How to Talk about Your Writing (Without Throwing Up)

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn't always go well.

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

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

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

Never. You have to believe me on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Category Two: SO MUCH FUN. (Kidding.)

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

Oh. It's just not going to go well. 

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

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

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

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

Well, basically they doubt everything.

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

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

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

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

It's never a good route.

So I changed my goal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm a writer. Writers write.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So stay strong.

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

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

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

That is no small thing.

Actually, it's a big freaking deal.

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

Don't let them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of a Passive Idea File

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Title File.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Character Name File

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Image and Phrase File.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Be a Kinder Boss

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

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

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

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

Or, I should say, I used to. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some reason, my team kept burning out.


Is anyone out there like me?

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

Just ... don't.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go out and get yourself a cup of coffee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is the Writing Book that You Really Must Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because writers have some moods

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

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

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

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

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

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

You're Already a Magician

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it just took diving in to find it.

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

And when you do that, three things show up.

You're a genius.

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

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

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

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

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

You're powerful.

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

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

And never ever take your momentum for granted.

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

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

You're a magician.

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

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

You start seeing things that aren't there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dive in.

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

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

And I can practical-mind all that magic away.

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

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

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

Sometimes, you really just need to begin.

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

What would happen if you--started?

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

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

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

How to Keep Your Reading Life Fresh

Writers have to read--but it doesn't have to feel like drudgery! Keep your reading life inspiring with these fun tips. |

When writing became my full-time job, my reading life got all professional too.

Kinda makes sense, right? The best writers are super well-read people. I mean, they know everything. They make all these literary allusions, they quote passages from beloved books, you can't stump them with an author reference...

Basically, when it came to my reading life, I kind of panicked.

In spite of graduating with an English major, I still had some holes to fill. I'd never read The Great Gatsby--how had that happened? And Moby-Dick and The Tale of Two Cities. A lot of classics to catch up on, and oh, in the meantime, amazing writers are still actively writing...

Really, it was a paralyzing scenario. And in true Lucy Flint fashion, I came up with a plan:


... It didn't exactly work.

I made lists. A lot of lists. I read to balance out deficiencies in my book knowledge. I finished every book I started, with total seriousness. I took very detailed, I-could-give-a-presentation-on-this kind of notes on what I read.

Heck, if the quality of my own writing depended on what I read, I didn't see how I could do it any differently.

Funny thing happened. My reading energy dried up. And I got really into reading magazines instead.

Eventually I realized I needed to lighten up. I redesigned my reading life to blend structure with a bit of quirk. And now? I'm always energized by what--and how--I'm reading.

Here are my new guidelines:

I keep a huge list of books to read. And I do mean huge. At last count, I have over 1300 books on my reading list, and I'm adding to it all the time.

This used to be a bit crippling--until I changed my perspective.

Here's the thing: I'll never get all the books read. Never. There will always be worthwhile books out there that I won't get to.

Why is this good news? Because it gives me the permission I need to quit reading books I don't like. I want to find the ones I love! So if a book doesn't win my heart over pretty quickly, I toss it. 

I build a monthly reading list. Because 1300 books is still a bit daunting, I break it down and focus on a select number of titles each month. I pick out fifteen, a dozen of which are novels.

Buckle up, because this is where structure meets quirk: Each month has a theme.

Yes, really.

I know, I know, it's a little goofy. But I can't even tell you how much it delights me to do this. One month, it's books with an animal in the title. The next month features titles that start with the letter M. The month after that, it's books with a color in the title, or one-word titles, or every thirtieth book on the list.

I once explained this system to another writer, and she had such undisguised pity on her face. Apparently this way of reading is lunacy. But whatever. It's my lunacy! My reading list! ... Ahem.

I order more books than I can read. So, I order those fifteen themed books through the library, even though I know I won't get through them all.

Because I'm not that quick of a reader. In all honesty, I read about three to six full books in a month. So why order so many? So I'm free to discard the ones I don't like! It keeps me from feeling trapped with a few selections. 

(Plus, it really does feel cathartic to chuck a book. Pffft, I'm not reading this! It's a weirdly great feeling.)

I give a book twenty pages. In spite of my delight in tossing a book, I really do commit to read the first twenty pages. At that point, I know if I'm interested in continuing or not.

Twenty pages is long enough to give you a good feel for the style, the characters, and what you're in for. 

And I've found--after suffering through all too many--that if I'm snarling or rolling my eyes during the first twenty pages, I'm going to feel that way all through the rest of the book. So I chuck it. No guilt necessary.

I know, I know. This totally horrifies some people.

