Prepare Yourself for a Writing Life Shakeup! These Two Epic Resources Will Change How We Outline and How We Produce

Grab these two resources, and prepare yourself for a writing life shakeup! |

Welcome to AUGUST, my lovelies! This is my birth month, so I always see August as a time to take stock, get clear on priorities, and then start afresh in September.

There's a whiff of new beginnings in this humid, cicada-loud, late-summer air.

... Besides, we're just about to hit back-to-school season. Cheap notebooks, colored pencils, and all that school-supply smell in the stores? Makes me want to take on all kinds of new projects!

With eerily perfect timing, I came across two books in the last few weeks which have ... um ... 

Oh gosh, how do I say this...

Massively rebooted my approach to novel-writing and production. 

Nope. That doesn't quite say it. 

I feel like I've been electrified, y'all. I am all charged up, frothing at the mouth, pounding my boots on the floor, and shrieking battle cries.

Yeah. That's about right.

... You know how it feels when you've been struggling to understand something, bruising your brain against it for a long time, and maybe-kinda-sorta giving up a little bit.

And then the perfect resource—with the right tone, the right insight, the right blend of information and rah-rah-rah—drops into your lap?

It doesn't happen to me all that often, but when it does, it's like my entire work-life has been baptized in caffeine and I am roaring to go. 

That is exactly where I am at the start of this month. It's like my birthday came early, handed me flowers, and then kicked me in the bum and sent me hurtling into my next year.

It came in the form of two perfect-for-me resources. The first was Jim Heskett's The Juggling Author: How to Write Four Books a Year While Balancing Family, Friends, and a Full-Time Job.

(Go ahead and let the miracle of that subtitle sink in for a sec.)

And the second was Libbie Hawker's Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.

... And basically you can just stop here, go and read those two books, and have your own writing life revolution. I'll wait, no problem.

Because they're just SO GOOD.

The Juggling Author helped me see that publication and production is a skill set. It's a way of thinking, a way of operating.

And merely getting better at the craft of writing, while essential, is not at all the same thing as getting better at the craft of production.

This is really, really good news! Because I've been secretly frustrated with myself that production isn't just kinda happening all on its own.

(That feels oh-so dumb to type out, but I know that some of you know what I mean!) 

There is so much to learn about writing novels and writing them well. And then there are all the mindset skills to learn so that you can keep on writing: how to deal with self-doubt, creative droughts, perfectionism, comparison, and creative stamina.

I've been focusing 99.9% of my time and energy and effort on dealing with all of that, and I feel like I've somehow trapped myself in a draft-after-draft neverland.

So I've spent that last 0.1% of time kicking myself for not also learning how to produce novels: how to complete them and polish them and send them out the door, again and again and again.

It's a different skill set! It isn't just going to magically happen, and it isn't going to feel like the obvious and inevitable outcome of novel-writing. 

It has to be learned.

And wow, that comforts me so much. Because we can learn anything, you know? And I am definitely on board for learning and practicing Jim Heskett's approach to continuous novel production.

Or as he puts it, becoming a perpetual motion fiction machine.

(I had to keep taking breaks from reading his book, just so I could jump up and down, and run around saying "!!!!!!" to my family. It just sounds so doable.)

And then, with my head still spinning and hope still dancing, I picked up Libbie Hawker's book on outlining (because Heskett recommended it super highly). 

I've learned a lot of good info about novel structure in the last few years, and I've also had a kind of meh relationship with outlining. So (she typed sheepishly) I didn't think that Hawker would teach me much. And I also didn't hold out much hope for a new outlining process, but hey, whatever, I'd give it a try.


Oh guys. If you haven't read Take Off Your Pants, you need to, stat. She has a way of figuring out a character's path through the story that was just magic for me. 

See, I've spent my summer getting a grip on my middle-grade trilogy, while also overviewing the other writing projects I've dreamed up. Trying to get a sense for all these projects and where I should focus next.

And then Hawker's book strolled up and showed me how to get fresh traction on every single story that's been humming in my head. How to clarify the narratives, build the conflict, and infuse each story with a sense of purpose.

... If you've ever outlined your novel, drafted it, and then felt like it still didn't work somehow (which is exactly how I spent 2016, by the way), then this book might be the EXACT ANSWER you're looking for. 

AND, if you've ever been frustrated about how to make your character's internal growth pair well with her external conflict, and you've been pulling out your hair over it, then this book is your (and your hair's) ideal solution.

