‘Life intruding on writing is, in fact, life’

From the New York Times review of 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, by Sarah Ruhl:

How can a woman writer, a mother of three children and embroiled in the domesticity that comes with them, be expected to believe that her condition of life, far from marginalizing her, is in fact bringing her closer to ultimate forms of knowledge?… “There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me,” Ruhl writes in her first essay, “On Interruptions.” “And finally I came to the thought, all right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow.” The “other self” was Ruhl’s identity as a writer, which she had been trying to cosset and protect from invasion; yet this moment of surrender, crucially, gives her back her artistic authority. “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.”

The Immutable Laws of Writing, #4

The Immutable Laws of Writing, Number 4: There are no one-draft writers.

For any writing that matters—and, if you’re a bit of an obsessive wordsmith (like me), for any writing at all—the journey from none to done will include revisions. There are no one-draft writers.

“Writing is rewriting” has been said so many times, I want to question its truth on that basis alone. So let’s state it another way: good writing requires rewriting. Writing is a creative act, and creativity is far more than the flash of a great idea. Creativity is the hard work of moving from idea to well-executed solution.

Such is true of writing, and the longer the piece, the more work, time, and rewriting it takes. I don’t know about you, but I never send even a simple  email message without taking a second pass to make sure it says precisely what I want it to say, and nearly 100 percent of the time, I make at least one change.

We are a society obsessed with going from none to done, from zero to zenith with barely a stop in between, but I don’t think we’re seeing the process clearly. I think we’re seeing the journey as much too easy, and I’m not sure it’s even our fault. I think we’re being sold on simplicity that’s not there. For example, “couch to 5K” running programs make sense, but couch to marathon? Is it a worthy goal to go from not being a runner at all to finishing a marathon in six or nine months, even if that means walking the majority of it? (My answer: no. Becoming a regular runner and living a more healthy lifestyle are are worthy goals, and they don’t require that you punish yourself. The marathon can wait until the body is actually ready to run the race, not stagger home in seven hours.)

Or, closer to our topic is the misunderstood world of self-publishing. The ability to publish a book or ebook with literally just a few clicks has led many, many people to finish writing the first draft of a book and to consider it done. Click: I’m a published author! Good for you! But did you know your book is almost certainly terrible? Not just full of typos, but actually terrible writing.

In case that’s not emphatic enough, allow me to beg: please, please, please don’t finish the draft and head straight for CreateSpace or KDP. You’re not nearly done. Your name will be on this. Don’t you want it to be be as good as you can make it? That means you must get back to work.

Why? Because good writing requires rewriting.

Plan to rewrite, and more than once. Your first draft will be horrible, terrible, very bad. And that’s okay. More than okay, actually: it’s expected. Why do so many writers think that all the words they put down must be brilliant?

There are times when it’s good to get it right in one take, such as when working in a blue book on a college exam, or writing inside a birthday card. But guess what? If you had the ability to rewrite on those occasions, you would almost certainly get it better the second time. And better still the third time.

This may not seem like good news for the budding novelist. You may be wondering: How many drafts, then? There’s no hard-and-fast for this, but it’s at least three for short works, and possibly more like 10 or 20 for long ones. If revising and rewriting are not something you enjoy, then perhaps writing book-length is not for you, because there are no one-draft writers.

But there is good news in this. The good news is: there is no need for writer’s block (see Immutable Law #3). You can lower your standards and just write that draft, allowing it by turns to be good or terrible. No worries; you’ll fix it later.

Please. Promise me.

How to make NaNoWriMo easier

So: you want to write a novel?

How about writing one in 30 days?

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a concept-turned-movement started by Chris Baty in 1999. The idea: to create a community of those people who want write a novel, and to challenge them to just do it, with the support that a community brings, in one month. Each year in November, thousands of people sign up, with a goal of writing 50,000 new words of a new novel, in 30 days.

Who would do such a thing? There’s no mold, but in 2013, more than 300,000 people signed up and wrote 3.5 billion words, with more than 40,000 reaching the goal.*

Note here that we’re talking first draft, will-definitely-need-more-work writing, and that the novel need not be complete in those 50,000 words. At 1,666 words per day, it will be all one can do just to get the words down. And yet: given how much time we all think it takes to write a novel, what would it do for your writing to try something this ambitious? The average word count was more than 11,000 words per person, which means that even not reaching the goal, there was a lot of writing going on.

Why do they do it? There must be thousands of reasons, but I would bet that the most popular one is simply this: to give those novel ambitions a kickstart.

Today, I’d like to give your kickstart a kickstart. Here are three tips for making your November NaNoWriMo experience easier, and much more likely to make the goal.

1. Begin with a basic story structure.

That is to say: don’t wing it. What might be the cardinal sin of NaNoWriMo (and possibly any book-writing adventure) is not knowing where you’re going.

