5 Ways to Start Writing Right Now

There’s this thing we do when we have to take out the trash, scrub the bathtub, or visit the in-laws.

  • “Right after this nap.”
  • “Right after the game ends.”
  • “Right after I hit 110 on this World of Warcraft toon.” (Currently sitting at level 1.)

It’s called procrastinate, and for good reason. No one wants to do chores because we don’t get anything out of them. (Unless you count a fresher smelling kitchen.) That’s why the allure of video games isn’t surprising: you kill something, you get a reward.

So why do we still procrastinate when it comes to something we want to do–like write?

I mean, we don’t hem and haw over whether to eat a cupcake or not.

  • “Nah, I think I’ll eat it next week.”
  • “Maybe after I eat this huge salad.”
  • “I have to go work out first.” (Said no one ever in the face of cake.)

chocolate-cupcake-1014635_640

You do want to write, right? You do dream of sitting in your pajamas every day, writing for hours, chain-smoking and drinking scotch, right? Being a best-selling author, going on whirlwind book tours, speaking at international writing conferences, and being nominated for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, right?

The problem with writing is, we’re not getting a sugar rush or anything else for that matter after putting in the time. Sure, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re getting a reward by actually giving yourself something when you’re done (a cupcake perhaps?), but that’s going to be costly both for your pocketbook and your waistline if that’s your only source of motivation.

What can you do instead? So glad you asked. Here are five ways to start (and keep) writing that don’t involve rewards.

1. Face your fears

You may think you’re not writing as much as you’d like (or at all) because you don’t have time:

  • “I have to take the trash out.”
  • “I have to scrub the bathtub this very second.”
  • “I have to visit the in-laws this weekend.”

Or you don’t have a dedicated space:

  • “I’d be able to write if I had an 18th century escritoire.”
  • “I need to buy some post-it notes first.”
  • “The kids will bother me more if I close the door.”

You may even think you need more time to let your ideas percolate before committing them to paper.

If you find yourself coming up with excuses as to why you don’t write, it’s because deep down you have some fear of the outcome. It could be fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of never having another creative idea, fear of missing out on something else, fear everyone will know you’re a fraud, fear you’ll be letting your family down, fear everyone will think you’re awesome, fear people will demand more from you, fear of overwhelming success.

Whatever it is, the only way you’re going to get over it is by acknowledging it.

facing fears

Get yourself a journal (or any other notebook, napkin, junk mail envelope because that is not an excuse to not do this exercise) and write about why you’re not writing. Go ahead, start with all your excuses. Take your time. Come back to this exercise as often as you like. This process will suck and make you feel worse, but you have to do it. It’s like an infection festering deep inside that once it finally bursts through the skin like a big, fat pimple, it hurts like hell for a while. Then you slap some cream on it and wait while it heals.

I guarantee once you find the real reason behind why you’re not writing, you can overcome it.

(Hey look, you just wrote something!)

2. Once more with feeling

Now that you’ve cleared away those excuses and named your fears, it’s time to stop feeling bad about them. If you procrastinate instead of writing because you fear rejection, then what would it feel like to be accepted? Who do you want to feel acceptance from–your parents, a publishing company, your classmates at a high school reunion, a bookstore full of fans lining up to buy the fourth installment in your highly acclaimed detective series?

Whether you want to feel accomplished, light, energized, successful, or something completely different, meditate on it. Feel it. In your soul. Sit with your eyes closed and be in that moment. See yourself typing your last words of the day and hitting “Save.” You stretch back and feel __________.

happy writing

What you’re doing right now is setting yourself up for success. You’re programming your mind and body to replicate those feelings every time you write. Trust me, it will be a much more enjoyable experience than the usual self-flagellation you would normally inflict because your subconscious used to associate writing with fear.

Practice how you want writing to feel every day. Before getting out of bed, before going to bed, before writing, or whenever you get a chance. Connect with it, and soon your subconscious will associate the new feeling with writing instead.

