Friday Favorites: No Plot? No Problem!

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As we approach N-Day (November 1, or the start of NaNoWriMo), I wanted to give a shout-out to the book behind the write-a-novel-in-30-days concept. No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days , By Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month. This little book is a humorous, practical guide to getting started on actually writing that novel you’ve been dreaming of.

From preparation, gaining allies, figuring out your physical space, creating incentives, getting food… and actually getting through the 1,667 words per day, and dealing with the mid-month slog and other challenges (illness, lack of support, sudden time crunches), this book takes you through the entire month of novel-writing drama. I highly recommend reading it before NaNoWriMo, so you can appropriately prepare. You can, of course, just show up on Day 1 and start writing, but knowing about and planning for the inevitable setbacks and challenges will help you keep to your goal.

I like the just do it! approach, and think it can work well for those who have spent too much time waffling, or talking about writing without actually writing. The caveat is that you may end up with a mess. When you’re just thinking about making it to a challenging word count each day, a lot of other stuff flies out the window. It can be a good thing: you may surprise yourself and come up with characters and situations you never expected. However, you may, when you are done, have to spend a lot of time figuring out how it all fits together into a coherent whole. And a novel is a big, messy, unwieldy thing in any case (that’s sometimes the reason people give up in the middle – it becomes a hydra-headed, multi-tentacled beast the writer despairs of ever taming).

Outlining can help, of course. And whether you’re an outliner or not, the habit of just writing through whatever challenge you’ve come up against can be a good one to form. Rather than crashing to a halt and abandoning the project for weeks, you just keep writing past it, and resolve to figure it out later.

So, even if you’re not planning on officially doing NaNoWriMo, I encourage you to pick up this book. Plan your own Writing Intensive, on your own or with friends. Modify, if you need to: if 1,667 words per day feels impossible, try an even 1,000. Try it for 66 days (the amount of time some studies show is optimal for creating a lasting habit). I’m a big fan of doing a little each day, but it can also be good to push ourselves once in awhile, and do more than we think we can.

Friday Favorites – Boston Book Festival

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This week heralded the controversial decision to award a Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Some applauded the idea, others found it strange or felt it was wrong to award it to a popular musician, no matter how influential as a songwriter.

Part of the consternation that greeted the Nobel announcement stems from the fear that literary culture is already shrinking. There are so many great writers who do important, powerful work, in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, that standing up for Literature in the classical sense is seen as an important way of celebrating literature itself – as opposed to songwriting, which is not quite the same as poetry. Others feel it’s a breath of fresh air into a rarified, insular world. (For more pros and cons, see this New York Times article.)

In this climate of “what is literature, anyway?” I want to encourage people to go out and celebrate literature, in whatever local festival is offered. The Boston Book Festival takes place on Saturday, October 15, and features a full day of panels with writers talking about writing and the world (mass incarceration, architecture, booksellers; booths of booksellers, MFA programs, literary journals, indie publishers, and so on. Poets, playwrights, screenwriters, memoirists, fiction writers, nonfiction of all descriptions, graphic works, children’s and YA literature – all have a home here. There are household name authors and lesser-knowns. Walking tours, music performances, puppet shows… it’s a feast and celebration of words, and draws a huge crowd every year. There are long lines for talks and readings by popular authors (you may have to prioritize which lines to spend time in – don’t expect to just walk up and get in). There’s a real buzz in the air, of people getting together around something they love.

It’s also the season for Open Studios, where neighborhoods and cities have walking itineraries to visit the studios of working artists of every description – painters, photographers, printmakers, sculptors, fabric artists, jewelry designers – it’s always fascinating to see what people are doing. Inspirational, as well. Whatever your area of creative activity, make an effort every once in awhile to go to film or literature festivals, gallery openings, open studios, or other events, whether they are in your particular medium or not. They make great Artist Dates, a chance to fill the well for our own creative endeavors.

