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

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

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

In other words, we talked about deliberate practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

and work there.

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

Excited yet? Me too.

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

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

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

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

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


Here are 34 ways to practice writing deliberately!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deliberately Practicing Deliberate Practice

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

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

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

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

And instead of skipping over it, we focus in.

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

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

Continue Your Idea-Making Awesomeness with These Six Amazing Guides!

My go-to team of books for when I'm in desperate need of a new idea. They'll have your back, too. | lucyflint.com

We writers live among our ideas. Kind of a cool reality, isn't it?

It's the truth: The degree to which our ideas delight us is the degree to which we're going to have exciting and enjoyable writing lives. 

That's what I'm aiming for! You too, I'm guessing. ;)

I hope that Idea Camp has been fun for you! You now have some fantastic strategies for making appealing, useable, and energizing ideas! 

SUPER good news for your work-in-progress, and for all those works to come! (Your future projects are all stoked, by the way.) 

But today's our last post for Idea Camp. And the writing life is a big one. Which means that, we're all going to appreciate having even more idea-making guidance in the days to come!

Here are six of my favorite books for creativity and idea-making. If you've been reading the blog for a while, you've heard of them all. But they're a part of my core team when it comes to creativity, so they deserve a big shout-out at the end of Idea Camp!

If you want to level up in terms of creativity, consistency with idea-making, and general awesomeness (that's all of us, right?!), then these are the books to read!

1) A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, by Roger von Oech

This is, no surprise, a totally off-the-wall book. (Title kinda gives that away, right?) But it is super helpful at shaking up the way we normally think.

Von Oech asks provocative questions about creativity, and he flips the ways we normally approach problems.

This is where I learned about the oracle method, "stepping stone" ideas, and a bunch of other ways to reframe creative problems. (His concept of "the second right answer" is totally brilliant and oh so helpful!)

This book will help you with your writing, for sure, but—bonus!—it will also make you a creative, problem-solving dynamo in the rest of your life as well. 

2) Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yup, it was a mega-sensation in all creative-minded circles for a while, and for good reason. I devoured it, and then listened in on the accompanying podcast, "Magic Lessons," as well.

I just love Gilbert's frank discussion of creativity, her view of the artist's life, and her perspective on ideas like inspiration, wonder, and following your curiosity.

It's also just a thoroughly enjoyable read! This isn't so much a book about actively generating ideas, but the way she approaches creativity will definitely shift the pressure you feel in your writing life.

And that shift will bring wonder-filled ideas in its wake!

(I especially loved: the trickster vs. martyr discussion; the "sandwiches" we eat in pursuit of what we love; and the story about the lobster. Oh my gosh, the lobster. I laughed 'til I cried!)

PS, if you can't wait to get the book, check out her fantastic interview about Big Magic with Marie Forleo. It's all the things!!

3) Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

Yep, I've done a post on this one before. But it's worth bringing up again here, because Kleon has such a helpful way of describing idea creation: he breaks it down and makes it feel so doable.

I love his whole concept of "the genealogy of ideas," and how he recommends learning from the artists you admire. He says: 

Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What's in there that makes you different? That's what you should amplify and transform into your own work.

How's that for inspiring?! Geez!

And then I'm also haunted by this bit of brilliance: 

Think about your favorite work and your creative heroes. What did they miss? What didn't they make? ... If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew? 
     Go make that stuff.

Riiiiiight?? Doesn't that just get your mind fizzing? The whole book is like that, so, if you haven't checked it out yet ... um, go do that.

(He has a pretty fantastic blog as well... hop on over. And also, if you're trying to wrap your mind around the whole Internet, social media, how-to-be-seen thing, his book Show Your Work! is also exquisite and deeply encouraging. It gave me the courage to start this blog.)

4) The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp

This one again! For sure. Not only does Tharp talk about all aspects of the creative life in a compelling and exciting way, but she also has incredible tips on how to find ideas.

The whole book is helpful for this, but the best chapter for finding ideas is "Scratching." Scratching is Tharp's term for that process of hunting for an idea. She has a bunch of great habits and routines for idea searching... you've gotta read that chapter and try her exercises! You'll have plenty of new ways to forage for brilliance.

5) The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne

My favorite-ever structure book belongs in Idea Camp?! Yup.

Because if you're writing a novel, and you don't know what do to next, it helps soooooo much to remember the conventions of the genre you're dealing with, the parts of story form (in scenes, in acts), and the "change curve" that Coyne explains.