3. Be your own cheerleader

You should be feeling pretty psyched up to write by now. Further this excitement (or cement it in place) by telling yourself how excited you are to go home and write. I know you talk to yourself out loud anyway, and I bet most of what you say is pretty negative.

  • “I can’t believe I just said that. I’m so stupid.”
  • “What was I thinking eating that cupcake?”
  • “I just wasted my whole weekend binge-watching Sherlock instead of writingI’m such a loser.” (But really, who could blame you on that one?)

Let’s turn that around by using the power of crazy talk to inspire yourself.

cheerleader

Keep telling yourself, all day, every day, how excited you are to write and pretty soon you’ll be believing it. Now watch as the first thing you pick up when you get home is your laptop (much to the delight of your cat if she’s anything like mine).

4. Spare no details

Once you’ve identified how you want to feel, write about it.

Grab your journal or the back of your kid’s math homework (because who needs math when you’re a best-selling author?) and write out how you envision your perfect writing life. You can start with the moment your eyes open or the moment your butt hits the chair at your 18th century escritoire. You could be well into your millions or be about to accept an offer on a four-book deal. Spare no details.

Where do you live? What does your work space look like? Who is with you (no one? lucky you!)? How long do you write for? What are you writing? What do you do before you write? What do you do when you’re done? Do you drink a pot of tea and eat gingerbread scones while writing? What do they taste like? Are birds singing, is music playing, can you hear the winds howling around the eaves? How do you feel while you’re writing?

home office

Use as much sensory detail as possible. And most importantly, use the feelings you identified in #2 as often as possible. Take as much time as you need for this exercise. Go back to it over the course of several days or whenever you have time, adding more and more detail.

This doesn’t have to be polished or perfect. You do not have to be poetic. No one is ever going to read this but you. But it must move you and it must call up your feeling du jour.

Now, every day for as long as it takes (days, weeks, months, years), reread what you wrote and reconnect to that feeling.

Alternatively, you can do this exercise as many times as you want, rewriting your perfect day of writing so you are in your  dream space or your current digs, your ideal situation or your chaotic life.

(See what I did there? I just got you to write and you liked it.)

5. Write for low stakes

If you’re just starting to get into the writing game or you’re trying to build a habit, don’t crush it with some lofty goal like writing a novel every agent will fight over that will make you a million dollars so you’ll never have to work that boring desk job again.

Instead, find something you like to write for fun. Maybe it’s working on #4 above, maybe it’s using writing prompts. Maybe it’s writing World of Warcraft serial fan-fiction starring your own character. Whatever you choose, it should be something you do for yourself. It doesn’t mean no one else will never read it, but you aren’t placing any unreal expectations on it either. If you never shop that short story around, it won’t be the end of the world.

success

When I searched for images labeled “success,” this is what I got. This is what you should aspire to when just starting out. Be zany. Be creative. Be wild. Have fun.

That doesn’t mean you can never aspire to finish your novel. It means, you should wait until your subconscious associates writing with having fun and feeling (fill in the blank) and your habit becomes automatic and something you look forward to. Again, this could take days, weeks, months, years.

If you’ve followed along with these (very helpful) suggestions, you’ve probably noticed you got some writing done too. Yay you!

You didn’t procrastinate, it didn’t kill you, and your fears never actualized. I call that success.

If this post helped you in any way, drop me a comment. I’d love to hear about all your amazing success stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Ways to Improve Your Writing This Year

We can sometimes be so focused on improving how we write in our respective genre, buying craft after craft book on how to concoct the perfect mystery, that we forget great writing transcends mere labels.

So here are five ways you can improve your writing skills in a low stakes environment. (You know, when you’re sick of working on that novel that’s been banging around for ten years and not getting any closer to done.)

