Coloring Within the Lines

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

In the past year or so, adult coloring books have become very popular, with countless articles written about the trend in an attempt to understand it. Here are just a few:

Some are dismissive of the trend, viewing it as “Peter Pan” behavior by adults who don’t want to grow up, parallel to the rise in popularity of young adult fiction among adults. Others take a more generous perspective, seeing coloring as akin to meditation and other meditative activities such as knitting, a way to quiet one’s mind and be creative within boundaries.

Coloring offers that relief and mindfulness without the paralysis that a blank page can cause. It’s easier in the way that ordering from a restaurant with a small menu is easier than deciding what you want at Denny’s, where you could eat almost anything. This is the paradox of choice, and it’s been well-studied—too many options is overwhelming. But with coloring, you know what you’re working with. You just choose how to fill it in. … [T]he coloring … involve[s] repetitive motion and limited space in which to work, creating a locus point around which thoughts can revolve. [Julie Beck, “The Zen of Adult Coloring Books”]

Like coloring books, writing contests, prompts, and challenges provide a frame to work within. Facing a blank page can be intimidating. Having a place to start can help assuage some of those fears.

This month’s exercise is to choose a frame and “color within the lines.” Don’t think of the parameters as a limitation. Think of them as freeing your mind to be creative instead of staring at a blank page and stressing about what to write.

Some suggestions for your frame:

  • contest guidelines (even if you don’t actually plan to enter, give them a try)
  • writing prompts (try using more than one at a time) or challenges
  • formal poetry has built-in constraints—make your frame a sonnet or haiku
  • use an existing story (perhaps from another medium, such as a movie or TV series)
    • retell a story (e.g. a fairy tale) from a different character’s point-of-view or in a different time period or setting
    • write a prequel or sequel to an existing story
    • flesh out an existing story
  • make up your own rules, for example:
    • choose a theme (alphabet, seasons, cities…)
    • restrict word length
    • restrict genre
    • write all in dialogue
    • limit the number of characters
    • include a specific person (e.g. a celebrity or another famous person)

If you like, you can transform these pieces later, but first and foremost think of this exercise as a low-stakes warm-up, a way of getting past your blocks, stretching your writing muscles, and easing into your primary writing project (perhaps that one you’ve been avoiding). To make it more like a coloring book frame, have both short-term (equivalent to completing a page) and long-term (equivalent to completing a book) end-points.

Mix & Match

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

  1. Go to and use the Random Calendar Date Generator to pick five dates between January 2002 and the present (leave the Sunday box unchecked).
  2. Go to the Calendar and find the prompts that fell on the dates generated in step one.
  3. Use all 5 prompts in the same story.

Example (5 random dates and their corresponding prompts):

  1. February 5, 2002: Write about a surprise meeting.
  2. July 2, 2003: Write about a remedy.
  3. April 30, 2004: Write about magic.
  4. February 16, 2008: They had a way of walking together.
  5. December 23, 2015: “He lied about being a scientist!”

Draft Zero

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

On paper, write about something you’ve never written about before—something you’ve hesitated to write about, something you’re scared to write about. No self-censoring! When you’re done… Burn it. Tear it up. Run it through a shredder. Tie it to a balloon and set it free. Put it in a bottle and toss it in the ocean. Fold it up and tuck it inside a library book. Leave it in a public place. Stick a stamp on it and mail it to Post Secret.

Now. Open a new document on your computer and begin again.

Developing the Habit: Simple Tricks to Start Writing Every Day

Absolute Blank

By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

You tell yourself that you’re going to start writing every day, starting today. You’re going to sit down at your desk, or in your work space, and take out a blank sheet of paper or open a blank document in your favorite writing program, and you will write masterpieces. But then a thousand things happen. You stay late at work, there are errands to be run, family and friends to see, kids to help with homework, and a thousand other little things that you want to do but don’t have the time for. You keep telling yourself ‘tomorrow’. Tomorrow I’ll start writing every day. But then you don’t.

Of course, telling yourself that you’re going to start writing every day accomplishes nothing. Getting in front of that computer screen or that piece of paper is a lot harder than just making a verbal commitment. It’s so easy to say “I’m going to write every day” because nothing happens if you do or don’t do it. Not getting that novel written or that freelance career you want isn’t going to make much of an effect on you today, when you’re at the end of a long day and trying to decide between writing another chapter in your novel, or watching TV.