Having a solid grasp of novel structure definitely saved my idea-making bacon with my work-in-progress! And understanding story form is critical when you're defining the problem that you're trying to solve

6) A Writer's Book of Days, by Judy Reeves

This is THE BEST writing exercise book I've ever encountered and it literally changed my view of my writing and my imagination. For the much, much better. 

It is seriously good.

Working through her daily writing prompts showed me just how incredible my brain can be at making ideas. At creating stories out of thin air. Even on days when I felt dull.

If you give the habit of writing exercises a try, you'll get into the mode of having a flexible, ready, energized mind, eager to snatch and develop any idea that crosses your path. 

BASICALLY, you acquire idea-making superpowers. Yes, really.

Because some of the best ideas you'll ever get, you'll get while your pen is moving. And that is an exhilaration that's worth finding!

Oh, and the articles and essays that make up the rest of the content? MEGA valuable and encouraging.

Dive in: you won't regret it.


We did it!! A month of relishing all things idea-related. WHOA.

I'd love to hear how you're doing: which idea-generating practices have been the most helpful? Any writing blocks blasted away? 

The second half of our writing year is going to be so full of good ideas now! Mmmm. Happy dreaming, lionhearts!

Crank Up the Awesome in Your Writing Days by Tackling This One Skill

By tightening our grip on just one skill in our writing life management, we can sharpen our focus, improve our ability to rest, gather momentum, and avoid burnout. What?! Yes really! Come check out this four-step tune up. | lucyflint.com

Good Monday, my lovely lionhearts! How is all this spring cleaning treating you so far? 

At this point, we've clarified and updated our goals, we've replaced negativity with radically positive affirmations, we've dusted and decluttered, we've straightened up our online lives, and we've taken a much-deserved break from all the good noises around us.

Whew!! That's some incredible work you've been doing!

Today we're looking at another major area that can get cluttered up: how we deal with our writing time.

It's so easy for boundaries around writing time to smudge a little. To blur.

And then ... they can break down completely. 

Right? You know the feeling?

Protecting our writing time is one of those habits that requires continual tweaking and adjusting. 

OH, and by the way: feeling guilty about how you're doing with writing time management? Absolutely forbidden.

I mean it. 

So if even the thought of this is making you feel a little gloomy, just escort that sense of defeat right. out. the. door. 

Think of this as doing general maintenance around your house. We're looking at the fences, or the roof, or how the siding is holding up. The stuff that protects what's inside.

There's no point in getting upset at yourself because of hail damage on your roof, or because the fence is getting a little weak and wobbly and needs a few slats replaced.

Right? Stuff wears out, breaks down, needs strengthening and replacing. No big deal.

So we're just straightening up. And not bludgeoning ourselves for the fact that this habit, like all others, requires maintenance.

Okay? No beating yourself up.

So let's do an across-the-Internet high five, and then get started!

Here's our checklist for a writing time tune-up:

1. Starting on time is the nicest kickoff.

Whether that means 8 o'clock at night, or 8 in the morning: Whenever you've decided it's writing time, there's something mega-powerful about starting right on time.

Honestly, this is the one I struggle with the most! It's darned hard for me to get to my desk right on time. 

So this is the policy I'm adopting: I'm gonna aim to be at my desk at eight. But my honest-to-goodness writing time starts at 8:30.

I know that this strategy wouldn't work for everyone, but if I verbally tell everyone—including myself—that I've gotta be at my desk at 8, then when all the little last minute things happen (because they will), I can still make my actual start time of 8:30.

I get such a rush from starting when I say I will, as opposed to feeling like I'm scrambling to catch up. So I'm reminding myself that it's worth that extra effort! 

2. Ending on time respects both you and your work.

It's easy to feel like a productivity hero when you blast right through the end of your scheduled work day.

And when you're working from home, it's all too easy to get carried away and work later and later.

Maybe because you just love your story so much. (Yay!)

Maybe because you're aiming for a killer deadline. (Understandable.)

Or maybe because you got off to a really late start, and are desperate to make up the time. (I hear you.)

For whatever reason, it can be really tempting.

For the first few years of writing full time, I was regularly working at all hours. I especially loved working after midnight, when the house was quiet, and no one could bother me. 

But it turned into an ugly cycle.

Working late zapped my ability to get started early. It felt like the day was always half gone before I got to my work.

So I felt guilty and sluggish during the day, even though I was technically "catching up" by working late at night. (No matter what, I couldn't turn off the idea that I needed to get right to it.)

Also, I felt like work was always on my mind. (Hellooooo, burn out!)

I've realized since then, that if I want to be totally focused when I'm at my desk, then I need to also have times when I'm totally not at my desk.

