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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably this is not very healthy.

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

Mind = blown.

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

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

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

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

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

Because this is where I am, my friends.

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

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

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

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

But what's the next best thing? 

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

Lemme read you her gorgeous description of a creative groove: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I'm EXCITED. 

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

Maybe transformation.

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

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

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


1: Save your environment.

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

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

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

Oooh. 

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

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

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

What would help you go deeper into your work? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2: Build a food pyramid.

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

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

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

How can I continually feed my imagination what it needs?

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

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

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

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

So: what do you need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was my pyramid: what's yours? 

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

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

Or maybe the thing you most need is actually silence.  

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

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

3: Apprentice yourself to a master magician.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything clicks along more happily.

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

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

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

What does that look like for you?

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

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

4: Put on your workout clothes.

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

Hard work.

Sweat.

A run-a-marathon level of effort. 

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

True story: sometimes a groove has to be earned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Key To Everything Is a Crazy Amount of Focus.

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

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

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

Focus. It's a big deal.

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

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

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

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

Where do we begin?

1) Develop a deep work ritual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport says,

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

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

Let's not do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport defines shallow work like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Doesn't that give you shivers?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both are important, no question.

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

How much time per week should we spend doing each?

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

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

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

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

Make sense? 

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

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

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

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

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

And you pretend it's all in fun.

Nope. Not okay anymore, Distraction.

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

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

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

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

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

Ya gotta go.


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

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

Near the book's conclusion, he says,

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

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

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

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

This is rocket fuel, in other words. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woo! I'm getting chills.

So I'm on board with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all want high quality writing, yes? 

So this is our next thing to learn.

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

Eye-opening, and oh-so helpful.

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

He has this equation that I just loved: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This book is for you.

It's for all of us.

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

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

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

Definitions first. Newport defines deep work as: 

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

What does that mean for all of us writers?

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

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

So that's why it's seriously important.

Deep work means that you're writing valuable things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep work is worth pursuing.

... But then we hit a few snags.

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

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

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

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

And we're gonna have to change some things.

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

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

Yikes.

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

And ... it gets worse:

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

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

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

And attention residue can last for ten to twenty minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is going to take training.

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

For serious.

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

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

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

Why is it so important to know this?

Because the breakthroughs are on the other side of perseverance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He points out,

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

That resistance? Super important. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, it means:

Sounds simple, right? 

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

Yes, really.

And here's why that's so cool:

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

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

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

Newport says it like this: 

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

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

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

What does the unconscious do? Newport continues:

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

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

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

You too, right?

Let that sink in for a second.

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

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

Your unconscious mind is your hero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says, 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Which, honestly, is super empowering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know what I mean?

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

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

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

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

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

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

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

Imagination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No bueno.

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

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

So ...

So, how do we do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THAT.

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

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

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

Be. In. The. Scene.

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

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

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

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

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

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

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

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

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

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

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

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

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

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

1. Be willing to move slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

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

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

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

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

Right? 

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

But it's still worth it.

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

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

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

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

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

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

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

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

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

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

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

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes: 

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

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

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

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

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

If We Don't Ask Our Writing Lives This Question, Really Bad Things Happen. (Like Block, Burnout, Discouragement, and Dead Ends.)

There's so much going on that it's easy to work on autopilot. But if we don't dig into how we define this one aspect of our writing lives, we could be setting ourselves up for serious trouble. | lucyflint.com

Oh look, another month! How the heck did that happen??

Autumn is my favorite time of the year, so as soon as I hear the word September, I'm already daydreaming about apples with cinnamon and pumpkin-spiced everything and cooler days and the smell of bonfires and the sound of the marching band on football nights and snuggling my toes into cozy knitted socks ...

Whoops, got carried away. (Besides, it's going to feel like summer around here for the whole month anyway, so no need to rush things, I suppose.)

Ahem. 

I love the beginning of a month, because it's always a good time to take stock.

... Oh, who am I kidding. I like taking stock at the end of the month too. And every day in between.

So, whenever you read this, here's the question: Where are you at right now? 

How are you doing, in your mind? Your heart? Your creativity? 

How's the work-in-progress? How's the writing life?

It's been a whirlwind of a year (on my end, at least). And I'm more than a little amazed to be facing the last four months of the year. 

