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!

Re-energize Your Whole Writing Practice with These Three Little Words

This one shift makes all the difference. | lucyflint.com

If you've hung out on this blog for a while now, you've probably noticed that I'm a bit of a self-improvement junkie. If there's an interesting way to grow, I'm in.

I wanna give just about anything a try, when it comes to kicking out the meh and bringing in the yay. 

In all that self-improvement learning, I keep coming across the idea that not all time spent practicing a skill is equal. Just showing up and messing around isn't the same as practicing, and merely practicing isn't the same as deliberate practice.

Have you heard of deliberate practice? Essentially it means practicing with a ton of laser-like focus. 

It often includes pulling apart weaknesses; working on each tiny, building-block stage of the craft until it's polished; and then putting it all together again to get even better. 

Deliberate practice is the best possible way to improve at a craft, at a skill.

It's the way committed beginners work, and it's the way that experts continue to grow.

The first time I heard a discussion about deliberate practice, I got excited. REAL excited. It sounds awesome, right? I mean, you and I, we lionhearts, we wanna get really good at the craft of writing.

Which is why I want to dive into a big pile of deliberate practice this month. ... But there's one thing that scares me off. 

Each discussion of deliberate practice that I've come across tends to stress that this way of working is fiercely challenging. Grueling.

You don't always see the rewards right away. It can take a lot of work on those tiny micro-skills in order to see the larger progress. In talking about this process, some people use words like tedious. They say it's painful. It sounds grim.

And wow. I just want to sit back and applaud the heck out of anyone who wants to work like that.

And then I want to run away. (Am I allowed to say that??)

To be clear: I'm not scared of hard work. I'm not scared of seeing that my craft isn't excellent yet. I'm not even scared of results taking a long time in the making.

What I am really, truly scared of is this: I don't want to create a writing life and a writing practice that feels grim.

I don't want a writing life that feels dark and toilsome and unrewarding, because you know what? I won't be able to stick that again. I used to think that's what it meant to write seriously, and it nearly killed my writing life. (Didn't do anything wonderful for me as a human being, either. I wasn't the easiest person to be around.)

I am not willing to be consistently miserable in order to get better at my craft. I'm just not.

Hard work is okay. The fact that there is no such thing as instant gratification: also okay.

Horrible days and weeks and months of chipping away at an unattainable skill and therefore always feeling like I'm just not any good: REALLY NOT OKAY.

So what do I do with this? Did I just disqualify myself from aiming for writing excellence? Do I have to be grim and miserable in order for deliberate practice to work? No more smiling?

I wondered about that for the last couple of months: How do I relentlessly improve my writing, without feeling like a failure every step of the way? Is it even possible?

Spoiler alert: YES. Yes, it's possible.

It dawned on me in a beautiful way: You can keep getting better with every single practice, you can make that practice time count, and you can do it all without hating yourself or the process.

Which means I don't have to resign from being a lionheart, and neither do you. We can practice deliberately: pursuing excellence with focus, and doing it happily.

Know how I know? Because I've just been living it: with my yoga practice. And I'm convinced that it will translate beautifully into writing as well. 

Here's what you need to know about me: bodily strength is not my natural gifting. I do not tend to be flexible or graceful.

But there's something that goes off in my heart when I see people doing yoga. It looks like such an incredible mix of strength, flexibility, and serenity—and whoa, I just want more of those things in my life.

So I started doing yoga about two years ago. It was pretty hit and miss. I'd do it a couple of times one week, and then I'd miss a few weeks or months, and then come back to it.

No big deal: it was just something I was curious about. I found an amazing online teacher (!!), I got a yoga mat, and I kept it up with the hit-or-miss approach.

Each time I practiced, I knew I wanted to get better, but I was also dealing with a ton of crazy things happening with my family, my health, and oh yeah, I was trying to learn how to pull a few novels out of my hat. Yoga excellence pretty much stayed on the back burner.

But a couple of months ago, I got much more serious. I realized that I wanted to really grow at it. To get good and legit.

I knew the first steps: I found a great, free, 31-day yoga program from my fave teacher. I cleared the time in my daily schedule, and I committed to showing up.

And then, and then. I went one step further, almost by accident, and I discovered the huge difference-maker. Such a simple little thing, but it made the biggest change. So listen up:

I intentionally latched onto that hip little phrase that I've seen flapping around the internet—on Pinterest, on Instagram, in all sorts of sports/fitness/training discussions. You've probably run across it too: 

Meet your edge. 

It suddenly held meaning for me, that phrase. So I wrote it next to my daily reminder to do yoga: Meet your edge. 

And unexpectedly, I had a total breakthrough. Because that little phrase changed how I approached every move of every practice session.

"Meet your edge" leads me straight into a mindset of deliberate practice, but without getting all grim about it. And here's why.

For starters, "meet" means meet.

It means approach, see, encounter, connect. It does not mean "destroy!" or "shatter!" or "obliterate!" 

In other words, we're not talking about a ton of oomph here. No mighty exhausting battle cries. This isn't about doing anything reckless, or mega-mega-hard.

It's pretty simple. Meet it. That's not so terrifying, right?

So when I begin my yoga practice with meet your edge in mind, I'm automatically on the lookout. I am literally scouting for my edge—for the rim of my ability. The end of the territory of What Comes Easily.

I am looking for the places where I would naturally give up. 

... Like five seconds into plank pose, or a few push-ups past my comfort zone (which was basically, uh, one push-up). The limits of a stretch, or the arm-trembling aches of downward-facing dog.

These were the times when, in my hit-or-miss yoga days, I would reason: You know what, I'm not feeling it. I'll take a child's pose, a time-out, and call it good.

(And, hear this: that was a totally okay call to make at the time, because right then, upping my yoga commitment wasn't something I was aiming for. So, no self-judgment, and no worries.)

But when I encounter those same places now, I actually truly get excited. Because I snap back to that phrase. To that prompt.

And I think, This is it! This is the edge! What I was looking for! 

I can almost see it, this boundary line. That divide between where I am, and where I'm heading, and you know what? That's flipping exciting!

It shifts my focus. It used to be, I'd focus in on that surge of ugh, here's what I can't do, here's where it gets hard. 

But "meet your edge" reframes that whole question. It isn't asking me to become a yogi superstar. All it's asking me to do is encounter that boundary.

And now I'm staring at growth—in an area where I'd really love to grow. So instead of trying to back away, my curiosity shows up. And it's energizing

Even though my arms are shaking, I think: Can I stay here longer? Can I keep going? What happens if I breathe more deeply?

And I get just a little bit better.

With excitement. With a spirit of playfulness and curiosity. It isn't grim at all!

With that attitude, improvement is possible in every difficult pose, with every sighting of my edge, with every attempt. Every time I stay. Every time curiosity wins over quit.

And now, I can stay in plank for two minutes. Downward-facing dog is a breeze. I can actually see my triceps (hey there!), and my abs are showing up for the party as well. 

All from finding my edge, and working there, in that space.

Yes, it's still hard work. But it's freeing, too: It sounds obvious, but the amazing thing about your edge is that it's literally within your reach. 

If you can't reach it, then you're focusing on the wrong thing.

So I don't have to pretend that I can do something that I literally cannot do yet. If I tried to do full-out splits or a headstand right now, I'd need to put in a quick call to 911 first, just so they can be on their way. 

I know I can't do those things. And there's just no point in trying to gallop past my edge and right into bad news territory. 

This isn't about being where and what you aren't. It's focusing in on something much closer to home. It's in your reach.

This is about finding that boundary between what you can do and what's just past that point. And working there: right at the edge.

Which means that real growth is totally doable—while staying curious and having fun. And that's exciting, isn't it? 

THAT, my friends, is the attitude that I want to bring into my writing practice.

What does meet your edge look like in the writing life?

That's what I'm learning right now. And so I'm asking myself:

  • Where is that boundary between what comes fairly easily, and what feels like a stretch?
  • What do I try to back away from, to not look straight at?
  • Where do I ease up too soon?
  • Where do I listen to quit before curiosity? Where does the ego want to quit, before the imagination does?
  • Where would just a smidge of perseverance make all the difference?
  • Where would a healthy dose of playfulness change everything?

How can you meet your edge, and hang out there? Camp there for a while? What does it feel like, to work there and even play there?

To stay curious, breathe deep, and not give up?

... If you're a stickler for the true definition of Deliberate Practice, some of this might make you a little bit nuts.

Because I feel like I just waltzed into the whole deliberate-practice conversation asking if we could also play kazoos and eat pizza. (But seriously, if we're going to work really hard, wouldn't it be fun to have a kazoo?)

All I know is that, if I'm going to try and get better every single day, I'll only be able to stick it out if I bring playfulness, curiosity, and grace into the mix. 

THIS is what I want to get good at this summer. And that's also what I want to invite you into. 

Where's your edge? And what does it look like to work there—to stick it out, to press a little deeper, stay a little longer?

How can we take one skill one step further than comfort?

If we do that, that one tiny movement, while staying curious and playful—caring more about growth than about perfection—oh. I think we'll wind up pretty dang awesome.


For a super helpful and illuminating discussion of what Deliberate Practice is, as well as what it looks like in different fields, these are a few great articles to check out from James Clear:

And if you're feeling intrepid and want to keep challenging your comfort zone, check out two of my posts on how to survive in those wonderful wilds: 

Grow Better: Let's Own, Nourish, and Celebrate the Writing Phase You're In

Writing projects have life cycles, just like any growing, fruitful thing. Which season are you in? Here's how to embrace all it has to offer. | lucyflint.com

I've spent nearly my whole life in the midwestern United States. And though we aren't a farming family, I'm used to marking the seasons by what the fields are doing.

Right now, at the start of summer, the bright green corn plants are coming up through the dirt, showing off their first few leaves. 

Over the next month, they'll rocket out of the ground, becoming bold walls of dense leaves, perfuming the air—a sweet, dusty, corny smell.

At the end of the season comes the goldening of everything. And suddenly the walls disappear as the machines march through.

In winter the colors all fade, and fields are quiet under November mud or January snow. I'm used to this, my whole life: it's how things work.

Seasons. Seedlings sprout, grow, ripen, disappear. Quiet takes their place. And then it starts again. 

