Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Clean the Slate

I can’t promise this week’s blog is going to be fun. In the writing process, there is occasional scut work that is just plain boring, but still needs to be done.

But first, congratulations. We’ve finished our first complete draft. That makes us 1 in a 1,000. Out of every 100 people who say they want to write a novel, only one starts. Out of every 100 who start, only 1 finished a complete draft. So what we have to do first of all is rest, recover, and reacquaint ourselves with our family and friends, sometimes with ourselves. Take time for that and have a great time celebrating.

Do not, absolutely do not, immediately jump into the rewrite, also known as the second draft. This thing, whatever it is becoming, needs time to sit for a while without our attention. The words need a break as much as we do. About three weeks should do it.

I hate to mention this, but there is a lot of housecleaning to be done, and I don’t mean those dishes and laundry that accumulated while we were in the final push to finish the first draft. By this time, we have a much clearer idea of what this story is all about than we did when we started. Some things we thought were going to be important turned out to be either minor, or a bad idea after all. Some things we had no idea would work now make up a major part of the story.

But before we touch anything, make a backup of the entire work. Every single thing related to this project. Make at least two copies on DVDs, what I call my away copies. One of them goes to a friend here in town. The other one goes to a friend in a different city. The in-town copy is for that frantic reboot when my entire system crashes. The out-of-town copy is for that natural disaster when I have to evacuate without my computer.

As a final safeguard, compile a complete copy of the first draft in .doc format, stick it on a thumb drive, and take it to a copy shop to have it commercially printed. I’m always a little dismayed at how small the file is. All that work and it fits on something I can hold in my hand, with lots of room left over.

After the backups, start with a good office cleaning. For those of us who write in coffee shops or other places, also need to clean out our purses, brief cases, laptop cases, etc. Wherever we store background material, whether electronically, or hard copy, or both, make sure we can find the important stuff that we’re going to need in the second draft. Put everything else in a folder or the back of a filing box, and let it go, for now.

Check for updates on all the writing-related programs we use. Update/upgrade the software, if needed. Run a maintenance program like TechTools or OnyX. Verify and repair permissions. Empty the temporary download folders. Maybe even clean the mouse and keyboard. In short, make neat.

If we didn’t start one for our first draft, now is the time to set up glossary and style sheet files. See my Glossary and Style Sheet blog for more details.

Finally, if people read and commented on any of the first draft, set up a single comment file so that all comments are in the same place. Word allows us to import multiple files, with comments, into one file, which is a great and handy thing to have.

That’s it. We’re rested. Our office is clean. Backups are safely tucked away, and the gerbils inside our computer have been dusted and polished. We’re ready for the next great adventure — the second draft.

Next Tuesday, September 30 Write the Novel — Let the Emotions take over. The second draft is all about buiding emotional complexity.

My point of view, Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level thinking – Habits for a Project’s End

“–30–. Slug it.”

I love old black-and-white movies about newspaper reporters, the guys with hats tipped back on their heads, and cigarettes dangling from their mouths, who grab candlestick phones and say, “Give me copy.”

–30– means the end of a story and a slug was a line of hot metal linotype. To slug a story was to send it to the linotyper to be set. If you ever have a chance to watch Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu, don’t miss it. Sorry, no link. It was on YouTube in the past, but it seems to have been removed. This documentary tells the story of the last day the New York Times printed on hot type and the first day it printed with computer-generated type.

In any case, we’re done. Deadline met. Story/article/book winging its way, probably electronically, to its destination. Now what? In this third blog about building habits, I’m writing about the down time a writer needs after finishing a huge project.

We are in shock. Not “shock” neatly enclosed in quotation marks as in, sort of like shock. We are in real shock. Run through this list: anxiety or agitation/restlessness; confusion; disorientation; dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness; pale, cool, clammy skin; sweating, moist skin; rapid pulse, and shallow breathing. Yep, that pretty much the way I feel on Deadline Day +1.

We’re not leaking blood. At least I hope we’re not. I assume we already poured all we could spare into those final pages. But other shock biochemical reactions such as not enough oxygen in our cells, lactic acid accumulation, changes in blood pH, electrolyte imbalance, catecholamine depletion, and disturbances in blood circulation actually exist after several days/weeks of intense periods of pressure, sitting, creating at a computer. If we’ve been consuming prodigious amounts of caffeinated drinks and less than the recommended quota of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, add caffein overload and constipation to the list.

