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.

A Gathering Of Souls

I went to a writing conference this weekend.

The Young Women’s Writing Workshop, if we’re going to be technical about it. I’m just going to call it a gathering of souls.

It was the best thing I’ve done for my writing and my soul all year.

I think. I’ve done a lot of things for my soul this year. But this one was particularly relaxing and inspiring, so we’re going to say it was the best thing.

Or one of the best.

I’m going to shut up now.

Seriously, though, this conference was the most invigorating, inspiring thing I’ve done for a long time. When writers gather together, especially in small, tightly knit groups, things happen, man. Things. Happen. Ideas flow, people cry, books are built, fears are overcome, and dreams are realized.

I am not exaggerating.

The conference is held every year in Glen Eyrie, Colorado. And every year, I tell myself that I can’t afford it this time. Then I book a last minute room because I can’t bear to be left out when all my friends are gathering together. Oh, and the venue is a castle.

Like, a real castle.

I think it’s the only castle in Colorado. Certainly, it’s the most beautiful castle in Colorado.

So who can resist that?

The conference lasted for three days, Friday to Sunday, and the weekend was a kaleidoscope of classes, conversations with some of the most interesting people you will ever meet, and ideas. Our mentor, Nancy Rue, is one of the most brilliant and beautiful women you’ll find out there, and her love for her craft and zest for life is catching. When she gets excited about something, it’s impossible not to get excited about it too. More than that, she is committed to speaking God’s heart and bringing his spirit into the room while she teaches. Which accounts for how powerful this weekend was for all of us.

So, Nancy, I thank you for being your own wonderful self. We all needed it this weekend.

If I had to detail out everything that happened this weekend, I could probably ramble on for a few hours and never get to the point of it all. Instead, let’s just say it was a weekend of good food, beautiful scenery, tears, ideas, play-dough, dreams, books, tea, and good people. So, the best kind of weekend.

I can’t wait to go back next year.

(And, yes, I did say play-dough. I’d explain, but . . . I think I’ll just let you wonder.)

Have you ever been to a writing conference? Would you like to? We’d love to see you next year and include you in our gathering!

 

 

A Writer’s Life: Routines

Writing is hard.

And not just because I’m typing this with one hand because I’m cuddling a child in the other. I’m actually remarkably good at typing with one hand. I’m versatile like that.

No, writing is hard for a whole different set of reasons. Time constraints, previous commitments, and life tend to get in the way of creativity and our stories, and when—magically—everything lines up for us to sit down for an hour or two to smash out a thousand words, we suddenly hit a block.

Who else hates that blinking cursor?

I do. When I’m stuck, I feel like it’s mocking me.

I resent that.

My solution?

Routines

Writing is hard. It’s harder when you’re not ‘inspired’. But, writer, no one is inspired every time they sit down to write. If you wait for inspiration, you will get three chapters in six months, and a book that will never be finished.

Writing is a discipline, and you won’t always feel like it.

Working through that reluctance and learning to write anyway is what distinguishes the authors from the hobby writers. If you can write when you don’t want to, you will finish more manuscripts than most people will finish chapters.

And believe me, that’s a good feeling.

The trouble is, how do you get your creativity flowing on a day that feels drier than dust? Because writing isn’t like crunching numbers, stocking shelves, or painting a wall. Sometimes, you’re staring at the blinking cursor, determined to write, and you just . . . can’t.

How To Make It Happen

Here’s the thing.

Your brain is incredibly complex. It’s brilliant and limitless and incredibly, incredibly powerful. Day or night, there is no time when you can’t access the skills you’ve built or the stories you’ve planned.

Writer, it’s your mind you have to convince. (And yes, your mind and your brain are two different things.)

And, if you can’t convince your mind that you are totally capable of writing at any given time, in any given place, then it might just be time to resort to a little trickery.

Yep. I trick my mind. All the time. I’ve learned to snap myself from a slump into high gear and to write like the wind on the days when I am completely stuck.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one moment of intentional discomfort.

Truth #1

Writing is magic—and it’s not.

