The Worst Thing I Ever Did for My Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is very bad advice for that sort of person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


That would have transformed my writing career. 

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

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

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

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

Nauseating, right? 


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

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

So can I at least convince you? 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

But here's what I know now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Hundred Allies for Your Book-In-Progress

It's easy to imagine that we know our genre and niche better than we actually do. Here's some stellar advice on how to *not* fall into that trap. |

There's an extraordinary bit of advice in Heather Sellers' fantastic book Chapter After Chapter, where she recommends reading 100 books like the book you want to write.

No, my fingers didn't slip. 100 books. She calls it "The Book 100." 

... As in one hundred books. 

Sellers says:

The point is to read many, many examples of what you're trying to do. ...
Surround yourself with books. A hundred well-chosen books act as your base camp,
your buffer, your personalized M.F.A. writing program. ...
Notice what you like and what you love.
Writers learn more from reading than from all the how-to-plot books in the world. 

-- Heather Sellers

For someone like me who loves to read, this is a wonderful assignment. Super exciting.

For a recovering-perfectionist like me, this also seems fraught with problems. One hundred books?! I need to have them all read by, like, tomorrow!! I'm never going to be finished...!! 

If that's you, I promise you can relax. Sellers says you can take as long as you need to. Novelists are allowed to skim their 100 books. Or to split their list in half and share it with a friend--fifty for you, fifty for me, and we chat about them.

That said, it's still a pretty big project, so what's the point? Why do it? Isn't it a little ... overkill?

Here's what really convinced me about The Book 100: Coffeeshops.

Specifically, new coffeeshops that are also terrible coffeeshops. Created by people who, I suspect, have never been inside a good coffeeshop before.

Have you had this experience? A place that's trying to be a coffeeshop (or a café, or a bookstore) but it's just kind of--off.

Where they miss the mark on the most basic elements of a coffeeshop. And the customer is presented with mediocre coffee, crappy baked goods, apathetic baristas, and blaring music so that no one can talk, think, or work.

I stumble out of those places wondering--how did they get it so wrong? And when they go out of business, I'm not surprised. They make me wonder if the owners even liked coffee all that much, or if they liked coffeeshops, or if they'd ever actually been inside a great one?

I'm pretty sure of one thing, though. They probably didn't create that place thinking, "Let's make the suckiest coffeeshop that we can." I'm guessing that quality was part of their goal, somehow. 

And yet--they missed the mark. By a lot. 

I wonder what would have happened if they made a point to visit 100 coffeeshops before opening their store.

And to note in each place they visited: what does that particular shop do well, and where does it fail? What do they, as customers, respond to? What's off-putting? What does it look like when the basics are done really well? What innovations are delightful?

ALL those things. All elements of a good coffeeshop experience.

... Or a good novel.

You see what I'm getting at? 

As I worked on the Book 100 for my first novel, I discovered all kinds of things that I might not have realized any other way.

Like, shocking things. And really, really embarrassing things.

I saw that some of my plot moves had been done to death already in other books. I realized that my villain could be spotted miles off--and he was so covered in clichés! I realized that my protagonist's voice sounded like too many other protagonist's voices. 

Again and again, I saw what had been done too much, and where I had room to write something new. 

My Book 100 was a true education, in the very field where I wanted to be an expert. 

It is just too easy to have a mild familiarity with a genre. To know a few books, to trick yourself into coasting along with that little bit of knowledge. To think that you're writing something new.

It pays--it really pays--to know your genre much better than that. To be familiar with the very books that your fans will also have read. 

There's enough insecurity in this field already, right? Why not really learn our stuff, and to learn it by reading? 

As far as the number 100 goes: I think there's a lot to be said for going that big (and Sellers makes a really good case). ... But even if you just read and analyzed thirty of the best examples of your niche--think how much you'd learn!

It's one of the best educations, one of the best tools, we can have.

( ... As is Sellers' book Chapter After Chapter. If you're trying to write a full-length book, this is required reading for you! It has taught me the survival skills for living a book-maker's life like none other. ... I love it even more than Page After Page! Yes, really!)

Go! Write! Win! (Consider this our pep rally.)

Calling all weary writers! Sometimes we need to psych ourselves up. Sometimes we need a pep rally. |

One of the tricks of working all on your own, is that it's too easy to listen to the screech of fear. Or to its shifty quiet comrade: the overwhelming, convicting malaise that says "I can't do it." 

Here's where I'm at today: I caught a mega sinus infection that's left me foggy of brain and snoggy of nose. (Blerg.) I've managed to do a little work while being sick, but 2+ weeks is a long time to be limping along. 