Way back in nursing school [Florence Nightingale was in the class just ahead of me] the watchwords for treating shock were quiet and warm. Maintain a quiet environment and keep the patient, er writer, warm. Recent research coming out of Texas is now indicating that if someone is in shock in a hot environment, it’s more beneficial to cool them rather than warm them. See, nothing stays the same.

So, Deadline Day +1(the ideal): breathe, sip water, take a walk, stay quiet, and cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +1 (the actual): attend an all-morning meeting for our day job; bake 3 dozen cupcakes for the class Halloween party; wash seven loads of laundry; go grocery shopping, cook a real meal instead of ordering pizza again; clear the e-mail backlog (home and day-job); take the dog to the vet, and the kids to soccer practice.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Guilt. My boss has been so understanding about me needing to meet this deadline. Ditto my significant other. Ditto my kids. Ditto my friends. They have ALLOWED me to be a writer. I OWE them. I can’t BE PERMITTED to take one minute more than that needed to meet the deadline because if I do I will be A BAD PERSON. After all, it’s not like writing is a REAL THING, or a writer is a person with REAL NEEDS.

Can we rethink that?

Remember last week when I suggested lying in our voice mail message about when our real deadline is. It’s really October 22, but we say it’s the 31st. We need to realize that Deadline Day isn’t the day we hit send or frantically rush to catch the last Purolator pick-up. Real Deadline Day is that day plus at least three days. If we can swing it, plus seven days.

If we’ve got a day job, don’t rush back to work. Use vacation time, or flex days, or mental health days. In the grand scheme of things it will not matter if we miss one important presentation, no matter what our boss says to the contrary. If we’re not fortunate enough to have any of those options, call in sick, because if we aren’t now, and we race back to work, we will be sick within a week. “Life isn’t fair. I finished this horrendous deadline last week, and now I have a terrible cold.” Duh!

Deadline Day +1: breathe, sip water, take a walk (maybe take two walks), and stay quiet. Cool down if it’s hot; stay warm if it’s cold.

Deadline Day +2: take another walk, pick one undone task we really like to do. Since I love playing in warm, soapy water, my thing is usually to do the dishes. Also, pick one thing that’s fun. This might be a good day to take the kids to something you all enjoy, or cook supper for the sig other.

Deadline Day +3: start easing back into a regular schedule. If three days are all we can manage, regretfully so be it, but at least we’ve had three days.

Deadline Day +4 to +7: if we’re fortunate to have this kind of time, go for it. Build ourself a recuperate and recover ramp back into real life. We’ve worked hard. We deserve it.

“A big piece of writing is a little like a big storm. It leaves you shaken and disoriented and things need time to settle down. You don’t want to talk with your friends and sound like  you just went through an alien abductions. … You don’t want to reenter the world until the world has more in it than you and your capital-A Art. I like [a few days transition] to let the dust settle.”

~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

That’s my –30– for today.

I hope to see you on Tuesday, September 23 for another look at finishing a project — Congratulations, you’ve finished your first draft. Now what?

Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for meeting deadlines

Last week I wrote about habits we need to build and use each time we start major projects. This week I’m looking at the other end, habits we need to use as a major project draws to a close. That’s a fancy way of saying, surviving deadlines.

“I am so grateful to my husband/wife/spouse/partner/kids for learning to survive on cold pizza/respecting my closed office door/being able to amuse themselves when I was on a deadline.”

In one form or another, I’ve seen this sentence in dozens of book acknowledgments.


That word has a wonderful way of concentrating the attention. We know it’s coming; in many cases we know the exact date it’s coming. Here’s what we need to do to get ready.

Once more, get enough sleep

Just like last week, the first thing we need is enough sleep. Those of us who have faced deadlines are now rolling on the floor laughing because we know that sleep is the first deadline casualty. Just let us survive on three hours of sleep a night for the next two week’s and then, I’ll go to bed and sleep for a week.

