Success Is Dessert

On March 26, 2021, MissMiddle wrote, I was wondering, how many hours do you write per day? I recently read that the most successful authors write for 4+ hours each day. Do you think that’s necessary? I’d love to see a post about how much to write each day and if you already have one it would be great if someone could direct me to it.

At the time I wrote back with this: I’m adding your question to my list, but it will take me a long time to answer. My minimum daily writing time is 2 1/4 hours. I try to go longer and often do, but sometimes I don’t make even my minimum. I don’t think 4+ hours are a necessity, but consistency is important. If you have little time, try carving out at least 15 minutes a day for writing.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Not long ago, I kept failing to make my time goal. Nothing big was going on, just little diversions that I gave in to. I forgave myself, because forgiveness is the bargain I’ve made, and I think it’s a useful and benevolent one for everyone to make. Otherwise, we pile on blame. We think we don’t have the discipline or the talent to be a writer and we stop writing. But forgiveness turns off the self-recrimination spigot. If we forgive ourselves, tomorrow is free and clear, uncluttered.

When I do make my goal, I feel a little shinier than when I don’t. I think that’s okay.

Mine is a time goal rather than words or pages. If I work the contracted time, it doesn’t matter whether the writing went well or horribly. A page or word requirement would add an additional milestone I’d have to meet to get the shine. Some days I mostly write notes about my story or do research (which I count) and I wouldn’t get to, say, two pages in ten hours. I know by now that if I put in the hours, eventually the writing will figure itself out and I’ll finish a book.

There is no fixed length of time one has to write every day to be successful. We don’t even have to write every day. We’re all different. The only imperative is that we write frequently enough to produce stories. How many stories and how often also vary from writer to writer.

Having said that, though, discipline is essential to writing and to getting better as a writer, which we can’t do if we don’t, er, write. When I’m revising, I can keep at it almost endlessly, but when I’m starting a new story or writing notes about it—the hardest part for me—sticking to the work can be torture. Discipline is no problem during the easy phases!

A daily goal of some kind is helpful for the hard parts. We want to establish a habit. If we get used to writing for, say, half an hour a day, the act will become like brushing our teeth, part of what we do, and we’ll feel strange and unlike ourselves when we don’t do it.

But it isn’t enough for me to say, Just pick a goal and make it a habit. In my own experience as a failed visual artist, I know that expressing our creativity is hard. Not being creative, When I googled Why is creativity hard?, I found this lovely quote from Lewis Mumford who wrote The Myth of the Machine: “Anyone who says ‘I don’t have a creative bone in my body’ is seriously underestimating their skeleton.  More to the point, they are drastically undervaluing their brain.”

What’s super difficult is hauling that creativity from our bones out into the world. During my long writing apprenticeship, I made lots of friends among my fellow wannabes, and I watched quite a few give up for one reason or another, but not because they weren’t creative.

Googling led me to an article in Psychology Today called “10 Reasons Why We Struggle With Creativity” by David DiSalvo—but before you google it too, know that I think it’s for high-school-and-above people. Two of the ten reasons jumped out at me. The first sounds discouraging even self-defeating: that we can attain the self-confidence to produce creative work (writing for us) only by failing to produce work we have confidence in.

The secret weapon, though, is that now you know. We have to fail, probably again and again, to succeed in the end. Most of you know that it took me nine years for one of my stories (Ella) to be accepted. And it’s not that everything I write is a success. In every book, I fail myriad times. Right now, working on my memoir, which I think I’ve mentioned, I’m finding it astonishingly hard to make it chronological, as a beta reader has said I must. I keep wandering off on tangents. But by now I do have confidence. Understanding the necessity of failure will let you fortify yourself. We tighten our stomachs and yell into the wind, “This isn’t working. Too bad.” Off we go, trying again or starting that new idea.