I promise. SO GOOD. Gaaa! Okay, just go read it.

So now my mind is full of two huge gorgeous lessons:

1) How to outline beautifully and effectively, in a way that I can be certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will actually create a compelling story. 

(Woo! I get all swoony just thinking that. *fans self* Ahem.)

2) Production is a skill, and one that I've paid zero actual attention to. But it's one I can absolutely learn, and I have a stellar guide to help me.

Taken together, these two resources point me toward one massive conclusion:

I am going to concentrate everything I have on rebuilding, reoutlining, rewriting, and then producing and publishing my middle-grade trilogy.

As my cousin once said, I'm not just going to put my nose to the grindstone— 

I'm gonna put my everything to the grindstone.

Which means I'm about to become deeply obsessed with all things to do with the writing-and-producing process

I'm going into lab mode. I feel like my office is turning into a workshop, an operating theater, a blacksmith's forge. 

A place to test methods, try new things, move swiftly, learn on my feet, and—more than anything else—produce quality fiction.

In order to add as much fuel to that fire as I possibly can, I'm making a big change here on the blog: 

I want to shift the focus of my posts away from the big lessons that I'm learning about the writing life; and instead, I want to zoom in, ultra-close, to the writing process itself.

To go from the truth about the writing life to the truth about the actual writing. 

I'm gonna keep a production diary, y'all!

I don't know about you, but I am a total process nerd, and I LOVE seeing how other people think and work. I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and I find it enormously comforting to read about someone else's creative process.

Especially the trial-and-error side of solving creative problems. The mess of it. 

Sometimes I'm inspired by their solutions. Sometimes I just find courage in knowing that I'm not the only one in way over her head!

And sometimes, just being around the description of someone else's work is enough to kickstart my own momentum and get me back to my desk.

So this is my offering to other process nerds: a totally authentic look at the unpolished, gritty side of drafting.

I want to talk through what's working, how it's working, and what isn't working. To share resources right as I'm discovering them, and then to show what I'm learning about this whole production side of things as I learn it.

Making messes and writing about them: that's where I'm headed.

Be prepared for lots of sawdust on the floor, weird spills and stains and smells, burnt and pinched fingers, bruises and battle stories. :) And high-fiving. Hopefully lots of high-fiving.

If you're not a process nerd: hey, no worries. I'm opening the production diary under a separate tab, so I won't clutter up this blog feed with all my drafting updates. (And if you wanna check out the production diary, just check out that new tab at the top of the site.)

So, in a nutshell: this means that as of today, I'm going to stop posting how to have a lionhearted writing life-esque posts on a regular schedule. 

Instead, I'll frequently update that production diary—at least once a week, if not more often. Oh, and the posts will usually be short, instead of the monster-long articles that live over on this blog. ;)

When possible, I hope to come back to this space and share what I'm learning in the more coherent(ish) way that I usually do here—more of the big picture, heart/mind/courage discussions. 

But until then, if you'd like any cheerleading, inspiration, or motivation, do check out the Archives: I've basically posted everything I know about the writing life so far, so believe me, you've already got access to my best!

... OH I'm excited about this, my friends! And I do hope that my fellow process nerds will find it encouraging.

Because it can get lonely at the desk, am I right? So here's to a much less refined, less polished, more immediate look at how I'm approaching things.

Here's to all of us making messes, learning from one another, and then making new messes! Here's to learning the skills of production, and moving on to the next stage of our writing lives.

Here's to becoming perpetual motion fiction machines, lionhearted all the way.

(Psst. Hey. You. Yes, you, the one who's been on the edge of starting something new, because it's been tugging hard at your heart, but you're not sure about beginning or not... 

Consider this an invitation to dive in. Let's join hands, my brave friend, and jump.)

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. |

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!

This Is Gonna Ruffle Some Feathers, But: Discipline Doesn't Belong At The Center Of My Writing Life Anymore

There's something stronger, wiser, more powerful, and more reliable than discipline. I know, I know--it's a switch for me, too. But it definitely works. |

Here is the truth of where I'm at.

It's a painfully familiar scene. I'm looking down at the white sheet that's draped over my work-that-used-to-be-in-progress. It's lying on a metal table with a tag around its toe, and I'm trying to nerve myself to make the decision. 

Do I resurrect this thing? Or stick it in a drawer and walk away? Or just get on with the autopsy? 

