What Dr. John H. Watson Can Teach About Writing

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By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

“Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

Dr. John H. Watson is the fictional biographer of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Dr. Watson (and his creator) always spun the tales of deduction and reasoning into stories that mesmerized the Victorian public. Even against the criticism of his friend, Watson continued to write his stories, and when Holmes finally took up the pen to write one or two of his own tales, he was forced to admit that, for all his analytical mind, he had to create a story to interest his readers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless other fictional detectives and mysteries, and are still being rewritten and re-imagined, over one hundred years after their original publication. What is it about the stories penned by Dr. Watson and his creator that have made them last? Why do readers keep returning to them?

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Tell a Story

First and foremost, Watson was a storyteller. While Holmes may have preferred to focus on the science of the cases, Watson knew his readers wanted the romance and thrill, and he gave them just that. In each story, he painted a picture of the visitors who climbed the seventeen steps to 221B Baker Street, from what they were wearing to their emotional state when they arrived. And when a case called for action, Watson pulled no punches, giving detailed accounts of a dangerous boat chase or a tense stakeout, as well as concluding dramatically with the capture of the criminal and explanation of Holmes’s deductions.

As a writer, give your readers the big picture as well as the small, and allow them to feel the thrill, romance, fear, even the mundanity of the situation. Give them enough information to see the scene in their head and keep them on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.

But don’t tell them everything. Sometimes what the reader can imagine is more interesting to them than what you can come up with. Watson often referred to other cases, dropping tantalizing clues to stories that were never published or giving just enough hints so that his contemporary readers could try to puzzle out the real-life counterpart to a client or villain. You may know about everything that happens in your world, but you don’t have to present it all to the reader. Drop a reference here and there, and let your reader imagine the rest.

Be Prolific

Dr. Watson alludes to many unpublished cases in his stories. One of the reasons he gives as to why he never published them is that the results were too mundane or unsatisfying to provide any interest to his readers. Even though he faithfully chronicled every one of his companion’s adventures, he carefully picked the stories he chose to publish, sharing only the ones he knew would make good stories.

Not every story or novel you write will be a masterpiece. Some of them will have unsatisfying endings, others will have boring characters, and still more will just stop and have no ending. Every writer has a couple of stories that just didn’t work, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to write it. Every word you write is practice for the next one, and even if that piece never sees the light of day, you still had the practice for writing something better. But what do you do with all those unpublished stories?

Watson had a tin dispatch box in the bank vault at Cox & Co., where he kept all of his case notes. Create a special place for all of your work, whether it be a folder on your computer’s desktop or a special box in your closet. Instead of leaving them there, though, make a regular date with yourself to go through them and handpick the best ones to polish and send out into the world.

Create Lasting Characters

Dr. Watson not only created an intriguing star for his stories, but a standout supporting cast. Most readers can immediately recognize the rat-like, unimaginative Inspector Lestrade and the long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, who in turns worried over and was antagonized by her eccentric tenant. Even the smaller characters, such as The Woman, Irene Adler, who once intrigued Holmes with her cleverness and is often cast as his love interest, or the nefarious Professor Moriarty, the shadowy spider behind London’s criminal scene, have their own unique personalities and quirks that make them memorable.

Each of your characters should have a story. For your main characters, this means writing a history for them. What events occurred in the characters’ lives that got them to the point where you start your story? The reader may never get to see that history, but remember that every character is the star of their own show.

With your background and one-scene characters, you don’t have to create as elaborate backstories, but have an idea for what they want out of their lives, and out of their interactions with your story. Writing a character with no purpose to his or her life will make for a flat character. Give them a purpose for their own fictional life. By giving each of your characters a reason for existing, you make them more real and more memorable to your reader.

Live your own adventure

Dr. Watson wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes’s biographer. More often than not, he was found right next to Holmes in the thick of danger, often lending a hand or his trusty service revolver to aid in the capture of a criminal. He didn’t just write the adventures; he lived them, and his perspective gave his stories more interest to readers.

As a writer, you can’t spend all your time imagining at your desk. Sometimes you have to go out into the world, and have an adventure. You don’t always have to write what you know, but you’ll hardly have anything to write about if you don’t have a few adventures now and then. While following the world’s only consulting detective around may not be practical or even safe, there’s plenty you can do, starting by just stepping out your front door. Experience life, and then go home and write about it.

