Wednesday
Feb182015

HOW WRITERS DO IT -- THE INSIDE SCOOP

So you want to write a book. You have a fistful of sharpened pencils and a snappy little coiled notebook. You've downloaded the latest writing software. You have such a terrific idea, it's burning a hole in your brain. You even have a killer opening sentence. Time to get this puppy on paper.

So now what? Where do you go from here? You can see the story in your head, but how do you put it into words? And how do you keep at it day after day after day, especially when the sun is shining and you'd rather be at the beach? What do you do when you get stuck? And when your fabulous idea doesn't seem quite so fabulous anymore, how do you keep churning out the sentences?

The truth is there are trade secrets, and if you're going to succeed as a writer, you need to know what they are. For instance, when I'm working on a novel, I put a cool image -- reminiscent of my novel -- on my desktop, so that as soon as my computer is turned on, I'm drawn back into the story. When I need to work out a problem with the plot, I think hard about it, and then I take a nap. While I'm sleeping -- not consciously thinking about my writing problem -- all the puzzle pieces fly up into the air and then float back down in perfect order, so when I awaken I know how to carry on with the story. Similarly, when I need to visualize a scene, I take a shower. Don't question why this works. Just accept that it does.

But you needn't take my word for it. I asked other writers how they keep their creative juices flowing and their noses to the grindstone, and this is what they said.

Karen Autio -- her latest novel, Sabotage, is the final book of a trilogy. http://www.karenautio.com/

I have several strategies, which include going outdoors for a walk, or praying, or riding my bicycle, or talking through the plot with a friend, or making soup—doing something completely different frees up my subconscious to work on my story. Another option is to write “Morning Pages” as introduced in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. These are “longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness … brain drain … writing down whatever comes to mind” (p. 9). Morning Pages can clear the way for the writing I want to do.

Karen Bass -- new this season -- Uncertain Soldier. http://www.karenbass.ca/

The thing that works best for me is a deadline. If it's a project that doesn't yet involve a publisher, agent, or maybe a grant then I give myself the deadline. This is trickier because I don't listen to me very well. Then I usually have to have someone, or several someones, who know about my self-imposed deadline and who hold me accountable. I often use the winter months to get a first draft done. Hibernation mode, I call it. It's way easier to squirrel myself away in my office when it's -30 or -40, which happens more than I like in northern Alberta. The biggest distraction is then the internet. For that I have to set goals. You know, do so much and then I can check FB to see what I've missed.

Eileen Bell -- newest novel is Seeing the Light, a paranormal mystery. http://www.eileenbell.com/

Basically, I shut off the social media for hours--or days--at a time. I find that if I don't have this distraction, I will focus on my writing. (I have a lot of different projects on the go, so it's not like I have to think of something to do!) When I hit my daily wordcount, or whatever the benchmark is that I set for myself, then I treat myself to some social time.

Hugh Brewster -- his latest offering is From Vimy to Victory: Canada’s Fight To The Finish In World War I. http://www.hughbrewster.com/

I always start by editing/rewriting what was written the day before which gets me in the groove. And at day's end I like to stop before I'm "written out" -- ie leave something to pick up on easily the next day.

Margaret Buffie -- award-winning author of Who Is Frances Rain? http://margaretbuffie.com/

I have two ways of keeping my writing going. I always leave my writing of the day at a point where I have more to say.That entices me to go back. With a less tired brain, I can either take the next scene the way I had planned to go - or sometimes in another direction, which is always exciting. The second way I get going usually happens when I am struggling badly. I sit down at my computer and read the last chapters I have "finished." Getting my backside into the chair is the main point. Often the chapters I am reading need work ... which can then lead me into a different mind set - with a sense of having something fresh to attack. It's kind of like priming a pump with me! Sitting down and "facing it" is the best way for me to get going again.

Maureen Bush -- author of Featherbrain. www.maureenbush.com

I meditate.  Not as consistently as I should, but enough. I find it helps me be quieter inside, so that there's more room for story. Another trick: I was struggling with a character, and a writer friend suggested I have a conversation with him. I wrote out the conversation, and found it enlightening, and useful for breaking through my block.

Lisa Dalrymple -- author of A Moose Goes A-Mummering. http://lisadalrymple.com/

My tread-desk is useful. While I don't use it all the time, I find the repetitive movement while I'm struggling with a particular scene or musing over a picture book idea can help me focus. (Sometimes.) But the best thing is the timer. I can use it to help reinforce the idea: You will stay here, young lady, and tread this out for 60 minutes. At the end of that time, you can check your Facebook or go and have a cup of coffee.
Usually that will help something, however minuscule, shake loose.

Sheree Fitch -- beloved children's author of Kisses, Kisses, Baby-O. http://www.shereefitch.com/

I pray, play, clean the toilet bowl, circle my desk, run away, do all my other work and life stuff, scrub the floor, look at pictures of grandkids then sit by the fire and write longhand, uttering, sputtering and thinking this this this awkward creature will be my very best finest thing ever. (NOT .sob. sob, go forth and create.)