Okay, sure, there are some writers who want to experience the story as it unfolds, with absolutely no idea where it’s going. You want to play that way, be my guest. But understand this: you will experience more days of writer’s block, and will create less usable content, than if you structure at least a little before you write.

Any time you embark on a novel, it makes great sense to have a good plan for where you’re going. This does not mean (although it can mean) a complete, excruciatingly-precise outline. Rather, it means having enough structure in place so that you know from day to day what to write next. And if this is true for any novel, it is especially true if you want to crank out 50,000 words in 30 days.

You might begin, then, by establishing this arc, which is the basic frame for almost all stories:

wants something badly…
but there are obstacles…
which are overcome, or not…
and that someone is changed, or not

If you establish that, you are already on the way to being able to write every day. But let’s go further, by building on the story frame. Try mapping it to this classic three-act structure:

The Setup (establishing the stakes)
Plot Point 1 (the story is propelled forward)
Midpoint (something important happens)
Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
Resolution (how it all works out)

(Act 1 is from the opening through to Plot Point 1; Act 2 is from Plot Point 1 to Plot Point 2; Act 3 is from Plot Point 2 to the end.)

If you can get to this level of detail, it will be far easier to write each day, because you can see where your story needs to go, at least in a general sense. Want to go deeper, and make it even easier? Cue tip #3.

2. Flesh out the structure, getting as specific as you can.

If you can, write a summary of what happens in each segment. No one will ever see this (unless you become famous later and are studied in university courses), so don’t worry about how it reads: just tell the story of each segment. Capture, over what might be several pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, what has to happen in that part.

Then, if you want to go further, try and break up those narratives into chapters. They don’t have to be in the right order, and they don’t even have to be correct. They merely have to exist. Consider how simple this can be:

Chapter 1: Leslie meets a man in a bar who looks out of place. He reveals that he’s just gotten out of prison, having served 50 years for murder. The dead man, she discovers to her horror, is the grandfather of her friend, David.

Chapter 2: Leslie tells David about the meeting. Disturbed, David realizes he knows almost nothing about his grandfather’s murder, because his father has never discussed it. David is a newspaper reporter; he decides to dig into the story, using is press credentials and connections, even though he knows it will greatly upset his father.

Chapter 3: David talks to the crime reporter at the newspaper where he works. The crime reporter agrees it’s worth looking into; the murder was a sensation at the time it happened, at a time when there were so few murders in that city. But the crime  reporter warns David away from the story, and tells him to go warn his family, too, that reporters are going to be sniffing around. David now feels responsible for what his family is about to go through.

And so on.

Now consider how much easier it will be to write those chapters, knowing what approximately has to happen, than if you are looking at a blank screen with 1,666 words to write and no idea what happens next. Best of all, you can do this outlining before November 1.

3. Budget the time ahead of time.

Fifty thousand words requires, for most of us, about 90 minutes a day. Maybe you have that available to you; if you do, schedule it, and keep to it. If you don’t, then what?

If you can squeeze out a half-hour in the morning by getting up just a little early, you can write 500 words then. Give up a half-hour of television or Facebook in the evening, or stay up a half-hour later, and there’s 500 more. Give up a half-hour of something else, and there’s 500 more. If you can’t make the daily quota, plan to binge write on the weekends. If you can make 1,000 words per day during the week, then you need about 3,000 words per day Saturday and Sunday, or about three hours per day.

It’s a commitment, certainly, but just think what you’ll have done in 30 days. And remember: it doesn’t have to be good, and most certainly won’t be good. There are no one-draft writers. But if you don’t write the first draft, you can’t ever get to the final one.

If you choose to do it, have fun! You can learn more about NaNoWriMo here.




The Immutable Laws of Writing, #3

The Immutable Laws of Writing, #3: Writer’s block means you don’t know what to write about next.

Author, blogger, and former literary agent Nathan Bransford says it more bluntly: “Writer’s block does not exist.”*

Mr. Bransford and I both agree that there is a feeling that some call “writer’s block.” We also both agree that it’s not a condition that befalls you, like a virus. His conclusion: you feel it because writing ceased being fun. I think that’s a valid thought. My conclusion goes a step beyond that: just because the words sometimes flow freely and with great joy, does not mean that’s what being a writer is all about. If you’re blocked, you’re waiting for something to happen, and that’s a fool’s mission.

Immutable Law #1 says the words aren’t going to write themselves. You have to write them. Which means that you, yourself, personally, have to place those black smudges we call letters on that white space we call a page.

Sometimes, your fingers hover over the keys and nothing happens. How easy it is, when that happens, to get up and say, “I’m blocked.” How easy it is to blame the universe and the muses.