The other day I was reading The Sound of Paper, by Julia Cameron—a meditative book of short essays about the creative life and creative droughts. (I'm really liking it, but that's no surprise! It's a lovely and helpful book.)

When I hit the chapter called Seasonality, I sat up straight. Her words illuminated something that's been troubling me: 

     There is a seasonality, a cyclicity, to creative work. There are ripening times of midsummer, when our ideas bob in our heads like a good crop of apples. There is fall, the time of harvest, when we take those ideas down and collect them. There is a wintertime, when our ideas feel ice-locked and dormant and we must wait them out ... and then there is spring, the stirrings of new ideas and new directions.

You get that? 

Our creative projects have a time of blooming, growth, harvesting, and dormancy. 

Oh, I loved this so much! Because instantly I saw myself, exactly where I was: deep in a creative wintertime, and no way of knowing how to claw out of it.

Restless, irritated. Like a bear who forgot to hibernate.

Here's what I think: We novelists need to understand this. We need to recognize these seasons in our creative lives, just like we midwesterners do. (If you only have one or two seasons where you are, you'll just have to kinda imagine with me.) 

Because once you wrap your mind around the idea of having a creative season, there's a lot that becomes clear, a lot that carries over in that metaphor.

Go with me on this, okay?

In real life seasons, each seasonal shift requires some prep.

There are things that this season is really, really good at—seasonal strengths. (Even the ugly seasons have strengths!)

And then there are some major weaknesses that come along, with each one. (Even the pretty ones.)

That's a reminder that I need to get squarely in my head, because here is my confession: 

I have idolized the creative seasons of Summer and Harvest.

Seriously, I love, love, love these creative seasons. I want to live in them forever.

I want to be producing stories at the blistering rate of corn plants (which grow so fast you can literally hear them grow).

And I want to be harvesting like the massive combines that go charging across the land, converting everything to piles of grain—quick, efficient, relentless.

Mega-growth. Mega-production. That's what I've fallen in love with.

That's when it's easier to say out loud, Of course, yes! I am a writer! When faced with inquiries from friends and family: it's so easy to sum up my progress in these seasons. I have something to report.

Everything is growing, growing, growing! I'm writing so fast, and the characters are talking quickly, and it's all going so well!

Or, for harvest: I'm starting the blog! Or, I'm wrapping up the draft! I'm sending it out to readers; I'm planning my publication! Confetti, cheers, marching bands!

And we all get to leave the conversation cheerfully. 

But.

You don't have to be an agricultural whiz kid to know: fields can't just go from summer to harvest and back again. It doesn't work like that. 

And our creative seasons can't do that either. Our projects don't jump from mega-growth to mega-production and then back to growth again.

We have to go through spring, and we have to go through winter.

Can I be honest? It's hard for me to enjoy a creative springtime. It's such a prickly sort of creative season: how do I explain it, to others and myself?

The idea-seeds are in the earth. I'm watering them (brainstorming!) and watching them (freewriting!) and checking the soil (tending the imagination!).

I'm afraid to breathe too hard on the little ideas. I get nervous when it storms. Is there too much sun, too much shade? Did I plant a bunch of duds?

Everything feels fragile and nebulous, and I'm trusting that the little roots are shooting into the ground, that the stems are straightening, somehow feeling the tug of light, the call to come up, up, up.

Creative spring is hard for me. But what keeps me going is hope: there are seeds, so there is the hope of growth. And maybe something will come out of this, even if I don't know what it looks like yet.

Hope helps us hang on.

... And then there's creative winter.

The seaons that comes along with big, obvious challenges. The other seasons have challenges too, of course. But winter, with its ice and its blizzards and the way it starves your eyes of color—that's the one with the real problems. The light is short, and the dark is long. 

It's winter that leaves me speechless when people ask how the work is going. It's winter that I find impossible to explain out loud, or even to myself.

What is there to talk about? What is it that's happening, anyway, when things lie dormant, when everything looks abandoned? 

But this is why seeing it as a season is actually really, REALLY helpful. Seriously. It helps, when you call it winter. When you own it.

That little shift helps reframe the whole scenario. It reminds me of what I'm actually dealing with. Because all seasons, however long, do shift. They pass. They change. 

And every season has strengths, as well as challenges. Even winter.

No matter which season you're in, it's important to see it as clearly as you can. To name it. And to own that season. 

Because here's what happens, to me anyway, when I choose not to own the season: If I'm not intentional about this, I'll try to push myself to be in another season (preferably summer or harvest!).

And when I'm actually, truthfully, in the midst of a creative spring or winter, then this pushing can be downright deadly.

You can't force midsummer growth on a tiny little seedling—it can't sustain it.

You can't harvest before the grain or fruit or story is ready—it will be ruined.

And you can't scout for seedlings when everything is meant to lie fallow—you'll only find frustration.

Let your season be your season. Anything else will bring burnout, immature work, destroyed confidence, and heartbreak.

Look closely at your work right now. At the project you're facing. What season is it in?

Are you doing the seedling work, nurturing little ideas and hoping that they sprout? Are you shoveling fertilizer and sunshine and water over rapidly-growing stories?

Are you making the plans and gathering the resources for a harvest, a launch, a publication? Or are you in the season in between, the one that can seem like nothing is happening. (But oh, my friend, something is happening!)

Oh, and just to keep us all on our toes: you can be in several creative seasons at the same time. One project might be wintering while another is twisting out of the soil, or one might be in the thick of harvest, while secret seedlings send out their first roots with another. 

What creative seasons are you in? 

Once you know that, here's the exciting part: How can you take specific, concrete steps to support yourself, and care for yourself, in the midst of that season? 

Read on for some ideas:


If you're in a creative summer...

Congratulations! Summer is a super-exciting time. Send off some fireworks! Let yourself celebrate!

But keeping up with that pace of growth is no joke. It's important to keep yourself creatively nourished, and to stay connected to the people and rituals that will ground you.

Summer is when I'm tempted to make a habit of overwork. I have to insist on taking breaks, on making sure I get up and go for a walk, play with the dog, or stretch it out with yoga. 

In a creative summer, it's easy to burn out wrists, back, eyes. To fall back on crappy snacks that don't really help our brains come up with good stuff. To neglect sleep, and then poison ourselves with waaaaay too much caffeine.

So check in: 

More than anything, seek to enjoy this time. Growth is exciting; and watching a story come together is one of the most delicious experiences in a writing life!


If you're in a creative harvest...

First off, have yourself a little party. Even just right here, as you're reading this post: wave your hands in the air, and imagine a whole bunch of confetti falling down on you, because this is awesome. 

Harvest means taking your stories, your words, your article—whatever it is that you've bloomed and grown in your head—and setting it out for other people to experience. 

That is fantastic. So dance!

... And if you're stubbornly staring at this screen saying, Are you kidding, Lucy? I don't feel like dancing. I feel like throwing up!, then I get you too, because harvest can also kind of, oh, shred your soul a bit.

There is no creative season where Fear leaves us alone, but it has an especially good case to make when we're harvesting. Fear shows us what other people might say, how our work might be received, who's going to stop speaking to us, and so on, and so on.

A million nightmare scenarios, storming through our minds. And it can be enough to make us call off the harvest. Forget about it. Let's just not.

Harvest isn't easy. 

But crops don't wait forever. There is a time when it's just right to publish, to post, to hit "send." 

So check in: 

Harvest is nerve-wracking, but it's also incredible. It takes guts. Whether your harvest is tiny (sending an email, posting a comment, sending a newsletter), or big (publishing a book, landing a writing job), you owe it to yourself to celebrate

For serious. Go get that cake.


If you're in a creative springtime...

Oooh, spring! The butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of tending a lot of tiny ideas, caring for them with an equal feeling of hope and nervousness.

It's a time of unbridled possibility, and that can be exhilarating! Enjoy it!  

But spring has its challenges too. We can get discouraged. Spring calls for patience, patience, and patience, as we deliberately brew our projects, as we watch the teeny roots take hold. 

We have to learn how to keep a steady hand as we fertilize the soil, as we keep weeds and harsh conditions at bay.

So let's check in: 

  • Perfectionism loves to visit in the spring. It pretends that we can sit and imagine our perfect blossoms, instead of diving in and risking failure. It'll whisper anything to keep us from writing those messy drafts! But creative spring is a time to embrace the mess: don't hold back.
  • Our fledgling ideas can sprout better with the help of a solid routine, or a good structure around them. If you're just coming out of a creative winter, it can be hard to get back into a groove. Time to rally your best practices, and build a solid working structure for yourself. (Need inspiration? I've got you: here, here, and here.)
  • As you get into the rhythm of springtime, you have to promise yourself that you will not compare your new growing ideas to anyone else's writerly garden. Okay? Comparison is one of the silent killers of creativity. It's not worth it.
  • Keep breathing. Growth can be slow. It takes patience.

Real spring is one of the most beautiful times of the year, and a creative spring is no less beautiful. Celebrate the joy of seeds becoming stems becoming buds becoming blooms. (And maybe buy yourself some flowers for your desk?) Keep encouraging yourself, and keep on keeping on.


If you're in a creative winter...

This can be the hardest place to find yourself. Winter is tough, and it can last a lot longer than we'd like. It's easy to focus on the ice patches, the blizzards, and long darkness.

But we can stay warm in the midst of creative winter when we choose to be gentle with ourselves. When we do things that are good for our souls and happy-making for our imaginations.

Find ways to endure the cold by lighting candles for creativity, and cutting cheery snowflakes out of bright paper.