I loved—and desperately needed—August's self-care focus. All that self-understanding and self-nurturing was absolute balm to my hassled soul.

And now that we're on this side of it, I asked myself what we should do next. The answer was clear and immediate:

I want to gather strength. Build stability. Stamina.

So much of this year has been about taking things apart and trying to put them back together in a better way.

That has been amazing. It's been (seriously) life-changing. 

And also a bit, um, disruptive.

I'm ready to find a good groove and to get back in it, know what I mean?

Personally, I love the idea of following a month of self-care with a month of strength-building. We're taking better care of ourselves to a purpose, you know?

Now that we're better at nurturing, now that we're alert to better ways of operating—what do we do with ourselves?

Get stronger. Build strength. Yes!

But as soon as I knew that, I had another problem. 

Strength? 

What the heck does that even mean?

Because if you spent any time watching the 2016 Olympics, you've realized that there are about a bazillion different kinds of strength.

Watching those athletes compete, you can totally tell: what makes someone the best at one type of sport would be completely destructive to someone in another sport.

So if I want to build strength in my writing life, I have to do a little digging to figure out exactly what I mean by that.

Where does that desire—I want to feel stronger!!—come from? What's the urge behind it?

Part of me was echoing Julia Cameron's statement: Treating myself like a precious object will make me strong

Yes! Let's keep building strength with nurturing! Let's have incredibly strong imaginations! Let's have writing days that come from a strong sense of enthusiasm!

And another part of me was saying, "Also, let's do a ton of writing, please."

It's worth remembering: We build strength physically by repeating a difficult action. By challenging ourselves.

By going right up to our limits (we find where they are by "failing"), and then building strength and skills right on the borderlands of our ability.

I want to get better at working hard, at the very same time that I want to get better at working happy

So what might that look like in our writing lives this month?

In other words, here's my question for you today:

How do you, personally, define strength?

What kind of strength are you looking for right now, in your writing life?

It's worth doing a little digging, a little self-reflection. It's important to get clear on what we mean by it.

Because if we don't check our unspoken definitions now and then, we can slip into this funny little habit of valuing opposing things.

Conflicting habits. Mutually exclusive "strengths."

Here's what I mean:

Sometimes I tell myself that I really value a distraction-free environment. Strength of focus is a beautiful thing!

But then, I discover that I'm secretly also valuing hyper-productivity: "I can't let a single unread email sit in my inbox!"

Funny how those two ideas don't work together very well. (More on all that later this month.)

Or I can tell myself that I want to be really well-rested. Feeling healthy: definitely makes me feel stronger.

But then, as I work on honoring that, something else in me freaks out. "No, no, wait," it cries. "I also have to work at least ten hours a day with no breaks, or I feel like a slacker." 

So apparently, somewhere in my inner workings, I've mislabeled "working incessantly" as another sign of strength.

Hmm. 

It sounds a little silly, but I think it's worth taking the time to investigate. Because if we dive into the idea of "strength" on autopilot, without thinking about what we value, we can sabotage ourselves. 

We might find that we're holding ourselves to a dozen competing standards. And that's not gonna go so well.

Honestly, whenever I've burned out in the past, this has been part of the problem. I've mislabeled something as strong, and then worked to build that strength ... in spite of warning signs. In spite of a need to balance it out.

So. Take a little time today, or this weekend, and just check in: 

What kind of strengths do you most value?

When you think of yourself growing in stamina and building strength as a writer, what kinds of things come to mind?

Skills? Habits? Attitudes? 

If you gave your writing life a kind of athletic identity, what would most symbolize strength to you? 

In other words: for some people, strength looks like a body-builder's physique. For someone else, it's a yogi's amazing flexibility. 

There's a gymnast's incredible sense of balance, the endurance of a rowing team, or the sheer speed of a sprinter. Or what about a hurdler's take on navigating obstacles?

I've narrowed down my own sense of writing life strengths to a handful of traits. These are the things I really want to dig into this month. 

I want to put in my time in the weight room, and nurture these skills with habits, with practice, with good stretches, with quality repetition.

I want to check in with how we treat our work. With how our imaginations and attitudes work to strengthen our writing. 

I want to definitely build muscle around the whole strategy of routine, schedule, and balance. 

And then I want to check in with the obstacles we face. What saps our strength? And what's our vision for all this work and effort, anyway?

Mmmm.