Dayle Gaetz -- her newest novel is Disappearing Act. http://www.daylegaetz.com/

My biggest problem as a writer is not inspiration but procrastination. Ideas, characters, plots spin around in my head, each crying out Pick me! Pick me! Once I’ve settled on a character, like Leena O’Neil, and have spent time getting to know her story, the next step is the hard one. Sitting down to write. It amazes me how many excuses I can find to avoid getting started. So I set a specific time every day, time that is devoted to writing, like it or not. And once I begin it’s often difficult to stop!

Linda Granfield -- author of In Flanders Fields: the story of the poem by John McCrae http://www.lindagranfield.com/

When I get bogged down with the first draft (the primary pit of the creating job!) I suddenly feel the urge to do the laundry. Up from the desk, for washer and dryer loading, and finally, for folding the warm, lovely stuff. Each trip to the machines means I'm up from the desk, away from the accursed screen for even a few minutes. When I come back to the computer, something different comes to mind and I make progress. A cup of tea/coffee during the folding session gives any anxiety the coup de grace. At least until the next issue with the draft. Needless to say, during the first-draft writing, we enjoy very clean clothing and towels. I can't attest to the same, however, when a final draft deadline looms!

Shari Green -- her debut YA novel is titled Following Chelsea. http://www.sharigreen.com/

I walk. No iPod, no planned route, no time limit. Just walk, and somehow my subconscious begins to unravel tangled story problems.

Susan Hughes -- her newest novel is The Four Seasons of Patrick. http://www.susanhughes.ca/

How do I keep my creative juices flowing in the winter? I don't give myself an option. I don't make seasonal adjustments. I simply set time aside and write. I know I have to be strict with myself because there are so many excuses for not writing, in spring, summer, fall, or winter. Distractions abound! But at the end of the day, I know I won't be happy unless I've done it -- done some writing.

Karen Krossing -- author of Bog. http://www.karenkrossing.com/

I don't give myself a choice about whether I write. I can write badly or well, but I write regularly. That's what writers do.

Monica Kulling -- her newest Tweedle installment is The Tweedles Go Online. http://www.monicakulling.com

These days I’m writing my first novel and enjoying the surprises that seem to be part of working in a larger space. I’ve got characters popping in who weren’t in my outline and they’ve got surprising things to say. Often these words add colour to the story, if not taking it in an entirely unplanned direction. It’s these narrative surprises that are keeping me clued to the station. It’s like my own personal treats jar!

Laura Langston -- her latest YA novel is The Art of Getting Stared At. http://www.lauralangston.com

If I’m stuck on a plot problem, I sometimes need to get out of my own way and let my subconscious work. Being outside – whether it’s cycling, walking the dogs or digging in the garden – often helps. Submerging my hands in a sink full of soap and dirty dishes sometimes dislodges things. So does reviewing the issue before bed and asking my subconscious to reveal the answer before I wake up. I’ve had good luck that way too.

Sylvia McNicoll  -- her new title is Best Friends Through Eternity. http://sylviamcnicoll.com/

Still in my bathrobe as the sun rises, I read over my last chapter and while editing, drop into that dreamland, right-brain state of creativity.  From there I just forge on. Sometimes when I’m stuck, searching out a you-tube depicting an event I’m writing about helps. Gives me some details that I don’t have to invent. 

Karen Patkau -- her newest title is Who Needs a Swamp? – A Wetland Ecosystem. http://karenpatkau.com/

If “not feeling like writing” is the problem I’ve come up with for myself, doing non-creative tasks helps get me into a more imaginative frame of mind. I usually structure my workday with some general office tasks. The amount of time I spend on any one of them is flexible, but checking things off a list gives me a feeling of accomplishment and I often long to get back to my project. Going for a walk or a swim always leads me to some kind of insight. Bartering and prodding can also be useful. But when a deadline is looming I just sit there and do the best I can … like everyone else in this boat.

Monique Polak -- her upcoming novel is Learning the Ropes. www.moniquepolak.com

I get my creative juices going by running (I run just about every single day, even on a day this winter when I was doing a school visit in Quebec City and it was minus 32!). Also, when I am home, I find that cleaning my bathroom sink, really giving it a thorough scrub, helps me get in the mood to write. While I run or scrub the sink, I find that a part of my mind is already working on my story. And I'm sure others will tell you this too: I get some of my best ideas when I am in the shower. Luckily all that running does lead to showering.

Karen Rivers  -- author of Finding Ruby Starling. http://www.karenrivers.com

I always want to write. I don't always want to revise, but I can easily make myself do it knowing that if I don't, I won't pay my mortgage this year. Money is a terrific motivator. I always have multiple projects at different stages of completion. When I'm on big deadlines, I get up at 4 and write before the kids get up because I find I'm really productive during those hours. I don't beat myself up for using social media or taking very long walks during the day or not writing at all sometimes because I'm busy and life happens.

