“One reason I don’t suffer Writer’s Block is that I don’t wait on the muse, I summon it at need.”
— Piers Anthony
It’s the literary plague. The thing that looms over all of us, heavy and threatening, determined to kill our dreams.
I have a secret for you, though. It’s something I learned when I was a in my mid-twenties and working as the only newspaper reporter at a tiny newspaper in rural Nevada town. A town that was literally named the Armpit of America.
This is a truth that just about any journalist who has to produce writing on a deadline. Day after day after day.
Here it is: Writer’s block isn’t a thing.
Oh. I know it feels like a thing. I actually call it writer’s brain. See, writing is hard. Super hard. It’s so hard and so cerebral that our brains will do literally anything to give us an out.
So, suddenly we can’t write if our muses don’t show up. We can’t write if we’re not inspired. And it make sense, right? Who can write without inspiration? It’s insane to expect it.
See? Your brain gives you a way out of the hard work, while still letting you feel like a writer. Not only a writer–a TORTURED writer searching for inspiration. A writer abandoned by the muse.
Here’s what I want you to do today. I want you to figure out how to call your muse. Pull her right up out of wherever she’s hiding and put her to work. No more waiting on inspiration. You’re in charge here. You decide when your muse is going to inspire you.
Call Your Writing Muse
Here’s how I do it, on days when the idea of writing for even ten minutes feels monumental.
I light a candle. A yellow or orange candle, because those are my creativity colors. A citrus scent is best, but not 100 percent necessary. And I invite her. Verbally. Nothing as serious as a prayer or an invocation. I just say, “Hey, muse, let’s work.” Then I work. (That’s the important bit.) And when I’m done, I blow out my candle and say, “thanks for showing up today, Muse.”
Today, I want you to think about what you can do to call your muse. And remember that what you’re really doing is A) appeasing your writer brain and B) indicating to all of your systems that it’s time to work.
Writers are often introverted by nature and it can be easy to isolate yourself when you’re doing such isolated work. Especially when that work involves building who worlds in your head that start to feel very real.
That just sounds crazy, right? I don’t want you to go crazy! So, for today’s assignment, I’m going to encourage you to participate in the writing community you started building a couple of days back.
I’m going to give you one more technical editing assignment today.
You’ve probably heard (over and over and over) that writers should show not tell.
Here’s a quick primer on what that actually means.
Telling is talking to your best friend about a party you went to the night before.
Showing is taking her with you.
Telling is letting someone know you had a baby last night.
Showing is having them in the delivery room with you.
Telling is exposition. It’s narrative.
Showing is scene.
How to Show Not Tell
So, here’s what you’re going to do. Take a look at your work in progress. Look for a place where you have a character or the narrator telling about something. Then open it up. Bring the reader to the party. Bring the reader into the delivery room.
This is going to kind of suck for you, because once you really understand how to show not tell, you’re going to start seeing exposition all over your work in progress. And you’re going to know you have to do the work of opening that exposition up into scene, for the good of your story.
Open your work in progress and look for a piece of exposition–a place where you’ve told something that you could show. Think about a place where you’ve glossed over some piece of backstory or jumped ahead in time. I’m confident you’ll know the exposition I’m talking about, because you’ll know that you probably should have done more with it.
You know how I feel about editing while you’re writing. (In case you’re new, I think it’s a bad idea.) So all I want you to do is highlight the scene and make a note to yourself that you need to open it up when you’re in revision. Go ahead and find a few more, if you have time.
After I wrote my first (terrible) draft of my first novel, I spent a couple of years learning everything I could about how to write a good story. Every time I learned something, I went and applied it to my entire manuscript.
The one thing I learned that changed my writing the most was how to use strong verbs.
A lot of times people confuse weak verbs with passive verbs. They aren’t the same thing.
A passive sentence looks like this:
The street was run down by Mary.
The story isn’t doing anything, right? It’s the subject of this sentence, but it’s just sitting there having something done to it by Mary.
The good news is you’re probably not really using passive tense in your writing.
The same sentence written in active tense, but with weak verbs looks like this:
Mary was running down the street.
Now the subject of the sentence is Mary and she’s doing something. She’s just doing it with pretty weak verbs.
