I am not a sprinter by nature. I believe in the power of making slow, steady progress on your work. Over time, small steps taken regularly can amass big results. Too often we wait for big chunks of time that never come, or worse, wait for inspiration to strike before we write a word.
Now I want to turn the conversation around. In one of those “the universe is calling you into a conversation you didn’t know you were having” moments, another writer I follow, Todd Henry, sent his weekly email enumerating all the reasons why slow and steady doesn’t win the race. He talks about two things in this regard: the need for deliberate practice, and the need for the occasional sprint.
It’s true, if all you’re doing is putting your time in, and not really paying attention to developing your craft, you’re not getting the most out of your daily word count. So amen to deliberate steady practice.
But the idea of sprinting caught my attention. When and why would we want to sprint in writing?
1. To push past blocks, or jump start a piece of writing. Doing a short timed sprint on a topic that is blocking you can work wonders. Pick a word, a phrase, or an image that is catching your attention but you’re not sure how to use it yet (e.g., I think my next scene needs to include this. I keep seeing this image and I don’t know where it’s going. Etc.). Set the timer for 15 minutes, or whatever seems reasonable, and just let it rip. See what shows up. This is best done longhand, without taking your hand from the page. If you type, keep typing. Don’t go back to fix typos. Don’t stop just because you can’t think of the next word.
2. To warm up. Before you sit down to “real” writing, set a timer for 15 or so minutes, and journal about everything else rattling around in your head. My journal is usually the most boring document imaginable, and if I become famous, people who read it are really going to wonder how I was ever seen as a writing genius (go with me here). I write down the stuff I have to do that day, like laundry, grading papers, grocery shopping, taking the car for a wash - all the day to day stuff that we all have to do. I complain about things and people, I write notes about books I’ve been reading or movies I’ve seen, I obsess about weird stuff… you know what I mean. But if I do it before I do more formal writing, it gets all that junk out of my head, so I’m clear for the good stuff. The trick is do do it quickly, and not let it take over your writing time so you don’t get anything else done. Hence, a sprint.
3. To inspire you. Just like for a runner doing sprints, pushing yourself to do more than you think you can on occasion is good for you. The mind craves variety, and a challenge. Give it one. NaNoWriMo is a case in point. For those who never seem to start (or finish) a novel, it’s a month-long sprint that can force you into producing a workable draft.
4. To just finish, already. This often requires a “long sprint.” A friend of mine did a three month long sprint last summer. Every minute she had available, she worked on the final revisions of her book. This was a book she’d worked on for years, and she had many drafts, but she finally knew exactly what it needed and how to finish it. It just required time and focused attention. So gave herself a deadline, put everything else she possibly could on hold, and plunged in. She was tired when she was done, but in her next round of shopping the book around, she found a publisher. Sometimes you have to silence the doubts, stop playing around, and do what needs to be done.
So, as you think about your writing, could you use a sprint? A long one? A short one? A daily one? Become conscious of it as a tool, and see what it can do for you.
Note: in every instance of the word “sprint” I’ve typed while writing this, I’ve put “spring.” No, I’m not sick of winter at all. Spring is not on my mind. I’m like Snow Miser: not happy if it’s over 40 degrees. Yeah. Right.
This video http://bit.ly/2tg3tSU , of the classic race between a tortoise and a hare, never fails to make me smile. Sure, we’ve all heard the fable, but to see it unfold before our eyes makes us realize that Aesop wasn’t really just telling a cute story a couple millenia ago.
When I watched the hare, I saw my writing self at my worst: I start strong, then hesitate, go back, revise, forget where I’m going, get distracted (internet? Phone calls? Anything else?), move forward a little bit, and then just end up staring into space, no matter how much I prod myself to just do it already.
At my best, I’m the tortoise: I see the end goal, and I focus on getting there, one slow step at a time. I don’t let myself get distracted, I don’t stop, I don’t get confused about where I’m going or think it would be better to go back and start again.
