Table to with a notebook that says 2022 goals surrounded by an envelope on the left, a small holiday gift and sparkly ornament at the top, and a pen on the right.

The Power of Words

I gave up making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago, but every December since the year 2000, I’ve made a list of goals for the coming year. I used to type them, but beginning in 2009, I started writing the lists down by hand in my “dream journal,” a separate journal that houses my dreams. In addition to my annual lists of goals, I keep other lists in my dream journal, like a list of places I want to visit and an extensive list of all the places I’ve lived since I was three years old. I also jot down little notes in my dream journal: observations, quotes, and things that move me, inspire me, or motivate me.

I’ve written down a list of anywhere from 10 to 25 goals each year for the past 20+ years. I’ve never once accomplished every goal on the list, but I’m okay with that. If I accomplish even half of them, I’ve still gotten somewhere. And over time, I’ve accomplished quite a lot. Some goals make the list for several years before I actually accomplish them. I first wrote “Earn Bachelor’s Degree” on my 2012 list. I didn’t go back to college until 2016, and I didn’t earn my bachelor’s degree until 2018. But I set that intention, and I kept writing it down and putting it into words until it came true. In 2016, I set a goal of submitting 12 short stories to literary journals. I didn’t accomplish that goal until this year. I’m still working on my goals to beat my best 5K time and to watch all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. I’ll get there someday. But the thing is, I’ve steadily made progress, and my life is considerably better than it was before I started writing my goals down.

As I begin to consider my goals for 2022, I find myself thinking about the power words have had in my life. The power of writing my goals down and setting my intentions for the future, yes. But also the power of the words others use to define me, and the power of the words I use to define myself. Like when I was in seventh grade, and I had to stand up in front of my English class and give an oral report on Virginia Dare. I was terrified. I wore a chocolate brown dress my mother made for me. My teacher wrote each of us a handwritten letter giving her feedback on our reports. At the end of mine, she wrote, “Brown is definitely your color!” As I write this nearly 50 years later, I still have that piece of paper tucked away somewhere, and I just realized I’m wearing my favorite chocolate brown sweater. The power of words.

Close up of notebook or journal with heading 2022 goals. A woman in a bulky oatmeal colored sweater and jeans is writing in the notebook.

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher sent me to the library to help with a kindergarten class. I sat cross-legged on the carpet with some of the children and read to them, then I helped them pick out library books. It wasn’t anything super memorable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t remember that afternoon at all except for two things: (1) It was the day I checked Island of the Blue Dolphins out of the library–I can still picture it displayed on a book easel on top of a shelf; and (2) when I left, the kindergarten teacher thanked me for my help and told me I showed a lot of “initiative.” I didn’t know what the word “initiative” meant. I had to go look it up in the dictionary. When I did, I felt a sense of pride. The kindergarten teacher had seen this awesome personality trait in me that I didn’t even know existed, let alone that I possessed.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really showed any initiative in the library that day. I was quiet and introverted as a child, and I don’t remember doing anything other than what I was sent there to do. But between my own teacher choosing me for the job and the kindergarten teacher complimenting me, that day was a boost to my self-esteem and helped to develop my character. If I didn’t have initiative when I left the library that day, I sure do have it now, many years later. I believed I had initiative, and so I displayed it at every opportunity. Today, this is a quality I really do have. That kindergarten teacher gave me a word that changed my life.

As an adult, I worked as a music promoter for a few years. One night, after I insisted a sleazy venue manager give my band the slot he’d promised, a famous rock musician told me I was tenacious. To be honest, up until that night, I hadn’t seen my unwillingness to give up or give in as a positive trait. I often saw it as obstinacy, a dogged and sometimes reckless refusal to get it through my thick skull that something wasn’t meant to be. But that night, when the musician told me I was tenacious and said it in an admiring way, I began to see myself differently. Sure, that kind of stubbornness meant I eventually failed at a lot of things. But it sometimes meant I persisted long enough to succeed, too.

Persistence and thick skins are things writers need. To keep writing and rewriting, trying to spill the things in your head out onto paper in such a way that others can see you, in such a way that other human beings know that you see them, is hard on the soul. To continue submitting your stories, little pieces of you, to literary journals day after day, and to be told they’re not wanted the overwhelming majority of the time, is hard on the heart. Out of the 49 submissions I’ve received responses to so far this year, 47 of those responses were rejections. It would be so easy to get discouraged and give up. I’ll admit it—sometimes I think it would be a relief to give up and do something else. Just about anything else.

But in those moments, I remember that scene in The Notebook when Noah tells Allie she’s a pain in the ass, and I know I’m made of stronger stuff than that. “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings,” he says. “You have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain in the ass thing.” This is me. I am tenacious. Or stubborn. Either way, literary journals aren’t afraid to hurt my feelings, and sure, it hurts to be rejected—for like two seconds. Then I get over it. I roll up the sleeves of my chocolate brown sweater, and I send them another story. Surely they’ll love this one.

As I put my goals into words this month and set my intentions for 2022, I’m going to keep in mind the power that words have, not only to help me set my course for the coming year, but to encourage me and keep me pushing forward. When it comes to pursuing a writing career, being stubborn is a good thing.

WRITER TIP: Start a dream journal. There is power in setting your intentions for the future, putting your goals into words, and writing your dreams for yourself down in ink. Each year, write your goals for that year in your dream journal. Write down specific, measurable goals, and cross them off as you achieve them. If you don’t reach a goal one year, move it to the next year, and keep setting that intention until you reach the goal. As the years go by and you look back at your lists, you’ll be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished.
Yosemite National Park Valley and Merced River, California, USA, in autumn. Low clouds at the mountain tops and trees behind the river in shades of green, yellow, and orange, with a gray stone wall in the foreground.

Writers Write About Gratitude

As we head into the winter holidays, I’ve gathered a collection of 31 quotes and passages about gratitude from well-known writers. I hope you enjoy them, and I wish you and your loved ones health and happiness.

“All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.”
—Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

“Let all your thinks be thanks.” —W.H. Auden

“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Close-up of wild red poppies on the meadow in sunny day. Decorated with light spots.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me but I find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss.” —Rita Mae Brown

“Don’t let the sun go down without saying thank you to someone, and without admitting to yourself that absolutely no one gets this far alone.” —Stephen King

“Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” —Gertrude Stein

“Rest and be thankful.” —William Wordsworth

Close-up of a dandelion flower in a meadow with mostly brown tall grass and a few sprigs of green grass at its base.

