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.

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.

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.

Writer, Interrupted

A writer’s day is filled with interruptions, and to be honest, most of them are welcome. I’m lured by social media and the pings that alert me to text messages from my squad (messages that always make me laugh). I daydream about what I’m going to do over the weekend. I suddenly realize I need to run to the post office or the grocery store. The interruptions can be constant and, let’s face it, way more alluring than the blank page that’s taunting me. (Excuse me while I check my email just one more time for that acceptance that is surely coming from The Paris Review today.)

When we’re interrupted, it’s not just the moment of the interruption that is at stake. Studies have shown that, after an interruption, it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get our heads fully back into the game.1 Every time we stop writing to check email or social media, we lose not only the five minutes or so we spend browsing our Instagram feeds, but that additional 23:15 minutes. This is the time needed to remember where we were in our story, to pick up where we left off, to get our minds back to that magical place, and to be as deeply focused as we were before we took that break.

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I write mostly in the early mornings, before most people are awake. Me and Walter Mosley. I imagine Mr. Mosley a few hours south of me typing away while it’s still dark outside, just like me. It’s comforting. Writing so early in the morning helps. There are less distractions, but in the modern tech era, distractions are always at my fingertips. When it’s light out and weather permits, I take my laptop out onto the deck in my backyard, away from the intoxicating lure of furniture that needs dusting and dishes that need doing. For someone who loves to write, I am so often tempted by anything but. Because writing is hard.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Ernest Hemingway

So my suggestion today is to not only give yourself the first and the best part of your day, before you get caught up in your daily life, but to rid yourself of distractions. Close yourself off from the rest of the world, just for an hour or two, and give yourself the undivided attention you deserve. I find my writing time is much more satisfying when I turn on the Do Not Disturb feature on my cell phone, give social media a break, and let messages pile up in my inbox for just a bit. I sometimes use a kitchen timer for this purpose–no break until that timer goes off. When I’m fully in it, that’s when the magic happens and the words begin to flow.

WRITER TIP: Set aside a certain period every day for uninterrupted writing time, even if it’s only ten or fifteen minutes to start. Set the timer on your phone, block out the rest of the world, and write until the timer goes off. Better yet, turn your phone’s ringer off, put your phone away, and use an old-fashioned kitchen timer.

Plan A

About ten years ago, I asked myself, “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to give up, to create the life you’ve always dreamed for yourself?” The answer, in the past, appeared to have been, “Not much.”

I was a writer who never made time to write. I was a book lover who rarely found time to read. I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat many vegetables–I’d given up meat, but had devolved into much more of a carbohydrate-arian than anything else. I wasn’t happy.

Inside of me, there lurked an artist, but I didn’t create. I was too busy trying to set my life up perfectly so that I’d have the time and money to create. I worked full-time, and in my spare time, I went to school–always for things that didn’t float my boat, but that seemed practical. I started side businesses I didn’t much enjoy, but that I thought would eventually buy me the freedom to live the life of my dreams. Then I could write. I abandoned new projects as quickly as I started them, jumping from one thing to another, never taking anything all the way through to its completion.

Above all, I always had a Plan B. A plan for when I failed as a writer. I started law school three times, but not because I wanted to be an attorney. I didn’t. But I’d worked as a paralegal for many years, and the law was something I was good at. Although I suspected I would be miserable as an attorney, it seemed a good back-up career should I fail to make it as a writer. Once I was making a comfortable living as an attorney, then I could write.

I’d failed as an entrepreneur, failed as a music promoter, failed as a beerista–you name it, I’d tried it and given up on it. But in the back of my mind, there was this notion that, once I’d found and settled into a great Plan B, I’d have the freedom to proceed with Plan A and do what I really wanted to do.

The trouble is, as they say, life very easily becomes all the things that happen while you are making other plans. Everything I’d done in my life, all of my time, money, and effort, had been in support of having a back-up plan should my imagined writing career not work out. In the process, I not only lost myself, but my enthusiasm for living. Living a Plan B life is definitely not where it’s at.

And so I arrived at that place ten years ago when I asked myself, “Where would I be if I had instead put all that time and effort into writing?” And then I asked myself that next big question: “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to let go of, to have the life you were meant to live?”

The answer I came up with is this:  Anything and everything.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling

And so, ten years ago, I dropped out of law school for the third time. I deleted my Facebook account and temporarily left social media behind. I let go of a side business that wasn’t giving me joy. I canceled my daily DVR recordings of my favorite television shows.