Here are a few ways we can find our trusty boots, our beloved mittens, our best soup recipes. Here's how we can actually winter well: 

  • Right now, make a decision that you will not beat yourself up for being here. Winter is just a thing. It happens. It doesn't make you a bad writer, a bad creative, or any other shamefilled label that we might want to assign ourselves. Take yourself off the hook. Give yourself grace.
  • One thing that winter is really good for is naptaking. I'm serious. This season is when you can catch up on rest, both physically and creatively. Take super good care of your body. Take all producing pressure off. (Sometimes we actually need it to be winter, for exactly this reason!)
  • Nourish. Use winter as a time to put into your imagination, indiscriminately. Since you don't have to research for a specific project, you can just follow your own curiosity. This is actually a gift, and you're allowed to treat it like one. :)
  • Read. Read a lot. When I decide to really embrace winter, I usually end up reading a TON. Go to your library and check out more books than you can carry. Binge-read fiction for a few weeks. Grab stacks of non-fiction titles that intrigue you. Plunge into new subjects, rediscover old favorites.
  • Play. I know. It can be hard. But sometimes you need to just cut loose. Find ways to love your creative self by playing games, by picking up a different artistic skill for a while. Try your hand at collage, or calligraphy, or watercolors. Or get messy with sculpture, or repaint every room in your house. Stir it up.
  • Fertilize your soil, and ready your tools. You can keep learning your craft, even if you aren't working on something actively, by reading good books on writing. (Steer clear of angry, cynical books. Only grab the yummiest sort.) 
  • Let me just say this one again: Be relentlessly kind to yourself.

It can be hard to love winter. But when you really and truly let yourself off the hook, it can be a beautiful time. It can point you back to places you might have been neglecting: deep rest, deep refilling.

You're allowed to investigate creativity for its own sake, instead of so that you can meet a deadline, or crank something out. You're allowed to run down the path of your curiosity, without it needing to pay off immediately. 

So choose to give yourself a gift in your creative wintertime. Embrace rest, embrace care. Spread a little love over your writing life. 


Wherever you are, my friend, consider this: What does it look like to truly honor the season that you're in? To embrace its strengths, and gently account for its weaknesses? To accept it for what it is, and to celebrate it—difficulties and all?

For me, after an on-again/off-again winter that lasted a year and a half (I'm not making that up), I am in the midst of a springtime: there are so many little seeds in the ground right now, fresh growth on some older projects, and I'm excited! Committing myself to patience, and dancing with hope!

How about you? 

How to Use Your Writing-Life Magic Wand (Or, Finding Your Groove, Part One.)

How to find and use that most powerful of things in the writer's life: the creative groove. | lucyflint.com

Sometimes I am all about balance. I want to work in that exact rhythm of nurturing all parts of my life: getting good work done, but also seeing plenty of friends, discovering new places in the city, and being an all-around good citizen.

Sometimes, I do whatever I need to in order to stay right in balance. 

And other times, I'm ready to help balance straight off a cliff.

There's this mad, maniac side of me that would really like to disappear completely from the world and drown myself in work.

Probably this is not very healthy.

But I've been thinking of it because I read Susan Branch's delightful memoir, Martha's Vineyard - Isle of Dreams. At one point, she describes how she began working on her very first cookbook—an intense project, because it featured not only her own recipes, but also watercolor illustrations on every page, and, bonus, she hand-lettered the entire book. ALL the text.

Mind = blown.

Her creative process was all-consuming. She started getting up at four or five in the morning, working all day in her pajamas, eating whatever came to hand while standing up in the kitchen. (Tater tots seemed to be a fave, which just makes me like her even more.)

And then back to work, and then early to bed, with her cats for company. 

She was warning all us readers that this isn't especially wise, and isn't anywhere close to balanced, and that there are much better ways to live...

But, crazy me, I was reading that and thinking, That sounds WONDERFUL!

I mean, I can see what she means about quality of life over the long haul. Yeah, probably not a good place to stay for long ... but in short spurts, perhaps? 

Because this is where I am, my friends.

I'm at that exact point in my creative process, where my deepest desire is to become a total hermit.

I've written too much about sustainability to believe this urge for long. And I've known burnout too well not to recognize the road that goes straight toward it. All this stuff about staying healthy and stable—it's legit, and I know it.

But still ... that little hermit-dream persists.

Which is what got me thinking: okay, okay, not a total maniac.

But what's the next best thing? 

I got my answer by going back to one of my favorite books on creativity, Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit.

Lemme read you her gorgeous description of a creative groove: 

When you're in a groove, you're not spinning your wheels; you're moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches. You're unwavering, undeviating, and unparalleled in your purpose. 

A groove is the best place in the world. It's where I strive to be, because when you're in it you have the freedom to explore, where everything you question leads you to new avenues and new routes, everything you touch miraculously touches something else and transforms it for the better. 

Let's all just gaze at that with heart-eyes for a minute. 

All right. If I can't be a total hermit right now, the next best thing I can do is generate a groove. Put myself in the sweetest of sweet spots with my work. 

I want to be unwavering, undeviating, and unparallelled in my purpose. Yes, please!!

But according to Twyla Tharp, there are no guarantees with what will exactly work to launch someone into a groove. There's no exact formula. And dang it, I like exact formulas.

So I did some looking around at my favorite writing books. And I thought through what's happened around the grooves I've found in the past.

And I cobbled together all those things and figured out some characteristics, common traits that, if I pursue them hard enough, just might help shove me not off a cliff, but into a good, strong, writing groove. 

And I'm EXCITED. 

Because best practices like these are kinda like a magic wand. Wave 'em around long enough and hard enough, and I think some magic just might happen.

Maybe transformation.

And not into a raggedy bearded hermit, but maybe into the next best thing: A bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, ink-stained novelist working her groove.

Want to come along? Cool. Because unlike the hermit, I don't mind a bit of company.

(Oh, and this will be a two-parter, so check back in two weeks for the second half of our groove-making work. Perfect.)


1: Save your environment.

Where do we begin? With the stuff that's right in front of us: Our place, our time, our space. Our work environment.

Because the first thing we need to do if we want a groove is make room for it. 

What kind of space, what kind of schedule, what kind of environment, would help you to write the most deeply and consistently? What would let your imagination have the freedom, space, and support, to just run wild? 

Oooh. 

This might mean adding in more beauty, comfort, or quirkiness to your writing space. (Never underestimate the power of quirk.)

It might mean adding encouraging messages and reminders around your desk. Putting pep talks on Post-Its, and sticking 'em to your computer screen.

Or, maybe it means you need a blank slate, go minimal, pare everything down til it's clean and spare and fresh.

What would help you go deeper into your work? 

The other half of this question is: How does your time look? 

What is the best time of day for you to work? How long of a writing session feels optimal to you? 

I've had months where the yummiest writing work got done between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., and I just went with it.

Now I'm on the other side of the spectrum—for some reason, waking up at 5:30 a.m. gives me such a sense of expanse and freedom and clarity that I dive into my days feeling full of promise. (And okay, maybe planning a nap later, but nevertheless.)

When is it best for you to write? Not for other writers, not for other people—when is it best for you? When do all your creative juices get going, and when do you feel that release from other obligations? 

Speaking of obligations: You're already heard me say this, but I'm gonna say it again. One of my favorite practices is clearing out commitments. No, this isn't easy. Yes, you might feel like you're stepping on other people's toes. 

But it is so helpful to do this from time to time. Check out everything you've been participating in, and if something is draining you more than it's feeding you, give it a very stern look.

And see if you can get out of it. If not, try to soften it, or lessen the impact of it in some way.

This could be something as tiny as unsubscribing from an email newsletter that's stopped being helpful. Or it might be stepping back from some small weekly thing you've been doing for a while. Or you might turn down a bigger commitment that you've been having second thoughts about for a while. This is the time for it to go. 

You need to free up that creative energy, my friend! 

So cancel some things, take a good look at what writing times work the best for you, and give your space a good sweep.

... I think that writing groove just moved a whole lot closer.

(If you want some more cheerleading or ideas for how to do this, check out these three posts to build a "moat," lighten your load, and shake up your space.) 

2: Build a food pyramid.

It is really hard to work in a groove if all your wells have run dry.

There's no way to sustain continual, deep, yummy work if you have nothing to draw from, nothing to paint with. If your imagination has shut off, gone cold. That's the way to get into a rut or a block, not a groove.

Which is why it's worth figuring out a good, reliable answer to this question: 

How can I continually feed my imagination what it needs?

What kinds of things do I need to take in on a regular basis, for my creativity to be strong and ready for anything? 

This is one of those habits that is ESSENTIAL to working well and working sustainably. It's also one of the first things I cut.

(This is why you hear me say the same things over and over, y'all. I have to keep re-learning these lessons myself!) 

Feeding the imagination is one of those vital but seemingly unimportant skills. And in order to get into a good, rich groove and stay there, we have to find ways to keep the nutrition flowing in.

So: what do you need?

For my imagination to thrive, I need it stocked with a lot of odd fascinating facts that don't necessarily have a place in my immediate writing.

That's why I'm smitten with the randomness of dictionaries and encyclopedias, why I swoon over amazing, comprehensive wonder-sites like Atlas Obscura. It's why I need to keep reading widely, why I have to keep learning. 

Because all those little images and facts and tidbits and impressions and shards of atmosphere and tiny details—they're all the building blocks of what we make, right? They're what we invent from.

They're like the amino acids of the creative process. They're essential.

Last fall, I ran out of steam, out of juice, out of everything. So I blocked off a whole month for a sabbatical. The goal? To stop all output, and focus only on input. Getting those amino acid levels up again.

So I thought about what my imagination and my writerly heart were most craving, and I drew myself a little food pyramid of what I most needed.

At the bottom? Books, books, and more books. I wanted to read a ton of fiction, but also some really yummy non-fiction, and on top of that, some of my favorite reference books. 

Then I also wanted to see movies that would capture my excitement, as well as gorgeous documentaries (I am so not over Chef's Table, btw). 

And then I wanted to watch a bunch of TED talks, I wanted to do a lot of painting and art-making, and I wanted to watch and read interviews with other makers—not just writers, but calligraphers and musicians and anyone who does any kind of art. 

That was my pyramid: what's yours? 

What do you need an enormous amount of right now? Give yourself permission to take it in. Maybe you need a bunch of creative, stimulating, exciting outings. Maybe you need to take a lot of pictures, or visit an art store and then get paint in your hair.

Or maybe you need to make a ton of tea and grab a stack of library books and just get lost in pages for a while.

Or maybe the thing you most need is actually silence.  

Listen in. See what you're saying, down deep. And then go after it. 

(Want a few more ideas for nourishment? Maybe give yourself a distraction detox, go looking for wonder, or take a revolutionary writing pilgrimage.

3: Apprentice yourself to a master magician.

