Give Your Writing the Gift of Grace this Holiday Season

The holidays are upon us and with them come disruptions galore. We are busier this time of year squeezing in more parties and tree lightings and school holiday sing-alongs not to mention adding shopping and cookie baking and wrapping to our already busy schedules. Our writing time can often be the first thing to go when we need to make room.

And that can be okay.

I am in the midst of an aggressive revision schedule in order to get the next draft of my manuscript to my critique partner by January. The first week I did great managing my time and even got a little ahead. The next week–last week–I managed half a chapter on Monday and that was it. As a result, I am technically a week behind in my schedule.

But I’m not panicking…anymore…I’ll be honest, I had a few moments of desperate thinking. Then, I took a beat and regrouped.

Why?

Because last week I chose to focus on Thanksgiving prep. I was hosting our joint family gathering again after the surreal pandemic years and needed the extra time to ease myself back into prep for such an undertaking. I wanted to enjoy my Thanksgiving, which meant I needed to give myself adequate time for shopping and preparation and self-care during what can be a stressful time. And it worked. I had a lovely day, the food tasted great, the company was joyful, and I didn’t end up in a collapsed heap of exhaustion after. I mean, I did spend all of Sunday on the couch reading a book from cover to cover…but that had more to do with a rainy morning, a good book at my fingertips, and an empty calendar.

Once I reminded myself that I had made a choice and that choice had been the right one for me in the moment, I was able to move on from the panic and recenter myself in my edits.

As of this morning, I have caught up on what were last week’s planned chapters. Will I be able to complete the originally scheduled chapters for this week? Maybe. Maybe not.

Revisions are tricky to plan for in general. One chapter may need just a little smoothing over, while others need complete transformations, and still others have yet to be written. To account for the uncertainty, I’ll keep an eye on my progress this week and reassess my schedule as I go.

But I will also give myself grace. Grace to not always meet my daily goal. Grace that the work won’t suffer as a result. Grace to still provide time for movement every day as well as ample time for some mental self-care this holiday season.

And I will also ask for help. I’ve already offloaded the gift buying responsibilities for some of our list onto my husband. He always helps with our own kids, but the list of nieces and nephews usually falls to me. It felt freeing to ask someone else to share that load for a change.

I will also be honest. With myself and with my calendar. And here, with you, fellow writers. I had every intention of coming to this space today to provide a list of ways to stay writing during the holiday season, but frankly, you don’t need that kind of added pressure. I’m guessing you’re already feeling that on the days you don’t get to the page. I am here to encourage you to, yes, still write during this time of year, but to also give yourself permission to not write some days if that means you are better rested and your creative well isn’t depleted.

So, if I have any tips for you it is this: if you can, make a plan. Look at your calendar and perhaps block off an hour a week that is just you and your project. If it can be more, great. If not, no worries. You still have that one hour to keep your hand in your story. Maybe you’d rather block off ten minutes a day. That works, too. It doesn’t have to be large chunks of time, you can write entire novels in the gaps of your day.

And give yourself some grace. You may not progress at the pace you wanted this season, but progress is still progress. Don’t let your inner critic take over this holiday season and ruin your writing time and your holiday. Acknowledge and move on. The work will still be there after you watch Elf for the 30th time with your family.

And since Elf is set somewhat in a publishing house, it’s kind of like research anyway. Win win!

If you want more writing routine tips, sign up for my newsletter and use my quick start guide to help you stay on task this holiday season. A new issue is out today!

Featured Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

How Revising is Like Home Renovation: Save the Painting for Last

This week we are finally having our downstairs painted after the great dishwasher leak of 2022 wrecked havoc on our whole house. Between the dings created from demolition, the new drywall patches, and the one inch difference in height from where our new baseboards sit on hardwood versus where they previously sat on tile, we are in desperate need of a paint job.

I am looking forward to rehanging our art and photographs on the walls and the cohesion that this new color will bring to some updated furniture purchases we happened to make before we had to rip out half of our downstairs. Pending some backsplash tile (the final hurrah), we will be done. I can’t wait to write THE END on this whole, ridiculous disaster.

Our paint job this week is like the final polish of a novel. It’s the search and replace for all the filter words. The final prettying up of the sentences. The sparkle we put on the manuscript before we finally hit send on our queries.

But there was so much work that got our walls to this point and while the painting feels like the big job this week, it isn’t what fixed out kitchen. What fixed it was everything that came before it, like the new hardwoods that were placed only after the rotted parts of the subfloor were repaired. And the repainted kitchen cabinets that had to be sanded and primed before they could be painted, not to mention the section we had to rebuild first. And the new plumbing…Do you see where I am headed? We couldn’t paint before we fixed the bigger structural problems. If we had painted first, we’d only have to repaint again, which would have been wasted money, effort, and time.