And the same sentence with a stronger verb.
Mary ran down the street.
Simple past tense (or present tense) is almost always stronger than the combo of a to-be verb + an -ing verb.
You can, of course, make it even stronger by using a more precise verb.
Mary sprinted down the street.
Mary jogged down the street.
Mary tore down the street.
Mary stumbled down the street.
Mary skipped down the street.
See what I mean? Each of these nice, strong verbs adds something to the sentence, which adds something to the story.
If you use a strong verb, you take away the need for an adverb. You don’t need to write Mary ran quickly down the streetif you use the verb “raced.”
There aren’t many technical assignments in this series, but this one is really important. It will improve your writing instantly.
Open your work in progress, or something else you’ve written. Search for the “-ing.” How many combinations of a to be verb and and -ing verb did you find? Could you use a simple, stronger verb instead? Start fixing them. I promise by the time you do that in a whole manuscript, you won’t use weak verbs anymore. (Or not as often. This exercise is still part of my editing process.)
I told you guys about my NaNoWriMo experience. I wrote the first draft of my first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004. Once I knew that I could actually get through a first drat, that was it. I was hooked. I just needed to learn how to write well.
So, I started to study. I went to college and studied creative writing. I read (and really studied) every book on writing I could get my hands on. I found other writers to learn from.
I think that taking the time and the effort to learn is a major difference between someone who wants to be a writer and someone who really is one.
So, today, I’d like to encourage you to take a class.
In our Facebook Group, I hear Ninja Writers talking often about being afraid of sending their work to readers–whether that’s a friend, a beta reader, or a publisher. Writing a story can feel like having a baby, and then suddenly shoving it out into the world, unprotected, straight into the arms of people who feel like it’s their purpose to be judgmental.
I want you to pull the trigger. I want you to think, today, about the places where you might be able to place a short form work.
Whether or not you have something to send out into the world, you should be familiar with the market. Whether you write , poetry, or creative non-fiction, there are publications that are eager to see new work. In fact, they spend all their time seeking it out.
Spend a little time today exploring the market. Just get your feet wet. If you have a short story or poem or essay that you feel is publishable, consider sending it out. But, even if you don’t, this is a good step toward that day.
Duotrope is a website that lists more than 6000 markets for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. It also features a submission tracker, which will help you keep track of where you’ve sent your work. It costs $5 a month after a week long free trial, but even if you don’t feel ready to pay for a subscription yet, check it out for a week.
Click around. Visit some publication websites. Read some submission guidelines. Start to familiarize yourself with what’s required if you want to be published in short form.
Go to Duotrope and get signed up for a free 7-day trial. Come on over to Facebook today. Let’s talk about pulling the trigger.
I was 33 when I wrote my first novel during NaNoWriMo in 2004. I needed something to distract me from the longest November in the history of Novembers–before my daughter Ruby was born on December 8th that year. As November gets close, again, I thought I’d share my Nano story with you today, and give you some NaNoWriMo tips.
So, in 2004, I did it. I wrote like a fiend every day for a month and I finished a first draft. It really sucked. Like, really, really, really sucked. But I did it. And doing it was magical for me, because once I knew I could write a novel, I knew I could learn to write one well.
But all that mattered to me on November 30, 2004 was . . .
I wrote my first novel!
Then I gave it an edit and I was so proud of myself. To celebrate, I sent out a round of agent query letters. This was in the olden days of the early aughties, when you still had to send an actual letter with photocopied pages and a SASE.
I expected a long wait time, while these agents read the sample of my masterpiece and considered how they might best help me to become a bestselling super star.
What actually happened was that my mailbox filled, rather quickly, with a flurry of little slips of paper (agents didn’t even give a whole sheet to queries they insta-bounced) that said something along the lines of:
Thanks for sending in your work. It’s not for me, but keep trying.
What that sounded like to me was more like this:
Hey, Shaunta! You suck. Give it up now. Don’t make me, or any other agent, read another word of your incompetent attempts at being a writer.
Best of luck finding some other career. May I suggest being a teacher? That’s your Plan B, right? Right.