1. Go Strunk & White on your ass

No, seriously. Pick up the latest edition of your preferred style guide, study it, quiz yourself, then proofread your work. The art of great writing is not limited to theme and character and voice. It’s about your command of the English language and how you use it to articulate your thoughts. It’s sentence level stuff–grammar, punctuation, usage, composition. Using the Oxford Comma. (Hint, hint.)

Let’s face it, do you really know when to use a dash and when to use an em dash? Or when to use the past perfect tense if the rest of your story is just in past tense? Or how to make the plural of letters, numbers, and names ending in -s?

Classic guides, including, The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White, can show you how, and there’s even a workbook to practice. Or check out sites such as Grammar Girl.

Eighth grade was forever ago for most of us, but you won’t have to diagram sentences very long before you master the elements of style and the art of great writing. You may even find yourself silently judging poorly punctuated texts from your significant other.

2. Read and imitate your favorite author

There’s nothing wrong with trying to write like your favorite author. After all, there’s a reason why he or she is your favorite. What is it? What makes you pull her next book off the library shelf as soon as you put one down? What makes you stand in line at the bookstore or pre-order his latest novel?

Make a list of your favorite authors, then list the reasons that drew you to them. The best part is you get to reread any to remind yourself.

If you can identify what it is you like about how these authors write and dissect how they do it, you can practice incorporating these skills into your own writing. And by practice, I mean trying them out in a low stakes environment first. Think, something you don’t mind burning at the stake when you’re done. A warmup, if you will. Something to pass the time while on the subway, during boring business meetings, at family holiday gatherings.

You never know, you may find someone admitting to imitating your style some day.

3. Write one scene three different ways

Here’s another warmup exercise that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Write one scene then rewrite it two more times using one of the following methods:

  • Write a scene from three different points of view: first, second, limited third, omniscient third. (How do each of these affect your word choice, sentence structure, tone, voice?)
  • Write a scene in three different tenses: past, present, future, or if you’re really hardcore past perfect. (What do you notice when someone views the scene from the past–are they nostalgic, depressed, insightful? From the future–are they filled with anxiety or hope? In the present–does everything flow peacefully or move too fast?)
  • Write a scene to convey three different moods: excited, scared, desperate, ecstatic, pessimistic, etc. (Again, how does this affect word choice and sentence structure? What details do you focus on? Does setting play an important role or is it the character’s feelings and reactions?)
  • Write a scene using three different genre voices: noir, flowery Victorian, Hobbit. (See #2 above and use inspiration from your favorite authors.)
  • Write a scene with three different narrators: This is different from using three different points of view because now you will be writing the scene from three different characters’ perspectives. (For instance, how would a victim, a killer, and a detective describe the same scene of a crime. Use the same point of view for each iteration, e. g. first person, to make it easier.)

You can use a random scene generator like this or this to get you started.

4. Join a writing group

A writing group is different from a critique group. I belong to two writing groups. We meet informally and we usually always write on the same prompt that is given at that meeting. One person from each group volunteers to bring in a prompt–it can be anything from a first line, an exercise on descriptive writing, or a template for an entire short story–then we write for about 30-40 minutes, depending on how long people need to finish up last thoughts or sentences. (I’m usually the last one done.) At the end, we volunteer to read what we’ve written. Some members never read, some always do, and some read depending on the night.

We generally add comments of praise and sometimes suggestions if the writer requests it, but we never point out flaws or what could have been done better. We also don’t bring in larger pieces or WIPs to be critiqued by the whole group unless it is agreed upon ahead of time.

And don’t worry about finding a writing group whose members write in the same genre or have the same level of writing experience as you. In my groups, there are children’s writers, women’s fiction writers, academic writers, poets, technical writers, and genre writers. Some women have been published, some self-published, and some never published. Some members don’t even want to be “writers;” they just want to get out of their house. Some women have never taken a formal writing class. Others have devoted their entire education to it.

You’d be surprised at what you can learn from a diverse group of writers. You can obtain a similar effect by checking out online short story blogs. (You can find a list here, though I can’t vouch for any of them.)