After a draining summer, I don't have much creative energy. My mind hasn't been in my work—which is the whole reason why I'm even at this table. So my general exhaustion wants to vote hard for the walk away.

But my heart and my gut are agreed: I love this story to death and back, and so resurrection it is. 

And here's where things get tricky. Here's where my fledgling Artist's Way instincts face a big challenge.

Because, like I said, this is painfully familiar: I've done this before. I've zapped projects to life again. I've brought them back from the grave. And I have a method for this kind of tricky operation. 

It's a three-step process. 

1) Send my brain into overdrive. Think incredibly hard. 

2) Make an enormous list that covers every single aspect of bringing the project back to life and from there, to completion. Reread it and add even more list items. Leave no cracks.

3) Proceed to work through the list.

I have a very deep love of this method.

It's so sleek and shiny and disciplined. It's like a perfect ladder back into the heart of my work: I look at each item like it's a rung on that ladder. If I put my feet on each one, I'll get to the top!


It's proofed against all whims, all moods.

Come rain, come shine, come high water, hell, or handbaskets: this list marches on.

... That's what I think. That is the grand seduction of the perfect list.

And then, when I'm at the third item on the 200-item list (or maybe, if I'm really cruising, when I'm at the seventh one), something comes along and unsettles me.

Intuition floats over to my desk and says in its low lovely voice, "Actually, there's a better way."

"Ack!" I cry. I bat it away.

I have to stick to this course, right? If I take my eyes off the list, then all my moods and whims will come along and sweep me into a Neverland of Netflix and ice cream and sweat pants. The book will suffocate! I'll disappear into mindless oblivion!

I stick to my task list. I grind through the next item or two.

But intuition is persistent. She tugs at me and whispers at me, and when I finally listen, I do so by overhauling my list and creating a new one, now going in a slightly different direction.

All while railing at myself for being so wishy-washy, so unfocused, so undisciplined.

We repeat this extremely awkward and uncomfortable and grumpy dance step a few times, jerking and stumbling toward the next draft of the now resurrected (if slightly confused) work-in-progress.

And that, my friends, has been my usual process.

That's what I know to do. That's what has somehow gotten my fingers moving over the keyboard again.

But—shockingly—that's not the course that Julia Cameron recommends.

And if The Artist's Way has been right about so many other things... I've gotta believe that she's right about this, too. 

Which means that this resurrection sequence is going to have to go a little differently. (Eeep!)

The Force that Trumps Discipline

It's funny, looking back on it, to realize that I trusted in my lists so hard.

Even though I've never made it through one, even though I've never even made it to the halfway mark—there's still this drive in me to make them. 

The course that Cameron advocates is, surprise surprise, something much more kind, squishy, and weirdly enough, more reliable.

I believe in it. I'm just super new at practicing it. So it still feels a little shaky under my feet.

Here's how she says it: 

As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. ... The part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton, functioning from willpower. ... Our artist is actually our child within, our inner playmate. As with all playmates, it is joy, not duty, that makes for a lasting bond. 


She goes on in this essay to recommend the following as replacements for discipline: enthusiasm, "a loving surrender to our creative process," play, joy, "love of secret adventure," a play date, goofing around, play, fun, play, fun, play, and joy. 

Yes. I repeated the words a bunch. But I need to get that mindset into my head. (Plus, she says play and fun a lot in her essay. I'm learning from the best.)

When you're as much of a strict (if hapless) devotee of discipline as I am, this is downright alarming.

Never mind that my experience lines up with what she's saying.

Never mind that I've loved my work most and come to it most happily when it felt like playing.

Pfft. Play? Enthusiasm?! It's not dependable, right?

Nothing is dependable except a bunch of numbers with a bunch of concrete tasks next to them. With action verbs in front. (I'm so good at those action verbs.)

... For the record, she is not saying, "only come to your work when you feel like it." Not at all. She's very clear throughout the book that we make time to work regularly. 

I think that what she's saying here, more than anything, is that it's not our schedule or our sense of what should happen that brings us to our desk.

It's our well-stoked love and sense of play and excitement about the work. That is what magnetizes us to the creative process.

So, if anything, the thing that we should be "disciplined" about is putting ourselves into the flow of that play. That joy. That sense of fun.

We make that our focus. And then we pay attention to see what would be fun and joyful to do next.

So what am I doing about that project of mine on the metal table?

Yeah. I did it anyway. I made a list. 

