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!

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.

A Mini Makeover for Your Creative Process: 3 Tweaks to Lighten Your Load

Sometimes, when you need a fresh idea, it helps to borrow from another creative discipline. In this post, three process tweaks I'm borrowing from visual artists. And they're oh-so helpful, if you want a kinder, more flexible approach to your writing. ... Which you totally do, right? So come on over. | lucyflint.com

One of the places where I am always working to improve my writing life is in the area of process.

I'm convinced that a healthy writing process is central to a healthy writing life—I mean, it's everything, right?

So it's worth it to me to keep checking in with my attitude toward my creative process. And, for good measure, I want to keep streamlining the actual work of my writing process as well.

What I'm doing and how I'm feeling about it: let's just keep making that better. You with me?

Today I'm super excited, because my whole perspective on the writing/drafting process is getting a makeover, thanks to a handful of brilliant teachers. 

Who, by the way, have been teaching me how to paint and draw and doodle—not write.

I'm a big fan of learning from other disciplines—it's a great way to find those blind spots that develop when we're only listening to other writers about writerly struggles. I love a good commiseration session, but I also want more tools in my process-mending toolkit.

So, getting an inside look at the creative process from the perspective of some confident, capable, stunning visual artists, whom I totally admire? Yes please!

Because their view on process is awesome. And OH SO helpful, for anyone who is recovering from perfectionism, and who is trying to be kinder on herself when it comes to the stuff in her draft that she doesn't like.

Is that you too? Because that's totally me!

Here's the story: at the end of August I got a subscription to CreativeBug for my birthday.

(Which, if you're interested at all, I totally recommend. You get access to sooooo many good classes—I'm in heaven! And even if you don't want to spring for classes, check out CBTV, where they have a bunch of interviews with artists and makers under the "Meet Our Instructors" heading—super inspiring!)

So, I've been spending more and more of my downtime lately making art—surrounded by paintbrushes and watercolors and acrylics and sketchbooks and a smidge of collage-work because hey, why not.

I've been learning from amazing artists like Pam Garrison, Lisa Congdon, Heather Ross, Flora Bowley, and Yao Cheng, and as they're teaching me art, I'm also scribbling notes to myself to think about writing in a new way.

Because I wanna be aware of composition and quirkiness the way that Lisa Congdon is. I want to encounter the inevitable imperfections in my work in the same way that Pam Garrison and Yao Cheng do. And I want to approach drafts the same way Flora Bowley approaches layers of a painting.

Here's how I'm applying three art ideas to my writing process right this second.

1. Think in terms of the overall composition. 

One of the things I've caught myself doing in this draft is focusing too closely on certain story elements. Writing too dang much about something. (Who, me?? Haha!)

I've especially been doing this with characters. When I bring in a new secondary character, I want to make sure they're thoroughly imagined, with a rich backstory and a fantastic inner conflict and a clear sense of what they're fighting for. And then I want that information to find its way onto the page in glimmers and side notes, to give the story so much more depth, more for readers to discover.

It can sound like a good goal, but ... every single character? 

As I've been rereading my draft, I'm realizing that, when every character gets that level of attention, as a reader, I don't know who to pay the most attention to.

I don't know whose story it is, and I don't know how to keep track of everything. The plot starts stringing out, the main conflict starts to blur, and the most important characters get drowned out by a flood of other—interesting—characters. 

I felt a bit helpless at first. Because I worked on those fascinating characters, and I love reading books that are bursting with interesting people. But my story was bogging down—what to do?

And then I remembered the whole concept of composition in a piece of artwork. And how all my wonderful CreativeBug teachers say again and again: step back and get a sense of the piece as a whole. 

How do the colors and shapes play off of each other? Are there enough bright spots? Dark spots? Where does your eye go?

It doesn't have to be ruler-perfect symmetrical, not by a long shot. Quirkiness is welcome. Interest is your BFF. 

But also: is there a kind of balance? Is there a place for your eye to rest, patches where there isn't so much going on? Is there negative space?

Thinking of my story the same way I would a sketchbook spread or a canvas has been so helpful. 

Instead of thinking, "I have to cut that character," which feels very bloody and savage and awful, I can just remind myself that this patch of the story is getting too weighted, too busy. It's taking us too far away from the focal point. 

It might be super interesting, but it needs to lighten up if it's going to be in the same painting as that main image, that character and conflict that I really really don't want anyone to miss.

So instead of an across-the-board deletion, how about softening it a lot, reducing it to just a hint, a smidge of interest, a whisper of color? 

Somehow, thinking of it in those terms helps me understand just what to do.

2. Perfect can be boring.

In a piece of artwork, exact lines and exact color shades and precise edges are often not the most interesting things to look at.

Instead, we tend to be drawn to art that has depths. That has ambiguities, imperfect shapes, imperfect lines. That leaves room for interpretation, that has some places where the colors muddied a little, some unexpected juxtapositions.

The artists I'm learning from aren't so interested in a ton of tiny perfect brushstrokes making up one big perfect painting.

They're a lot more okay with a surprise blending of colors (what other people would call "mistakes"), or with unique brush marks that were unexpected (again, aka, "mistakes").

Instead of freaking out, they get really curious and excited at how the elements of the painting play against each other in interesting ways.

They value "quirky," "unexpected," and "curious" far more than I ever do. 

And as I keep paying attention to them, I feel my attitude toward my draft-in-progress changing.

I'm releasing my hold on "but every paragraph has to be polished to sheer gleaming perfection!"

And instead, I'm practicing these questions:

Is it interesting? Are there quirky and unexpected moments? Do I like those unexpected juxtapositions?

Am I leaving room for the reader to draw her own conclusions, instead of hammering out every single idea, every single emotion?

What makes me curious about how this chapter played out? How does the composition as a whole feel? Maybe the balance isn't scrupulously, laboratory-perfect, but is it interesting?

These questions have helped reorient me, helped me focus. They're so much more valuable than a strict dichotomy of good writing/bad writing, or perfect/flawed. They give me more to work from, and a better, truer sense of how my writing is doing.

3. And if you really don't like it, you're just not done yet.

Instead of writhing about the things that they don't like, my favorite art teachers oh-so calmly go in to fix it. They cover it with a different color, add collage over the top, or change the mark to make it look intentional.

These artists have a whole arsenal for responding to what they don't like in a piece, and transforming those things into something better—into unexpected moments in the painting. 