Do you go to these kinds of events? Which ones? You don’t have to make it to SXSW or Burning Man to gain creative inspiration and energy.

Prepping For the Big One

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No, not the hurricane currently bearing down on the southeast. I’m talking about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing month. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a month-long writing intensive that happens every year during the month of November. Basically, people who sign up pledge to write “a novel in a month,” or at least 50,000 words, which isn’t quite a full novel (unless you’re writing middle grade). Still, it’s a solid chunk. You can work on a rough draft of 50,000 words, and that’s the point, to get something down since you can only edit something that actually exists.

The gist is that in order to hit 50,000 words, you need to write 1667 words per day. This is a lot, to be sure, but a do-able goal, especially if you take advantage of the supports offered by the NaNoWriMo organization – forums, local groups, online inspiration, etc.

Confession: I’ve never actually done NaNoWriMo, mainly because I always seem to be in the middle of a book when it comes around, and one of the precepts is that you must be starting something new. I do applaud it, however, in the sense that it keeps you writing for one month. I’ve done my own version, with my writing group, where we’ve each picked a goal and done weekly check-ins to mark our progress. One advantage is that it not only keeps you writing, but does so at a time of year when many people let things slide, as the crush of the various holidays descends. It shows us that we can do far more than we think we can, if only we put our minds to it.

So, if you decide to do the full NaNoWriMo monty, go for it! Go to for more information on how it all works, and to sign up. If not, I still encourage you to set a goal, and make it an ambitious one. Not impossible, but a real challenge. Even better, get together with a group and declare your goals together. Set regular times to check in. Whether you’re doing it alone or with others, make sure you set mini-goals within the time period, and plan a series of rewards to celebrate your hard work!

You can just wing it and start writing on November 1, or plan out your novel and have lots of information to get you started – character bios, plot outlines, world-building, etc. Whether you do the official NaNoWriMo or not, the site has lots of helpful tips and information to help you prepare.

As for me, I’m not sure if my book rewrite would count (and in revision mode I usually count hours, not words). But gearing up to make a big push toward getting it done makes sense.

What about you? Is there a big project (in writing or another creative work), that you need to focus on? That you’ve been putting off starting, or are stalled on? Planning to take on NaNoWriMo this year? Let us know in the comments.

Three Lessons to Keep You Going When You’re Stuck

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]I met with my alumni writer’s group this past weekend. I almost didn’t go. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with other life stuff lately, and had a To Do list a mile long. I didn’t meet my goals of finishing the draft of my novel before our next meeting. My heart wasn’t in it. But then at the last minute I decided to go, and I’m glad I did.

Community is incredibly important for writers, and creatives of all kinds. Some of us work collaboratively, but most of us, especially early in our careers, work alone. Since we’re often not making much money yet, and don’t have deadlines to externally motivate us, it can be hard not to succumb to doubt, discouragement, or the call of distractions and life situations (job/family/other activities). We must persevere if we’re ever going to succeed, and having a community of people who are there to help support us and cheer us on is of incredible importance. Yes, you can get some external motivation and stimulation from attending conferences or classes, but a consistent group of enthusiastic, insightful people is more helpful than anything else.

As it happens, we didn’t critique each other’s work this time around. Instead, we talked about the projects we were stuck on and helped each other talk our way through it. Being flexible to the needs of the group is a hallmark of a successful one.

In my case, it looks like it means going back to the beginning, and rewriting. What I thought would be the last third (or quarter) of the book now needs to start much earlier, and take up as much as three quarters of it. So now, instead of being “almost finished” I’m “almost back to square one.” (I’m not the only one. Another writer in our group is changing the sex of her protagonist from male to female – which means many other changes as well.)

Rather than being discouraged by this, I’m excited. I feel as though I finally know what the book is about. I know the themes, the characters, and what has to happen. Yes, I have a lot of work ahead of me, but I’m no longer slogging through something that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Part of doing creative work is learning to trust your instincts, and although my gut was telling me it wasn’t working, I didn’t want to believe it. I thought if I just pushed on, it would work, even though I felt less and less enthusiasm for doing so.