“Thanks for this day, for all birds safe in their nests, for whatever this is, for life.” —Barbara Kingsolver

“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, And thanks, and ever thanks.” —William Shakespeare

“‘Thank you’ is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme humility, gratitude, understanding.” —Alice Walker

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: It must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.” —William Faulkner

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” —Maya AngelouCelebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer

Blooming Lupin wildflowers, close up, bright purple, some blurred, some in focus

“Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” —Voltaire

“’I am sure they will be very grateful.’ How would you know? I wanted to say. Often those men in most need hate most to be grateful, and will strike at you just to feel whole again.” —Madeline Miller, Circe

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” —Thornton Wilder

“I’m so thankful for friendship. It beautifies life so much.” —L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” —Marcel Proust

WWild California poppies, close up, in the Antelope Valley California poppy reserve.

“There is no better way to thank God for your sight than by giving a helping hand to someone in the dark.” —Helen Keller, Light in My Darkness

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

“My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“Here is the world, and you live in it, and are grateful. You try to be grateful.”
—Michael Cunningham, The Hours

“But once you accept the fact that you have always been alone, and will always be, then your perspective can begin to change. You can become aware of the small kindnesses, the little comforts. Be grateful for them.” —Linda Olsson, Astrid and Veronika

Close-up of pink or mauve tulips in a field.

“For a wise man, I have been told, once said, ‘Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate in empty phrases.’ But alas, my lady, I am but a mass of empty phrases, it would seem.”
Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire

“What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.” —Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

“Be grateful in your own hearts. That suffices. Thanksgiving has wings, and flies to its right destination.” —Victor Hugo

“It was gratitude; gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him, and all the unjust accusations accompanying her rejection.” —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“What an astonishment to breathe on this breathing planet. What a blessing to be Earth loving Earth.” John Green, The Anthropocene Reviewed

Close-up shot of bright orange tiger lilies growing in the wild or in a garden, with blurred background of greenery.

“For my part, I am almost contented just now, and very thankful. Gratitude is a divine emotion: it fills the heart, but not to bursting; it warms it, but not to fever.” —Charlotte Brontë

“An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” —Henry David Thoreau

“This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.” —Maya Angelou

Burned out writer sleeping at her desk in front of open laptop.

Knowing When to Quit

Author Tyler Dilts recently made an observation on social media that helped me solve a mystery:

Tweet by author Tyler Dilts @tylerdilts on November 15, 2021, that reads: Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a guarantee that you'll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again.

Writing every single day rain or shine and without fail is the closest thing there is to a
guarantee that you’ll write half a novel, burn out, and never try again. @tylerdilts 11/15/21

 

Dilts was talking about the unrealistic, overly demanding, and unkind expectations we often impose upon ourselves as writers. Like the way I throw myself into National Novel Writing Month like I’m throwing myself in front of a steamroller–I approach it with ferocity, like I’m going into the ring up against The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and The Million Dollar Man, all at once.

This year, I participated in NaNoWriMo for the 5th time. I did so because I’ve been overwhelmed with work and other commitments, I’m trying to finish a novel, and I’m not getting as much writing done as I’d like. So right as my schedule began to clear up, I decided it would be a great idea to add something new to my plate and force myself to write more. I wrote over 27,000 words in the first 16 days of November. I wrote at least 1,667 words on each of those days because, in addition to other achievements, participants are awarded a virtual badge for meeting the average word count daily, without fail. Something in me won’t let me fall short of my daily word count. And something in me won’t let me not win that badge.

Something in me.

I’m not here to disrespect NaNoWriMo. It’s a fantastic idea and a great organization that does a lot of good. It can be quite beneficial for writers. I think it’s especially helpful for writers who are where I was eight years ago–writers who are trying to get into the habit of writing regularly or who want to prove to themselves they can write a book (reader, you can). For even established writers, it can help jump start a new book, and it can be a fun way to engage with your writing community. It’s a nice annual tradition as we head into the dark winter months. As a matter of fact, the book I’m polishing up now started as a NaNoWriMo half-novel in 2013. It was an empowering experience for me to actually finish writing that half a draft. It showed me I could write regularly during a time when I was telling myself I never had time to write, and it showed me I could write a book. It was a life-changing experience. But over the past few days, I’ve come to realize that NaNoWriMo, much like Farmville, is no longer good for me.

It came to me shortly after I posted this on Twitter on Tuesday morning:

Tweet by writer Leanne Phillips @leannebythesea on November 16, 2021, that reads: Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG & NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about it, but this year, they're replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH & I've had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH?

Is NaNoWriMo trying to kill anyone else? Or is it just me? Something BIG &
NOT GOOD happens EVERY TIME I do it. I almost died in Nov. 2013! I joke about
it, but this year, they’re replacing gas lines, gas has been shut off ALL MONTH &
I’ve had a respiratory thing ALL MONTH. WTH? @leannebythesea 11/16/21

 

And then I saw Tyler Dilts’s post come up in my timeline again and retweeted it. And then I began to put two and two together. Is it by coincidence that I’ve gotten seriously ill every time I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, when I don’t get so seriously ill other times of the year? And when I don’t get so seriously ill during other Novembers in which I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo? Maybe. I don’t know.

But I do know this: One of the reasons I’ve done NaNoWriMo in the past is because I know myself. I’m highly strung. I’m wound up tight. I can’t stand to fail. I hate not following through on something. Participating in NaNoWriMo weaponizes those traits. If I commit to writing 1,667 words every day for a month, I will do it even if it kills me. In 2013, it nearly did. Midway through November, I became so stubbornly ill my doctor wanted to hospitalize me. Twice. I don’t blame NaNoWriMo for my illness. I had an antibiotic-resistant infection, and I refused to slow down and listen to what my body was trying to tell me. I kept going until I no longer could. And what did I do as soon as I began to get well and was able to drag myself to my kitchen table again? I wrote between 5,000 and 10,000 words a day for three or four days to catch up and finish NaNoWriMo. Of course I did.

This year, I started feeling short of breath on Thursday, November 4th. The doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me. I’d gotten my COVID-19 booster the week before. I’d had my flu shot. I tested negative for COVID-19 twice. A chest x-ray was clear. My lungs sounded fine. My temperature, oxygen saturation, and respirations were all normal. “Have you been feeling anxious about anything?” the doctor asked.

“Of all the stratagems, to know when to quit is the best.”
–Chinese Proverb

I kept writing those 1,667 words a day. By the following Thursday, I was feeling much worse. I also felt exhausted. I didn’t want to do all of the things I normally enjoy doing, including going out for walks or writing. Of course, you don’t know me, so you’ll have to take my word for it: I am a human dynamo. I get things done. This wasn’t normal for me. Over the weekend, I didn’t think I could write another word. But I did. I wrote thousands of them. And then on Sunday evening, I slowed down. After a long, hot shower, and over a comforting bowl of chicken noodle soup, I began to relax. I began to consider quitting NaNoWriMo, and I began to feel better. Which meant, of course, that by Monday morning, I was feeling well enough to continue NaNoWriMo.