The body doesn’t work like that. Research has shown that we can’t recover lost sleep, but we can put deposits into a sleep bank by pre-sleeping. So if we know or even have an inkling that a deadline looms in a couple of weeks, we need to go to bed an hour early or get up an hour later, or take a nap during the day. Every extra hour of sleep that we rack up goes into the sleep bank for withdrawal at deadline time.


Deadline preparation includes pre-everything. Pre-shop for personal items we don’t want to run out of at ten o’clock at night. Pre-cook and freeze meals. Pre-make a list of no-cook/little cook meals and post it on the refrigerator door. Most of all, prepare our friends.

Good, healthy relationships are ones we can take to the bank

Good people, in healthy relationships, love to help. Good people in healthy relationships may have no clue how to really be helpful, so we might have to prime their pumps.

Who do we know who is a good person, with whom we have a healthy relationship? ” Be honest. If we love our sister dearly, but there are issues, deadline time is not the time to rely on her for support. If we have a friend who resembles a remora (a sharksucker fish with an appendage to take a firm hold against the skin of larger marine animals), a voicemail message a la Jim Rockford, may be in our best interests.

“Hi, it’s Sharon. The Wicked Witch of the West and I are on a horrendous deadline until the end of October. Call the witch’s castle after Halloween and we’ll do coffee.” Tip: set our available date a week later than we think it will be. Maybe my deadline is really October 22, but I don’t have to tell anyone that. And I know I will want to use the extra time to decompress.

When we’ve whittled the list down our list to a three to five good, healthy people, ask each of them for one specific thing. “I’m heading for this horrendous deadline. Could you

  • bake me one of your wonderful apple pies?”
  • call me once a day for the next two weeks and leave an encouraging message on my voice mail?”
  • go to the library for me once a week and leave the trashiest romance novels you can find in my mailbox?”
  • come to my house Tuesday at 12:30 and force me to go with you for a quick lunch at Gobbles?”
  • go walking with me for a half-hour every afternoon at 5:00 o’clock?”

The big five for working under pressure

Excuse me for a minute, while I take off my writer’s hat and put on my nursing cap. Yes, I still have one. It makes me look like a sailor on shore leave. Here’s the straight gen on five healthy deadline habits

  • For every cup of coffee or tea we drink, drink one cup of water, too. At the very least, this forces us to take bathroom breaks more often. Also, even 2% dehydration, an amount too small to make us thirsty, decreases our ability to concentrate and be creative.
  • Every hour, work for 50 minutes, and then get up and move for 10. Set a timer if necessary as a reminder.
  • Nibble on raw vegetables, whole grain crackers, fruit, and nuts. If allergies are a concern, find healthy alternatives that provide fibre and, above all, complex carbohydrates, the kind that metabolize slowly. 30 minutes of brain activity lowers brain glucose level by 2 to 5 grams, which we need to replace every 30 minutes. And, no, we can’t save it up by working 6 hours without nourishment, and then eating a few cookies. Energy in has to balance energy out.
  • Some people write with music in the background, some people don’t. In any case, listen to music every day. This does not mean blaring rock. Go for something soothing, inspirational, maybe even mystic.
  • Turn off the television. Really off. Leave it off.

“Background TV is an ever-changing audiovisual distractor that disrupts a child’s ability to sustain various types of play. [It] is potentially a chronic environmental risk factor affecting most American children.” ~Marie Evans Schmidt, research associate, Center on Media and Child Health. Boston’s Children’s Hospital, July 2008. If television is bad for children, it’s gotta be bad for the creative child in all of us.

Above all, remember that deadlines are temporary phenomena, like tornadoes and strobe lighting. We will get by with a little help from our friends.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” ~Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 16, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Next Thursday, September 18, we’ll finish up the habits series with Habits for Ending. Far too many of us celebrate far too little when we finish a major project.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for Starting a Book

Unless you’re in one of those unfortunate families that started school in mid-August, I’ll bet the kids where you live aren’t really back in school. I mean, really back in school, not in the adjustment phase. Somewhere past new clothes, new haircuts, new backpacks, and into sensible breakfasts, homework after supper, and refrigerator doors festooned with schedules.