But it's a really really short list.

Of half a dozen things that would entice my heart back into the work. Of things that feel like playing and might even be, dare I say it, FUN to do. 

Each entry on this teeny little list sends my discipline-devoted brain into shudders. 

Because—real talk, y'all—I DREW HEARTS ON MY LIST.

I wrote the word love on it in big loopy letters. I used other words like doodle, bloom, dream.

And I'm even audaciously balancing these list items with time that I've blocked off for "refilling the well."

I'm buying new markers for my coloring book. (I love this one, if you want a recommendation.) I'm choosing some parks in my area for nature walks. I'm looking for recipes that call for a lot of "mindless" chopping.

Not gonna lie: This is challenging, my friends. It feels so weird to prioritize joy in my process. 

But I can also see the logic of it, the truth of it.

When I'm in love with my book, I dream it up almost without effort. I can drop right into flow when I'm drafting.

I see it on the backs of my eyelids when I'm supposed to sleep. I come up with new paragraphs of dialogue in the shower. 

When I love my work, I see it everywhere. And it absolutely lights me up.

So why should I suppose that a cold, heartless list of businesslike action verbs will bring me back into that state? 

My short little resurrection list is built for joy. For resuscitating not the project but my heart's connection to the project. 

And in spite of my nerves, I'm incredibly excited. Kind of giddy, really. Because it sounds really fun!

And actually...

Actually I'm going to just go dive into that. Because I can hear my book calling me. Gotta go.

How about you, my lionhearted friend? What does it look like, to stoke your own sense of joy and enthusiasm and play?

What if that lovely trio is what beckons you back to a regular writing practice? What if we send discipline to the sidelines, and instead trust that joy will be a better, more reliable motivator?

I know. It's scary. But it also might be the game changer you were looking for. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why couldn't I make these novels work?

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

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

YOU GUYS. This is the editing jackpot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He makes it manageable. Doable.

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

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

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

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

-- Shawn Coyne


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

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

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

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

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

Will it be a lot of work? Yes.

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

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

(Eating it is optional.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercises. Pffft.

What changed all that? Three things. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I became a whole different kind of writer.

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

Here's what I found out. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the crappy work existed right alongside the brilliant gems.

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

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

And I just got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

I stopped feeling so dang TIMID.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You GUYS. It was so much fun.

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

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

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

I got hooked on it.

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

Again, and again, and again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Tell Yourself When You're Ready to Quit

When it feels like it's been a long haul, or when you're tired of uncertainties, here's a post to refresh and reorient your writerly soul. |

Just in case your Monday decides to get all ugly and act like a Monday, I'd like to share a quote with you. Good?

This is the one that jumps to mind when I think about both travel and writing (and, also, discouragement):

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. -- André Gide

I've always found that quote to be very, ahem, moving. (Whoops. A pun. Sorry.)

But seriously. There's a super-important reality check embedded in there, a kind of question: Lucy, did you really expect that you could have both a thrilling New Land and the certainty of your Old Shore? 

Why yes! is my answer. Yes I did! Certainty AND newness! How much would I love both?

But the equation doesn't work that way. Not with traveling. Not with writing. 

Instead, it goes something like this:

For starters, we want to discover new lands.

Let's figure out what we are aiming for. The point of this, the hope, the main idea: New Lands!!

This is where we get excited. Dream big. 

I have a few New Lands that I'm aiming for. The first is this:

A novel draft that is stuffed full of all my best ideas, all my unexpected insights, and whatever else I can manage. FULL OF GOODIES.

Something that, when I reread it, startles and surprises me. THAT draft. That book.

Not tired ideas. Not over-thought concepts. Not dull description and crummy dialogue and faint little characters. Nope.

I want this book to feel like a new land. Like something discovered.

What New Lands are you aiming for?

Maybe the exhilarating glory of coming across a truly new idea. Or the undreamed-of horizon of the last page of your work-in-progress. Or even: earning money from your work. (Oooh. I'm on board for ALL that.)

And then we consent to lose sight of the shore.

Rubber, meet Road. (Or, to be true to the metaphor, I guess we should say: Ocean, meet Ship.)

This is the kicker. The "you can't eat your cake and have it too" part. Ya can't do both.

You have to agree to let go of your certainties. Let go of what's stable. Lose sight of that old shore.

What is that for you? Ideas about what the writing life should look like? Should--but doesn't? 