The truth of the matter is, you’re blocked because you don’t know where you are going.

And this is bad. Because Immutable Law #2 says that objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest…which means you can’t have writer’s block, or any kind of block, stopping your work cold in its tracks.

To have this conversation, I have to say a few words about the “pantser” vs. “outliner” debate. In truth, it’s not an either/or, but more of a continuum. At one end, seat-of-the-pants writers like to let their writing flow organically, every day a mystery. At the other end, the extreme outliners have all their scenes identified before they write a one. All along the continuum between those extremes are people who have some idea of where they are going, if not a complete picture. Which means that at any moment, “some” can become “none.”

The less you know about what you plan to write, the more chance there is you’ll feel stuck. Said another way, the surest way to get the feeling of writer’s block is to not know what you’re writing about now.

So, what to do about this? Is becoming an extreme outliner the only route to conquering the block? Thankfully, no. Here are three practical tips.

First, decide what scene you’re writing now. If you know that, you can write it. If you still can’t start, answer the basic questions that any scene requires: who’s in it, what has to happen, how does it end. Then, start writing.

If you simply don’t know what scene to write, then it’s time for the dangerous question: have you outlined your work? If not, this is the problem right here. But fear not: it’s easier than you think. An outline doesn’t need to be the Magna Carta. An outline can be as simple as knowing the general path your story is going to take. If you’re writing a novel, consider this basic and very common structure:

  • The Setup (establishing the stakes)
  • Plot Point 1 (the story is propelled forward)
  • Midpoint (something important happens)
  • Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
  • Resolution (how it all works out)

Or, consider the basic frame for almost all stories:

  • Someone
  • Wants something badly
  • But there are obstacles
  • Which are overcome, or not
  • And someone is changed, or not

The level of detail you need beyond this is up to you, but it needs to be enough so that you know what to write next. Once you have sketched down to the level of detail that gives you enough to go on, you’ll be ready to write.

I’ve been using the language of fiction here, but this works for non-fiction, too. What’s the arc of the narrative? What things are you going to talk about, and in what order?

Second, write anything, even if it’s not what comes next. What rule is there that you have to write in order?

There is no such rule. Besides, there’s a good chance the order of things will change. So, apply jumper cables to your work: pick any scene you want to write, and write that one.

Third, lower your standards. Just get the words down. They don’t have to be good; and, in fact, you shouldn’t expect them to be. You already know, if you have ever written at all, that you’re going to be rewriting. Or, as Nathan Bransford puts it, remember that “your first draft probably sucks.”*

Why do so many writers seem to think they should be able to spin gold on the first try? Accept that the writing is not going to be publishable as it first emerges. Accept that you will have to rewrite it, possibly toss it. That’s the process; you may as well get used to it.

For now, just get the words down. Give yourself permission to write badly. “I’m going to write badly today!” It’s liberating, really. And that’s the end of this thing called writer’s block. For good.


Bransford, N. (2013). How to write a novel [Kindle edition], pages 168 and 188.

The Immutable Laws of Writing: #2

The Immutable Laws of Writing, Number Two: An object in motion stays in motion (and an object at rest stays at rest).

Sir Isaac Newton said this first, and not about writing. Still, writing is a natural act, possibly a force of nature, and is just as subject to physics as everything else. Applied to your writing, the “object” in question is the work you are producing. (Be it understood that we’re not talking here about writing as the mere act of putting words on paper; rather, we’re talking about writing that is becoming a finished work.) Applied to a work in progress, then: your writing both requires and benefits from momentum. Let’s break out those two key bits.

Requires momentum. Any piece of writing of any substantive length—short story, novella, novel, screenplay, stage play, epic poem, etc.—cannot continue forward unless you work on it regularly. Long works have many threads and themes, schemes and schemas, and other moving parts that need to be fresh in mind while writing. This is not to say you can’t take a break from a work; breaks can be good for your writing. But just try to finish a novel that you write in fits and starts, or even one that you write regularly but overly-spaced, such as writing it only on the weekends. It’s hard enough without adding that complexity.

Benefits from momentum. When you are working on a project regularly and with momentum on your side, your writing is likely to be more efficient and perhaps also better. Consider: the longer it has been since you last worked on your project, the longer it will take to: a) bring all the components back into your head; b) have a good sense of what to write next; and c) maintain all the voices: yours, and those of your characters. When your work has momentum, you slip easily between characters, you have your story threads and themes in mind, you know what has and has not transpired, and you know—this is important—what to write next.

Robert Heinlein provided these and some other rules of writing. The emphases are his:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.

My Immutable Law of Writing #1 (“the words aren’t going to write themselves”) echoes RH’s first rule. My second supports his second: if you mean to finish, you must finish. And you do this by respecting (or, if you prefer, taking advantage of) the laws of physics.