One of the best at this is Pam Garrison. She even says that she gets excited when a "mistake" happens, because it becomes an opportunity to do something different than what she was planning. It's a chance for the painting to surprise her, to make her do something new. 

What?! I was amazed at that attitude ... and also wanted it in an IV bag so I can drip it into my bloodstream on the regular.

I tend to get my gears all locked up when I see something that's gone wrong. I can get sweaty and miserable and work to fix it, to make it look like it never happened. Try to make it invisible. 

But instead, to see it as a jumping off point, to see it as an opportunity, to see it as a chance to have a special moment instead of an erased one—

Wouldn't that transform our entire drafting and revising process? Wouldn't that help us grow as writers, both in flexibility and in craft? 

How can we see the opportunity in our mistakes?

Practicing a painterly mindset.

So that's what I've been learning! It's been so beautiful to lean on this painting mindset as I work through this stage of my draft. It has definitely been making a difference.

When I'm faced with the start of a new chapter (and that whiff of "blank page" fear behind it), I say in my best painter voice: "I'll just get some marks on the page, and I can react to them later. Doesn't matter what I put down—let's just start." 

When I see how unbalanced a section has become, or how I've wandered off on a sub-sub-subplot tangent while dropping the main conflict entirely, I say, "Hm, interesting! But this part of the composition has gotten a little too forceful, so I'll just lighten it up a bit."

And when I find a lame dialogue exchange, instead of beating up my weak dialogue skills, I think, "Ooh! An opportunity to sit with this exchange and make it more powerful, more punchy, more unexpected. What new doors are opened up to me, because I started with this version of their exchange? What can I jump off from?" 

It has been so. freeing.

It makes the process of writing feel much more lively, interesting, and fluid. And it makes me feel a lot less crazy, less fenced in. 

... And all this isn't to say that all these painting teachers just waltz around, not caring about their final products. They still want to end up with a painting they like—so it isn't that they are thoughtless about what they create.

Instead, they are flexible. They keep moving through the layers of a painting. They don't stall out, getting stuck in a state of "I can't fix this / I don't like this / I don't know what to do." 

So I'm practicing the mindset that I'm seeing in them. I want to treat my drafts like my sketchbook—no perfectionist pressure. Just curiosity and a willingness to see things in a new way. To play with the words and ideas, like artists play with color and brush strokes. 

I'm practicing my way into a process that keeps inviting me back to the story, that keeps opening the doors to better and happier work.

It's all too easy for the last month of the year to find me whipping myself into a panic, trying to finish up goals, catch things up before the last days on the calendar run out. Ack!!

Not this year. That's not how I want to finish. 

Instead, I'm going to focus on these new lessons, and approach my work with delight, and let December play out however it may.

Wanna join me? Wherever December finds you in your writing, try bringing in a sweeter attitude to your process, a more flexible response to "mistakes," and a willingness to play.

It's the best sendoff we can give 2016.


I'll be back in two weeks for the last post of the year. (What?! Already??)

If you're looking for more to read in the meantime, please check out my essential holiday survival guides for writers! There's a Part One and Part Two, and both are super important. So if you're getting nervous about all the upcoming festivities and what they'll do to your writing schedule, I totally understand, and those posts are for you!

If you're looking for a handful of genius resources, here are two posts on some of my favorite books on writing and prioritizing. They've been so helpful to me!

And if you're still feeling inspiration-hungry, here are a few more thoughts to encourage you when you're feeling stuck, when the pace of the writing life is making you feel crazy, and when your fears are throwing a party in your head

See you soon! And meanwhile, happy writing, lionhearts! 

Dealing With Our Kryptonite: Recognizing and Overturning Writing Life Weaknesses

Four major writing life weaknesses that can sap our strength and torpedo our energy. Know 'em, and know what to do to overcome them! | lucyflint.com

So far in this Building Strength series, we've covered a lot of ground!

We talked about being clear on what we consider strength is (because different strengths matter to each of us!), and we've talked about ways to strengthen our creativity, our enthusiasm, and our overall writing sustainability.

And then, just to kick things up a few notches, we checked in with the book Deep Work, because it has great points that will make us stronger writers: like how to supercharge our ability to focus. And, at the same time, how to deepen and strengthen our ability to recharge.

WOW. So, you feeling those muscles yet?

Today I wanna switch gears a little and work on strength from a different angle.

Namely: What makes us weak? What weakens our writing lives? 

What saps our strength, drains our energy, muddies our abilities? What's our kryptonite?

I've rounded up the usual suspects in my own writing life. See if any of these behaviors have snuck into your writing life too:

Skipping breaks.

Let's start with this one, because I have our last post about recharging on the brain

I know that this won't apply to everyone, but for anyone pursuing full-time creativity, this can be a struggle. And I personally fall into this trap a lot.

Here's the deal: I cannot be purely creative and focused and hardworking for eight hours straight. Cannot be done.

... And I can type that, and nod very sincerely at my computer screen, and even mean it, and then go off and think that I am invincible and needeth not such breaks.

This is a problem.

My best true version of my work schedule looks like this: Two hours of intense, focused, deep work, followed by one hour of pure recharging. (Which usually means, getting some good food, moving around, doing a workout, or even taking a nap.)

Then two more hours of intense work, and, yep, another hour to recharge. (A snack, maybe time spent outside if the weather is nice, doing some art...)

Finally two hours of taking care of all the shallower work, the smaller things, and then my shutdown ritual. With that, I'm done for the day.

Sounds straightforward. Super health-focused (because I've learned the hard way that I've gotta be). 

This is what can happen, though: I'll start late. Maybe because I slept in after a late night. Or maybe I got caught in a morning discussion or media dive that got all my creativity fizzing but also made me late for work. 

So I plow into the day, and work straight through my breaks, because I think don't have the time to stop.

And at the end of the work day, I'm a zombie.

I mean it. You can't get any sense out of me. I'm stumbling around, bleary-eyed and brain dead. And, at that point, my next work day is automatically harder. I have less mental flexibility, and less focus, and less motivation.

It's a really bad cycle! Easy to fall into; hard to break out of.

Those recharging periods within my work day are absolutely essential to my creativity: I need to refresh my mind by getting back into my senses. I need to stare at clouds, eat some good food, take a walk. Besides, we're not supposed to sit for hours and hours! 

The biggest single help in fighting this has been to remind myself of two things: 

1) That rest is one of my new core values. I have to be rested to work well, to do what I love, and to enjoy life. It's just that true, that simple.