Richard Scarsbrook -- newest title is The Indifference League. http://www.richardscarsbrook.com/

One thing that keeps me going is recognizing the difference between “Creative Days” and “Revising Days”. Creative Days arrive like Revelations. When the idea for a new story or new chapter is ready to be born, there is no holding it back; I drop everything else and write the first draft, purging it onto the page in one passionate, furious run. The rest of the days, when I DON’T feel “creative” (about eight out of ten), are Revising Days, during which I slog through the material I’ve already created, over and over again, buffing out the flaws, and then polishing what remains so it (hopefully) shines. If a writer can feel the difference between a Creative Day and Revising Day, that writer will always have work to do!

Carol Anne Shaw -- forthcoming title is Hannah and the Wild Woods. www.carolanneshaw@shaw.ca

I always want to write, but I am very easily distracted.  I have, however, discovered the FREEDOM app for MacBooks. I can shut out the computer for a designated length of time, and it is WONDERFUL.  I also reward myself. (I.E. When I’ve written 1,500 words, I will make myself a reuben sandwich. Or…if I edit three chapters, then I get a bubble bath. It’s the little things, right?)  But the most important thing, is my clothing. I have my writing slippers, my ugly old man sweater and my sweats. This is my uniform. As soon as I put on that old brown sweater, I’m in the zone. It really does work.

Valerie Sherrard -- author of Rain Shadow. http://valeriesherrard.blogspot.com/

When a story slows down or (as happens more often) screeches to a halt and refuses to budge, I have a strategy that has never failed me. I let it. I give it time to sit and rest so that when it nudges me to say it's ready to go on, it moves forward once again with enthusiasm and energy. In the meantime, I turn my attention to another story, or something unrelated to writing altogether.

Karen Spafford-Fitz -- author of Vanish. http://www.karenspafford-fitz.com/

On the few occasions when my writing resolve fails me, I break the task down into smaller segments, eg "I only have to write this page" or "this scene" or "for the next thirty minutes." I then feel entitled to a special reward, such as a run in the river valley, a favourite blend of tea, or chocolate. This method has fuelled me through both of my books.

Diana Stevan -- her debut novel is titled A Cry from the Deep. http://www.dianastevan.com/

When I'm walking outdoors, or gardening, I'll think about a writing problem, a plot point I'm trying to figure out, and after mulling it around for awhile, I get some ideas I can try out.

Steve Vernon -- author of Big Hairy Deal: A Creep Squad Novel. https://stevevernonstoryteller.wordpress.com/

I find the winter storm we’ve been enduring here in Nova Scotia has helped my creative flow – in that the world outside is so darned quiet right now. No traffic sounds, no snow plows – nothing but calm and quiet.
Still – if I had to tell you what REALLY has got my juices flowing – well, it would have to be the project I am working on – a retelling of the story of Moses and the Exodus. There is something very comfortable in retelling  this timeless story – something that goes beyond me jumping up on a soapbox and thumping my chest and shouting hallelujah. The fact is, I just enjoy the story. Sitting here and telling it back to myself on my keyboard is incredibly relaxing. So, that is what I would say is what a writer most needs to get their juices flowing. You need to find the story that you REALLY want to tell.

Jenny Watson -- her debut novel is titled, Prove It, Josh. http://www.jennywatson.ca/

I keep my current writing project fresh by working on it for at least 10 minutes every day. As soon as the timer is on, I have to get to work - no excuses. I keep a streak calendar and mark off each day as I do it. Generally I write part of the next scene, jot down some questions I know I'll need to answer, think about character traits, or map out the plot.

Frieda Wishinsky -- author of Colossal Canada (with Liz MacLeod) http://friedawishinsky.com/

Giving myself a "reward" at the end of a writing time helps keep me at it with even a small amount of time available. Sometimes the reward is reading an article in the NY Times, tea with cookies, a chat with a friend--anything that works at the moment. If I don't have a real deadline, I create an artificial deadline.

So there you have it. The experts have spoken. Here is the gist of their advice. if you wish to be a writer, you must clean something, be it dishes, the toilet, or yourself, and you must prod yourself and reward yourself in equal measure. Good writers are highly susceptible to chastisement and bribery. Don't be adverse to trickery either. Writers are easily duped -- even by themselves. Oh, yeah, and wear comfortable clothes -- pjs, sweat pants, and bathrobes all work well. And that's about it.

So get to work on that novel.

Many thanks to all the writers who contributed to this blog, and a special thank you to Snoopy and Charles Schulz.

 

Reader Comments (7)

Neatly done, Kristin! Lots of inspirational wisdom in these words. Thanks for asking me to contribute. Love Karen Krossing's and Susan Hughes's thoughts. "That's what writers do." Yup. We sit and write. Every day.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Kulling

And don't we have fun!

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

Indeed, we do! Most of the time.

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Kulling

Well done, Kristin and colleagues. Now I know all your secrets. Well, maybe not ALL! Happy Writing!

February 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Granfield

Thanks so much for taking part, Linda.

February 18, 2015 | Registered CommenterKristin Butcher

I like this post. A lot. We're all in this together. :)

April 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Anne Shaw

It seems like it, Carol Anne. I know you've inspired me. I'm going to raid my husband's closet for some suitable, sloppy, comfy, inspirational writing clothes.

April 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

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