We must approach our revisions in much the same way we approach home renovation. We can’t polish our sentences or fix our filter words first. What’s the point if that scene you just prettied up doesn’t even stay in the story once you eliminate a subplot?

The key to revision is to look for big structural problems first.

Does your protagonist have a clear arc of change? Do we know what they want and what stands in their way? Do they get what they want in the end or what they need or neither or both?

Does your story have a strong because of that trajectory? Does every action the protagonist takes have a consequence? Does every consequence lead to a new decision? Is your climax of the story the inevitable moment when all these actions and consequences come together to your protagonist’s ultimate moment of change?

Does your story meet all genre requirements? Is your world building solid and integral to the story? Does your romance have a happy ending? Does your mystery have a red herring? Does your cozy have all the right elements of quirky neighbors and a dearth of bloody violence and profanity?

Are your scenes and chapters properly structured? Does your protagonist have a micro change from beginning to end of each chapter? Do breaks come at the right places?

Is your point-of-view and tense set and consistent throughout? Is it clear who is narrating the story and where they stand in time and place?

Is your timeline consistent?

If your structure is lacking, no amount of paint (or line editing) will help.

Think back to the Three Little Pigs. You can make your story out of anything–straw, sticks, or bricks. The reader is the big bad wolf just waiting to find the weakness in your story. It doesn’t matter how pretty those sticks are painted if the wolf can blow them down. Focus on the structure, brick-by-brick, first. You can always decorate later.

And it will be much more fun to paint when you aren’t worried about whether your house is going to fall down.

Need help with your own revision? I love helping writers create revision plans and execute their changes. I offer manuscript evaluations and revision coaching. Want to know more? Set up a discovery call and we can chat about your project.

Want more tips and next steps in your in box each month? Sign up for my newsletter here where I share something new to only subscribers each month. You’ll also get my free guide to jump start your writing routine as a thank you–perfect if you need to switch things up but still want to make time for your writing during the busy holiday months!

Featured Photo by Karl Solano on Unsplash

What I Love About Book Coaching

I’ve been coaching a few months and I have to tell you, I LOVE it! Watching a writer see their own work in a new way is such an amazing honor. Seeing the light of a new idea in their eyes is invigorating. Hearing the “AHA!” the moment a concept they’ve been struggling with suddenly makes sense in their own writing fills me with joy.

I have been a stuck writer. I have been mired down in my own revisions knowing in my heart that the book isn’t working but having no idea what to do to make it better. There comes a point where, as writers, we’ve exhausted our own resources or we lose sight of the story we set out to write. Either way, we need help.

I have recently been working with a coach myself on my revision. It has been a wonderful process. Her feedback, and sometimes pushback, has helped me to clarify my thoughts on what I want this book to be. I had the same AHA moment I see in the writers I coach. And it’s an amazing feeling; both empowering and invigorating. This is our last scheduled week before I take the planning we have done and execute all that juicy feedback and brainstorming into another rewrite. I’m still afraid I won’t be able to meet the moment (that fear never quite leaves me, personally), but I am also confident that I am well prepared and have created a solid foundation on which to set this next round of edits. A new feeling for me as I set off into revisions.

And that feeling is what I love most about coaching: seeing writers who come to me feeling stuck but leave feeling empowered. Empowered to keep going. Empowered to try something new. Empowered to learn a new side of this craft. Empowered to finish these stories of their hearts with renewed confidence and a few new skills.

Do you:

  • Know something isn’t working in your manuscript but you aren’t sure what?
  • Ever feel like a failure because you can’t fix it?
  • Avoiding your manuscript?
  • Compare yourself to writing peers who are faster/agented already/published and figure they must have some “secret sauce” you don’t?
  • Feel overwhelmed trying to implement every craft book and workshop suggestion you’ve ever encountered into your writing?
  • Not know where to start or where to go next with your manuscript?
  • Procrastiplan: get mired down in research or planning without actually writing?
  • Think that talent means you should just *know* how to do this writing thing already?
  • Ever hear the words, “I can’t,” “If only I had a week in a cabin in the woods, then I could finish…,” “If only someone would tell me what to fix,” or “Maybe I’m just not good enough” in your head?
  • Think you have “writer’s block”?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you, my dear writer, might be stuck.

The thing is, every writer gets stuck. That doesn’t mean you don’t have talent, are a failure, or will never succeed. The writer who can string together a beautiful description may not be able to properly structure a novel and the writer who can tell a tension-filled story might not be able to show emotional layers in their protagonist. We all have varying levels of skill. That’s why writing is a craft. There are rules and techniques and genre requirements. There are skills that come naturally and those that you hone after years of practice and even some that you will have to squeeze from a stone every single time you sit down to the page. But that means you can learn and improve and grow in your writing with the right kind of guidance.