Writing groups are perfect for low-stakes practice and the prompts offered should aim to improve creative writing skills in general. If you’re looking for specific feedback or how to whip your manuscript into publishable shape, you may want to join a formal critique group in which participants have an extended period of time prior to the meeting to read your work and formulate thoughtful comments on how to get you where you want to be.

5. Practice on your own

If you don’t like the idea of joining a writing group, reading your work in front of others, or leaving your cat home alone, you can get the same benefit by practicing on your own.

The best way to practice is to compile a list of writing prompts. Writers Digest has free ones (they also have a link for writing groups) or you can buy Storymatic cards.

If you’d rather come up with your own ideas, here is an example of a prompt we did in one of our groups that you can tailor. (I don’t know the exact origin of it, so you may have seen it elsewhere.)

On seven slips of paper, make one entry for each item below:

  • a male character
  • a female character
  • what he said (line of dialogue)
  • what she said (line of dialogue)
  • where they met
  • where the story takes place
  • what happened in the end

Repeat this process at least five times. The more choices the better.

Now, place all the entries for each item into separate bags (or boxes or bowls or baseball hats or whatever) and shake them up. You should have six male characters to randomly choose from and so on.

Pick one entry from each bag/box/bowl, set your timer, and incorporate all of these items into one story.

Don’t worry if you suck at first. Or for a long time. That’s not the point.

When I first joined my writing groups, I couldn’t write a short story to save my life. Especially not in 30 minutes. I’d only ever written novel-length (or at least novella-length) pieces. So I worked on the prompts for the allotted time and focused mainly on character and voice, which are my weak areas. Over the past year, I’ve gotten to the point where I can finish most of the short story prompts (to an ambiguous conclusion) within 30-45 minutes. They are not perfect. They are not as well-developed as my friend, Trudy’s, as richly detailed as Sara’s, as humorous as Jenn’s, or as poignant as Kathy’s . They are not supposed to be. We are different writers.

But over time, like me, and hopefully with the help of these tips, you too can improve your writing. Practice as often or as little as you like. Revise everything or nothing. When you write for yourself in a low stakes enviroment, anything is possible, and you’ll find your main projects become that much better.

Do you have any tried and true writing prompts you turn to in times of need?

What are your thoughts on or experiences with writing groups? Would you recommend them?

NaNo Warm-Up Part 4

We’re heading into the home stretch. Just a mere 10 days before National Novel Writing Month officially kicks off.

Hopefully, you’ve taken advantage of some of the writing exercises I’ve shared in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and it sparked a new juicy novel idea to work on next month.

For some, you might not have been as consistent with your writing as you would have liked and now you’re asking yourself how will you ever be able to write 1,667 words for 30 days in a row? That’s like going to take way longer than 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Your heart picked up a little just now, didn’t it? And your breathing got a little shallower. Your inner critic is probably laughing at you and telling you it’s not possible.

stress-reduction-kit

 

 

Of course, it’s possible. Thousands of people do it every year. And you can too. Consistency is the key. Every day you have to sit down and try. Try is the operative word. Even if you only manage to write, say, 100 words a day, that’s still 100 more words than you had yesterday. And that is cause for celebration. (Hey, if James Joyce considered two perfectly written sentences a full day’s work, so can you.)

So instead of giving you another writing exercise this week, something that may only take a few minutes to complete, I thought I’d share some tips on how to write consistently and not feel like crap about it.