What you need is a way to make it easier on yourself. You need to make your goal a lot smaller and manageable. So, instead of telling yourself you’re going to make a habit of writing every day, from now until eternity, make a commitment to write every day for just 30 days. Studies have shown that sticking to a new behavior for approximately 30 days is enough to make it a habit. Once you get past that 30-day mark, that behavior is ingrained inside your brain, and you’ll start performing it automatically.

Of course, writing every day, even if it’s just for 30 days, is still a difficult task. Thousands of people attempt it every November during National Novel Writing Month, and only twenty percent reach their 50,000 word goal. There’s always some excuse to not have the time to sit down and write. However, if you trick your brain into it, there are a lot of ways you can succeed in getting yourself to sit down every day and write.

Background Image: Joanna Penn/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Set an Achievable Goal

Take a look at your schedule and realistically consider how much time you’ll have to write. Is it 10 minutes waiting for your coffee to be ready in the morning, an hour during lunch at work, or 30 minutes just before you go to bed? Figure out how much you can get written during that time, and then set that as your goal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paragraph, a haiku, a blog entry or a 10-minute journal prompt. Just make your goal a word count that makes you feel successful at the end of the day, and complete that every day. If you write more than your goal word count, consider it a bonus. Some days you’ll barely hit your goal, and some days you’ll surpass it, but as long as you get that little bit done, you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Reward Yourself

Reward yourself for a streak of writing. Experiment with different time frames to figure out what works best for you. For instance, you can try 7 days, or 14, or 5. Put a reminder in your calendar to check in at the end of your streak, and if possible, get a picture of your reward and tape it by your computer or your notebook so you can clearly see what you’re working towards. Whatever your reward is, make sure it’s something small but worth waiting for, such as an edible treat, some item you want to buy, or an event, such as a movie you want to go to. You can save the big reward for the end of the 30 days.

Give Up Something

If rewarding yourself doesn’t motivate you, give up something every time you miss a day. Make sure that whatever it is it’s something you’ll be sure to miss. For instance, missing a day of writing means getting rid of something from your closet. Or missing a day of writing means no watching your favorite TV show for a week. You can also give up something until you complete your 30 day streak. Experiment with a few different things and find out what works for you, and keeps you in your writing chair.

Put Your Money Where Your Pen Is

Write a check to your favorite charity and keep the check by your computer or notepad. If, during a month’s worth of writing, you miss a day, mail that check right off and start your 30 days over again. Alternatively, you can keep a jar by your desk, and deposit an amount in it for every day that you don’t write, and donate whatever’s in there at the end of your 30 days. You can also make a bet with a friend or family member. If you’re short on cash, use an object, like a nice jacket or a favorite pair of sunglasses, or service, such as babysitting or yard work. If you miss a day, your friend can cash in on the bet, and you can start over again.

Publicly Commit

Have a Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or blog? Publicly announce that you’ll be writing every day for 30 days, and update daily on your progress. If you’re not active in social media, send an e-mail to supportive family and friends, and tell them you’re going to write every day for 30 days. Send out updates once a week, so as not to spam them, and make sure you broadcast your failures, and start over again. By announcing your intention publicly, you’ll be more inclined to stick to your new writing habit to save face.

Change Your Environment

If writing at home just isn’t working, try changing your environment. When it’s time to write, move to a different room that will be just for writing. Or, sit in a designated writing chair or wear a writing hat. If you can, try changing locations completely. Go down to the local coffee shop with your laptop or notebook, and stay there until you hit your daily goal. Even if it’s the office supply closet at lunchtime, or a special writing notebook and pen, change something around you to signal to your brain that’s it time to write, and only write. And since it’s Writing Time, you won’t be able to do anything else until you’re done.

Enter a Contest

Try entering a contest. It doesn’t have to cost money or even have a prize at the end. This one works the same way as publicly announcing your intention to start writing every day. By wanting to save face, you’ll work hard to complete your contest entry before it’s due, which probably means writing every day, in some form or another. Even signing up for something like National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy will work, especially if you join and participate in the local groups. You’ll have the assurance and support from the others who are writing with you, and will be more likely to stay on track.