2) That play and rest are prerequisites to doing good work. Period. 

My reminder of choice is an index card near my computer. "Rest is a core value," it announces. "Don't neglect your breaks!" 

It reminds me that this is the kind of writer I want to be: One who is rested, one who isn't a zombie, and one who has a wealth of imaginative details in her pockets.

Breaks ensure a better writing day, and a better writing week. Even if they need to be much less than that luxurious hour, they have to happen, or I'm toast. 

How about you? Do you interject moments of rest within your creative work? Even if you're working in shorter spurts, do you still get a moment to pull back and recharge, before diving back in?


Overthinking.

Overthinking has been my lifelong nemesis.

And "lifelong" isn't an exaggeration: I have memories of being super young and paralyzed by decision-making overload, going back and forth between two possibilities. (There is an epic family story about my inability to choose between a hamburger and a cheeseburger. Yep, it's real.)

It is so easy for me to get stuck, to get pulled into this trap of cerebralizing and analyzing. Breaking down the problem from every single side, every possible angle.

Instead of diving into what I need to do, I sit there at the edge and worry, make lists, plan things, consider endlessly. 

Obviously, there are times for deep deliberation.

Equally obvious: Not EVERY time.

Usually, this overthinking is a fear tactic. A stalling technique that feels intellectually noble.

How do you tell the difference? For me, when overthinking smells like panic, it's fear-based. It's coming from that frightened part of me, and so it's a way to stall.

This is when perfectionism is singing over my head that if I screw this up, I'll never recover from it. 

When I truly need to think something through, it feels different.

It's much more calm—a reasonable analysis. It's when I ask myself, "should I do this project now, or can it reasonably wait?"

And I answer, "Well, if I go down the wrong path, I'll just make it right, I'll just turn around." 

Fear-based overthinking just keeps inflating the issue. It gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It says, But I might never have a chance for a cheeseburger again!!

There's a rigidity in it. It's insisting, just below its surface, that I must make the perfect choice, the irreproachable way forward.

Everything gets dramatic. The shadows get longer and darker, and suddenly you and your pros & cons list are in a battle of good versus evil.

Yeah. It gets ugly.

I am only just beginning to find my way out of overthinking. 

One thing that has helped enormously is the way that Julia Cameron describes overthinking in Walking in This World (her lovely sequel to The Artist's Way).

She compares working on an artistic project to the moment of firing an arrow at a target. 

She says that if we overthinking the project, we're essentially standing there, pulling back the arrow, and then just waiting. Analyzing, heart pounding, while our arm loses strength and the arrow begins to sag.

So when we finally fire it, it doesn't hit the center.

She sums it up by saying,

In short, you have mistaken beginning something with ending something. You have wanted a finality that is earned over time and not won ahead of time as a guarantee. You have denied the process of making art because you are so focused on the product: Will this be a bull's-eye?

Ouch, right? She's got me. Most of the time, I'm overthinking because I want a shiny guarantee: "Yes, go for it, because it will work out swimmingly and everyone will pat you on the head and say that you've done something amazing."

But we don't work with guarantees. We work with our hearts, we learn on the way, and yes, it gets messy. But that's what we've really signed up for, and if we're all in, it can be a wonderful way to work.

Cameron adds,

We have attached so much rigamarole to the notion of being an artist that we fail to ask the simplest and most obvious question: Do I want to make this? If the answer is yes, then begin. Fire the arrow.

I love that straightforwardness. Yes!

How about you? Where in your creative life do you get swamped in overthinking?

And where is something inside you saying, let's fire the arrow!


Treating myself harshly.

One of the most effective ways to undermine our own strength? Talking bad about ourselves. Diminishing what we do, calling our work crap, saying that we'll never finish or improve.

This can be hard, hard, hard to shake.

For me, this comes directly out of shame, fear, and doubt. 

I can still be nervous about the fact that I'm a writer, that I've yet to publish. It makes me feel childish when it seems like my peers have glorious, flashy, paid grown-up careers. (Nothing's ever quite as glorious as it can look from the outside, of course, but I never remember that when I'm struggling.) 

I can feel the sting under someone else's words when they say doubtfully, so, not published yet? And I'm ready to disparage myself so that they don't have to.

As I talked so much about it last month, y'all already know that I've been learning about shame resilience from my new best friend Brené Brown. (Okay, we're only friends in my head, but whatever. She's lovely.) 

So, I'm working on this. I am trying to remember to breathe through it, to remind myself that I am not my job and I am not what I produce and I am not my salary, thank God! 

So that's half of the battle.

The other half, is to sincerely tend to what I know I need.

I am starting to develop a habit that helps me break out of this inner harshness and, bonus! that overthinking cycle too.

Here's how it works. Let's say I'm trying to decide which direction to go with a project, and there seem to be three strong options.

And the Overthinking Monkey is saying don't screw this up, you've gotta look at all these different parts of the different options. And THEN what if this happens, and look, here are more reasons for each thing over here, and oh my gosh this is hard isn't it...

And the Shame Monkey is saying, this is why it's taking you so long, you can't figure anything out, and you don't know even a quarter of what you need to know, and meanwhile everyone thinks you can actually write, so you better not mess up...

SO HELPFUL those monkeys, aren't they?!

So I've started to catch when this cycle is happening. And here's what I've started to do. It's so simple but it helps so much:

I get up and move away from my desk. I go to the other side of the room and I lie down. I take a few huge deep breaths, and I close my eyes and I just hold still.

(This is great, because the monkeys freak out. "She's walking away?!? It's like she doesn't even care about us!")

I breathe for a little while, and then I tell myself in my kindest, and most calm voice: You know the thing that you need to do next. You have one option that seems like the right one for now. What's that option? 

And I give myself permission to 1) pick something, and 2) that it doesn't have to be the perfect choice. It's the choice that seems right, for now, and that's good enough for me, I tell myself.

In about ten minutes, I'll get up with a very clear calm-ish path in my head, and dive in. And I end up not regretting my choice, even if I have to revise it later.

Seriously, this has been huge.

So if you're nodding along with this, and you get what I mean about overthinking + harshness, here are my four steps again. I apply: 

1) Oxygen. For real. Because I start breathing too fast, or holding my breath when I'm anxious. Good decisions require oxygen! Try to relax, unclench, and breathe deep.

2) Space. I can't find my way out of a spiral if I'm staring at a bunch of lists or all my different options. I need to separate myself.