My only requirement in tossing a book: I try to pin down what exactly made me drop it

Was the style obnoxious? How? Was the main character totally unsympathetic? Where did I lose interest? Why wasn't it working for me? This little step lets me extract a bit of learning... without enduring the next 350 pages.

Obviously, then, I still do take notes. Yep. It's still my job, after all. But my note-taking is a lot more casual.

I'll write down what worked the best in the book, what kept me reading. I'll try to capture what exactly was disappointing or what was so moving. How did they make that setting come alive, why was that dialogue exchange so spot-on, or how did they pace the climax? 

I'll copy out paragraphs that I loved, or ones that were confusing so I can avoid those mistakes.

So yeah. There's still note-taking. But I try to keep a light hand.

I wipe the slate clean. At the end of each month, I return all the unread books along with the rest.

It gives me a light heart to chuck out the books I didn't get to, instead of making myself complete the list. It's freeing.

Sometimes you just have to be in the right mood for a certain book. So if it fell through the cracks this month, no worries. I'll probably reorder it again, some other month.

... So there it is. That's my reading life. Somehow, that blend of structure and freedom works just right for me. I don't feel so pinned down, but there's enough of a challenge that I get excited to dive in, month after month.

What about you? Do you toss books freely, or have you found it's worth it to persevere? Do you keep a reading list? Or do you like to browse and pick up what sounds good to you?

What works well for your reading life: Let's continue the discussion in the comments.

Wanna keep reading? Check out: Frivolity + Wisdom and The Power of an Explosively Good Book.

Build a Better Brainstorm

Build a better brainstorm session with these three quick tips! |

Finding good ideas.

Sometimes that feels like my total job description: finding the series of tiny ideas that turn into a character, an action line, a scene, a novel. 

A good idea has some heat to it, some intrigue--and it pulls me forward, makes the process of writing nearly effortless. A dull idea, or one that doesn't suit me--well, that adds weights to the writing process, bogs it down.

Brainstorming. It's how we scare the good ideas into the light, right? How we scrub around for ideas in the folds of our brains. We all need tools to dig around with, ways to bring those ideas out. How far can a writer get without ideas? Not far at all.

My take on brainstorming used to be: Put down all the ideas you can think of.

That was it. Pretty straightforward, pretty chill. But I've done a bit of reading about creativity since then, and these three insights have helped me up my idea-generation game. 

1. Have a question: have a goal.

In his fantastic book, Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky has a lot to say about brainstorming. (Actually, the whole book is about the process of turning an idea into a thing, a product. Annnnnnnd basically you should just quit reading this post and pick up that book. It's amazing.)

While brainstorming is a necessary part of the process, it's too easy to get stuck in this happy, anything-is-possible phase. He cautions, "A surplus of ideas is as dangerous as a drought. The tendency to jump from idea to idea to idea spreads your energy horizontally rather than vertically."

Okay. So true. One of my book projects is paralyzed by too many ideas. The draft is basically a collection of possible scenes, some of them written as many as four times in four different ways... So many possibilities, that I got mired in the mess and finally shelved it.

How do you get around this?

Scott Belsky says, "Brainstorming should start with a question and the goal of capturing something specific, relevant, and actionable."

Oooh. Game on.

This kind of clarity is so helpful. Especially when I'm trying to tweak something about the way I work, or what to focus on in a story. It's easy for me to take out a sheet of paper and just generate stuff. But it's so much more valuable to ask, What precisely am I looking for? What exactly is my question? 

And then to take those results and test them to see: How will this look in action? How can this translate to real life, to steps taken?

2. Go after an "aggressive quota for ideas."

One of the best books on creativity I know: The Creative Habit, by master choreographer Twyla Tharp. She advises "giving yourself an aggressive quota for ideas."

There's something in our brains that rises to the challenge of listing a bunch of ideas in a very short time frame. 

Tharp writes about an exercise she gives when she's speaking at an event. "You've got two minutes to come up with sixty uses for [a] stool."

Two minutes: sixty ideas. 

Idea generating goes berserk.

She writes, "The most interesting thing I've noticed is that there's a consistent order to the quality of ideas. You'd think the sixtieth idea would be the most lame, but for my purposes, which are to trigger leaps of imagination, it's often the opposite."

Isn't that crazy? My main takeaway is: I usually stop seeking ideas way too soon.

She says, "It's the same every time: the first third of the ideas are obvious; the second third are more interesting; the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity, as later thinking builds on earlier thinking."

So now, when I'm searching for ideas, I try to give myself a short time limit and a biiiiiiiiig list to fill. And then I let myself go crazy.