One of the qualities of a good writing groove is that you can solve the problems that arise without too much bleeding.

You know what I mean? Sure, you'll hit an obstacle, but you're all warmed up and ready to tackle it, and you find inventive solutions. 

The more flexible our skills are, and the more skills we have at our disposal, the more likely we are to find ourselves working from an excellent groove.

Without craft and skill, the wheels will keep coming off, and we'll get stuck.

In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp tells how she found herself in a mega-groove of choreographing one excellent dance piece after another.

What triggered it? A leap forward in her skill as a choreographer.

Through inventing one piece with a specific kind of style, she learned an entirely new dance vocabulary. And that breakthrough unlocked so many possibilities that the next several dances came together with a special wonderfulness. 

This makes total sense, right? When we get better at the raw skills of what we do, everything gets a little easier. We're more flexible, quicker at solving problems, and we can reach for more creative solutions. 

Everything clicks along more happily.

So where do you want to give yourself a skill upgrade? Where would you appreciate a mini-class, a workbook session or two, or just some solid time practicing?

Who do you want to learn from? What's the next step in your apprenticeship?

For me, it's learning story structure in a deeper and deeper way. I've been hard at work on all things Story Grid, listening to the podcast and applying it to my draft. (Whew! So much good stuff to learn!!) I'm especially working on shaping scenes.  ... I want to become a scene NINJA. Seriously.

What does that look like for you?

(If you want more craft and skill pointers, check out these posts on escaping miniature writing ruts, tiny craft improvements, and creating your own master class.

And then, if you want to get REAL serious about learning from the best, raise your noveling skills to epic status by checking out the resources here, here, and here.)

4: Put on your workout clothes.

Here we go: The most glamorous groove-inducing method of all.

Hard work.

Sweat.

A run-a-marathon level of effort. 

(Paired with rewards, kindness, naps, and dance parties, of course! I promise I haven't forgotten sustainability already!)

True story: sometimes a groove has to be earned.

Like one of those "buy 9 cups of coffee, get the 10th free" cards that I treasured in college: sometimes you have to put in a lot of effort before you get the free stuff.

Sometimes it takes me two weeks of super hard work, slogging straight up hill, yowling the whole way. And then, suddenly, momentum kicks in, and I'm sailing along.

If you've ever done Nanowrimo and found a real sweet undertow pulling you along late in the process: you've experienced this too. 

This is the power of the marathon mindset. Having that keep moving mindset can vault you over so many obstacles—through sheer momentum. 

Let me tell you: momentum can be your best friend.

The best thing about this one is that you can create a marathon on your own. Hard work is totally free. All it costs you is time and sweat.

You don't need Nanowrimo to come knocking, and you don't need a special event or a class.

All you need is a target of words (or exercises completed, or pages written) and some kind of deadline (just to spur you on—and to let you know when you get a big break!).

Maybe it's a full draft in 6 weeks, or 50,000 words in 30 days, or it could be 366 10-minute exercises in 8 weeks (what can I say, it was fun!). 

The things that make a marathon rewarding and valuable for me (as opposed to miserable and burnout-inducing) are:

  • maintaining a tone of utter kindness;
  • focusing on the quantity of work instead of nitpicking about the quality;
  • and just keeping myself entertained in the words.

If I hold to those three things, a writing marathon becomes my best friend.

So give it a try. What kind of parameters could you put in place to let loose a hard work marathon in your writing life? And ooh, what might it catapult you into?

Make yourself a fun chart (or am I the only one who thinks the graph is one of the best parts of Nanowrimo?), set up some lovely rewards for yourself, and dive in.

(Want a little bit more of a push before committing to a marathon? You've got it. Check out my best stuff on the Nanowrimo mindset—here and here—plus dealing with marathon-level fear, and keeping your body happy while you write so much.

... Plus one more post on the delirious, let's-all-sing-sea-chanties word drunkenness that happens mid-marathon. Yup.

This is why I'm telling you that hard work doesn't have to be miserable: it can be incredibly blissful as well. And it can be easier to keep writing than it is to stop... and that's exactly where I want to get to again!)


And there you have it: four of my best tools for launching myself into a better writing rhythm and a deep writing groove.

Whew!! I'm excited to dive in and apply the heck out of all four of these things. Thanks for staving off total hermit syndrome with me. Seriously, it was about to get real weird here. ;)

Check back in two weeks for the second half of the post... and till then, good luck finding your groove. Go make some magic.

Let's Flood Our Writing Lives with This Powerful (Yet Underestimated) Perspective

Grace doesn't always get a lot of air time. It's not super flashy. But I guarantee, it's the best kind of glue to hold your writing ship together. | lucyflint.com

Well, hello there, February, month of all things love-related! 

Last year, we spent this month working through daily prompts on how to love your writing life. So much fun! It was a big, month-long love party for writing. If you missed it (or just want a refresher!), check out those prompts.

This year, we're going to take a close look at one of the facets of love. And it's something that we need a bunch of in our writing lives.

I wanna talk about grace.

Specifically, I want to throw the doors wide, and welcome much more grace into our writing lives.

Grace is one of those simple-yet-big concepts, and it has a ton of different, valid uses. So, for this blog, and for our lionhearted writing lives, here's what I'm going to say it means: 

Grace in the writing life means, we're not going to punish ourselves for being human. We won't beat ourselves up for learning. 

Of course we'll work on the things that need more work. And we'll keep pushing ourselves. But grace means that we won't treat ourselves badly when we're learning or even when we're failing (which is just learning with a bang).

Grace means that you're allowed to be human. Normal. And learning is allowed to take the time it takes.

Grace brings kindness into our writing lives. It permits ease. It means not being so strict with ourselves, cutting ourselves off from joys (what Julia Cameron calls artistic anorexia), or glaring at ourselves when we don't hit certain marks of quality or status. 

It means not saying nasty things about ourselves, our work ethic, our prospects, or our writing. Nope. No more.

Grace means we give ourselves permission to be who we are, to write the kinds of stuff we write. To be at this exact stage of our writing lives, and saying this is okay. 

This isn't to say that grace brings a lack of ambition. It doesn't mean giving up. And it definitely doesn't mean we stop growing. 

It just means we don't use whips and kicks and anger and hatred for our motivation. 

Grace says: You are okay, and the fact that you are working is good.

The results of that work might need a lot of revision. (In fact, that's a guarantee for me!)

But the fact that we are working (learning, falling, getting back up again, resting, playing, reading, learning some more)—that is good.

Oh, my friends. We need this kind of grace in our writing lives! In order to be writing at all, in order to keep growing, in order to survive writing blocks (or avoid some of them in the first place!). 

Because without grace, we tend to lean on perfectionism, guilt, frustration, and beating ourselves up. Which can leave us not wanting to face our work at all. 

Spoiler alert: Guilt and frustration are not inspiring. 

And perfectionism? It sucks the life out of creativity. Also not inspiring.

And when we're so bruised by the voices in our heads that we don't want to face our work at all... well, not only is that not helping us, it's for sure creating a block between us and our writing.

More than a block. Probably a whole brick wall.

But when I apply grace—like, a ton of grace—when I pour it on my writing life like syrup on pancakes, that's what brings me back to the work.

Back to the deeply flawed draft. Back to what I'm learning.

It lets me have absolute permission to be myself. The exact level of writer that I am.

With my hands covered in grace, I can actually welcome mistakes as signs of life and movement, instead of as proof that there's something wrong with me.

Grace makes us resilient. Grace lets us keep going. 

And because of that, it's one of the most powerful forces you can bring into your writing life.

So where are you at with grace? Does it already have an established place in your writing practice? Where are you already giving yourself grace?

Do you remember to ease up on yourself, to choose self-kindness over self-punishing? Can you let yourself be at the stage that you are? 

Where do you most need grace these days?

And how else can you welcome it in, invite it deeper, and bake it into your schedule, your approach, your self talk?

What would your writing life look like, if you flooded it with grace?

The Person You Will Be at the End of This Year

My two best tools for reaching incredible, impossible, transformative goals. | lucyflint.com

Here's the thing about focusing on a few goals that profoundly matter to you:

If you go after them earnestly, you will change.

Period.

I mean, there's no other way around that, right? 

If you've picked goals that will stretch you, you will stretch.

If you've chosen goals that represent a place that you aren't at right now, then you'll grow to get to that place.

You will end up changed.

Personal growth is kind of like the goal under the goals: To level up in every way. To upgrade our courage and our vulnerability. To gain stamina and broaden the reach of imagination.

To see ourselves differently: more capable, dreaming bigger dreams, and working consistently toward what we want.

That kind of growth is a pretty incredible process, but also just as challenging (or maybe more so!) as the goals themselves.

To help us all out with that, here are two powerful tools that I'm leaning on big time as I reach for my goals this year.

1) Let's recharacterize our old buddy Fear.

When you aim for a big goal, Fear shows up.

It's a guarantee. 

Maybe you've already felt this happening? Because I definitely have!!

Like . . . okay. Seriously. Early last week, I had a little meltdown. Without even realizing it, I was slipping back into old, fear-based ways of working. 

I started treating my work habits with deep suspicion. Cutting the time I usually spend nurturing creativity. Rushing myself through each day, and then beating myself up for not accomplishing 50 hours of work in a single work day.

Yeah. Those old habits. 

But here's the lovely, encouraging sign of growth (thanks to ALL the hard work and emotional heavy-lifting we did together last year!): I realized that I was running scared after only a day and a half in that crazy-making mindset.

It used to take me weeks to pull out of this (or to crash-land out of it), but last Tuesday afternoon I realized what was going on and I had a good laugh. Then I asked myself: Do you really want to spend the rest of the year working like this, even if it means achieving those goals perfectly?

I heard a resounding HECK NO. I tore up my manic scheduling efforts and my hyper-controlling time sheets, took some deep breaths, and reset my course: 

Steady action toward my goal. Building momentum, one day at a time. And honoring the power of systems over the power of daily goals.

And when Fear shows up—because it will—I'm taking a new tactic. I'm not gonna let fear push me into scheduling every single minute in my day. (Fear pretends it's to optimize productivity levels ... but it never works.)

Instead I'm recharacterizing my fear. 

And I'm calling it a lane departure warning.