The tortoise is not exciting to watch. He’s just doing his (her?) thing, moving forward, achieving his goal. As flashy and exciting as we might think a life of creativity can (or should) be, we’re much better off being like the tortoise. Just focused on taking the next step, and the next. Have 15 minutes a day? Do something: write a bad poem, read a few pages of your work, fix a couple of sentences, make some character notes. If you’re writing a long piece (novel, memoir, thesis), write one page per day. One! (I’ll bet there are days when you can’t help yourself, and write more than one). Set a goal, no matter how tiny, that keeps you moving forward toward your larger goal. If you need inspiration, favorite this video, or put up a picture of the tortoise above your desk. Like last week, this week’s focus is also about slowing down, taking our time, doing the work one step at a time rather than in fits and starts, or not at all.
The big push, such as NaNoWriMo, can be fun, sometimes even necessary. But when it’s done, we may be too exhausted to do the necessary follow-up for quite a while. We may lose sight of what we were doing, or why. In the long run, it’s far more productive (and saner) to act like the tortoise, and do steady work in small, doable increments. Slowly but surely, pages accumulate, and add up to a big win!
This month, I want to talk about Time, and how it affects our creative lives. Last week I didn’t post because I was dealing with a medical issue, and I was told to rest. Could I type? Yes. Could I think up a blog post? Well, possibly but it might not have come out very well in the midst of my med-induced brain fog. Usually, I am one of those people who have a To Do list a mile long. Last week was no exception, but even though this was a thankfully minor issue with minimal recovery time, I decided to heed the message my body was giving me, and take the opportunity to rest and do things I wanted to do, rather than chasing down the endless “have-tos” and “shoulds.”
I had two whole days, Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps fortuitously, the quote of the day on my “Be Amazing” app was:
“During periods of relaxation… the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce sudden clarifying insights.” - Fritjof Capra
So what did I do with my sudden windfall of time? I read (Julia Glass’ A House Among the Trees), I played word puzzle games online (the kind of thing I usually chastise myself for wasting time on), I watched movies and shows (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Holmes), I did some coloring to take my mind off words for a while, and I wrote.
I had been blocked in moving forward on my latest revision, frustrated in how to integrate some new elements and old ones. Perhaps because I didn’t sit down to my computer with the idea of pushing forward no matter what, feeling the pressure of time squeezed from my day, I saw the solution to the problem pretty quickly. I had to go back a couple chapters and do some minimal revision, but overall I was much happier with how the story was progressing, and the fact that it was progressing, no longer halted by my attachment to keeping a certain scene.
Many writers have heard the phrase “kill your darlings.” It’s easy to become attached to a character, scene, or other element that really isn’t pulling its weight. So, no matter how much we love it, it has to go. These can be difficult to see on our own, which is why outside readers can be crucial. But sometimes, when we take our time, and get quiet, we can see these things for ourselves. Would I have seen the solution eventually? I believe so. But slowing down, coming to it with less anxiety, and having the time to think about it helped.
Of course, we’d all like to have more time to write, and I’m a big proponent of grabbing time whenever you can, and not waiting to have some “perfect” amount of time. Often, when I have a large swathe of time, I tend to squander it, always thinking I’ll have time to write “later.” then the end of the day comes, and I’m tired, and cranky with myself because I didn’t write.
The lesson here is not in the amount of time, but the slowing down. When I sit down to write, I often have a word goal in mind. This is great, because it helps me focus quickly, especially if I have a time limit. I just have to start; I can’t noodle around for half an hour if that’s all I’ve got. That can be a great way to break through resistance: Just Do It, as the slogan goes.
However, there are times when it pays to deliberately slow our process. Take a few minutes to just breathe. Light a candle if you want to. Put on some soothing music. Close your eyes. Breathe in and out, focusing on the breath. If your thoughts wander, just note that, and come back to the breath. Simple mindfulness meditation. If your thoughts start wandering to your story, let them. See what unspools in your head. When you’re ready, go to your computer or notebook, and begin writing.