Try it! You might surprise yourself.

3. Go the other way.

One of the most butt-kicking books in my how-to-write library is Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

You guys. This is one of my desert island books. If I was going to, uh, write a book on a desert island and could only bring one book on craft, this would be it. I'm still firmly convinced that the more I apply what he discusses in these exercises, I'll have written the best darned book I could possibly write.

He has a section devoted to brainstorming, with several excellent tips on how to seek out original ideas. But my favorite tip is this: 

Remember the power of reversal. Take your first impulses, and go the opposite way. That is the secret of brainstorming.

This especially applies to the kind of work that doesn't lend itself to "write sixty possible whatevers." For me, this works best in situations like this:

What will Fiona do when the three-headed dog shows up? Run. Scream. Faint. Try to shoot it. Those are the first ideas that come to mind.

But taking those initial impulses and going the opposite way, looks more like this: 

Ignore the dog. Bark at it. Sprout a second head herself. Go closer. Offer it ice cream. Dance.

And suddenly, the scene has a whole different range of possibilities. (We readers love a bit of unpredictability, right?)

Are your gray cells tingling yet?

What brainstorming strategies have worked for you? Which of these tips are you itching to try? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Wanna keep reading? Check out: What we write about when we write about teethmarks and The Way to Great Things.

If you liked this post and want to give your fellow brainstormers a boost, please share the link!

My Best Formula for a Good Writing Routine

My best formula for a good writing routine starts here! |

My early writing schedules were torturous, terrible things. Hideous.

I was desperate to prove myself. So I devised a massive, arthritically structured plan. I wanted to do four kinds of writing (poetry, essays, short stories, novels), and I wanted to do them all RIGHT NOW. As well as researching markets and sending out submissions.

My days were frantic and bursting at the seams. I took zero time for real input, or the slow exploratory writing--the kind that so often yields the best insights, the best work.

All that's changed--thank goodness!

Now I'm a lot more interested in doing quality work, and a lot less interested in being the girl who writes everything.

After a lot of learning and experimenting, I came up with a basic, non-crazy writing template that has held up for years. It's a formula more than a concrete schedule: It's very forgiving, and the elements can stretch, collapse, or change places, based on your needs or your time constraints. You can shrink it into a thirty-minute micro-version of a writing day, or expand it to fill a full seven or eight hours.

If you're looking for a way to structure your writing days, give this a try!

Step 1: Start with a bit of courage, inspiration, and love.

I start by reading books about the writing life, books that address the attitudes and mindset and heart of the writer herself. This is my mental warm-up, my precursor to deeper thinking.

I am happily surrounded by many good books in this category. Right now, my top five are:

Step 2: Warm up your pen with light, unattached writing.

This could be time to do a few writing exercises, or my current technique of choice: a bit of journaling. The point is to get words down, warm-up words. Pen moving over paper; a cursor tracking across that white field. Get some words down without judgement or stopping. Write for a few minutes.

Step 3: Stock your brain: read the dictionary or the encyclopedia.

This is an insanely useful practice. I love the serendipity of what you'll find in a single page. When I'm looking hard for story ideas, I'll gulp down three pages in the dictionary every day.

It's not really about learning new words. It's more about encountering new thoughts, or familiar ones in new contexts. This practice has sparked character ideas, new settings, and whole story concepts. You never know what you'll find, what will save your bacon in a moment of inspirational poverty.

Step 4: The meat of the day: Focus Area #1.

For me lately, this means typing in the previous day's drafting work. Some rough revising work on those pages, a bit of editing, and exploring new ideas that spring up.

If you're new and don't have a project yet, try diving deep into the world of writing exercises.

I once spent eight weeks working through all 365 prompts in A Writer's Book of Days. At the end of it, I had the bones of at least four novels, as well as the ideas simmering for dozens more. If you're new to writing, this might be the best thing for you!

Step 5: Focus Area #2.

This is usually when I do the day's drafting: fleshing out scenes, sentence by sentence.

Other times, I've used this time to work on specific craft and skill-building exercises, like the ones in James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure or Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook or The Fire in Fiction.

There are MILLIONS of books on craft out there. When I'm feeling weak on a certain writing skill (in other words, always), I'll grab two or three books that cover the same subject, and I'll map out a mini writing course for myself.

Step 6: Review the day, and plan tomorrow.

Because I'm a notetaking nerd, I usually add something to my work journal about how the day went. I'll mull over what I'm stuck on with my draft, vent frustration about what was unexpected, or celebrate the victories.