Book coaching may help empower your writing. A coach can offer you:

  • Insight about what you are doing right in your writing and how to replicate it to other aspects of your tool box
  • Compassionate feedback
  • Accountability
  • Actionable next steps
  • Resources and exercises to help you expand your craft
  • Brainstorming help
  • Occasional hand holding and a pep talk

The other thing I love about coaching is all these beautiful stories you all are writing. Publishing is hard, but writing is beautiful. You all are out there doing beautiful work. So if you need a pep talk today, here it is: keep going! Keep looking for what shines a light on your writing. Keep seeking your AHA moments.

And whatever you do, keep writing!

If you think you might benefit from a little support, I invite you to sign up for a free discovery call where we can talk about your story and your specific challenges. I keep some spots open each week for these no-pressure calls and would be happy to chat!

And join the community! Sign up for my monthly newsletter (Bonus: New sign-ups receive a free guide on how to jump start your writing routine!)

Featured photo by Diz Play on Unsplash

The Importance of Writing Support & Where to Find it

Writing can feel like such a solitary endeavor. And most of the time it is. I mean, no one can write the words in your head onto a piece of paper like you can. You know your story. You are the sherpa to your characters, carrying their hopes and desires and misbeliefs, guiding them through a story landscape to whatever their ultimate destination ends up being. You are often alone in a room or alone in a crowded coffee shop, your eyes glued to the cursor or yellow legal pad as you pound/sketch out character arcs and plot twists.

But while the act of writing itself may be up to you, you don’t have to go it alone.

In fact, I would argue that you shouldn’t.

Yes. You still have to write the words alone. But learning craft, navigating publishing options, and getting feedback on your writing can, and probably should, happen in community. And my experience has taught me that there really is nothing more supportive than the writing community.

I have been lucky in my journey to community and wanted to share a few ways I have found connection with other writers:

Taking a Class: The Margaret Mitchell House

We moved to Atlanta the summer of 2004. I was working from home for my job based in Washington, DC and my husband was in grad school. I needed to create community for myself. One of the ways I did that was join a writing class at the Margaret Mitchell House (back when they offered these classes). It was a blast. It kept me writing and, more importantly, opened my mind up to critiquing. I learned a lot about what was a helpful critique and what wasn’t in that class. At a writer’s conference in Atlanta more than a decade later, my friend (see critique partner below) pulled me aside to say, “You absolutely must meet Benji!” Standing in front of me was Benji Carr, a former Margaret Mitchell House writing group alum! It’s been fantastic to reconnect and watch his journey to publication (read my review of his book Impacted* here, then check out him reading a short piece about the Waffle House he worked on in that class we took together at the 30:15 mark of this podcast). I have lost touch with most of the other writers from that group–it was in the days before social media had taken off to keep folks connected–and I am thrilled to have someone from those days back in my circle. It reminds me of just how far we’ve both come in our writing lives.

Benji, Kristine and I reunited at the 2019 Broadleaf Writer’s Association Conference.

Joining an Organization: Women’s Fiction Writers Association

About seven years ago, I was home visiting my parents when a friend invited me to a book launch for an author she knew. I love a good book event, so of course I said yes! It was the launch of Barbara Claypole White’s The Perfect Son*. In the signing line, my friend, Sonya, introduced me to Barbara and shared that I was a writer, too. I wasn’t brave enough to call myself a writer yet, so I tried to downplay it, but Barbara wouldn’t have it. She asked about the manuscript I was working on and her eyes lit up. She thrust bookmarks in my hand jotting down the name of an organization she thought I should join. That organization was the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. I joined not too long after and haven’t looked back since.

WFWA Alexandria Retreat, October 2022

In the WFWA, I have found a group of writers who are supportive and knowledgeable and generous and funny and sweet and f*cking fantastic at telling stories. Whether it’s a workshop, webinar, conference, local get together, mentorship program, or chatting together on social media, this organization has done nothing but strengthen my writing and my confidence. I can’t rave enough about them. If you even think you might be writing Women’s Fiction, please check it out. You won’t regret it.

Central NC WFWA Writers at a recent gathering to talk craft

But there are groups for all kinds of writers out there. Check for a state or city-based writing network. I know NC and Atlanta both boast organizations. Check your genre–there are organizations for thriller authors, romance writers, children’s book authors, science fiction and fantasy, and so many more! Google is your friend. And Twitter hashtags. Explore until you find the group that resonates with you and your writing most.