3) Clarity. I try to boil it down: I just have to take one step, and I just have to pick that step. It isn't rocket science or brain surgery. If they all seem equally good and even equally risky, then I really can't go wrong. I can simply choose.

4) Permission. I take the idea of a "right answer" off the table. I'm not looking for a perfect choice. (And yes, sometimes I have to say this out loud.) I'm just looking for a choice. A starting point. I'm allowed to change my mind later when I see things even more clearly. But at the same time, I'm not going to second guess myself just because

This little sequence has been a game changer! 

How about you? Where in your writing process are you most tempted to be hard on yourself? And what would it look like if you gave yourself a tiny dose of kindness instead?

And what would it look like if you gave yourself a really, really BIG dose of kindness?


Resistance.

For anyone who's read the excellently butt-kicking motivational books of Steven Pressfield (I'm thinking especially of The War of Art, Do the Work, and Turning Pro), Resistance is something you're already familiar with.

For the rest of you ... well, you're familiar with Resistance too. You just might not have called it that.

Here's how Pressfield introduces the concept in The War of Art:

There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.
     What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

He goes on, 

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
     Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? ... Are you a writer who doesn't write, a painter who doesn't paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

It's an internal, persistent, relentless force that keeps us from doing our work. That's it.

That slippery, negative feeling that we get before we do something that we honestly, in our heart-of-hearts want to do ... but in this moment, we seem to want to do ANYTHING else.

You get this, right? I mean . . . anyone who's tried to write for about two seconds understands this feeling.

There is so much good in Pressfield's books. He is super helpful when it comes to understanding Resistance and the whole creative process. Definitely ones to pick up, if you haven't yet!

I'm half tempted to type out the whole second half of his book right here in this post ... okay, actually the whole book.

But I won't because of plagiarism and rules and all that. You'll just have to read it for yourself. It's a quick, very helpful read—which is great because you can flip it over and reread it and get it deeper into your brain. 

But anyway, here is the Resistance-fighting technique I've been using lately, and, amazingly, it's been working.

It's deceptively simple. Ready? Here it is:

I'm working toward a bunch of goals right now. Seriously, so many. And though they're worthy, I can feel a ton of Resistance anytime I'm working on the next step toward a goal.

What's suddenly changed for me is that I've realized where that huge burden feeling is coming from. The real burden, the real problem, isn't the task itself.

So, the problem isn't actually the intense, complicated scene I need to write today.

The real problem is that Resistance tells me that I'm not up to working on something so complicated. It tries to convince me of this by flooding my mind with dread.

Resistance tries to convince me that the task is the problem. That the task is why I have dread.

When really, Resistance is why I have dread. The real problem is Resistance. 

So I wrote myself another note, and I stuck it to my computer monitor: 

It's not the task that is burdensome, but the Resistance to the task that is.
 

It's Resistance that's killing me.
Drop Resistance.

Yes, I know. That sounds simplistic.

But what's happened in my head since realizing this is amazing. 

By rereading that note, I can catch Resistance when it sneaks in. And I can remember that its chief trick is to make me think that something else is the problem—instead of the Resistance itself.

So, when it's time to write, and I sense that slow build of "Meh, I'd rather not" working its way through me, I'm alert to it. I snap out of it.

I say, AHA, look, it's Resistance! You, Resistance, are the thing that's even harder than the hard work. You're the thing that's worse than bad writing. You're worse than brain cramps and elusive sentences and revisions. 

So I'll get rid of you.

And I'll stop resisting the task.

... And that simple moment of reframing the situation WORKS. And it's lovely.

So, try it. Identify your real enemy.

It isn't the writing. It isn't the scene that will come out somewhat backwards (though with a few glowing phrases, a few spot-on descriptions!). It isn't the journey we take into the unknown every day.

It's the thing that would block us, with no truly good reasons, with no clear helpfulness. It's the thing that creates a mood, a doubt, a dread. It's fat angry Resistance squatting in the middle of our road.

Refuse to buy into it. Refuse to welcome it, listen to it, pick up the burdens it hands you. 

When you feel it rising, remember that it is the difficulty, not the thing that it's pointing to or hiding behind. Don't listen to it, and dive into your work.

And then see if that makes a difference.

Five Ways to Spark Energy and Excitement for Your Work-in-Progress!

Enthusiasm is our best best friend when it comes to staying the course with our writing. So how can we boost our enthusiasm? I've got five super fun ways right here. | lucyflint.com

Welcome back to the Strength Building Series! So far, we've talked about what strength even means (because the wrong definition is the first step to sabotaging it). And then we focused in on building strength of imagination (because imagination is central to everything we do!).

And today—I'm really excited. Which is appropriate. Because today we're talking about how to increase our enthusiasm for our work.

I know! I know! I'm gonna have to simmer down so much to even write this thing...

Ahem. Okay. Being sensible. 

So, first thing: why even bring up enthusiasm? Why is this a place where we need to build strength?

To find the answer, think back for a sec to our Self-Care Series, when we talked all things Julia Cameron.

And one of the more mind-blowing things that she pointed out was: when it comes to sustainable momentum in our work, enthusiasm trumps discipline.

Yeah. It's still incredible. 

And that shifted my focus from "How can I be more disciplined?" to "How can I be more enthusiastic?" Which is a pretty huge course correction.

Building enthusiasm. It's essential for the kind of work we want to do.

... And before anyone gets worried that I'm about to base all our hard work on a mere feeling, let's refresh on Julia Cameron's definition of enthusiasm. She says: 

Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us. ... 
     Enthusiasm is grounded in play, not work. ... It is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond.

Okay. If that was waaay more mushy-sounding than you really care for on a Thursday, let's look at it like this:

The way Cameron is using enthusiasm isn't about "how we feel right now." 

It's about 1) commitment, 2) openness, 3) creativity, 4) process, 5) play, 6) joy and 7) yes, okay, love.

Which is why, to build enthusiasm, we're going to dive into the work itself (commitment!). No matter where we're at in it (process!). 

We're going to mess around (creativity!) and try new things (openness!). And yes, it's going to be playful. It's going to be about enjoying what we're making. And even, dare I say it, loving it.

Sound good? Sound ... fun? 

Here are my five favorite ways to build playfulness and enthusiasm for my work-in-progress.

Check them out, stay open, and don't worry about "doing it right." Just dive in and give these a try.

1) Embrace the Souvenir Method.

... I was about to say "this is one of my favorite things to do with a piece I'm working on!" and then I realized I'd just be saying this about everything I'm talking about today.