So, that's what's ahead in September! Let's take allllll the good wellness we explored in August, and let it support us as we move into muscle-building mode.

It's time for more flexibility. Better endurance. And the ability to heft some serious poundage.

Let's create a stronger writing life.


What's going on in your life when you feel strong as a writer? What skills are in place, what habits? 

Have you seen how the right habits build strength in you, as a thinker, a creator, a writer? What creative muscles are you most itching to target?

Where do you most want to increase strength this fall?

Here's the Truth: You Are Extraordinarily Generous (Even If You Worry About Being Selfish)

Is taking time to do your work (or all the supporting work that *allows* you to work) ... selfish?? Oh. Have I got a good answer for you... | lucyflint.com

When life gets frantic, it's been SO EASY for me to relegate reading to a "to do" item on my work checklist.

And when, inevitably, it falls off the list, it's so easy to just feel guilty and crabby about it.

Until all I associate with "reading novels" is guilt and frustration.

Yikes. Not a great situation for a fiction writer!

This month, in contrast, has been a sweet reminder of all the ways novels have been a joy in my life. How they've soothed and healed and delighted me.

And I'm so excited for these new strategies I have in place: I'm going to make my reading nook the most swoony place ever! I can't wait!

And reading in the morning still feels so rebellious to me, but I'm loving it anyway!

Oh, reading. It's so good to love you again. I feel like I've come back home.

I'm still thinking through that question of permission, though. Because, can I just say, this has been a very extreme summer for me. 

I've been spending a ton of time away from work over the last three months, to help out family members during an incredibly hard time. It's been worth it, for sure, but it has taken a lot out of me and my work.

(The month of August is going to be a month of rebuilding my writing practice: I can tell ya that right now!)

Forcing myself to take the time to read this past month: well, it's been lovely.

But it's also made me think about a key tension that's come up in my writing life, again and again.

No matter what the circumstances, I frequently trip over this: 

Sometimes, the time that I need to spend alone, so that I can grow as an artist, so I can work and dream and plan and read—

Well, it can feel a little selfish.

Of course, I know that "it's my work." In my brain, I can argue and reason enough to remember that it's important.

But sometimes it feels like I'm just "lookin' out for myself."

Selfish.

Does this ring a bell for anyone else? 

Especially if you live with other people. Or if you have friends. Or if anyone that you care about could possibly "need" you, or would appreciate your help. 

With anything. At all. Ever.

And you get that phone call, or text, or that request. 

And when that comes up during my writing time, or when it involves the time I planned to spend writing (or reading, or painting, or doing any kind of creative support work)—I have a real internal struggle on my hands.

If I choose to protect my time, and say no, I usually have to claw my way through a miserable storm of guilt. And I'm so exhausted by the time I get to my work (or so resentful), that it's almost easier to not work.

If I say yes, then I feel like I'm a superhero. But I also feel resentful and like I'm apparently the type of superhero who doesn't get to write fiction.

Which makes me sad.

... Does any of this sound familiar? Anyone with me on this?

I know what I'm supposed to do, usually. I know I need to choose the work more often than not. But sometimes, it just doesn't feel that simple, with layers and layers of What Other People Need.

Okay.

But.

Last week I caught Coldplay's concert in St. Louis. And it was so much fun. Confetti and lights and huge balloons and the band's infectious enthusiasm.

And so many times during that night, I thought: This feels like a gift. This concert feels like generosity.

Obviously our tickets cost money. Of course it wasn't a free gift.

But still. Something about the openness of the band, their cheerfulness and their message and their songs and their whole attitude—the joy and humor and sheer spectacle of it all.

I don't know how else to say it. It felt generous.

It felt like we, as the audience, were given the gift of that night, that experience. 

And for me, it was such a vivid picture of how creativity—in the words, the music, the art of the performance—is generosity to the people who get to witness it.

In other words: working on your creativity is not a selfish act.

I'm gonna say that again for everyone who needs it as much as I do: 

Working on your creativity, whether that means writing or dreaming or reading or doing any other kind of support, is not a selfish act.

It is a service.

As I watched Chris Martin zooming around the stage, part of me was dancing and singing, but the rest of me was trying to get a grip on this idea.

The generosity of working on creativity. 

I kept thinking about all the time that they've put into this.

The hours and hours and hours of honing their musical skills. And the time writing the lyrics. (Those amazing metaphors and phrases don't just happen, as we all know!) 