The magic is in you, writer. In your head, in the stories, in the effort you put into your work. There’s no mystical time of day that you have to ‘catch your muse’, no sacrifices to burn, no secret formula.

There is only you. What works for you, what tricks your mind into putting words on the page. What brings joy into the process for you.

Truth #2

There is no wrong way to get yourself moving.

Need a twenty-minute power nap before you start? A half hour of reading? A cup of coffee? Maybe you like to run to get your mind moving or have a favorite snack that triggers your writing mood. Or maybe you like to listen to the same song on repeat for an entire session—or have your space completely silent.

The only wrong routine is the one that doesn’t work for you.

Three Tricks

  1. Have a routine. A thing—or series of things—that you do before and while you’re writing that tells your mind it’s time to focus and get things done. A song, a cup of tea, rereading what you wrote the last session. Something that you do every time you write to trigger your writing muscle and get you going.
  2. Tailor it to you. Writer, you are unique. Looking up writing routines on Pinterest and choosing the best one is great—as long as you tailor it to fit. Your mind is not like anyone else’s. What will get it in gear is completely unique. So take some time to find what works best for you . . . and give it a while to start working. Habits aren’t made in a day.
  3. Know your limits. I try to write six days a week, every week. It keeps me in the zone, keeps me productive, and gets things done. For me, it works. One of my writer chums lasts about three weeks in that routine before she hits burnout and crashes—a totally unhealthy thing to have happen. What works for someone else may not work for you. Find your own routine, your own limits and what keeps you productive, joyful, and healthy, and run with that.

One Moment of Intentional Discomfort

I did not want to write this morning.

I’m going to be honest about that. It happens to me a lot. I would rather read, or listen to an audiobook and do Sudoku puzzles. Or clean my house. Or play chess with the kids. Just about anything really, because writing is hard, it taxes my brain, and as much as I love it, sometimes it’s just—work.

And yet, I set aside the things I would rather be doing, dumped my excuses in the trash, and went to it. Because even the best things in life are uncomfortable at one time or another. They force us to stretch and grow and keep us honest.

But I’ll you something. After that moment of intentional discomfort—that uncomfortable realization that I was going to do this whether I liked it or not—the words started to flow, and I started to enjoy myself.

Sometimes, a moment of intentional discomfort is all it takes.

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

What kind of routines do you have for your writing? I’d love to hear about them, or answer any questions you might have about developing a routine. And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing details, and the impact they have on a writer’s work.

Coffee Date

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Writer, I have an invitation for you.

I’ve been spending more time with my girls lately (shoutout to Gloria for all her loveliness and amazing stories) and it has made me realize how much I love to sit down with other writers and ‘talk shop’.

Writing is lonely. It’s slow and frustrating, and when you walk alone, it seems impossible.

So I have an invitation for you.

Writer, I will probably never meet you in person, but I would like to have a coffee with you right now. We can find a table in the corner, by the window or behind the potted plants. We can have a cup of coffee each or maybe a pot of tea between us, and we can talk.

Tell me about your journey, about the story you’re working on, about why you started writing and how long you’ve been creating worlds from pens and paper. What’s the title of your manuscript? What do you love about it?

If you like, I can start.

I’ve been writing for seven years. I have eight books behind me, and the manuscript I am pitching now is called We, the Deceived.

I started writing because I loved stories. When I first began, I wasn’t really worried about being published or read, only in learning my process and finding joy in the writing. Since I definitely wasn’t much of a wordsmith when I started, that was a good thing!

Writers need a community, and that’s what I would love to build here. So please, join in! Sit down, have a cup of coffee or tea, and introduce yourself!

A Writer’s Life: Getting Started

Good morning, Writer!

Today officially marks the first installment of my twelve-week series, A Writer’s Life.

*Trumpets blare, a rooster crows, six ducks quack in excitement.*

I am so excited to start this series with you! We are going to explore the writer’s world front to back, start to finish, and I am going to give you my tips, tricks, and favorite routines for getting serious about your writing and taking joy in your craft.