Critique Partners

Kristine has been on my writing journey for so long I can barely remember doing it without her. While we don’t tend to write in the same genre and our styles are different, it makes for a great critique partnership because we challenge each other in areas that the other might be blind to. Plus, we’ve been reading each other’s material now for long enough that we can tell what the other is trying to do but might not be achieving just yet. I trust her feedback to be honest and kind and always constructive. We also trust each other enough to push back or question that feedback, which can lead to tough love and lively discussion. And there is nothing better than having a friend who knows your story that you can pepper with texts when you just can’t figure out the damn title to your book after brainstorming 100 crappy ideas already (I am speaking of myself. Kristine is much better at titling her own work!).

Kristine and I at the Broadleaf Writer’s Association Conference back in 2018.

Family

I have always put my writing life front and center with my kids. I wanted them to see me struggle for something. Granted, I didn’t think that I would still be struggling six years later, but what a lesson for them to be learning as they enter their teen years. They see their mom still working, still trying, still not giving up on her dream. I also have a husband who has never once doubted me and in fact often holds more faith in me and my dream than I do. Which is paramount. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve showed up at dinner threatening to quit. He hasn’t let me do it yet.

A Book Coach

Yes, I recently became a book coach and so it seems like this is a self-serving addition, but let me tell you, I practice what I preach. In the midst of trudging through this revision I realized I needed extra help. More than just critique, more than a mentor, more than a word of faith from my husband. I needed big picture, structural support. So when a fellow coach who I worked with during our certification program contacted me about working together on her manuscript, I went out on a limb and asked if we could trade services. It’s been a game changer. Not only are our deadlines keeping me moving forward during these particularly tricky parts that are very easy to procrastinate on, but her feedback is shining a spotlight on aspects of my character arc I kept trying to ignore. I know that I would not be making it through this revision without her feedback, accountability, and brainstorming help.

Long story short: Find your people–whether it’s a person who asks after your writing and genuinely supports your dream or it’s several people in a local writing group or it’s hundreds in a large association or it’s all of the above. I have learned–and continue to learn–so much from all of these various people in my writing community. I know who to reach out to with questions about craft or updating my website or helping me complete a revision. I can call on my critique partner to set me a deadline for her to reread pages. I can offer support and feedback to others and feel joy watching them also grow on their writing journey.

Find your people. Then invite others into your circle. The writing community is a beautiful thing.

You can go it alone, but you don’t have to. The ride is so much more fun with friends!

*This post contains affiliate links which means if you buy through that link, I receive a small commission. So thank you! 🙂

Featured photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Writing In the Fog

This morning fog hung low outside my window hiding the sky and giving the trees across the street the hazy look of an impressionist painting. It was beautiful and comforting and slightly unnerving to be wrapped in clouds and mist, separate from a larger, clearer world.

When you’re blanketed by fog, there is no scenery, no long view, no full picture of your surroundings. It’s you and the immediate world in front of you. It’s the ultimate visual meditation–the fog shielding you from what lies ahead as well as preventing you from dwelling on what’s behind, both draped in a soft gray haze with only the present visible.

Sometimes, we need to surround our writing with a little fog. Or maybe a lot.

This morning, I was also working on the outline of my manuscript. Specifically, I was taking the outline of what exists and rewriting it into the outline of the book that COULD be. It’s a tricky business, ignoring all the words I’ve written into scenes with pretty images and punchy dialogue and fun subplots. Instead, I had to focus on the barest narrative thread to see where it failed to fulfill the story promise to the reader. It required a level of tunnel vision that can be hard to achieve when working on a full manuscript, but necessary for determining what needs to be on the page to make the strongest story.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way

EL Doctorow

Sometimes, the only way to approach your writing or your revision is to ignore the larger whole and focus instead on one element at time, whether that’s character motivation, story structure, stakes, or emotional arc of change. Pick one as your yellow line through the road of your story and follow it through your revision. Ignore the rest, the line edits, the pretty polishing, the distractions. It isn’t easy, but what about writing is? By focusing only on what was in front of me (the causal links between one scene and the next. In order. One at a time.), I was able to not only create an outline that I think will work for my story, but one that is now a road map for my revisions. This outline will guide me through my story’s journey and as a result, I should, if I keep my eyes on it, end up with a stronger story after this revision go round.

The fog can feel scary. Not knowing what is ahead or behind can be unnerving. It can be easy to want to stop and wait for it to lift. But you’ll miss the gifts in the fog. The quiet hush. The heavy, damp scent. The muted colors. The mystery. And ultimately, the wide, technicolor beauty when the sun finally reveals the world beyond.

You, writer, are the sun. Quietly working to burn off the excess and reveal that beauty of your story. Focus in those periods of fog and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Your story is waiting for you on the other side.

Featured photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Playing NaNoWriMo Without Writing a Book

I recently spoke with a couple of writers who were both eager to jump start their creativity with new projects. One has been dominated by editing work recently and so her own creative writing had taken a back seat. She had six different ideas for stories and was tempted to try NaNoWriMo but didn’t know which idea to pick. Another just went out on submission with her latest novel and was considering NaNoWriMo as a distraction to the waiting game.

