What To Do When The Words Just Don't Sound Right

(Note: I was going to call them damn words in the headline, because sometimes the words feel like they need cursing.  But then I censored myself, because this is going out in my newsletter, and I don't want to offend people.  Do words like damn offend people?  I don't know.  You tell me.  I wouldn't be offended, but you might be.  Anyway...)

Lettering_letters_close_260818_lI had an email this week from a young writer whose friendship I treasure.  She is in her early teen years and an avid writer.  Or has been an avid writer.  According to her email, all of a sudden, when she writes, nothing sounds, well, right.  It comes out cliched.  Doesn't ring true or feel authentic.  And she asked me what she should do.

It is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer.  When I think back to the answer I gave her, I'm not sure it was particularly helpful.  So this is my attempt to rectify that and maybe help some of you who've struggled with this as well.  (Who am I kidding?  I'm also doing it to help myself--because yes, this happens to every writer at some time or another.)

Process, not product.  We too easily get wrapped up in thinking about the end result of our writing.  The same impulse that causes writers to inquire of me, "I've got a great idea for a book, how do I get an agent?" (answer: write the book first) also causes us to worry about the end result.  When first you are starting a project, your job is to get words on the page and not worry how they may or may not be.

Do the work, don't judge it.  This goes hand in hand with the above.  Because if you're judging the work, there's a good chance you're not allowing yourself to get into the flow of it.  Again, write.  Throw words at the page.  Let yourself get swept away in the wonder of the creative process.  Fall in love with writing again.

Creativity comes in cycles.  This not liking your work is a stage, and probably a sign that you're onto a different level in your writing.  Because, in the past you might have been satisfied with the way these words sound.  But now you're not.

Mind the gap.  Riders on the London Underground are familiar with this exhortation to watch the space between the train and the platform.  But gaps happen in writing, too.  There can be a huge gap between the story you see in your head and your ability to get it on the page.  And this can cause frustation as you struggle to master your craft.  Of course the best thing to do is:

Keep writing.  In truth, at a time like this, you should write more.   Write journal entries, poems, flash fiction, political polemics, personal essays, character sketches, or anything else you can think of. It doesn't matter so much what you are writing as that you are writing.  Because the more words you throw at the page, the more understanding you will have of how to put them together so that they sound pleasing to you.

Don't second guess yourself.  Commit to something and write it.  Don't question whether you should be writing a novel or a memoir or a short story, just get started on a project and work at it. And please don't second guess you decision to be a writer.  

Finish things.  I will confess: I'm terrible at this.  I abandon stories when I can't figure out where they are going and I despair over longer pieces and give up.  (And you should see my yarn closet, it is full of half-finished pieces.)  However, I'm working to get over this tendency, which stems from bright shiny object syndrome, because finishing WIPs puts you in a different place.  You know more about your story when you get to the end and you've learned more about writing when you complete a piece.

So those are some suggestions that I hope you will find helpful.  What do you do when you find yourself in this situation?

Photo by clix.


In Training for Writing: A Dozen Ideas

 

RansomnoteEvery night after dinner, I do a little work and then by 8 PM you'll find me cozied up on the couch beneath my favorite quilt, ready to watch the Olympics.   The Winter Olympics are my absolute favorite, so I've been in heaven since they started last week.

These athletes inspire me.    Ski jumpers, snowboarders, downhill racers, figure skaters--I watch them contort their bodies and think, I'll never know what it feels like to move like that, but it sure is fun to watch someone else do it. 

The other huge benefit is that it makes my job look easy.  Really easy.  (And it is, something we'd do well to remember on those days when the words aren't flowing so well and we're wringing our hands over writer's block.)

On the surface, we writers have little in common with Olympic athletes.  (Stop laughing--I know even the comparison is funny.)  They exercise their bodies, we exercise our minds.  They are super-fit and we are...well, I'll speak for myself here, but let's just say sitting at the computer all day is not the best recipe for fitness.

However, there is one arena in which we can compare ourselves and that is with our training regimen.  Olympians train hard for months out of the year, and when they aren't training in their specific sport, they are lifting weights, running, and keeping themselves fit.  And we writers train, too.

Right?

Um, maybe not.  Because who has time for training when there's real writing to be done?  When there's only one hour in the busy day in which to find time to write  that hour, by necessity, must be devoted to one's beloved WIP.

