A Writer’s Life: Doubt

Have you ever questioned whether you were a real writer or not?

I have.

I think every true writer has at one time or another. Poor reviews, harsh critiques, and even harsher rejections take their toll, but beyond these, I think there is an innate whisper is every writer’s mind that suggests—just suggests mind—that we have no right to the title that we claim. As if there were a warden at the door, waiting to turn us away, or a master craftsman somewhere who’s going to look at our work, shake his head, and send us off.

How ridiculous.

Doubt

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how ridiculous these fantasies are—we all struggle with them. I would venture to guess that even the most seasoned among us, the writers who have been working for years, still pause with these kinds of thoughts at one time or another.

Doubt will kill your story faster than anything else. If you let it.

The trouble is, these thoughts aren’t innocent, and they aren’t easy to ignore. I couldn’t begin to guess—nor do I want to—how many books doubt has killed over the years. It becomes an obsession and sucks the life out of even the most steadfast writer’s creativity.

Writers, it is time for this to stop.

How To Make It Happen

I have fallen into this pit too many times to count—enough that I’ve learned to be proactive in my battle against it. I don’t laugh or make disparaging comments about my writing, for instance. I’ve seen many writers do this, and who knows, maybe for them it’s harmless.

For me, it never is. I may not feel it at the moment, but it’ll sting me later. And I’m just not willing to take it anymore, especially not from myself.

Since doubt has been something I’ve struggled with so much, it’s now something that I know how to counter quickly and—most of the time—effectively.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one reckless bit of optimism.

Truth #1

No one is a master in this craft. No one.

Not Stephen King, not J.K. Rowling, not even Tolkien himself reached that fabled level of mastery. We are all apprentices with more to learn, more to explore and discover, and places in our craft where we’re weak.

Writer, that should be encouraging.

We’re all on our own journey, all learning, and all developing the skills necessary for this craft. Rejections, bad reviews, and failures are only steps on the way, and if you learn to see them like that, you’ll struggle so much less with self-doubt.

Truth #2

There is no test to pass. No interview. No doorkeeper.

I think that’s what I love about this job the most. No man in a suit and expensive tie gets to tell me that I’m ‘not good enough’ to keep going, and there’s no committee to tell me that I didn’t flesh out this character properly, so thus I am hopeless and won’t be allowed to come back.

I decide how proficient I am by how much I practice and strive to learn. And there is no mistake so awful that I can’t decide to pick myself back up and try again.

Three Tricks

  1. Practice telling people that you’re a writer—without adding a modifier at the end. No one needs an explanation about how you’ve never been published and the book you’re writing isn’t that good and you just started because you like it . . . No. You’re a writer. You don’t have to explain your journey to anyone or justify it to anyone. Especially yourself.
  2. Be too busy writing to question whether you’re actually a writer. Seriously. Who cares about whether you measure up to an imagined set of standards? Why waste the energy trying to decide if ‘you’re a writer’? Go write.
  3. Quit the comparison game. I’m going to be talking about this one a bit more extensively next week, but it bears talking about here too. Someone else’s success does not damage yours. Someone else’s finished manuscript does not threaten your growth or diminish it. Stay in your lane, celebrate with other writers and rejoice in their success, then go back to working toward your own.

One Reckless Bit Of Optimism

Can you imagine the things you could accomplish in your life if you had no doubts—none at all—that you would succeed?

You would make mistakes, you would make a mess, and you would fail so, so many times.

But you would be unstoppable. And for every failure, there would be a success. Never once would you have to tell someone, “I gave up.”

So take a deep breath and allow yourself one reckless bit of optimism. Allow yourself to believe that, no matter the obstacles, no matter the amount of work it will take, you will make it. And not only will you make it, but you’ll grow beyond what you ever thought possible. Allow yourself to dream, to be so confident that it’s almost ridiculous. Then hold onto that hope, cultivate it, and keep it close.

You’ll be glad to have it down the road, I promise.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Have you struggled with doubt as a writer? Are there ways you’ve been fighting against it, or has it been getting you down lately? Tell me about it in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be going deeper into comparison and how quickly it can steal the joy out of writing.

Checking In With My Bookshelves

Last night, I dreamed that my house was on fire, and I had to evacuate.

It was very stressful.

Because I am me and this was a dream, I grabbed my computer first, so that I had all of my books, then headed for my bookshelf and tried to decide which ones I was going to save and which I was going to let burn and have to replace.

This is not, under any circumstances, a decision I ever want to have to make in real life.

Neither was it proper fire procedure. I am aware that you are supposed to get out of a burning house without scanning your bookshelf and bundling half of them out the door with you.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t totally do that, but I at least know that one is not supposed to do it.