You can also do a form of writing meditation. Write longhand, on paper. Set a timer, and just write. You might start with a story problem or question. You might start with a list of all the things you have to do, or all the things you are worried about, or whatever else pops into your head. This “brain dump” can be very cleansing. It can pave the way for creative insights to come through. Eventually, in the middle of complaining about your day, you might say, “Ella could look for Lizzie instead of Jake.” Or start with a simple “What if…” and keep going, listing as many possibilities as you can imagine.
We need to remember that we can take our time, that creative wool-gathering is good, and that imaginations need space to be unleashed, like eager puppies who whine and sulk when kept under restriction too long. Despite the pressures we may feel to finish this draft, to use what precious time we have to do “real” work, we can remember that true creativity is flow, and like a river, it may rush in a torrent sometimes, and it may meander peacefully at others. Let yourself meander once in a while, and see what treasures may be uncovered.
One of the adages I’ve found most valuable is, “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” In the eternal war of planners vs. pantsers, this is the challenge for both. If you’re a planner, you risk nailing everything down and losing that sense of surprise; if you’re a pantser, you risk being constantly surprised and ending up with a mess that doesn’t add up to anything at the end.
Finding the balance is hard. It takes being able to see far enough ahead that you can lay track in a coherent direction, and also leaving enough room to allow for the unexpected spark that takes the story somewhere new.
It comes down to trusting the process, especially in the first draft stages. I often have to remind myself to trust the process, knowing that if I stay true to that, I am likely to be rewarded by an exciting development, a new idea, a plot twist - something. Of course, in the buzz of excitement that follows the “What if…” it can be hard to tell whether the Shiny New Thing is a good idea, or not. It’s not always possible to tell until you’ve written into it a while. Does it seem surprising but inevitable? Is it organic to the story, or too left-field, a gimmick? If it doesn’t work out, you can always backtrack. It’s best not to get too attached to making it work, but to treat it lightly, to play with it a little, and see what happens.
Sometimes, paradoxically, you have to make an effort to find surprise. If your writing seems stale, or plodding, if nothing interesting is happening; if, worst of all, you, the writer, are bored, it’s time to metaphorically rub a couple of sticks together and see if you can strike a spark. There are a few ways to do this (it’s best to do these by hand):
One is to do a little mind-mapping. Take a piece of paper, write the name of a character, or an object, or an event or situation in the middle. Draw a circle around it. Then start randomly writing down any associations that pop into your head. Draw a circle around it, and then make a line to the main idea. Let other ideas and associations branch off from those.
Set a timer for 15 minutes. Simply write “What if…” and then keep going. Don’t let your hand lift from the page. Every time you get stuck, start again with “What if…” Keep going until the timer goes off.
Try storyboarding. It’s best to take a larger size paper for this. Draw squares for each beat of the scene. Doesn’t matter if you can draw or not. Draw the basics of what is happening. As you draw, think about: what is the action here? What is the emotion I need to convey?
Take yourself out: go somewhere where you can fill your eyes with new images, your head with new thoughts. An art gallery, a museum, a craft store. Or, just go for a walk. Don’t listen to anything on headphones. Let your thoughts wander. Go for at least an hour.
Sleep on it: write down a question or story problem in a journal just before bed. Ask for an answer. Be open to surprise. Believe that an answer will come. When you wake up, immediately grab your notebook and write down anything that comes into your head, even if it doesn’t seem to be related, or to make sense.
To find surprise, we have to be open to breaking free of the rational side of our brains. We have to be willing to be messy and imperfect. We have to trust that any surprise will be a good one, and that we will make it work, to our benefit and our readers’.
Continuing on February’s theme of “writing advice,” I want to tackle what is probably the piece of advice writers hear most often: “Show, don’t tell.” This is good advice for beginning writers, who often don’t know the difference between narrative and story. They narrate everything, from what the character felt to where she went and why, without thinking of showing action in scenes.