Final Poll Results

Developing the Habit: Simple Tricks to Start Writing Every Day

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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.

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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

Atmospheric Control

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By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As I settle in to write this, I am sitting at a cluttered desk surrounded by a wave of papers, magazines, books, and CDs. My TV is on as background noise, set to a channel I think I can ignore. From the other room, I can hear my children singing along with the game Rock Band, as loud and as off-key as possible. All of these factors are colliding together and contributing to my performance as a writer.

It occurred to me when I started writing this article that all these things were creating a writing atmosphere. Some of what is going on is helping me, while some of it is keeping me from my goal. Successful writers can be found writing in surroundings that support their performance. It’s important to create a writing atmosphere that works for you.

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Let’s tackle what’s going on in my writing area as an example of what works and what doesn’t work, at least for me. You can do this yourself to find your own strengths and weaknesses. We’ll start with my messy desk.

Even in the chaos that the desk is in right now, I can tell you right where everything is on the desk. My dictionary and thesaurus are close by, as are my other inspirational books and CDs. The desk works for me because I know right where my tools are, even under all the papers and clutter. Look around your own desk a moment. Are you frustrated by the clutter? Are you uninspired by the cleanliness? Try mixing it up until you feel comfortable and you aren’t distracted by either.

I next mentioned that the TV was on as background noise. I thought I could ignore it while I did something else, but it wasn’t working. Instead, I turned on the radio in order to finish the article. Some writers can’t have any kind of sound while they work, while others use it to set a mood they’re trying to create. A colleague mentioned that she creates specific soundtracks for her stories and novels. She said it helps put her in the right place at the right time. Whichever works for you, silence or sound, don’t wait until you have been distracted several times. Start out with what you know will drive your efforts.

For me, the children were the easy part. The door to the office closes and they’re all old enough to take care of themselves. They know that a closed door means “leave mom alone.” While they’re grown now, I am still familiar with the challenges presented by very small children, since I have a granddaughter with a demanding nature. My advice for parents is to work hard and fast when kids are asleep or otherwise occupied. I worked this way when my children were young and I did manage quite a few short stories. You could also hand them off to a grandparent or to your significant other for a set period of time until the work is done. You don’t need to compromise your children or your writing, but you will need to look for, and create, writing opportunities.

There are other distractions, but my surroundings are in my control, just as yours are. If a writing session isn’t working out, try changing your atmosphere before giving up and closing what you’re working on. Even a subtle change can make a vast difference. Hey, I finished the article, didn’t I?

Final Poll Results

All in a Day’s Work: Should Writing be a Job?

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By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In On Writing, Stephen King calls writing “just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Some writers balk at that statement. Writing? A job? But isn’t writing supposed to be about the joy of creation? Following your muse? I think the answer is yes. And no.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with writing. We want to create, but it can be tough to find the time/energy/persistence to actually do it. And whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a little or a lot, it’s a matter of deciding where you want to go with your writing. There’s nothing wrong with treating writing as a hobby, but if your goal is to make money as a writer, it takes discipline.

We interviewed three authors—two established, and one working hard to get there—to get their take on writing as a job.

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Author John Scalzi has been a full-time writer since he left college, first writing for a newspaper, then as an in-house editor and writer for America Online. He’s been a freelance writer since 1998 and has published a dozen books. Two of those books, Old Man’s War and The Last Colony, have been nominated for the Hugo Award.

YA author Laurie Halse Anderson has been writing full-time since 2002. Her books, including Speak, Catalyst,and Twisted, have won numerous awards. Prior to being a full-time writer, she wrote early in the morning while working freelance jobs and other part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I made the transition the first time I got an advance that (with much penny-pinching) could support me for a year,” she says.

Seanan McGuire, a mid-level manager in a non-profit customer service center, is working toward becoming a full-time writer and recently signed with an agent. McGuire has been published, although “not, as yet, in my chosen genres (or that I’ll admit to).” She writes primarily horror and urban fantasy.

TC: Do you keep a regular writing schedule?