It's easy to build up a lot of beautiful, romantic ideas about the writing life. And then you find out that it's actually a lot of feeling stumped, losing your notes, becoming absent-minded, and being misunderstood at parties. 

Not quite the Hemingway-and-Fitzgerald-sharing-drinks-in-Paris we imagined. (Or was that just me?)

Or maybe the old shore is: the certainties and stabilities of a different vocation.

Before I dove into the writing life, I was all set to become an editorial assistant. I'd completed two editing internships, I had plenty of determination, and I had just started an extra class just to perfect my proofreading skills.

I'd been working toward the goal of becoming an editor for six years. Since the middle of high school. 

It was a Real Job. I would have a Boss. I was pretty great at editing, frankly, and excited to learn more about it. Oh, and there would be a SALARY. All the legit, good, stable grown-up stuff. 

But when I suddenly, definitely, irrevocably fell out of love with the idea of working on someone else's novels, someone else's work, instead of my own--

When that happened, I was ready to lose sight of the shore. I was ready to let go of all the certainties.

So I let go of the ready answer when anyone asks "so what do you do?" The clearly defined role in a company. A boss who would tell me what was expected of me. Co-workers who would slog alongside me. A salary. (*weep, weep*) The apartment I imagined renting. 

I still have times where that old shore pulls at me. (Like, last week.) Days when I shout "Enough! I am SO SEASICK! Let's turn this ship around!" 

The thing that keeps me going during those hard days? Realizing, deep down, that I am more in love with the new land I'm seeking than I am with that old shore. 


The thought of this trilogy being written with the absolute best I have in me: that steadies my heart and steels my mind. That gives me the courage to keep wobbling around on this ship a while longer. However long it takes.

Which brings us to the next point.

And then we find out that: it takes a very long time.

Um. Right. That.

The truth is: We don't know how long this is going to take.

Timetables? That's Old Shore stuff. We don't know when and how things are gonna happen out here in the ocean. You can't predict when a new land is going to pop up in your spyglass.

This is the part that tests, and tests, and tests our resolve.

It's one thing to lose sight of certainty for a short period of time. Anyone can muster that up, right? 

But to stay uncertain for years. That takes some chutzpah. You've gotta be BOLD.

Because reaching that new land might take longer than you or I ever thought it would. 

I'm only just now starting to feel proud of what I'm writing. Only in the last year have I been working on a project that feels like I could put my name on it, that feels right. And it still has a lot of work left!

Mathwise, I've been at this full-time for nine years.

It's starting to feel like a long time.

But here's what I'm learning about the time it takes:

Every time I come to the end of my patience, every time I'm threatening to turn the ship around and go back, I force myself to rethink why I'm doing any of this.

Like I said before: I refocus on the new land, on what I'm hoping for.

And what has happened, as I've done that over, and over, and over again, is this:

I've built a new certainty.

Out here, in the middle of the ocean, the Old Shore feels more like a myth, a thing I once knew but now--not so much. So there really is no going back.

The New Land that I'm looking for, the land of the trilogy being well-written, or the land of publishing this book and going on to the next--well, it feels a bit mythical as well. I'm hoping to make it, but it's a hazy image.

The thing that is sure, though, is me. Me on this boat in the ocean.

I am certain, certain, certain that no matter what, this is what I want to be doing.

In spite of storms and waves, in spite of my legs wobbling sometimes. In spite of frustration. In spite of the miles of writing I still need to do to get this trilogy right.

In spite of all that, I'm certain of this: I love the writing life. I just plain do.

And I'm sure that I want it to last the rest of my life. I'm willing to put in a very long time at this.

So the thing about this quote: It redirects my heart. (Are we allowed to talk about our hearts without feeling silly? Yes? Okay.) 

It reorients me. It's easy to say, Oh, I miss the thing that I have lost. Oh, I would have felt so certain and sure. It's easy, in the moment, to think that all this work, and waiting, and uncertainty, isn't worth it.

But every time I read this quote, my fingers tingle at the words discover new lands. And I can't help myself. I think, YES. I think, I'M IN. Whatever it takes.

So I consent. I'll lose sight of those old shores. I'll last a very long time.

I really think it will be worth it. 

So where are you, in your writing life?

What are the old shores that are still pulling at you? What new lands are you aiming for? And how do you reorient yourself, when it starts to feel like it's been too dang long?