Thankfully, I woke up this morning and my house is still standing and my books have not been burned. They are all lined up neatly on my bookshelf, arranged in order of awesomeness and with a complete disregard to any other system except a certain amount of respect to their authors.

You can imagine my relief.

As much as I love my bookshelves, I must admit that they’ve been a little neglected in my house since the year began. I’ve had so much less time for reading than I hoped, and a good deal of my reading list has been made up of audiobooks borrowed from my local library.

Since that isn’t likely to change in the near future, I will have to get used to the change and just be a little more intentional about having time for a physical book.

Still! Audiobooks are books too, and I have had the best time blazing through Agatha Christie’s collection of murder mysteries this year. Hercule Poirot is continually my favorite of her characters, and I’ve had several dozen of his books reserved online since I discovered that I can download audiobooks onto my phone with the right app and a bit of patience.

That was a good day.

With the advantages of a library card, I have read—and listened to—a total of 39 books this year, most of them new to me and a good chunk of them written by the Queen of Crime herself. Several other new reads have been Paradise Lost, Micro, and Girl, Wash Your Face, which I enjoyed hugely and would recommend to any woman needing a boost in her personal life.

So! There is my reading list for this year. Thankfully it did not burn up in last night’s dream fire, and I still have the rest of my books to continue reading. I think Little Women will be the next physical book I pick up, and, of course, I’m just in the middle of a Miss Marple I borrowed from the library.

I promise not to spoil the ending for you.

What have you been reading lately? Any recommendations for me? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Coffee Dates: Music

Good Morning, Creatives!

Anyone else make it all the way to Friday this week? I feel like I crawled in like a man out of the desert. If you see an oasis anywhere nearby, I’d love directions.

I’m kidding.

But it does feel like that sometimes, doesn’t it?

This week’s question is about music, because I am always, always fascinated by how music affects the creative process. It seems to change from person to person, but I have met so, so many writers who tell me that music is a large part of their process!

My Process

Music is my escape. It’s my creative spark and what I always run back to when I have a plot hole. I listen to everything and anything, and if you happen to ask what I’ve got going in my headphones at any given moment, be prepared to be answered with anything from Mongolian rock to Christian rap to Josh Groban.

My Struggles Within That

I run out of songs! I listen to my favorites over and over again, but I am always on the lookout for new music. When I do run out of new music—rather sadly—it’s hard not to keep my ideas from drying up or becoming repetitive.

Your Thoughts

Do you listen to music while you write? What kind? Any recommendations for a constantly searching addict? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

A Writer’s Life: Perfectionism

Have you ever fixed—and deleted—the same sentence a twenty different times and still felt like you just . . . didn’t get it?

Me too.

It happens to me all the time. So does staring at one word for so long that it ceases to look like a real word and becomes an abomination against humanity and therefore must be destroyed.

Yeah.

Those are bad days.

Perfectionism

The frustrating thing about perfectionism is that is stems from a legitimate source. We want our stories to be the best that they can be, to catch the vision in our heads and portray it perfectly for the reader. We have so much detail, beauty, and downright cool stuff in our stories that doesn’t always make it onto the page on the first try, so why not edit until you get it right?

The trouble is, perfectionism, especially in your first chapter and your first draft, is so much more toxic than people admit.

In its toxic state, it fixates on the problem in a single chapter, or sentence, and immobilizes the writer from moving forward until that particular place is ‘perfect’.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the book molders away, untouched and unwritten.

How To Make It Happen

Writers, we’ve all been there. Whether you’re a seasoned writer or a beginner with a lot of vision and hope ahead of you, we all get caught in this trap from time to time. I did just recently and delayed the progress of my sixth book by at least a month because of it.

Ouch.

But, thankfully, I’ve gotten past it. Again. And I will continue to get past it in the future because I’m determined to be a writer who finishes my projects, not who gets trapped by perfectionism.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one wild moment of freedom.

Truth #1

You will never get it exactly right.

It took me so long to be okay with this. The vision in my head of my stories is full of glorious detail, heart-rending emotion, and background music for the full effect.

I cannot get that onto the page. Unfortunately.

What I can get onto the page is enough to guide the reader’s imagination. To let them fill in the blanks and see the story through their own eyes. All too often, writers don’t put enough faith in a reader’s imagination, and the result is panic and perfectionism because they can’t get that perfect vision onto the page.

Truth #2

No one is going to look at that sentence as long as you will.

Have you ever paused to really realize this? Writers obsess over their sentences, but readers flash through them with barely a pause.

Yes, a poorly written sentence will jerk the reader out of the story, but more often than not, a reader isn’t going to notice whether you used said or muttered—or cringe half as much as you do about the word ‘walked’. (Yes, that word makes me cringe. Don’t laugh.)

