One of the joys of writing is to create characters that can ‘see’ what has come in the way of what they want.
“I twisted my ankle and hobbled about for a decade. After years of doctor’s visits, therapy sessions, medications, this and that, I came to believe that I’d been cursed and would likely limp to my grave. Until I met you, I didn’t know curses could turn into blessings.”
Use this line anywhere in a short story of about 1500 words.
Might help to brainstorm a few things like: Who would say this? To whom? a mentor? a child? a magician? a stranger on a train? a turtle? a millionaire who’s about to be murdered or a pauper who’s about to get rich?
Reflect on a time when something happened that you thought was the worst thing ever, only to find out later that it was not so bad. In fact, as time went by, it seemed the best thing to have happened.
One of the joys of writing is to create characters that can ‘see’ what has come in the way of what they want. Oftentimes, it is an aspect of themselves, not merely the forces around, that throws them into chaos, pulling them away from the very thing they desire.
As a writer, you have the power to enable readers to map this type of ‘seeing’. Readers walk away from your work not only entertained, but subtly equipped with a new way of looking at their own lives.
Neha is a generalist currently obsessed with stretching, mind-body-world connection and the spirit’s dwelling place. She writes fiction, non-fiction, takes on editing assignments she enjoys and works with people she admires. She lives by a lake in an overcrowded coastal city with her family and some wildlife. Check out her writing here: https://www.amazon.com/Neha-Mediratta/e/B08CJSLD2H
Join the discussion: what will you do with today’s prompt OR how did it go? Need support? Post here!
Yesterday we talked about how to decide what you’re supposed to be writing. You can read it here, but the big lesson was: write a lot. Try new stuff. Don’t let your inner-anti-cheerleader stop you.
Well that’s all very well, but what if your life is busy? When are you supposed to find the time, not to mention the discipline, to sit down and write?
The Lie That You Can Find Time To Write
No one finds time to write. Or to play the guitar. Or to be a rockstar. Or to be a successful investor.
You make time.
Everyone successful, fulfilled person who ever lived, made time for the thing that was important to them.
Justifying The Time
I could give you all kinds of tips for scraping together some free time to write (delegate chores, turn off the TV, say no to invitations to go out) but that’s not the hard part.
The Hard Part
The hard part is convincing yourself that you are allowed to take the time to write.
Writing is personal. You do it alone. You don’t look like you’re working hard. You look like you’re surfing the internet or sulking in your bedroom or shirking your responsibilities.
Worse still, you might feel that way inside.
But I’m here to tell you: if you want to write, you must write.
When you’re writing, no matter how hard it is, you are more truly yourself than at any other time.
And when you finish a writing session, no matter how exhausted or wrung-out you feel, the rest of your life seems just a little bit easier. You are fulfilled. Your mind is clear. You have a sense of achievement. You are a better person when you’re writing.
And that’s the real payoff.
Not internet celebrity. Not publishing contracts. Not the legions of fans. Not the multi-millions in movie-rights sales.
The actual payoff for writing is that you are happier.
Which makes you a better person to be around.
Convince Yourself, Convince Your Crew
You have to try this for yourself to really experience it. And once you have, feel free to point it out to the people around you. If they’re smart, they’ll become accomplices in making time for you to write. If you keep at it long enough, there will come a day when you’re rampaging around the house barking at everyone and, instead of barking back, one smart housemate will say, “Hey, why don’t you go and grab a notebook. You need to be writing.”
Trust me. It happens. And if it doesn’t, perhaps you need to surround yourself with smarter, kinder people.
Here are some resources to help you convince yourself that your writing is not only important but vital to your continued existence — and some suggestions on how to overcome three common obstacles.