Well, hold on a minute.  Training for writers is not such a bad idea.  Just as Olympians rely on it to create muscle memory in their bodies, so, too, can we utilize the idea of training to facilitate ease and flow in our writing.  (And, if you are a beginning writer, you might focus solely on training until you have a few gazillion words under your belt.)  Think of training for writing as warm-up exercises, or practicing scales, or hitting a tennis ball against the wall five thousand times, or...you get the idea.

What follows are my suggestions for training.   Train for 5-15 minutes a day and see if it's helpful to you. If so, keep doing it.  If not, ditch it.  The idea here is to loosen up and have fun, get your fingers flying across the keyboard or page.  Train first thing in the morning, before your writing session, when you have a few minutes to spare, on your coffee break. Do what works, is my motto.  

1.  Free Writing.  The classic.  Set a timer for 10-20 minutes and move your hand across the page without stopping.   Don't worry about following any particular train of thought, just write. To engage in free writing, the following are useful:

2.  Prompts.  These are one-line starters that are either random sentences (Snow fell, covering the shoulders of her green coat), or sentences that make you think (Write about a time your character felt sorrow).  Write your prompt at the top of the page and have at it.  You can find prompts  under the Punch for Prompt tab, or by asking the Google.

3. Use your thesaurus or dictionary.  Open to a random page and choose a word.   See how many different ways you can use it in a sentence.  Or combine it with another word, make it into a sentence, and use as a prompt.  

4.  Write morning pages.  First thing in the morning (okay, you can get coffee) write three pages.  It's free writing on steroids.  Just write.  Get your yayas out.

5.  Write poetry.  Write bad poetry.  Write good poetry.  Play with images and symbolism in the poetic microcosm.   Even if you don't consider yourself a poet, you can learn much from arranging words this way.

6.  Write flash fiction.  300-1000 words, a complete story with all the usual elements.   Keep it loose, keep it easy, keep it fun.

7.  Keep a stash of writing exercises handy.  There's some on this blog--just scroll down and look in the left column under "Pages."  And you can also ask the Google for help with finding more. Here's a page that has some interesting ones.

8.  A to Z.  Start at the top, with A.  Write as many words that begin with A that you can think of in five minutes.  Then choose a couple of those words, make sentences, and write.  Or just use the word itself as a prompt.  Add to your list as you go throughout your business. The next day, move onto B.  (If you like to be contrary, you can start with Z and work backwards.)

9.  Make ransom notes.  Recycle old manuscripts by cutting them up into sentences and words and pasting those together.    Make these into a story or use them to kidnap your neighbor's dog or rob a bank.  Kidding!  

10.  Keep a God box.  I don't know where the name for this came from, but it's a box full of stuff. Like cool things you pick up in your travels--ephemera from trips or a night on the town, fun little things, found objects, bits of jewelry.  Open the box, pick an object, and write about what the object evokes.

11. Practice description.  Grab your journal, or your computer.  Close your eyes.  Now open them.  What's the first thing you see?  Write about it as if you're describing it to an alien from another planet who has none of the same references you do.

12.  The sentence game.  Write a sentence.  Now use the last word of that sentence to start the next sentence.  See how long you can keep this going.  You can also do this with first words of sentences.

Okay, these ought to keep you going for awhile.  Do you train for writing?  What are your favorite training routines?  Please share.

Photo by theloneconspirator.


The Writing Contract

Alarm_clock_numbers_266493_lWriting, writing, writing.

It's really all we writers want to spend our time doing.  Unless we don't.  Our can't.  Or won't for some reason.  And then what we do is worry about the fact that we're not writing.

I've been doing free sessions (there's one slot left if you're interested) and mostly what people want to talk about is how to find time to write, or some variation on that theme, like how to focus when they actually find the time.

Not gonna lie here, I struggle with this, too.  I struggle to balance all the aspects of my writing: blogging, teaching, ghostwriting, coaching and novel writing.  Most often what goes by the wayside is my novel writing.

Which is stupid, because it novel writing is what defines me.  It is what makes me me, what I feel I'm here to do--communicate through story telling.  So it's an act of self-destruction not to do it.

A couple weeks ago, I had a good run of working on it.  The clouds parted and I found myself with several free hours to write.  Pure bliss.  And then it ended.  And I didn't open the file for a week.

I thought about the novel.  Worried about the novel.  Some might even say obsessed about the novel.  But obsession didn't turn into writing.  Because, you know, I was so, so busy doing other important things.