Here's one more thing. A super-short video, presenting another quote that's been such an encouragement to me. Hope it adds a serious dose of awesome to your Monday.

Now let's go get that week.

My Super Grown-up Anti-Fear Technique

Sometimes when fear shouts, we shout back. Sometimes when it throws things, we . . . duck. |

Sometimes I fight fear by being louder than it is. By snarling back. By singing fight songs and shouting rah-rah-rah and doing a few high kicks. Sometimes that's what works.

But sometimes, when fear throws itself at me, I duck.

A few years ago, I was ready to walk away from writing. I'd tried, I'd failed (or so I thought). I wouldn't miss writing, and writing wouldn't miss me.

And in the midst of my certainty that I was done-done-done... I got this beautiful novel idea.

A middle-grade fantasy meets magical realism meets historical meets I'm still not very sure what.

I fell completely in love with this story. 

But for some reason, every time I worked on the draft, I panicked.

I got all skittish. Twitchy. I found myself backing away from the desk. 

Something about this project ignites all kinds of fear for me. And I'm still not 100% sure why. 

Maybe because it's full of the things I care most about: moments of beautiful truth, light versus dark, what it means to be a family, and finally a bunch of outcasts fighting for the sake of a city (which seems to be what I write about, time and time again). 

It's quirky, funny, very dark, very bright. It haunts me.

I was terrified to write it.

After a few weeks of "writing"--which was really me wandering around and doing anything but write--I figured out what to do.

I didn't get serious about making progress no matter how I felt. I didn't post motivational quotes all over my work space. I didn't make a big show of cheering myself on.

I went to bed.

I glanced over at my desk, over at fear, and I said, "oh, don't mind me." I dragged my papers over to my bed, arranging all my reference material. Off-handedly. Casually.

This isn't a big deal, I told myself. Probably I'm just going to nap. 

But I didn't. I snuggled under those covers, I turned my bed into a writing cave, and I wrote that story. 

I coaxed myself forward, one page at a time, one paragraph at a time. "I will just write this next sentence," I'd say. "And isn't it nice and cozy in here?"

Fear was still nosing around at my computer, so I just stayed in bed. I stayed in the place where I felt like I was whispering my story, like I was telling secrets. I ate cookies. I said, "We'll just see what comes next."

And that's how I got the draft done.

Ducking fear every step of the way.

I know that I tend to take the opposite route. After all, fear bullies us around plenty. I like bullying back, when I can.

But some manuscripts are too fragile for shouting.

When things are hard--when they are really hard, when it's storming inside--here's what you do. 

Be ridiculously nice to yourself. Do outrageously kind things for you and your writing life. 

Do whatever it is that makes a safe zone around you. Tell yourself whatever it is that you need to keep you safe. 

What would that look like for you? Light some candles. Crawl under your coziest blankets. Buy yourself a few armloads of fresh flowers and put them all over your office.

Maybe you surround yourself with photographs of everyone who believes in you. Or maybe you eat all the chocolate, or maybe all the cheese. (And then have some carrots with dinner, okay, because health and stuff.)

Create a safe place. Tell yourself it's okay. And believe it, when you say it.

And from that safe place, with the blankets around you and the candles lit and the good music on:

From that place, you write. 

Beating the writer's paradox.

Beating the writer's paradox.

This is one of those quotes that's both comforting and infuriating.

Comforting, because it totally tallies with my own experience. And I tend to assume that I'm crazy, or doing things wrong, and this was a big vote for You're-normal-like-other-writers-are-normal

But infuriating too. Because it keeps coming true, and I don't want it to come true. 

Frankly, I'd like to have a big splashy full life (think long dinner table outside surrounded by family and friends and huuuuge platters of food, Italian style), and a big splashy full writing career (a lot of published novels on the shelf, a lot).

I'm the kid at the candy counter saying, "I want two of each!! With extra chocolate!!"

I read writing memoirs and interviews with writers, trying to figure out how they do it, if they do it. 

Read More

The secret.

I caught my foot in another cycle of overthinking this afternoon. Overanalyzing, hyperscheduling, visualizing the worst, overplanning. 

I find myself in these cycles a lot.

So, into that bit of madness, this breath of simplicity:

Sometimes, the whole secret to writing is just this: sitting down. |

Because sometimes, that really is all I need to know. 

Sometimes that's the only rule I need to keep.

And sometimes, I need to remember that it can be that simple.

You write by sitting down and writing. -- Bernard Malamud