You know, those fancy systems that tell drivers (through beeping or buzzing or, I don't know, maybe a Dr. Seuss-esque gloved hand that pops out of the ceiling and smacks them) that they are leaving the lane that they're in

That they are drifting unintentionally. That maybe they aren't safe.

Because usually, that's what Fear means when it shows up for me.

It's crying, GAAAAA, Lucy!! You're leaving the lane you were in!

That lane was cozy and safe, and yeah, maybe you didn't always like it, but you knew it, and now you're talking about doing really big things!

That's a WHOLE DIFFERENT LANE, girl, and I don't know, it's pretty freaky! So you need to stay put!

Here, I'll run around screaming, I'll put you on a ridiculous kind of time schedule, I'll make you shut down or burn out, because I'll do whatever it takes to keep you from leaving this lane.

Because who knows what will happen if you leave it?! Who knows what's out there?!

Ahem. 

Get what I'm saying? 

It REALLY helps me to think of fear in lane departure terms, because then I understand it. I know to expect it.

And I can say, Look, Fear. This year I am publishing my novel.

Yup. I know. HUGE lane departure. I haven't published a novel yet, so I know you're going to be blinking and honking and shrieking at me.

So here's the deal, Fear:  

You do what you do. And I will take your voice and your presence to mean two things: 

1) That I'm doing what I intended to do: switch lanes.

2) That I have a chance to check in and reaffirm my commitment. You are essentially asking, Am I sure this is what I'm intending to do? Am I committed? Do I really want this? 

And in that way, your voice and your jumping up and down are going to be really, really helpful to me in this upcoming year.

So thanks.

... But you'll need to sit down and strap yourself in, because we are DEFINITELY changing lanes.

I can't tell you how helpful this metaphor has been for me. It keeps me from fighting fear (which is exhausting). It keeps me from seeing it as a 100% enemy. It's just an over-active safety device.

So I don't have to freak out and react and slam on the brakes when it shows up. Instead I can keep my eyes on the road, and keep moving toward my goal.

How about you? Is there a lane departure warning going off in your life as you look at your new goals?

How does it show up for you? (And am I the only one who turns into a manic time keeper when fear's around??)

Try seeing it as an indicator that you are doing what you meant to do: creating change, striving for new things, and growing. 

And all Fear is saying is that, you're heading for a new lane.

... I know. That can be easier said that done. And it takes a lot of practice. Which brings us to the other tool that can HUGELY help when approaching these new goals: 

2) Let's change what we believe about ourselves and our work. 

In order to reach my three goals for 2017, I've started this one amazing habit: Every morning, I spend thirty minutes practicing what I believe about myself.

Sounds weird? Yeah. It does. 

But it's been the most essential habit of my new year.

I discovered this kind of belief work because I was reading Book Launch Blueprint, by Tim Grahl. (I'm relying on it and on Grahl's Your First 1000 Copies to shape my whole process for selling my book this year. Aka, #2 of my Big 3 goals. Woo hoo!) 

Right near the start of Book Launch Blueprint, Grahl says this amazing, insightful, and totally petrifying thing. He writes:

The one component that separates the successful launches from all the others is this: 
     In a successful launch, the author believes that buying their book is actually a
good thing for people to do. ... 
     You have to believe, in the deepest part of your soul, that it is a
good thing for readers to buy and read your book. 

Okay. Whoa. 

So: What I believe about my book is going to dramatically impact my sales.

What I believe about my story
is going to affect how many people
get to read it.

That is a very, very big deal, my friends, for all of us who are hoping to publish and sell our writing.

To be honest, my first instinct was to kind of freak out about that, pretend I didn't believe him, and then skip to the next section. "Great, yeah, solid advice, thanks. Now where are the charts and graphs and practical stuff?" 

The trouble is, I've been listening to enough of Brooke Castillo's work that I'm realizing: Looking hard at what I believe is incredibly practical. 

She has me convinced that our beliefs drive everything else in our lives. They're at the root of what we think, feel, do, and achieve.

Pretty dang practical.

So when Tim Grahl pointed out that believing in your book is essential for a successful launch, I had to dig into my beliefs about my own story.

Do I believe that buying my novel is one of the best things someone can do?

Oooh. Kinda yes. Kinda no. And those kindas are gonna trip me up in a really big way if I don't deal with them.

So—how to do that?

I did what I've been doing a lot of lately. I dove in to the backlist of the Life Coach School podcast and I found this incredible, beautiful, life-changing episode on How to Believe New Things.

Bingo. 

I know that I keep going on about this podcast, but ... you guys. You have to listen to this one. (Your future book sales just might depend on it!)

So I took notes. And then I did what Brooke Castillo recommends:

  • I listed (brain-dump style) everything I believe about myself in regard to all three of my goals. You know. Those seemingly random, nasty little thoughts that dart by when I'm working.
     
  • Then I took a closer look at a few of them and what they set loose in my life, just to see them in action. How did those crappy little beliefs make me feel? What did I do when I felt that way? And how did that end up? (Usually, not well.) Proving that yes, beliefs impact results.
     
  • Okay. So then I listed the things I wanted to believe about myself and these new goals. Not gushy, goofy, impossible things, like "I'm the best writer ev-ah!!" Instead, I worked on coming up with things that I did, at base, believe about myself. Or that I could believe about myself. 
     
  • And now I practice them. Every morning.

As in: I sit at my desk, and I look at the belief typed out in a super-big font so it takes up my whole screen. I say each belief out loud, and I work on actually believing what I am saying.

I remember when I've proven it in the past, I affirm all the parts of my character and habits that line up with it, and I just believe that it's true. 

And on to the next, and the next.

Does it seem a little hokey? Maybe. 

But does it work? ABSOLUTELY YES.

I can practically feel my courage rallying, my spine getting stronger. I've been feeling less panicked, less doubtful.

My friends, you've gotta try this! It is absolutely worth the time and the effort. 

And if you've ever been interested in practicing affirmations, Brooke's podcast episode explains them beautifully. Her version of creating beliefs has been even more helpful than the written affirmations I'd been doing—it kinda picks up the same concept, but then turns it into a superpower tonic.

Which is just what we want for 2017, right? ;)

Not sure where to start? Here, these are my four favorite all-purpose beliefs to practice so far: 

  • I am capable of immense courage.
  • I know the very next step I should take, and that's enough to go on for now.
  • I will do whatever it takes.
  • No matter how this turns out, I will have my own back.

Those are four that I've been working on to get ready for all the work of this year. They kind of throw a switch on in me, activating all my best traits. 

And, I promise you, when I'm believing all that, I can face my somewhat daunting day with a lot more courage and conviction.

From that place, I have compassion on myself when Fear shows up. I remember how to redefine it, and how to move ahead anyway.

That is the kind of work that's going to make me—and you!—a stronger and more courageous person by the end of the year.

How does that sound to you?

Honestly, when I think about sticking with these goals, and these beliefs, and this practice of moving forward in the face of fear—that's the kind of stuff that gets me very excited to see who I'll be by the end of 2017.

And who will you be, my amazing lionhearted friend? Where will your writing be, if you've been believing the best about yourself and your work, all through the year? And departing your old lanes like crazy, aiming at new and wonderful directions? 

Ooooh. I can't wait to find out.


PS: February, aka the month of all things love-related, is coming up in a few weeks! Which means now is the time to start planning a big date with one of the main loves of your life...

Your writing! 

Yep. It sounds cheesy when I read it too. But that's okay. It's February. Valentine's Month. Cheesy is totally allowed.

... But I'm also kinda serious, and if you want to add a big dose of love and commitment to your writing days, I've got you covered! 

Last February I did a series of daily prompts, all to help you fall deeper in love with your writing life.

YES! Yes, you. Yes, your writing life.

Wanna check it out? Here's your link buffet:

Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, part eight, and the finale

Happy writing, and happy loving how you write! 

Let's Raise Our Glasses: Here's to All the Goals We're NOT Pursuing This Year!

This year's batch of resolution-making is as much about the goals we AREN'T pursuing as it is about the ones we are. Choice is where the magic happens for 2017. | lucyflint.com

It's impossible for me not to think about goals during the first month of the year. It's as fun as jumping on the whole back-to-school train in September!

And I'm not the only one who geeks out over these festivals of productivity, right? ;)

Only trouble is, it's incredibly easy for me to go overboard when it comes to New Year's Resolutions. As in: waaaaaaaay overboard.

Y'all know this about me already: Plans and goals go right to my head.

So when January 1 rolls around, I itch to get my hands on some graph paper and just plan the snot out of the next twelve months. I mean... come on. That's what graph paper was invented for!

And this is why I'm so proud of myself right now.

Because I spent some serious time sifting through my priorities and I narrowed my list of would-be goals to three.

JUST THREE. That's like superhuman restraint for me! 

Because usually I'll decide that there are, oh, about eight sections of my life that need overhauling, like yesterday, and then I'll brainstorm a dozen goals for each section (just to be safe!). And I'll narrow them down to maybe three or five or eight per section.

And then I'll come up with targets I need to hit to make those goals work, so now I have an army of sub-goals, and before long, they'll have multiplied into more fierce little ambitions than I can count, let alone track, let alone work toward. 

But I'll make a massive tracking chart thing anyway, and right at that point all my giddiness will burn out and I'll just sit there choking on overwhelm, staring at my perfect chart.

At which point I'll decide to go binge-watch moody British mysteries until springtime.

Yeah. A hundred percent. That's the usual goal-making process for me, if I'm not very, very careful.

And that's why choosing only three (amazing, exciting, challenging) goals for this year is practically an act of heroism.

I didn't do it alone, though. I had high-quality help in the form of two books: Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, and The Accidental Creative, by Todd Henry (which I fell in love with this fall).

Two super-excellent books for defining what matters in your life as a creative, and then doing it. 

The practice of Essentialism is all about focusing on doing less but better. Stripping things down to their essentials and then putting all your energy behind them. (Guess where the name comes from!) After falling head-over-heels for Deep Work and the power of mega-focus, I was ready to dive into Essentialist thinking.

Confession: Left to my own devices, I'm a die-hard Non-essentialist. In McKeown's terms, this means that I'm focusing on "the undisciplined pursuit of more."