I need a big chunk of time where my creativity can replenish itself, when I can actually do other things, and, you know, live.

My writing time needs a definite end point.

So I've gotten pretty consistent with this. Even when I'm in love with my story, I stop working when I say I will. (Lately, that means 5:30 p.m.)

I'll happily keep daydreaming about the story while I make dinner and chat with family. It will be there spinning in my head as I'm brushing my teeth. And I definitely jot down the ideas for plot twists, dialogue, and setting switch-ups as they occur to me.

But I'm not at the desk. My brain is allowed to breathe.

Even when I'm working on a deadline: I might let myself work an hour later, every other night, but then I definitely, absolutely stop. (And I'll even do the insane thing and give myself a mid-week day off to make up for the extra work!)

And if I'm tempted to work late because I got off to a late start, I try to let myself off the hook. I put in a half day and say, "hey, it happened." And I work to get there on time the next day.

Why? Because overall, it's just stopped being worth it to me, to plug away until my brain turns to lint. 

3. Taking breaks during the work day makes you stronger.

Taking breaks within the writing day is something that can feel totally lazy if you're not used to it.

Especially if you come from the school of thought that says, "When you're working, you're always actively working, all the time. If that cursor isn't flying across the page, you're doing it wrong." 

But that's exactly how I burned myself out. (Boo!)

So I've learned to embrace the power of a quality break, during the writing day. 

(This quick video on renewal, from The Energy Project, says it better than I could. Super inspiring! I'm all fired up now!)

Let's just remind ourselves: Taking breaks makes us better problem solvers. It gives us fresh perspective when we come back to the work. And our bodies need it

I'm convinced: Working without breaks isn't a badge of honor. It's a recipe for serious trouble, both creatively and physically.

So, if breaks aren't already a part of your writing day: add 'em in, my friend! Guilt free!

You can pick your work-to-break ratio: There's the Pomodoro method, which gives you 5-minute breaks after 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a bigger break after four rounds of pomodoro periods. (I love this one when I'm especially dragging my heels about a task for the day. You can get an amazing amount done in a focused 25-minute stretch!)

There's also a lot of buzz about 52 minutes of work, and then 17 minutes of break. (Somehow I can't wrap my brain around that one... But if you've tried it with success, let us know!)

Or, what I've settled on for most working days, is this: a solid 90-120 minutes of work (with a couple of stretch breaks in there, but all pretty close to the desk), followed by 30 to 40 minutes away. ... Which is long enough for a walk or some yoga! Hooray!

The point is, of course, to find out what ratio most rejuvenates you.

And you'll probably find that your ideal work-to-break ratio changes, based on what kind of project you're working on, how your health is doing, and what else is going on in your life.

So the most important thing is to definitely commit to a break strategy. And then, protect that time. Especially from yourself! From the impulse to run right over it.

When your timer or reminder alert dings, come to a stop in your work as quick as you can, and get up!

Believe that time away will actually make you better (clearer! more creative! quicker! more insightful!) when you come back.

Oh—and, for me at least, breaks are not the time to go through email, social media, answer phone calls, or other busy work.

NOPE.

That just clutters my brain and further drains me.

A really restorative break lets my creative mind keep brooding on the work, while the rest of me is chopping veggies, sketching, cloud gazing, or inching into a downward dog pose.

4. Protecting your writing time from those other people you know (including you!) is a vital skill. 

Oh, interruptions. What would we do without you?

When do we let other people in, and when do we strictly protect our writing time from spur-of-the-moment happenings?

I'll be the first to say: I'm not perfect at knowing the difference. 

Look: I live in a house full of the people I love most in the world. So, if someone wants to grab a coffee and talk, or dash out to do something interesting: it is super hard for me to say "no thanks."

Sometimes I stick with the writing.

Sometimes, frankly, I don't.

I've also taken extended breaks from writing (or at least downgraded it to Writing Lite!), because of family needs. 

And honestly, I'm okay with that. Family is one of my major values. I have incredible relationships with my family members, and that's just how I want it to stay.

So: I've made those choices (the occasional breakfast out together, or a few weeks away to help a sister), and I don't regret them.

(Okay, okay. I still kinda wish I had cloned myself, and had Lucy #2 scribbling away at the same time. Ah well. Maybe next millennium.)

Sometimes, the right thing to do, is to accept the interruption. Step away. Catch up with the person who is asking of your time.

At the very same time, it's important to know when you really do need to do your writing.

It's important not to skip it every single time. It's important that writing wins about half of those head-to-heads. 

And look, if this is hard for you, I get it. It can be really hard! Some of those lines are blurry. It's hard to make a decision that feels right.