So let it go.

Three Tricks

  1. Don’t edit along the way. Let your story flow, and worry about the edits later. The most important thing—especially in the first stages of a draft—is to get the story on paper. To let your characters breathe. Worry about the rest later.
  2. Have a catchphrase. Something to chant to yourself when a less-than-perfect chapter is behind you and you’re being tempted to go back and change everything. When I start having intrusive thoughts and struggling with perfectionism, I either tell myself that it’s fine and I’ll fix it later, or I simply say, “Sorry, I can’t actually hear you.” Don’t laugh. It totally works.
  3. Plan for a second draft. Know that you’re going to come back later and fix the mess you’ve left behind—and that you’ll be able to do that then because of the work you’re doing now. Writing takes persistence, it takes time, and it definitely, definitely takes a lot of rewrites. Save it for later and keep going now.

One Wild Moment Of Freedom

Perfectionism is a trap, and it still makes me cringe to think of how many beautiful stories and brilliant, thought-provoking books that it has swallowed completely.

Don’t let that be you.

Allow yourself to be wrong. Allow imperfection. Allow mistakes. Allow the mess. Without these, your creativity will shrivel and die.

So grit your teeth, allow the chapter you’ve been editing obsessively to be ‘good enough’, and move past it. Allow yourself one wild moment of freedom and see what comes of it. You never know . . . the result may be a completed book.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Have you struggled with perfectionism in the past? How did you work through it? Tell me about it in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing doubt and how it can drain the life from your story.

Bullet Journaling

This week has been crazy.

Between job interviews, work, implementing information and ideas from the conference I went to last weekend, Easter, sending a foster child to his forever family, and writing, I feel like I got a little swamped this week.

In a good way.

You can get swamped in a good way, right? Like, a wave rushing over your head and sending you head-over-heels at the beach, but it’s all still cool because you’re at the beach and there is salt and sand and that weird crabgrass that somehow is uglier than no grass?

We’re getting off-topic. The point is, it was a good kind of swamped. Like at the beach. Not like in a swamp.

Anyway. One of the ways that I managed to keep myself partially sane and moving forward this week was by bullet journaling.

*Que intense backstory music*

See, I have a lot going on right now. Things are happening. Secret things that I’m not allowed to talk about yet. (I will tell you eventually, I promise.) And the trouble with secret things happening is that they take up a lot of time and force me to sit back and really rethink my priorities, both in my life and in my career.

They also force me to work really, really hard and get my butt moving instead of procrastinating. But that’s neither here nor there.

So, acting on the advice of the conference speaker, I bought a journal. And about 50 markers, because I am a child and I love to color. So, since then, I have been journaling. Some of it has been getting a picture of what I want my life to be and some of it . . . well, let’s just say that some of it has been more about discovering my artistic talent that digging into my soul.

There isn’t a whole lot of artistic talent there, in case you were wondering.

But it’s been fun! And personally, I happen to think the best part of it has been that I am not particularly amazing at it. There’s no pressure to have everything perfect, no pressure to be the best or come up with Pinterest worthy pages. This is just for me. Something that I enjoy, that I can play with, and something that I don’t have to constantly judge and correct and improve in.

And since most of my life revolves around the high expectations I have for my writing, it’s pretty nice to have a messy journal and do something that I’m not very good at—just for me.

Do you bullet journal, or any kind of journal? Is it a task for you, or something to play with and allow yourself to be imperfect in? Tell me about it in the comments!

Coffee Dates: Pantser or Plotter

Good Morning, Creatives!

Friday is finally upon us! How was your week? Any new ideas pop up, or old projects wrapped up and tied with a neat bow? Friday is the perfect time to wrap things up, or to birth a new idea when you have all weekend to indulge in a little daydreaming or extra journaling.

This week’s question is about just that, and it’s an age-old question for writers everywhere! Are you a pantser or a plotter? In other words, do you plot your stories out beforehand, or discover them as you go?

My Process

I used to be a die-hard plotter. I would cover my walls with sticky notes and plan out every scene verbatim. But eventually my characters started to rebel, and I found myself drawn into new territory every time I sat down to write. Now, especially with new books upon me and new ideas taking shape, I have been forced a few times to slow down and plot a bit out beforehand. I always like to know the quarter mark, halfway mark, and three-quarter mark, and what starts the climax. Other than that, I usually let it unfold as it comes!

My Struggles Within That

I don’t always know what’s happening next! World-building catches me out fairly often, and I’m forced to push pause on writing and figure out what’s happening in my head. Sometimes that slows the process down a good bit, and sometimes it changes the direction of the story so drastically that even I scarcely recognize it. Life as a writer is always an adventure!