So, I learned (or re-learned) three lessons this week that I wanted to share with you, in hopes they will be helpful:

1. Find a good community
2. Trust your instincts
3. Don’t be afraid to go back to the beginning

What are your go-to lessons for getting unstuck? Share in the comments!

Stop the Waiting Game

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Too often, we play the waiting game. We wait for the perfect time to write. The perfect amount of time. The perfect place. The perfect circumstances. They rarely happen.

“But,” we say, “what’s the point of writing at all, when it won’t be my best because I: get distracted/don’t have time to go deep/am tired/don’t know what to write/etc.”

Don’t wait. Find fifteen minutes, somewhere. It may not seem like enough, but it is, in fact, better than nothing. Fifteen minutes per day adds up to almost 2 hours per week. (Why not throw in a half hour, just to round it out to 2?) I often say, it’s better to commit to a tiny amount than just wait and hope you’ll feel inspired to do a bigger chunk at some point. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better if you do. Stay connected, and reap the benefits to your writing, and your creative self.

Friday Favorites: The War of Art

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Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art is not just for writers. It’s a book for anyone who wants to overcome their Resistance to doing anything, whether it be a creative art form, exercising, starting a business, etc.

As he says at the beginning of the book, “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.”*

I don’t know as I agree that the writing is the easy part – it’s hard in its own way – but it’s true that you first have to overcome Resistance to begin writing at all. Through the book, he goes from “Defining the Enemy” to “Combating Resistance” to taking us “Beyond Resistance.” The first two sections are pithy, short, advice-filled chapters that bear referring to again and again. The third is one that some people will love and others will eyeroll at, with the focus on muses and angels and higher powers and personal destiny. It will either resonate with you or it won’t, but try to keep an open mind, because the key to overcoming Resistance is whatever works for you, and you never know what snippet of an idea might be the spark that will enable you to work on a regular basis and achieve your goals.

This is a book I dip into when I need a little kick in the ass, and to be reminded that Resistance isn’t the giant frozen wall it seems to be, and that the difference between the professional and the amateur is that the professional feels the Resistance and does the work anyway.

*(Pressfield, Steven, The War of Art, Grand Central Publishing, 2012.)

Overcoming Resistance

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Confession: I struggle with Resistance every day. Part of the reason I keep so busy is that otherwise, I’d get nothing done. You name it, I resist doing it: exercise, writing, working, chores, calling people, cooking…. Sometimes I think I’m a sloth in a human body.

Once I’m doing whatever it is I’m resisting, I’m usually fine. I get in the flow. I just do it, and it’s almost never as bad as it was through the lenses of my Resistance. Then once I’m doing it, I resist moving on to the next activity. I know this one, I’m comfortable now, and I don’t want to finish and have to re-focus on something else.

Why is it so hard to do the things we tell ourselves we want to do? Resistance shows itself in many guises:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of success
  • Fear of the unknown (how do I move forward with this project? How do I even start?)
  • Perfectionism
  • Tiredness/lack of energy
  • Distractions
  • Negativity (Why bother? It sucks. I suck. Etc.)
  • Time (we tell ourselves we have no time, but even if we have 15 minutes per day, that’s something)

Ever hear the saying, “What you resist, persists?” That also goes for Resistance itself. Resistance is, for many of us, a daily battle. Overcoming Resistance (or not) is a habit, and as with any other habit, which one we choose creates a pattern in our brains, and our lives, that increases our likelihood of repeating that pattern, over and over again.

So, if we consistently opt to feel the Resistance and do it anyway, we set ourselves up for success. We’re telling ourselves a very important message: that we’re not buying what Resistance is selling. Those fears and thoughts might seem like good reasons, but they’re not real unless we make them so by giving into them.