I always loved going back to school because I was a routine-loving gal, who was overly fond of school supplies. Okay, I had a touch of obsessive-compulsiveness, and I adored school supplies, especially new boxes of crayons, all sharp, pointy, and standing in rows. The first thing I did was gently tip them out onto a soft surface so they wouldn’t break, and reorganized them by color families. Obsessive-compulsive.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” ~W. Somerset Maughan, writer

Contrary to the myth that writers are free-spirits who have lousy health habits, bohemian lifestyles, and sustain their productivity with coffee, other substances, and good reviews, writers who keep going for the long haul develop healthy, successful habits. We need different habits for starting a major project; for handling pressure; and for ending a major project.

Let’s start with starting a project. What habits do we need to develop?

Enough sleep

When we begin a major project, the first thing we need is consistent, restful sleep. Current recommendation is at least 7 hours a night, but a huge portion of adults are getting by — or think they are getting by — on 6 hours or less every night. Night after night. Here’s 7 reasons that is a very bad idea.

At least once a week, we need to sleep an extra hour. Until Daylight Savings Time ends on November 2, we might need to sleep an extra hour twice a week. The reason is that our bodies run on a 25-hour cycle; clocks run on a 24-hour cycle. Getting extra sleep one or two morning a week resets our body’s internal rhythms.

Plan Treats

Set-up treats ahead of time. One year my family gave me a tea subscription. Every two months, a small package of tea arrived. Some months that little gift was just the boost I needed to keep going.

We might pre-purchase gift cards for ourselves, or season tickets to something fun, or set up a dozen envelopes with a little mad money in each one, to be used in the future for small treats when the writing is either going terrific or really, really rotten. Creative people desperately need good things to look forward to on a regular basis, so we have to pre-prime the creative pump by assuring ourselves, in advance, that goodies are on the way.

Honor Research and Inspiration

Announcing that we are establishing a routine for research comes easier for many writers than justifying the other types of time. “I’m off to Majorca to do research,” slips easily from our mouth to be greeted by our friends’ jealous groans. Don’t we wish? More often, it’s “I’m off to the library to strain my eyes at the microfiche reader,” but even our non-writing friends understand that writers must do research.

We also need to establish inspiration habits, which are completely different than doing research. Research fills our notebooks. Inspiration fills our hearts. Think of collecting inspiration as being akin to a sailing ship taking on provisions before the crew sets out on an around-the-world journey. We need to start our book journey with our creative quartermaster stores filled to the brim.

However we organize our new creative project; whether it’s in notebooks, folders, or on an electronic writing program, devote a section to Inspiration. Collect quotes and pictures. Bookmark 25 to 50 web sites for people people and activities that get our juices going. Visit those sites regularly for quick pick-us-up inspiration.

Honor thinking

Most of all, when we begin a new project, we need time to hear ourselves think. This is often the hardest thing to justify to ourselves. “But I think about my book all the time: in the shower, in the car, while I’m waiting in the dentist’s office, etc.”

In a study about work, first graders were presented with two pictures. In one a man hoed his garden. In the other he sat back in a chair with his hands behind his head, staring into space. The children were asked, “Which man is working?”

One first-grader selected the man staring into space and could not be dissuaded to change her mind. Her father was a writer. She recognized that sitting back in a chair, staring into space was work for some people. We should all be so lucky in our family and friends.

Shut out the world

As writers standing on the precipice of a new project, the most deadly line we hear begins, “As long as you’re not doing anything . . .” My advice here is simple. Lie. Outright lie if you need to. “But I am working on something. I started my new novel last week and I’m already up to my eyebrows in research and outlining.” Then go to our offices, set every electronic device we own to babysit itself for while, and sit in our chairs with our hands behind our heads, staring into space. It will do us and our incipient plot worlds of good.

Let’s see, what are we working on?

Next Tuesday, September 9, on Write the Novel, I’ll have thoughts on Flash Symbols — micro-details that hook readers in very sneaky ways.

Next Thursday, September 11, come back for more habits writers need, or how to survive living in a pressure cooker.

Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – The Value of Negative Space

Once upon a time, there was a rhythm to submitting manuscripts and publishing.

Never submit a manuscript or look for an agent in August. Everyone in New York is out of town in August. As for December, close up and go home. Publish in May to catch the summer readers and in October for the Christmas market. Never, ever release a book in January. No one buys a book right after Christmas.