The second reason goes with the first, that the failing we must do sets off memories of other failures and a cascade of self-criticism. How can we ever succeed if we’ve already proven ourselves to—fill in the blank: have only stupid ideas, sputter out every time without finishing, write awkward sentence after awkward sentence, be unable to build a world, stink at endings, stink at beginnings? I can go on and on. I bet you can too. We have to fortify ourselves against our excellent memories. We can replace memories with facts. How long did it take the Wright Brothers to figure out flight? How long did medicine stumble before germ theory was discovered? Failure should be embraced!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write for fifteen minutes a day for the next seven days. You can vary the time. If you have to, do it before you go to sleep.
  • Pick an unfinished story of yours and work on it. Doesn’t matter if you fail to improve it. Remind yourself that in the meal of writing (or creativity), failure is the appetizer and entrée; success is dessert.
  • Write about an athlete training for the Olympics. Make the athlete fail the trial. Decide what they make of the failure and do about it. The ending can be triumphant—or not.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Keeping On Keeping On

Before the post, this is a good time to mention the annual writers’ conference (in the fall) from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL), which I think is the best, most helpful one-day writers’ conference in the–galaxy! (Alas, you have to be at least eighteen for this.) Here’s a link: The FAQ page is especially helpful. Be sure to take note of the deadlines, the cost, the scholarships, and the fact that the deadline for scholarship applicants is earlier than for people who can pay full freight. What’s so great is that it’s a mentorship program. Mentees are assigned mentors, who are usually either agents or editors and occasionally authors, like me, who go almost every year. Your mentor reads up to five pages of your WIP and meets with you about them for forty-five minutes to discuss them. There’s also a session of groups of five mentees with their mentors to discuss the industry and answer questions. Plus a speaker and a panel. I highly recommend it–and I can meet you. We can have lunch together!

When I appealed for questions, Raina came through with several great ones. Here’s the first: How do you deal with writing burnout, and how can you tell if it’s really burnout or something different? I’m on my 5th draft of my story and at this point, part of me is thinking “I don’t want to look at this anymore” and part of me is thinking “I need to be disciplined and just get it done.” I do have a problem with self-discipline and procrastination, so I’m a little wary when I feel like I can’t/don’t want to write at a given moment. On the other hand, maybe I actually do need to take a break, but I honestly can’t tell if I actually need to take a step back from the book or if that’s just an excuse I’m giving to myself.

On a similar note, is dealing with this different when writing is your job, as opposed to a hobby? Right now I can take a break (or even stop working on a book altogether) when I want, but a professional author writing under contract wouldn’t be able to do that.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can totally relate to these questions, and I’m itching to hear the answers.

Gee, Raina, I think you have this. A couple of posts ago, you wrote about your method of keeping track of your writing time, which is very much like my method. I’m thinking your method doesn’t apply as well to revision for you. I’ll write about that, as well as the more general problem.

Melissa Mead, I’m not sure if I have answers. I just have thoughts.

Two years ago when I was seventy, at my annual checkup, my (now retired, younger than I am) doctor predicted that I’d be healthy for another thirty years. If his crystal ball is right–as it may not be–I’m mid-career, since I started writing (not being published) thirty years ago. Yippee!

And yet, I wake up some mornings wondering if I could start another, different career at my age.

Is this burnout? I don’t know. I know I had trouble deciding on my present project, about the Trojan War. Everything, including this one, seemed too much like what I’ve done before. But I love Greek mythology, and now I’m into it. And I have an idea for another historical novel after this one.

The point is, writing is hard for many writers, including me. We keep learning–forever!–which may be the best thing about it, but new challenges always crop up, and what worked for the last book probably won’t be helpful on this one.

I’ve written about this before here, but below are some strategies that enable me to continue writing:

∙ I have a daily writing-time minimum goal of at least two and a quarter hours. The goal is a goad.

∙ If I don’t meet the goal, I forgive myself. This is super important. If I don’t forgive myself, it’s harder to start the next day.

∙ I’m especially kind to myself when I’m just beginning a book, because that’s the hardest part for me, so I cut myself some slack. Raina, you may do the same for revisions, which may be the time for you for a little coddling. Praise yourself for as much as you do manage.

∙ I don’t allow myself to make global judgments about my work. No, This is so cliche. No, Nobody will want to read this. No, This stinks. Even, This is great is prohibited, because it’s too likely to lead to, What if I mess it up?

∙ I steer clear of thinking about how monumental the task ahead of me is. A novel is big and daunting. We should concentrate on the task at hand.

A couple of weeks ago I shared my WIP so far with my friend, the writer Karen Romano Young (whose marvelous contemporary fantasy and paean to libraries has just come out–A Girl, A Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon), and she shared hers with me, both in the early stages. The critique was super helpful, but equally helpful for both of us was the deadline. I wrote hard to have as many pages as I could to give to her. We’re going to meet again later this month.

So a critique buddy, a writers’ group, beta readers can help us keep going. The advantage of an exchange with other writers is that we’re all equally vulnerable. You see how imperfect my draft can be, and I see how not-ready yours can be. Neither of us feels stupid, or we both feel equally stupid.