JS: Theoretically I write long-form work in the morning while my daughter is at school and short-form work after she comes home and wants attention. In reality, it all sort of mixes in together. I am trying to become more scheduled, however.

LHA: I write minimum of six hours (this can increase to 16 when the deadline pressure is turned up) a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

SM: During the work-week, I write from seven to nine every day except for Thursday, when I have my weekly “girl’s night out.” On the weekends, I do two four-hour blocks, split between the two days. Sometimes more, if I have edits to process.

TC: How much time do you spend on the “business” of writing?

JS: I spend about an hour a day on it. It mostly consists of e-mailing my agent or editor or clients. Sometimes I have to travel for work, which of course takes up more time. but when I’m at home, and hour a day usually does it. It helps that my wife handles a lot of the financial end of things, because that’s what she’s good at and has training in.

LHA: At least 25 hours a week, often more. Correspondence with readers takes up the bulk of it. Preparing for travel to conferences (tons of email, plane and hotel reservations, correspondence with committee members, speech and presentation preparation) takes up a lot, too. I have cut way back on my travel, but still spend about 60 days a year on the road. Website updates, interviews, and research for new books also happen every week.

SM: Currently, about two to five hours per week are spent contacting agents, formatting submissions, and pursuing representation. It’s a small amount of time, but it’s a tiring one.

TC: Should would-be writers treat writing as a job?

JS: If people feel it’s best to pursue writing as a hobby or a part-time thing, who am I to try to convince them otherwise? Lots of very excellent writers held down other jobs or wrote primarily for recreation and enjoyment. Also, you know. Writing for a living is hard, and generally it doesn’t pay well.

LHA: A career in the arts is not for everyone. It’s more demanding and less financially rewarding than most people realize. If you love the work, you’ll get a lot out of committing yourself body and soul. But there is nothing wrong with making your writing into a piece of your life, instead of the whole thing.

SM: I find that writing is always work, if you want to get it right; it takes time, effort, dedication, and focus. I work harder at writing than I do at almost anything else, and I’d rather have the time I currently spend on other people’s projects to devote to my own.

TC: What advice would you offer to would-be writers?

JS: 1) Be aware of your audience. The vast majority of the time, when you’re writing professionally, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience—specifically (most of the time) an editor who is looking for writing of a certain nature or function, and in a more general sense to a larger readership that is looking for something specific… 2) You have time. So long as you don’t intentionally step out in front of a bus, chances are pretty good you’ll make it to 70 or 80 or some bone-deteriorated age like that. That being the case, what are you worried about? Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the process of writing. and 3) You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

LHA: Do it for the love, not the money. But if you decide to make it into your career, structure your life frugally, so the ups and downs of the unpredictable market won’t hurt as much.

SM: Learn to take critique, even when it’s hard. Learn to focus. Trust your story. Follow the market. Read. Write. Adapt. Also, you’re not as good as you think you are… but you could be, if you work hard enough to get there.

King’s On Writing has even more advice for any writer trying to make it. He says that all writers should have a private writing space, with the ability to shut out all distractions. He recommends sticking to a schedule, and setting concrete goals.

“The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse,” says King. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”

And ultimately, figure out how you define success. Are you happy writing fanfiction to share with your friends, or do you aspire to the New York Times Bestseller List? Set goals that make sense for you, and stick to them.

Final Poll Results

Writing: Career or Hobby?

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By Lisa Olson (Boots)

When someone asks what you do, do you tell them about your day job, or do you say, “I’m a writer?” At what point can you consider yourself enough of a writer to say that? Ask yourself a few key questions. You may be surprised by your answers.

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  1. How often do you write?
    1. Every day, of course!
    2. Once a week. I’m busy, but I set aside time.
    3. Once a month. My family and job come first.
    4. I can’t even remember the last time I wrote something.

Writers will tell you they write. Every day, without fail. It’s literally their job and they spend their time working on it. As a beginning writer you may have a job and a family, but if you are serious, you continue to carve out time every day to work on your writing.

  1. How do you spend your writing time?
    1. Writing. I’m focused and nobody can bother me.
    2. I’m interrupted a lot, but I still manage.
    3. I can’t focus, forget it.
    4. Wait… is that American Idol?