To be fair, there were other things causing me anxiety, too. I had a deeply personal essay come out on November 9th. The gas in my bungalow was shut off for three weeks, which was a nightmare. And I live in California–there’ve been controlled burns in my county the last couple of weekends in an effort to prevent wildfires, which has meant a great deal of smoke in the air. Then there’s work, school, volunteer commitments. A global pandemic going on two years.

Most of that, I can’t control. I can’t control how people respond to my essay. I can’t control how fast my landlord replaces the gas lines. (And neither can he, God bless him, he’s doing the best he can.) I can’t control the wildfires. I can’t control the pandemic–I can only do my part. But there was one thing causing me anxiety that I could control. I could decide not to force myself to write 1,667 words a day every day for a month, when my body clearly needed a break, for no good reason other than my aversion to “failing.” (And the badges.)

Woman from torso down walking barefoot on black sand beach wearing floral dress.

What I’m writing here may sound contrary to other things I’ve written. I wrote recently about some of the things I like and don’t like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words), and I also wrote about Structuring Your Writing Life. In both of those posts, I extolled the benefits of writing each and every day. I’ve written about Game Theory and Writing–I do believe gamifying writing goals can help writers achieve those goals, and NaNoWriMo is a great example of that. In another post, Time Is on My Side, I wrote that I have a daily writing practice–I keep a large calendar on my wall and mark an X through each day once I reach my daily writing goal.

But in those same posts, I also wrote that “long strolls and … periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential,” and I shared that my daily writing goal is this: to write for ten minutes each day. Only ten minutes. I’m easy on myself in my daily writing life. I wasn’t always, but I’ve learned to be. My writing mentors and role models have helped me to create a productive and enjoyable writing life. Mary Yukari Waters helped me see that I was sapping the joy out of my writing life by being overly rigid. Jill Alexander Essbaum was particularly instrumental in teaching me to take my creative days as they come and to revel in wherever those days may take me. She showed me what a productive and enjoyable writing life can look like, and she taught me that such a life should include things like getting plenty of fresh air and exercise. Deanne Stillman taught me that things take as long as they take and not to rush them. Tod Goldberg taught me that it’s okay to take a break, but it’s not okay to give up. They all taught me to enjoy being creative and to be more kind to myself.

This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.”

I do believe in building good habits and in working hard to reach your goals. But NaNoWriMo may not be the thing that works for everyone. And it may work at one point in life and not at another. My personality can be hardcore. I take things to extremes. Left to my own devices, I can turn just about anything into such demanding work that I take the fun out of it. I’m the Monica Geller of writing competitions. For me, NaNoWriMo brings out an unhealthy side of my personality.

These days, I choose to write at least ten minutes a day because that gets me sitting down at the keyboard. Once I start writing, I usually get into it and write for much longer than ten minutes, and I enjoy it. Most mornings, me and Walter Mosley can be found at our keyboards well before sunup and for several hours after. But if all I’ve got in me is the ten minutes, that’s okay. I stop and mark the X on my calendar. Beyond the ten minutes, my daily writing practice usually means continuing to work on my current WIP. But sometimes, my definition of writing is much more flexible. It might mean submitting a few stories to literary journals–I’ve done something toward my writing goals, so I mark the X on my calendar. It might mean taking a walk on the beach while working out a plot point in my head, getting to know a character, or brainstorming an idea for a new story. Counts as writing. I mark the X on my calendar. Today, writing this post counts as writing. On Sundays, taking a break from my computer to rejuvenate my soul counts as writing. As long as I do it deliberately and thoughtfully, it counts.

Tweet by Counts as Writing @CountsAsWriting on August 2, 2021, which reads: Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing.

Today, forgiving yourself for not writing, counts as writing. @CountsAsWriting 08/02/21

 

I was already considering giving NaNoWriMo up by Sunday evening, because I was physically and emotionally wiped out and felt like dirt. But on Tuesday, Tyler Dilts’s tweet helped me connect the two things. I realized I was so caught up in word count that I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. I started out like gangbusters, but after about 10,000 words, the words I was writing weren’t substantially contributing to me finishing my book. They were, however, substantially contributing to my anxiety. I’d fallen back into my old habit of being an overly rigid killjoy, and I literally made myself sick.

I deleted my NaNoWriMo account Tuesday night and went back to the daily writing practice I love. And I am feeling much better. To be fair, there are other reasons I’m feeling better, too. The smoke has cleared out of the air in my neighborhood. I got a lovely, heartwarming message in response to my essay that made all the anxiety leading up to its publication worthwhile. My gas was reconnected Tuesday evening and my hot water heater was fixed last night. And I took up coffee again after a three-day break–I love coffee. But I have to be honest–I felt a weight lift from my chest when I deleted my NaNoWriMo account. This time, quitting when it was against my nature to quit felt like the win. I felt like I had my life back, a creative life I’ve worked hard to build over the last two and a half years. I felt joy.

I came out of this aborted NaNoWriMo attempt with 27,000+ words, including a new, 10,000-word draft of a story that takes place in the desert on the 20th anniversary of Gram Parson’s death. It’s a story I love. I can’t stop thinking about it. I am anxious to start revising it. It suddenly made no sense to me to keep writing new words I wasn’t enjoying writing in order to earn quite-colorful-and-nice-to-look-at-but-still-virtual badges, when what I really wanted to do was to begin rewriting this story I am excited about. (The other 17,000 words are mostly rubbish, to be honest.)

“Knowing when to quit is probably a very important thing, but I just am not ready.”
–James Taylor

So I quit NaNoWriMo, and I’m okay with that. I deleted my account because my personality is also such that, if I hadn’t, two days from now I’d have logged back in and decided I could still buckle down and make my word count in time. It was one of those decisions you tussle with, but once you’ve made up your mind, you know it was the right decision.

Please understand, when I say to know when to quit, I do not mean to quit writing or to give up on your dreams. I don’t mean to quit NaNoWriMo either–if it’s feeding you and empowering you, fantastic. Keep going! You’ve got this! It’s a personal choice. But know when something you’re doing is no longer working for you. Know when a project you’re working on is no longer bringing you joy. Know when a writing practice is bringing you down. Listen to your body, and know when you need a break or to set something aside for a day, or a week, or a couple of months. And whatever else you do, please be as kind to yourself as you would be to anyone else.

