, bicycle lot...
  6. A specialty shop: for glass knick-knacks, ornamental clocks, fountain pens, marbles... (for some ideas, check this, this, this, and this!)
  7. A sand bar in the middle of a river
  8. Any kind of kennel, stable, or animal housing
  9. A poison garden (yes really!) 
  10. A factory—maybe they make really basic everyday equipment, or maybe something ultra fancy and quirky and specialized—or maybe candy. Candy would be great.
     
  11. The sewer system or some network of underground tunnels
  12. An abandoned/ruined hospital or asylum
  13. A cave
  14. A plant nursery
  15. Your antagonist's favorite landmark: something extra-special from your antagonist's personal history
  16. The place where the people in your storyworld exercise: whether that means a track for running, a place for boxing or heaving weights, or training in whatever way
  17. An orchard or vineyard
  18. On top of something that they'd normally be traveling in: like a train, bus, car, subway, submarine, spaceship...
  19. Someplace where the air isn't good to breathe: maybe after a chemical accident, or a place that vents poisonous vapors from underground, or maybe the scene of a diabolical attack... wherever they are, the air is bad.
  20. A river crossing—maybe a ferry, or a footbridge, or stepping stones, or some kind of natural formation
     
  21. The place of greatest historical significance to your characters, their families, their government, or their storyworld: where the town was founded, where a great victory was won, where an old hero died, etc.
  22. A hot air balloon
  23. A field of grass, crops, or a pumpkin patch
  24. A laboratory
  25. The house of a person not in the scene... especially if that person would hate that they're there
  26. How about in a sinkhole? (Hey, it could happen!)
  27. Your storyworld's tallest building: put some clouds below your characters' feet!
  28. An immense beach: maybe a scuzzy, sludgy, awful one where you'd expect to find dead bodies, or maybe one that's packed with a zillion people, and, I don't know, a couple hundred corgis? Or maybe a sandcastle-making competition?
  29. A symphonic concert, a play, an opera, or a rock concert. Maybe in the crowd, or backstage, or heck, onstage in the midst of the action... 
  30. A lighthouse, beacon, or some sort of signaling tower
     
  31. A graveyard, cemetery, mausoleum, or a morgue
  32. At some kind of studio—for ceramics, or painting, or dancing
  33. A desert
  34. An unusual staircase (check out these amazing spirals!)
  35. Standing on ice (because slippery footing is always interesting and maybe even metaphorical...). Maybe in the middle of a parking lot, or maybe the middle of a lake
  36.  Wherever they might be if one of the participants in the scene is in a casket (dead or alive, your choice!)
  37. A greenhouse
  38. A coat closet, storage closet, or locker space
  39. An underground bunker or house—especially if it's deeper underground than your character would like to be
  40. Any place with ancient statuary, whether it's something major, like Stonehenge or Easter Island, or something tiny, and known only to a handful of characters in your storyworld
     
  41. Some kind of wind tunnel, or any place where your characters have to talk or fight against the wind
  42. In the middle of a lake, pond, ocean, on something other than a boat
  43. A desert oasis!
  44. The set of a film (a major Hollywood production, or a tiny indie film, or even a home movie) or a photo shoot
  45. The banks along a river
  46. An escalator, elevator, or moving sidewalk
  47. The cockpit of a plane that's maybe about to crash...
  48. A stolen boat (or yacht, or pirate ship, or cruise liner...)
  49. The tree in the forest that's haunted, cursed, the oldest, or just plain weirdest
  50. A war memorial or some other local monument
     
  51. Somewhere "behind the scenes" in your storyworld's most glamorous hotel—in the laundry area or the staff room or the cleaning closet, perhaps?
  52. A museum—whether especially grand, or tiny and quirky, or some specific niche. It could play to what your character most loves or most hates, or whatever most makes him/her uneasy...
  53. At (or behind, or under...) a waterfall
  54. An especially strange forest: maybe one that's crooked, intricate, despairing, massive, or just especially beautiful
  55. A quicksand pit, bog, marshy area, or mud slick
  56. An observatory
  57. In the midst of a mist
  58. At a funeral, visitation, or wake, of someone your characters may or may not know
  59. Or at a wedding, engagement party, bridal shower, or baby shower (and again, they might not know the people involved!)
  60. At the source of a river (oooh, great literary resonance in that)
     
  61. A rooftop with an incredible view
  62. A library
  63. A "field" of something manmade—like windmills, solar panels, fog catchers
  64. Someplace where the characters aren't supposed to be at the zoo—the lion's cage, perhaps?
  65. Whatever kind of setting is the total opposite of the conversation/action taking place: clearing up mundane information at a soaring, glitzy setting, or having an explosive discussion on the soup aisle at the local store.