Writers spend their writing time writing and they let nothing and nobody get in the way of their ultimate goal. If they have families, they explain that now is “writing time” and they try to minimize the interruptions by enlisting the help of the significant other or the older child. If they have jobs, they sacrifice TV time for writing time. They make time work for them.

  1. Do you continue your writing education?
    1. Yes, I take classes all the time.
    2. Occasionally I’ll enroll in an online course.
    3. I read up on writing on the internet.
    4. I already know everything I need to know.

Taking classes either online or off can be crucial to your style and polish. As with any skill, it’s important to keep up on the latest developments and to continue educating yourself. If a class isn’t your style, try a subscription to a writing magazine or blog.

  1. Do you network?
    1. I attend conferences and am part of a local writing group.
    2. I go to book signings and readings.
    3. I have a friend who has a friend in the industry.
    4. I have a business card around here somewhere.

Knowing others in the business can help you get in there with them. There are all kinds of writing groups you can join both online and off. Try the local library or community college for some face-to-face time with your local stars. Writing communities online can offer a variety of interviews and chats with authors and agents imparting their wisdom. Conferences are the best way to meet those in the industry both behind the scenes and behind the words.

  1. Do you have the tools you need to succeed?
    1. I’m working on the next step.
    2. I’ve researched and know what I need.
    3. I have an idea what to do, but I’m not ready.
    4. I have to do more than write?

If you don’t research what you need, you could end up looking unprofessional. Know the next step in your drive to reach your goal and make sure you have what you’ll need to reach that level. If you’re querying an agent, have a great query ready to go and a synopsis ready in case they ask for it. If you’re submitting to a contest be sure to read all the guidelines and have a small biography of yourself ready to go in case you win.

  1. What kind of writer are you?
    1. It’s a job—I work on it every day.
    2. It’s a part-time job—I work on it, but only when I have the time.
    3. It’s a long-term goal—I want it, but I’m not doing all I can to achieve it.
    4. It’s a hobby—I have fun with it, but I’m not as serious as I could be.

So, what are you telling people you do?

Final Poll Results

Dash Your Dreams: A Guide to Finding Happiness as a Writer

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 By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Once upon a time, I worked with a bunch of people who disliked their jobs. One guy had figured out the exact number of days left until he could take early retirement. Each morning he would wander in and say, “2,524 days until retirement,” and the next day, “2,523 days until retirement,” and so on. Another guy was a Constant Complainer. Every time he walked in the room, he had something new to complain about. He hated everything. He was miserable. His life was passing him by. He constantly talked about what he would do when he retired (he was only in his mid-40s). One day, frustrated by his constant whining, I asked him why he didn’t do something about it. Look for a different job, go back to school. Something. Anything. “Oh, I can’t do that,” he said. “I’d lose my pension.”

My co-workers weren’t oppressed laborers with no marketable skills; they were educated professionals. If they had really wanted to change jobs or even careers, they could have. But of course, they were never serious about making a change. They were dreamers, and pessimistic ones at that: the kind of people who claim that they want to do this or that but at the same time have umpteen excuses why this or that is not, and never will be, possible. If somehow they had been magically transported to the place that they claimed they wanted to be, they would have found something new to complain about. That’s the thing about dreamers: they’re never satisfied.

Well, they might not have been going anywhere, but I sure was. I moved on, but took with me a valuable lesson: I have no right to complain about things that are within my power to change unless I am actually doing something to address the situation. Not going to do anything about it? Shut up about it, then.

Shortly thereafter, I joined an online writing community and the rest, as they say, is history. Since that time, both at the site where I started out and here at Toasted Cheese, I’ve witnessed many people—who started out just like anyone else, posting and critiquing on forums—achieve various successes as writers—publishing short stories, embarking on MFA programs, writing books, etc. Some have had novels published. I’ve also seen many people who never seem to make it past the newbie phase, who remain perpetually stuck at “I want to write” or seem to have only ever written one piece that they re-hash repeatedly. The difference between those who can confidently call themselves writers and the wannabes is no big secret: the writers write. Wannabes are dreamers. Writers are doers.