These are my words for today, Thursday, November 18th. They count as writing. They were a pleasure and a relief to write, and I hope you found something useful in them.

WRITER TIP: Speaking of knowing when to quit, here’s a great tip about ending a writing session from Ernest Hemingway: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”
Woman sitting cozy on her bed in a sweater and socks, with her tablet, a mug of milk, and cookies.

Writing from Prompts

A half dozen Christmases ago, my daughter Melissa gave me a book called 642 Things to Write About. At the time, I had never used writing prompts, except once during a dark November when I was seriously stuck and in danger of falling far short of my NaNoWriMo word count. The prompt I used then was one from @NaNoWordSprints. 26,000+ Twitter followers and I were prompted to write a scene in which we got our main characters out of a sticky situation. I went with it, but I expected the scene I wrote from the prompt to help me reach a word count and nothing more. I didn’t expect the words to actually make it into my finished novel. That didn’t feel good, but I was desperate.

I was never a fan of using writing prompts. I’m not sure why. I guess using them seemed fake to me. Canned. Like a science term paper—writing a bunch of words I wasn’t really feeling, about a topic which had been pre-selected for me, because I had to. And it seemed wasteful of my writing time. Like I was carelessly tossing away words I would never use—words that had no personal meaning behind them and that would never amount to anything.

To my surprise, though, the @NaNoWordSprints writing prompt did help. I wrote for the allotted 10-15 minutes, and I ended up with a fun and pivotal scene that set my novel in a new direction. Voila! By writing about getting my main character out of a sticky situation, my main character and I and my plot—we were all unstuck. Because the pressure was off, I just wrote, and I had fun with it. Because I was having fun with it, my creativity was unleashed. It’s crazy to think that as many as 26,000 other people had also written scenes from that prompt, each of them unique.

With that one positive experience in mind, I read through the prompts in the book my daughter gave me. I began to see the value in using writing prompts, not only to spark my imagination, but to unearth stories which were already buried inside me, waiting to be told.

The first time I opened the book, this prompt jumped out at me, on the very first page: “A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.” I was surprised to realize I had a story for this prompt. The prompt sparked two memories: a memory about the dozens of houseplants my father entrusted to me (a serial plant murderess) after my green-thumbed mother died, and a memory about the one plant my father kept—a stubborn zebra plant with which he had a love/hate relationship.

I’d never thought of either of these two experiences as anything to write about. But thanks to my daughter’s thoughtful gift, I wrote about them from that prompt. As I wrote, I realized there were stories in these experiences, stories which I might never have written, stories about motherhood and grief and the difficulty of letting go. Over several years and many revisions, that prompt eventually became an essay which will be published in Persimmon Tree magazine in 2022.

The lesson here, I suppose, is to take inspiration wherever you find it, or wherever you can get it, or sometimes, wherever you might least imagine it to be.

WRITER TIP: Writing prompts don’t have to be textual, they can be visual as well, or both, like the 10 years worth of writing prompts Luke Neff, an Oregon high school teacher, posted on his Tumblr blog: WritingPrompts.tumblr.com. You can get your own copy of 642 Things to Write About (as well as many other great craft and prompt books) at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

On Structuring Your Writing Life

I used to think of structure as the enemy. I believed that, if I tried to impose any kind of structure on my writing life, it would interfere with my creativity. Writers are artists, right? Artists don’t live a boring, rigorously scheduled, 9-5 life. Artists wake up when they please, go out for coffee in cafés where everyone knows them by name, then go for leisurely strolls on windswept beaches or in sun-dappled forests, depending on where they live. In the afternoons, they read and paint and take peaceful naps. In the evenings, they stroll again, this time down to the corner pub. At some point, when inspiration strikes, they sit down at their typewriters and dash off brilliant, bestselling novels.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This romantic notion of writing had me convinced that inspiration would strike when it was good and ready and that I had no control over it. The only thing I could do was answer its call when it did strike. I pictured myself, after a prolonged period of writer’s block, waking suddenly from a sound sleep, dashing to my typewriter, and writing madly for weeks on end, fueled only by coffee freshly ground from the best beans. When they were ready to come, the worlds would flow and take on a life of their own. At the end of that time, utterly exhausted, but glowing with satisfaction, I would pull the final page of my magnificent manuscript from the typewriter.

“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” –Neil Gaiman

This, unfortunately, is not how it works. For one thing, I don’t own a typewriter. Or a coffee grinder. And I’m actually out of printer paper at the moment and nearly out of ink. I do my writing at a decidedly unromantic computer keyboard. Yes, there are days when the words begin to flow and take on a life of their own, but the funny thing is, this usually happens when I’m already sitting at my keyboard tapping out nonsense. If I wrote only when I felt inspired, I wouldn’t get much writing done. The truth of the matter is, the more I write, the more I’ve written, and the better I get at it.

“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” –Jack London

The old adage that success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration holds true for writing as much as for anything else. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. Write each and every day. Set up a writing schedule, stick to it as best you can, and write, write, write. Don’t pay attention to whether the words are any good or not—that is what interferes with creativity. Filling the blank page with words is the initial goal and all you should think about until you have a complete draft. “Write drunk, edit sober,” Hemingway said. We’ll talk about editing another time, because it’s November, and we’re on a mission to get 50,000 words written.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” –Ray Bradbury

Brilliance, I have found, is a great deal more the product of arduous work and good editing than it is the product of creative genius. Dedication and persistence will win out over unbridled talent every time. Okay, well most of the time. Yes, those long strolls and those periods of time when you are not thinking about your book are essential. They have their place, and I’ll write about that soon, too. But in general, if you spend your life waiting for inspiration to strike, you will find yourself waiting for an awfully long time.

WRITER TIP: Author K.M. Weiland wrote: “Inspiration may sometimes fail to show up for work in the morning, but determination never does.” Make determination a part of your writing life. Schedule a dedicated time of day to write, whether you’re feeling inspired or not, and be determined to stick to your schedule.

NaNoWriMo: Preparing for 50,000 Words

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off at midnight, Monday, November 1st.

What Is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge for writers. The goal is to write a novel in one month, or more specifically, to write 50,000 words. 50,000 words isn’t generally enough for a novel. Depending on the genre, most novels are closer to the 90,000-word range, give or take. But 50,000 words is one heck of a great start.