Today, we are getting started. Where better to begin than at the beginning, eh? (That’s my Canadian roots coming out, excuse them.) Every journey has a first step, every book a first page, every life a first breath.

Writer, this is ours.

Getting Started

New ideas are always exciting. The first glimpse into a new world, a breath touched with magic, and a new character that is loaded with possibility. Whether you’re starting from scratch or have had an idea bubbling away on the back of your mind for months, finally getting to the place where you’re ready to start is an exciting and magical moment.

Until you sit down and are suddenly bowled over with that ridiculous blinking cursor because what are words again? And how does one actually make them do things?

Writer, it happens to the best of us.

The start of a project is intimidating, it’s overwhelming, and it feels like a Herculean task that is going to bind us to a ten-ton quill pen and a blank page for the rest of our lives.

But.

But, do you know what else the start of a project is?

Manageable.

Possible.

And totally, totally within your abilities.

How To Make It Happen.

Whether you get stuck on the first line, the first page, or editing and re-editing your first chapter because it totally must be perfect in order to move on, this post is for you. Not to shame, embarrass, or discourage you, but to tell you that I was there too. I have been, I probably will be, and I know how it feels.

I also know how to shake yourself out of that rut and keep going.

I do it with two truths, three tricks, and one glorious moment of absolute courage.

Two Truths

Truth #1

Continuity is more important than perfection. Ten good pages are worth far, far more than one perfect page.

Truth #2

You will not get it right on the first day.

That’s not how writing works. That’s not how life works, or relationships, or new jobs, or anything else that I have ever come across in my entire life.

So make a mess. Make mistakes. Write the most awful, cringe-worthy first page. And love it, because you’ve started, and that’s more than most people will ever manage.

Then move on to the next one.

Three Tricks

  1. Start with what you have. Start with an idea, a ripped piece of notebook paper, and a scratchy pen. Forget the Pinterest mood boards, the aesthetics, even the world building. Start and gather the rest as you go.
  2. Plan to fix it later. You can, you know. Nothing you write is set in stone. It’s written, and that’s a step forward, but you can change it later. Once that pressure is truly off your shoulders, the words will fly.
  3. Think of it as a painting. You start with a sketch. Then you paint the base colors. Then, layer by layer, you add the rest. That’s how writing works. So start with a sketch, and keep going from there. The rest will come.

One Glorious Moment Of Absolute Courage

When I was nineteen, I flew to Europe. Alone. I had never traveled by myself before, I had never been overseas before, and I definitely had never been in charge of passports, plane tickets, and finding my own gate before.

The day I left, I was totally fine. Right up until my ride dropped me off at the airport, and I realized that the rest was up to me. I was headed to Europe, I was about to have one of the greatest adventures of my life, and I was terrified.

Just inside the airport doors was the hardest part. I was ready to go, I had my luggage, but I needed one more thing.

One glorious moment of absolute courage. Enough to step through the door, get my ticket, and go.

That moment was the hardest. Gathering that courage took all the strength I had, but every moment after that grew easier and easier.

Writer, it is the same for you. Right now, in the beginning, is where that courage is going to count. So take that deep breath, gather your wits about you, and commit yourself to one glorious moment of absolute courage.

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

Have you ever needed one glorious moment of absolute courage? Tell me about it in the comments! And stay tuned for next week, when we will be discussing routines and how they can jumpstart a reluctant session.

For The Writer Who Needs A Break

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Vacations are wonderful things.

Can we all just agree on this one fact? Everyone loves a good vacation.

But not everyone has the time—or the money—to take that week off, or buy that plane ticket.

Been there? I have. Some months, rest is much easier to fantasize about than it is to actually accomplish.

Writer, I am there right now.

This last week has been a tough one. I spent a lot of time working, a lot of time stressing, and way too much time telling myself that I would get to the self-care things later when I ‘had more time’.

Except I never did end up having more time. And the week didn’t end with a weekend to myself and time to recenter. Instead, it went straight through the weekend and blasted into another week without a pause.

Not good.