If you’re wondering why you can’t get anything written when you’re setting aside a whole 20 minutes every lunchtime, watch this video from John Cleese. It’s his process for being creative. There may be times when 20 minutes can be productive for you, but there are other times when you will need to listen to Mr Cleese’s advice. https://vimeo.com/89936101
If you can’t get past the suckiness of your first drafts, you need to watch this interview with Ira Glass (again). I get the impression he’s a bit bemused that this is rapidly becoming what he’s most famous for, but it’s because it is so very, very true. (Hint: You need to write a lot!) https://youtu.be/PbC4gqZGPSY
If you don’t believe me that your art is worth doing for its own sake (for your sake), then you need to watch this talk by last year’s StoryADay Guest of Honor, Neil Gaiman. Watch it now. https://youtu.be/ikAb-NYkseI
When The Pencil Meets The Paper
Of course, having bought yourself time to write, doesn’t make it go easily.
If I’ve convinced you that you need to write a lot and that you need to make time for your writing, your next question is probably going to be: but how do I turn all this time and dedication into actual stories?
Tomorrow we’ll talk about The Care and Feeding of Ideas, and how to turn those ideas into fully-fledged story drafts.
Until then: do you have a friend who’s always talking about wanting to write, but never quite getting around to it? Why not share this post with that person? Maybe, between the two of us, we can get them to where they need to be and you two can spend blissful afternoons on writing dates, instead of kvetching about how much writing you’re not doing. Share this now!
Today’s exercise is designed to help you see that you CAN write, even when you think you don’t have time. Take 30 minutes today to write a complete story. Here’s how…
Sometimes life gets in the way of writing. We must find ways to work in a time-crunch.
Today’s exercise is designed to help you see that you CAN write, even when you think you don’t have time.
Write A Story In 30 Minutes
Turn your phone off, mute your email, hang a signon the door, put on huge silly headphones. Do whatever you need to do, carve out 30 minutes today to Just Write.
Use only 30 minutes, start to finish, brainstorming to ‘the end’.
Set a stopwatch. Take seven minutes to brainstorm. Think of a character. Give him/her a problem/desire. Pick a reason why solving this problem/achieving this desire causes them extreme heartache/peril (examples: Wesley loves Buttercup but is too poor to woo her. Becoming good for her means risking being murdered by pirates, a prince and a rodent of unusual size. A bookworm’s heart’s desire is simply to read, but his wife thinks its a waste of time so he can’t read at home; and his boss threatens to fire him if he catches him reading at work.)
Pick a good opening line that sums up the character and the problem. (“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye)
You should be at about 10 minutes into your time now. Spend the next 15 minutes getting to the meat of the problem, throwing complications at your character, and having him start to try to resolve them. Fail at least once. (If it’s an interior kind of story, you can let that failure be ‘temptation to give up’)
Five minutes to go! At some point in the past 15 minutes your character should have started to tell you how the story should end. Tie up the last challenge you gave them and move immediately to the ending. Two sentences. Don’t worry about connecting the middle to the ending just yet. That’s what rewrites are for. Just write “[connecting stuff]” and move on to the end.
There. Didn’t that feel good?
What you have in front of you is likely not a complete short story. It’s a sketchy first draft. But it’s a sketchy first draft that moves. It has an interesting character. It has action. It has a sense that it’s going somewhere, and it has and ending.
Now you have a draft you can rework. Add a few lines to help clarify setting and description for the reader, if it’s that kind of story. Change some of your ‘info dump’ paragraphs to dialogue and move them to earlier/later in the story. Expand or delete details. Figure out your theme and how you can (subtly) strengthen it.
Do this, and I think you’ll have a pretty good story. All from taking 30 minutes to squeeze a little short story writing into your day.
Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin.
Last week we talked about writing a story in the moment before a car crash: everything in the story took place during a few seconds in the brain of your main character. This week we’re going to the opposite extreme
Write A Story That Takes Place Over Eons
(or just a really long time)
Obviously, since humans don’t live for eons, you’re going to have to choose something else as the thing that provides continuity in this story: it might be a location on the earth; a multi-generational spaceship crew traveling through unimaginable reaches of space; an alien; a centuries-old mollusk; a tree.