In the past, NaNoWriMo was much more strict—in order to “win,” participants were required to write the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They’ve lightened up on that. Writers now have the option to be “traditional WriMos” or to be “rebels”—rebels are participants who are writing anything but the first 50,000 words of a brand new novel. I’ve twice done NaNoWriMo the traditional way, but one year, I wrote the second half of a novel I’d already started, and last year I wrote a bunch of new short stories. A friend worked on her memoir one year and an essay project another year. I like this change—it feels more inclusive and allows us to meet NaNoWriMo where we are at in our writing lives.

Things I Love About NaNoWriMo

There are several things I love about NaNoWriMo:

It helps writers build a writing habit. If a writer isn’t already into the habit of writing daily or regularly, NaNoWriMo is a great way to kickstart that habit.

It’s empowering. By the end of November, so many writers are going to learn that they can do something they never thought they could do before.

It offers writers community, support, and encouragement. Writing is a solitary life for the most part, and I love the community spirit of support and encouragement that NaNoWriMo creates.

It applies game theory to writing. NaNoWriMo brings out my competitive spirit—it “gamifies” writing in a way that is fun and encouraging. The rest of the year, when I finish a morning of writing, there is no one here to give me a colorful badge or a shout out. But during the month of November, I’m a superhero.

Things That Aren’t My Favorite

There are some things about NaNoWriMo that aren’t my favorite. Or rather, things that are outside my comfort zone. For one thing, it’s a lot more social than an introverted writer might be comfortable with. Writers can socialize, share progress and tips, and motivate one another on the website’s forums, both local and worldwide. Social media offers opportunities for “word sprints”—timed segments of speed writing, maybe 15 minutes at a time, sometimes with writing prompts, to help writers reach their daily word counts. F

Pre-pandemic, I participated in a couple of in-person “write-ins”—local groups usually meet at midnight the first night for a kick-off event, then meet on other occasions throughout the month, at a coffee shop or some other community space, to write together. I’m more of a solitary writer, get distracted easily, and don’t find group writing conducive to my best work, but I did enjoy meeting local writers in person. I’m still friends with someone I met at my very first write-in back in 2013.

I’m easily distracted. Writing is hard work, and it’s sometimes more fun to talk about writing with my peers than it is to keep my ass in the seat. So for me, these social tools can easily become ways to avoid writing–I already have enough of those. But write-ins, forums, and other social outlets may be great motivators for others. Peer pressure works. I mean, you can’t show up to a write-in and then goof off on social media, or wander into the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal, or cozy up on the couch to watch Ted Lasso. You’re kinda forced to write, right? And of course, the social aspects are all optional.

To Plan or Not to Plan?

Something I’ve learned about myself over the past nine years is that, unless I want to come out of NaNoWriMo with a sloppy mess that is in such bad shape that I may as well start over, it’s a good idea to do at least some preparation ahead of time. Some WriMos are “pantsers”—they belly up to their keyboards on November 1st with nothing more than a vague idea floating around in their heads. Others are “planners”—they come into NaNoWriMo armed with a detailed outline of their novel, and when it comes time to write, all they have to do is flesh it out. A hybrid has evolved called a “plantser”—this is a WriMo who starts with a loose structure for their novel, but not a detailed outline. A comfortable mix of planning and spontaneity. I’m more of a plantser. By November 1st, I’ll have a loose and flexible outline. Pantsing feels like chaos to me, while over-planning doesn’t leave me with the room I like for my story to evolve and change course. The Goldilocks in me has found plantsing to be just right.

How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo

Sign up and check out the website’s tools and resources. The first thing to do is head over to the NaNoWriMo website, register, and set up your profile and this year’s project. You can find and join your local forum and browse some of the other forums. The NaNoWriMo website has a planning handbook to help you get ready: NaNo Prep 101. You can also read some of the encouraging “pep talks” by successful writers: NaNo Pep Talks. These are super motivating and encouraging.

Get yourself a calendar to track your progress. The Official NaNoWriMo Calendar lists important dates and events, but I also love this free downloadable and printable calendar that David Seah created to help writers track their word counts and stay motivated: NaNoWriMo Word Calendar. I love adding up my word count on the NaNoWriMo website every day and earning those badges, but I also love having something on the wall near my computer where I can visually see the progress I’m making.

Clear the decks. Writing an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days straight can be challenging. It’s helpful to go into it prepared. On top of creating a loose outline, I try to clear the decks a little before November 1st rolls around. I’ve deep-cleaned my house, caught up on laundry, stocked up on some groceries, and written ahead so I have the blog posts and book reviews I need for the month of November.

Give yourself some downtime to do the thinking part of writing. Once I start writing in November, at the end of each day, I’ll try to plan ahead a little bit for the next day. For me, this will probably mean going for a walk and thinking about where I left off and where I want to pick up when I’m back at my keyboard the next morning. When I get too busy to take breaks, daydream, and let my mind wander for a little while every day, my writing suffers.

Use that extra hour. Keep in mind we’ll set our clocks back an hour on November 7th. You can take advantage of that to get up at the same time of the morning you usually would, which will be an hour early, and use that extra hour to write.

In Closing

I’m about to participate in NaNoWriMo for the fifth time. I’ve participated four of the last eight years, and I’ve skipped four of the last eight years. Each of the four years I’ve participated, I’ve tried to talk myself out of it. There are so many reasons I should not be doing NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got a lot going on, and I’m sure you do, too. But then I think about the fact that writing is the most important thing to me, and I think about how empowering it is to prove to myself that I can do this. That enthusiasm carries over into the following months, something that’s helpful because, thanks to imposter syndrome, I have to keep proving to myself that I can do hard things over and over again. And I get excited thinking about what I’m going to have at the end of November. I’ve sometimes regretted not doing it, but I’ve never once regretted doing it.

WRITER TIP: Take the plunge! Make the commitment to participate in National Novel Writing Month in November 2021.

Game Theory and Writing

During a recent workshop, some friends were discussing “gamifying” or counting submissions—keeping track of the number of times a writer has submitted something for publication or has had a piece accepted or rejected. The consensus among my friends was that it isn’t truly being a creative person or a writer to keep track of the numbers like that. I think I understand where they are coming from, and I’ll clarify that in a moment. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But keeping track works for me, and so I wanted to write about why it works for me.

What is Gamifying?

When it comes to writing, gamifying is basically applying “game theory” to your writing or submission goals by making a game out of achieving those goals.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a perfect example of gamifying writing goals. Participants set a goal to write 50,000 words during the month of November. They receive support, encouragement, and colorful badges along the way. If they finish, they end up with a 50,000-word novel or start to a novel, are awarded a certificate, and get some cool little prizes–win, win!

Many of us gamify writing without realizing it, e.g., by setting daily wordcount, page number, or timed writing goals. I don’t gamify my writing, but I gamify my submission process. My game is a simple one: reach 100 submissions in 2021 and I win.