Now, I’m not going to tell that you should be writing. Maybe you shouldn’t be. Unless you actually have a deadline to meet (do you?), no one cares whether you write or not besides you. There’s no “should” about it. However, if you talk about writing more often than you actually write and perhaps continually feel guilty about that or if you’ve come to view writing as a necessary evil to be endured because somewhere along the line you put “write a novel” on your life goals list or if your writing is so stagnant that your plan for the year consists of buying lottery tickets (when you win, you will rent a house in Tuscany, be inspired by the food, and write a book about it—oh, wait, that’s been done…), I encourage you to stop, take some time to reflect, and think about why this is so.

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There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason.

An excuse is an obstacle that you put in your path so that you don’t have to do something you claim you want to do. Switching jobs might have set my complaining colleague back a little, but no one was going to take away the contributions he’d already made to his pension. That was an excuse, not a reason, for his inertia.

The major difference between reasons and excuses is that reasons are temporary, while excuses are forever. Let’s say you fully intend to do NaNoWriMo this year, but while taking your kids trick-or-treating, you slip on some ice and break your arm. That’s a legitimate reason why you might not meet your goal as planned. But that broken arm only postpones your conquering of NaNo; it doesn’t prevent you from ever winning.

“I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy” are not reasons; they’re excuses. This isn’t to say that you’re not tired or busy. You probably are. But unless there has been a recent, unexpected change in your life, you knew how tired and busy you’d be when you set your goal. And you also probably know that tired and busy aren’t going to go away any time soon. If you really wanted to accomplish what you say you want to, you’d figure out a way to make progress despite being tired and busy.

Unlimited time to write is not all it’s cracked up to be.

One thing I realized when I did NaNoWriMo for the first time is that having only a little free time to work with is a blessing, not a curse. For one thing, it forces you to organize your time. If you want to write, you have to put it into your schedule and do it at the appointed time, otherwise it’s not going to get done. If your entire day is free, it’s too easy to say, “I’ll write later.” For another thing, when that time’s up, if you’ve kept your appointment, you can cross “write!” off your To Do list and forget about it for the rest of the day. No guilt and a sense of accomplishment. What could be better?

A lack of time is rarely a valid reason for not writing. What we really mean when we say that we have “no time” is that we’re brain dead, we can’t think straight, we would rather just veg out in front of the TV or the computer or read a book or go to bed. Which is fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s your life; do what you like.

But be honest with yourself: if a vast swath of uninterrupted writing time dropped into your lap, would you use it in the way you dream you would? How many times have you taken a writing project with you on vacation only to bring it back in the exact same state it left, justifying your lack of progress with: “I deserve a real break.” Again, you probably do. But if writing is something you truly want to do, think about why—given unlimited free time—you’d still rather be doing something else.

Passion for the journey is more satisfying than passion for the destination.

Often people who express dissatisfaction with writing seem more enamored with remote possibilities (acclaim, wealth, fame) and perhaps the mystique and accoutrements (pens! notebooks! black turtleneck sweaters and geek glasses!) of being a writer than they are with the actual writing process. It’s fine to want to emulate your favorite writers (or their cinematic counterparts), but when you nestle into that comfy chair at your favorite coffeeshop and pull out your laptop, is it to open your work-in-progress or check your email? Do all your daydreams segue from first lines to book signings? If that’s the case, then perhaps you find the image of The Writer more appealing than the reality of being a writer.

To become skilled at anything, you have to practice. Putting words down on paper is a writer’s practice. Yes, it can be arduous at times, but we do it anyway—even when we know the entire day’s work will end up in the recycle bin. Sometimes you have to write 500 words of crap to get 50 good words; that’s just how writing goes. And on some level, you have to enjoy this, even as you’re tearing out your hair or pacing away from your keyboard in frustration.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ideas are or how much you want to hold a finished copy of your work-in-progress in your hands, if you don’t enjoy the process of writing, you’re going to eventually burn out and do whatever you can to avoid it. If this sounds like you, ask yourself: Why do I want to write? When you “should be” writing, what are you doing instead? If you enjoy whatever that is more than writing, it’s quite possible that your passion lies elsewhere. It’s also possible that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for writing because you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Fiction is not the holy grail of writing.