And there you go! I hope a few of these triggered some fun new setting ideas for your story. Good luck! 


By the way: if you checked out a few of the links, you'll also see that Atlas Obscura is one of my all-time favorite sites for anything setting related.

They just published an excellent book that I looooooove, and they send out fantastic daily emails if you sign up. Plus the site is just incredible to explore! Highly recommended resource for stirring our writerly imaginations: check 'em out! You just might browse for ages!

PS: And just to clarify, this isn't an affiliate link or affiliate anything. I just love their work and want everyone to know about them! 

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

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

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

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

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

Ahem. Okay. Being sensible. 

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

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

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

Yeah. It's still incredible. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound good? Sound ... fun? 

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

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

1) Embrace the Souvenir Method.

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

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

AND YET IT'S TRUE!

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

.... Annnnd it gives you a rush.

Okay. Here's what you do: 

First, get your mindset. 

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

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

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

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

And read. Read slowly. Let yourself explore. 

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

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

Such as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that make sense?

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

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

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

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

2) Create a Gallery of Nouns.

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

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

That's it.

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

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

And then I went through and colored everything in.

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

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

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

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

3) Let Music Be the Food of Story.

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

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

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

With a playlist of music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Give It the Big Screen Treatment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Believe In Where It Could Go.

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

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

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

Yes really!

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

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

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

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

Read them often. Smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You want them to think. You want them to feel

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

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

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


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

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

Pretty dang exciting, frankly. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know what I mean?

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

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

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

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

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

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

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

Imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No bueno.

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

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

So ...

So, how do we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAT.

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

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

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

Be. In. The. Scene.

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

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

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

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

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

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

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

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

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

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

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

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

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

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

1. Be willing to move slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

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

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

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

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

Right? 

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

But it's still worth it.

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

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

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

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

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

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes: 

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

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

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

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

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

Responding To That Insidious Lie People Still Tell About Fiction

I keep meeting people who believe this. You probably meet them too. What to say, what to remember, when someone tells you fiction doesn't matter. | lucyflint.com

So, HERE'S some good news. The more I throw myself into reading these novels, the more I want to keep reading. 

It's that lovely truth: You can re-develop a taste for good things. It happens to me when I start drinking more water, eating more veggies, exercising steadily, or, for the past couple of weeks, falling headlong into one marvelous story after another. 

So, if like me, you've been away from fiction for a while, I hope this is encouraging!

The more I practice giving myself permission, and the more that I start my day with reading, the easier it gets to keep going. 

Yum.

I'm a good two-thirds the way through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Oh, I love a good fairytale retelling!

There's always that delight of seeing how your expectations are handled—which events feel familiar, which ones are stood on their heads, or fleshed out in completely unusual ways... Mmmm.

It also reminds me of my struggles with the first novel that I seriously tried to write. For five years, I beat my head against an ever-expanding saga that I invented around the story of—brace yourself—The Princess and the Pea. 

More specifically, it reminds me of how hard it was to talk about the fact that I was writing a fairytale retelling.

All those conversations with the skeptical people who asked, "So what are you writing about?"

And I would perform whatever linguistic contortions I could to avoid saying, "Uh, there's a princess and a curse and an impossible test and the threat of madness and a huge journey and interactive memories and definitely a love interest and a fair amount of violence? Can we talk about something else?" 

I'm having better luck now, talking about my current work-in-progress. In part because I've learned my lesson, and I'm making sure that I love what I'm writing about

But also, I believe even more in the power of fiction. 

Any kind of fiction.

So "even though" I'm writing about an eleven-year-old girl going on an incredible, fantastical adventure in another world, with a crazy cast of characters and daunting challenges and mysterious spiders and possibly telepathic lizards and brain washing and aristocratic assassins...

I'm much more certain of its importance.

This book matters. I'm sure of it.

But some people don't really get how valuable fiction is.

Have you noticed this? Have you run into these people before?

The ones who will state—loudly and with a kind of bravado—"Oh, I don't READ FICTION."