Then the creation work: creating songs, refining songs, throwing out the crappy ones, rewriting, remixing...

All of the effort that went into creating this music and this concert: I don't know how it felt to the members of the band.

How many times they had to say "no" to other things to make it happen. What sacrifices they repeatedly make, so that they can be who they are.

I have no idea what it all adds up to.

But I bet it's a lot. 

And the end result feels like total generosity. A connection with their audience. A festival, a spectacle. An uplifting and joyous night.

Sharing creativity is generosity.

Oh, lionhearts. Can we get a sense of that, down deep in our writerly hearts? 

The books we write, the tales we tell, the stories we share: it's about generosity. It's about giving gifts to our readers.

Sure, we'll be paid, and that's absolutely as it should be.

But in the quality of the work, the liveliness of the story, the beauty or the humor or the delight of the words: that's generous.

So let's just take a moment and apply that word, generosity, to everything that goes into making those stories.

All the time it takes to do that work. The dreaming, the doodling, the wondering. The plotting and outlining and structuring.

The throwing everything out and starting over. Multiple times.

Rebuilding chapters. Writing, rewriting. Re-re-re-rewriting. Revising and editing. Producing. Publishing.

ALL that time. All that effort.

This is the stuff we have to guard and protect.

This is what's behind the times when we say no to people we care about. The stuff we turn down. The sacrifices we make.

You're not being selfish, by protecting the time it takes to write well.

Which means that, it isn't selfish to say "I'm working" and then go read a story about a talking rat for two hours.

Okay? 

We are working to build gifts for other people.

Gifts that don't get written if we don't make the hard calls.

If we don't do what it takes to write them. To dream them up. To capture the nuances . To really sit with the ideas we have, and take the time to sculpt them, drive them deeper. 

To make stories that readers will dream about.

To write chapters that will be read in tense waiting rooms or in the midst of a heart-breaking season.

To write what will make people laugh. Or what will help them release tears that need to be shed.

To write what will connect strangers in the midst of pain. To write words that give other people a way to talk about their own experiences.

IT ISN'T SELFISH.

It is amazing, sacrificial, beautiful generosity to make the hard calls, and to protect what you need to protect, in order to be a storyteller.

Whew.

So ... I basically need to get that tattooed on my arms or something. 

How about you? What's the hardest thing for you to say no to?

When does it seem selfish to protect writing and creativity?

(And if it doesn't, then for the love of pete, please help the rest of us out and tell us more about your mindset!!)


Reading Report: Well, I'm thoroughly enjoying Bellfield Hall. I just loooooove mysteries. AND, our weather here has been a bit gloomy and overcast. I meanhow perfect can you get? Tea & a cozy blanket, anyone?? 

When I Want to Be the Sharpest Writer I Can Be, I Grab This Book (Spring Cleaning Our Creativity)

Want to spring clean your creativity? This is the book I go to when I need a mental and creative sprucing, when I want new language for creativity, and when I need a general butt kicking and pep rally all in one. And yeah, you'd probably like this book too. | lucyflint.com

When my approach to creativity, idea-finding, and the whole imaginative life starts to get a bit cluttered, dull, and dry, I go to a specific volume on my writing bookshelf.

If I realize that I've let some self-pitying and some boo-hoo-hooing into my creativity, I reach for a certain guide.

And if I know that I've been taking it too easy and now need a real ZING:

Yup. You know it.

I grab that same book.

And so if you're in the mood to do a spring cleaning of your creativity—whaaaat?! heck yes, we're going there!—then this is the book you want too.

It's Twyla Tharp's practical guide to the creative life: The Creative Habit.

So how is this gonna spruce up our creativity?

Well, for starters, it just looks clean, with its white cover, lots of white space on the pages, grey and black type, with the occasional splash of red.

The book-nerd in me (wait, that's all of me) flat out loves it right from the start for looking so bracing.

And once you're into it and reading, the actual text and tips are sooooo refreshing.

Because Tharp is a choreographer. Her natural creative language is the language of dance.

... Which doesn't make this book inaccessible, by the way: she's talking to all creatives, and uses examples from business, painting, music, and yes, writing. 

I'm grateful for her new-to-me perspective, because it's easy for us writers to keep sharing similar tips over and over, right? Advice begins to sound the same. 