In practice, this is a lifestyle of piling on commitments, scattering focus and energy everywhere, and saying yes to everything. And, oh yeah, feeling overwhelmed and like I can't make any progress.

It looks like sitting in front of a big chart of 73 goals with zero energy left to pursue them.

A lifestyle of Essentialism, on the other hand, relies on powerful decisions.

I love how McKeown takes his time with definitions in the book: He points out that the word decision comes out of the Latin for "to cut," or "to kill."

Meaning? When we decide on something, when we choose it, we're killing a different decision. We're cutting ourselves off from a different route. We are actively choosing to NOT do something else.

It's not a "pick both!" situation, even if that's how I try to make it play out. I want to ask, How can I do everything? How can I pick all the things I like? Everything I want, and right now?

But the real, amazing power of a decision comes from the fact that, when you pick one thing, and also pick to NOT do the other thing, you've freed up the resources and time and energy and attention and creativity that would have gone to that second thing.

Which means that your chosen path has gotten a lot stronger. You can do it far better than if you insisted on trying to do more things.

See where we're going with this? 

It's worth really wrapping your mind around this. Because if you're like me, it's so easy to believe that we have endless energy, plenty of time, no worries, we don't have to rule anything out! 

No matter how many times we prove that that's simply not true.

Anyone with me on this? 

It is so much better, more truthful, and less stressful, to take a deep breath and gather the focus to make an actual decision. The kind of decision that cuts something off, that kills the other option.

THIS thing. NOT that thing.

McKeown makes a compelling case, and he totally sold me on Essentialism. And I'm working to mend my scattershot ways!

(There's a lot more to his work than just that, and it's really good! But that's the section I used as I planned my goals. Definitely check out the book for yourself!

The idea of focusing on only three goals came to me while I was reviewing the notes I took from The Accidental Creative, which is a book about developing a sustainable rhythm to support your creativity. (SO. GOOD.)

One of Todd Henry's concepts is The Big 3, which is just "the three things I need to gain creative traction on right now. They aren't necessarily my biggest projects, though they often are. ... The Big 3 is a constant reminder of where I need to dedicate my creative bandwidth."

For Henry's purposes, the Big 3 can be updated whenever necessary. They can shift from week to week, depending on the progress you make. They're always what you're mulling over, and working to move forward on.

For me, three felt like a magic number. Just enough breadth to dodge boredom, but not so much variety that I lose my grip on what's essential.

I figured: why not have a Big 3 for the year? Aka, my Resolutions?? 

So I did it. I made a master list of projects and ideas and things that I care about, and then I weeded them out, one by one, until I focused in on my Big Three. 

Three super powerful goals. Two are work-related, and the third one is personal. Each of them is a game changer, no wait, a life changer for me.  

I made sure they were each fairly clear: measurable, and not just subjective. And then I did all my happy-nerd planning: I looked at where I'd need to be by the end of each month, in order to check off all three by the end of the year.

Each one is a VERY big stretch for me, but at the same time, each one is also truly doable. ... So long as I don't listen to fear, focus on my faults, and spend the year curled up in a corner!

Three mega-exciting goals.

And by not choosing those other seventy ideas, I'm aware of just how huge my attention span is, and how much energy I have, since I'm not spreading it around as much. 

What's also surprising is how respected I feel.

These are challenging things that I'm aiming for, but by not adding a dozen more goals on top of them, I feel like Boss-Me is being pretty reasonable toward Working-Me. I'm not thwarting myself from the outset, burying the important goals in a landslide of other attempts and commitments and initiatives.

So: they're actually possible. They will truly happen.

Which is why I seriously can't stop grinning. My heart's beating faster. But I'm not overwhelmed either. Challenged, yes. Overwhelmed? Well, no.

Because I can wrap my mind around each of these three things—there's only three, after all! And I have enough space and resources to seriously make them happen.

One, like I said, is personal. But what are my other two? Well, I definitely and absolutely and no-matter-what-ably am publishing my first book this year.

For SURE.

The date might change, but it is happening, and my current best estimate for publication is July 1. That is what I'm committing my schedule and my focus to. 

The other work-related goal is just as big and exciting: I'm committing to sell 1000 copies of that first book in the first six months of publication. WHOA. That's a big, exciting, time-to-put-my-big-girl-pants-on kind of goal! 

No chance that I'm going to be bored this year, haha! 

... So. Where are you at, my lionhearted friend, with the January goal-making and resolution seeking? 

Let me encourage you to pick very few. Just a few goals that are exciting for you, that are extra-important, that are worthy of the bulk of your time and focus and heart.

That would change your world a little—or, oh, even a lot.

(And no, sorry, a dozen goals isn't a few. I get it, and I feel you, but no.)

Challenge yourself to try for just a few big things. Try three. Three is such a great number.

And then feel the rush of empowerment as you line up what you would need to meet that goal.

What kinds of things you would do, in order to make it inescapable that you will hit your goals. Like, no question. Of course they are going to happen. They are definitely going to work out.

And, scary empowering question, what kinds of things will you not do, in order to make each of your goals a reality? 

Because it isn't just about setting up a killer action plan. It's about making sure that the time, energy, resources, excitement, and courage are all lined up and available for you from the start.

And then: make the daring, brave commitment to yourself that these things are your Most Important. They are your Essentials, your Big 3.

And if something else comes up, if there are obstacles, if you wake up and stop feeling like it: These goals still win

That's the power: You're deciding in advance they will happen.

You're calculating the trade-offs in advance. You're invested. You're not chasing after all the other pretty ideas on purpose, so that you have the resources and energy you need.

Focusing on these things is worth it.

So what are your Big 3? What's on your plate this year?

What is going to consistently win your focus and excitement, week after week this year, until it's done?

Ooooh. That's the kind of amazing attitude and bold commitment that's gonna get things done.


Want more resources? If you eat this kind of stuff up, definitely check out the book The One Thing, because it's also really helpful with questions of focus and purpose and what's essential. 

Also, there's my new favorite podcast (!!!!!), which is The Life Coach School Podcast, by Brooke Castillo. Seriously, y'all, the more I listen to it, the more I am CONVINCED that it is essential listening for every writer who is trying to publish and sell her work. For everyone who has to manage their own thoughts and goals and emotions and attitude: it is a MUST LISTEN. It just gives you such incredible tools for motivating yourself!

Definitely check out her episode on goal making, her episode on self doubt, and her episode on what you want to create in your life. They will rock your world, and get you thinking of how to tackle huge wonderful things in your life!!

Buckle up, 2017!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of writing... 

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


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

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

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

What's the point? 

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

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

.

.

.

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

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

Because the goal of NaNoWriMo isn't perfect writing. 

Heck, the goal isn't even GOOD writing. 

The goal is: Mass ink. 

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

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

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

It's risky

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

To see if maybe I start flying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We literally achieve liftoff.

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

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

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

Let your NaNoWriMo goal be: that rush. 

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

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

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

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

Ask some follow-ups: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

You just might start flying.


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

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

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

Best of luck—and happy flying!!

The Key To Everything Is a Crazy Amount of Focus.

The megaskill that makes way for all other skills: the ability to focus, intensely. (Like ... more intense than ever before. A whole new level.) | lucyflint.com

If you saw my last post on Cal Newport's stirring & motivating book Deep Work, you know that a radical new approach to focus is totally necessary if we want to write with super-high quality. It's also vital if we want to grow exponentially in our writerly skills.

Which: we do. Right? All of us. That's what we signed up for.

Focus. It's a big deal.

So ... how do we learn to focus with that kind of intensity? How do we adopt that training program mindset, so that we become writers who dive in deep and write our most incredible stuff? 

From the last post, we already know that deep work requires literally rewiring our brain. Which ... is hard. We know that this is going to be a challenge.

So, do we have patience with ourselves as we practice, and a readiness to encounter difficulty? Check and check.

High five. Let's go strengthen our ability to focus. 

Where do we begin?

1) Develop a deep work ritual.

Is it just me, or is everyone talking about rituals lately? Morning rituals, bedtime rituals, getting-ready-for-exercise rituals, planning rituals... 

Personally, I love 'em. (Shocking, right?!)

Yes, I love the idea of using a clever sequence of little behaviors to naturally lead my mind into the next important thing I'm doing.

It's like an on-ramp for the brain.

Welp, Cal Newport says we need to ritualize our deep work sessions as well. Why?

After describing the rituals of a few successful deep thinkers, he points out:

Success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there's no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.

Minimizing friction: that is key!! I don't know about you, but some days I feel like my writing time is friction. I can be forever transitioning between activities and making decisions, instead of getting into a good groove and staying there.

I'm sold, Mr. Newport. So, what does a deep work ritual need to do?

He lists three things in particular that a ritual has to incorporate: where you will work, how you will work, and how you'll support your work.

If we're making and remaking these decisions every time we need to settle in, we'll be flooding our deep work time with that transitioning friction. 

So, for starters, you need to ensure that your deep work area is a good environment. With a low chance of distractions and interruptions, and enough space to think.

And then, when working: how do you want to structure it? Do you need to keep a certain kind of pace, or consider a certain number of questions or read a certain number of pages? 

Finally, do you need some good food (he suggests some good coffee, and you know I'm all "amen to that!"), and some space to move around a little? (He repeatedly recommends walking as a way to enhance thinking ability.)

Personally, I don't have a clear, solid ritual in place yet. But I do have bits of one: 

  • In my planner, I write deep work mode! next to the hours when I'm planning on being uberfocused. That extra bit of intentionality reminds me to be sure and keep distractions out of my work zone.
  • Before I dive in, I sweep my desk space, and clear out anything that would derail me.
  • Like my phone. I march it over to my closet, tuck it into a little drawer, and leave it there.
  • I pull up a soundtrack of nature sounds on my computer. The rhythm of ocean waves works like an audible cue: time to go deep.
  • Finally, I keep a notepad nearby, so that if a distracted thought drops in (I need to text so-and-so! I have to track down that one recipe! Did I ever deal with that one email?) I can note it and not lose it ... but without pursuing the distraction itself.

Yeah, I know. This is pretty basic, and certainly isn't up to the more quirky and eccentric rituals that we hear about. But I'm willing to get there. ;)

And so far, this has been a good framework for supporting my early deep work efforts.