Both were unsure about whether NaNoWriMo was the right thing to try as they weren’t necessarily looking to complete a novel in a month. But I encouraged both of them to do it anyway!

Why?

  • They are both itching to be creative. Committing to writing every day for a month would be a great way to scratch that itch.
  • They both wanted to mix it up when it came to their writing. What better way to play with a new idea or genre?
  • They both seemed to be craving the community, support, and excitement that comes with this large event.

Technically 50,000 words of a novel is the ultimate goal of NaNoWriMo, but if you’re tempted to play this year and that isn’t where you are right now, there are a lot of different ways to play. NaNoWriMo can be a perfect way to jump start a writing routine or give a jolt to your creative muse.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Pick 30 words (or better yet, ask a writer friend to pick 30 words), write them down on separate slips of paper. Put them in a jar and every day in November pick a random word to riff on for 1,700 words (the daily pace to hit the 50k mark). You could use the same character and simply include that word in the day’s scene. You could write 30 very different short pieces every day based on your word. Imagine the possibilities at the end of the month? Maybe that content is the basis for your next story or maybe it’s 30 short pieces to be polished and submitted to journals or tweaked to become fodder for your newsletter or blog?
  • Pick your top 4 ideas (you know, of the ones you scribble down in a notebook or save in your phone?). Now, assign each idea one week in November. For one week, write 2,000 words a day on that one idea. The next week, 2,000 words a day on the next idea. And so on. Use this time to play with each of your ideas, flesh them out more fully, and at the end of the month you can better compare which project to pursue next.
  • Have a vague idea but aren’t sure where to start? Spend the first week in November writing character sketches of your characters. The next week, outline major plot points and setting. The third week, write your opening scene a different way for each day of the week. The fourth week, write your closing scene a different way for each day of the week. At the end of the month, you’ll have a plan for writing forward.
  • Write a flash fiction story every day.
  • Write a blog post every day.
  • Write a poem every day.
  • Write a letter. Handwrite a letter every day to a family member, friend, favorite author, special teacher, or mentor. This is a fun exercise to do for your characters, too. Pen letters from them to a few people in their lives or from their past and see what new details emerge. I figured out the entire backstory of an antagonist once doing this. While that information never landed on the page, it gave me empathy for why he was so cruel and allowed me to write him with more depth.
  • Journal every day. Whether it’s Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way* or just sitting in a café and making up stories about the other patrons as you sip a latte, allow your imagination the time and freedom to run free.

The possibilities are endless. Tap into your creative mind and use the constraints (time) and community (writers in the same boat!) of NaNoWriMo to shake up your writing routine.

Which idea(s) will you try? Share in the comments or come back in December and let me know if any of these ideas worked for you!

*This post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I may earn a commission.

Featured Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Read & Watch Your Way to Becoming a Better Writer

This week I shared the following quote on social media:

Is it really that simple?

Of course.

And not at all.

The real challenge comes with how we approach both reading and writing. Today, I want to dig into the reading part.

A good book can transport you to another world, distracting you from all the craft that went into creating it. You may be inspired as a result, imagining similarly brilliant prose and carefully crafted plots spinning from your fingertips onto the page via your laptop keyboard with ease. Or you may feel discouraged. How could you ever begin to write a book that brilliant?

As for the latter, you can write a great book. At least you can write the best book you can write and who knows how brilliant that can be until you try. As for the former, take heart. That book, despite its pretty perfect appearance now, did not just spill out of the author whose name is on the jacket. They toiled with an idea for some time, came to the page and left it, threw pages in the metaphorical (or maybe literal if they’re pen to paper or typewriter writers) wastebasket, banged their head against the desk, fiddled with only that one paragraph as the sun rose then set on their day, revised and rewrote and polished. No matter how successful or brilliant they are, they still had to work at writing that book.

And guess what? You can learn from that work.

Take another look at that book you loved. Grab a highlighter or some sticky notes and see how they did it. How did each scene or chapter start or end? Plot out the trajectory of the first half and second half of the story, what changed at the midpoint? Answer questions about the book like it’s a report for your fourth grade language arts class: Who is the protagonist? What do they want? What do they need? What stands in their way? What decisions do they make and what were the consequences? What did they get in the end–what they wanted or what they needed, neither, something else? What questions did you have at the end of a chapter? What propelled you to turn the page rather than turn off the light and get some sleep?

Now, find a book that you aren’t as into. When did you want to put it down? Why? What is missing? Revisit the same questions as above and see if you can figure out what’s not working for you. Is it a craft problem, a personal taste discrepancy (nothing wrong with that), or are you reading at a bad time in your life (context can be important to our personal experiences with a book)?