This is the perfect time to plan the next day. Before I leave my desk, I write out a detailed list of what I'll do tomorrow, category by category. When one day feeds into the next, they start to build momentum. Trust me, it makes it a lot easier to get started.

Step 7: Fall into someone else's good book.

After a day's work of word lifting, I love to flop down with someone else's finished prose. It's both a great way to unwind, and a way to keep musing on words, admiring the rhythms of sentences, getting lost in the imagery.

Plus, hey, we're readers, right? Why write if you don't love to read?

There it is! My tried and true all-purpose writing routine.

Obviously, this is just one girl's escapade in Scheduleland. Maybe this is the kind of thing that bores you to tears, but I'm a schedule junky. Really. I'm the nosiest person when it comes to how other people work, endlessly curious.

If that's you too, then check out the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (the blog that started it!) by Mason Currey. While you're at it, look through the archives of My Morning Routine, which posts once a week, detailing the morning ritual of current artists, entrepreneurs, writers, and other creative sorts. 

All right. So: How do you work? Do you have a tried-and-true routine, or a habit that helps you start, or a proven closer? Share tips and habits in the comments!

Wanna keep reading? Check out: We the Observers and Be Patient: We're waiting for wonderful.

If you enjoyed this post, please pass it along to the other writers in your life!

How to Live with Humans and Still Write.

How to live with humans and still write: a discussion about balancing work and people. |

When I was at college, I didn't have much trouble with priorities. I knew how much money it cost to be there, so my whole plan was academics first, friends second. Not to say that I didn't have fun. I found a wonderful group of friends that I cherished. But I knew that I was there to learn, to grow, to get a degree. All that stuff.

Fast forward to post-graduation, and coming back home. I came home to write, full-time. And I thought that giving writing top-priority status would be fairly simple. I'd spent four years putting my brain first: I knew how to do this. Right?

Not so much.

When it came to family versus writing, I found myself in decision-making, priority-clarifying agony.

My family members are my biggest fans. Hands down. They are the ones who champion my work, believe in me when I don't, and pick me up when I've had a crappy day. So it's not like they were intentionally jeopardizing my schedule. 

But I deeply internalized the idea that writers must be strict about the time they spend writing. They need to make a commitment to get the words down, and then honor that commitment, no matter what. Even when they work from home, they need to be as accountable as anyone in a 9-5 office environment.

And there's a lot of truth, still, in all of that.

But I began to put everything in my life into two groups: Things That Help the Work Get Done, and Things That Don't.

That looks very cold blooded typed out, but I knew that 1) I was absolutely called to do this work, and 2) if I didn't get my writing in, the book stopped existing.

If I didn't think about my characters, they evaporated like smoke. My ability to have a career one day in this massively competitive field depended on me becoming the best novelist I could.

I came across this quote from the golfer Ben Hogan:

Every day you don't practice you're one day further from being good.

I posted that above my desk and let it torment me.

The pressure was on.

But I love my family like crazy.

So there would be days when minor (or major) emergencies would strike. There would be out-of-town guests who would be visiting right during working hours. There would be impromptu afternoons of errands where my opinion was needed. 

I seemed to be in a constant state of guilt.

I felt guilty when I skipped my writing to entertain guests for four hours. I felt guilty the next day when I felt too drained from visiting to think a single clear thought. Any time family won over writing, I felt like a bad, lazy writer.

But when writing won out, and I didn't help when my family could use the help, or when I didn't spend time enjoying their company or building our relationships, or when I kept myself from joining in too many activities (because I felt overly drained, and knew I wouldn't be working if I participated)...

Well, then I felt like a bitter, hysterical, self-focused shrew.

And I'm guessing I acted like one, too.

And nothing keeps me from writing like a sense of guilt.

I don't know if you find yourself in this kind of circumstance at all.

It always haunted me that on paper, I could easily portion my days: Family gets this amount of time, work gets that amount. 

But for years and years, I couldn't do that. I couldn't stick to it. And I felt like a mess.

Perspective Shift

Two things have helped change my perspective on all that.

First, my younger sister got married and gave birth to the three cutest kids in the universe. And I learned that, if you give me a choice between playing with a cute kid and writing a difficult scene, I almost always choose the cute kid. (Even though I'll get food in my hair.)

But the even bigger change was this: During the last two years, my family was struck by a series of bewildering difficulties, lost jobs, injuries with lonnnng recoveries, and serious illness. And I became deeply, seriously exhausted. Like--I broke.

I stopped doing everything.

And I really didn't care about how many hours I needed to work, or how many pages I needed to write.