With no time for vacations, very little for self-care, and schedules that refuse to pause, rest probably feels as impossible to you as it did to me on Monday morning. I knew I needed it, and I also knew that I definitely didn’t have time for it.

But I also knew if I tried to charge ahead without it, I was going to crumble. I know myself, I know my limits, and I know when I’ve reached them. I can drive myself into the floor and ignore my need to refuel for the sake of my pride, but if I do I will spend weeks picking up the pieces.

To me, it isn’t worth it.

So this week is about rest. In the midst of schedules.

Because I still have to go to work, I still have to write, I still have to tackle my to-do list, and I still have to be present. Writer, I am convinced that both are possible. Here are five ways that I intend to rest in the midst of my schedule this week.

1) Meditate.

I am a Christian, and for me, there is only one person who can offer the rest that I need so badly this week. So I will be spending time—while I am working, and during my free time—with the One who made me and knows best what I need.

Other alternatives might be meditation, yoga in the mornings before work, or a walk if you have an hour or so free. Anything to still your mind and your soul and give you a bit of breathing space.

2) Practice intentionality.

For me, that means less time on my phone, more time with a book in the evenings. It means a cup of tea and a workout in the mornings. It means candles instead of ceiling lights, and gentle music at my desk while I plow through projects.

Intentionality is being kind to yourself, kind enough to keep track of your water intake and have a few extra glasses if you’re short. Kind enough to wear your favorite socks to work, or put a little extra effort into your hair and makeup. Kind enough to allow yourself to be a priority, instead of making your to-do list king.

Believe me, your to-do list will feel a lot easier to conquer when you yourself are taken care of and feel loved.

3) Change my mindset.

I have a terrible habit. When I am stressed, I go into survival mode. Nothing really matters but getting through. Not my diet, not how much time I waste on my phone with social media and YouTube, not whether my laundry is done or my house is clean.

Nothing.

My plan is to ‘get to the end’, and until I do, I don’t really care.

The trouble is, sometimes there really isn’t an end. Life goes on, and I end up bumping along behind it, dragged because I couldn’t quite get myself together enough to run alongside.

Writer, there is no end coming. This is it. So it does matter that I haven’t done squats in 37 days. It does matter that my water consumption has dwindled to a cup of black tea and that sip I had this morning before I left the house. It does matter that I haven’t taken my vitamins this week, even though I know what that does to my sanity.

Writer, your life matters. Build the one you want, even amidst the mess and hurry.

4) Stop justifying myself.

I don’t need to explain why I’m tired. I don’t need a list of finished tasks and a certain number of written words to justify being allowed to read a book, or take a break.

I don’t need someone else to give me permission to rest.

I’m terrible at this. I spend way too much time comparing myself to others and working to justify why I’m so tired, why I need a break and a week of rest amid my schedule, and why my to-do list is long enough to prove that I’m an adult. In fact, I spend so much time trying to justify it that I forget that no one is actually questioning why I’m tired.

Except me. 

So this week, I’m going not going to come up with excuses, or reasons, or justifications. I’m going to rest, I’m going to have grace for myself, and I’m going to be okay with not always being at the top of my game.

5) Enjoy the moments.

Writer, there is no hurry. Life will go on, and if you are in a rush to get to tomorrow, you will miss today.

So pause.

Quit the rush.

Take the time to read for a few minutes during lunch break. Choose to enjoy your commute instead of grumbling about the traffic. Turn on some music while you finish that last project, or find an ambiance you like while you’re doing dishes. Play with the dog for a few minutes when you walk in the door, or boop your cat on the nose for me.

Life is going to move on, writer, and it will always feel like it is rushing past. It won’t get easier once you get married, or get that one job, or have a certain amount of money. But maybe—maybe it will get a little easier once we remember to stop and enjoy the moments.

That’s my task for this week. I challenge you to make it yours, as well!

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

For The Writer Who Is Having Doubts

I have a question for you.

If I was to meet you in a coffee shop, and we were to sit by the window to watch the rain or in the corner where it’s private and cozy, and I was to ask you to tell me about yourself, what would you say?

Would you start with your job, your education, your career? Would you talk about classes at the local college or the job you secretly hate but desperately need?