I believe stories are stories, so you can do this with shows you’re bingeing and movies as well. Some shows are easier to pause or abandon than others. I recently binge-watched The Partner Track on Netflix based on the novel of the same name by Helen Wan. Each episode left me wanting to see what happened next. There was no question about whether I wanted the next episode to run. I let it play while I made dinner, folded laundry, and snuggled under a blanket in my unusually quiet house this weekend.

At some point I realized how deep I was in. Why did I need to keep watching?

For me, it was the protagonist’s clear motivation: to make partner. It colored every action and decision she made. I was rooting for her while internally yelling at her to not do that next thing because it would clearly not work out how she thought. Her motivation drove all her choices until she’d lost her moral compass thinking she was doing the “right” thing. I couldn’t wait to see how she’d finally come to realize that she needed to play a different game entirely instead of trying to follow the rules everyone else ignored for a game she could never win.

While The Partner Track did it well, I’m also learning a lot from another show I watch that I’m not finding as compelling. I’m not desperate to see what happens or stay up past my bedtime to see what’s next. There are multiple seasons and this most recent one I’m watching is starting slow for me–I can see they are setting something up, but I don’t know that we needed all this set-up to get to the juicier conflict awaiting us. It’s making me impatient, bored. But, I’m waiting to see if it turns around and how. For now. Because I’m invested in the characters after several seasons, otherwise, I may have just dropped it. The difference between this season and previous may be that I can see the set-up. It’s too obvious, which, to me, means it’s taking too long. Just get to the point!

If you want to improve your writing, immerse yourself in stories. Read, watch, listen and use your critical eye (or ear) on them. Dissect them. Ask yourself what’s working and what isn’t as if you were beta reading a story for a friend. Don’t let it diminish your enjoyment of a book or show, but do perhaps jot a few observations down after a reading or watching session of things you’ve noticed that are holding your interest or even just note how you’re feeling after that chapter/episode. You can always go back and do a deeper dive later to figure out what elicited that feeling or kept you turning the page.

The more attention you pay to the stories that captivate you, the more you can use them as a road map to enhancing your own craft. The more attention you pay to the stories that lose you, the more you can be on the lookout for those moments in your own work and fix them.

Read. Read. Read.

It’s just that easy.

And hard.

Featured Photo by David Lezcano on Unsplash

Procrastiplanning: Break the Cycle

In a recent call with a historical fiction writer, I mentioned the term procrastiplanning:

Several folks chimed in that they often have the same issue so I wanted to take a deeper dive on what procrastiplanning is and how to break the cycle.

First of all, I wish I could remember where I heard the term first so I could give proper credit to that genius. All I can say is that I didn’t invent it, but it did resonate with me in much the same way.

Procrastiplanning is basically whatever work you are doing in the name of your novel that is keeping you from actually writing your novel. It can look like several things:

  • Research on a person, place, or event that takes place in your novel (whether you are writing historical fiction or not)
  • Interviews related to a character’s occupation or a medical procedure or what it was like to live in a place at a certain time, etc…
  • Site visits for setting details
  • Google Satellite Image searches or Google Mapping for logistical details
  • Baby name searches to find the perfect name for your characters
  • Looking up the weather in a certain area at a certain time of year
  • Outlining, outlining, outlining without writing
  • Writing extensive backstory for every character no matter how long they are on the page

The list goes on and on from the big to the small things.

The tricky thing is that all of these things are important to do for your book. As a coach, one of the things I work with clients on is pre-writing work. I am definitely not advocating you skip that step or that you don’t try to get the details right or ignore your own blind spots and write characters without walking in their literal shoes for a bit in an interview or job shadow. You should do those things. And despite my love/hate relationship with it, I am definitely not insinuating that outlining is bad.

Research and outlining are important parts of the process. The danger is when they become the entire process.

The end goal is to write a book, not compile an index of materials. At some point, you actually have to stop researching and stop planning and WRITE THE BOOK.

So, how do you break the cycle?