Here are three pieces of practical advice for keeping momentum.

1. Write something you love. Don’t select a writing project because you think it’s trendy or easy to get published or will make you tons of cash. Write a story that you truly want to tell. That love will feed your momentum. You will write because you have to see how it comes out. (This will also sustain you later when you are in the eighth round of revisions and you hate the book more than you have ever hated anything.)

2. Make the forces (even the negative ones) work for you. Fully expressed, Newton’s First Law is: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force” (italics mine).* There are throughout your non-writing world “unbalanced forces” that conspire against you and your writing, even if (usually) unintentionally, almost all of which come down to commitments that require your time: jobs, partners, children, sleep, lawns that insist on growing, and so on. How might you make these forces work in support of your writing?

Perhaps: Use lawn mowing time as thinking time, for working out plot points and other story details; car pool to work so that you can write while someone else drives; enlist your family members as co-conspirators, to help by doing research or editing; establish family creative time: while you write, others practice their instruments, or blog, or fold origami, or what have you; get up 30 minutes earlier (you won’t miss it) and write 500 words while there are no distractions; or quit something that you’ve been meaning to quit, something that takes up your time, transferring that time to your writing.

3. Allow your self occasional breaks from the project. Short ones. Take Sunday off. Then back to it on Monday.



* http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/newtlaws/Lesson-1/Newton-s-First-Law


The Immutable Laws of Writing: #1

The Immutable Laws of Writing, #1: The words are not going to write themselves.

This seems obvious, no? Seems as if it does not need to be said, yes? And yet, here it is, for your consumption, taking a prominent place as Immutable Law of Writing #1. Here’s the full story.

I know many writers who do not write. I think what those people mean when they say they are writers is they like to write, enjoy writing, or maybe like to think of themselves as writers. Still, they do not write.

I know many people who say they want to write a book, but they are not writing a book, and make no attempt to write a book. I think what they mean is they want to have written a book. What they don’t mean is they want the experience of writing a book. What they don’t mean is they want to do the work of writing a book. They want to be authors. This is not the same—this is not remotely the same—as wanting to do the actual work of writing.

Immutable Law of Writing #1 says the words are not going to write themselves. What, then, is the solution? The glib answer is: if you want to be a writer you must write. But here is some more practical advice: if you want to write, you must write every day.

The question that follows is how to do that: how does a busy person find the time to write every day? Here are three pieces of practical advice for finding the time to write every day.

One: Decide whether you mean it. 

Decide, once and for all, if writing is a priority for you. If it is, you will find a way to do it. I don’t mean to be simplistic about this, but it’s a simple matter: we do what we think is important. (The time won’t fall from the sky, however; you have to go and find it. See tip number two, below.)

It is vital here to know what you are writing. If it’s a novel, name it and outine it (at least roughly). If it’s a blog, decide what the blog is about and who it’s for, and keep a running idea list of things to write about. If it’s a business book, name it, define the audience, and outline its chapters. And so on. None of this is writing, by the way, but it helps you know what to write when it comes time to write.

Two: Once you have decided you will write, give something up and replace that time with writing. 

If your days are full, it will be easier to find time within the day than to figure out the physics of making the day longer than 24 hours. And the easiest way to do that is to stop doing something that takes up your precious, precious time.

Perhaps the first thing to do is to consider time as precious.

Then, look at what you do and decide what not to do so that you can write. Let’s say you need a half-hour to write each day (see tip number three, below). How might you find 30 minutes a day? Could you give up 30 minutes of sleep, Facebook, Candy Crush, or television? (On your deathbed, will you wish you had played more Candy Crush?)

If you are a writer, you are a creative thinker, so you can apply your creativity to this. Could you do the 60-minute yoga class instead of the 90-minute? Could you work from home one day a week and save the commute time? Do you have the resources to hire out a household chore, such as cutting the lawn, or have a family member do it? Could you have a child or spouse cook dinner an extra day each week? Could you take a 30-minute lunch instead of 60? Could you resign from that club you’ve belonged to for years but doesn’t really provide you any real benefit these days? Can you say “no” to something that you’ve been asked to do? The possibilities are nearly endless.

Three: When you have found your writing time, set a can’t-miss daily production goal. 

How about just 500 new words per day?

For most people, that’s about 30 minutes. How much is 500 words? It’s not much. This post, for instance, is 800 words. If you could write 500 new words per day—say, by getting up 30 minutes earlier, or forgoing one television show in the evening—you will have written a draft of a 90,000 word novel in just six months. That’s it! That’s all it takes. First thing in the morning, before everyone else has gotten up (or whenever), write a minimum of 500 new words, and do it every day.

Because, you know, the words aren’t going to write themselves.