There are a number of different writing and submitting “games” out there, as well as Facebook groups dedicated to racking up as many submissions or rejections as one can in a year’s time. I’ll link to a few articles that address specific games at the end of the post.

For now, here’s a great TED Talk by Jane McGonigal on applying game theory to improving mental health:

 

Why Gamifying Submissions Works For Me

Gamifying submissions works for me because I have a goal-oriented (and perhaps rather obsessive) personality. Without a goal in mind, it’s easy for me to push submitting my stories—something that is just for me and something that is, frankly, a lot of hard work—to the backburner, in favor of the things I should be doing or would rather be doing.

On the other hand, if I set a goal, I’m probably going to reach it because it will frustrate me not to. In 2020, I set a goal of reaching 100 rejections. That goal did not work for me because “rejections” has a negative versus a positive connotation. Also, I like to have some control over things, and rejections aren’t something I can control. (Nor do I want to—if I had my druthers, I’d prefer zero rejections, thank you very much.) What I can control is how many things I send out. So for 2021, I set a goal of reaching 100 submissions. That works better for me, but reaching for 100 rejections might work better for someone else.

How to Make Gamifying Submissions Work for You

If you think game theory might help you reach your submission goals, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Only submit work that is ready.

I gave this a lot of thought, and I think I get what my friends meant when they said submitting and keeping score is not writing. What I think this assumes is that a writer is cranking out work in order to try to reach those numbers. That is definitely not the way to go. Setting a submission goal only works if we submit work that is ready to submit. People are out there reading our writing (most of them volunteers), and we don’t want to get a reputation for wasting their time by sending them stuff that isn’t our best work. Most of the stories and essays I’m submitting in 2021 are stories and essays I spent one or two years or more writing and rewriting.

2. Submit with care and consideration.

Take the time to read and research the markets to which you’re submitting your work, and do your best to submit to the places you think are best suited to the particular story or essay. Don’t submit work willy nilly just to reach numbers.

I’ve submitted my work 97 times so far this year. I was able to reach 97 submissions because, after writing and not submitting work for many years, I had enough finished, ready work to send out to 97 journals. And it’s not 97 separate pieces, mind you. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. It’s maybe a dozen pieces that I’ve submitted to a few places at a time. If they’re rejected, I submit them somewhere else.

In fact, in planning for this blog post, I thought I’d go ahead and submit three more times and get to 100 submissions so I could share with you that I’d reached my goal. But to do so, I would have had to send stories out to journals that weren’t a good fit or that I am not ready to submit to. Don’t do that to reach a number.

3. Keep your writing time separate and sacred.

Live a writing life and make writing and creating a priority, even if that sometimes means not writing and taking a walk on the beach to clear your head and think about your story. I write many hours each week. But I set aside time each week to submit work, too. I consider this a part of the business side of being a writer. I have a short list of pieces that are ready to submit, and I’m working on getting those published. Getting stories and essays published will help me reach my longer-term writing goals. But I have a much longer list of work that is not ready, and that creative work gets the lion’s share of my time. I am not rushing that work in order to reach 100 submissions.

Here are some articles you might find interesting as you set your own writing and submission goals:

Game Theory in Writing Part 1: Goals vs. Milestones (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Game Theory in Writing Part 2: Gamifying Your Submission Process (by David Steffen for DiabolicalPlots.com)

Career Bingo (Christie Yant, linked to by David Steffen in his Game Theory articles)

The Race (Dean Wesley Smith)

WRITER TIP: If your writing or publishing goals keep getting pushed aside in favor of dumb things like feeding the kids or doing the dishes, consider whether setting specific, reachable goals for 2022 might help you to keep your eyes on the prize.

The Reading Writer

Here in no particular order are five of my favorite books on the writing craft and the writing life:

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

I love the structure of this book, as well as its wisdom. The book is organized into four sections which are fairly self-explanatory:

  1. The Shape of Fiction. This section is a guide to the various forms a story can take.
  2. A Cautionary Interlude. This section consists of two subsections: Write What You Know and Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do.
  3. From Accuracy to Zigzag: An Alphabet for Writers of Fiction. This section is an encyclopedia of literary terms and devices, such as point of view, voice, and narrator. It’s more detailed than a glossary, providing subterms and examples.
  4. Readables: Where to Learn More. This is a great resource listing some of the better craft books.

“Reading about writing isn’t writing…. [N]o book on fishing will bring home a trout, and no book on fiction will write your story.” –Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

This book offers a little bit of everything for writers. Stephen King provides suggestions that will improve your writing, but he also inspires and motivates. He shares the story of his writing career, the beginnings of which may not be too unlike your own. He also shares what writing means to him.

The book is structured in the following sections:

  1. C.V. In this section, King details his life and journey as a writer. I don’t know about you, but I always find it inspiring to read about someone who succeeded at the things I want to succeed at and to learn they had beginnings as humble and faced challenges as difficult as my own.
  2. Toolbox. In this section, King discusses the tools all writers need to have available to them.
  3. On Writing. Here, King discusses the craft of writing and offers tips based on his own experiences.
  4. On Living: A Postscript. In this section, King writes about the accident that nearly took his life a little over 20 years ago and the happiness he found when he returned to writing during his recovery.
  5. And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open. This section offers a glimpse into King’s revision/rewriting process.
  6. And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklist. A list of about 100 of King’s favorite books as of On Writing‘s publication in 2000.
  7. And Furthermore, Part III. An updated list of about 80 more books that became King’s favorites in the ensuing 10 years, before the 2010 edition was published.

“[Y]ou can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” –Stephen King, On Writing

Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNalley

This relatively thin 147-page book may be my favorite book on the craft of writing. It’s basic in the best way–it’s written simply, it’s engaging, and it covers the topics many of us have questions about when we start writing, things like, What makes a good story? What makes a good beginning? How do we create tension? What should our title be?

Each section of the book has exercises at the end, and the book concludes with a list of recommended reading organized by category: books cited in Vivid and Continuous, books on the writing craft, books on the writing life, and some of the author’s favorites. This book could easily be read in one or two sittings, and readers will come away having learned concrete ways to improve their writing, like this:

“Whenever possible, crunch time. If you have an idea for a short story that takes place over many years, ask yourself if it will work over the course of a month or a week. If it takes place over a week, can it happen in a day? If it takes place over twenty-four hours, would it work having it take place over an hour? Crunching time is one of the most effective ways to make a piece of prose more immediate.
–John McNally, Vivid and Continuous

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer

This book should be on your bookshelf.