These are just a few of the ways you can develop the habit of writing something every day. Some writers swear by writing at the same time every day, others write the minute they wake up or just before they go to sleep, but what works for one writer won’t work for another. If you fail at writing every day the first, second, or tenth time, don’t give up! Reflect on what went wrong instead. Did the method you tried not work for you? Try something else. Are you not meeting your goal? Make it smaller. Finding it hard to come up with anything to write? Do a journal prompt instead. Test things out for a few days at a time, until you find something that gets you motivated. Then, keep writing!

Final Poll Results

Starting Will Always Be Hard: What Running Taught Me About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In April 2002 I started running again after a long hiatus. This summer, I ran in three 5K “races.” I didn’t set any records, finish first, or even win my age group. But it was an accomplishment that I’m proud of nonetheless.

Now, I’m sure that there are more than a few people who upon reading that first paragraph thought, “That’s it?” Yup, that’s it. You see, the idea of entering an event before I knew I could run the entire distance without walking was as much of an anathema to me as the idea of soliciting agents with a half-finished first draft of a novel. I wouldn’t do it. It’s just not the way I operate.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never do things quickly. I’m a slow runner—it takes me 30 minutes to run 5K, about twice as long as the fastest runners—and I’m a slow writer. I will never churn out three novels a year. Angst and perfectionism are real speed bumps. But that’s okay. It may even be better than okay. When I get discouraged at my pace, I like to remind myself that the tortoise won.

The point is, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Other people’s ways of getting to the finish line may appear more efficient, but you’re always going to be slamming up against roadblocks if you try to emulate a way of being that you’re uncomfortable with. Stumble often enough, and you’ll probably quit. It’s human nature.

Background Image: Peyton Smith/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Consider this: the prevailing philosophy amongst the running crowd is that beginners will quit unless they join a group, that it’s impossible to start running and keep it up on your own. Notice I didn’t say difficult, I said impossible. Lots of people really believe that. Lots of people would be wrong.

Like the idea of running with a big sweaty talky group of people who are probably all faster than you? I didn’t. It made me cringe. You just know that someone would be designated to hang back and “cheer” you on because if you’re at the back of the pack that automatically means you’re having difficulty, right? Well, no. Sometimes it just means you’re slow. And then there was the fact that most of these groups seemed to meet at 8am Sunday mornings. Um, no.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of socially ingrained notions about what “good” behavior is. Everyone’s heard tales of people who get up at 5am to write or work out. What dedication! Getting up early is touted as the sign of productivity. Staying up late? Well, that’s merely decadent. Not to mention, you must be procrastinating if you’re leaving something to the end of the day.

Well, I won’t deny that I procrastinate. I do. But that’s beside the point. The point is: Don’t try to be a morning person if you’re not. No, really, don’t. This is huge. If I had tried to be an early morning runner, I doubt I’d have made it a week. I’m stiff in the morning and I need at least one cup of coffee before I’m fully awake. Instead, I usually run in the early evening, before supper. At that time of day, I look forward to it. This is key. The same principle applies to writing. Schedule your writing time so it’s something you look forward to, not dread. You know when you’ll be most productive. Don’t fight it; work with it. Setting the alarm an hour early just so you can hit the snooze button six times isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Now running, being what it is, is subject to the weather. There are always going to be days when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the summer that means it’s too hot; any other time of year that means it’s too wet. This is the West Coast, after all. And there are days when I think, “Bleh, I don’t want to go out in that.” But you know, shit happens. Deal with it. Running when the weather is inclement is what differentiates a real runner from a dabbler. So it’s hot or wet. Go anyway. Of course there are limits. It would be stupid to run in lightning or extreme heat. Similarly, if you’re sick or injured, it’s okay to take time off. The important thing is that if you do have to break an appointment—for a valid reason, not a mere excuse—you have a plan in place for getting back on track.

Just as a real runner runs in any weather, a real writer writes even when uninspired. If you’ve made an appointment to write, keep your appointment. Maybe all you’ll write is crap that day, but so what? Everyone has bad days. At the same time, if you do miss an appointment, let it go. Don’t dwell on your “failure”; concentrate on making the next one. Developing a routine is great, but even more important is being able recover from an interruption to that routine.

I mentioned dabbling. Before I restarted running, I tried cycling and swimming and yoga and hiking and well, you get the picture. Before I restarted writing, I did much the same thing only with photography and graphic design and such. These things were fun; I enjoyed them; some I was even quite good at. But the problem with trying keep up a multiplicity of activities even when they’re fun and you’re good at them is that ultimately they’re all unsatisfying because you never feel like you’re getting anywhere.