  • Be specific about when and where you are going to write. Choose the time and place that fits your schedule. It may vary depending on what day of the week it is or even what your kids’ schedule is like, but knowing ahead of time when and where you will be writing every day will alleviate the first hurdle.
  • Set boundaries on your time. If you don’t have the luxury of living alone, don’t let other people bother you when you’re trying to write. Lock yourself in the bathroom, get up earlier or go to bed later than everyone else in the house, slip out to the library for an hour. The best place to write is a cemetery. No one bothers you there.
  • Decide on what or how much you want to accomplish each day. Start off by setting the bar low, like really low to start, so that when you’ve met your goal, you feel like a badass. Start with 100 words a day, then 250, then 500, then the dreaded 1,667.
  • Or if the thought of a word count already raises your blood pressure, start off by completing one scene per day, or one page per day. You’ll be in the company of John Steinbeck who advised the same thing when he wrote, “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.” 

badass

 

  • Never stop writing when you can’t think of anything to say. You’ll be frustrated before you even start the next day and you’ll waste valuable, precious time pulling your hair out, slamming your fists on the desk, and swearing into your computer screen. Ernest Hemingway said it best when he offered this piece of fatherly advice, “You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next, and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
  • Create the habit of writing by attaching it to a habit you already have (preferably one that’s good for you, but I guess it doesn’t have to be). My favorite thing to do on weekend mornings is drink a pot of tea. When that tray comes out and the first cup is poured, I know it’s time to write.
  • Likewise, you can create a writing ritual. Perform the same meaningful (or meaningless) routine to get you in the mood. Charles Dickens would rearrange knickknacks on his desk, Steinbeck would sharpen 12 pencils, Mark Twain wrote lying down, and Victor Hugo stripped naked to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (For more weird writing rituals of famous authors, check out this book.)

If the thing that gets you down is not so much the time spent at writing but what you end up with on the page, remember you are not the only writer to ever think that what you’ve written is crap. Maya Angelou said, “What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay, I’ll come.'”

Remember the operative word is “try.” No one is going to think that what they wrote at such a furious pace like the one set by NaNo is great. And if they do, then it really is crap. The point behind the challenge is to just get the words out, the story finished, not to labor over linguistics.

Joshua Wolf Shenk puts it like this, “Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and rewriting the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

inner-critic

So this week, make writing a priority, or at least set plans to in motion, and have the courage to try.

Hey, if it helps, you can always tell yourself you were trying to write the worst novel ever written.

Good luck!

 

 

NaNo Warm-Up Part 3

Welcome to Week 3 in the NaNo warm-up writing prompts.

In last week’s post, we explored ways of coming up with story ideas based on book titles. Some of you may have come up with your own titles or some may have worked with titles of already-published books that you knew nothing about. Either way, writing a short book synopsis is a great way to start thinking about a story in terms of plot.

But what if writing plot isn’t your strength or you prefer to write a story based on character instead?

Mary Hilton in Potent Fictions: Children’s Literacy and the Challenge of Popular Culture criticised the Point Horror series’ main characters, who were often teenage girls, as basically being used as a plot device. These femalce characters spend much of their time being upset, stalked, dumped, terrorized, paranoid, or killed. It’s true. The main characters of any of these books could be swapped from one to the other without changing storylines much.

But for literary writers, stories begin with character, and plot grows organically from there.

This week’s exercise focuses on creating characters who have a specific story to tell and comes in two parts.

Remember the Bestselling thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or the movie The Man in the Iron Mask? How about Girl With a Pearl Earring? Each of these titles is basically an innocuous character description, and if you had never read any of these books, you would be hard pressed to guess what genre or plot they suggest.

The first part of this exercise is to come up with a list of various character descriptions. These could describe some physical attribute, a personality quirk, or an emotional state. Heck, you might even want to take a cue from Edgar Allan Poe and be as generic as possible: The Black CatThe RavenThe Sleeper.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • The man in the green speedo
  • The girl who cried at midnight
  • The boy who ate glass
  • The cat whisperer
  • The woman in the rain

The second part to this prompt is to randomly select one from your list and create a character from it. This could be done any way you want: personality profile, character questionnaire, backstory narrative. You can work on one character per day or spend several days on the same character. There is no wrong way to do this.

The most challenging option for this exercise is, once you have selected your character, to write his or her story. This is done by asking simple questions: WHO? WHAT? WHY? HOW?