It's been a while since I've been able to really immerse in work, and I feel like I'm losing the trail of my story. 

You know what I need? A pep rally. Something big, with all the cheerleaders and teammates and the band playing their hearts out.

I need to get jumping up and down again. I need to get back on track.

Because after a big momentum-check like being sick, it's too easy to get stuck.

It's too easy to just stay up there on the diving board of your day or your writing session and not jump. 

Too easy to say, "Meh. I think that's too much for me."

The truth is: Resistance has a lot of megaphones on its side. 

So how about we switch things up.




Ever notice that the more you pay attention to how much you don't want to do something, the harder it is to do it? It's like you're building a wall between you and the thing you need to do.

And you keep reinforcing it, with every minute you spend not doing it.

The longer you let yourself stay in that limbo, and the more you analyze your emotions about doing this Hard Thing, the more impossible it becomes.  

We gotta stop doing that.

So let's go write

Let's write when we're tired. Write when our brains are blank. Write when we have nothing to say.

Let's write even when we can't remember why we do this.

What is winning? Winning means putting words on paper. Reaffirming our commitment to this thing, this writing life.

Re-teaching ourselves why we do it, as we do it.

So we turn a blank page into a page full of ink. Straw into gold. Again and again and again.

It's so easy to be trapped by how overwhelmed we feel. How daunting the task.

How we're maybe/probably/certainly/definitely not doing everything right. It's easy to worship the idea of "doing things right."

It's okay to be afraid. It's just that we also keep working. We don't act on the fearing; we act on the writing

We choose to dive in. To say: I don't know how this is going to work out, but I'm going to do it ANYWAY.

We remind ourselves: we didn't sign up for this writing life because it was going to be so easy. We signed up because we had to

We signed up because the guarantee has always been this: It will be hard, and it will be worth it.

When we want to step away, we'll instead step closer. 

When wrangling with our characters is the last thing we want to do: we'll loosen our grip, let go, and dream them up again. 

We'll imagine them whole and real and motivated, and then we'll follow what they do. And write it all down.

If the spark of loving your work has flickered out, don't despair. Mine's gone out a zillion times, and then re-sparked a zillion times plus one. 

If ink is in your blood, that spark always does come back.

If you've lost momentum on your project, the really great news is: you can build momentum again. By stepping toward your work today, right now, and choosing to re-enter that space of working. Of dreaming up words. Of writing them down. 

And then you just keep swinging.

Don't worry about how it feels. Don't worry about outcome. Don't worry (for now) about quality.

Just do the work. Keep doing the work. And then momentum will show up and sweep you along.

Do what a writer does, and you get to be a writer.

It will be hard. And it will be worth it.

If DIY Editing Is Your Thing, This Is Your Next Must-Must-Must Read.

I have some really, really good news for your novel-in-progress: it's about to become extraordinary. |

It's always hard to contain my excitement when I'm recommending books I love. But, I can't type while also jumping up and down on my desk, so I'm gonna try and stay calm ... Just know that I might get a little sweaty, and my voice might get a little loud.

But it's worth it. Because you have to hear about this amazing resource.

Before the recommendation, though, let me tell you why it was such an immediate hit with me.

If you've hung out on this blog for a while, you know I've been writing fiction for nearly ten years. I'm up to six novels--three standalones and a trilogy. (Woo hoo!) 

I've learned enough about the craft that I know these stories of mine have potential. I know that the plots are good, the characters are pretty rad, and there are some great scenes.

I also know that ultimately, they don't work.

It isn't false modesty. It isn't that I'm holding back. I just know that they're not worth publishing yet.

There's something broken in them, which all my drafting and re-drafting wasn't solving.

Can I be honest with you? I was starting to doubt myself in a really big way.

I know I have what it takes to be a writer. I know I've got the discipline and the sheer stubbornness to get a novel done. I'm willing to work hard. I've read so many books, and I've written so many words...

So why couldn't I make these novels work?

And then. This summer, I came across an interview where Joanna Penn* recommended this book. Less than a week later, I had a copy: 

The one-stop shop for all your editing needs!! Use this book to diagnose allllll your story problems. (And then fix 'em!) |

YOU GUYS. This is the editing jackpot.

The Story Grid is written by Shawn Coyne, a brilliant editor with loads of experience. In this book, he breaks down his system for editing novels. A system he's refined over 20+ years.

This is what he does when he reads a novel that's worth publishing, but isn't there yet. Something's missing; something's broken. So he plugs the elements of the novel into this system.