Conversely, if we give in to Resistance on a regular basis, we’re telling ourselves that our goals don’t matter, even to us. Pretty soon the Not Doing becomes a habit, and it becomes very hard to overcome the inertia and get back to doing what we told ourselves we really wanted to do in the first place.

So, the next time you feel Resistance, start by acknowledging it. “Hi Resistance! There you are again!” If possible, acknowledge the reason behind the Resistance (it could be one of the above, or something else). If a reason comes up regularly, you may want to journal about it, to try to dig deeper into why it’s such a big factor for you.

Then, say to yourself the reason for the Resistance, AND your reason for doing it anyway:

“I feel tired, AND I’m going to do it anyway, just for 15 minutes.” “

“I’m afraid it’s going to suck, AND I’m going to do it anyway, because maybe it will be better than I think, and I won’t know until I try. ”

“I have all this other stuff to do, AND I’m going to do this right now, because it’s important to me.”

And so on. Learn to work with Resistance, instead of fighting an exhausting battle you can never permanently win, and create the habit of Doing It Anyway. See how the consistent practice of Doing It Anyway reaps big rewards in your life: you reach your goals faster, and learn to see yourself as someone who does what they say they will do, a major confidence and motivation booster in itself.

Do you have any other tricks for dealing with Resistance? Share them in the comments!

And check in with Friday Favorites this week, when I review Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, the ultimate manifesto against Resistance.


Befriending Your Work

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Every so often, I catch myself saying, “I should write this weekend.” Or, “I have to finish that chapter.” It’s easy to get caught up in the crazy “to do” lists we have, and add our creative work to them. There can be a fine line between making writing a habit and making it just another thing we “have to” do, or “should” do. But that kills any enthusiasm or motivation we may have.

Sometimes it’s a matter of reframing how we think of writing. Yes, it can be hard, and it’s also something we love to do. When it’s flowing, there’s nothing else like it. It can be hard to remember when we’re tired or not feeling inspired (though by now we know enough not to wait for inspiration).

One way to feel more inspired on a regular basis, whether or not the work is going “well,” is to practice the habit of positive thinking and speaking around your writing goals. Think of a good writing session as one in which you did some writing, period. Think of the fact that you get to do some writing today.

Just as with any habit, you have to find a way to think of what you get from it – intrinsic motivation. I exercise because it feels good once I’m actually doing it, and I feel better physically and mentally when I’ve done it. When I’m having trouble feeling motivated to exercise, I think of all the good I get from it.

The same goes for writing. Think of all the positive things it brings you. Remember, it can’t flow unless you are actually doing the writing. Banish negative, boring, “have to” thoughts about it. If it feels odd or awkward, it may mean that you’ve been unconsciously sliding into thinking of your writing in a negative light. Bringing awareness to the way you think and speak about your creative work can be a breakthrough in having a more positive relationship with your work, and your creative self. Befriend your work. Seriously. Speak about it in the same way you speak about your best friend, and see how it improves your writing life.

That Back to School Feeling

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41099037 - school, backpack, back.

Right about now, it’s almost impossible to ignore the back-to-school crush. These days, for me it’s more about preparing to receive students than send them off, but I still get a slightly giddy feeling seeing all the school supplies laid out – notebooks, binders, pens, pencils, folders… it brings back all the memories of the first week of school, when we were all excited to be back and everything felt new and fun.

As adults, we don’t often get that feeling. But this week, I invite you to return to that “back-to-school” space, where a fresh start is possible as the summer ends and the air turns cooler. Buy yourself some new supplies. A new notebook for jotting down story ideas, poems, snatches of dialogue. A new set of colorful pens to help express your ideas, in pictures or words. Stickers to paste all over everything – maybe on a new calendar to mark the days when you’ve written.

I’ve learned the hard way I need a writing notebook for each project, rather than random notebooks lying all over the place that I pick up whenever I need one. I know a lot of people use Evernote or some other digital source for notes, but I find that I also need a physical place to put down thoughts, to let my mind wander. Plus, there is evidence that the physical act of writing (as opposed to typing) increases your creativity.

