This post is more of a practical how-to than some of my more philosophical rantings.
That said, we should take a beat to consider the title of this post. Do you really need some sort of tracking system, you ask? After all, like most writers, you are living, breathing, and even dreaming your work in progress. We writers know the nuances of our characters’ moods, their physical descriptions, their foibles and skills, better than we know the eye color of our children’s teachers. How could we ever forget one single, precious detail?
I’m going out on a limb here and assume that I am older than you are. Also, I am writing a mystery series, a genre that, by definition, is highly detail driven. We don’t know one another well, but I am here to tell you an important truth that you can take to the bank: YOU WILL FORGET. You think you won’t, but you will. By the time you start outlining your second or third book, this absorbing new project will bury, if not erase, all those prior details from your memory. You’ll forget whether Brianne’s brother was three years older or four. You’ll forget Jake’s mother’s name, or what make and model of car Jake drives. You’ll change your mind about Sydney’s favorite color, then you’ll change it back. Then you won’t remember which color she told her friend OR where in the book she mentioned it!
And readers, bless them, will catch those mistakes and use them to nail you to the metaphorical wall.
So, let’s take it as given that you do need to track the details. Any time you name a person, place or thing that might have significance to the future events of your fictional world, you need to note it. And every time you revisit something, simply add to that original description. In a way, it’s just another form of cataloguing backstory.
My personal preference is Excel. While some may find the linear format limiting, I take it as a challenge to achieving brevity. Here is a screen shot of a workbook I call “Names Payments Swears.” (Yes, I have a running list of odd or unique swears and expressions my characters use. Ohio is funny that way. When I hear a good one, I add it to the list for a future scene.)
First thing you’ll notice is that I’ve got a series of tabs along the bottom, one for each book. This is a partial list from THE CODEBOOK MURDERS, the fourth installment in my series, releasing May 21, 2019. (For the purpose of this blog, which I am posting in early April, I deleted all the novel-specific characters, because there are all kinds of spoilers in the notes!)
Now take a look at this one:
This second list is from my current work in progress, tentatively titled “Poison Garden”. See how the first 16 lines are the same characters? Each time I start a new tab, I copy and paste over all the “keepers” from previous books, adding in any that have joined the party and seem like they are here to stay. When I create a tab for Book 6, I will ONLY copy and paste those characters that I want to carry over.
Below the keepers, I start adding all the story-specific players. In this case, we have the Vandergrath family, a caterer named Karen Kapekniak, and so on. None of these folks are going to roll over to another book. Nevertheless, they get a line here. And as I am drafting, I continue to add any critical details as I determine them. It saves so much search time later, when you cannot recall how tall you said someone is or where you mentioned it.
Each of my tabs’ lower 12-15 lines are filled with the characters that are unique to that story. If I ultimately decide to cut someone, I simply delete that line. I am constantly revising and updating the work in progress tab, just as I revise my manuscript. Whenever I am drafting or revising, this Excel sheet is open. Once you’re set up, it only takes a few seconds to keep the details current.
One final teachable moment here. Take a look at Line 5, Vanessa St. James, one of my keepers. You will note that I added more detail in POISON GARDEN than I had in CODEBOOK MURDERS. That’s because I’ve delved deeper into Vanessa’s backstory in this new novel, giving her more skills and attributes. Her brother Dmitri (Line 4) has been a character since Book Club Murders, my first novel. However, I never mentioned his exact height until Book 5, so I added it to his grid line here. In fact, Charley is my main character, and I never pinned down her height or her birthday until now, either! Those details just never came up.
But now that they have, they are “canon”, a word Dictionary.com defines as “established or agreed-upon constraints governing the background narrative, setting, storyline, characters, etc., in a particular fictional world.”
Your job, as the creator of your fictional world, is to be a good steward of your canon. If you do, you’ll save time and ensure a consistent universe. If you don’t, your readers will find out. And, believe me, they will let you know.