You can write a narrative story if you like, but this might lend itself to some different forms: letters, tweets, journal entries, a string of news articles; a faux-holy book written in different styles in different eras. Have fun with this.
Thing big thoughts. Eons give you a lot of scope to investigate big ideas.
Don’t make the story too long. Big ideas don’t necessarily mean high word count.
Don’t forget to include small details, mundane moments, things your readers can hang their emotions on.
Well, if you’ve ever been in a car crash or any kind of accident, you’ll know exactly what that means: the amygdala (the seat of emotion in your brain) kicks in and calmly starts recording every detail. When you go back over your memories, the moment will seem to have lasted at least 30% longer than it actually could have.
I find it useful to read case studies from people who have actually WRITTEN books (and possibly had them published and worked on a sequel). Theory is all very well, but hearing from someone who has actually done it? Much more inspiring. They also tend to be more passionate, less forgiving and much, much more practical.
Here are a bunch of articles from working writers who answer the second-most-asked question they hear. [1. The first, of course, being “where do you get your ideas?”]
There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.
Jackie Kessler has written 12 novels (not all of them published, but hey, that’s a lot of writing time) and refuses to apologize for taking time to write [link no longer valid].
Screenwriter John August shares his work-a-day experience of becoming a professional writer. (“my general point is that you need to actively clear time in your day to write, which means giving up something.”) It’s not sexy, but it worked.
Chip Scanlan talks about writing in small chunks, lowering your standards, rejecting the Soup Nazi.
And to finish things off for today:
Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn (@creativepenn on Twitter) shares this personal story, which debunks the ‘if I only had time’ myth a bit:
I once decided that I needed time to write my book. I had some money from the sale of my house, took 3 months off and tried to write every day. It didn’t work. I didn’t have anything to show for it, and went back to work disheartened at my inability to write. It was 4 years until I actually decided to try again.
Then I wrote “How to Enjoy Your Job” in 9 months of evenings, weekends and days off while working fulltime.”.
You can find the time – you just need to re-prioritise!
Nobody finds time to write. We make time for everything we have to do. Do You Really Want To Write?
Nobody finds time to write.
Few people have spare hours just lying around in the back of the closet, waiting to be discovered (and if you do, you probably have more trouble with motivation than time-management. That’s a different blog post!)
We make time for everything we have to do.
The crucial lesson, however, is that unless someone else has give us a deadline, we only make time for the things we find important; the things we enjoy.
Do You Really Want To Write?
Ask yourself: of all the things you did today, which of them mattered most to you?
What did you get out of reading all those tweets?
Did you get lost in Wikipedia doing ‘research’ for your novel? Did you really need all that information?
Did you need to watch another repeat of The Simpsons tonight, when you can already replay it, at will, from your memory?
Or would it have been more satisfying
to sit down and write something?
What IS the difference between you and a published author?
In one sense, linear time: they were discovered before you were. Bad luck for you, good luck for them.
But in another, more useful sense: they made time to write. Have you?
Who Do You Think Does Stephen King’s Laundry?
Well OK, maybe HE can afford a housekeeper. But it’s just as likely that he still has to schlep down to the basement himself with a load of unmentionables whenever he runs short.
And you can bet your boots that your favourite midlist author doesn’t have a housekeeper. Or a nanny. But they still keep churning out the books year after year.
Things only get worse for your favorite author if they happen to be writing Literary Fiction. They are almost guaranteed to be a commercial failure and have to subsidize their income teaching rich kids at private universities to appreciate the rebellious soul of art. If they’re lucky they might negotiate a semester’s sabbatical in which to write their next book, but only if they agree to eat nothing but oatmeal, turn off the heating and bust out the fingerless gloves.