Not every writer’s talents lie in fiction, yet nobody puts “write a feature-length article for The New Yorker,” much less “write a weekly gardening column for my hometown newspaper” on their life list, they put “write a novel.” The pervasive sentiment is that novelists are the real writers and everyone else wants to write a novel but just hasn’t got around to it yet.

This is silly. There are plenty of talented writers who have never written a word of fiction and have no intention of ever doing so. This doesn’t make them lesser writers. Have you been trying to write in a particular genre—be it fiction or poetry or something else—and it’s just not working? Instead of beating yourself up about it, try writing something completely different. Keep trying new things until you find something that clicks.

If you are a writer, something will click. The words will flow better; the sentences and paragraphs will be easier to arrange. Sure, you’ll still have moments of frustration, but writing time will become something you look forward to rather than dread. If, on the other hand, you still find yourself spending more time doodling pictures in the margins of your spiral notebooks than writing, consider the possibility that you’re really an artist at heart.

Writing is work, but it’s not scrubbing toilets. You should get some pleasure out of it. If the thought of writing makes you miserable and all you ever do is complain about it, then something’s not right. Stop and take the time to figure out why you are dissatisfied. You’re not a prisoner chained to your laptop. Take charge of your writing life and change what isn’t working. Finding happiness as a writer is within your power.

Final Poll Results

Procrastinating With Purpose

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

You should be writing. Yes, you read that correctly. You should be writing, not browsing online, checking e-mail, finding little distractions… or should you?

Three years ago, our Absolute Blank article was “Mirror, Mirror: Finding Your Writing Style” by Theryn (Beaver) Fleming. One of the types was The Procrastinator, the writer who can be prolific once she’s gotten started but just can’t seem to get started. Beaver’s sage advice was to make writing appointments and keep them, using the story ideas you store up while “not-writing.”

Does procrastination have a positive place in a writer’s life? Sure it can, as it can come in handy for anyone. The key to making procrastination into a boon instead of a burden is to use it to improve your work.

Background Image: Sharon Brogan/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

There are three ways writers procrastinate: doing non-writing activity, doing writing-related activity and doing throwaway writing.

Let’s talk briefly about the last way. You may be asking, “isn’t any writing that I do considered ‘good’ writing?” It can be and usually is. If you want to work on your novella and you become engrossed doing a background story that relates to the action, you’re not necessarily doing any throwaway writing. If you start doing a character bio and are inspired to write the emigration of the main character’s great-great-grandmother and get caught up in a sweeping saga of love, loss and liberation, that’s not a productive use of writing time (fun as it may be). Of course, no one’s forcing you to stay with your original idea. Maybe the first idea is boring you and the other one gets your juices flowing. The point is that spending your valuable writing time doing superfluous work might make you feel like you’ve wasted it in the end.

I suffer from writing-related procrastination. It doesn’t have to be fiction that I’m dilly-dallying about writing. It could be a blog entry, a letter or, just as an example, an Absolute Blank article.

Let’s say I have an idea for an article. I want to get some more information or read other articles on similar topics. I “Google” whatever search terms I like and start working. At least, I call it “working.” I find a good article at a site and decide to see what else is in their archives that might be inspiring. I check out their forums, if they have any. Someone has posted a link. I click the link and go to another writing site. The new site has an archive of articles that I need to look over. It’s research, after all! The circle continues until I recognize what’s happening and either begin writing or tear myself away. One key is to recognize when you go from research into random websurfing.

You can set a time limit for research, if that works for you. Alternately, you could try to train yourself to recognize that you have enough research for the time being. If, like me, you enjoy the research, use it to treat yourself. After five days of solid writing, spend a day doing research, organizing your notes or cleaning up your bookmarks.

Unless you’re a professional, salaried writer, non-writing activity takes up most of your day. Your job, your classes, your life in general is chock-full already. Where to fit in your passion for creative writing?

You can work on your writing any time. I think about plotlines and characters while driving or while drifting off to sleep. I keep a little notebook in my bag to jot down ideas, things to look up, even character names when I’m out. Non-fiction writers can use their day jobs, no matter what they are, for writing inspiration. I got lots of ideas for characters and dialogue while working retail customer service.