Earlier in this blog, I discuss prewriting and how this critical, yet much maligned, step in the writing process can save the serious writer serious time. Drafting a novel without a well constructed outline is like driving cross country without a map. While you may eventually reach your destination, chances are the trip will involve unnecessary side trips and back tracking, all big time wasters. And at the risk of stretching the analogy to the breaking point, your vehicle--the finished manuscript--will likely arrive in rough shape, needing hours of clean up and maintenance to get it road worthy enough to present to an agent. Who has that kind of time to waste? Not us.
But before we move on, we need to confront another form of prewriting of equal importance to the fiction author, and that is backstory. Hold on, you protest. Surely writing any text not destined for the published page is the definition of wasting time? Give me one good reason why I should bother.
You want one reason? I will give you three. First, nothing wastes more time than having to scrap a scene because a character did or said something out of character. I speak from sad experience. Many an irrelevant conversation, lovingly written, has hit the circular file because it made no sense in the context of my novel and its inhabitants.
Equally frustrating is finding yourself staring at the blinking cursor as you try to decide what your character would or would not do in a given situation. If you’ve got her backstory written, you will know what she’ll do next.
Finally, good backstory actually helps to shape and drive your plot. Use your characters’ past traumas, desires, and hidden talents to mold the story they’re walking through. If you’ve put in the time to create interesting, believable pasts, your story will fly onto the page.
Say you have two main characters, Rebecca and Felix, who are going to interact throughout your novel. If you want to introduce some tension and conflict, you could simply have these two declare that they don’t like one another. That’s going to land pretty flat, an interpersonal dynamic with no reason and thus, with nowhere to go. WHY don’t they get along? Maybe you decide that Rebecca thinks Felix is arrogant. You’ve now added a layer that will inform how she reacts to what he’s saying or doing.
But don’t stop there. WHY does Rebecca think that? And why is Felix acting in an arrogant manner? If you don’t answer those questions in advance, two things can happen, and both of them are bad.
First, if you don’t know why, you won’t have authentic reactions and responses that develop consistently through the story. Characters, and the relationships between them, need to develop and grow authentically in order to engage the reader.
Second, without a beginning and a middle, you won’t find a satisfactory end. Where do these two end up at the end of the novel? Still hating one another? Boring. Discovering truths about one another that helps them move past their animosity? Much, much better, and loaded with plot-building possibilities.
How much more interesting it all becomes if, say, Felix reminds Rebecca of her abusive stepfather. Naturally she becomes defensive when Felix gets bossy. And perhaps Felix is insecure about working with a woman because his last boss sexually harassed him right out of a major promotion. This past experience now causes him to overcompensate with strong women, figuring that the best defense is a good offense.
With a handful of carefully placed glimpses into Rebecca’s and Felix’s pasts, you now have that rich three dimensional landscape, an interesting and detailed interpersonal dynamic that will drive every conversation, every reflection, every choice these two make as they get to know one another, work together and slowly overcome their initial prejudices. So in the final chapter, we have true character development that both drives, and is driven by, character backstory.
Did you say “carefully placed?” Can’t we just explain all that stuff up front, sort of the “once upon a time” approach? Get it out of the way? You could do that, but that method, the dreaded “information dump”, is rarely successful. Modern readers demand engagement from page one. If you start your story by laying out the history of people they don’t yet care about, you’re going to lose them.
I could write reams on how to incorporate backstory into a narrative, but that’s not what this blog is about. Besides, many others have already done so: Google “backstory” and see what you find. Short answer: strike a balance between dialogue, flashbacks and straight exposition.
What I do want to share are my ABC’s of how to create character backstory as efficiently as possible.
A. Start with the 5 W’s. Remember your writing wall? It’s time to break out those sticky notes, friend. Start a column for each of your most important characters and begin filling in stickies with each person’s who/what/when/where/how/why. Single words or short phrases are best at this stage.
You can and will return to this process often. It’s an excellent activity for times when you only have a short writing time window. (Writer’s tip: keep a pack of stickies in your purse, your car, your kitchen drawer. Felix once punched out a bully? Capture that moment in all its glory before you get distracted.)