I’m currently taking a year-long copyediting course. Last weekend, I read 80 pages on punctuation and hyphens. The night before last, I read 25 pages on numbers. I share this to let you know that English grammar can be a slog.

This is why you will appreciate Dreyer’s English–this beautiful little book is a much more enjoyable option for those who want to brush up on the basics and polish their writing until it shines. The author, Benjamin Dreyer, is the copy chief at Random House, one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. He writes with charm and wit and offers often humorous examples throughout the book. He delves into the rules, to be sure, but he also addresses “nonrules”–traditional rules that are unhelpful to creative writers. Some of my favorites of his observations have to do with writing habits that may be grammatically correct, but are annoying and make writing dull.

“A good sentence, I find myself saying frequently, is one that the reader can follow from beginning to end, no matter how long it is, without having to double back in confusion because the writer misused or omitted a key piece of punctuation, chose a vague or misleading pronoun, or in some other way engaged in inadvertent misdirection.” –Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer

This last one is for fun, but it’s for motivation, too. This is an anthology–authors writing about the day jobs they once had and quit. The short pieces have titles like “Tote Monkey” (Joshilyn Jackson, Mother May I; Never Have I Ever); “My Shit Job” (Daniel Wallace, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions); “Connie May is Going to Win the Lottery this Week” (Connie May Fowler, Before Women Had Wings; A Million Fragile Bones); and “Why I Worked at the P.O.” (Silas House, Southernmost).

As an emerging writer, it gives me great comfort to know that John Grisham once sold underwear at Sears and that Winston Groom sold encyclopedias and didn’t publish Forrest Gump until he was 43.

I’ll share my favorite: Joshilyn Jackson writes about an office job which she thought would be right up her alley: “The first thing I thought of was Jennifer on WKRP in Cincinnati, laughingly refusing to do everything her boss asks.” Jackson puts her talent for storytelling to work–she makes up a fake boyfriend named Dan to cover for the fact she spends her weekends at home alone, writing and drinking beer. It backfires when the lack of details in her story lead her coworkers to conclude that Dan is married and that Jackson can do better.

“I liked how they all rallied around me and took my side. I began to slant the Dan stories. He cancelled on me a lot at the last minute. He bought me a gym membership for my birthday because he said I was ‘pushing maximum density’–a line I stole directly from The Breakfast Club. He promised to join me at the office Christmas party, but he never showed. I paged him several times, to no avail, then crept theatrically away to pretend to cry in the bathroom.”–Joshilyn Jackson, “Tote Monkey,” Don’t Quit Your Day Job

One last observation: There are some good craft books out there, but if you want to become a better writer, the best two things you can do are (1) write consistently; and (2) become a voracious reader of all kinds of books. Read well–choose excellent, well-written books, contemporary novels and classics, best-sellers and indie gems, critically acclaimed books and books that are recommended by trusted friends. And read widely. Yes, read in the genre in which you are writing, but read outside your genre as well. You will learn a lot.

WRITER TIP: Get a library card.

Me and My Big Ideas

Before I started writing regularly, I used to be afraid I would run out of words. It’s weird, I know, but that fear is one of the things that kept me from writing for many years. I wasn’t confident I had enough ideas, enough interesting things to say, let alone many interesting things to say.

To be honest, my fears were not unwarranted. It was hard to get started. I couldn’t think of anything to write about. Most of the “stories” I wrote ended up being descriptions of places or character sketches, filled with exposition, flashbacks, and cliché dream sequences. My stories did not have actual plots. I started carrying a tiny notebook with me everywhere I went so I could write down things I observed out in the world or ideas that came to me. The notebook did come in handy—it was gradually filled with grocery shopping lists and reminders about dental appointments.

Once I sat down to write, getting the words to come out was difficult. I became more and more convinced that, during the years I hadn’t been writing, my writing muscles and my coming-up-with-ideas-for-things-to-write-about muscles had not only atrophied, but had withered away to nothing. But reader, I kept carrying that little notebook around, and I kept sitting down at my computer and typing words and writing truly awful stories, and gradually, my writing began to improve.

As for coming up with ideas for stories, there are several things that have helped me become confident that I will never run out of ideas. Here are the three things that have helped me the most, and I hope they help you too:

1. Life Is a Bowl of Cherries … and a Cornucopia of Story Ideas

First, I had the realization that I have lived over 20,000 days on this planet, and on every single one of those days, I’ve done something or something has happened to me or I’ve witnessed something happen to someone else. I’ve experienced some things. Although the best fiction isn’t based on a rote recitation of our own life experiences, even the tiniest little experience can become the germ of an idea for a story.

Here are some of the mundane things that have sparked story ideas for me as I’ve gone about living my life: getting an invitation to a family reunion in the mail; a weird fortune I got in a fortune cookie; reading an interesting article online about dogs; an encounter with a valet at a hotel; a dream about my grandmother; meeting someone interesting at a local concert in the park on my lunch hour; trying a new recipe that didn’t turn out very well; an ex-boyfriend commenting on my weight. When I’m stuck, I think of a little thing from the past or something that sparked my interest during the day, then imagine and extrapolate from there.

2. There’s Magic in The Mash-Up

My second idea came from Stephen King’s On Writing. I like to call it The Mash-Up. In his craft book On Writing, King describes the way he came up with the idea for his novel Carrie by combining two completely unrelated ideas: adolescent cruelty and telekinesis. He got those ideas from two places: a teenaged memory about a school locker room and an article he read in LIFE magazine on telekinesis. (The Guardian published an excerpt of King’s account of coming up with the idea for Carrie, so you can read about it in “Stephen King: How I Wrote Carrie,” but I recommend reading the entire book too.) What isn’t mentioned in the excerpt is that King goes on to say he often comes up with ideas for his stories by mashing up two unrelated ideas. I now do the same. One of my favorite stories I’ve written grew out of a mash-up of two ideas: one was a piece of trivia I heard about the human voice and the other was a weird music phenomenon I read about in a science magazine.

3. The Idea Factory

The thing that has helped me the most with building the confidence that I am a creative person who can come up with ideas for stories is … coming up with ideas for stories. This is something I learned from author Jill Alexander Essbaum. I took her advice and started incorporating writing exercises into my morning routine. Creativity begets creativity, my friends. And practice makes perfect.

But there is one particular exercise Essbaum turned me onto that has helped me the most: I write the beginning of a new short story each and every morning. That means I have to come up for an idea for a new short story every morning, on the fly. And it’s nuts, but I always do! Some of them turn out to be total crap, of course. Okay, many of them turn out to be total crap that I never finish. But there is the occasional gem that I eventually turn into something. There are enough gems that I am never at a loss for a gem to polish. And most importantly, I now know that I can come up with an idea for a new short story any damned time I want for the rest of my life.