The seasonal rhythm of writing has vanished like the dodo bird. Finish a book on Tuesday; start writing the next book on Wednesday. Come home from a convention; get ready to go to the next convention. Submit a manuscript or hunt for an agent every day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day itself. With electronic publishing, publish even on Christmas Day.

Negative spaces is what surrounds activities and events. An image is seen not only because of the image itself, but because of the space that surrounds it. Good negative space makes an object pop.

There are no negative spaces in writing any more, except the ones we create for ourselves. That makes them even more important.

The first writing negative space I encountered was in a class I took almost thirty years ago. We were required to keep a daily journal, writing down snippets of overheard dialog, descriptions of people or events, news stories that caught our attention; in short, anything that might make a good story. Only, we weren’t to grab our notebook and write these things down as they happened. The instructor asked us to wait a full twenty-four hours before committing them to paper.

He said that beginning writers were often afraid to lose the moment. Fearful of not getting the dialog or the description word perfect and correct, we focused on immediate retrieval. He said that we needed to train our writer’s mind to do two things: first, to develop memory because there would be times that we simply couldn’t get to a notebook. Second, to let the thing we wanted to remember settle; in essence, adding negative space around it so we saw it more clearly.  If we couldn’t remember it after twenty-four hours, chances were what we thought so brilliant in the moment wouldn’t make a terrific story after all.

It wasn’t easy to wait. My fingers had this intense desire to scrabble in my backpack, pull out my journal and write. Sometimes I grieved over forgetting. If I’d only written it down yesterday . . .

Gradually, I came to realize the dimensions of what he was trying to teach us. There was a huge difference between things remembered in exact detail, and things remembered as fiction. For some experiences it mattered that I could recall the exact smell, the sight, the colors. For others, it was more important to remember the—gestalt, for lack of a better word—how I was moved by the thing rather than the exact details of the thing itself. Both had a place in writing, and learning how to do both made me a better writer.

Over the decades, I learned another lesson about negative space. If the business of writing has become a 24/7 occupation — I believe that it has — then we, as writers, have the freedom to set our own seasons. Yes, there will always be deadlines coming at us faster and harder, with none of this nonsense about taking August off or relaxing in December. But I truly believe that it will be the negative spaces with which we surround our work that will enable us to survive.

We have to develop a whole range of negative spaces in order to survive. Five-minute vacations that we take on a moment’s notice. Ways to shut off that nagging “What am I going to do about Elrod’s lack of motivation in Chapter 7?” long enough for Elrod to work out the answer for himself. Entire days off in which we restore, restock, and replenish those creative gifts we have been given.

Recently, I added Jennifer Louden’s Conditions of Enoughness to my tool box. She says that as creative people we tend to over plan, over commit, and over work ourselves. Her COEs are four steps to limit doing that.

Recently, a rather pompous writing expert pontificated to an audience I was in that, “Writing today demands a full-time commitment. If you’re a part-time writer, you’ll never be successful.” Oh, dear, I have a life outside of writing. I love that life. I guess that means I’m not a real writer.

I came home depressed until I caught site of a mini-quilt I did a couple of months ago.

168 hours = 1 week

168 hours = 1 week

There are 168 hours a week, so unless we’re writing 168 hours at a time — yes, some weeks seem like that — we’re all part-time writers. And many of us are darn good at working part-time.

“It takes peace of mind and clarity to recognize and reorder meaningful, personal priorities . . . Many of us assume that we can continue to get along just by winging it indefinitely. We can’t. We need an antidote for the hurried and harried lives that threaten to tear us apart.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, September 2, for Write the Novel – Secondary and Tertiary Plots, what are they and how do we use them.

Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: wading through the critique-bog

Critique partners are essential. We need to have other eyes look at our writing; need to hear other voices say what works and what doesn’t. Getting the critique is often fun — at least it is in the group I’m currently a part of. Processing the critique and using it to make a difference in our writing, that’s hard work.

If at all possible, go for electronic comments over handwritten ones. Once a while someone will be running late and print off a hard copy to critique in long hand, or comes to critique group having read the material, but not written any comments. It’s not unusual to come home with some comments waiting for me in my e-mail, some in longhand, and some scribbled on pieces of paper. The day after the group meets I try to enter those longhand comments into my computer file. It’s so much easier to do that right away instead of trying to remember, weeks later, what were those comments about that pesky Chapter 3?