What can we do to make revision more tolerable if we hate it?

∙ We can take small bites, as I do when I’m starting a new project. Half an hour of revision may be tolerable, followed by working on a shiny new story.

∙ We can think ahead of time about what we’re going to tackle and set a limited goal, like today I’ll work on the argument between Jeff and his brother. Or, more generally, today I’ll concentrate on dialogue.

∙ Thought control is especially important here. No, It isn’t getting better. No, How many drafts will I have to go through before I’m satisfied, if I ever am?

∙ This is general, but it may apply especially to revision: No book is perfect. Mine aren’t. We strive to write the best book we can, which is all we can do. We can expect to get better over time, but we’ll still never write a perfect book.

As for knowing whether it’s burnout or something else, well, do we ever finish anything? Or is it just this book that has us stymied?

If we never finish, maybe we should try a different kind of writing, like plays or short stories or poems. Or maybe we should try other art forms. Or we can figure that we’re not in a finishing frame of mind and write as far as we can and then start something news. Then we’ll have lots of threads to return to.

If it’s just this book, then maybe we should put it aside until we’re drawn back to it.

As for writing when writing is your job, having a contract does help. I make my deadlines as far in the future as I can get away with, because the idea of being late horrifies me, so I suppose that’s a goad, too. So does not knowing what I would do with myself if I stopped writing.

By now, happily, finances aren’t an issue so much. I get a small pension from my job before I quit to write full-time, social security, and royalties, and they all add up to enough. I’m not sure if finances were ever a factor. Earlier, I figured that if I wasn’t earning enough from writing, I would find a job. After all, I did have a job and write before I got published.

Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has done something terrible, which she regrets and feels ashamed of. What her dreadful deed is is up to you. The do-over wizard arrives and gives her a chance to repair the past. After she’s gone back, matters are different but not better. Write the story with at least seven do-overs until a solution is reached that satisfies her. Have her make discoveries about herself along the way.

∙ Cinderella’s stepfamily are portrait painters. Cinderella is expected to be one, too, and she wants to be! But nothing she paints is good enough, and the art exhibition is coming up. Her stepmom and stepsisters tell her that her work isn’t ready to be shown. Write the story.

∙ The miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear, and the king will execute her if he doesn’t get his gold. In your story, have her do whatever it takes to stay alive–figure out how to do that spinning, or something else. Give her a happy ending, but it’s up to you whether it goes well for the king and the miller.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Trapped by the (inter)net

Before the post, I have a question: Are there words, other than curse words, that make you cringe? I read that the word moist is the most disliked word in English, but I don’t mind it. I do intensely dislike two other perfectly good words: scurry and smirk. I’m trying to get past my aversion because I’d like to be able to use them. Do any of you have words that get unpleasantly under your skin, that you shrink from using, that cause a shudder when you read them?

On June 12, 2016, Christie V Powell wrote, How do you focus on your writing instead of getting distracted by the internet? My computer broke down so I have to borrow my husband’s, which means that I have to have internet access to get to my files. It doesn’t help either that my main WIP is being reviewed by beta-readers at the moment so I need to start something new in order to keep up the writing habit. Anyway, what tips do you have for staying focused and actually writing?

I got mixed up when I copied the responses over to my list, so what follows may not be in the order in which it came in:

Song4myKing: I do have one trick that helps me – location (I use a laptop). Upstairs, at my desk, where internet is sometimes a little flaky anyway, I’ve instituted a personal “no internet except email” ultimatum. Even if the email sounds like something interesting on Facebook or Pinterest and includes a handy link. When I want to do something on internet, yes, including reading a blog about writing, I do it downstairs on the family computer, or bring my laptop down. Bringing my laptop down sometimes has the unfortunate effect of the laptop staying downstairs for a few days. But I think over all, writing-only time has improved, and internet time-wasting has decreased since I started.

Kitty: What type of computer is it? Do you use Google Docs or Word? If you use Word (or whatever the Mac/Linux equivalent is), there shouldn’t be a problem working offline. If you’re using Google Docs and a Chromebook, there’s a “work offline” feature in the built-in Google Drive app. If you’re using Google Docs on a PC, then there’s a Google Drive app you can download, but I’m not sure if it has the same features as the Chromebook one.

These are super helpful!