Or would you tell me about your passions? About the stories you keep hidden away on your computer and in your notebooks? About the dreams that keep you up at night and the characters that are constantly following you?

Why do we always start with job titles? A year ago, if I was asked about myself, I would tell people that I was a nanny. I picked up kids from school, I wiped snotty noses (or snotty noses were wiped on me), and I was the tyrant who declared no one was allowed to eat mac-n-cheese unless they were wearing pants. Never-mind that I had written five books and was currently working on a biography I had been commissioned for, never-mind that I had a blog that was growing in popularity or had written an article that would shortly be coming out in a magazine. I was a nanny. Most of the time, that was all I ever said.

Then, one day, I did my side-step pat answer in front of a family member. And not just any family member. My dad.

And he called me out on it.

Because I’m not a nanny. I work as a nanny to pay my bills and have the money to buy books. I am a writer and an author with years of experience and career goals and a heck of a lot of passion for what I do.

But I wouldn’t admit it.

Has anyone else done this? We spend hours and hours on our stories, put more work into a single project than most people put into their essays for an entire year of college, and then we just—downplay it. Laugh it off.

I’m not a real writer.

Except that wasn’t true. And I suspect that it isn’t true for you either, even if it is something that you’ve said about yourself. But, unfortunately, just as no one out there can tell you that you aren’t a ‘real’ writer, I can’t be the one to convince you that you are.

You have to settle that in your own mind.

But, although I can’t convince you of this myself, I can be the one to encourage you in that direction. So, here are my five truths for those of you have doubts about your authenticity as a writer.

1) If you write, you are a writer.

There is no test you have to take, no badge to earn. Whether you are starting now, clumsily, a little awkwardly, or you are a veteran with years behind you, you are a writer if you write. If you want proof of this, ask yourself if there is something else you would rather be doing. Can you come up with a list a mile long of all the things you would rather do than write?

Or, in your empty moments, in the time you have free and the stolen minutes that are your own, do you reach for your story first?

If so, you are a writer. Without a doubt.

2) Publishing is not the gate.

Publishing is important. For most of us, it is the endgame. We want a career, we want a readership, and we want a published book in our hands with our name printed across the front in shiny letters.

And you know what?

It’s going to be great.

But you do not have to have a published book to be a writer. Writing is a journey, a winding, everlasting journey full of pitfalls and unexpected heights, and publishing is only one peak among many. If you are not published yet, you can still be a writer.

3) There is no one kind of writing.

Articles. Blogging. Novels. Nonfiction. Poetry. Whatever else you can think of that I may have forgotten. If you love words, if you are drawn by the blank page and have more ideas than your poor brain can hold, you are a writer. You don’t need a 250-page novel to be a writer.

4) Writing is a journey.

I said this already. But it bears repeating. Writing is a journey, not a destination. You do not have to reach a certain level of competence to call yourself a writer. You do not need a certain number of comments, or blog posts, or awards to call yourself a writer.

We are all apprentices. Our craft does not lend itself to masters. (In fact, I am fairly certain that once you reach the level of a master, you disappear into your books and are never heard from again.) We are all learning, we are all developing our skills, and we all have work ahead of us.

Take a deep breath, writer. You have a long way to go, but you have a long road behind you as well. Enjoy your surroundings and love what you do, because writing is all about the journey.

5) You decide.

Writer, you decide how much effort you are going to put into your stories, or your poetry, or your articles. You decide whether you write once a day or once a month. You decide how much passion and energy and dedication you put into your work.

You decide whether or not you are a writer, and no one can take that decision away from you.

So embrace it. Be passionate. Give it your time and all the mental energy you can spare. Make goals for yourself and stick to them. Write when it’s hard, when you’d rather be doing something else. Write when the fire is hot within you and the ideas are flowing. Choose who you want to be, and then own it. Never, never be ashamed of who you are or what you love. Other people may not understand, they may not choose to acknowledge what you do, but they can’t take your passion from you.

You are a writer. And only you can choose whether to embrace it or not.

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