Speaking of big ideas, author Will Durant created his own mash-up from two of Aristotle’s quotes.

Aristotle wrote this:

“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

And this:

“[T]hese virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.”

What Durant wrote in his book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers was this:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Writing, thinking, being creative, coming up with story ideas—these things are like muscles. If we don’t use them, we do not lose them. They may get flabby, but they don’t go away. They are always there for us to begin using again. If you keep thinking and keep writing and keep trying, you will work those creativity muscles, and they, in turn, will begin to work for you.

WRITER TIP: Writers are observers of the world around them. What other people see, writers not only see, but continue to ponder. They try to make sense of the world around them, and they try to do so through the written word. That is the art of creative writing. Carry a notebook with you wherever you go, and write down not only ideas that come to you, but the things you see and hear that you find interesting or curious. In fact, keep a notebook on your bedside table for those late-night ideas that are bound to come just as you’re dozing off to sleep. You’ll be amazed at how fast ideas begin to come.

On Opening Paragraphs

My friend Jackie recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time since she was in junior high. This is a middle-grade novel written by Elizabeth George Speare. It was originally published in 1958, and I haven’t read it since I was a kid. According to Jackie, it still holds up, so I decided to read it again too.

When I reread the opening paragraph, I was blown away. It made me think about a lecture my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg1 once gave about the opening paragraph of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Between the two, I was inspired to write this post.

Here is the first paragraph of The Witch of Blackbird Pond:

On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land for five weeks.”

This paragraph consists of only two sentences. Two sentences. Reading it carefully, how many pieces of information does it give us? Here are some of the things I came up with:

    1. The story we are about to read begins “in mid-April”–it is springtime.
    2. The story begins in the morning.
    3. The story begins in 1687–it is the late seventeenth century.
    4. The story begins on a ship.
    5. The particular ship is a “brigantine,” a two-masted sailing vessel that navigated the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century.2
    6. The name of the ship is the “Dolphin.”
    7. “Dolphin” is an English word, so we know this is an English ship.
    8. The ship is fast–it sails “briskly.”
    9. The ship is no longer on “the open sea,” but is now sailing along the Connecticut River.
    10. The ship is entering a harbor, so we know it is about to dock.
    11. Based on the name of the river and the time period, we know where the ship is about to dock: in the New England Colonies.
    12. The ship has been sailing for five weeks, so we know the ship’s passengers have undergone a long journey from far away.
    13. This first paragraph introduces the protagonist, Kit Tyler.
    14. We can guess that “Kit” is a nickname, and therefore, even without reading the back cover, we can guess the protagonist is probably young.
    15. This first paragraph gives us the first glimpse inside the protagonist’s point of view–she is so anxious to see land that she has been hugging the ship’s rail since daybreak.
    16. Kit is on the forecastle deck–the uppermost deck and the most forward part of the ship, “standing close to the rail.” She is physically pressed forward, like Kate and Leo in Titanic; she is as close to the action and to land as she can possibly get.
    17. Kit is staring at the shoreline “hungrily”–she is not only anxious to see land, she is hungry for it; she is anxious to be off the ship and wants to be ashore.
    18. Kit is alone in this opening paragraph. Because our protagonist is a young woman traveling alone on a ship in the seventeenth century, we can assume some things about her personality and her character, e.g., that she is brave, independent, and adventurous.
    19. This first paragraph already raises some questions: why has Kit traveled to the Americas and why is she traveling alone?
    20. The first paragraph already arouses tension, too: what will happen to Kit in the New England colonies in the late seventeenth century? The book has the word “witch” in its title, and Kit is arriving in Connecticut about seventeen years after the Connecticut Witch Trials (which lasted twenty-five years) and only five years before the Salem Witch Trials began. I am already anxious!

Anything else?

This seems like such a simple paragraph. Two straightforward lines of prose written with uncomplicated language. It appears effortless, but based on my experience, I am guessing Ms. Speare worked over this opening paragraph many, many times. She used her words economically, made each word earn its keep, and crafted tight prose that gives the reader a great deal of information without resorting to flashbacks or information dumps.

Two sentences. Before the third sentence, Speare has grounded her reader completely in the story. She then takes her reader right into a scene. And not only is she in a scene, she opens that scene with dialogue–a conversation between Kit and the ship’s first mate, Nathaniel Eaton. The opening dialogue immediately propels the narrative of the story forward:

“‘There’s Connecticut Colony,’ a voice spoke in her ear. ‘You’ve come a long way to see it.'”

Again, so understated, but so packed with meaning.

Take a look at a few first paragraphs of classic novels:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice

One sentence and we are already drawn in by Austen’s sarcastic sense of humor and have a good idea where the story is headed.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, first paragraph of Anna Karenina

Again, this opening paragraph consists of just one line, but it immediately provokes thought, ignites tension, and again, gives us a clue as to the kind of story we are about to read.

And perhaps my favorite opening paragraph of all time:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodologically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” –Herman Melville, first paragraph of Moby Dick

By the time we’ve read this opening paragraph, we know more about Ishmael than we know about many of our own close friends. He’s broke, he’s depressed, he’s bored. He is over it. People annoy the hell out of him. He sees strangers walking down the street and wants to knock the hats off their heads! He’s alienated from society. He needs to get out of town before he loses his temper. He heads to sea because he finds the ocean calming and healing–the sea centers him. He tells us in the first line that the story he’s about to share happened many years in the past, so we know that, whatever happens on this journey, he will survive to tell the tale. Ishmael has invited us to call him by his first name–we are his friends and his confidantes. And we can relate. One hundred and seventy years after this novel was originally published, we can still relate to what Ishmael is feeling. Eight lines into this story, we are right there with him as he embarks on this epic journey. (Notice, too, the rhythm of Melville’s sentences, the way he alternates short and long sentences, like the ebb and flow of the sea.)

Reading good, well-written books is one of the best things writers can do to improve their own writing. I especially love to study the opening paragraphs of novels. A great writer squeezes a lot of information into a relatively short space in order to ground the reader in time and place, introduce one or more main characters, establish the plot, and create opening tension.

WRITER TIP: Reread the opening paragraphs and opening lines of some of your favorite books. Does the author give you the information you need to dive into the story without using an info dump? How does the author engage you and create tension? Does the author begin to characterize the protagonist within that first paragraph? How does the author make good use of each and every word? Think about ways you can do the same in the opening paragraph(s) of your own novel.