That process shows which elements are out of sync, what's missing, what's not balanced, what should be adjusted.

It's a massive diagnostic tool for a full-length novel. 

I devoured this book. I read it straight through, and then flipped it over and started again. I considered actually eating it, so I could literally digest it, so that my cells would be better storytellers... but then common sense returned. 

(I did however read it before bed every night for a while. Trying to get it deeper into my subconscious. Hopefully that helped.)

It's not that I haven't read structure books before--I have. But this is like the Grand Master Wizard Superhero of all structure books.

It deals with micro structure--the elements of a scene--in a detail that I haven't read before. And then, it looks at the macro structure in depth--and at everything in between! 

There is so much information here, and it's all priceless.** 

AND, for those of you who are like me, who might be, oh, prone to kicking yourself for not doing a better job, or who tend to be overwhelmed by things like a massive spreadsheet with every misstep in your plot's structure--

Coyne writes with an extremely approachable tone. He starts by laying out all his thinking, defining all the terms he uses, and explaining them in detail so that you get a really good grip on it. And then he breaks down the step-by-step of the actual process, putting it all to work. 

He makes it manageable. Doable.

Taking breaks from editing? Absolutely mandatory. He keeps advising that you take the time to let your mind rest between steps. And he's super-strict about separating the tasks of the Editor from the tasks of the Writer. 

It was a mega-dose of patience and grace that I definitely needed. 

The best quote of the book, though, might be this one. I have it next to my computer, for those moments when I'm tempted to get really overwhelmed about how my book has jumped the tracks:

You as the writer are not the problem;
the problem is the problem.

-- Shawn Coyne


What this book will help you do is clarify exactly what kind of story you're telling, so that you can do it well. It will help you see where you might have been less-than-clear (!) about certain crucial elements in your story structure.

It gives you a way to chart an internal story as well as an external story, for a more dynamic novel. And it helps alert you to why your story might feel a little melodramatic in some places, or too contrived in others. Why some scenes feel a little dull or directionless.

I had a dozen nagging doubts about my current work-in-progress. I knew things weren't working as well as I wanted them to, but I literally couldn't put my finger on where or why.

But now, after putting everything into Coyne's Story Grid, I know exactly what's causing those problems. I'm not beating myself up about it (because he says over and over not to!). And I've just created a massive plan for my next rewrite. 

A clear, step-by-step system for taking this novel to the next level. 

Will it be a lot of work? Yes.

But I feel like I actually have all the tools I need. Like I can actually do this, and have a stellar novel when I'm finished. (Huge relief!!)

So. If you're writing fiction; if anything feels out-of-whack in your story; if you'll be doing any degree of editing yourself (and isn't that all of us??), get your hands on this book. 

(Eating it is optional.)

*Joanna Penn's website and podcast are gold. Seriously. She's lovely, full of so much publishing and writing wisdom, and she's extremely encouraging. If you haven't checked out her blog and books for writers yet, you owe it to yourself!

**The Story Grid book itself is a little pricey if you're counting your pennies, but you can get all this info FOR FREE on Shawn's website. See the sidebar section that says "Story Grid Catch-Up (Start at the Top)"? Yeah. That's what you want. Click through those sections, and you've basically got the whole book for free. 

And now you're on your way to making your novels even more awesome! Have fun!

Let's Be Matchmakers: Imagination, Meet the Reference Section

Imagination and reference books. When these opposites get together, believe me: the sparks fly. (And your writing life gets soon happy.) Here's to being lovestruck. |

I thought it was going to be a wasted day. Really.

It was a "Get to Know Your Way Around the Library" kind of day, during one of the first weeks of an information/technology class in college. 

You know. One of those throwaway required classes; one of those throwaway required days.

My idea of a field trip to the library involves me hiding from the rest of my class, building a fort out of the children's picture books, and then reading my way through the MG and YA stacks.

(Can you blame me? No, of course not. You'd come join me and bring snacks. It would be AWESOME.)


Our professor's idea of a library field trip involved worksheets with a lot of blanks to fill; a required chat about the library filing system; and oh yeah, an extended amount of time to wander around the reference area.

All right, I thought. Fine, I thought. Let's get this over with.

... And about twenty minutes later, I was completely absorbed. Lost all track of time flipping through a massive listing of clothing styles from the last hundred years.

After that, I found a huge book comparing architectural details across countries and centuries. And then I found the animal encyclopedias...

And I became a convert. I fell in love with the reference area.

Not to find answers or cross something off a worksheet. Not to fill in blanks.

But to stoke curiosity, to let my imagination wander around and pick up whatever it wanted. To explore for exploration's sake.