So I figured I'd spare you the repetition...

AND YET IT'S TRUE!

The souvenir method is a gorgeous little way to keep your mind and heart centered in your story. Plus it's fun.

.... Annnnd it gives you a rush.

Okay. Here's what you do: 

First, get your mindset. 

This is super important to remember: You're going to be visiting your draft-in-process as if it's a place. As if you're an explorer. You're going to be looking for souvenirs: things to take out of context and bring to a new place.

In other words: You are not about to spiral into a critique-festival. You're not going to indulge in beating yourself up. You will not, even for a moment, whisper to yourself that your draft is "crap." Okay? 

This isn't about judging what's there. Not at all. This can be done with the messiest, crappiest drafts, I promise you. (Because I definitely have.)

Pick up your draft. You can start from any place. From the beginning if you like, or any chapter at all.

And read. Read slowly. Let yourself explore. 

Read like you're looking at something new. Switch off your editing brain, and just experience the story.

While you're doing that, keep your eyes open for any line, any sentence, any phrase, that seems to especially capture the feel of a particular moment of your story. 

Such as:

  • a passage that pinpoints a vital aspect of the setting
  • a line of dialogue that shows off your protagonist's snarkiness
  • an exchange or moment between two characters that hints at the truth of their relationship
  • a key moment in the rise of the conflict
  • any moment that sums up a character's personality 

Don't think perfection here. Think "candid snapshot."

You're looking for moments that get the feel of your story, even more than the accuracy. 

And—even more importantly—you're looking for bits and phrases and scraps that mean something to you. 

You're looking for the sentences that register in your writerly heart. The little "aha!" feeling when a phrase resonates especially. 

Another reader might look at what you've chosen and see a bunch of scraps of sentences, bits of paragraphs.

But when you read it through, you hopefully hear your protagonist's voice, or sense a moment between the two love interests, or feel the prickle of anxiety before a major plot point.

Go for resonance and atmosphere more than just "yes, this sums up the passage well."

Does that make sense?

Personally, I copy and paste what I've chosen into its own document. I play around with the formatting: I put little separators between each passage.

Sometimes I'll have three sentences from a section, and other times I'll just have lifted one little phrase. If one of the clips needs a brief note to remind me of context, I throw that in as well.

When I'm done, I have about a page or so of moments from my story that set my mind and heart ringing. Moments that, when I read them together, as a whole, re-immerse me into my story. 

Which is oh-so helpful for those times when I've been away from the work, and am trying to find my way back in. 

2) Create a Gallery of Nouns.

This is one that I've used recently. It's fun and seemingly simplistic... but it's been part of my post-summer re-entry to my novel, and has helped so much!

Here's what I did: While rereading my draft so far, I paused every few pages, and doodled one of the nouns that had been mentioned in the story. 

That's it.

So, as I read, I made little silly sketches of things like: the cat a character dreamed about, the spider my main character chased from her room, the row of herbs on her mom's windowsill. 

I gave each little drawing a label: "Olivia's splendid lemon cake," "a gorgeous straw hat for the beach," "the mailbox with one postcard inside." 

And then I went through and colored everything in.

I didn't care that the drawings didn't look perfect—they were meant to just be light-hearted, quick, and fun. And when I sat back, I had a kind of visual catalogue of my story so far.

Images that stood in for character moments, points of tension, or just part of the opening setting that my characters will miss later in the story, when they're far away.

What's valuable about this technique is how playful and simple it can be. But it slyly involves our ability to visualize our own story, and to translate it into another art form: a doodle, a sketch, a selection of colors.

And there's something pretty magical about being able to see bits of your story laid out on a page. 

3) Let Music Be the Food of Story.

If you've been a long-time reader, you've heard me mention this a time or three. But that's because it's my all-time favorite!!

And I'm especially smitten with it because this simple tool, more than anything else, saved my connection to my story over a long, difficult summer.

Because of some tough circumstances, I had to let weeks go by without drafting, yet I stayed open and connected to my novel idea. How?

With a playlist of music.

I've slowly built a playlist of songs that remind me of key moments in my trilogy. These aren't soundtracks, by the way. The playlist isn't focused on instrumental songs.

It's a compilation of pieces that somehow link me to a character as a whole, to a character's backstory, to a moment of the plot, to a key relationship, to a story transition... the possibilities are, of course, endless!

The lyrics don't have to be 100% applicable to my story moment. If a handful of key lines resonate, that's good enough for me.

It turns out that it's the atmosphere and the mood of the song that's absolutely pivotal.

It's hard to just talk about music, so here are three examples from my playlist: 

Example 1: Scarlett Johansson singing "Before My Time."

Yes, it's from a movie about ice. But on my playlist, it's linked to the moment we meet an old resistance leader. When she comes on stage for the first time, she's tired of hoping, and tired of trying for change. 

Some of the lyrics are spot-on for her character, but I especially love the weariness in ScarJo's voice and the lament of the violin. I can practically feel my character when I hear this. SO perfect.

Example 2: Lana Del Rey's wonderfully depressing "Once Upon a Dream."

It's a more chilling version of a familiar song from kidhood... which is why it's spot on for my playlist. In my mind, this song references a fairly evil character who creeps around within, yup, dreams. And he's just focused his attention on my protagonist.

He's tricked her once before into believing he could be helpful, so the lyrics in the song even hint a smidge at the character's backstory and their history together.

There's also a kind of fatal inevitability in the song that I love... It helps me remember how trapped my protagonist feels in this moment, and how high the stakes are for her. Oooh. So good. 

Example 3: Of Monsters and Men's live version of "King and Lionheart."

It's more simple and haunting than their original version, and it's one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. *high five*

It's also totally perfect for late in the trilogy, when my protagonist has been through a lot. She and her ragged friends are working alongside a king, and they're all gearing up for a climax that's sure to be very, very messy.

But the feel of this song and a fair amount of the lyrics are just exactly right. And honestly? I still get chills listening to this song, thinking of my main character. 

Whew! So. Those are some that have worked for me. 

The main thing to remember is that you're looking more for atmosphere and mood than for lyrics. A few spot-on lyrics are excellent, of course, but it's the feel of the song that seals it. 

So, see what you think. Basically, you'll know it when you hear it.

When it hits just right, I feel this incredible expansive rush, where I can see my characters in my mind, and—more importantly—feel what they are feeling, and hear what they are thinking.

I sense their weariness, or their uncertainty and fear, or their dogged hope. 