  • Determine why you are procrastiaplanning. You can’t fix anything until you acknowledge what is really keeping you from the page. There are a lot of internal fears (fears about our skills, fears about what others will think when they read it) that can keep writers from the page. Recognize those fears then ask for them to take a back seat (check out this animated version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s letter to fear from Big Magic). Drafting is your opportunity to tell yourself the story. No judgement. And if there is a skill that is lacking in your writing, you will most certainly figure it out in revision and can make a plan to fix it then. Don’t let your fears of what you can’t do keep you from doing what you can.
  • Trust the research and pre-work you’ve already done and just start writing. Any time you have a question about accuracy or timing or whatever, highlight it on the page. I also like to keep a running list next to my computer of things to look up later so I don’t stop my flow to look something up. You’ll be surprised, however, at how much you’ve already internalized from your research that will naturally color the page as you draft. If you rely too much on your research WHILE you’re writing, you run the risk of writing a research paper. Write the story, let the research and detail you’ve found enhance it in revision. Same goes for those in-depth character sketches. Yes, some pre-work on your characters is necessary, but let them reveal themselves to you a little as well when you put them in the tricky situation of your plot.
  • Do a limited outline. If outlining tends to be a months long endeavor for you and you never quite get to the drafting stage, stick to the major scenes in your novel (opening scene, inciting incident, midpoint, climax, final scene) and see if that can get you to the page faster. Outlining, like plotting out a course on a map, is a great tool for keeping you on the right path. But a rigid adherence to it can also keep you from noticing the beauty during the ride. Try starting and you can always come back to the outline later if you truly need to plot out a different route.
  • Take full advantage of TK. TK is an old journalist term for “to come.” There are several scenes where I’ve inserted a “TK” in place of a specific date or an insult in dialogue I need to be perfect but don’t want to spend too much time thinking on in the forward motion moment. You can use this for historical details like setting descriptions or event summaries so that you can keep writing forward in your manuscript without getting lost in a research rabbit hole. Here are a few examples of how I have used TK in my current draft of a contemporary Women’s Fiction novel:

Example 1:

The small ceremony in the Coker Arboretum on the university campus under the [TK TREE?? Go visit and get an idea!].

Example 2:

“What did your client say?”
Sydney [body language depicting her reluctance/guilt TK].
“Sydney? You there?”
“I didn’t tell her,” she admitted.

I have been guilty of procrastiplanning that also looks like:

  • Having the perfect amount of time, noise, and mental space to write. While all those things are important, I have found some of my most productive work in the waiting room of a climbing gym while my kid takes a class or on the sidelines waiting for soccer practice to end. You can train yourself to ignore the pull of the perfect scenario but setting a timer and only committing to 5, 10, 20, or 30 minute writing sprints when you have the available time. Eventually, your muse will get the message and show up when you ask vs. you waiting for her to show up when the stars happen to align.
  • Creating a spreadsheet to track word count or revision tasks. Again, these things can all be helpful until they become the task instead of whatever task we initially wanted to measure. Just get started. Don’t let the time intensive creation of the spreadsheet or whatever keep you from starting. A sticky note with the time you started and stopped writing or the a running tally of word counts will suffice until you have time to create that spreadsheet. Or use an app for time tracking that does the hard work for you. I use Toggl.

My point is, we all do it. Writing is hard. And we, as humans, do not like doing things that cause discomfort. So we naturally choose the things that feel more comfortable or seem easier to complete. Research can feel like progress. Character sketches and family trees and detailed maps of a fictional town can all feel like progress. But if the goal is a novel, we eventually have to sit in the discomfort and put the words on the page.

You can do it. You have an idea and I know you have the passion. Start small–commit to one ten minute writing session BEFORE you’re allowed to do any more research or planning. See how it feels.

If you need additional guidance, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A book coach can help you plan your book’s foundation while also supporting you when the time comes to do the actual work of writing.

Still having trouble getting started? Sign up for my newsletter and you’ll receive my free guide on how to kick start your writing routine with tips designed to get you to the page faster.

Happy Writing!

Writing Conferences

Tis the season for writing conferences!

After several long years of virtual conferences, many are returning in person or offering a hybrid. I’m heading to an in person conference myself in October and can’t wait to meet fellow writers I’ve only interacted with online, learn new things in our educational sessions, and have time away from my normal routines to focus on my writing.

Conference experiences can vary from offering publication path insight to craft sessions to simply a quiet space to write. Many offer first page critiques with panels of authors and/or agents as well as opportunities to pitch agents your work in person.

Getting your work in front of and pitching industry experts is invaluable experience for your writing and publication journey. A few years ago, I submitted a first page to a conference and found the feedback fascinating. The submission was anonymous (whew! No one had to know it was my work if they ripped it apart!), so I just sat back and tried to play it cool while my words were read to an auditorium of people.

The page opened on my female protagonist in a very fish out of water scene as she was being airdropped by helicopter onto an Army base in Vietnam. A female agent said it was well-written but wasn’t sure about the staccato pacing of the piece. A male panelist thought it had been intentionally written that way to evoke the sound of the helicopter blades. An interesting debate followed as they discussed the opening paragraphs and whether they would read more.

While that feedback may seem contradictory on the surface, it gave me a new way to look at what I had written and, maybe more importantly, how I had written it so when I went back to consider a revision, I could be intentional. FYI–the staccato beats were on purpose insomuch as I wanted to put the reader right in this anxious moment with your heart pounding in your chest, but I loved that this panelist put his own interpretation on it and it still worked for him. Hearing criticism of too many short sentences invited me to look for a moment in the scene for the reader to catch their breath and be invited into the character’s interior world, something that the pace was preventing the female agent from feeling. I never would have gotten this kind of spirited back and forth on my work from a query letter rejection or even a critique partner reading for big picture issues.