Your Thoughts

Which are you? Do you plot your books religiously before you ever write a word, or do you start with a few ideas, a stunning character, and a devil-may-care attitude that carries you through to the last page? I’d love to hear about your process, and how it’s changed over the years as you’ve grown as a writer. Tell me about it in the comments!

A Writer’s Life: Details

A writer’s life is in the details.

Have you ever noticed this? Of course, our stories are about grand adventures, life-changing events, and worlds and people that only belong in our minds.

But where the story really catches a reader—where it connects, where it makes them pause and linger because in that sentence they were there, in the story—those moments are in the details.

In the hitch of breath. In the smell of crushed grass and blood. In the silver gleam of a dragon’s scales, or the glint of moonlight on a soldier’s musket in the midst of the Civil War.

Those are the moments that catch a reader. Not the dates, not statistics, not the entire history and structure of the Paris sewers. (Looking at you, Victor Hugo.) The reader wants to see the world through the eyes of your character, and the best way to make it happen is in the details.

Details

Still, that’s hard, right? How do you know which details to write about? Because I can guarantee, if you toss every single detail in a battle scene at the reader, your scene will be ten pages long and the reader will give up in exasperation.

It’s just as bad to overwhelm your readers as it is to starve them.

Thankfully, most of us are writers because we aren’t content with the world through the eyes of a nine-to-five job.

We know what we want to see. We know what snatches us into the scene, what makes us pause.

Except when we don’t.

Sometimes it feels like some kind of witch’s brew that we forgot to get the recipe for. A little lighting, a little sound, maybe the creak of an old oak in the wind. Oaks creak, right? Or an owl. We could stick an owl in there—if owls live in that sort of environment

After a while, it gets a little desperate, and the details we throw in end up taking away rather than adding to our scene.

How To Make It Happen

So how do we know what belongs and what doesn’t? How do we find the details that matter, that catch a reader, and avoid our characters talking in white space, or worse, spending ten pages describing the Paris sewers instead of telling the story?

So how do we find life in the details?

Because you can. I do. The details are my favorite part of a story, and when I find them as a reader it always, always catches me into the story.

As a writer, I revel in them. I’ve made my mistakes (too many to count, actually), and I’ve found my rhythm.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one breath.

Truth #1

Magic is everywhere . . . especially in the mundane. Everything around us is moving, shaping, telling stories that will probably never be written down. Everything is story fodder, everything has the details you’re searching for.

And you won’t find them in front of a blank screen and a blinking cursor.

Writers need to live. They need to go for walks, sit in coffee shops, go to plays and movies, walk through crowded rooms. The more you notice the details—especially the ones that catch your eye and feel important—the more you’ll be able to project that into your writing.

Truth #2

If you haven’t made a mistake lately, you aren’t growing.

My delete key is my best friend. I have deleted probably ten times as many words as I’ve ever kept and never felt bad about one of them. If a scene is going wrong, and I feel like I’ve missed the details that matter, I’ll start over.

It drives my sister nuts.

Every word I write is teaching me, whether I keep it or not. The mistakes you make in pursuit of the details are your apprenticeship. What you delete will teach you more than what you keep.

Three Tricks

  1. Notice everything. When you’re out walking, when you’re at the mall, and especially when you’re traveling. Keep a journal just for the things you see and smell and taste and touch. The more you immerse yourself in the details, the more you’ll understand which ones are important and which can be tossed aside.
  2. Find what you love and write about that. The rain. Wind. Coffee shops, sunshine, pine forests. If you love what you’re describing, it will come out that much more vivid. My stories always include rainy nights—because I love rain, and I can immediately capture the details that matter to me.
  3. Take special care of the small things. The larger something is, the more time it will take to describe and the quicker you will lose your reader. So describe your huge cities and palaces that reach to the sky as briefly as possible, then show the reader the swinging sign above your character’s apothecary, the cat lounging in the window, and the steam rising above a bubbling beaker. Those are the details that will matter.

One Breath

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a picnic blanket in a neighborhood park with a view of Pikes Peak stretching out in front of me.

And I’ll be honest, it’s far easier to focus on the kids that are chasing each other around the park or the clutter of things we brought with us or even the work I’m struggling to get done rather than enjoying the fact that the peaks are gray and blue today and crowned with snow, that I’m sitting under the most beautiful spruce tree, or that the wind smells like spring at last.

That needs a pause. One breath. A moment of mindfulness. That’s where the details are found.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

What are your favorite kinds of details to use in a story? Tell me about them in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing perfectionism and toxic effect it can have on a work-in-progress.