What I’m saying is, its hard to write your story. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It sucks to write something that you know is crap. It’s miserable, sometimes, to keep working and keep pushing and keep trying, when there isn’t any real outward sign that success is imminent.
You might finish your first draft this November, but it takes a lot longer than that to produce a work of fiction that’s fit for public consumption. In fact, it took me longer to make that first book readable because I rushed it out.
NaNoWriMo was worth it, because knowing I could write a novel at all was a game changer for me. But it’s not a sustainable method for creating a writing career. In reality, it takes closer to a year to write and revise a book. And that’s why just about every writer (Nanite or not) out there has a file or a drawer full of half-finished good starts.
We are the collectors of good starts, when what we need to be is the perpetrators of strong finishes.
NaNoWriMo is great for pushing writers past the start, through the middle, straight to the end. To the finish.
And that’s the only real secret to being a successful writer: You have to finish. And you have to be willing to keep finishing and keep finishing.
A few years after that NaNoWriMo, I’d studied Creative Writing at the university level. I’d written four more books. None of them were publishable, but each one was better than the last.
Then, in 2010, I finished another story. And I sent out another round of query letters (electronic this time.) And instead of a shower of ‘dear author’ form letters, I found an agent. Actually, in addition to a shower of ‘dear author’ form letters, I found an agent. And she found me a publisher. That publisher was an imprint of Penguin and they bought two of my books.
Learning to be a finisher took me from being someone who wrote ‘write a novel’ at the top of every New Year’s Resolution list to being a Writer.
My mission is to help you make that leap from being someone who wants to write, to someone who is a writer. I’m so happy to be on this journey with you. I truly believe that a good story, well told, can change the world. In fact, very little else ever has. I can’t wait to see yours do its thing.
If you’re getting ready to give NaNoWriMo a shot, I want to teach you some things I wish I’d known that first time around. These things would have helped me get from that first terrible first draft to being a published author faster.
These things also would have helped me realize the one-word secret to going from being someone who wants to write to being a writer. They would have helped me FINISH a first draft a lot sooner. Even years sooner.
Start with a plan (I made you a workbook!)
I can’t stress this one enough. If you’re going to try to write as fast as NaNoWriMo requires, having a road map through that story will make all the difference. My favorite way of doing that is with a system we call How to Develop + Test a Story Idea, or H2DSI.
I’ve created a H2DSI Workbook just for you! Download it now and use it to help plan your story before you start to write it. (Just put your email in the form below.)
H2DSI: The Workbook
Leave your email address here and I'll get you your copy of the workbook that will help you to Develop + Test your awesome idea.
Success! Now check your email to pick up your workbook.
Don’t edit until you’re finished with your first draft
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of trying to edit while you’re writing a first draft.
I have this theory: writing is so hard that the writer’s brain will go to any length to make the writer feel like they’re writing, when really, they are not. Editing is the number one culprit. Because it makes so much sense to think that you can’t move forward if what you’ve already written sucks.
Pull out a calendar and write down your writing schedule for this week. In ink. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month, know that you’re going to need two or three hours a day, every day, and find them. Commit to them.
FRED (the Folder for Reaching the End of your Draft) is the best tool I know for managing your writing time. You can download your FRED by clicking right here.
This is your job, Ninja Writer, long after November is over. You don’t have to have hours a day to dedicate to it, though. Just remember that whatever time you set aside for writing is as important as hours you’re scheduled to work at a day job.
William Faulkner said: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
Stephen King said: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Kill your darlings, is perhaps, the scariest, most intense piece of writing advice ever.
But I don’t want to murder my darling!
I’d like to make a case, today, for the idea that you don’t actually have to do it. At least, not every time. Instead, you just have to identify your darlings. Then make a decision.
So, a darling is a piece of your writing that you’re super attached to, to the point that you’re not seeing it objectively. It’s a scene or a character or some other part of your stories that you’re bending over backwards to make relevant.
And sure, sometimes you have to kill your darling. You just do. Maybe your story has changed to the point that the scene you love so much just doesn’t fit anymore. Maybe your favorite character just has to wait for another book.
But sometimes you can make it work.