Yesterday at lunch I read an article in the latest O magazine, in which author Aimee Bender wrote about a writing contract she drew up with a friend.  The contract was written in official language, maybe even notarized.  They made a big deal out of it, but basically the conditions of it were simple: the friend would write an hour a day, and after doing so would send Aimee a one-word email saying "done."  In return, Aimee would write, "check." 

And it worked like a charm.

Which reminded me of a time a few years ago when I was working on Emma Jean's Bad Behavior. My friend Suzanne and I would each get up early (at, yikes, 5 AM, I believe) to work and email each other when we were up.  If one of us didn't hear from the other, we'd call.

That simple. 

And yes, it was very effective.  I wrote a rough draft of my novel that way.

So yesterday, reading the article and remembering this, I lectured myself sternly.  Self, I said, it is not so much that you don't have the time, you don't have the mental time.  You're allowing yourself to be distracted and unfocused when if you really, truly wanted to, you could carve out an hour to work on your novel.  That thing that defines you, that makes you who you are.

And so, I did. And in the process, I started my own version of a writing contract, which is a small spiral notebook in which I note my goal (one hour of writing on my novel a day) and then keep daily track of how I accomplish it.  (I only had time for 30 minutes this morning, so I owe myself another 30 later on.)

And I feel good.

I'll keep you posted.

So, do you have a writing contract with yourself or someone else?  How do you keep yourself going?  Please share any good ideas you might have.

**And don't forget the Authenticity + Creativity class I'm offering with Karen Caterson.  Click the snazzy button to the right or click here to read our page.

Photo by draganski.


12 Habits That Will Bolster a Consistent Writing Practice

Brief aside before we get started: Welcome to all of you who have found your way here from BlogHer!  I'm so pleased you are here.  You can navigate five year's worth of content on writing, inspiration, creativity and spirituality through the subject cloud in the right sidebar.  And please stay in touch by subscribing to my newsletter in the form to the right--you'll get notice of classes and book releases as well as a free copy of my Ebook, Jump Start Your Book With A Vision Board.

Everystockphoto_211230_mOkay, back to the topic at hand: what habits encourage a regular writing practice?

First, let's define regular writing practice.  I mean every day.  Or damn close to it.  I know, I know, I hear your excuses and see you making faces at me.  But truly, the best way to sink deeply into your writing, whether you are keeping a journal for yourself or writing a novel, is to connect with your work every day.  If you don't have time to write, read a page of what you've written.  Do whatever you can to somehow stay in touch with your WIP.

And now to get to the habits that I've learned help me to do this.  And yeah, I get that it is difficult to find time for some of these things as well.  After all, if you can't find time to write, when are you going to find time to walk? Or meditate?  Or any of the other things on the list?  I struggle to incorporate these habits into my life, too.  But here's the deal: the struggle is worth it.  Because my writing life and my personal life work better when I do.

So, let's get started.

1. Writing.  I know, duh.  But the kind of writing I'm talking about here is not working on your passion project, but journaling.  Or blogging.  Or writing morning pages.  Personal writing of this nature will help you sort your thoughts, clear the dreck from your brain, and train you in getting words on the page.  It is worth taking the time for it.

2.  Reading.  Once in awhile, someone will come to me and say they want to write.  And when I ask them what they read they say they don't.   Really?  It is impossible to write well without reading a lot.  Like, inhaling words.  Imprinting them in your brain.  Read everything you can get your hands on.  Reading will inspire you to write more and better.

3.  Sleeping.  Our romantic vision of the creative person is that of the mad writer or painter staying up all night, working and then collapsing.  News flash: this is really bad for you.  We need sleep to rejuvenate our bodies and replenish our brains.  Make sure you get enough.

4.  Take Joy.  Find the things you love and do them.  One of my great joys in my life is my family and I spend as much time with them as possible.  Incorporating joy into your life will give you a solid base from which to create.

5.  Admit Bad Habits.  Once you acknowledge your bad habits, it is the first step for them to dissipate.  In the spirit of full disclosure, here's mine: stupid TV. I used to hate TV and railed against it every chance I got.  Then I discovered American Idol.  And The Voice.  The good news is that those shows are over for the summer.  Except I just started watching America's Got Talent.  Truly, it is my pug's fault.  He gets upset if he can't sit on the couch and watch TV with me. 

6. Fuhgeddaboudit.  Take a break from working so hard, or even thinking so hard--most of us creative types walk around in a haze, pondering our WIPs.  But giving your brain a rest from figuring out the plot of  your novel can allow it to present you with luscious new ideas.