Reference books!! Do ya love 'em?

I'm convinced that we writers need to be spending time in books that are full of facts, images, and odd details. And not just when our novels require the research.

No, what I'm talking about is a regular date with a nonfiction compendium-style tome or two. 

If you're already doing this sort of thing, cool. 

But if, like me, you tend to look at non-fiction with a "who reads THIS stuff??" attitude, then read on: 

This is how my pure-fiction novelistic imagination fell hard for encyclopedias.

1. I get a daily dose.

When I have a daily work-in-progress (like now), I don't have a lot of time to read widely in other directions.

But, without the continual input of new ideas, my writing dries up.

So here's the balance I've struck: Every morning, to kick off my writing day, I dip into my encyclopedia. I'm reading every 300th page. Just a single page, top to bottom.

2. I'm a writer, not a student.

This has been a hard switch to make, but it's absolutely key.

When I first started this practice, I couldn't shake my old habits of being a college student. I'd pick up one of these books and dutifully write down all the important FACTS about whatever I was reading.

I took notes like I'd be tested on it. Like I had an essay to write.

And guess what. It felt like homework (and my less-favorite kind). I began to dread it. I dragged my feet. I couldn't see how it was going to help my writing at all, and I chucked the whole thing.

This happened again and again and again.

Until I remembered this: part of my job as a writer is to turn my imagination into a FACTORY. 

An idea-making, story-spinning, dream-designing teller of tales.

In other words: this isn't for a research paper. This is to fuel creation.

So I don't have to take notes at all... 

Unless something nudges me.

Unless some stray little fact attaches itself to one of my characters. Unless a chance description makes me think of a new setting. Or a plot twist. Or a scene.

That is what I write down. 

Not the dates and names and details that I don't care about. I capture the images, moments, and descriptions that are already switching from fact to fiction.

I try to be a story-seer and story-breather when I pick up an encyclopedia. Whatever trips that internal story sensor: I write that down, as completely as I can.

With whatever imagery, whatever dialogue, whatever else I can.

And I keep alllllllllll those notes in my passive idea files

Trust me. It's a game changer. 

3. Run down all the rabbit trails.

Part of the point of this whole exercise is to keep my curiosity at a healthy, strong level.

(What's a writer without her "What If"? Blocked, that's what!

So, I do keep myself within a time limit. (Fifteen minutes each morning, or a longer session now and then. Or, between projects, maybe a whole day of exploration.)

But within that time limit, I can do whatever I want. 

If an encyclopedia entry mentions something that intrigues me for some reason, I track down more information.

If I can't visualize what they're talking about, I do a quick Google images search, or I chase down video footage.

My process: I always start with a physical page, a hard copy of the encyclopedia... But then I supplement it with the glories of the Internet.

4. And then I trust my crazy imagination. 

All this gathering of images and facts, all these dalliances with encyclopedias and random fact-full books: it seeds the imagination.

And this will save your idea-making bacon. 

The imagination can do a lot. It can get you out of every single plot problem, every dead end in your writing. It really is your super power as a writer. (That and a consistent words-onto-paper habit.)

But it can't do much if it's been starved to death.

So I've learned to lean in to these little explorations. I go deep. I read slow.

And I let my imagination glean what it will. I've realized that I can trust it: it's storing up more than I know.

Bits of my readings can resurface months later--tidbits that I didn't even write down. The imagination shows up and unlocks a plot problem with them and then... I feel like a genius.

Which is one of those times when it is lovely to be a writer.

5. And then this: It's super fun.

So recently I was looking at gorgeous, stirring images of the Cotopaxi volcano, and then pictures of barrows in the Cotswolds, and my imagination was having a FIELD DAY. Telling me all kinds of interesting things to write down. Creating alternative landscapes and filling them with people and plot twists...

THOSE TIMES. When you feel idea-rich and word-plentiful.

Those are the times when this writing life fits. When it feels good, when the work is pleasant.

And it's that much easier to hit the desk the next day and the next.

Isn't that a habit worth having?

So that's how it works for me. I kick off my work days with fifteen minutes in a 1965  Encyclopedia Britannica. (Plenty of that old-book smell.)

My imagination grabs ideas, cracks its knuckles, and gets to work.

This is one of the many things that keeps my writing practice healthy and alive.

Does Your Writing Life Need a Mega Makeover? (Here's how I transformed mine.)

If your imagination is a little tired, if the fears are getting a little out of hand, if your writing isn't *fun* anymore... TRY THIS. It's time for a makeover. |

In spite of all my inherent nerdiness, I was never much of a devotee of writing exercises.