However, sometimes it’s precisely that dissatisfaction that’s the kick in the butt you need to quash your inner dabbler and make a decision. What’s your passion? What do you really want to do? Focusing means putting some of your other activities on the backburner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do anything else. Cross-training is great; it keeps you from being bored, it exercises different muscles. But cross-training is different from dabbling. With cross-training the other activities support your vocation; they don’t overwhelm it.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to focus on, keep it simple. When I started running, I wore an old pair of shoes, old T-shirt, old shorts. I did not dash out and purchase an entire wardrobe of hi-tech running clothes before I’d lifted a foot. There’s nothing more dorky that the person who’s all kitted out but completely inept. You can start writing with a nothing but a pen and a piece of looseleaf. Or type, if you prefer, but don’t worry about special software; Notepad works just as well as anything to start.

And just as a beginning runner should concentrate on breathing, gait, and pace, not looking pretty, a beginning writer should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and spelling and tell stories in a standard, straightforward format, not waste energy developing her “style.” Once you’ve mastered the basics and proved your commitment, you can add to your wardrobe—or your style repertoire—as necessary.

One mistake that beginners (at anything) almost always make is to set goals that are too lofty. Start small. Set realistic goals, that is, ones you know you can meet. Otherwise, you’re just sabotaging yourself.

When I started running my first goal was to run one minute, walk one minute five times. Doesn’t sound like much, but I knew I could do it. And because I’d planned to run-walk, walking wasn’t a failure; it was part of the plan. Once that was easy, I set a new goal, and so on. I also made it a rule that if I ran one day, I got the next day off.

Which brings me to: schedule breaks. I knew if my initial goal was “run 5 minutes,” I could probably do it, but I’d be exhausted and flopping all over the place by the end. By running in intervals, I maintained my form throughout and I felt a lot better about my performance than I would have if I’d pushed straight through.

If you’ve set aside one morning a week to write, instead of planning to plant yourself in the chair for the entire three hours, plan to take regular breaks, say write for 15 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes. But I’m on a roll! That’s great. Stop anyway. When your break is up, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to write next and you’ll be eager to get back to it.

And speaking of goals: Don’t rely solely on external gratification. Set goals you have personal control over. As a runner, I set goals to run a particular time or distance, not to finish in a particular place. Placing is completely dependent on how others do—you don’t have control over it. That’s not to say it isn’t nice to finish in the top whatever, but take that as gravy, don’t make it your goal. Like I said, my goal in my first event was to run the entire distance. I did, and that’s a big deal considering two years ago running one minute was arduous. Sure it took me a while to get there. But I did, because I set achievable goals along the way.

Achievable goals: Write for 1 hour on Saturdays. Finish this short story by the end of the month. Enter 3 contests this year. Query 20 agents about my novel. On the other hand, “Get my novel published” is not. I mean, yes, of course that’s what you ultimately want, but unless you have a lot of clout, you can’t make someone publish you, and if you’ve set that as your goal, when you’re rejected (over and over) you’re just going to end up frustrated. Whereas if your goal was to send the queries, you can think more along the lines of, “Okay, I did that. What’s next?”

What is next? Well, like my running events, your first brush with publishing is likely to be something small: a story in an ezine, an article in a newspaper. And I’ve noticed that people have a terrible tendency to downplay these accomplishments: “just a little magazine” “just paid in copies” etc. But yeesh, how do you think most writers started? Getting a big advance for one’s first novel with no previous credits as unlikely as picking a marathon as your first event and running it in under three hours. You need the “little” credits. They’re perfectly legitimate and they’re important. Don’t damn them with “justs.”

When I ran in my first event, I ended up right in the middle of the pack. The middle! I’m sure no one has ever been happier to find out she was average. Of course, with running, average exceeded my expectations; with writing, I expect more, but the truth is, whatever the game, most of us are somewhere in the middle—maybe a little above, maybe a little below. That doesn’t mean we should give up. You can be successful without coming in first, without being the best writer ever, without writing the Great [insert country here] Novel. It’s okay to simply be good at something. The current media trend to label everyone who doesn’t finish first a “loser” is ridiculous.