Not in the contrite, confessional, okay I'm burnt out and what do I do about that kind of way. Or even the, I just can't seem to get to it lately way. Or the ones who say, I haven't found an author that really grips me yet. 

I get all that. That's totally fine with me.

I'm talking about the people who are essentially saying, "I don't need such fantasies to survive, thank you very much." 

It's smug. There's this belittling tone. As if they could say, "You poor children and your silly stories." 

In other words: Fiction is worthless.

When confronted with this attitude, I used to scramble for a response, feeling vaguely ashamed of myself, trying to find the scraps of my dignity.

As if I'd just invited someone to watch my homemade puppet show, only to receive a scathing response.

Or as if I'd just made a public announcement that I was, in fact, an idiot. 

Now I see it very differently.

And I've settled on a new reply.

So the last time someone told me, with a very superior grin, "Oh, I don't READ fiction. I've NEVER read a novel," I just took a deep breath, looked at him with all the pity I could muster, and said,

"I am so, so sorry to hear that."

As if he just announced that he'd had an amputation.

Because that's how I feel about it.

People who cheerfully choose to avoid all novels are literally cutting themselves off from a certain kind of understanding. Of a way to see other people, a way to connect.

Novels get to a place that movies and most non-fiction can't quite reachBecause there's an intimacy in fiction, an immediateness.

You see the characters' minds plainly, you hear their motivations, you're right up close to their struggles.

I think that what this man wanted me to say was: "Oh, wow, so you're not as frivolous as the rest of us, we who fill our heads with dumb lies. Good job, you superior person, you!"

Instead, I saw someone who was brittle and maybe even a bit scared.

Someone who didn't want to risk all the emotions and connections that happen when we put ourselves into the flow of stories, into novels. 

Someone who has no idea what he's missing. Or who he might be, if he let a stellar novel get under his skin.

I've mentioned a few times that I've been reading Brené Brown's amazing work. If you're familiar with her at all, you know how much she talks about the power of empathy.

Empathy—the statement that you are not alone

She's totally opened my eyes to how we need connection to other people. How we need to treat ourselves with compassion. How we need courage to live a Wholehearted life.

Guess what.

When we read novels, we get a sense of how other people share our struggles.

Have you had that incredibly powerful feeling, when you're reading a novel, and the main character experiences something similar to what you've gone through?

Whether it's an event, or a subtle feeling, or even a line of dialogue that you've said before: There's that shock of recognition, right?

Like you've suddenly caught your face's reflection in an unexpected mirror.

You are not alone.

Whew! That is powerful.

Novels have a unique ability to get in close to us, to wait until our guard is down, and then to say those life-giving words:

You're not alone. Someone else has been there. This writer gets it.

And then—there's a chance for a conversation. Maybe with the writer. Maybe with other people who have read it.

Suddenly there's connection, there's courage, and there's hope.

Maybe something that was shameful is now brought into the light where it can heal. And maybe there's some good self-compassion, as you realize that you're not the only one struggling. As you accept who you are and where you've been.

Dang it, I get all excited just thinking about this!! 

And as a writer, this is incredibly motivating to me.

I want to be honest in the story I'm writing.

I don't want to shrink from telling the truth about what it feels like: to risk big, to worry about your family, to face danger. To hope for change, to face day after day when you don't know what will happen, to heal broken relationships.

Besides. I owe fiction a debt. 

As an incredibly lonely kid, I saw people like me in books, even when I couldn't find them at my church or my school.

That sustained me during some really hard years. It helped me trust that there were other kids who felt like me, who understood me, who had been where I was.

Who survived

Like I said, that's powerful.

It makes me wonder, what is fiction about, anyway, if not connection? 

And are any of us actually above the need to be connected to one another? Above the need to belong?

Spoiler alert: Nope. Brené Brown is a very smart woman, and she says that the data says that we all need these things.

No one is exempt from this stuff. From these needs.

Which is why I'm convinced that to intentionally snub fiction is a sad, sad thing. An emotional amputation.

Let's not make the mistake of undervaluing the incredible novels that we read and write.

Instead, let's celebrate how they connect us, challenge us, and empathize with us. 

And if you're spending your time writing such things, good for you. It is a vital gift to other people. 

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Don't let the smug fiction-abstainers get you down.

Keep going.

Who knows who you might be giving courage to with your words? 


What about you? Have you seen yourself in fiction before? Have you had that shock of recognition, that sense of being understood? 

And have you run into people that don't seem to understand the value of fiction? What do you say to them?