For instance, why is that man wearing a green speedo? Is it socially acceptable because he’s on a beach in Italy or Spain? Is he on a swim team? In the Olympics? Is his choice of swim attire out of place on the rocky Maine coast?

Why is the girl crying at midnight? Who is the woman standing in the rain? How does one know they can communicate with cats on some otherworldly level? What makes a young boy eat glass? The answers are endless, and no matter which ones you decide on, your character will dictate your story and not the other way around.

Happy writing!

NaNo Warm-Up Part 2

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, young adult horror novels were all the rage. Authors such as Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R. L. Stine were suddenly catapulted to success with their contributions to the Point Horror imprint from Scholastic Publishing.

These novels, with titles such as Blind Date, Mirror, Mirror, and The Vampire’s Kiss, were not works of literary genius nor were they probably meant to be, but they were immensely popular and fun, quick reads.

While I never read most of the Point Horror books, my favorite YA author growing up, Richie Tankersley Cusick, had written four titles for the imprint, including The LifeguardTrick or TreatTeacher’s Pet, and April Fools, which I must have read at least a dozen times over the years (as well as all her other books). Trick or Treat was my favorite because I love Halloween, and in fact, Ms. Cusick’s books are what inspired me to write my own YA horror/mystery/suspense novels.

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I recently read a Q&A with Cusick regarding the Point Horror series, and she stated that the authors were all given specific titles to work with and had to write stories around them. While some might consider this “factory” writing, I thought the idea would make an interesting writing prompt, especially for those of us who are plot junkies or those who may need a little help coming up with a plot or title.

Again, this is a two-part exercise.

  • First, you will have to come up with at least a dozen (or however many you feel like) titles for would-be novels. I suggest you don’t use titles for books you already know you want to write. That’s cheating! (And don’t worry if you find out there is already a book published with one of the titles you came up with. There is no copyright law for titles.)
  • Secondly, each day, you will randomly select one of the titles and write a short plot summary that you might find on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hardcover.
  • Set your timer (if you wish) for 10 minutes and get writing. Stop when the timer dings or keep writing. It’s up to you!

This is the synopsis for Cusick’s novel The Mall, which I happen to have at my fingertips, and as you’ll see, it’s not particularly long or involved but is a general skeleton of the plot, the two main characters, and the overall tone of the story:

“Trish smiles into the dressing-room mirror, admiring herself in the gorgeous white dress. Unknown to her, someone else is watching. He knows she is smiling just for him. His soft, strange voice whispers her name from the crowd. His hooded eyes follow her every move … At first she thinks he’s just a creepy customer, hanging round Muffin Mania where she works at the mall. But suddenly he’s everywhere, the man with a thousand faces tormenting her day and night. He knows her secrets. There’s no safe place to hide. There’s no one she can tell, no one she can trust. How can she escape a madman wiling to kill to make her his–forevermore.”

And here are a few titles I came up (again, keeping with the horror theme) to get you started:

  • Blood Sisters
  • Murder Island
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Cursed
  • Cellar Stairs

If you have trouble coming up with titles, I found this infographic on Passwordincorrect.com that gives you 15 examples of how books are titled.

15-ways-to-create-a-book-title-full-infographic

Alternatively:

  • Make a list of already-published book titles you have never read before nor know anything about. You might want to stick to a genre you wish to write in or may want to go outside your comfort zone and look for titles in an unfamiliar genre.
  • Continue as above.

I found these examples by Googling mystery titles:

  • Ghostwalk
  • City of Liars and Thieves
  • MacDeath
  • Belzhar
  • Crime Rib

This exercise is not meant to hone your synopsis-writing skills, so don’t worry about making the summary perfect or enticing. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, paragraph breaks, or even coming up with catchy phrases. It’s more about just brainstorming a general story idea with a few important characters. You may even find one of these ideas is perfect for your NaNo novel next month.

Good luck and let me know how you like this exercise. Even better, I’d love to read some of your synopses!