I can't say this enough: building a playlist is RIDICULOUSLY FUN.

It feels like procrastinating, but let me say it again: nothing saved my work this summer more than this. You can totally justify the time, in other words. ;)

Once you have a playlist—even if it's just a handful of songs—you have gold.

Play it in the car, listen to it while you cook, dance to it, take walks with it. And when you hear the songs, send your heart and your mind right into the center of your story.

You don't have to do any hard-core plotting (although I've definitely discovered plot this way). You don't have to jot down notes, or expand characterization (although, again, that has happened along the way for me).

You don't have to be "productive" with this tool at all. The biggest and best gift that it gives is a connection to the emotional and mental climate of your work.

It keeps it real and breathing and lively in your mind. 

And when that's true, allllllll good things can follow. 

4) Give It the Big Screen Treatment.

If the above strategies have been at all up your alley, don't stop there! This next idea can feel a little more tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it is pure fun and super helpful.

It also might keep you from sleeping, if you choose to do this right before bed. (So. Many. Times. I get all story-giddy and lie awake for hours. You've been warned.)

So: I love to dream up trailers for my book. As if it were a huge summer blockbuster.

I do this all in my head: I slowly fade in to some kind of panoramic story-view. Introduce characters in a moment, a glance, a funny line. 

And then I try to zoom in on the most tantalizing moments. The funniest lines, the jaw-dropping cliff-hangers, the moments of loss. You know. The way a good trailer does.

I cut from one moment to the next to the next in my mind. I imagine stirring epic music, or heart-stopping silence. Even a little slo mo, when it feels right.

... Basically I just have a blast. That's it in a nutshell.

And each time I do this, the resulting "trailer" looks different. 

What's glorious about this is how it, again, forces you to get visual about your story.

But also, it helps you focus on what movie trailers do best: excitement, intrigue, resonance. It helps you connect with the emotional points of your story. 

When I'm mired in too much thinking about structure and plot, and when my work starts to feel tedious, I retreat to this strategy. I pull up IMDb and watch a bunch of movie trailers.

And then, comfortable with the whole movie-trailer genre again, I close my eyes and dream up my own.

Seriously, my friends, when you start to get the hang of it, this can inspire enthusiasm like nothing else.

5) Believe In Where It Could Go.

Okay. This final enthusiasm-builder might sound more than a little goofy. BUT I've read this advice from several other writers (James Scott Bell and Heather Sellers for a start), and so I had to give it a try.

... And when I did, I couldn't stop smiling. 

Here it is: Make up endorsements for your work-in-progress, from authors you admire.

Yes really!

(IMMEDIATE DISCLAIMER: Don't, for the love of pete, publish them or pretend that they are real or everyone gets into trouble. Okay. Just had to say that. Common sense. Right. Okay.) 

Anyway: Write that kind of endorsement that would just thrill you. What you'd dream of them saying.

Write endorsements that emphasize those key parts of the story that they most loved. Everything that you're aspiring to in your work.

Type the endorsements onto a mock title page, and print it off. Hang it in your work area, or put it somewhere else where you can see it. 

Read them often. Smile.

... This isn't about getting our hopes up, or setting our hearts on something perhaps won't happen. Dream endorsements are a long shot, sure. 

But the strength of this tool is a lot like the strength in affirmations. When we state the direction we're heading in, it helps us change course. Saying out loud what we want can keep us on track.

Plus, if these "endorsements" make you smile... then why not? 

The main point is: they are a fun way to help you remember your goal. Your vision for the story.

The fact that, all this work, all these words, all these hours, are going into a craft you're making to give other people an experience.

Maybe you're trying to make them laugh. Or make 'em cry. (In a good way.)

Maybe you want to whisk them off to strange lands for strange adventures. Or maybe you're trying to open their eyes to what's in their backyard.

You want them to think. You want them to feel

Write little blurbs for yourself that point you in that direction: that help you remember you're inventing an experience. It's about a heart, about emotions.

This little endorsement-writing trick can seem so small, so silly.

But it can lift us above the daily grind, just when we need it most, and set our focus back on the big picture.


And there you have it! Five ways to strengthen your enthusiasm and stay playful with your work-in-progress.

All five of these have been absolutely key at different points in my writing life. They have cheered me, excited me, steadied me, and brought my stories back from near-death.

Pretty dang exciting, frankly. 

Which ones have you tried before? What will you try next?

Do you have any favorite ways to stoke writerly enthusiasm? Pass 'em along!! We all need plenty of good tools for this!

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.

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!

Four Quick Fixes for the Next Time You're Looking for a Fresh Idea

A few more tricks for the next time you need a fresh idea! | lucyflint.com

Well, Idea Campers, how are you all doing? Do you feel armed and ready to face anything your work-in-progress throws at you? Because we have covered sooooo many idea-finding strategies by now!

When you're on the lookout for a new idea—an appealing, useable concept with velocity—it helps to have a range of techniques, right?

We have a list of major interests and a list of curiosities, to spark excitement in our ideas. We have a list of topics for which we've already done allllllll the emotional research (so let's put it to good work!). We have idea scout files and title files, ready to add shape and heat to our projects.

When things get really tricky, we know how to go over the problem in laser-like detail, to know exactly what idea we're looking for. And finally, we have the all-purpose skeleton key of idea-making: my favorite strategy ever.

Whew! That's a lot of power tools!! 

But just in case you'd like a little more back-up... 

Here are a few other idea-making techniques. Because it's good to have a trick or four up your sleeve for those really tough days. 

1) Remember the value of bridging ideas.

One of the reasons why I like to do a lot of my idea work with pen and paper is so that I have a written record of my process.

Why is that important? 

Because along the brainstorming path, there are sometimes these weird idea cast-offs.

Bizarre, off-the-wall, "couldn't possibly work" kind of ideas.

The awesome thing about these crazy ideas is their ability to spark other ideas.

They bridge you forward to a new idea that you might not've had, if you thought "pffft, I'm not writing down that dumb idea."

Know what I mean? 

Roger Von Oech calls these "stepping stones." In A Whack on the Side of the Head, he writes: 

Stepping stones are simply provocative ideas that stimulate us to think about other ideas. Stepping stones may be impractical or improbable, but their value consists not in how practical they are, but in where they lead your thinking. 

Exciting, right? 

So after an idea session, save your notes for a little while. Go back over them in a calm moment. You might find cast-offs that belong in your idea scout files: tidbits that didn't work to solve this problem, but which might be pure gold another time!