I mean, come on. We all know it takes about a thousand years to write a really good novel. Why waste writing time dithering around with some set of practice pages that would never see the light of day?

If I was going to practice writing, I would practice on my novel, thanks very much. 

... But the writers around me kept praising writing exercises. So I picked up some books of writing prompts and tried a few.

But the prompts were a bit lame. And my resulting pieces were kind of dull. They felt false, canned, pre-packaged. Not the kind of work I enjoyed. Not pieces of writing that I respected. 

Exercises. Pffft.

What changed all that? Three things. 

This book. The concept of a passive idea file. And an eight-week experiment.

What happened? My writing life changed completely. For the much much better.

I was between drafts of my novel-in-progress. I felt tired and grumpy about writing in general.

I wanted to take a break from the long-haul drafting process, but I didn't want my writing habit to atrophy entirely. What to do?

My mom (also a writer) mentioned that she liked the book A Writer's Book of Days, by Judy Reeves. She said it was a book of writing exercises that actually felt doable.

So I picked up her copy and flipped through it, looking at the writing prompts.

They weren't lame. They didn't feel silly. They were actually ... intriguing.

And there was one for each day of the year. (Ooh. I love a good calendar system.)

Bonus: All these prompts were surrounded by wonderful short articles (and quotes, lists, challenges, cheerleading) about the writing life, the writing habit, tips from other writers, and other advice that was cheering, practical, and exciting.

And did I mention that the prompts weren't lame??

Like, here, listen to these: February 12: Write about an eclipse. February 13: What was seen through binoculars. February 15: Write about animal dreams. 

Or September 13: She left a note. September 14: A collection of lies. September 15: "Houses have their secrets" (after Yannis Ritsos).

See? Not the standard. Just enough direction to get the brain involved, but not so much direction that the exercise feels false.

So I swiped Mom's copy. I carved out eight weeks between drafts.

And because I love to do a thing with gusto, I spent those eight weeks writing my way through all of Reeves' 366 exercises. 

Nine or ten exercises per workday. Ten minutes per exercise. 

I filled a lot of spiral notebooks. My handwriting fell to pieces. 

And I became a whole different kind of writer.

Honestly? It's one of the best things I've ever done.

Here's what I found out. 

It helps--a lot--to bring an idea file to the game. 

Like I mention in this post, I keep files full of teeny little ideas. Names that I find intriguing. Phrases that get my imagination swirling. Concepts for settings, situations, relationships. Titles that are begging for a book.

When faced with a writing prompt alone (even one that isn't lame), my brain could still go blank.

But when I also swiped a few ideas randomly from an idea file, and combined those things with the prompt: Magic happened. 

The blank page doesn't have to be terrifying. Neither does "bad" writing.

After facing 366 blank pages? After getting into the rhythm of "ready, set, GO," day after day, time after time? No matter how you're feeling, no matter how creative or not creative, no matter how tired, no matter how many words you've been writing?

Yeah. The blank page loses its fangs and its big scary voice.

Instead, it becomes a means to something much better: a full page.

I also learned not to over-emphasize the importance of my own bad writing. 

With that many pages filled, you better believe that a lot of them were pretty crappy. And yet a lot of them were also rather brilliant. Some of those pages still give me chills, and I'm planning stories around them. 

And the crappy work existed right alongside the brilliant gems.

It didn't matter how I felt about writing each day: whether I felt up for it, or whether I didn't. I still could write total slop and the next minute write something incredible.

So all those feelings we keep feeling about writing? Yeah. They stopped meaning so much.

And I just got to work.

The imagination is a much, much, MUCH bigger (and weirder) place than I thought.

Filling that many pages taught me this for certain: that my imagination was up to the challenge. 

Those 366 pieces of writing covered all kinds of crazy territory. I wrote spy stories, historical sketches, action sequences, serene tea-drinking scenes, wild off the wall stories for kids, bizarre internal monologues... 

It made me realize that my three little novels-in-progress (at the time) weren't the only things I could write.

I got a clear look at my own creative agility. I saw that I could write in almost any direction, that I could improvise on almost any theme.

I stopped feeling so dang TIMID.

When you see what your imagination is capable of, the tasks of writing, rewriting, and revising become a lot less frightening. 

And oh yeah, the writing itself was a lot of fun. 

(See what I did there? I just used "fun" and "writing" in the same sentence. And it wasn't a typo.)

Judy Reeves recommended not planning what you were going to write for an exercise. She said to write down the first sentence that came to you, and go from there.