B. Decide which of those tidbits are relevant to your story. If you’re writing romance, you need to consider sexual orientation, personal insecurities, perhaps cultural norms and pressures. Show your reader these details with a tale of first love or wrenching past heartbreak. If you’re writing a thriller or paranormal, give the reader a glimpse of how your character might deal with the impending crisis in your novel. Do this by relating how she dealt with a similar past event, maybe one that didn’t go quite as planned. Those elements of backstory, if you’ve been thoughtful about them, will both guide your plotting and help create a story with depth and genuine human interactions.
C. Keep backstory lean and mean. If a detail doesn’t impact your story in a significant way, cut it. Do we need to know that Rebecca’s favorite flavor is chocolate? Perhaps, if Felix calls a truce at a critical juncture by gifting her with a pint of fudge ripple ice cream.
Even if you create backstory that you don’t explicitly spell out for your reader, it doesn’t mean you can’t let it add shade and nuance to the character. Because I’m writing a series, I’ve written and added to extensive backstories for many of my folks, a lot of which I haven’t yet directly included in a novel. Yet. However, I’ve dropped hints and allowed those hidden facts to direct characters’ actions and reactions, and even to nudge my plots in certain places. When the reveal comes, my readers get a major “aha” moment!
Invest the time in creating quality backstory. If you do, you’ll have developed a stockpile of potential future plot points and character details that will help make your future writing time efficient and productive. Plus, you’ll achieve an end result that leaves your readers feeling that they’ve met characters they can believe in. Isn’t that outcome worth your time?
December 21: Shortest Day Alert! With TIME at a premium during the holidays, here are 6 things aspiring writers should hope to find under the tree:
Time: This is self-evident but worth repeating. Successful writers often smugly observe that “everyone is given the same 24 hours in a day.” While this is true, not everyone has the same amount of non-writing tasks jammed into that day. Breathe, plan, and claim the gift of your precious writing Time, even if it’s just 45 minutes while the kids finish their homework.
Support: Without love and backing by family and friends, it’s almost impossible to carve out a writing life from days already packed with obligations. Remember that you cannot receive the gift of Support unless you ASK. Which leads us to . . .
Courage: You have this gift within you right now. Believe in your right to write. Take ownership of your dreams. If a writing life is what you truly want, then seize your Courage and ask. Those who truly love you will support you.
Humor: New writers deal with a lot of rejection. Face those rejections with a smile or a laugh, and you’ll be better able to keep on rolling forward. (I find it’s helpful to imagine all those nay sayers drop-jawed and envious as I accept my latest award for a book they passed on.)
Vision: After rejections, criticism of our work is the toughest thing for writers to swallow. Bad reviews, editor’s notes, even well intentioned comments from writing group members can cut like a knife. The gift of Vision allows a writer to let go of ego or possessiveness and see the larger picture. Does your personal sense of humor translate to all segments of your target audience? Would the story be stronger without that flashback scene you lavished so much time on? Zooming out is tough, but vital to the eventual publishability of your manuscript.
Faith: This is the season of miracles. If you want a writing life, if your family gifts you with Support for this dream, then it can be yours. If your goal is eventual publication, there’s no denying that a long road lies ahead. Have Faith in your personal Vision for the story you want to tell. Have the Courage to ask for what you need, and the Humor to swallow the things you’d rather not receive. Most importantly, guard your Time jealously. Treasure every precious minute. Like the holidays, those minutes will be gone before you know it.
The online writing community is vast and generous. Plenty of folks on ‘the inside’ are ready, willing and able to share their secrets on how to ‘get inside’ to aspiring, as yet unpublished writers. The problem? You could spend weeks trolling through social media and never catch up. And even if, by some miracle of time and application, you were to view all the relevant articles, posts, blogs, photos, and video clips on writing and publishing, well, guess what? When you wake up tomorrow, you will find a fresh batch has been dumped on your digital doorstep, demanding to be consumed.
Every agent, every editor, lots of writers (oops, guilty as charged), all of us keep a finger or two in the digital potage, regardless of how busy we are.