It is so much easier to locate patterns with an electronic format. In Word, we have a choice between insert comments and track changes. It helps to know the difference.

  •  Track changes means that every altered key stroke is shown. If we have additional spaces between two words, and one is removed, we get a box in the margin showing that. If we mistyped word when it should have been work, and our partner corrects it, that shows up as well. And so on.
  •  Insert comments means that the person doing the critique selects Insert – Comment, and types in a comment.

Personally, I find track changes too distracting. There is also a slight possibility that I’ll accidentally click Accept all Changes, at which point everything my critique partner did disappears. Not something I want to happen.

It’s also important to have a folder set aside for returned critiques, and to name files consistently. The naming format that works for me runs like this

2014-06-22 SharonWalterCTBChapt01-05.doc

that is, date I received the critique-my name-name of the person who did this critique-book title abbrevation-material covered.

One of the mistakes writers make is to revise based on critiques too early in the draft. We get a critique on Chapter 1, so we revise Chapter 1. Ditto, Chapter 2. Ditto, Chapter 3. Only because of what we revised in Chapter 3, Chapter 1 now isn’t right. We go back and re-revise Chapter 1. It’s entirely too easy to get lost in the re-re-re-revision circle when what we should be doing is continuing to move forward to the end of this draft.

I try not to look at critique comments with the idea of doing a rewrite until I have at least 10 chapters critiqued. The one exception is a scene or chapter that is a complete disaster. If it’s that bad I have another go at it and send that revision back for more comments before moving forward again.

So now I’ve collected

  • 2014-06-22 SharonWalterCTBChapt01-05.doc
  • 2014-06-22 SharonCathyCTBChapt01-05.doc
  • 2014-06-22 SharonMargaretCTBChapt01-05.doc
  • 2014-06-24 SharonGeorgeCTBChapt01-05.doc

That’s about 50 pages x 4 people, or about 200 pages I have to look at. Fortunately, Word makes it possible to combine several similar documents into one. What I’ll end up with is 50 pages, with comments from 4 people all in one file

If you’re not sure how to do this, check the Word help feature for directions. If you’re really stuck, send me e-mail and I’ll help you navigate through the process.

I save this combined file with a new name, such as

2014-07-06 CTBChapt01-05allcritique.doc.

Then I read through the entire critique, looking for places where there is

  • positive agreement (everyone loved the way Connie and Todd meet). These are so nice because I don’t have to do a thing, except pat myself on the back.
  • negative agreement (four people said they didn’t understand why Connie’s did what she did in Chapter 2).
  • reaction is all over the place (love Todd, don’t like Todd, don’t understand Todd’s motives. Todd is a mess).
  • a repeating pattern of the same kind of problem (needs more sensory details was mentioned in chapters 2, 3, and 5)

I work on repeating patterns first because this will clear up more of the material in the quickest way. This is obviously a place where I need help.First step, find an article or book reference on adding sensory detail. After I’ve regrounded myself in the basics, I’ll go through all of those 5 chapters and add sensory detail everywhere that looks appropriate.

The second thing I try to work on is places where reactions are all over the place. What’s wrong with Todd? Maybe the problem showed up in Chapter 2, but once I fix that, I go through all of the chapters and look at each place Todd appears. I’ll probably need to tweak him a little in other places, and I might as well do it now.

Finally I’ll look at that consistently negative reactions. In many cases because I’ve already done repeating patterns and reactions all over the place, I’m likely to have affected these negative situations in some way. Ah, now I’ve fixed that Todd was abysmally failing at trying to use humor to cover his nervousness, I see how that affected Connie actions in Chapter 2. Since Todd is now a stronger character, I can use that strength to improve Connie as well.

What I don’t do until the final draft is worry about line edits. Line edits are things like grammar, spelling, punctuation, word order, etc. The reason I don’t correct them on every draft is I’m likely to rewrite over a lot of this stuff that needs correction as I do subsequent drafts, and the problems disappear on their own.

The one exception to which I do pay attention, is the real corker of a mistake that changes the meaning of the sentence.