And even if your favorite commercially-successful author can afford an assistant to make sure the cat gets fed, they can’t pay her to write the book, do the revisions, talk to the agents and editors, catch the planes and go on the book tour for them.
When Do Authors Find Time To Write?
Just like us: in the gaps between Real Life’s obligations.
If you’re commercially successful one day (or have no life) you might be able to wedge those gaps open a little wider.
But life is happening to everyone. And somehow, thousands of people finish books every year.
Acres of Internet space have already been devoted to this topic, because it’s a tough one. There are as many solutions as there are people who want to write, so there is always room for one more blog post on the topic.
In this 3-post series, I’m going to give you some thoughts, some links and some tools, to help inspire you to find time for your writing.
TIME FOUND UNDER SOFA CUSHIONS!
There is a reason you never see that headline. Time is never found. Time is made, cadged, scrimped, stolen, begged, borrowed, spent.
There is always something else you could be doing. Always. The trick is, finding ways to make time for the things that really matter to you.
Make Tough Sacrifices
I’m saying this first, to get it over with because it sounds awful, but you will have to make sacrifices if you want to make writing a priority. Some of these sacrifices will be hard.
Today I turned down a walk with a friend, which I know would have been lovely. Sometimes a walk with a friend is the perfect thing to boost your creativity. But for me, this week, it would eat into the only clear time I have to Get Stuff Done. Some of that stuff is mundane, household stuff, but part of that Stuff is Writing & Writing Prep.
No matter how nice that walk would have been, I had to say ‘no’. Next week, I’ll budget my time differently to make sure I can say ‘yes’.
Make Easy Sacrifices
Some things will be easy to give up, or at least good for you.
Me? I overeat. When I’m stressed or bored I head for the pantry and strap on the nosebag. It uses up time and leaves me comfortably numb. But if I’m serious about my writing, I resist the nosebag, make light, healthy meals and get back to my notebook. Good for productivity and good for my heart.
An ‘hour long’ TV show is actually 42 minutes of content. The rest is commercials. Why not record your favourite shows or download them from iTunes? Even if you still watch two shows in an evening, you could carve out 36 minutes for writing just by watching it commercial-free and still get to bed at the same time.
What changes could you make, even if occasionally, to create more time for the thing you really love to do?
Accept That You Can Write In Bursts
You don’t need long swathes of time in which to write. In fact, that can be bad for productivity. As someone who has suffered prolonged bouts of enforced inactivity (lack of a work visa, looking after small children) I can tell you that more free time does not make writing easier. You just get more creative with your excuses.
Jamming in 250 words here and there on your commute — a 1000 if you’re lucky on a lunch break — keeps your writing feeling like a treat, not a chore.
Plus, it’s how most full-time writers started. Stephen King wrote after shifts at the laundromat. Scott Turow wrote bits and pieces while working as for the US Attorney’s office. Most ‘literary fiction’ writers have quite demanding schedules teaching at colleges and conferences. Even if they do get to take a semester off to finish a novel, they can hardly wait for inspiration to strike during that one precious semester.
Accept That You Can Write In Big Long Jags
If you do get the chance to write in a big binge on the weekends, go for it. Don’t feel guilty. Some people spend hours watching sports every Sunday. Do what you enjoy; what makes you a better person. Negotiate with family/friends for writing time if you have to, and write as fast as you can for as long as you can, whenever you get the chance.
Separate Your Thinking Time and Your Writing Time
On that note, don’t put off thinking about your story even if you don’t have time to sit down and write. When do get some writing time, you want the ideas to be flowing. You can think about the next plot development while you are doing any menial task (of which we all have plenty).
But do try to focus. It’s hard to stop your mind wandering off to the sequel or what you’ll do with your wealth when people are using your name where they used to use Stephen King’s. Rein it in. Focus on the next scene, the next bit of dialogue, the next plot twist. Make notes if you have to. Better yet, commit the ideas to memory, then you’ll be turning them over and over until it’s time to write.