So, writing wasn't my full-time job for a long while. Trying to on my feet again: that was my full-time job.

And after I'd done that, I focused on my family, not my words. Real, living people needed me far more than my characters did. I worried--a lot--about what that meant for my writing. I was barreling toward my thirtieth birthday, and no novel deal, no agent, nothing even ready to send to readers.

But at the same time, being present for my family during incredibly hard times, and throwing over my work so that I could spend time with my nieces and nephew--that has all profoundly changed my heart, my character, and my sense of what's truly important.

Donald Maass says, Success as an author requires a big heart. | How to Live with Humans and Still Write, on

I'm a different person. With different--better--stories inside me.

Yes, I gave up a lot of writing time. But the ironic thing is: when life calmed down a bit, I cranked out two new novels at an astonishing pace.

For example: I've been writing a trilogy (all the first drafts done, hooray!) And the core idea for the whole thing leapt into my mind four days after my first niece was born. I was staring at her small baby fingers, and thinking about what it felt like to be an aunt.

It was like something sliced through my heart and shook my brain inside out. And--because I'm a writer--I had a new character in my head. And because of that new character, I have three books where she plays the main role.

Loving my family, being present with them, strengthening those relationships... well, friends, it all actually goes into the work.

So is balance a myth, or is it attainable? Do you see life as family versus work? Does one win and the other lose?

I don't have a perfect answer all hammered out. But here's what I've decided.

I do have a commitment to my work. And I do want to do all I can to become the best writer possible. 

But I don't want to do that at the cost of my heart, my most important relationships, or my character. During those early years of debating between writing and family--I didn't really like myself. I didn't like all the resentment I felt, for one commitment over the other. I didn't like the guilt.

Lately, I've chosen to see them as not in conflict with each other. My family, and their lives mingling with mine, drive my stories. My stories are my job, the thing I've been given to do, what I care about, one of my greatest passions. My family relationships: well, they're another. 

I've decided not to see them as "in competition" with each other. Instead, they're two of the main forces that make me who I am. 

It still isn't an easy thing to wrestle with. And yes, there's definitely a time to enforce a strict routine (which I usually do keep to), and to talk about boundaries, and all those healthy things. And we'll definitely be talking about all that later on the blog. 

But for now, here are a few questions I ask myself when things get tricky (because of course they still do sometimes!):

1. Where am I most needed? 

When family is sick or hurting, writing just takes a back seat. Period. I bring books and small writing exercises to waiting rooms, or I'll read out loud as I keep people company, but the family member comes first. And I refuse to feel guilty about not working. 

Likewise, if writing has a really rough week, and the family commitment or errand or request is something that can be shifted, compromised on, or rescheduled: then writing prevails.

2. Is doing less actually okay?

I tend to think that I have to do all or nothing, and that mindset limits my options. 

Sometimes, sitting at my desk for a good thirty minutes, on a difficult-to-get-to-the-writing day, is a lot better than nothing. On days when life is butting in, I set a small task and commit to finishing it, before doing what I need to with family.

It goes the other way too: sometimes, if I just have twenty minutes for a FaceTime date with my nieces and nephew, I'll be honest that that's all I can do right now. I go all out during those twenty minutes (make all the silly faces, sing all the silly songs), but then I go back to my work. And I don't let myself feel guilty.

3. Don't aim for perfect.

Frankly, I don't always know what the right call is. Sometimes the lines are blurry.

Sometimes, "they're going to my favorite coffeehouse for a long afternoon of conversation!" is really worth ditching writing for the day. 

It's too easy for my nature to be obsessed with making the right decision. With picking the thing that I can perfectly defend to myself.  But sometimes the best decisions wouldn't necessarily pass the grim panel of judges that reside in my brain.

Sometimes, you need to chuck your work for the day and go to the apple orchard with your niece and sing to the goats at the petting zoo. Sometimes, when someone is hurting, you need to take a week off of work to be the full-time support staff in your own home. Sometimes, that's just the most important thing.

So when I am tempted to panic, when I think that "I'm one day further from being good," I remember this other quote (infinitely more helpful):

"One may achieve remarkable writerly success while flunking all the major criteria for success as a human being. Try not to do that." -- Michael Bishop

That sounds like the absolute right way to look at the whole question. The right focus to have. 

I'd rather be a good human than a perfect writer.

What lessons have you learned, about balancing work and family? If you're working from home, do you have any special tricks or mindsets that help? Chime in down in the comments!

If you liked this conversation, please help encourage your creative friends by sharing this post!

Wanna keep reading? Check out Empty All Your Pockets and Beating the Writer's Paradox.