Let’s take Beaver’s advice and make a writing appointment with yourself. Someone else is on pet and/or child duty. The answering machine is on and the online connection is off. You reach for a floppy with your story on it and have some trouble finding it. So you take “just a minute” and organize the disks. What you really need is a pen and some paper, just in case. Another minute to find that. Ooh, better use the bathroom. Don’t want to have to get up in the middle of a sentence. Better get a drink while you’re up. And a coaster. The screen looks smeary so you find a Windex wipe and clean it off. And the keyboard. The CPU. The printer. The mouse. The volume knob on the speakers…

Finally, you get around to writing. It’s good. You’re chugging right along. It occurs to you to do a word count and you’re over 500! If you were Graham Greene, you could quit. You’re a little bleary-eyed with a stiff back. Knowing you’re a procrastinator, do you dare walk away now that you’re in the groove?

You dare. Here’s the why and how:

  1. Writing is work. Like most any work, it can be physically draining. If you were out gardening and started to get uncomfortable, would you stop and stretch your back? Of course. It doesn’t mean you’ll leave all your equipment out in the elements for days. You’re not going to leave your story open on the computer for days either. Just a quick stand-stretch-squat can get your blood flowing again. If nothing else, flex your fingers and turn your head in every possible direction. Writing is a job and every worker deserves a coffee break or two.
  2. Eye strain. It’s a reason, not an excuse. Take a little break to focus on something else or to close your eyes. You don’t even have to leave the computer (or the page). Think about your story and what you will write next while you take this break. As Martha Stewart said, “I catnap now and then but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”
  3. You’re intense. When you write, you get absolutely focused. Maybe you’ve just written an emotional and/or critical scene and you need to step back from it. There’s nothing wrong with playing a round of Tetris or catching the end of “The Daily Show.” If you want to stay in writing mode, time this break and return when your head is cleared.
  4. You’re stuck. Here’s a case when that writing-related procrastination is a good idea. You need to use the thesaurus (another reason for an eye break or a stretch break). You have to look up a farming term. Sometimes you might want to write around your roadblock. Sometimes it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to get properly “unstuck” so that you can concentrate on what’s ahead, not what you’ve already written
  5. You’re distracted. Maybe you are a stronger person than I. You ignored the dirty computer screen and the unkempt pile of character notes. As you write, you notice these little things and you find yourself thinking more about chores than writing. Allow yourself a break to take care of some stuff if it’s distracting you. I keep a timer near the computer for several purposes and this is one (the previously-mentioned round of computer games is another). When the bell dings, back to your seat.
  6. You need to edit. You’ve just written gold! Pure gold! Unfortunately it doesn’t mesh with chapter one. Rewrite chapter one. It’s productive work, not writing-related procrastination.
  7. You have, ahem, “human needs.” Hunger, thirst, potty break, whatever. Just take care of it and come right back. You can’t concentrate on what you’re writing if you’re thinking about something else. For refreshment breaks, have someone serve you whenever possible. One fun way to keep a writing appointment is to make it on pizza night. What else to do while you wait for delivery? Take that half-hour and churn out a little something creative.
  8. You’re done. Maybe the reason you’re stalled in your writing is because you have nothing else to do. You’ve completed the chapter, the poem, the paper, the article or whatever you’ve been slaving over. Now’s the time to send to a friend for a second opinion, post it for some feedback or hand it over to the dutiful one who brought you drinks and let the dog out while you wrote.One tip: never leave off a piece of writing without leaving yourself something new. If you finish a chapter, write a couple lines of the next chapter. The Future You will sit down to work on it, dive right in and feel productive.

Now it’s time for me to blow the whistle and send my fellow procrastinators back to work. Get some inspiration from the boards, the calendar or archived exercises and get to work already!

Final Poll Results

Writer with a capital “W”: Treating Yourself Like a Professional

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

I am a writer. Better yet, I’m a Writer, with a capital W. My work is a source of income, pleasure, satisfaction and pride. When riding in the car, I think about a character’s background. While listening to people speak, I take mental notes on their dialogue. I run over the blocking of scenes as I drift off to sleep. Maybe I don’t exactly eat, sleep and breathe writing but it’s about as close as it can be.