Pitching to agents is another great opportunity to take advantage of at a conference. Being able to summarize your pitch into two minutes and deliver it to a real life person is scary as hell, yet the exercise of preparing that pitch is enlightening. If your stakes aren’t high enough or your protagonist’s motivations unclear or your antagonist not obstacle enough to your hero, it will be clear as soon as you start to trim your book down to the barest of elements in a verbal pitch. I hate preparing these pitches for my own work, but it always pays off when I can finally sit and have a clear conversation about MY book with a real agent. It’s an amazing experience, especially if you listen to their questions. Those questions can be key to what’s working or what isn’t in your pitch:

  • “So, what happens if she doesn’t achieve X?” — Oops, maybe you didn’t make your stakes high enough.
  • “Ooooh, Character B really sounds interesting. Tell me more about him.” — Is this B character overshadowing your protagonist? Is the story being told from the correct POV or is there something about how you wrote Character B that you can bring to Character A to really make them shine in revision?
  • “What inspired you to write this story?” — An opportunity to talk about your WHY–why you wrote this particular story. This is important to know throughout your writing process and, I find, can be easy to lose track of when you’re deep in the weeds of story structure or mining your manuscript for erroneous “justs” when you’re editing. Your why is the touchstone that will always bring you back to your story’s main thread, your point, your story’s purpose. Being able to talk to an agent about your why will not only bring the story to life for them, but will hopefully make you memorable if they ask you to follow-up with pages.

You want to go into these opportunities with your best foot forward while also having an open mind to the feedback and craft you learn while there. Writing conferences are a great place to meet potential critique partners, editors, or your next favorite writer. They are places to learn, grow, and honor the writer in you. If you haven’t been to a writer’s conference, I urge you to take a look for an event happening near you. Some are in large conference centers with hundreds of attendees and others are groups of 20 in a local library. Find what works for you, your learning style, and your budget.

If you’re going to a conference this year, drop the name of it in the comments!

Bonus: If you want to go in to conference season extra prepared, check out my Quick Start package. I’d be happy to add looking at your verbal pitch to the first 15 pages you submit as well as role play your pitch with you during our coaching call.

Creative Growth

I pass this tree on my trail walks.

I am not sure when I first noticed the tree, but I know since my dad died in 2018, I haven’t missed it. It’s like I’m compelled to take a moment and acknowledge the tree’s presence on the trail. Its struggle to keep growing a little of course until it found the sun and headed in the right direction.

The loss of my father affected me profoundly in a multitude of ways expected and unexpected, as any great loss does.

I expected to feel the pain and the sorrow, the gaping hole left in my heart. The tears felt natural. Welcome, even. Acceptable. My tears and pain honored the love I had for him and he for me.

I didn’t expect the anxiety. The fear felt counterintuitive. The worst had already happened and yet my body remained primed for disaster as if it could prepare me for this tragic loss in retrospect.

I expected things to be different. I didn’t expect everything to be different.

I found it incredibly hard to create in the wake of my father’s death. Even when the immediate days of overwhelming grief had passed and I eventually got a handle on the crippling anxiety that flared in the months that followed, I encountered resistance to creating.

I did somehow manage to draft a new book in the years since his passing, but the progress has been slow. While some days I manage a few steps forward, other days, I’m trapped on a treadmill, walking in place. I’m not falling behind, but I’m not getting very far either.

My creative life has been growing like this tree. It’s progressing, not quite in the right direction, but not in the wrong direction either. I’m still seeking out the sunshine that will feed my muse and finally allow me to grow to my highest heights.

At times, I think I’ve turned the corner and I’m growing up, towards the light. And at times, I keep stretching along the forest floor, not giving up, but not quite where I need to be just yet.

Does that mean I’m not learning or that my writing is horrible or I haven’t accomplished anything creatively in that time? Not at all. Just as that tree was growing and building bark and securing its roots into the earth, I have been laying a foundation and strengthening my skills and branching out in new ways with my book coaching business and supporting other writers.

But in the last few years, I have needed to grow in the shade. And that’s okay. Because it’s still growth.

This tree gives me hope. It represents a perseverance that perhaps another tree didn’t have, one that didn’t dig deep enough roots to counterbalance its structure. I will continue to stretch and grow like the tree, as both a writer and a human. As a coach, my goal is to nurture your growth so that you, too, can put down strong roots and stretch your limits.

We all have something to say. And when the day comes that light shines on my words, my time in the shade will be what made me ready.

I’ll see you in the leafy sunshine.