The real key here is to experiment with whatever works best for you. To take care of all those moving parts that would derail you, and make sure that you have everything you need ... and nothing that you don't.

2) Have a plan for your precious deep work time.

The time to figure out how your session is going to go is before the session starts. We don't want to waste precious deep work minutes planning our deep work time, right? Right!

So before you start, be sure that you know how long you're going to work deeply. When you're starting and when you're stopping.

Because when we're working this intensely, it's vital to know that there's only a finite amount of time we're doing this!

Newport says,

Be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

And yes, I've thought, "Oh, I'll be fine. I'll just work til I'm ready to stop." Hahahaha—no. For some reason, when my mind doesn't know when it's going to get a break, it starts tempting me to give up, get up, slow down, get bored, and get distracted.

Let's not do that.

Know when you'll start, and when you'll stop. And when you're done, get up and move around and take that break!

One more point about how long we're working: It's tempting to learn about the value of deep work, and then to swear you'll have an eight-hour deep work day, and charge out to save your world with focus.

But that doesn't work so well. That's kinda like me dashing out to run a marathon. (You'd have to scrape me off the pavement after about four miles.)

When we're new to this, it's essential that we start small

Newport recommends that we aim for an hour of this kind of pure focus to begin with. And actually, it's really all we can muster before our brains are retrained.

If even a full hour sounds especially difficult, I hear you! There is zero shame in starting with even smaller amounts. Twenty minutes of total focus can be really challenging and super rewarding!! 

And it's shocking how much good thinking you can get done, in twenty focused minutes.

(When we get super good, we'll be looking at four hours of deep work a day. Even the masters can't do this indefinitely!) 

Also, what kind of work will you be doing? We'll answer that next:

3) Know the difference between deep work and shallow work.

Shallow work is another central concept in this book. Shallow work is the stuff that we still need to do ... but it doesn't require the same amount of focus, and it isn't generating huge value like deep work.

Newport defines shallow work like this:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

For me, shallow work is the busywork of dealing with computer updates and gathering resources. It's filling out forms, running errands, editing photos, fixing the printer. It's dealing with email and shuffling files and organizing papers.

Anytime I think, if I had an intern or a clone, I'd have her do this!—that's shallow work.

Shallow work isn't bad. In fact, it's completely necessary! It doesn't take as much focus, so it has a lighter feel to it. 

The reason we need to recognize it is because we're tempted to drip our shallow work all through our day. It can sprawl across our schedules and just take over.

But it simply isn't coming from the same place as our deep work. If we blend the two all day, we keep ourselves from going deeply and doing the kind of lasting work that would, well, make a name for ourselves.

(Doesn't that give you shivers?)

If you have days that look like this kind of once-typical day of mine, then you get where I'm coming from: 

  • work a bit on the draft
  • um, I'm bored/stumped, so I'll check email... 
  • oh, sweet, blog comment! I'll dash over and answer that!
  • okay, right, focus: work a bit on the draft
  • I need a new computer update!
  • Oh, I should back up my computer while I'm thinking of it, can't risk losing data!
  • while it's rebooting, let me just clear my email inboxes on my phone . . . 
  • that outfit on Pinterest is so cute. So are a dozen of the recommended pins alongside it...
  • Oh, right! Drafting. Drafting drafting drafting.
  • Geez, I'm hungry...

THAT is an oh-so typical blend of shallow work and deep work attempts. Sure, I can get some important shallow work done, but when I keep switching back and forth, my drafting (aka deep work!!) suffers.

Because when I'm drafting from a shallow-work mindset, my scenes feel more sketched than deeply dreamed. My characters act more clichéd, their dialogue a little too rehearsed.

We can't completely cut out our shallow work—some important things would fall apart. But, we can't let shallow work take over our valuable deep work time, either.

Newport recommends, instead, batching our work. That's why the deep work ritual is so important: Get into deep work mode, and do the deep work, no distractions!

And then, get into shallow work mode. Scrape all those lighter tasks together and knock them out at once, staying in that mindset throughout. 

4) In fact, give yourself a shallow work budget.

This is such a cool suggestion, and it's one I have yet to implement. But I think that, when I do, it's going to be huge.

Here's the idea. Newport recommends talking to your boss (for those of us writing for ourselves, that's us) about the difference between deep work and shallow work.

Our deep work time will bring the most valuable work to our "company." Our shallow work time won't be so much about generating value, but it will keep everything running smoothly.

Both are important, no question.

Here's the question for our bosses, aka us, to wrestle with:

How much time per week should we spend doing each?

Wherever you're at, this is a great question to think through.

His suggestion for self-employed knowledge workers (like me, like you, if you're working on your novel and/or building your brand): the ratio should probably be around fifty-fifty.

So, roughly half our time we spend digging in deep with our novels, writing our best stuff. Working with pure focus, operating as our absolute best and smartest selves. Thinking amazing thoughts. Growing our skills.

The other half of the time we're answering emails, editing photos, planning social media campaigns, tweaking newsletters, etc.

Make sense? 

And then, as you settle into this rhythm, track your time each day. He says it's an eye-opening and helpful way to keep yourself honest: to keep shallow work in check, and to keep your deep work in your sights.

So, if anyone has swamped her day/week/month by deciding that she needs to clean out allllllll her file folders instead of facing the next few scenes (who, me?? never!) ... yeah, this is gonna help with that.

5)  We already said it, but, it's time to make it official: Distraction, we're breaking up with you.

Oh, Distraction. You talk so sweet, but you clearly don't love us as much as you say you do.

You mess with our game, you change our brains, and you keep us from doing our best work.

And you pretend it's all in fun.

Nope. Not okay anymore, Distraction.

We're all signing off. We're done with constant notifications, chiming, buzzing, dinging, ringing. We're going deep. We're practicing mega-focus.

We're not afraid of being bored. We'll find new ways to stay entertained. We'll notice what's around us and be fully present, instead of disappearing into your mile-a-minute maelstrom. 

And when we truly need a Pinterest hit or a Facebook fix, we'll schedule that time like the deep workers we are, and go check our sites happily for that pre-scheduled half hour, or however long we've decided.

We aren't at your mercy anymore, Distraction. We're taking our power back. No more falling into your lost minutes, lost hours, lost days.

Distraction, we're done. It's not us: it's you.

Ya gotta go.


On the face of it, a lot of these tips are common sense, right? This "deep work" stuff can sound like just cleaning up some habits around working well. I get that.

I think what makes these ideas feel so weighty to me, though, is because Cal Newport treats deep work like a whole new level of working.

Near the book's conclusion, he says,

Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. ... To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I'm arguing, is a transformative experience.

He makes the case that as we learn to do this, we won't be saying, "oh, yeah, I guess I polished that novel rather nicely."

It's more on the level of, "holy crap, I just took that whole GENRE to new heights," or, "I created a different kind of story form," or, "I destroyed the pre-existing limits on this kind of publication launch."

It's about solving problems in a huge way. It's about shattering our previous ways of working, our small successes and tiny increases. Trading all that in for absurd levels of growth, productivity, and understanding.

This is rocket fuel, in other words. 

So, if you're in, if this sounds awesome, here are a few deep-workian questions to consider:

What's your deep work ritual look like? Or, if that sounds daunting, what's at least one way you can signal to your imagination and your brain: we're goin' deep!

How long of a deep work session do you want to start training with? Remember, a killer twenty-minute block is much better than a terrifying one hour, when you're getting started! Don't be ashamed to start small.

What kinds of activities in your typical work week qualify as "shallow work"? Nothing wrong with them, but they just don't come from that mega-focused place. What would it look like if they had to take up only half your time (or less!), and the rest of your time went to pure, total focus? 

And yeah, we just broke up with Distraction. What do you need to do to make it official?

Remember: It's easy to feel like we're focusing well enough. That we already know what focus feels like, thanks, and why must we go to extremes? Isn't that a little harsh, a little crazy, a little weird?

The truth is,we underestimate the power of this level of focus, because most of us (myself included!) have never really, actually, consistently tasted it.

We don't know what it can do, and we assume that we're working as well as we can.

I think it's worth it, my lionhearted friends, to dig in and really try for this. 

Personally, I love the idea of my time—that very finite resource!—doing radically more than it currently is. Of having richer insights, more imaginative work, and better everything.

Woo! I'm getting chills.

So I'm on board with this.

Oh, okay, and one last thing: If all this focus talk makes you feel like your brain is going to fall out, and also like, what the heck, Lucy, that last month was all self-care all the time, and now I feel like you want me to be a machine... 

I got you. On Thursday we'll be talking about strengthening our ability to play. Which is the other half of this deep work equation. 

OH yeah. We'll balance it out. High five, my friend.

Wanna Write the Absolute Best Work You Possibly Can? Me Too. And I Just Found Our Training Program.

I've got a great book recommendation for you. If you want to make the most of every writing session, improve your skill, and produce your best-ever work, this is a must read. | lucyflint.com

Well, my friends, get ready to toss some confetti. Because I've just discovered another awesome book that you are going to love. 

It's exciting, compelling, and challenging. It's definitely going to force us to build strength in a few areas. 

But best of all? It works at developing a key skill in creating high quality work.

Which is what you're working on. Which is what I'm working on.

We all want high quality writing, yes? 

So this is our next thing to learn.

The book is Deep Work, by Cal Newport. It's a bit of a wake-up call about how we are currently working, and what the results of that kind of work are.

Eye-opening, and oh-so helpful.

The subtitle is, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. No surprise, then, that Cal Newport is discussing how we can habitually work with a serious, life-changing amount of focus.

He has this equation that I just loved: 

High-Quality Work Produced = 
(Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

... And if the math-ness of that makes your head explode (I hear you!), then here's the game-changing truth: 

To make the best kind of work, we need to focus acutely within the time we have. 

In fact, our ability to focus intensely makes a huge, across-the-board difference, within every single minute we spend at our work.

If you only have half an hour to write each day, you need deep work practices, to make that the most dynamic half hour possible. 

And if writing makes up the main part of your day, like mine does: we need deep work practices as well to make the most of each day ... and to keep us from tricking ourselves about how productive we are.