But “show, don’t tell” has been drummed into writers’ heads so well, they can be afraid to tell anything. And critique groups can make it worse, religiously repeating the mantra even when it doesn’t make sense. So, when does it make sense to tell instead of show? It can be tricky. Ask yourself: Is it background information that the narrator could refer to in a few lines? Or is it a scene that moves the story forward? That is the key: if it is necessary information for the reader to know in order to understand the context or the backstory, but it does not specifically contribute to the forward momentum of the story in question, it can likely be summed up in a narrative, rather than a long scene that drags the energy away from the main story.
The other tricky thing is this: “show, don’t tell” often leads writers to think they need to start a story right in the middle of a high-action scene, before we know who these characters are or what’s going on. This leads to a confusing mess. We can’t care about what’s going on until we know the characters, especially the protagonist, and the context of the situation they find themselves in. Of course, you want to start with the protagonist in action, i.e. doing something that launches the story. Not just eating breakfast, or (especially!) waking up.
John stretched and yawned. He blinked at the bright sliver of sunlight peeking through his shades. He felt really good this morning. He was happy because nothing ever happened to him, and he liked it that way. Little did he know today would be his biggest day ever. But first, he had to get up. Breakfast first. He always ate Raisin Bran. Funny thing, he didn’t really like raisins.
“What’s going on?” Brenda screamed. The storm had picked up so quickly, she didn’t have time to think. “Billy! Sarah! Mike! Where are you?” One minute they were all in their tents, the next the whole campsite had blown away. But the others had to be somewhere. If only they hadn’t chosen the middle of hurricane season to go camping! She knew Mike was probably high, but hoped he was somewhere nearby. He had overdosed last month, but Sarah said he was getting better. They’d all spent hours in the ER, praying for him. Now Brenda was all alone, and frightened out of her wits. Unless Jimmy still had the truck. He’d gone for food and gas, but that was two hours ago.
Jane turned into the narrow lane overhung with trees. Immediately the sunny day turned gloomy, as though someone had flicked a giant dimmer switch. She couldn’t see the house yet, but the trees formed a long green tunnel, stretching into woods on either side. She drove slowly, avoiding stones and roots. The driveway ended in a tangle of overgrown grass. She stopped the car, took a deep breath, and got out. Big creepy tumbledown house, check. Mad-scientist-looking guy with a shock of white hair at the door, check. She wiped her palms on her jeans. Not exactly what she’d expected from a new job as an administrative assistant, but better than nothing. She hoped. She didn’t have enough money in her bank account to be picky.
Which one brought you into the story, and made you want to keep reading? All right, none of them are deathless prose, but I hope one stands out (please say #3). You can cram in a lot of information in a paragraph. We know Jane is poor, that’s she’s an administrative assistant, that her new job is going to be… a little unorthodox, to say the least. We never are told directly how she feels, but we know. We get a sense of her and her situation, and the coming conflict (although it’s not clear if this is a horror story, a drama, or a comedy at this point).
So, to sum up: When do you tell outright? Mainly, when you can summarize in a few sentences vs. taking the reader on a long flashback, or on a long transitional scene that doesn’t move the story forward. Or, when showing (dramatizing) will take the reader out of the current scene, and lose momentum. For everything else, work on your showing skills.
This month I want to focus on writing advice. I think the best writing advice I’ve ever heard is not about craft, but about keeping going, from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”
If the hardest thing to face is a blank page, or the dreaded “what’s next?” then the easiest way to coax yourself back into the chair is to know what’s coming next, at least in part. You should have an idea, maybe a scene or a bit of dialogue. Something that has some juice. I sometimes leave a few notes for myself before I quit, to make sure I don’t forget what I’m thinking about. Maybe a couple of questions my subconscious can mull over in between writing sessions.