A recent cover feature in Entertainment Weekly was an interview with Stephen King and the idea that he’s going to “stop writing.” The Writer in me doesn’t believe that. King is a classic capital-W Writer. A Writer never retires. Sure, those who dabble with the occasional poem or story might be able to walk away. Those who write, or “Write,” could no more think of giving up their passion than giving up eating, sleeping or breathing. King may not publish much more but no one will ever tell me he will be able to stop Writing.

It’s not as hard to evolve into a Writer as some may think. Sometimes it happens without our realizing it. It’s not a matter of volume or quality. It’s a matter of respect. Respect for your work and yourself. Even if you’ve never published (and want to) if you treat yourself like a professional, your writing can only improve.

Background Image: Monceau/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Your space

As a Writer, you already have a writing space or spaces. It may be a home office, your kitchen table, the local café or your bed. Think of the places where you write. Compare the spots where you get your best work done to those where you accomplish nothing. What works in the positive space? The view out the windows? White noise in the background? The solitude? Access to your supplies? By recognizing your space, you can begin to create a haven for your muse.

The first thing to do is to empty your writing space. If it’s a desk, clear it off. If it’s your bedroom, get rid of the stuff on the nightstand and floor. If it’s a notebook in your bag that you carry from place to place, dump the bag’s contents on the floor.

Physically clean the space. Get rid of garbage and dust. Give yourself a “blank page,” so to speak. Anything that has nothing to do with writing should be put off to the side. You can deal with that stuff in your own way. Just don’t leave it in your writing space.

It’s up to you to organize your supplies but remember to treat them with respect. Don’t cram your notebooks in a drawer full of hair bands and Snickers bars. If you need your stuff to be portable, it doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple laundry basket will do to start.

Once you have a working system in place, enhance your writing space. Notice if you write more effectively with your senses stimulated or subdued. If you like aromatherapy, add a scented candle or a light bulb ring. If music helps you write, put a CD player in your space. Anything remaining in the space that distracts you should be placed elsewhere if possible.

Your money

Some say “it takes money to make money.” It definitely takes money to write, whether it’s the cost of a pencil and paper, a computer or books about markets and agents. But it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

You have access to a computer or you wouldn’t be reading this article. Make the Internet work for you. Find a market that pays a couple bucks per story, sell one and use the money to invest in your work, like buying a copy of Poets and Writers or a file box for your hard copies. Your writing can pay for itself.

Your time

Writing appointments are an excellent way to respect yourself as a pro. Your appointments may last from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days a week or just through the commercial breaks on “Smallville.” To consider yourself a capital-W Writer, you must simply make the time to write.

If you want to treat yourself like a pro, make writing a priority. When scheduling time for your job, family, church or whatever, include “my writing” on your list. You deserve a few minutes once in a while to do what brings you satisfaction. Be selfish with your time.

Set deadlines. Enter contests with submission periods. Research themed issues of favorite journals and try to get something done in time. Get that next chapter finished by the end of the month. If you fail, you haven’t really failed. You may not make the deadline but in making the attempt, you succeed.

Your work

Writers write. There’s no way around it. Being a writer means producing work. Your goal may be to publish or just to get it out of your head and lock the story in a drawer. You don’t have to write every day but unless you’re producing some work, you can’t really call yourself a writer.

Sometimes Writers have to work in other ways because the muse isn’t always present. There’s always research to be done. Research on stories, markets, agents, websites, contests, etc. Your research may also spark your creativity.

There’s also the “Big E”–editing. Old stories can be improved with what you’ve learned since writing the original. They can also serve to show you how far you’ve come. Or, in these moments of doubt, they can remind you that you are indeed a Writer.

Value your work. We all have a certain amount of “crap” we churn out. No one writes gold every time. Recognize that even crap has its place and purpose. Even if it’s all you’re churning out, it’s work and is worthy of respect.

Never allow the Writer-you to get complacent. Keep learning about aspects of the craft. Challenge yourself. Branch into a new genre. When people ask what you do, answer “I’m a writer” and if you have another job, add “I also write” after your occupation. Maybe eventually you’ll capitalize that W.

Final Poll Results