Why do we do this? Because to fail to participate is to be conspicuous by your absence. Once you’ve cracked the publishing nut, you are told that maintaining an online presence is now part of your job. If by some miracle a potential new reader or client should stumble across your name, what’s the very first thing they do? They search for you online. And they’d better find some content. You’ve got to have a website at the minimum, and if you’re not a total loser, that site should connect to at least three other social media platforms. And naturally, you must then find the time—and the material—to keep each and every one of your digital toeholds living, breathing, and relevant with frequent postings. It’s a little like that famous Vaudeville act where the guy keeps a dozen plates spinning on top of slender dowel rods. Talk about someone whose work is never done.
I bring this up, not to dissuade you from pursuing publication and being yoked with the burden of personal promotion. And it can be burdensome. Certainly it takes time away from the real work of writing, editing and publishing. I created my website and started posting across social media before my first book even had cover art, much less had been published. Oh, the joyous celebration when my Facebook page reached 100 ‘Likes.’ You’d have thought we were burning the mortgage.
My point here, and I do have one, is that, within this sea of opinions, how to’s, pictures from publishing conferences and book tours, interviews with authors/editors/agents/media coordinators and more, all lapping at the shore of your precious, limited time, the amount of content that you NEED to consume is approximately . . . ZERO. Remember, we have to produce content. Odds are good that a lot of it is redundant, and most of the rest is irrelevant to your personal situation.
This is not to say that there aren’t some smart folks out there dishing excellent and useful advice. I learned how to write a query letter from an agent’s blog. She’d become fed up with receiving crappy queries and set out to make the world a better place. Thank you, Janet Reid.
But what you must guard against, as vigilantly as you avoid dark alleys, lead based paint, or Game of Thrones spoilers, is the temptation to simply read everything. You’ve got to be selective. Read titles. If the topic under discussion doesn’t apply to your personal situation RIGHT THIS MINUTE, then skip it.
“But someday I will need advice on what to do after I get an agent!” you protest. True enough. When that blessed day comes, there will be another, even fresher and more relevant article on that exact topic at your digital fingertips. Type it into any search engine, and dozens of blogs and articles will present themselves, including the one calling to you right now.
So what, if anything, should you be reading online? If you are an aspiring writer, my personal opinion is “not much.” Enjoy your own Facebook fun with family and friends (just so long as the fun doesn’t occur during your carefully carved out writing time.) If you have a manuscript partially or mostly completed, I’d troll for stuff on polishing my writing, engaging readers, what agents look for in Chapter 1, stuff like that.
If your book is finished and you’re ready to begin the search for an agent, check out ONE or TWO blogs on querying. There are dozens, and please don’t waste time reading all of them. As stated above, most of them repeat the same basic advice. Pick one from an agent whose website indicates she/he has plenty of successfully placed clients, and you are reading advice from an expert.
You must be strong. Remain extremely selective with what you choose to consume. Because all that trolling, searching and reading will burn through your free time like a forest fire. Worse, it can be confusing and distracting, leading you to worry about things you don’t need to be worrying about right now. Focusing on the task at hand right now is the most time-efficient thing you can do.
I totally understand the allure. Unpublished, aspiring writers are like children with our noses pressed against the glass. Glimpses inside the magical world of ‘real’ writers give us hope that we, too, will someday gain admittance. But trust me when I tell you that, as fascinating as all that stuff is, it will not get you where you want to go. It takes iron discipline to stay on track. And just as with the habit of tuning out distractions during scheduled writing time, the ability to avoid the white noise of the endless social media stream is a critical skill worth cultivating.
Be strong. Your challenge is to stand firm as a determined and faithful steward of that most valuable resource—your time. It is scarce, and it is precious. How you use it is totally up to you. But once it’s gone, it’s gone.
There are a lot of folks out there blogging about what NOT to do. “Top 5 Mistakes New Writers Make.” “Top 30 Ways New Writers Fail to Engage on Page One.” “Top 100 Things You Don’t Know about Querying Agents.” The list goes on.