This is a great way to prevent block. Even when you’re not consciously thinking about it, your subconscious mind can be working on the piece, coming up with images, actions, and solutions to tricky problems. It’s amazing how often it works. Also, it keeps the flow going, even if it’s underground, so to speak. We’re not just writing when we’re sitting in front of the computer, or with a notepad. Stepping away for a bit allows fresh ideas to well up from the inner creative spring. When we sit down again, we’re ready to go much sooner than if we’re starting stone-cold. Who are these people again? What did I want to say? I don’t know what’s supposed to happen. Help!
I find it’s hard to motivate myself to do anything if I don’t have a goal in mind. And some days, a word count goal isn’t enough. Especially if I’m in the middle of a big, complicated project like a novel, leaving myself just enough light to see the next few feet of the road is enough to keep me invested, and excited about getting back to the page.
What about you? What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
By the end of January, sometimes it feels like I’ve hit the winter doldrums. The hectic holiday season is over, but winter is not. The effects of all the indulgent eating and lack of exercise has caught up with me, but it’s not usually nice enough (at least in my part of the world) to go outside to exercise. My productive writing routine goes flat. I’d really rather just curl up on the sofa with a fuzzy blanket and a good book. I wish I could hibernate until spring.
After the initial enthusiasm of the New Year, it’s easy to find energy for our creative goals flagging just a few weeks later. A needed routine can feel more like a rut. At this time, it’s important to give ourselves permission to do what we love, and to explore what we might love, if we had the chance to try it.
So, if things are feeling a bit stale for you, try the following: Make a list of at least 25 Things You Love, or Things You’d Like to Try. You can combine them; it doesn’t matter. The idea is to help you realize there are many things you might easily do more often, if you gave yourself permission. Or, you may simply need to become aware again of the things you’re already doing that add value to your life. Also, there are many other things out there we might like, if we pushed ourselves a little to try them.
That’s the thing: the list is nice, but the next step is to actually make sure you do at least some of what you love. Some things you may already do every day: meditate, drink coffee, write.
Others you may do less often, but you can make a point of remembering why you love them. If you love to eat out and try new restaurants or cuisines, put that on your list - and on your calendar, too.
Some things you might love but can’t do regularly. If you don’t live near the ocean, a long walk on the beach won’t be a daily thing. But can you bring something of that experience into your life? A piece of music set to ocean waves? A photograph or painting of the ocean that you can look at any time you like?
And finally, what’s something that you might love if you tried? Snowshoeing? Learning a new language? Wine tasting? Get out your calendar, and decide on a date to explore what’s available in your area, and try it.
You can keep an ongoing list of Things You Love, from the simple (eating a piece of really good chocolate) to the grand (international travel and exploration). As you go through your day, or week, add things that you love as you become aware of them: taking a hot shower first thing in the morning, solving a difficult problem at work, making a good home-cooked meal… and also add things you might love, and plans to try them, as they come up.
This way, when the usual creative work gets stale, or life has you in the doldrums, you can always go back to your list and be aware of all the things you can do to bring joy and a little adventure to your life right now.
Download and print out a blank calendar for 2018. Or, go buy one that includes some inspiring imagery or quotes (they’re half off now). Yep, even include January - there’s still time! And yes, print it out - you’re going to want to hang this where you can see it. Make sure it has blank squares to write in!
Gather some colored pens.
Start to plan your year in terms of your creative dreams. First, imagine some things that you want to happen this year. They can include anything from the everyday (writing practice!) to things that are doable if you put some time and energy to them (Artist Dates) to stretch ideas - workshops or conferences you’ll attend, classes you could take, writing retreats, etc.
Then, think of the “big dreams.” What would you want to happen, if you could wish for anything? Sign with Agent. Book launch party. Celebratory trip to Europe. It’s ok if this feels silly, or brings up a lot of fears or anxiety - really! That’s a signal you’re doing it right. It’s okay if it doesn’t seem reasonable or feasible right now. Some of these things may happen, some may not - hey, even the things we’re pretty sure will happen as of this moment, might not. Illness, weather, or even something better might pre-empt it! Because that’s the truth: we can’t see the future right now. You may be surprised!