If it matters to you, do it, even if no one else cares or they think you’re silly to keep at something that seems so hard. Running is hard. Writing is hard. But that’s why they’re so rewarding. If they came easily they wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

Probably the most important thing that running has taught me is that no matter how long you’ve done something and how much you love it, starting will always be hard. Start anyway. If you don’t, you’ll never get to experience that moment when everything clicks and you’re sailing: your feet are flying across the pavement or your fingers are smoking over the keyboard. And afterward, when you’re done? Well, that feeling is sheer euphoria.

Final Poll Results

‘Tis better to have written…

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

“The first key to writing is to write, not to think.”
—from “Finding Forrester”

I am a banker.

At least that’s the technical term for my 9-to-5 job, working for one of the world’s largest financial institutions. All day long, I sit in a cubicle, just another mindless drone in a Dilbert world.

In my heart, though, I am a writer.

I haven’t been published, save for a few non-paying e-zines. I don’t write for the glory. I certainly don’t write for the money. So why do I write?

The answer is something I borrow from one of my college professors, something that just rang so true that I’ve kept it with me all these years.

I write because I must.

Background Image: Karin Dalziel/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had stories inside me just bursting to come out. In elementary school, it was being stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean. In junior high, it was a soap opera about my friends’ angst-ridden love lives. And now, everything around me begs to be written down.

I have notebooks filled with ideas, fragments of stories begun in my computer. I have endless first lines and last lines, just waiting for me to sit down and complete them. I have a little notebook in my purse, and I’ve been saying for years that I was going to by a mini tape recorder, to grab onto the thoughts as soon as I have them.

Every now and then I finish something. And this past year, I’ve even managed to submit a few for publication or competition. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but a few nicely worded but stinging rejections.

The problem is that I let myself go for long lapses without writing anything at all. The solution, really, is simple. I need to write—to find whatever time I can, and write.

“But I’m tired,” I whine. “I don’t have time to write.”

I go to work every morning at nine, come home around six and make myself dinner. Some nights I watch a favorite TV show, or hang out with my boyfriend. I clean my room, chat with my roommates, call my mother. Anything but write. In fact, here I sit two days before this article is due, cursing myself for volunteering to write it.

The one thing that comforts me, somewhat, is knowing that I’m not alone. In his book If You Can Talk, You Can Write, Joel Saltzman addresses the problem.

“Strange as it seems, writers love to bitch about writing and they will do anything to avoid it. They’ll check the mail, do the dishes, check the mail again-anything to not have to sit down and actually get to work.”

We all do it. We all make excuses. But the fact of the matter is this: the only way to be a writer is to write. Stephen King wrote his first two novels in the laundry room of his double-wide, after teaching high school English all day. John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill longhand on yellow legal pads during courtroom breaks.

In order to quit whining and start writing, we need to figure out what’s stopping us. I know for me, one of the biggest obstacles is fear; the fear that I won’t be any good. What if I try and I fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do? This fear manifests itself as “negative self-talk”. In other words, we convince ourselves that we’re no good before we even get started. If we want to get anywhere, we need to shut off our internal editors long enough to write something.

Another common obstacle, which Saltzman addresses in his book, is the drive to be perfect, to “get it right the first time.” His advice? Insist on not being a perfectionist. Too much focus on getting it perfect results in writing paralysis. No one gets it right the first time. Even award-winning authors have to rewrite.

It’s simple, really. The more we write, the better chance we have of writing something good. In Saltzman’s words, it’s like this:

“Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah.
Blah, blah, blah……GOLD!”

Write a whole bunch. Write some more. Then throw out the crap and keep what’s good.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he advises us to set aside a place for writing, and to be willing to shut the door and write. Writing is a job, and it needs to be treated that way. As King says, “don’t wait for the muse.” Just keep writing.

Does it take discipline? Patience? Sure it does. Doesn’t anything worth doing? But once we start writing, I believe we’ll find it’s easier to write than to NOT write.

So next time you sit down to write, do these things:

  1. Shut off your “inner editor”
  2. Don’t try to be perfect
  3. WRITE!

Everything else will come with practice.

Now maybe we’ll never be as rich and famous as King or Grisham. Maybe we’ll never win a Pulitzer like Toni Morrison. But at least we’ll have written. And for a writer, having written is the best feeling in the world.