2) Shake your imagination up with a crazy challenge.

I saw this approach in Twyla Tharp's outrageously helpful book, The Creative Habit. She says we should have "an aggressive quota for ideas." 

Such as?

Such as, come up with sixty ideas in two minutes.

No, seriously. That's what she said. 

This is the kind of challenge that blasts you over obstacles, over hurdles.

You lose your hang-ups. All ideas count: everything is written down in the rush to fill up the list!

Which means? You end up with some really cool ideas. (And even the unusable ones could be stepping stones to other ideas...)

So before you totally dismiss this (like I did the first time!), give it a try.

Set a timer. Number a piece of paper. And then let rip.

You might just shock yourself with what you come up with... especially just before the timer dings.

3) Turn random into spectacular.

This is based on an exercise that Donald Maass presents in his incredibly helpful guide, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. (This book is on my all-time absolute must-read list for novelists, so, if you haven't read it yet, you owe it to yourself to check it out!)

In the exercise, he's showing how to weave elements of a novel together (and it's fantastic for that!), but I think that you could do it with any kind of idea generation.

Here's how it works:

Whatever your main problem or question is, try to split it into three categories or three topics. Write them out (with a little space in between) across the top of a sheet of paper.

So, in his example, you're listing characters, settings, and plot layers.

To look for an idea that might happen within a scene, you might list characters allied with the protagonist, characters allied with the antagonist, and various motivations/goals. 

If you're creating a title, you might list key characters, important images from the book, and the main settings.

Make sense? 

Once you've figured out your three categories, try to list six things in each category, and write them under each of your headings. 

And the more in each list, the better. So if you can come up with ten or even twelve for each of the three categories, that's great.

And then? And then it gets really exciting: 

You take a pencil and start drawing random lines, connecting entries from the first list to the second to the third.

What are you after? You're looking for connections.

You're looking for three entries to combine in such a way that your mind grabs the idea and starts running. 

So give it a little time, and keep messing around with it. Draw lines every which way. Link names and concepts together, and watch for what happens in your mind. 

I love this strategy because it shows me how to pair story or scene elements in new ways. And then? The idea sparks fly!

4) Get a new environment.

If you keep looking for good ideas and keep not finding them, try changing up where and when you're doing your looking.

If you normally brainstorm at your desk, in the afternoon, try: outside, in the morning. Or in your car, at midnight. In a grocery store, at 4:30. 

Sometimes we just need to change up the mental chemistry, move to fresh air, switch it up a bit.

It is perilously easy to fall into a rut when I'm doing all the same things in the same ways.

Find a way to change your surroundings, and you just might find your way to a fresh crop of new ideas.


There you go! A few more ways to find the brilliance that's lurking all around and inside you.

At this point, you're essentially unstoppable. I mean, look at you!

But just in case you hit a really rough patch, I've got you covered. Stay tuned for the next post...

Don't Skip This Essential Step Before Finding A Swoon-Worthy Idea

Next time you need an idea to sweep in and save you, start with this vital (and incredibly helpful!) process. | lucyflint.com

So we're about midway through Idea Camp. Can you believe it?!

(Hey, June! Slow down!! Haha! ... Okay, but I'm serious. Slow down.)

We've covered a lot of awesome idea-generating tools so far: three topic lists that work incredibly well together (one and two and three), as well as a few idea scouting techniques (this one and this other one) that will absolutely get you some good results.

Whew!

Are your imaginations fizzing yet? 

Today we're going to take a look at idea-finding from the opposite end.

This is one of the most important things you can do when you're in desperate need of the right idea, the perfect solution.

Define the problem.

Does it sound mundane? Boring? Obvious?

Ah, but don't be fooled. Don't underestimate this incredibly important step—like I used to.

Because sometimes, just doing this process of analyzing the problem will give you the exact perfect idea to solve it.

Whoa, right? 

I can't tell you how many times I've hit a snag in my story, and then beat my brains up trying to figure out what to do next.

Maybe I've run into a problem with a character, a setting, or the conflict. I'll have backed my protagonist into a corner—and have zero ideas about what to do next.

It's great for story suspense, but pretty bad for my writing day.

So I used to make a lot of noise, growl at my computer screen, and rack my brains trying to come up with the idea I needed.

I spent a lot of time mentally spinning my tires, until I figured this out: That I needed a crystal clear definition of what problem I was trying to solve. 

Sometimes we can come up with a good idea on impulse. But for the more complex, more elusive solutions, it pays to back off and take the time to study the problem itself.

It's tough to remember to do! Usually I just want to plug away until I have the solution I need.

But in order to design the right fix, you have to know exactly what you're looking for.

And you need to diligently uncover all the hidden requirements of the particular idea that you're after.

We can't solve anything until we're clear on exactly what we're solving!

My favorite way to "define the problem" is with a lot of informal freewriting.

Basically, I interview myself about exactly what's gone wrong. I'm looking for the most precise description of my problem, of the story snag, or the hole I'm trying to fill.

And then I take plenty of notes on my answers.

Writing it all down is key, because all your discussion with yourself about the problem is full of good clues: pointers to your needed idea!

Just remember: You're getting the exact dimensions of your missing puzzle piece. That's the only way to recognize the best solution.

Obviously, the questions that you ask yourself will look different depending on the idea that you're after. But the first place to start is by asking: 

What exactly isn't working here? What is the problem really

And then, go into detail.

Like, a lot of detail.

You really can't have too much detail! If you're an overthinker like me, just do your thing. Let it all out.

So, for me, I need to define the problem most often because I've hit a major snarl in my plot.

Like recently: I needed to figure out what my protagonist was going to do during a critical part of the climactic sequence. I knew what happened just before this moment, and I knew what happened just after. 

But there was a big gap between the two, and I had nothing.

And after being frustrated for a while (stomping, staring, roaring), I remembered to start asking these questions. 

I opened a new document on my computer, and I wrote it down: "I don't know how to get my protagonist into this important building at the end of the story."

And then I imagined my computer saying (in a calm, thoughtful voice): "Tell me more about that."

This is when you start discussing every single component of the problem. 

So, for my problem, I wrote about who my protagonist was at this exact moment in the story.

What she had been learning, and what she was up against. How tired she was, and all the conflicts between herself and her allies. And also how she felt about the villains at the moment.

I also wrote down anything pertinent about her skills, her strengths, her flaws. What was her biggest fear? What was her chief objective, and what was the motive behind it? 