7.  Walk.  Julia Cameron recommends walking, not so much for the exercise, though we need that since we sit on our butts all day, but for the creative haze it can put us in.  Creative haze.  I made that phrase up.  Nifty, huh?  Anyway, something about walking shakes up the mental synapses and allows new thoughts to arise.  Take something to write on, because I guarantee you'll need it!

8.  Focus.  When you're writing, write.  Don't check your email inboxes or hit up Twitter to see what's going on.  Use the power of attention to get your writing done.  I like to write in 30-minute bursts, setting a timer.  For those 30 minutes I do nothing but write.  Then when the buzzer goes off I get up and walk around a bit (okay, I check inboxes and Twitter, too) and then return to the computer and do it again.

9.  Be Positive.  It is so easy to fall into the habit of negativity and most people in the world don't even realize they are doing it.  Dare to be different.   Be positive--about your life and your writing. One way to start is by looking at all the things in your life and writing practice that there are to be grateful for--like the fact you have a brain and functioning fingers to tap at the keyboard.

10.  Be Quiet.  Meditation can help with both #8 and #9.  Another thing you can do while being quiet is visualize yourself writing regularly.  According to Jonathan Fields, studies have shown that this kind of visualization really works.

11. Do Something New.  Brendon Burchard talks about the power of doing something new and different every so often.  It can be as simple as driving to work a different way!  The creative brain thrives on new input, so find a way to get some.  Drive to the beach for the day.  Take an Artist's Date.  Read a book in a subject completely new to you.

12.  Retreat.  Over and over again I hear from writers about the benefit of retreating.  You can take a personal writing retreat or go to one where there will be writing guidance. Retreats can be life-changing experiences. (Not lyin', one of the participants at my recent Diamond retreat used those exact words to describe it.)

Okay.  These are my 12 writing-boosting habits.  (And please don't think that I'm some paragon that managed to do all of these all the time, I'm not.)  What are yours?  Let's discuss in the comments.

 

Photo by ppdigital.  I was going to find a photo of a sun, to indicate the sunny happiness you'll feel when partaking of these habits, but that seemed a bit of a stretch.


The Art of Seeing

Everystockphoto_193921_mA writer is nothing without ideas.

Ideas are so important to our craft that I do a whole class on them.

Where do ideas come from?

One place they come from is observation.  Which means the ability to see is vital to the writer.

Here's the deal: we get wrapped up in our stuff really easily.  I do it, you do it, we all do it.  And when we're wrapped up in our own stuff, that means we're not observing the world.  We're not seeing.  And thus we're not allowing new ideas to filter in.

So if the art of seeing becomes an important creative act, how do we encourage ourselves to do so?  I have some guidelines:

1.  Be present. Yeah, yeah, a no-brainer.  But how present are you as you move through your daily activities? Are you awake and aware or going through the motions?  Being present to your life can make the difference between sleep-walking through it or gathering all kinds of ideas for writing.

2.  Change things up. Do you drive to work the exact same way every day and see the same things? Visit the same cafe for lunch all the time?  Try something new!  Maybe you can't take a vacation at this exact moment but you can take mini-vacations by changing up your daily routine.

3.  Observe in categories.  Writers need to know things--like what noses look like and how hairdos work.  We need to understand details so that we can write details.  So assign yourself categories to observe--shoes, cars, dialogue--and write down what you find.

4. Listen.  Too often we get so wound up in what we're saying we're not listening.  Or, while another person is talking, we're planning what we're going to say.  That's not listening and it's not being present.  Try relaxing and really listening and see what happens.

5.  Get over yourself.  You're great.  I know you are.  But when it comes to the art of seeing, check your ego at the door, as the saying goes.  You can remind yourself later, when you're back at home with a pocketful of ideas, how great you are.  (Or, the flip side of this coin--how nervous you were being out in the world observing.)

6.  Write down what you see.  Obvious.  But maybe not.  Don't depend on your faulty memory to remind yourself of that great observation about what taxicabs look like.  Because you brain won't remember.  Trust me.  Write stuff down.

7.  Practice remembering.  This is for the times when  you can't write stuff down.  Years ago, I remember hearing about a famous journalist--Tom Wolfe? Joan Didion? I can't recall--who, when on a story, took no notes.  He or she had appointments, did interviews, went through her day and when she returned to her hotel room at night sat at the typewriter (it was a long time ago) and wrote down everything she saw and heard.  Now that's practicing memory skills.