I confess I haven’t been very focused in the last week or so, and I haven’t often met my day’s writing goal. Tomorrow looks pretty good, however, for low distractions. It’s interesting that future time generally looks less cluttered than present or near-present.

Here are some of the ways I keep distraction down. I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn, but I hardly ever go near them. I’m not on Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat (do I have that one right?) or anything else.

It’s not at all that I sneer at these programs. I fear them! I think I’d love them and get sucked in, so I just keep them out of my life.

I have been struggling with a computer-related addiction, however, which I mentioned once before here. It’s a form of solitaire called Free Cell, and I play it too much. It presents a little puzzle that takes anywhere from three minutes to fifteen to solve. After you play a while, you almost always win, but some of the games are hard. I can feel my brain buzz when I even think about playing. I do manage to keep it down. I never play more than one game at a time and I usually interrupt myself on the long ones, but it’s hard, and I have dire imaginings of myself in a small cell, gibbering, and playing Free Cell again and again on my phone. When my rehab counselors take the phone away, I play in the air with imagined cards. The way back is a long, uphill slog.

I’m also incapable of ignoring emails and text messages–or, while the weather is still fine–the real-life implorings of Reggie to come outside and play with him.

My main method of getting in enough writing to keep me from a severe guilt attack, is to keep track of my writing time. Say I start at 8:03, I type that in to my Time document. And say that at 8:07 an email comes in, and it’s one that interests me. I type 8:07, read the email, go back to my Time page and type 8:10 and continue writing. By the end of a writing day, I may have twenty start-and-stop listings, and I know exactly how much time I actually put in. My minimum is two-and-a-quarter hours, but I try for more. If I make the minimum, however, I can feel okay about the day.

And if I don’t make it, which I sometimes don’t, I forgive myself–essential for being able to get started again the next day.

Oh, and there is a kind of computer activity that I count as writing. If I Google something I need to know for my story, I don’t call a time-out. For example, in my WIP, Ogre Enchanted, my MC is a healer, and I’m often looking up herbal remedies. I don’t think I should be penalized for that! But I try not to be sucked in to expanding my search or lingering more than I should.

I’ve also been sending fifty page chunks of manuscript to my editor, because I want to know if I’m going off-course. I don’t have a deadline for that, but it is a goad. I want to get her the pages. I want to power through another fifty pages, which will get me closer to “The End.” I want to impress her with my productivity. If I let myself get lost online or with Free Cell, none of this will happen.

You may not have an editor who’s willing to look at your work as you’re writing it, but you may be able to exchange work with another writer in chunks like this. Or with a family member, a teacher, a librarian.

For poetry, I’m in a little critique group that meets every two weeks, which means that I have to come up with a poem, and that focuses my mind. Let me just add–off-topic–that needing to produce a poem wakes me up to the world. I never know where my next poem will come from, so I pay attention.

I have other assists that you all may not have. The book I’m working has a deadline (January 1, 2018), and that is a powerful motivator. When I get it done, my editor will, I hope, want another book. There will be another contract and another advance, because I earn my living this way.

Even if you don’t yet get paid for your writing, you can regard it as a job, or as prep for your future, and you can use that notion to keep yourself moving. But don’t use it as a stick to beat yourself with if you don’t meet your goals. Forgive yourself and climb back in the saddle.

A lot of you participate in NaNoWriMo and NaNoWriMo camp. This is a great way to keep yourself out of the online rabbit hole.

I love this blog, as you all know. I love the questions you ask and the help you give each other, but please don’t let it be part of the problem. There’s kind of a pull, when someone asks for aid. But giving it shouldn’t come at a cost to your own work.

And none of the advice above should fuel self-criticism. Everybody writes at his or her own pace.

Here are four prompts:

∙ This comes from Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It’s very old–eighty years, maybe, and old-fashioned–written for adults, but nothing in it will hurt anyone, I don’t think, and it’s useful. She offers this exercise, which I’ve modified: Wake up twenty minutes early every day until the next post and write for the twenty minutes. Pee, if you must, but don’t dress, drink coffee, turn on the TV, or look at anything online. If possible, don’t talk to anyone. Work on your WIP or journal or write notes or a rant, whatever. Report how it went after the next post.

∙ If you have a meal by yourself or can make yourself alone, write while you eat. I do this at lunch and sometimes breakfast. After I eat, I often get sleepy, but chewing keeps me awake. Don’t look online. Just eat and write. Do this until the next post and report back.