Rule-follower that I am, I tried that technique. And loved it.

It felt like holding a camera above your head, snapping a Polaroid picture, and then shaking it around, wondering what exactly you had captured. Excitedly watching it develop.

I never, ever knew where my pen would lead. I was half-writer, half-reader, racing over new territory. 

My only goals were: to keep writing, and to not be bored. So I threw in as many twists as I liked, riffing on whatever tangents occurred to me.

You GUYS. It was so much fun.

I almost couldn't believe it: I was writing my brains out, working hard, and yet having a blast.

Writing felt like playing again, like the kind of marvelous inventive play I used to do as a kid.

Every day of writing held dozens of discoveries. I never knew what it would be like.

I got hooked on it.

I began writing for the buzz of it, the glee of making something new.

Again, and again, and again.

So: I'm a writing exercise convert. Utterly and completely.

I don't do writing exercises daily, but when my writing life needs a jolt, or when my imagination is sagging, I pull out A Writer's Book of Days and dive in for a while. 

If you're in need of a boost (and who isn't!?), try it.

It will caffeinate your writing, change how you see yourself as a writer, and massively expand the territory of your imagination. 

Yeah. ALL that. It will totally make over your writing life.

... And here you were thinking it would be just another Thursday.

After the Honeymoon: Accepting the Ordinary Writing Life

It's tempting--and totally normal!!--to over-romanticize the highs and lows of the writing life. But the sooner we're through with the honeymoon period, the better. Here's why. |

So we've established that I was/am a super-nerd and that I looked forward to school in a fierce way. Here's the other side of that equation: School failed to deliver.

(Are you SHOCKED?? Hahaha.)

I would watch Anne of Green Gables over the summer and dream of a classroom like that. Those wooden benches they sat on. The one-room school. I had visions of writing on slate tablets with chalk, and school picnics and a warm-hearted Miss Stacy who encouraged us all to be our best...

And then I'd go back to school and my teacher was overworked and underpaid and acted like it. (Poor teachers.) And the girl who had a locker above mine would routinely open it right into my face. And P.E. was adult-sanctioned torture.

And basically, aside from my love of homework and the library, school wasn't much good.

There's the romanticized version, and then there's the day to day of a locker door meeting your face. AKA, Reality.

When I finished college and sailed off to start writing full time, I felt like I had dozens and dozens of people cheering for me. Fellow writers, fellow readers. Classmates and professors. 

I had visions of sitting at my desk in a cozy, artistic way. I figured that after a bout of romantically hard work, my first novel would unfold neatly. I would type it out, and find a publisher, and off we would go, arms linked, into publishing history.

So many adorable little visions about the writing life.

And Reality was gearing up with an epic locker-slam to the face and it was this:

The writing life was so ordinary. It was really difficult, but in a totally non-cinematic way. The novel never "unfolded" and never did anything "neatly."

There has also been no arm-linking of any kind. 

Can I say this: Sometimes you need courage to face a writing life that has no fanfare.

No blast of trumpets. No sense whatsoever that you are Hemingway working away in a romantically barren garret in Paris. No charming Max Perkins writing you letters telling you how good you are.

Sometimes I felt like I could handle any adversity, like I was ready to bravely do something, anything, for this new career of mine--dissect any number of novels to learn from them, or write thousands of words in a month to create the first draft--but when it came down to it, the work itself was very, very quiet.

Very ordinary. 

Possibly even dull.

When people asked what I did in order to write, it felt like a let-down to tell them. I thought it should sound a lot more glorious, one way or another. Romantically wonderful or romantically difficult. 

Instead of like plain old work. 

... Obviously, if you've read a few of these posts, you know that I have since added a lot of jumping up and down, and a lot of dance parties, a fair amount of chocolate, and a lot of other exuberances to my writing life. 

But it never erases or changes the fact that novels are written one word at a time.

And that they are developed by one "what if" and one "so maybe then..." at a time. 

There are a lot of days that are just scratching on paper, and going in circles. 

There are a lot of days that feel like they later get erased, when you throw out those eight chapters you spent a month on. 

There are a lot of days when you could summarize "what I did today" in one sentence: "I wrote things down." 

I meet so many new writers who get discouraged by this.

At first they talk about writing, and their faces light up, and they're full of ideas and dreams of publication. And we talk about writing practice, and they're excited to go and do it. 

And when we connect again, they've already given it up. "It's just a busy season for me," they say, or "it just didn't feel right. It's not what I thought it would be." 

And I get it: I totally get it.