  • This was all her mother’s fault. changed to read
  • This was not all her mother’s fault.

Hope to see you back again on Tuesday, July 1, for Write the Novel — Moving into the first draft. You’ve written all the way through Draft Zero, the unfinished manuscript. You’ve got a completed manuscript in your hands. Congratulations. Now what?

Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Ramp It Up

One of the mystery lists I belong to had a lively discussion about not writing; about how life sometimes brings writing to a screeching halt. At one time or another, I’ve stopped writing temporarily for all of the usual reasons: a move, an illness, a family crisis, too hard a day job, ran out of energy, had to make Christmas presents, computer was down, even because the sun was shining when it should be raining or vice versa.

Going from not writing back to writing is darn hard to do flat-footed. It’s like an athlete trying to clear the high jump from a standing still position. She needs to take a running leap at the high bar if she wants to get over it.

We need to build two kinds of ramps. The first is the small, I don’t feel like writing TODAY ramp. Some days are not good for writing. Some days we can talk ourselves into doing it anyway; some days we can’t.

Here’s how to build that small ramp.

It helps to pay attention to the days when we easily slide into and out of the writing.

  • Did we get enough restful sleep last night?
  • Have we exercised and/or meditated?
  • Do we know what comes next in what we’re writing?
  • Are we excited about what we’re writing?
  • Are we writing to a deadline?
  • Are we unusually free of responsibilities: the kids are at camp, we’ve just finished exams, or our partner is out-of-town?

If we’re fortunate, we will identify a pattern. Write down that pattern. Even a sticky note will do, but if we’re artistic, or know someone who is, send a postcard — or several postcards — to ourselves. “I write more easily when . . .” Put those cards in our work area.


If we don’t feel like writing today, try creating those conditions that seem to make it easier to write. Drink water. Meditate. Write lots of dialog. Maybe even take a nap. If nothing works, go do something else for today.

The second kind of ramp is the BIG, STEEP, we’ve been away from writing far too long incline.

Allow at least one day — three days are better if we can arrange it — between a major event and seriously getting back to writing.

Fly to a convention Friday afternoon. Work hard at the convention all week-end. Fly back late Sunday night. Be at our computer first thing Monday morning. I don’t think so. Aim for the computer on Wednesday morning.

But, I’m sooooooo far behind!

  1. We are likely not as far behind as we think.
  2. Staring unproductively at our computer on Monday morning isn’t likely to make us any less behind.

Athletes who come back from an injury don’t start with a full-workout their first week back. They build their strength gradually. Writers need to do the same thing. Set aside a writing time every day for a week. Day 1: 5 minutes; day 2: 7 minutes; day 3: 10 minutes, then increase by 5 minutes a day until, by day 7, we’re up to 30 minutes. The important thing is to convince ourself that this isn’t a “I’ll write if I get the chance or if I’m inspired” time. It’s a commitment to put everything else in the world aside for somewhere between 5 and 30 minutes.

Gather our favorite writing tools. Even treat ourself to a new tool, like a spiffy notebook or a wonderful gel pen. Turn off the phone and the TV, get a babysitter or send the kids to the library. Music is optional, depending on whether we work best with music or in silence, but stay away from commercial radio stations. Do not sort our buttons by size and color. Do not decide the walls need washing. Do not Google our five best friends from high school to see if we can find them. In short, stop the world and sit there, with our eyes closed, breathing rhythmically. Somewhere out there a writing fairy calls to us, but we must be very, very still in order to hear her or his voice.

When we feel like it, pick up our pen or pencil or rest our fingers on the key board. Write something, even if it, “I’m sitting here in the stillness and this is a really stupid idea and I should be picking up the dog at the vet. Is my five minutes up yet? I don’t want to do this any more.”

Write. One word. Another word. Another. Spelling, punctuation and grammar do not count. Plotting and character development and raising the stakes and goal, motivation, and conflict and all of those other things writers stew about do not count. All we’re doing is practicing words. We’re the high jumper taking a running jump at the bar.

Ever watch a high jumper practice? They don’t go over the bar every time. Many times they start the run and pull up short because the approach doesn’t feel right. They know they aren’t ready to jump yet, so they veer off, circle back and take another run at the thing.