But not with this book.

Tharp's whole approach always resets me. It's where I go when I'm craving creative clarity, precision, no nonsense, and a general butt-kicking.

And in this book, she takes us through her whole process, start to finish. She talks about where a project begins, how you find ideas, and what your natural creative stance is. (She calls it your creative DNA. Cool, right?)

Then she gets into the nitty-gritty of how to approach a single piece of work. The role our skill plays. How to deal with failure, how to get out of a rut.

And—my favorite, favorite, heartbeat-picks-up kind of stuff—how to be in this game for the long term, how to find your groove, and how to get into a creative bubble and make your best work.

Every time I finish this book, I think: DANG. 

And then also: YES, PLEASE.

Can I please be every bit as passionate as she is about creativity after thirty-plus more years of doing this? 

Can I be at master-level? Can I be so savvy and calm about how creativity works? Can I be continually doing my best work? 

Fortunately, we can. Because she just told us how.

So there you go: pick up this book when you want something mega-inspiring and incredibly helpful, full of a fresh and practical approach to creativity.

Sound good?? Happy cleaning.

Four Resources to Check Out for Building a Better Novel

Right now, I'm ALL about story structure. These four resources are transforming the way I look at storytelling in general, and my trilogy in particular. Want a more awesome story? Click through to check them out! | lucyflint.com

For so many years, and to so many people, I said that learning to write a novel was like learning to build a house.

On your own. From scratch.

I LOVED using this metaphor. There are so many aspects to creating a finished home, let alone a livable home, let alone a charming home that someone would willingly purchase.

Right?

You've got to deal with electricity and roofing, windows and foundations. You need to have the gas hooked up correctly and you need to get the insulation in. 

Kind of like dealing with conflict and theme, characters and setting. So many elements, so many systems. It takes a lot to create a quality product.

I loved saying this to people, because it seemed that they understood, then, why I could take so dang long working on these manuscripts.

It got me off the hook. That's what I'm saying.

Want to hear something embarrassing? The person who missed the biggest and deepest aspect of this metaphor was... me.

Because, for all my layers of comparison, I didn't realize that a house, at its essence, is a structure.

Take away the roofing, the carpet, the doors, the wallpaper, the electricity: a house is a system of walls and floors and ceilings. It's a structure.

Guess what a novel also boils down to. STRUCTURE.

How conflict and plot and theme and character all fit together. It's a story system. 

And there are strong, predictable similarities, from one story to the next. Kinda like how houses have a similar structure.

Huh.

Understanding that sooner would have saved me, um, some time

I mentioned in the last post that I've been asking myself some major focusing questions when it comes to writing. I've realized that, yeah, I want to write dozens of novels in my lifetime. 

Like, maybe a hundred. (I know, I know. Dreaming so small.)

And when I thought about which core skill would take me the furthest, which would make the biggest difference: it all came down to structure.

If I understand story structure, if I get it down, then I'm in a really really good place to write this trilogy, and then a seven-part series, and then, you know, ninety more.

So now I'm taking serious aim at understanding novel structure, and I fell in love with these four amazing guides. I'd love to introduce you to them as well:

1) If you haven't met The Story Grid yet, it's time to fix that.

This summer, I came across Shawn Coyne's invaluable Story Grid, which is AMAZING.

I've read it through at least three times: there are flash cards and sticky notes all over my work space. I'm working to absorb every bit of it.

Seriously, it'll change the way you think about stories. At every level.

Spend some time on the Story Grid website, and see if you don't learn something within the first five minutes.

2) And then, you need to meet this cat that's worth rescuing.

Next up: Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. 

Yes, it's about awesome screenwriting. But that's another way of saying: it's about awesome storytelling. I highly recommend this one for a bit more of a birds'-eye view of story structure.

It's a quick read, conversational, funny, and immediately applicable.

And the fact that it's about screenwriting instead of noveling doesn't really make a difference. (Besides, it's a lot faster to watch a bunch of movies and analyze their structure than it is to read a bunch of novels. Whew!)

I also took the entire section on "beating it out" to heart: I finally have a huge board up on my wall, littered with story beats and scene ideas.

... Why didn't I do that sooner?! Now I can literally trace the flow of my story, as it moves from act to act. It's amazing. I feel like a very swanky story maker.

(Which I totally am. You are too. High five.)