My point is, with all this expert testimony out there, we are bound to find some common threads, and in fact, we do. One of the most prevalent is the admonition to new writers to keep reading. If you are writing genre fiction, you’ve got to know what’s selling.
“But you told me not to waste time!” you protest. “I don’t have time to read!” Au contraire, Pierre. Your brain needs fuel. Writing burns fuel, and reading replenishes it. You have time before bed, or while you’re driving (I am an audio book junkie), right? Put away the fashion mags, and keep at least one book in process at all times.
“But I’m afraid my writing will start sounding like some other published writer!” You should be so lucky. We are all of us influenced by everything we’ve ever seen or done or heard or read or tasted. We cannot control the composition of all our influences (Into every life, some boring people must enter. And stay, and stay...). What we can do is to make certain our mental diet includes some critical nourishment every day.
Don’t fear the writing of others. Let it inform you. Allow the ideas, voice and pacing of successful writers to wash over you. It may be that things they do differently from you are things you don’t like. Great! That’s a super discovery that informs your writing. But it may just be that some of those successful authors actually know a thing or two. Just saying.
So we’re going to read. But since time, as ever, is scarce, we need a plan. Be efficient; be selective. Here is my 5-Point Guide to Building A “Career” Reading List:
Organize your reading just as you have organized all other aspects of your writing life. Everything you do informs your writing, so shouldn't you make the most of everything you do?
So you’ve managed to carve out some precious writing time from your busy schedule? Fantastic. You’re now ready to tackle the next major hurdle: work space. The first logical question that presents itself is: Do I need a dedicated space for my writing? The short answer is simple.
YES. YOU DO.
There are two reasons why. The first flows from my earlier blog posts: You are busy. For that reason, you don’t have time to set up all your junk every time you get a free moment. If you have to pack up your notes, your laptop, your favorite mouse pad and so on, and then unpack it all and arrange it before you can get anything done, odds are you’ll never get to the good stuff. The goal is to reduce or eliminate all the wheel-spinning so you can focus on writing.
The second reason has more to do with head space than geography. We’ve all read studies that show students do better on tests if they sit in the same seat they learned in. Research has proved that the territorial instinct supersedes most others, even the urge to reproduce or eat. Many animals will literally wither away while defending their lair or nest. Heavy psychology aside, if you’re going to build an imaginary world of any complexity, you’ve got to be able to come back to the same physical place, your place, day after day. Doing so reduces distractions and makes it easier for you to return to that imaginary world and concentrate on what happens next.
If you don’t have the luxury of converting an extra bedroom, den or finished basement into an office with a door, all is not lost. But that doesn’t mean you can settle for balancing your work space on top of a filing cabinet. At a minimum, you’re going to need a desk sized surface. It can be a kitchen counter, but you’ve got to insist on at least four linear feet—six is better—that you claim as your own, that you can set up and keep set up, and that NO ONE ELSE MESSES WITH. If you are truly serious about having a writing life, then this is an absolute must.
Properly organizing your work space is essential. A quick Google search of how to do so only produced about—wow, twelve hundred hits. I read every single one, condensed all that knowledge for you, and it is my pleasure to present:
Leslie’s 5 Steps To A Power Desk:
“Writing is Fear.” Someone smarter than I am said that, and boy, did he know what he was talking about. Don’t like that one? How about: “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” I think Confucius meant to encourage, but it’s downright daunting when we’re talking about coming face to face with the dreaded blank page. As any experienced writer will tell you, all the platitudes in the world won’t make it any easier to buckle down and get started.
In fourth grade I received my first exposure to “The Steps of the Writing Process.” Prior to fourth grade, writing took place on giant lined newsprint and usually included a crayon illustration. (Suitable for framing, grandma!) If it’s been a while since you were in fourth grade, here’s a reminder:
I was fortunate to have a series of elementary and middle school teachers who believed in the mechanics of writing. We were drilled in these five steps through essay after essay. We practiced them on short stories, research papers, memoirs, and poems. Oh, the red pens. The goal was to embed these steps in our psyches so that we would naturally apply them every time we wrote anything. In my case, at least, it worked. You should see how long it takes me to send an email.