∙ Try my practice of recording your writing times. Set a daily goal and keep track. If you don’t make it for one day, forgive yourself and go back to it. Report on how this went.

∙ Keep a Bridget Jones (high school and up) type diary of your writing life. Or write about a character who’s a tormented writer and write her story for her.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Drops of blood

On November 29, 2010 Bluekiwii wrote, …I always have the problem of actually starting to write. The story I want to write blanks from my mind, and I freeze before I’ve even begun to write a word. Or I’ll write something–realize it’s rubbish–and cross it out and begin again, and I’ll continue on this way through the story until I give it up halfway. Or I sit in front of the page thinking of ideas/possibilities and reject each one. Have you ever felt this way and what have you done to get rid of this feeling in order to write? How do you start the process of writing a story? Do you outline what you are doing first, a simple two-liner that will guide the plot? Do you plan each chapter? How do you visualize what you’re trying to write before you do it? Do you make a rough sketch of what your characters are like before fleshing them out in the story?
I love this quote by Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Years ago, before I became a writer, I painted, and my favorite medium was watercolor, which is not forgiving, because you can’t cover your mistakes. Some watercolorists outline in pencil so they know what they’re doing. Some paint so loosely that a mistake just becomes part of the artistry, which I admire the most. I did neither. I just expected myself to get it right, and I disappointed myself again and again. As soon as I started a new painting I’d be all over myself about how I was going to louse it up.

The quality of my painting became a measurement of my worth, not of my financial worth of course, but of whether I was worthy of respect, of being considered an artist, almost of living. There was much too much riding on the outcome every time I picked up a paintbrush. Eventually I stopped painting and started writing.

I didn’t come to writing with the same negativity, and I was lucky in the teachers and the books I found to help me learn. I talk about this in Writing Magic, and I’ve written about it on the blog now and then. The most helpful book I read back then, the most helpful in exactly this regard, which I’ve also mentioned before, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain (middle school and up) by Henriette Anne Klauser. Even today, when I’m particularly stuck, that’s the book I go to.

If I remember right, there’s an approach in another writing book, Bird by Bird (also middle school and up, I’d guess) by Anne Lamott, that might be helpful. It’s called “Short Assignments.” In short assignments the writer has to write, but for a limited time. Building on Lamott’s idea, Bluekiwii and anyone who feels like Bluekiwii, I’d recommend that you write for fifteen minutes and stop for a while. Don’t evaluate what you’ve written. Just leave it. Then write for another fifteen minutes, without evaluating your new work or what went before. Your job for now is to write without judgment.

I love the computer, because it’s the opposite of watercolor; it’s infinitely forgiving. You can make a million mistakes and a million fixes. Here’s something else to try: Write without crossing out. When you don’t like what went before, just hit Enter twice and write the sentences better or differently or even worse and keep going.

Or try this: When you think you wrote something awful, write the judgment and keep going, as in, Maxine and her brother Isaac left the apartment to buy a carton of milk. What tripe. Who cares? The elevator didn’t come for a full five minutes, so they took the stairs. What difference does that make? I should just cut it all. Maxine told her mother she didn’t want to go to the store. The store was boring. This is boring. I should shoot Maxine.

Keep going. Maybe it will turn out that the elevator was delayed because Maxine’s upstairs neighbor, the one who gives her piano lessons, had a heart attack, and he was being carried into the elevator on a stretcher. Or maybe there will be a unicorn in the store when Maxine and Isaac finally get there. Or you’ll find other characters that interest you more than the two of them.

At the end of every post I write, “Have fun, and save what you write!” I don’t mean you should save only the pieces you approve of. I mean, save it all. You may never look at your old efforts again, but someday you may want to. You may be curious about your progress or about what you were thinking in 2011. Your biographer may be interested in every word you ever wrote.

Recently I bought a book on writing mysteries because I’ve been having so much trouble with my second mystery novel. I hoped that book would give me a formula that I could follow, that I could dress up and disguise, which I would really be happy to do if it made writing easier. I gave up on the book, although some of it was interesting, but it didn’t give me the formula. Probably because there is none for me. My writing process is messy. I muddle along, and some books are harder than others, but eventually I find my way, or so far I have.