In a way, we've trained ourselves to expect a certain kind of feeling with writing, a certain kind of lifestyle. Whether it's rosy-hued success, or rosy-hued difficulties. A noble struggle or heroic success.

But we picture it looking a certain way, and--certainly for me, certainly for so many people I've talked to--it just doesn't look like that. 

99 days out of 100, my writing life looks a lot more like paperwork than like some delightful, Pinterest-worthy, artist-in-her-studio situation.

I look more like a clerk shuffling papers. With a fondness for staring out the window, and a definite coffee addiction. And that is my day.

But hear me on this: It's a good thing.

Letting a falsely romantic view of this life die: That is a very, very good thing.

Yes, it's discouraging at first. Yes, disillusionment is not fun at all.

But after that, after the writing-life honeymoon is over, we have a chance to encounter the real writing life. 

When we see it as it really is--the ordinary days, the ordinary work, the unlovely chaos--we have a chance to love it as it really is.

See, I think that the over-romanticized view of the writing life is Not Helpful. At all. I think that it contributes to resistance, it makes us want to give up, it probably aids and abets Writer's Block

It makes us love the idea of writing more than the actual writing. The image of a completed book more than the path (the sweat! the tears! and more sweat! and a lot more tears!!) to an actual completed book.

Ultimately, an over-romanticized view of writing tells us lies about what we've signed on for.

And if we try to cling to it, it will make us very, very unhappy. With our work and probably with everything else. 

The romanticism will make us quit. 

The sooner we embrace the ordinariness of our writing lives, and its normal, everyday activities, the sooner we get to the really good stuff.

Moments of pure inspiration. Sentences that are so lovely they shock you. Characters that stand up and speak for themselves.

That's not false romanticism, that's the real writing life. The good writing life.

There really are moments that make you want to stick around for years and years. In spite of the ordinary days, and in spite of the hard not-so-picturesque work. 

Go ahead and let that romanticism wear off.

Choose the writing life as it really is: paper cuts and all. 

Because that's where you'll find your real stories. That's where the finished books hang out. That's where you discover your voice. That's where your themes and subjects come into their own.

In the real days of real work. 

Lean in to the reality. It really is worth it. 

Re-Establishing a Writing Groove (Or, Back to School for Writers!)

After a busy summer, I sit down at my desk and hear ... just static. It's a bit discouraging. Here's how to get your writing groove back. |

This won't surprise you, but I'm a bit of a nerd when it comes to school. 

I was the kind of kid who spent the last weeks of summer daydreaming about long division. Who was itching to buy packs of college-ruled paper for all those assignments. Who loved bringing home a pile of new textbooks. 

You know. Definitely a nerd.

So September still means "back to school" for me, even though my last real "back to school" was--cough, cough--ten years ago. 

But that doesn't matter, right? It's still a great time to stock up on office supplies (hello and thank you, back to school sales!) and to get back to the good work habits that were blasted to smithereens during the summer.

(Or is that just me.)

It's time to refocus. To get back to basics. To get big mugs of apple cider (!!!) and then dive deep into work. 

Yes? Yes! 

But the first step of a re-committed writing practice is, oh yeah, remember this?:

You have to sit still, alone, in a room. 

For hours.

I've had so much going on lately, that I feel a little jittery, here at my desk today. ...

Okay, a lot jittery. 

A little too quick to jump up and do something else. My brain is pinging every which way, and the voices of my characters are pretty dang faint. 

Actually, I can't hear them at all.

... Remember your elementary school science classes? And learning about how some muscles work in opposition?

If not, here's a little reminder: When one contracts, the other relaxes (and meanwhile, your leg kicks out). And then the first one relaxes and the other contracts, your leg goes back down.

Right? Well, I've found that the same dynamic is at work in my writing life. 

I have the public, out-and-about, errand-running, meeting-for-coffee, smiling, chatting, pleasant version of Lucy: When the social muscle contracts.

And then there's the other version, the writing version of Lucy. Private, contemplative, inward-focused, and absent-minded: When the writing muscle contracts.

When I'm living as the social version of Lucy, writing feels like a distant daydream. That side of me is pretty well shut off. 

And when I'm going full-tilt at work as the writing version of Lucy, anything social feels like an unbearable strain. A shocking interruption. I can't remember how to behave, I forget to answer questions, I'm not really socially acceptable. 

(Any of this ringing a bell for you too? Or is this just me?)

It is absolutely possible to get into a rhythm of moving back and forth between these two versions, with a certain degree of elegance. It really can be done.

I can write well and then transition to being social and then transition back into deep writing. Definitely.