If you ask most writers which step is the most important creatively (Obviously #5 is the most important FINANCIALLY, but let’s stay on topic), four out of five will tell you that drafting is where the creative process lives. A few might disagree, telling you to just get the story down any old which way you can, and use the revision step to enrich, stylize and pace your story. But veterans of the craft know the truth, and I will let you in on their secret: one hour of prewriting is worth ten hours of drafting, most of which will end up being cut or revised anyway.
The good news for busy people? Effective prewriting works like a well-structured grocery list; do it right and you can score exactly what you want AND get out of the supermarket with minimal wasted time and effort.
Perhaps your goal is a 70,000 word novel, or even a 30-page short story. Either way, the goal is so large it’s paralyzing. Where to start? In order to get the ball rolling, break it down into manageable pieces with small prewriting activities.
Here are Seven Prewriting Steps to planning out a novel:
1. Start by making a list of events you’d like to see happen in your story.
2. If you go with the scene method, think of each one as a chapter. (Stay flexible here; sometimes a juicy scene can be within a larger, contextual one.) Put each on its own index card, and mount them on a wall, white board, or even a mirror, if you have an extra bathroom.
3. Get those events in the proper order. This is a critical prewriting step, and if you do it right, you will produce a mini outline or road map that will help you push ahead.
4. Start fleshing out each scene with the 5 W’s. Who is there? How are those people connected? Why are they there? What must they learn in order to move to the next stage of the story? Each time you come up with ANYTHING, no matter how trivial, jot it on the card.
5. Cards getting full? Annex a second, or a third. If you have more than 3, you may have 2 chapters in the making. Or you might be ready to start drafting.
6. You will revisit this list over and over as the story begins to evolve. Revisiting and updating your wall is an excellent “ease-in” activity to help get your head in the game. If I know I only have 30-45 minutes of working time, I’ll often start at the wall, adding to a potential scene, perhaps adding detail about a character.
7. The key with the wall trick is that you always finish your session with a plan for next time. The plan should be as clear as possible. Will you choose/change the setting for Chapter One? Will you list talking points for that argument between your hero and his father to make it more infuriating, perhaps raising the stakes in some way? Will you identify the 3 places in the novel where your supporting character needs to stiffen her spine? Other possibilities:
I write murder mysteries, which are very detail and event driven. For this reason I use the one-scene-per notecard method of prewriting. I start at the end, with the killer and the crime. Then I figure out why she/he did it, then I figure out how. Only THEN do I attempt to picture the scene that opens the story, with my heroine becoming drawn into the investigation. I routinely fill 40 + note cards, plus 15-25 post it notes with smaller details, during the prewriting stage of planning out an 80,000 word novel. And I promise you, all those note cards get cross outs, additions, and even complete rewrites galore. I keep working my notecards AS I DRAFT. I move them around, omit them, then add them back in as my characters journey toward a solution.
Does all that take time? It does. But this thoughtful process, the quiet, careful contemplation of each aspect of my story, this is where my creativity comes from. I don’t know if there are writers out there who actually sit down and flat out compose a story from beginning to end. I tried that my first time out, and ended up with a 150,000-word train wreck. Nothing made sense. The plot had more holes than a crocheted afghan. The biggest tragedy was that some lovely prose, intricately drawn scenes over which I labored long, ended up in the circular file. Talk about wasted time.
All this prewriting sounds great, you say, and it’s certainly easy to step in/step out for someone with a schedule chopped into short work periods. But when, you ask, do I actually start writing?