I don’t have much trouble starting a story. I spend a few weeks thinking about what I may want to do and writing notes, and then I’m off. No outline, but a rough idea of where I’m going, which may be entirely not where I go. I don’t plan each chapter, but I do have an idea of a scene before I write it, and I have an internal alarm that shrills when things are getting dull and I need to shake them up or throw in a surprise. As for my characters, I discover them as I write. When they feel blank I use the character questionnaire you can find in Writing Magic. The one thing I do do is visualize. I need to see my characters moving through a scene, to know where they are and what they’re seeing, hearing, touching, smelling.

This second mystery, which may or may not be called Beloved Elodie – I’ve now started it four times. The first time I wrote about 140 pages, but I forgot to put in any suspects. (!!!) So I started over with suspects but the same core mystery, which was too complicated and impossible to solve. I told my husband the story, and his eyes rolled back in his head, and I knew it wasn’t working, but I’d written about 260 pages and I’m not getting any younger. Then I made the mystery something that can be solved, but I was taking too long to get the problem going. Remember I mentioned that I was meeting with my new critique buddy? I’d given her the first thirty pages and she picked up on what was wrong immediately. This time, happily, I’d  written only about 45 pages. Now I think I’m on track until I get into trouble again.

I am not a role model, but I could be someone to wallow with in the writing mud.

Here are some prompts:

•    If you’re too self-critical, try the suggestions above. Write in fifteen-minute stretches. Write without crossing anything out. Include your self put-downs in your writing. Read the chapter in Writing Magic called “Shut Up!” and read Writing on Both Sides of the Brain and Bird by Bird.

•    Write a list of ten story ideas. Pick the worst, stupidest one and write twenty minutes worth of notes on where you could go with it. If you get inspired, write the story.

•    Write about Maxine and Isaac and their trip to the store or about their refusal to go to the store. Make something unexpected happen. Then create another surprise. And another.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Watch yourself

My sister-in-law Betsy, an amazing potter, left for a pottery workshop a few days ago. Before going, she told me she especially looked forward to the lack of distractions there. She said that at home she rarely makes it to her studio before 1:00 pm. Once there, she puts off leaving even to go to the bathroom for fear of being sucked in again by her telephone, her emails, her dogs.

Lots of us get sidetracked from what we most want to do. Years ago, I took many painting and drawing classes from many teachers. When I’d enter the classroom for the first session, the easels would butt against one another – a throng of easels, a multitude of students. The third session would be roomier. Near the end of the semester, plenty of space, just five or six remaining students.

Sometimes I numbered among the missing. I wasn’t lucky with art teachers. I found only one who really suited me, and, after two years, she moved away. She was a great teacher, but even her classes lost students.

Eventually I discovered that I’m a writer. I took a lot of writing classes, too, and was luckier with my teachers. In these classes, attendance also shrank.

Some people won’t even start a class. They eternally intend to write or paint or take singing lessons but don’t, for one temporary reason after another. I think it’s really fear that gets in the way. They can’t bring themselves to enter art’s scary gladiatorial arena, where one’s deepest self lurks behind every door.

I don’t believe in a collective unconscious or an ocean of creativity that we all share. I have my ocean, and you have yours, and we swim alone. Or maybe a cloud would a better metaphor, because when I write I feel like I’m shaping wisps of fog, and I have no idea what I’m doing or how, and sometimes I succeed, and wow! that is fabulous, and sometimes nothing happens.

If only we were born clutching a golden key that fit a tiny brass keyhole behind our left ear, and we could just insert the key, turn, and wind up our artistry.

Here’s a poem I wrote last winter about my writing process:

How I Write a Book Very Slowly

Type a sentence. Check Wikipedia
for the history of backgammon.
Look up the meaning of dewlap.
Realize I need to fix something
near the beginning. Find the spot.
Type in the revision, which comes
quickly. It’s much easier to write
back there in Chapter One, where
I know what’s going on. My email pings!
Expedia wants me to fly to Belize.
Delete Expedia’s message. Return
to the latest moment in my manuscript.
Reread the last three paragraphs.
Edit them, even though I suspect
I will delete the entire episode.
Write an awkward sentence. Try it seven
ways until it is no longer awkward.
Wish I’d slept better last night. Wish
I knew who my culprit is going to be.
Put my head down on my desk. Lift my head.
Walk to the window. Stare out at the snow.
Wonder if the hydrangea will flower again.
Return to my desk. Write four words.

You may not be like me. You may write steadily every day from 5:00 am till 3:00 pm. Or you may have a daily page count that you always achieve, because otherwise you have to migrate to tundra inhabited only by caribou. You are a miracle.