It’s okay if we go through several days without writing a single word. By day seven, if we’re sitting in the stillness for 30 minutes without writing, we can be pretty sure that it’s not the right time in our life to put words on paper. If this happens, give ourself permission not to be a writer. At one time in my life, I thought I might be a bagpiper. As it turned out, I wasn’t. But I had a great time finding that out. I met some wonderful people and I learned to appreciate pipe music in all of its glory. The journey was the fun part, and that’s the way it should be with writing, too.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: A Writing Routine

For some reason, writers are fascinated with other writers’ routines. How do you do it, they ask? As if there were some magic, some ju-ju in following exact steps. I hate to break this to you, but if there is magic most mornings, I have trouble finding it.

For what’s it’s worth, here’s my writing routine

0815 hours/Pre-flight check

  • Stumble out of bed. Put on socks, house shoes, and oversized T-shirt. The one this morning says Brat.
  • Fix fruit, nuts, oatmeal, bran, and skim milk for breakfast.
  • Have breakfast with husband.
  • Write in journal.
  • Do a little drawing, watercoloring, or hand sewing.
  • Remember to water the plants.
  • Make pot of tea.

0940 hours/Instrument check

  • Eat toast. Decide if I have to make bread this morning. The answer is yes. Set hot water, honey, milk, and yeast mixture to rise for twenty minutes. Defrost the cooked whole grains.
  • Decide how much longer I can put off doing computer maintenance and backups.
  • Decide how much longer I can put off working on taxes, accounts, and filing.
What I wear to write (yellow glasses and headphones not on yet)

What I wear to write (yellow glasses and headphones not on yet)

1000 hours/Chocks away

  • Put bread ingredients in bread maker.
  • Tell husband I’m running away to mysteryland. Does he need anything before I leave?
  • Put on purple felt hat, which has a Police Line: Do Not Cross tape around headband.
  • Put yellow sunglasses on over regular glasses. Theoretically, this reduces chances of cataracts.
  • Put large headphones over ears. Select music playlist for this morning.
  • Ask myself if anyone would—or should—take a writer seriously who is wearing T-shirt that says Brat, a purple felt hat, large yellow sunglasses, and headphones. Decide I don’t care. It’s my routine and I’m going to make it work.
  • Turn the office sign beside my computer to Open: The Author is In.
  • Leave all programs closed except iTunes and Scrivener.
  • Read the chapter I worked on yesterday.
  • Write.

Noon/safe landing

  • Stop writing.
  • Make a backup copy of what I wrote today.
  • Remove hat, glasses, headphones.
  • Take bread out of bread maker.
  • Look in fridge and see if anything suggests itself for lunch.

Does that look like an idyllic schedule? It does to me. My writing schedule wasn’t always this way. Before I retired, my pre-flight check started at 6:30 AM. My husband and I ate breakfast together less often. Journaling, when I could work it in, was done before bed. There was no drawing or hand-sewing, and very little watercoloring.

On the days that I could work writing around my day job, which was actually a 3 to 11 job, I had to write a minimum of four hours in order to make reasonable progress. Writing four hours a day is tough. I had to make compromises.

You might have noticed some things missing from that schedule. There’s no mail, not e-mail, not voice, not text. One of the compromises I made was to leave those things completely alone until after lunch. Surprisingly enough, the world continued to turn on its axis.

Another thing was appointments. If someone wanted to schedule me for a morning appointment, I learned to say, “I’m sorry, I work at that time. What do you have available in the afternoon?”

Familiar with the phrase TNSTAAFL (pronounced tan-as-fal)? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. There is only so much time available to each of us in which we can write.  If we want to seriously create, we have to give up something. In many cases, if we’re seriously looking for that magic that makes our writing work, we’ll find it in giving up something instead of trying to find the perfect routine.

I love the way that the poet, Mary Oliver, phrased that same sentiment.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes, to let it go… to let it go. ~ Mary Oliver, Pulitzer-Prize winning American poet

I hope to see you on Tuesday, April 8, for Write the Novel: the ordinary protagonist. She’s an ordinary Jane; he’s a plain Joe. But extraordinary things are going to happen to them in this book. Learn how to introduce an ordinary protagonist.