I searched my mind and my day planner for all the things I did to waste time or to avoid living my dream life, and I ruthlessly and fearlessly ripped those things from my schedule. I was merciless and unrelenting. For this woman who felt like she never had time to write or to enjoy her life, a woman who routinely faced each weekend armed with a to-do list of 25-plus items, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out in front of me. It felt freeing and frightening all at once. The truth was, I realized, I’d busied myself with everything else in order to avoid taking the chance that I would fail as a writer. Now, ten years later, that looms in front of me as a very real possibility. Because I’m writing, and I’m submitting my stories and my essays to journals, and I’m getting rejections. And the occasional acceptance. I’m polishing the manuscript on my first novel and working on a second. I’m putting myself out there.

When I fear I will fail as a writer and long for the old, cold comfort of my Plan B life, I remember these words spoken by J.K. Rowling:  “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”1 I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out like that. If I’m going to fail as a writer, it won’t be by default. It will be in a blaze of glory, in the wake of the best and most heroic effort I can make.

WRITER TIP: I spent many years living my life in the cracks–squeezing the things I loved into the tiny cracks of time and space left over after all the have-to’s and should’s. When I began living as if writing and the other things I love were just as important as anything else, my life began to change. The best advice I can give you is to give yourself the best part of your day: If you’re a morning person, give yourself the first hour of your day–get up early and write before the day gets away from you. If you’re a night person, give the best part of your night to yourself–the time when you feel most energetic and alive–and write. Whether you’re a night person or a morning person, don’t fill the best part of your day with chores or billpaying or working toward a Plan B you don’t even want. Your Plan A life is happening right now.

Time Is on My Side

People often ask me how I find time to write. The truth is, for most of my life, I didn’t. I’m a busy person who, like most writers, works a day job for a living. For most of my life, I looked at writing as dessert–a reward for finishing all the other things. It was something I tried to fit into the cracks of my life. It was the thing I most wanted to be doing, but it was my very last priority. I wrote in the little spare time I had leftover after I’d done everything else. I wrote with whatever remaining energy I had at the end of the day, assuming I had any energy left. I often didn’t. So, needless to say, I didn’t write much.

I used to spend a lot of time researching ways to squeeze writing into my life. (Time I could have spent writing, actually.) There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. During my research, I came across unhelpful adages, like reminders that I have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé Knowles. No pressure.

In the end, some of the best advice I ever got was more about mindset than anything else: (1) give yourself the first and best hour of your day; and (2) stop making time to write–make your life a writing life, and put all the other stuff on the back burner.

I have found some helpful advice over the years, though, and I’d like to share my three favorite pieces of advice with you. These are the ones that actually worked for me.

Turn the Beat Around

The trick that has without a doubt increased my writing productivity the most came from my son, Robert, who is also a writer. After I began giving myself the first and best part of my day, my favorite time of day to write quickly became first thing in the morning. I often get up at 5 a.m. or even 4 a.m. to get some writing done before work. It used to be stressful time, though. I was mindful of the clock, and it seemed that just about the time I hit my stride, it was time to stop writing, make breakfast, and get ready for work. Sometimes I wrote beyond the time I should, and then I found myself skipping breakfast and racing out the door.

My son Robert’s tip: Get ready for work before you start writing. I can’t believe what a difference this has made. It’s been life-changing. I don’t write in the evenings–I’m an early riser, and I’m wiped out by the end of the day. If I save it for the evening, I generally won’t do it. But mindless tasks–those I can do in the evening. So I started doing a lot of my prep work for the next day at night. I shower, decide what I’ll wear the next day, pack a lunch, etc. The next morning, I still get up early, but I’ve reversed my routine. I get ready for work, make coffee, and then sit down at my keyboard without anything hanging over my head. I write until it’s time for work. I no longer feel rushed, because when I shut off my computer, all I have to do is pick up my bag and head out the front door. This advice alone has made an incredible difference.

Big, Big Plans

Believe it or not, I got this tip from a book I read in the ‘70s called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. It turned out to be a guide for wives on how to make your home a happy one by catering to and manipulating your husband and by suppressing your own opinions and emotions. Needless to say, if you know me, this book was not my cup of tea. (Ms. Morgan would probably point out that I’m sitting here single as I write this.) But I have long said I can find something useful in any book, and this was no exception.

In one chapter of her book, Ms. Morgan outlines a “Million-Dollar Plan” she got from some CEO of a big company–the best way to accomplish the most you can possibly accomplish in a day. Here is the basic plan: Make a list of the things you need to do that day, put them in order of priority, start working on the first task, and work your way down the list. Don’t move down the list to the second task until you’ve finished the first, and so on. Don’t allow distractions, just keep moving down the list in order. You may not finish everything on the list, but by the end of the day, you will have finished the most important tasks and will have accomplished as much as was possible in the time you had. It’s a simple idea, but it works like a charm. As a writer, this idea is helpful in a couple of ways: first, make sure writing is at the top of your list every day, and second, working this way will help free up more time in your life for writing and other pleasurable activities.

“Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.” –Jerry Seinfeld

The Chain

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses the power of visualization to reach his goals. He hangs a big, year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall, sets a daily writing goal for himself, and marks off each day on the calendar with a big “X” when he reaches that day’s goal. The calendar becomes a chain, each “X” is a link in the chain, and his desire not to have a broken link keeps him going.1 I’ve started doing this, too. My daily goal is to write for a certain amount of time each morning. I mark the days off on my calendar with a red Sharpie, just like Jerry. What keeps me going is imagining Jerry yelling at me, “Don’t break the chain!” (You heard that in his voice, right?”)

WRITER TIP: Be like Jerry. Get yourself a big wall calendar where you can track your writing progress. Set a daily writing goal using whatever works for you. Some writers set a daily word-count goal, for example, 500-1,000 words a day. Others set a daily page-count goal, maybe two or three pages. I use a daily time goal: no matter what, I write for at least ten minutes every morning. I can always convince myself to write for ten minutes, and if I only write for ten minutes, that’s okay. But once I get going, I almost always write for much longer, usually two to four hours every morning. Whether it’s ten minutes or six hours, I mark the day off with a big “X” on my wall calendar. Seeing that unbroken chain of progress motivates me to keep going.

What Is a Book Coach?

If you’ve come to this post, you probably have some questions about what a “book coach” is. I know I was curious the first time I heard someone call herself a book coach. So I looked into it, and I found out that, although the term is a relatively new one, book coaches have been around for a long time. When I heard the term, I knew right away that a book coach is exactly what I’d been training to be all of my life, only I hadn’t known it before, because I didn’t know such a job existed, and I didn’t know it was something I could do.

So what is a book coach? A book coach is sort of like a life coach, only instead of helping a person with his/her/their entire life, a book coach’s job is to help a writer achieve the very specific goal of writing a book, from start to finish. A book coach has specific expertise that can be invaluable for establishing goals and defining the processes necessary to successfully plan a book, write a book, and query agents.

How Are Book Coaches Helpful to Writers?

Polls conducted over the past twenty years reveal that more than 80% of people living in the United States want to write a book someday. But of those people who want to write a book, only 3% ever finish writing a book. Why? If I had to guess, I’d say there are a couple of things at play.

First, we are a nation of hard workers, and artistic pursuits like writing are often considered fanciful and frivolous. We may be dreaming of writing a book in a vacuum, with no support or encouragement, embarrassed to share our dream even with our families or our closest friends.

Also, writing a book is hard, and it’s made much harder by the fact that writers usually have to work at day jobs and take care of families and wash their cars on the weekend. It’s hard enough to find the time to write, but it’s even more difficult to find the time to write consistently enough to hone the craft of writing and to write well. And because of the first thing, there’s probably no one in our corner encouraging us to keep at it.

A book coach can help writers beat those staggering odds by coaching them and encouraging them through planning and writing a complete manuscript, zeroing in on their particular craft issues, and pursuing their publishing goals.

What Does a Book Coach Do?

When you work with a book coach, you start wherever you’re at and go from there.

You may come to a book coach knowing you want to write a novel, but with only a vague idea for a story. A book coach can help you fine tune your idea, determine the structure for your book, flesh out the characters and plot, and make a plan for writing forward.

Or you may have a solid idea and a detailed outline and be ready to write your book. In that case, a book coach can help you find the strengths and weaknesses in your story plan before you start writing and coach you through the writing process one chapter at a time.

If you have a completed manuscript, a book coach can evaluate your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses so you go into revisions armed with the information you need to take your manuscript to the next level. A book coach can also coach you through those revisions so you make the best use of your time.

Once you have a polished manuscript, a book coach can help you research agents and develop a query or pitch plan, including drafting a query letter and a synopsis of your book, so you can start looking for an agent to represent your book.

WRITER TIP: If you don’t know how to get started, or you’re stuck, or you want or need professional guidance, accountability, and/or encouragement to reach your writing goals, you are not alone. Many people take advantage of professional book coaching and editing services to help them achieve their writing dreams. I am a book coach and editor with many years of experience writing, evaluating, and editing fiction and non-fiction. If you’re interested in working with me to write your first or your next novel, please get more information about me; get more information about the book coaching services I offer; and contact me to get started.