I can only tell you what has worked for me. When I have a scene, or chapter, so well plotted out, perhaps two or three cards filled with details, setting, characters, the mood, what key information I want to convey to the reader, maybe a few post its with intriguing power words stuck on there, phew! When I have all of that, and I’ve reviewed it and worked it, adding to and massaging it...it starts talking to me. I hear it while I’m doing other things, like cooking or taking a walk. My family start asking me why I’m so quiet all of a sudden. Finally, after a day, or even a week, the perfect starting point with the perfect opening sentence presents itself. And as I play that sentence over and over in my head, others begin to follow. When I hear that, I’m ready to sit down, face that blinking cursor, and start transcribing the internal narrative onto the page. I schedule a significant time block, at least an hour, preferably more if I can manage it, and I begin, at long last, to draft. And while that first draft will of course be subject to revision and editing, and more revision, I know I have created a solid building block toward construction of my larger story.
So you want to be a writer. You’ve got a stupendous idea for a book. Maybe you’ve even jotted down some ideas, a scene or two, some character names. There’s just one teensy problem. Although your story is constantly nudging around in your mind, you never have time to sit down and WRITE. After a day of carpools, email, meetings, phone calls, housework and a thousand other tasks, you’re toast.
Ever start a comprehensive new exercise regimen and find yourself dumping it after a week? Decide to lose twenty pounds on an all-grapefruit diet? Odds are the only thing you lost was any desire to eat another grapefruit. These endeavors fail for one simple reason: they are too ambitious. We bite off more than we can chew. We try to do too much, too soon. Then when we are forced to skip a day, or we have to attend the Little League banquet and there’s cake, we decide we’ve failed and we scrap the entire enterprise.
My solution: reject the all-or-nothing mentality that the writing gurus keep shoveling as the only way to be a writer. You need to STOP. Breathe. There’s a better, more realistic way. Here are six easy steps to taking your nutso life and adding in the one element that missing and that, ironically, you most want to have in there: the time to write.
It takes practice to tune out everything else during writing time, but it’s a habit worth cultivating. If you backslide and take a call, or maybe run downstairs to check on the meatloaf, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that this is a journey without a finish line.
And there you have it. Each week you’ll take a few minutes to analyze your time and carve out your writing life. If you only get two sessions in a week, take them and run. Maybe you can get four sessions the next. Just keep your goals realistic.
What, you may well ask, can you possibly accomplish in 15 minutes? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Remember that no one sits down and produces a polished chapter in one sitting, or maybe even three. In future blogs we’ll be chatting about breaking down various aspects of the process to preserve sanity. For now, just focus on finding those precious minutes and getting words on the page, even if they’re not your very best. Because whatever else they may be, they are YOURS.
I promised this blog would deliver a series of steps to creating and organizing your writing life. And we will get to those steps and more. However, after reflecting on the first post and struggling to write the second, I hit a wall. I tried climbing over it, scooching around it, tunneling under it. No dice.
And then it hit me. To start any journey, we must begin at the beginning. Method is, after all, at the heart of this blog. We are not quite yet ready for practical magic. Before we roll up our sleeves and get busy with launching a writing life, we need to have a serious chat.
You’ve got to let go of the guilt. Period. This may be difficult to hear, but your biggest blockade to a writing life may be you. If you resist making the life changes necessary to becoming a writer, then writing is never, ever going to happen. Maybe it’s because you think you shouldn’t take the time away from what you’ve been told are your ‘real priorities.’ Maybe you don’t truly believe that your dreams are as important as those of the other players on your stage. Whatever it is that’s been holding you back, you have to confront it. Then you have to let it go. Write it on a cocktail napkin and burn it under a full moon. Scream it into your pillow. Dump it on your analyst, your mom, your tennis partner, your playgroup, book group, significant other, ficus tree (they’re very forgiving.) But wherever you send the guilt, you have to ship it hard, and you have to mean it.
If you’ve told yourself that you’re just too darn busy to write and please get off your back, you might be doing what author Elizabeth George calls the Divine Dance of Avoidance. In her beautiful book WRITE AWAY, she explains: “Throughout my life I lacked confidence...All signs pointed to the writing life...and yet all of this [career development] took years. It constituted an elaborate avoidance device...[you must] clear your life of the things that keep you from doing the actual writing.”