3) Tie it all together with a book/workbook one-two punch.

Between The Story Grid and Save the Cat, I was feeling pretty clever. I had the macro-to-micro all-weather all-purpose manual from Coyne, and the screenwriting, beat-sheet perspective from Snyder.

What more does a new structure convert need?

K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel and the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.

Honestly, when I picked up these two, I figured "I'll just give them a quick read through, but basically, I've got this."

Hahahahahahahaha.

By the third page of Structuring Your Novel, I realized how much I NEED this book: I slowed way, way down and took a TON of notes.

Because Weiland's two resources are amazing. She filled in all the structure gaps that I didn't even know I still had, explaining how everything weaves together and flows toward the climax.

And the workbook! I usually have a "meh" opinion about workbooks, but this one asked the perfect questions to help me translate the ideas to my story: Reading it was like taking a structure class expertly tailored to my novel.

Which now feels so much stronger. And more doable.

4) So now we'll just go get awesome, yes?

I know it's possible to go way overboard on new resources. I could overdose, and keep grabbing structure books off the shelves, and keep chasing knowledge. 

But I feel really strongly that these three writers have given me everything I need to know for an incredibly well-built trilogy.

I feel ready, y'all!! And crazy excited.

And I cannot recommend all these resources enough.

They all mesh well together. And yet, thanks to their three different perspectives, there isn't an unbearable amount of overlap, either.

They each cover structure from a unique angle, and when one doesn't answer the question I have, another one will.

Together, they are giving me an incredible masterclass on a part of novel writing that I had (shockingly) overlooked. 

My trilogy is freaking out about this. All the characters are thrilled: it's a very happy Christmas already in my brain. 

I'm super energized for a new year of writing!

And I'm finally confident that I'm building a structure that will last.

Improve Your Writing Without Thinking About It (Much)

The small daily task is your best weapon. | lucyflint.com

Is there a place in your writing, a gap in your abilities, that you'd really love to improve, except you can't find the time?

I'm guessing that's basically everyone. Who doesn't want to improve? Who has time for massive improvement?

Right. That's what I thought. 

Want a solution? Here's where it starts. With the favorite quote of sloggers everywhere, including me:

"A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules." -- Anthony Trollope

We're gonna grab hold of this idea of a small daily task. How small? REALLY small.

It's my favorite way to grow.

First of all, though, you have to believe in incremental growth.

You have to sign on for that small daily task. Because--read the quote--it has to be really daily. It's too tempting to drop that daily out of the equation. And then you're left with a small task that doesn't end up doing much.

And we want to leverage this, right?

So now that we're all on board with a small constant change, with growing in near-painless ways, let me tell you about a trick I learned from one of my writing professors.

Every day when we got to class, we were expected to write two sentences, within the first five minutes. So I'd go in, dump my books, look up at the board for the day's prompt, and scratch out my two sentences.

No big deal. Didn't take much thought. (In fact, it actively discouraged overthinking. Five minute time limit, and we all had to put something down.) 

After just a couple of weeks, it became a habit.

It was a class on writing non-fiction, so our writing prompts were two rhetorical structures each day. We'd write a single sentence for each of the two prompts. A few people would share their sentences with the class when the time was up. And then off we'd go on the lesson of the day.

Didn't take a lot of time or effort, but by the end of the semester, guess how awesome we were at thinking in terms of those rhetorical structures?

Yeah. Pretty darned decent.

So here's my big question to you:

What's a skill you'd like to improve, with a small daily task? What's been bugging you about your writing lately?

What if you tackled it in miniature, in two painless sentences at the start of every writing day?

Just two sentences. Just the first five minutes of your writing session.

No big deal. No overthinking.

Just a small daily task, quietly making you awesome, without you even noticing.

A few ideas for your sentences:

- Develop a flair for wordplay. Scramble the parts of speech in two sentences. Turn your nouns into adjectives, your adjectives into verbs, your verbs into nouns. 

- Flex that dialogue muscle with a two-sentence dialogue exchange. 

- Amp up your description powers. Take two sentences to describe the sky outside your window in a totally unique way, or to personify the buildings you see, or put words in the mouth of whatever bird is squawking.

The trick is: keeping it tiny. The trick is: refusing to overthink it.

The trick is: doing it every single day.

You just might beat out that spasmodic Hercules. 

What will you be writing your two sentences on?