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Take yourself out on an observation date right now (or as soon as possible).  Grab your journal, hit the nearest coffee shop, and see.

Please comment!  What are your favorite tricks for seeing and remembering details?


Writing as an Act of Discovery

Here's something I forget:

Magnifying_space_copy_223214_l

 We write to figure things out. 

We write to discover what we know. 

We write to uncover what we don't know.

And yet.

We sit down to the page and think we have to be experts.

We sit down to write and think it has to come out perfect.

We sit down at the computer and agonize over every word.

When, really, the best thing to do is sit down and have at it, without concern or care toward what comes out.  Because writing is rewriting.  And the real work of shaping a story comes in the second, third, or ever fifth or tenth draft.  Which gives you a glorious excuse to throw caution to the wind and have a wonderful time writing what comes out of your head and through your fingers.

Don't expect yourself to know everything because you don't.  But you can figure out a whole heckuva lot by writing.  It's why we journal--to figure out stuff about ourselves.  It's why we write memoirs--to figure out stuff about our lives.  It's why we write fiction--to figure out stuff about the world.

I was interviewed on a radio show this past weekend (link is at the lower right, it's the Blog Talk Radio banner) and we talked about how when you are laboring over every word, you're clinched up, like you've made two fists and your entire body is tense.  When you're writing freely and easily, the exact opposite is true--your body is relaxed and so are you.  Isn't that a better way to go? 

What is your writing process?  Do you allow yourself to write freely or do you tense up and make certain every word is perfect before moving on?  Does your current process work for you?

Create a successful, inspired writing life: Choose a topic, any topic.  It might be something to do with your current project.  For instance, this morning I worked on backstory for my main character.  Now take pen and paper and write until you've exhausted everything you know on that topic.  And believe me, more will come to you as you write.

 

 

Photo by Gerbrak.


Writing Inspiration: What Do Your Nerves Tell You?

 

Sanbruno-suburban-catholic-126215-h
Gazing at me may make you feel calmer.

Yesterday I told you I had a kick-ass (one can only hope) post on letting go ready for you. Then I got distracted by the need to write about the Sopa Strike. And now here you are and you're reading a post on nerves.  What gives?  It makes more sense to write about nerves first and then letting go.

At least to me.

So, here's the story.  On Sunday, I wrote up the notes for Session Two of my Make Money Writing class.  I did a dry run. I was happy, I felt ready. 

Nerves

Monday morning I awoke with a vague sense of nervousness and when I thought about it, I realized it was around the class.  Now, I always get a little nervous when I'm presenting a class.  And in this case, a few little nerves are good because they are about me wanting the class to be good, and full of useful information. 

But on this day it was more than just pre-class jitters.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized something was wrong.  So I went back to the notes.  Realized I had to rearrange one section.  And add another.  Did another dry run.  This time I felt peace.

 And the class was great.  (At least, I thought so.)

But this incident got me thinking how often nerves are a signal that something isn't working.  There are nerves and then there are nerves.  And we need to learn to pay attention to nerves.

The same thing happens in writing.  The feeling may not manifest exactly as nerves, but in an emotion closely related.  You may have a vague idea that something isn't right, but you don't know what.  Or perhaps it manifests as an inability to get to the page.

Pay Attention

And here's the deal: that feeling is always a signal that something is wrong.  Always.  It may be something as simple as needing to rearrange and add things, as with me.  Or it could be that the scene you are writing is taking place in the wrong location.  Or with the wrong people.  Maybe it is in the wrong order in your chronology.

So the moral of the story is to always, always, always pay attention to the feeling and try your best to identify what might be wrong.  (Good ways to do this include the usual suspects of meditation, free writing, playing hooky, flopping about dramatically on the couch--whatever works for you.) You'll save yourself tons of time in the long run if you pay attention to your nerves.

Has anything like this every happened to you?

A couple of points of interest:

1.  Jessica Baverstock, of Creativity's Workshop fame, is celebrating her 100th blog post today!  She's appeared in these pages regularly, so go pay her a visit to congratulate her.

2.  I have an interview over at Melissa Balmer's Womeonsocalbikes.org.  Its about "Finding the Female Advocate's Voice," and its pretty cool.

Don't forget to sign up for a subscription to my bi-weekly newsletter, The Abundant Writer.  The form is to the right, and you get a free Ebook, too!

Photo by D.C.Atty, from Everystockphoto.  And check out the cool new feature on Typepad--captions, yay!