Then, when you do carve your 36 minutes out of the evening’s schedule, your fingers will be twitching. You’ll be ready to jump right in.
Scare Yourself Straight
If you find yourself frittering your time away on Facebook or Twitter or in front of the TV when you know you could be writing, take an excellent piece of advice from Jon Scalzi:
“Think of yourself on your deathbed saying, “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.”
Take a moment now. Picture it. Use that fertile imagination of yours.
If you aren’t already sweating, then maybe there is a whole other reason why you can’t and won’t find time to write.
And that’s OK, too. Maybe you’re really a reader, a critic, an enthusiastic conneseur of the narrative form. Join a book group or a film society and have fun with your life. Just stop beating yourself up about not finding time to write.
But if you’re a writer, make time. You’ll never “Find” It.
Am I being glib? Smug? Wrong? Have you found things that work for you? Tell me in the comments.
Writing and taking care of small children are two not-entirely-compatible aims in my life, how about you?
Take today: I got up early, started to write… The kids started to ask me for things and I started saying, ‘In a minute,” and “hold on” and “Just ‘shhhhh’ a minute, would you?”
I was getting frustrated with them, they were getting frustrated with me, and no-one was getting what they needed.
Something had to give. So I came up with a technique that has been working out really well…
So it’s the summer holidays here in the US and that means fun with the kiddies for we stay-at-home parents.
Which is all great, of course, but sometimes you still want (NEED!) to get some writing done. It can be incredibly frustrating to try to write and take care of a family, especially if you have small children at home with you all day. But it can be done.
I know some people can get up early or stay up extra late, or write while their spouse watches sports. That’s not me. Or if it is, everyone else wakes up early too!
Take today: I got up early, started to write, got all inspired and came up with tons of great ideas. The kids got up and started to ask me for things and I started saying, ‘In a minute,” and “hold on” and worst of all “Just ‘shhhhh’ a minute, would you?”
Oh, the guilt. I was getting frustrated with them, they were getting frustrated with me, and no-one was happy.
Something had to give. So I came up with a method, that has been working out well.
Getting Stuff Done With Little Kids In The House
My sons are 5 and 7 so they can’t be left alone (or together) for too long. They can, however, be set up on different floors of the house (or different rooms if you don’t have floors) with whatever toy/activity has captured their attention recently.
Today, for us, that means the eldest has a project making his own versions of Pokemon cards, while the 5 year-old makes a massive messHot Wheels track in the basement.
They both inevitably needed help, sometimes at the same time, (leading to more ‘just a minute’s and frustration). Finally I struck a deal with them.
I took the time-out clock (a kitchen timer) and set it for 10 minutes. They agreed to leave me alone until the timer rang so that I could get some writing done. When the timer rings, I go and check on each of them and ask if I can help or see what they have been doing.
I get what I want (writing time) and they get what they want (an attentive, engaged parent).
Then, depending on how things are going, I negotiate another 10 minutes.
KEYS TO MAKING THIS WORK
-Pick a time of day when the kids’ energy levels are right (that might be ‘high’ or ‘low’ depending on their personalities. When you know they can concentrate on their favorite activity for a while, pounce!
-Work to an outline. I’m not sure that trying to do any brainstorming or really creative work could happen in 10 minute bursts, but writing a paragraph or two of a piece that I had already outlined worked brilliantly.
-Stretch the sessions to more than 10 minutes if it is safe or makes sense or if you find the kids can handle it.
-Sit where you can hear them (I’m in the dining room, and they are in rooms with doors open, where I can hear frustrated whining winding up or, worse, suspicious silences)
-Be willing to stop after two or three sessions. You can’t push this too far. Try to remember that they’ll be out of your hair entirely one day (if you do your job right) and that even these long summer days will be over sooner than you expect. Take some time to enjoy the kids — secure in the knowledge that at least you got a few things accomplished today.