The key is to remove ego from the equation. Forget that it’s your hard work you’re going to have to toss if the scene gets a double thumbs down. Look at the problem with fresh eyes (if you can actually have fresh eyes take a look, even better.)
Here are the three steps to (Maybe) Killing Your Darlings.
Identify the Darling
If you really love the thing, but you have to keep fighting with it–you probably have a darling.
If your beta readers are confused by it, but you feel heartsick when you think of cutting it–you probably have a darling.
If you have a scene that’s your best writing ever, but feels like it belongs in a different book–you definitely have a darling, Darling.
I’m willing to bet that as soon as you read the title of this post, you thought of a scene in your work-in-progress.
Evaluate the Darling
Ask yourself what it is about the scene that’s giving you fits. If you cut it, will you have to write something else in its place, or could you lift it out whole and not really make a difference in your work? Does the darling scene play well with others–does it interact with the scenes before and after it?
Most important: What does the darling do for your work and what would happen if you took it out?
Kill it, or Not
The hard truth: If you can lift the scene out of your story and you won’t have to do any work to cover the loss, you probably need to do that. Every scene in your book should be indispensable. Often what makes a scene a darling is the fact that it’s too separate from the rest of the story.
The better news: If the scene is an important part of the story, but just doesn’t quite blend just right yet, you might be able to salvage it in revision.
The best news: You don’t have to actually revise it unless you’re finished with your first draft. Remember the one rule?
If you’re in revision, then evaluate your darling scenes with open eyes and an ego-free heart. If you do have to cut it, place it gently in it’s own file for later use. (Even if you never use it, you’ll feel better if you know it’s there. Just in case.)
Identify a scene in your work in progress and ask yourself: Am I going to have to murder my darling? (You don’t have to actually do it now. In fact, you’re not allowed to unless you’re in revision!) Just make a note of the scene in your writing notebook.
If you need some commiseration, come on over to Facebook. We’re here for you.
I’ve taken writing workshops, in my pursuit of a college education, where each student is required to copy off twenty copies of their chapter or short story and pass it around for the rest of the class to read. Next week, you sit there, silently, while twenty people talk about your work.
It’s excruciating. Usually, you’re forbidden from talking. You can’t correct people when they get something wrong. You can’t redirect them when they start arguing over something that doesn’t matter at all in the story. You just listen, take notes, and try to absorb it all.
That kind of workshopping has it’s place.
Once I turned in a short story with a punchline. The character, it turned out in the final line, was Jerry Lee Lewis. Literally no one got it except me (of course) and the teacher. We were the only people in the room older than forty. That workshop taught me that my story would fall flat with younger readers.
I also once wrote a short story that was a retelling of the Resurrection story from the Bible. Again, the teacher was the only other person who got it. She loved it, though, so it didn’t matter as much to me that the other students didn’t understand where I was going.
For that story, my teacher was my One Reader. Stephen King would call her a Constant Reader.
You can’t write for everyone. You also can’t write by committee. If you try, you’re going to make yourself crazy.
You also don’t have to have an actual person who is responsible for everything you write. (That’s a lot of pressure. For both of you.)
Who is Your Constant Reader?
Just think of who that One, Constant Reader is. Imagine that you’re on Criminal Minds and build a profile. Here are some questions to get you started. You might have a different One Reader for each book you write.
How old are they?
Are they a man or a woman?
What else do they read?
What do they need in a book to be happy?
What makes a book an auto-buy for them?
Here’s what my One, Constant Reader looks like, for my current work in progress (a Robin Hood retelling):
She’s either 15 or 35. She reads classic children’s literature like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter and even though she probably wouldn’t say it out loud now, she read the whole Twilight series. Twice. She likes a strong romance in her stories, but the romance isn’t the main thing. (She totally picked a side in the Jacob/Edward debate though, and she reads fanfic just to dream about her ‘ships.) The next book in any series that she fell in love with is an auto-buy for her. She’s super loyal, but not the author. She’s loyal to the characters.
If you can find an actual reader that matches your One Reader, bonus. If they’ll actually read your work, double bonus! But it’s okay if you can’t. It still helps to know who you’re writing for.
Think about your One Reader today. Write up some details and come share them in the Facebook group.