Not me. I’m always fumbling. I like to observe myself in action and inaction, because I’m interested in the mystery and I do get more done when I’m self-aware.

So that’s the prompt. Just watch yourself for a week or a month. Don’t change anything. Make no judgments.

If you’re a start-and-stop writer like I am, see what gets you started and what gives you permission to stop. Or maybe you charge ahead, but you can’t stand to look at what you’ve written. Or you rewrite every sentence so many times that you can’t move forward because you keep going back. Or you need a deadline to shove you along, and then your pent-up inventiveness pours out.

Observe yourself as if you were a wild creature in its natural habitat. Marvel at yourself. Have fun. If you write anything, save it.

Along with everything else, I hope I’ve gotten you curious about Betsy’s pottery. Here’s a link to her website:

Taking notes

When I write a novel, I lean on notes. This post is a description of how I use them. Maybe you’ll find something helpful here or a method you want to stay away from. Or maybe you already do just as I do.

At the start of a writing session (on my computer), I always open both my manuscript and my notes, and I toggle back and forth. If the story is going well, I don’t write many notes, but if it’s not, writing them is proof that I’m still writing and not just goofing off, even though my story isn’t advancing.

If I’ve written an awkward sentence in the manuscript, I copy it into notes, rewrite it, copy it in notes again and again, so I don’t lose a version, till I’m satisfied or till I decide the original wasn’t bad after all or till I think I just have to live with what I’ve got.

To come up with a character name or a place name, I list possibilities from a baby naming book or an atlas or my own arcane sources, then arrange and rearrange the list, narrowing my choices.

In the mystery I’m writing now, Elody, my heroine, is an aspiring actress who’s been given the chance to perform at a feast. Thespians in the kingdom of Lepai draw on fairy tales and Greek myths for their plays. When Elody wasn’t sure what to perform, I listed options for her. After consulting my mythology book and a few books of fairy tales, I found a fairy tale that had parallels with the main story I was telling, which gave Elody the chance to paraphrase Hamlet and speculate that her performance might “catch the conscience” of the villain. That was fun, but I never would have gotten it without notes.

A minstrel sings before Elody’s turn comes. I didn’t write a complete song for her, but I made up the refrain. Here are my notes for the refrain, to give you an idea. Out of the notes I pulled what I needed:

Be he huge
Be he fierce as a beast
be he three trees tall
be he broad as a bushel of barrels
be his teeth as sharp as daggers
his eyes as piercing as pikes
his head as hard as iron
his fists as
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

Be the giant
three trees tall
and three trees wide
with teeth as sharp as daggers
eyes as piercing as pikes
head as hard as iron
fists like battering rams
falling as fast as hailstones
May he roar and rampage
I will vanquish him
I will tame him with my love
His strength will save me

face as terrible as
face as ugly as entrails
face as frightening as
rock slide/frightful

I’ve let you see the repetitions because that’s the process. It’s messy.

When I’m far along in a novel, I often get confused, so then I list plot threads in notes to remind myself of everything I’m juggling. Sometimes I list future events as far ahead as I can see. This is like outlining, except that my future events never cover the whole span of a story.

If a plot idea knocks on my brain and the story isn’t ready for it yet, I put it in my notes and highlight it with the yellow highlighter on my toolbar, so I can find it again. Occasionally, I copy the highlighted bits into a separate document, to avoid hunting through 135 single-spaced pages – really! – of notes to locate them.

At those happy moments when I’ve figured something out or done a nice piece of writing I celebrate – in my notes. When I’m bummed and convinced I’ll never finish my story, I complain and moan and carry on. Sometimes I use bad words. If my books were people, notes would be their journals.

A novel that doesn’t give me much trouble won’t have 135 pages of notes, but I doubt I’ve ever gotten away with fewer than fifty. When the notes are longer than the book, the book was a miserable, horrible, uncooperative monster, like Fairest, The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and the third Disney fairy book, which even now doesn’t have a settled title, although I finished writing months ago.

Notes, however, are never miserable monsters. They are freedom. In the manuscript itself go the shaped sentences, the chosen words, the paced chapters. In notes go the incomplete thoughts, the lousy ideas and the good ones – the eggshells of writing. A finished book is a cake with chocolate or blue or whatever-you-like icing and the title written on top in perfect handwriting. Notes are the messy kitchen where the cake was baked. No cake without the kitchen, and I – or you – never have to clean up afterward. Hooray for notes!