I reviewed all of this good stuff. (Brilliant ideas are lurking in these kinds of questions!)

Then I thought through my other characters, and what they were doing during this exact moment in the plot.

And then, too, the antagonist and all his friends: What were they up to? What were they worried about? How were they gathering for the climactic scenes? What did they still have up their sleeves?

I took a zillion notes, and then sat back and kept thinking.

What else was part of the problem?

Well, the building she needed to get into: it was extremely important to the story, and it had some special plot-related requirements of its own. 

So I wrote down everything that I could think of about that

And then I thought through everything else going on in the story's setting: the surrounding area, and the weather, and anything else that could be a part of it.

Another great question if you're looking at a plot problem: What story resources are still untapped?

What about these characters have I not used in a while? What haven't I exploited about the setting?

See how it goes?

The main thing is to drill wide, and drill deep. 

And don't stop until you feel like you have the most accurate representation of the hole you need to fill. 

Also, you can take some time to explain why other solutions don't work. 

This can be really clarifying. It's also a little cathartic, since you've probably had to abandon a handful of ideas for certain reasons. Get all that down, so that you know where you are:

I can't do this, because of that and that and that. I can't do this other thing, because of x and y and z.

Then ask:

What else will the solution have to take into consideration?

What other constraints are you operating with?

And (since sometimes you're filling a gap, and you know what's on the other side of it) what will this solution have to lead into?

Whew! 

After I've written everything down—and then some!—I'll usually take a break from this "Defining the Problem Q&A." 

I'll come back a few hours later, or the next day, and reread all the scribbling I've done and see if I've left anything out.

Once you've gotten every single possible element of your problem onto paper, you're set. Good job!

You have just become the expert on the idea that you're looking for. 

So where does that leave you? 

Actually in a really good place. 

When I did this process for that climactic story snag I had? The exact perfect solution dropped into my head, while I was writing down all the things that wouldn't work.

It feels like magic when that happens! Like "Congrats, you're a genius!!"

The right solution fell into place, and I love it. It feels unexpected in the story (I think!), and it ties up all the concerns I had about the moment itself.

But there's no way I would have been clear on that, if I hadn't gone through this process.

If the perfect idea doesn't show up, at least you know exactly what you are looking for. And that's a powerful place to be, when you need the perfect idea!

So how do you go about finding it?

That's what we'll talk about in the next post.

Ooooh. Story problems: brace yourselves!!

This Is Why You Can Embrace the Crappiest of Crappy First Drafts (Bad Drafts Aren't Just for Beginners!)

Writing terrible first drafts is all part of the process. Whether you're a beginner, or whether you've been around a while. It's actually a GOOD sign, and here's why. | lucyflint.com

Oh, it's going to be one of those good Mondays, you know?

I can just feel it.

How are you doing today, lionheart? Does it feel like spring?

I'm much cheerier and more sane than I was last week, because I have written thousands and thousands of words on my novel in progress. Whew. I just needed to stop planning and get scribbling, and that's made all the difference to my mood, and my mindset.

... In some ways.

In other ways—which you're familiar with too, if you've ever written anything down—I'm feeling a smidge bleak.

Because this draft is, like all other first drafts, QUITE a mess.

I'm thrilled to be moving forward on my draft. But I'm frustrated that the draft sounds weak, the voice is a little off, and some scenes are frankly a little dull. (Even though they get the story to the right place—yay, structure!)

In other words, it's a first draft, and it's behaving exactly like one.

I know that. You know that.

We all know first drafts are rough, messy, crappy drafts

... But it's easy to believe that at some point we'll emerge from the Forest of Crappy First Drafts, and break into a glorious place where our first drafts aren't bad at all. 

Where we write marvelously the first time around.

Which is why today's much-needed writing-life quote comes from Eric Maisel, in his (lovely! must read!) book, A Writer's Paris

"Everything changes the instant you accept that you are bound to do lots of inferior work. Then no particular piece of inferior work is much of a blow. You just burn it and get on with your masterpiece."

THERE WE GO.

"Everything changes the instant you accept that you are bound to do lots of inferior work. ... Get on with your masterpiece." -- Eric Maisel | lucyflint.com

It's extremely counter-productive to wait around for the day when our first drafts are pristine.

Writing improvement doesn't happen in a neat, straight, predictable line.

Have you seen this in your own work, your own first drafts: Moments of true writerly brilliance coexist right next to moments of true writerly befuddlement.

I can write a gem and, in the very next paragraph, write pure slop.

On the same day! In the same ten minutes! 

I go back and forth. Gems, slop, mediocrity, beauty, back to muddling, back to something solid, a bit more crap, and then oh, good, a lovely little twist at the end of the chapter.

And that's my drafting process.

What I love about Maisel's quote is that it helps us to think of this good draft/bad draft thing more like we're operating in a ratio, not like we're moving chronologically to a new stage of no mistakes.

Ratios! And last Thursday I mentioned percents! What, is this a math blog now?

But go with me on this.

What if there's a kind of proportion that exists: we must do x amount of really crappy work, in order to do x amount of really brilliant work.

It isn't that we graduate from doing the crappy work; it's just that the more crappy work we plow through, the more opportunities we have to write gems.

Does that make sense?

In other words, it doesn't do any good to cut ourselves off, or to stop writing, or even slow down, just because the crappy work shows up.

It has to be there. It's doing its job, holding up its side of the ratio. 

As Maisel says, we're bound to do lots of it!! 

And if we stop now, we don't get to the work in the other part of the ratio—the really brilliant stuff!

We don't magically arrive at a place where everything, from first draft to final, is impeccable. We just don't. 

With time and experience that ratio might change: we might not have to do quite so much inferior work to get the really good stuff. Maybe. 

But in the meantime, if we let our bad work stop us, we're believing the wrong thing about progress as a writer. It would mean we've bought into the idea that we can't write magnificently, even amidst the crap.

Don't believe it for a moment, my lionhearted friend!

When you see the crap show up in your work, keep right on moving! You are that much closer to writing the good stuff.

If you're feeling almost cheesily optimistic (which I am, because, hello, it's spring!!), you can almost take the crappy stuff as a good sign. 

You're on your way to the best stuff in the draft. It's like a promise.

You gotta keep going. 

Inferior work simply doesn't mean we're inferior writers. It is just what happens when we write.

Part of the process. Part of the ratio.

Right? Good.

Let's get on with our masterpieces.