When I first read this, I literally broke down and cried. I realized that I had spent years doing precisely that: I kept busy raising my family, working all my different jobs, getting another degree and launching another career, all of it done well, but with writing a dream pushed constantly—and dare I say safely?—onto a back burner. By staying busy, I avoided taking the risk of attempting to be a writer.
And even more critically, I avoided the necessity of confronting my guilt about committing so much time to an endeavor that might not bear fruit. Not until I forced myself into the terrifying step of typing “Chapter One” onto a blank document did I accept the truth of what George is saying.
Being ‘too busy to write’ is a dodge. It is at heart an elaborate excuse, or it was for me. We can pretend that it’s not, because plenty of real work is happening every day. We’re not sitting around eating bon bons and reading Cosmo, after all. But the fact remains that we are the ones who decide what fills our lives, no one else. Remember the pebble and the jar of sand? If you don’t want to be a writer, that's fine. Continue making excuses. But if you are truly called to this lonely, frustrating, thrilling endeavor, then you have to step up to the plate and own it.
Nothing you try will be successful until you truly accept that you deserve a writing life. Share this goal with your family, with those who will be most affected by any changes you decide to make. Getting their support is critical to your success. Do it tonight, and make sure they know how much writing means to you. It won’t be about money, or fame, or being interviewed on the Late Show. It’s just about you. And if it’s important to you, then it’ll be important to the people who love you.
Ms. George says it far better than I can. “I write because I was meant to write, I was called to write, I was told to write. I write because that’s who I am.”
And so we arrive at the question: Are you a writer? If the answer is ‘yes’, then let’s get busy.
Try this simple experiment: Take a small jar and remove the lid. Fill it almost to the brim with sand. Now take a pebble and set it on top of the sand. The lid won’t fit anymore, right? But what happens if you pour out the sand and put the pebble in first? Miraculously, with the pebble at the bottom, you can pour the sand over and around it and screw on the lid. Everything fits perfectly, just like magic. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself and be amazed.
Think of the jar as a single busy day in your busy life. The grains of sand are the myriad tasks and commitments with which you fill your precious time. And the pebble? That, my friend, is writing.
The lesson is simple. If you carve out time to write FIRST, you will fit in all the other stuff. You will. But if you try to cram it in last thing at night, after completing every single other thing you had to do that day, you’ll never get to it. We know it’s true, and we want to do better, we really do. Sadly, it’s easier said than done.
I worked a full time job all day and attended grad school at night. At the same time I ran a Scout troop, raised two kids, maintained a home and a happy marriage, and...I wrote my first novel. I’m not bragging or putting myself in for the Busiest Mom Award (although if they ever create one, I should get at least an Honorable Mention.) But during those crazy years—and things haven’t slowed much as I close in on completing my second book—I learned a few things about time management and getting things done.
It’s not enough to say, “I will get up at five every morning and write for one hour.” It’s not enough to say, “I will call in sick tomorrow and start Chapter One.” (Both of these are actual strategies recommended by famous writers who shall remain nameless. Hint: both are men with wives and personal assistants). Maybe you’ll actually try one or the other, but if you’re a busy person, you won’t be able to sustain a writing life for long, at least not without a sensible strategy that works for YOU.
How, then, to get ahead? How do we carve out the time, the quiet, focused space that writing requires?
We organize. We containerize. We make lists. I’ve been there—hell, I’m still here, and I’m telling you it can be done. It takes discipline and a few simple tricks to get started. After that it’s up to you. In this blog I’ll be sharing my methods for fitting the writing life into a life already brimful of living. We’ll look at creating a working workspace, determining your best daily schedule, responding to editor notes without panicking, naming characters, managing social media and promotion, and much more.
So sharpen a few pencils, square up those note cards, and prepare to prepare. You can do this, if you want it. I’m here to help.
I am a writer and teacher of writing. After a lifetime of attempting to squeeze writing into my busy life as wife, mother, Scout leader, teacher, and far too many additional hats to list here, I have achieved my dream of being published and becoming a 'real writer'. How did I find the time? In this blog I'll share some of my strategies for having it all--and still getting dinner on the table by six.