Now, write all this in your calendar, just as if you knew it was going to happen. Month by month, week by week, put in all the good things you are focused on manifesting in your life. Draw a little picture, if you want.
This is a powerful exercise because we’re visualizing what we intend to happen, and then we’re writing it down, and creating a physical, visual reminder in the form of a calendar. Hang it on the wall, preferably somewhere close to where you write or do other creative work. Check in every so often and plan to add to the calendar, and celebrate your successes!
Note: Don’t try to combine this with your regular, day-to-day calendar. It will just be confusing and maybe disheartening as you try to figure out how it’s all going to fit in. Don’t worry about that. This is your Creative Dream calendar, to help you focus your intentions and achieve your dreams!
I’m not talking about the ones you’re writing. I’m talking about the ones you’re thinking, the ones that have become such a part of your life and belief system that you no longer even think to question them. They are “what is.” End of story, as it were. They’re not a problem in and of themselves, but if they are holding us back from doing our best and most fulfilling creative work in the present, it’s time to take a good hard look at them to see if we can move beyond them.
We all have them. Usually they are based on events that happened to us, or things people said to us, so long ago we may not even remember exactly who or when or what. But we internalized a belief because of it, and that belief hardened into a story that we tell ourselves again and again. Sometimes it’s not one event, but a series of experiences that harden into steadfast beliefs, that then become stories.
The thing is, many of these stories are based on fears. Writers who have yet to be published for example, may have the sneaking suspicion that “If it hasn’t happened yet, maybe it never will. Maybe it’s not meant to. Maybe I should be doing something else…” (Yeah, this example is from my life, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.)
Notice what that does to your energy. It’s like an anti-energy torpedo, sinking any desire to do anything toward your goals. Why try, if it’s not going to happen anyway? Oh, sure, you might put in some hours here or there, but it won’t be purposeful action, with energy and intention behind it. It’ll be half-assed in some way, because you’re second-guessing the chance of success to begin with. It’s like tying a horse’s back legs together, saying, “He probably won’t win the race,” and then trying to make him run it anyway.
Another: “It’s hard, and only a few achieve success, and only a long slog of hard work will make it happen - maybe.” Discouragement sets in. You can hardly comprehend there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, let alone see it. This is where you need to turn it around and say “I get to…” instead of “I have to…” I get to write today. I get to research the next round of agents. This is where you instill the belief that baby steps, taken each day, will add up to something big. Then that becomes your story: “I am someone who works steadily and consistently toward my goals.”
A bigger story may stem from an event or person in your past that sowed the seeds of doubt in yourself. Someone your admired wasn’t impressed with your work, or said maybe you didn’t have what it takes. (Again, one of mine!) And as I was writing this, I realized I don’t even remember the name of this teacher from twenty years ago. So why does her opinion of my work then, matter to me now? Sometimes dragging the story into the light of consciousness enables you to see it for what it is: a shadow, a mirage, that does not need to define you in the present.
So, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to begin to become aware of the beliefs and stories you tell yourself, that may be holding you back from fully committing to doing your best work. It may be difficult to identify them if you sit down and try to do it head-on (but you may be surprised by what you come up with). You can start to recognize them when they arise in your mind, and try to turn them around. Ask yourself if that belief is really true. Why, or why not? What is the payoff for continuing to believe it? Be honest. Does it keep you in fear? Does it let you off the hook for not really trying? Have you outgrown it, but don’t have a new story in its place?
What different belief can you start to tell yourself, even if it doesn’t feel fully true yet? Let that become your story. It takes practice and commitment, but will pay huge dividends in terms of happiness, energy, and motivation. The stories we tell ourselves do help define our thoughts, beliefs, and actions, so consciously choosing your story gives you powerful agency to move beyond the past and do your best work in the present.
What beliefs or stories do you have around:
- Your own writing or other creative work?
- Creativity in general?
- Work in general?
- Publishing, or otherwise putting your work into the world?