Of course, looking at my study, you might say that the piles of paper, notebooks, binders, etc. create nothing but mess, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But take yourself back to those first days of September of your childhood, and the excitement of a new notebook, to be filled with all the wonderful stuff you didn’t know yet. Let it inspire you to create something new now.

DIY Writing Retreat

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10653717 - stones with a sign do not disturb

I just returned from a fabulous weekend in Vermont, where I actually managed to get some writing done, despite the lure of friends, gorgeous hikes, great food, and lots of shopping (for birthdays and Christmas – and some goodies for myself, of course!).

The weekend was partially intended as a writing retreat, but it was somewhat ad hoc except for Saturday morning, when we had a more formal writing session using prompts, and gathered to read our work aloud or just talk about the process afterward.

I love doing mini writing retreats. If you don’t have the time or money to take yourself off to someplace more formal, designing your own retreat can be a great way to immerse yourself in your work, and can be tremendously productive.

You can do it on your own, or you can get together with friends. The advantages of a solo retreat are uninterrupted time and the ability to set your own schedule. The downside, of course, is that no one is there to stop you from turning on the tv, say, or jumping on Facebook. With friends, you have feedback and camaraderie, but if you have different ideas about what constitutes a good retreat, it can be more stressful than helpful. One way to combine both is to get a friend to decide to retreat with you, but in her separate space (if you don’t live close enough to meet up). Then, check in at the beginning, perhaps in the middle, definitely at the end.

You can do a retreat for as little as half a day, or a weekend, or a week (or longer). What makes it a retreat as opposed to just a regular writing session?

1. It’s pre-arranged, sacred time, with a beginning and an end.

2. It’s great if you can get away from your usual writing space, so you’re not sucked into the everyday “stuff” at home.

3. It’s best if you don’t have access to the internet, or other usual distractions.

4. You go in with an idea of a specific project to work on (but are open to serendipity if you’re inspired by your surroundings).

You can arrange it however you like, but there are some practices I’ve found especially useful. Starting and ending with a ritual is a good idea, to formally commence and close your retreat experience. For me, this often involves candles, meditation, and bringing focused attention to my intention to make the most of this writing time.

I also do timed writing periods, with rest breaks in between. A simplified version of the Pomodoro Technique ( ) is a good way to start. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Write. Take a 5 minute break. Set the timer for 25 minutes. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (10 or 20 minutes). If I’m dithering about what, exactly, I want to accomplish, just setting the timer and starting to write – anything at all – helps break through any resistance. Sometimes just getting started is key.

It’s also important to have lots of water, and good, healthy food on hand, ready to go. Other retreat activities might be taking a long walk, or doing some visual art (coloring, collage, abstract painting) to stimulate your creativity but get away from words for a while.

It goes without saying (I hope) that checking your phone is forbidden, unless you absolutely must check in case a family emergency has come up. Just remember that once the phone is in your hand, it’s easy to check email, Twitter, etc. etc. and soon get out of retreat mode.

That’s it, in its simplified version. Depending on how long you have, and what your goals are, you can make it more complex, or less. You can even give yourself a treat at the end, whether it’s an ice cream, a massage, or a trip to a bookstore or library to get a good book.

I can already hear some of you saying, “That sounds nice, but I could never take that much time for myself.” Really? Or is it that you have to claim that time for yourself, as an artist? No one will give it to you. No one will give you permission. You have to give it to yourself. You have to believe that you deserve it. Whether you’re single or not, have a family or not, there will always be people who pull at your attention, and other things that seem crucial to do before you can sit down to write. It’s up to you to claim your writing time, and to take yourself seriously as a writer. Retreats are special occasions, to go deep and savor the time to focus on your project. Start with a short one – a half day, perhaps – and see how it feels.

Have you done a writing retreat? Do you do them regularly? Let us know about any tips or ideas you have!