What I can say to it is this: As best as you can, go with your gut.

If you know in your heart that you would really regret blowing off a writing session, then you need to stick with it.

But if you instinctively feel that this is an important opportunity to build a relationship that matters to you, or to take care of something that you need to do: Then go for it. 

If I'm feeling torn and really wanting to do both, it helps to give myself ten-to-fifteen minutes of writing first, before dashing away. Jotting down a list of writing stuff that's on my mind. Capturing a writing thought.

But then I go, and go freely.

After all, if you've decided that, at this moment, there's something more important than getting every inch of your writing done, then you definitely don't want to bog down that important thing with guilt! 

So yes: Now and then, it's good and right to let life break in to your writing practice.

BUT. 

If, on the other hand, the people around you are putting weird guilt moves on you, and you're feeling pressured to do crap you honestly don't want to do and don't NEED to do instead of write, then that's a whole different scenario.

And for those situations, I offer this genius quote from Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way.

It's a little long, but sit with it. It's totally important.

Cameron writes:

Often, creativity is blocked by our falling in with other people's plans for us. We want to set aside time for our creative work, but we feel we should do something else instead.

As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others.

We tend to think such behavior makes us good people. It doesn't. It makes us frustrated people.

DANG, right? Yes, that one zings me too. 

So when something shows up that would pull you from your writing, give yourself some time to really evaluate. Go with your gut. Make the choice that seems right, and then don't kick yourself for it later. 

And if it's something you really don't need to be doing, then honor your responsibility to your work and to your own self. 

Okay? 

Whew! Boundaries around time can get slippery in a hurry, right?

What's the trickiest thing to stick with for you? Starting on time, stopping on time? Taking good breaks? Dealing with interruptions?

And how are you thinking about repairing that boundary? What would you like to aim for, to bring it back into line?

(And just a reminder: I'm in the zone of relying on new systems, not strict goals. So play around with this, but without stressing. We're just cleaning up our good intentions.)

Maybe there's an affirmation you can use. Or maybe you can reconnect to your purpose.

Maybe there's something you can set up that reminds you of your amazing story (a sketch, a quote from your characters, a photograph that reminds you of your setting).

I'm so much more interested in enticing ourselves to our desks, you know? The way the scent of a warm apple pie entices everyone to the kitchen.

Okay? So let's not say "You must do such and such, or you don't really care."

Nope. Nah. Let's not.

Instead, what about using a wonderful, aromatic, delicious little invitation to get back to work? Some reminder that your story is where something good and juicy and incredible is happening??

Mmmm.

THAT'S the kind of Call To Work that I'm most interested in!

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.

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. | lucyflint.com

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!) | lucyflint.com

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

GOOD TO REMEMBER, right? 

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!

The Key to Discovering Your Ideal Outlining (or Not Outlining!) Style

It's really not about plotter versus pantser. It's about learning how your brain works best. Here's how I figured out mine. | lucyflint.com

When I started writing my first novel, I found out that I had to choose a side.

There was a heated debate about the best way to dive into this thing. It crops up on every writing site sooner or later. You've heard of this, right?

It's the Outliners versus the ones who say: Nope, not gonna. The Plotters who have it all settled in advance, versus the novelists who create by the seat of their pants--a.k.a., the Pantsers.

Do you figure it all out first and then sit down to write?

Or, do you go by your gut and your feelings every day, and kind of ooze your way toward your finished draft?

Well. I didn't need to think much about this decision.

Heck, if you've been reading for a while, you can probably guess which side I picked. 

After seventeen years of schooling, I knew that I'm the kind of girl who will make a 99-item list and then know that all is right with the world.

Who likes creating schedules to cover the next four years. Who counts list-making as a favorite activity. I plan for fun.

I mean, come on. Outlines all the way, right?

So for my first three novels, I outlined. These outlines were amazing. They were massive airship carriers of ideas. No storm could touch these babies. They were solid. They were impeccably structured.

I looked at those huge documents, and I knew I could write the novels they described. 

But I ran into trouble.

One novel was so fun that I poured all my story energy into the outline, and had nothing left over for the actual draft. No curiosity, no drive, no nothing. I never wrote that book.

The next two novels I worked on had fifty-page outlines for each draft. (And together, they've gone through seven drafts, so... now you know how I spent my twenties.)

I loved the certainty. I felt so prepared. It was just like school, like planning a semester around a few syllabuses. I was so organized. The books would be wonderful.