(He makes it clear early on that mere busyness isn't the same thing as creating valuable, quality work. Yipes!) 

Oh, and my friends who are gearing up for NaNoWriMo in a couple of months? Yeah. Cal Newport's got your back too. The principles of deep work are gonna make that your easiest 50K ever.

In other words, if you've ever gotten to the end of a writing session, or a writing week, or heck, a writing year (yup, been there!), and said, What did I do with all my time

This book is for you.

It's for all of us.

Yes, some parts are challenging. But hey, you're a writer. You've signed up for challenging. You eat challenging for breakfast. So this is right up your alley.

Ready to start? Here are four of the best things I learned in Deep Work.

1) What the heck is deep work anyway? And why is it so dang valuable?

Definitions first. Newport defines deep work as: 

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

What does that mean for all of us writers?

Deep work is about using our total abilities to do our work. It means doing our writing with full imaginative capability, full mental capacity. The works. 

ALL our brain cells doing their part, to help us dream up, draft, revise, sculpt, polish, and complete our amazing bit of writing.

So that's why it's seriously important.

Deep work means that you're writing valuable things.

It also means that you're getting better at what you do. 

Just by working in this way, you're improving your characterization, dialogue, the flow of information in your story, the pacing, the structure, killer conflict, sentence style, all of it.

Bonus: Deep work practices help make sure that your work is especially unique.

Because you're dialed in, you're working with your whole self. You're tapped into your best ideas. You're digging past those surface clichés and narrative reflexes that we all are familiar with (and accidentally add to our stuff when we're not thinking deeply, whoops!).

In a nutshell, pursuing deep work means that you're going to write the best darned work that you can possibly muster.

Oh, and since your skill is growing all through the process, that next book? Will be even better. You'll keep breaking through your old limits.

... You can see why I'm sold on this, right?? Heck yes, give me a huge helping of deep work! I will sprinkle it on my cereal and stir it into my coffee and have it all the time

Deep work is worth pursuing.

... But then we hit a few snags.

2) So, why has distraction stopped looking so cute and friendly?

Did you see the words "distraction free" up in that definition?

So ... yeah. Distraction free. That's kinda the first real bump in the road.

To pursue deep work, we need to take a hard look at what we're comfortable with. Where we're already operating from.

And we're gonna have to change some things.

If we're working in distraction-supportive environments (notifications dinging, email chiming, text messages chirping, Facebook facebooking, Twitter twittering), then, um, we aren't doing deep work.

Meaning: we are severely limiting our ability to write valuable things, to come up with our most original stuff, and to grow in our skills.

Yikes.

I mean, YIKES. That's a pretty sizable hit to take.

And ... it gets worse:

In Deep Work, Newport explains the concept of attention residue.

We experience attention residue when we're working on one thing, and then we switch reeeally quick to just check something else—a little look at email, a tiny Facebook snack, a peek at Twitter—and then go back to our first task.

When we come back to our original task, we have this kind of attention hangover. Even if we don't consciously notice it, part of our brain is still paying attention to the email, or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever else we checked out "real quick." 

And attention residue can last for ten to twenty minutes.

In other words, our five-minute break isn't five minutes in its effect. Even if we come right back to our work. 

We all basically knew that distraction wasn't harmless, but, if you're like me, it seemed like such a fun thing to keep around.

I'd go through periods of cracking down on distractions, but then I'd fall in love with Instagram again. Or want to keep tabs on something on Facebook. Or listen to an Internet radio service with those jarring ads. Or, or, or...

Newport's description of attention residue really convinced me. That hidden cost of switching tasks just seems way too expensive.

Up to twenty minutes of really bad brainpower, for every quick break?! Wasting twenty minutes of work time? Ack!

So, as I type this, my smartphone is shut in a closet. My computer isn't registering any notifications and I don't have any other tabs or windows up. No music playing.

My focus isn't perfect by a long shot. But I can feel it getting better. 

(Stay tuned: We'll talk a lot more about how to strengthen our ability to focus in the next blog post!)

3) What do we have to know before we start practicing this stuff?

One of the points that Cal Newport really dwells on is the idea that 1) deep work is hard, and 2) it is a skill that we have to train.

It's not something we can just pick up and be great at. It's going to take work.

It is going to take training.

In other words, we are going to want to stop, give up, shrug our shoulders, and go back to our old ways. 

For serious.

In the book, he quotes some really compelling research findings about how our brains don't just snap back to being able to focus intently. 

In other words, this isn't just a question of motivation. It's not just about trying hard and seeing if it works.

It's about taking a muscle that has atrophied and bringing it back to full health and then some.

Why is it so important to know this?

Because the breakthroughs are on the other side of perseverance.

Part of our brain has to learn to walk again: It's going to be painful! Progress might be really slow.

We might forget why we're even doing this, or if it even matters, when it seems like all the cool kids are interacting on Twitter every five minutes.

And if we know, in advance, that it's GOING TO BE HARD, we'll be more willing to stick it out through the challenging parts.

Right now, most of us work in a near-constant exposure to distraction mania. And those distractions actively deteriorate our ability to focus deeply.

Chasing distraction isn't a neutral habit, in other words. Running scared of being bored, scrolling through countless media sites as a reflex, keeping multiple windows going as we work—it's not just slightly bad for us.

It is actively, persistently, and ruthlessly breaking down our chances at doing our best work. 

And it's creating a mental dependence on distraction, which is going to make it even harder to learn to truly focus.

Did I say yikes already? Because: yikes. Again.

So, he says, we have to wean ourselves off of distraction.

We have to stop letting our work sessions and our work breaks and our evenings  and off times be defined by distraction-oriented activities.

It doesn't mean we all have to swear off Pinterest and the like. But it does mean that we have to be intentional about our use of Pinterest and its friends.

Newport recommends that we schedule our distraction time. That we, quite literally, write down on a piece of paper when we will be indulging in the distractions. 

He points out,

The key here isn't to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

That resistance? Super important. 

He mentions elsewhere that, by doing this work, you are literally working to rewire your brain. To retrain it. To pull it back from being distraction-craving and distraction-driven.

And to turn it into something that can focus well and work hard.

(And, you know, write deep and amazing books.)

4) And why does it matter how we end our work session?

One of my favorite favorite parts of the book is Cal Newport's powerful idea of a shutdown ritual. 

And believe me, a shutdown ritual is your new best friend.

It's a set series of things you do at the end of your work session to close things down. Pretty basic territory. You might even do a version of this already.

For me, it means:

Sounds simple, right? 

Here's the key thing, though: our brains need us to officially stop thinking about our work at a certain point.

Yes, really.

And here's why that's so cool:

Apparently our conscious mind and our unconscious mind operate super differently. We all pretty much knew that, right?

The thing that I, at least, didn't realize, was that, both parts of our mind are incredible problem solvers.

The conscious mind—the thing that's clattering along right now as you read and as I type—is super good at solving a certain kind of problem. 

Newport says it like this: 

Your conscious mind ... is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems. 

Cool, right? Good job, brains. Very nice. 

Here's the interesting part of that description, though: limited problems. The conscious mind handles the smaller things.

What does the unconscious do? Newport continues:

Whereas your unconscious mind is like Google's vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions.

Huge amounts of unstructured info: uh, that sounds exactly like all the info I generate while plotting.

Surprisingly useful solutions to difficult questions: sounds like exactly what I'm looking for!!

You too, right?

Let that sink in for a second.

Your unconscious mind holds spot-on solutions for your very complex, difficult questions.

Like how to save your character from the mega-mess she's made in chapter 47. Like how to figure out your business and marketing plans. Like how to do any of the other myriad, gnarly problems that we face all. the. time.

Your unconscious mind is your hero.

And I don't know about you, but when I'm trying to solve a big problem I can kind of panic, trying to just chug chug chug uphill with my dinky little conscious brain, thinking: If I just work later, if I just keep going, if I just don't let it go til I figure it out...

But this section of Deep Work convinced me: We have to send hard-to-solve problems over to the unconscious mind. To do that, we have to deliberately take them off the conscious mind.

What that means is, we need to kind of train our brains to make the switch. We need a clear, concrete end to our work days. Which is why that shutdown ritual is so dang important.

Newport recommends doing the same sequence of steps, each time you finish your work.

And he even makes the case that, it helps to say something out loud to help make this transition. You're essentially telling your brain, "Okay, the conscious mind is done with this. Over to you, unconscious!! Make me proud!" 

This part of the ritual can be simple. Newport says out loud, "Shutdown complete."

I'm usually talking to a bunch of characters, so I say, "Good job, everyone! That's it for today! Sleep well!" 

It doesn't matter so much what you say, but keep it consistent.

And the final super-critical key to a shutdown ritual is this: You stop trying to think about your work. For the rest of the day. Yes, really.

He says, 

No after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you'll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.

And instead of panicking about the problems that are unsolved, we're free to go about our evenings, or whatever our time off is—knowing that the massive resources of the unconscious are working hard on our problem.

COMPLETELY amazing, isn't it? And so very freeing. The shutdown ritual has been one of my favorite parts of applying this book so far.


There's a lot of really compelling information, insights, and suggestions in this book, my friends.

Honestly, it's a must-read for all of us who want to write things that will be valuable for our readers. Who want to write works that will last.

I'm applying the book slowly and steadily, so I'm not on top of everything he says yet. But the small progress I've made has felt really invigorating. 

My mind feels a bit less like a sieve, and more like a machine that actually works. I feel less ready to jump up or click away at the slightest craving for a distraction. I feel more on task, more content, and more satisfied in my work.

Which, honestly, is super empowering.

So if you worry sometimes about how well you're working, or how deep you're digging: this book is for you. Get your hands on Deep Work, and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, let's challenge ourselves to get rid of distractions.

Let's be willing to engage our minds in this training work.

Let's give our conscious minds a rest at the end of the work day ... so the big scary-exciting work of the unconscious can begin.

Most of all, let's take courage. One of the best resources for a successful and fulfilling writing career is this deep work ability. And it's right here! Right within our grasp!

It requires no fancy equipment, no flashy tools. Just you, your mind, your willingness, and a whole lotta grit.

Let's practice it, get better at it, and write those amazing stories that the world needs.