But when I've been focusing on one side for a long time, the other side feels foreign. Like it's shriveled up, atrophied. And using it at all is just really hard.

... Which is how it feels to come back to full-time writing, after a super busy month! 

It can be really difficult, after all that activity, to remember how to sit quietly in a room. To go from all that social work (with the writing life totally silenced), to the complete opposite: 

A strong writing life, and a quieted social life. 

Right now, my writing life muscle is weak and wobbly. ... Actually, it's gone nearly to sleep, and today I'm feeling all those prickles, the pins-and-needles feeling of it waking back up.


But you can remember how to stretch out a cramped muscle. And we all know that wiggling-stomping dance we use to get our legs to wake up (please say it's not just me hopping around!).

The same thing is true here: There are tricks to getting the blood flowing back through the writing life. So let's get that muscle warmed up, active, and strong!

1. Go "immersion camp" style.

It sounds brutal, but the best way to get back into a groove is to give myself no other options. To clear the schedule for at least a week, if not two, if not longer.

Beg off commitments, reschedule meetings, and just generally get a wide patch of time. Because basically, you need to be able to get back to your desk, every day, for a set amount of time. And the more time, the better.

2. Ignore all that screaming.

Pins and needles, right? If you're like me, as soon as you even look at your desk, everything in your brain is going to say that this is a bad idea, and there are a zillion things that are more worth your time than doing some writing--which is bound to be bad quality anyway. 

Any other form of productivity will seem more appealing. Doing the dishes or the laundry. Getting back to your exercise routine. Cleaning out your inbox. Reading a book about productivity. Anything else that isn't writing. 

I've realized that I have to steadily ignore all that. I don't even argue with it: I just tune it out. Let the dishes stack up, and the laundry accumulate.

This is writing time. And I've already decided that it's worth it.

3. Slow the brain down with some reading.

It can be a really, really good idea to re-establish a writing practice by re-establishing a reading practice. 

While it obviously doesn't take the place of writing, it still gets our busy, chattery brains to slow down, to start absorbing words, to tune back in to all things literary. (Sometimes I love novels for this, and sometimes poetry feels better. Look here and here for recommendations.)

I like to give myself about half an hour to warm up my brain with reading. 

4. Put your work-in-progress through its paces.

This is my favorite, favorite technique for this kind of situation. Here's what you do:

Get a piece of paper (yes, real paper), and a pen (yes, a real pen). At the top of the paper, write the name of your main character. And then grab a timer. Set the timer for five minutes. And then hit Start.

For five minutes, write--yes, longhand!--about your main character. 

Write anything. Describe her physical appearance, or write about what she does all day. Describe her room. Or detail all the things she likes. Or all the things she hates. 

Write down what she wants most in the story and how she wants to get it. Or just write about how she likes to climb trees. 

Your writing can be clunky. The sentences can be ugly and out of tune. That is totally fine. In fact, that means you're doing it right! You just have to keep going.

The point is: Write, by hand, about your main character, for five minutes. No matter what.

When the timer goes off, don't reread your work. But do be very, very nice to yourself, and celebrate the fact that hey, you kept your butt in your chair for five minutes straight, and you wrote actual words down! 

After a moment's celebration, repeat the exercise with a different character. Or instead of a character, write about one of the most important settings in your story. (Or heck, one of the least important settings!) Or about one of the main events. Or a minor event. 

Write about the beginning. Or the ending. Or the middle. Or whatever.

This is a way to gently re-claim your territory. To get back into the habit of writing, but to do it through very small, very doable demands

No matter how crazy your summer was, you definitely can scrape together enough focus for five minutes of writing.

And once you've done that--even if it was miserable, even if it was hard, even if all your sentences sounded lame--you've crossed the line. That line that separates a habit of not writing from a habit of yes, I'll write, no matter what!

Maybe you do three rounds of five-minute exercises. Or maybe you fill your day with them. Either way, you can get back into the habit, step by step.

5. Decide to do the same thing tomorrow.

This is where Step One comes back. It's immersion camp style. The main virtue of this getting-back-into-the-groove method is in its repeatability. 

If you do this, kindly, gently, day by day by day, then I guarantee: by the end of one week, you'll be feeling a bit more writerly.

By the end of the second, I'd bet that your story is up and running again. And you probably won't need that timer, and you'll be back to your good old writerly self.

Congratulations!! You're back in your groove. And now your goal--and mine--is staying in it! Right?

So we'll be spending the rest of September talking about this back-to-school mindset. Getting back to what we know how to do... and then growing from there!

I'm already feeling excited.

Long division anyone??

(Just kidding. Probably.)