But passages that outlined well didn't translate to prose. One antagonist never really found his feet, even though everything in the outline said he'd be perfect for this role. Huge parts of these stories felt dull, crammed with everything that should be there, full of all the tidbits the structure books told me to put in.

All right. I can (finally) take a hint.

For my next book, I set off in the wild opposite direction.

I went pure pantser. 

I knew a few details about the main character, the general direction of the book, a few supporting characters, a radically new setting, and a kind of atmosphere that made my heart skip beats.

And that's it.

I dove in. Writing that draft was like taking a bunch of polaroid pictures, and waving them around to see what developed, and then assembling them into a quilt. I had no idea what the next day's work would hold. Which, let's face it, was pretty cool.

Honestly? I love that novel. I love it so much.

But it's a Swiss cheese of a story: there are some major holes that I just haven't been able to fill, problems that don't reconcile, gaps where every bridge I try just doesn't feel right.

Also, I was so anxious when I was writing it, that I literally had to crawl into bed every day and write from under the covers.

I checked in with another writer who was a total Non-Outliner. Is it supposed to feel like I'm drowning? Like I'm going blind? I asked her. YES! she said. It's so EXHILARATING.

But I didn't think I could survive another book like that.

And then I realized something. Writing a novel isn't at all like doing homework. It isn't like school. So my hyper-planning strategies from school days: wasn't gonna work.

At the same time, writing a novel isn't at all like summer break. Floating through it with some vague ideas of where I was going: also not going to work.

I found my best writing strategy when I remembered this: writing a novel is like going on a trip.

Right?

I mean: there's a beginning, a middle, an end, each with their own kind of energy, their own shape. You get yourself out there, and then you have to figure out how to get home.

There's always an "I'M PRETTY SURE WE'RE LOST" moment. High points, low points. Action balanced with reaction. Weariness and cheerfulness, excellent views and crummy alleyways. Heroes and villains. Unexpected characters. Conflict and plot twists. Maybe even a bit of danger, a bit of romance. All that.

Every novel holds its own world, and the narrative is the journey we take through it.

So I finally asked myself: How do I best like to travel?

Outlining seems like planning a trip in detail.

And the hyper massive outlines I created: That was like knowing the names of my taxi drivers in advance. Getting my hotel room number (heck, and a key!) before leaving home. Pinning down the date I'd wear each outfit. Looking at menus for restaurants and picking what I'd order.

Get the picture?

FYI: this is not how I travel.

But then the other extreme, my pantser novel: Well, that was like saying "I'd like to see this city around these dates, and hey, I'll bring these jeans." And that's it.

Also not how I travel.

When I go somewhere, I like to have a grip on what I consider the basics: general ideas of transportation. Definitely know which hotel(s) I'm staying at. And I'm a food lover, so if there's a restaurant I can't miss, I'll make sure I know the address. And then I'll get a general idea of what museums or parks or views I really have to catch. 

AND THAT'S IT. 

I like leaving room to be struck by impulse. To have a total change of plans without worrying about throwing everything off. To explore. To yes, get a bit lost.

To say: This looks good, that sounds great, hey there's a festival over there, maybe we should step inside that place--is that fudge?!

A chance to make up a lot of the trip on the spot. But not all of it.

It's not a hyper outline. And it's not just a vague intention.

It's somewhere in between.

When I wrote this trilogy during the second half of last year, I had a loose, super-gentle outline for each book. It was not hysterical. It was not highly structured. It didn't do what the outlining books said to do. 

But it also wasn't blank.

Every day when I sat down to draft, I knew one or two points I needed to hit that day, in order for the climax to happen, or in order for the tension to build. I had a general idea of who would be carrying the action and maybe what the setting would be. 

But that's it.

Enough of an outline to keep me breathing. I knew what my job was each day. But I also had plenty of room to wander, to be struck by new ideas, to take new tracks, to explore.

And guess what. It was the happiest, calmest, and best drafting experience I've ever had.

It was a near-perfect balance of structure and imagination in the moment. Freedom + safety net. With neither side outweighing the other.

So when people ask you to take a side, outlining or not outlining, just remember that it really doesn't have to be either/or, all or nothing. It's a spectrum. 

And as you prepare your next draft, don't think about homework, and don't think about summer breaks.

Instead, think about how you travel.

What rhythm feels right when you're on the road? How much structure or lack of structure helps you have the best trip?

What keeps you engaged in the experience of traveling, without making you too anxious about what you don't know?

Try giving that same amount of structure to your next writing project.

And see how that journey feels.

How to Keep Your Reading Life Fresh

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ EVERYTHING AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

... It didn't exactly work.

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

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

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

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

Here are my new guidelines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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