Writer Wednesday: Priorities

What really matters most?

Whether you think about it consciously or not, you’re always making choices. What matters most to you may vary from moment to moment throughout your day. You may not realise it all the time, but you’re ranking everything that comes your way, often in a casual way and frequently without much reflection.

Unless you live in a quiet monastic setting, chances are you are juggling a lot. Family, work, leisure, travel, groceries, budgets — the list goes on and on. Somewhere in there might be writing. Wouldn’t it be better to make those choices consciously? Mindful attention always improves our days and like the time inventory form, attention to how your prioritize your life will pay off with more and better writing.

So take out a piece of paper and list the things that are most important to you: be honest and frank. This is a private exercise, so no one needs to see it but you. Be specific. Avoid vagueness by focusing on goals not just “things”; when it comes to writing, don’t just put “writing” as your priority. Try phrasing it as “finish that short story” or “complete first draft of chapter one” rather than the broad and daunting task of writing the whole novel.

For most people, writing may not be number one: chances are family is there. What’s important is not the ranking, but making sure you know where things go. Reassess your priorities periodically. Remember this is a dynamic process. Be honest, be specific, be mindful.

After all, you set the agenda for your writing process. The pace, the goals — they’re up to you. Like Aesop’s tale of the tortoise and hare, getting there is the important thing — getting some writing done consistently if modestly — not the pace at which you accomplish it. Better to have small gains consistently than to push yourself to impossible goals or create resentment because you’re not giving time to all the things that matter to you.

Living well is the best thing. Be true to your self.


Don’t forget: the Postcard Fiction Contest continues! Enter to win $25 and all the fame you can eat.

Writer Wednesday: Awakening Imagination

KwikKrimesI was going to say the best way to open your portal to the imagination would be to sit at your computer and shout, “Release the Kraken!”

It could work!

But the truth is for a lot of us,having  finally carved out time to be creative, find it difficult to open up that magic door to the creative realm. We focus on what we want to accomplish and begin to feel frustrated because we aren’t immediately cracking along, fingers flying and words flowing, as always happens in those writing montages in films.

Lynda Barry, Funk Queen of the Universe and inspirer of countless folks, has a number of techniques in her book What It Is, which I’m using in my ‘Imaginative Writing’ course. A lot of what she does is getting folks to think about the simple yet profound question that changed her life, “What is an image?”

When as children we play, it’s something that comes naturally. As we grow and get told to put away childish things, it becomes more difficult to access that part of our brains that brought toys to life. You can call that ability grown-up names like “the flow” if it helps, but the important thing is having a map to get back there. There are lots of exercises to get you there. Like most activities associated with writing, it’s all about building a habit — in this case, a habit of not doing something — not shutting off the natural playfulness inside you.

Here are a couple of simple exercises. Today in class I set four objects up at the front of the class. It didn’t really matter what they were (but if you’re curious: Alice Loweecey‘s nun doll, my devil maraca, a kalimba and my pirate skull candle holder — just things grabbed from my office). I asked the students to write about:

  • What is this?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Who did it belong to?
  • What did it mean to them?

With just that information, they were already building a story. We talked about the backgrounds they created and they had some wonderful stories already rolling. The I asked them to take a look at a wonderful site.

The Monster Engine is an amazing project where artists create paintings based on children’s drawings. I asked the to choose one pair and tell me the story of this ‘monster’ or creature. What did they do? Where did they live? What was their name?

In no time, they were creating lives, homes, friends — even worlds! It’s easy to do once you trust in the playful mind. A habit — open yourself to play. Make it a habit to look around you and wonder, ‘What’s the story here?’ about everything and everyone you see. It’s a way of seeing the world.

More Writer Wednesday posts here.

Writer Wednesday: Outlines

My typical outline

My typical outline

Every semester I have students who come to me with trembling lower lips and big cow eyes, who express amazement that they got such a bad grade on their paper. “All my teachers have said I write really well!” They’re certain that I am blind to genius. Fortunately, I tell them, I believe in revision (because that’s where the magic happens). Then I explain what’s wrong with their very well-written essay:

The structure is a mess.

Then I tell them how important it is to outline. They get that pinched look on their faces then and I have to explain further.

When I say ‘outline’ I don’t mean that rigid thing we’re taught to use with the Roman numeral one, capital A, Arabic number one, small a and so forth. I have written several books and every single one started with a hand written-outline. Rarely do they ever have the formality of the traditional outline. Sometimes they’re a real mess by the time I’m done sketching them out, but useful nonetheless.

You need a map.

It is one of the best time savers around. If you tend to be a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ you may resist the outline as a collar on creativity. It’s not. It’s your map. If you want to write something fairly quickly (even if you’re not intending to write a novel in three days) it’s the biggest time saver to know where you are going. I can see the difference in projects where I just begin to ramble on an idea and those where I know where I’m going. Sheer inventiveness loses steam as the project gets bigger: there are too many threads to keep weaving, too many details to keep track of while writing new ones.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
~ E. L. Doctorow

But why drive only at night? An outline gives you a map to follow; it need be only as detailed as is useful. That may take some work, but it’s worthwhile. With Pelzmantel, I had the first line, the last line, and some episodes in between. It took me almost five years to write (admittedly, I was writing my dissertation at the same time). Owl Stretching took sixteen months. Chastity Flame took ten weeks. The sequel, Lust Situation, took much less.

I did get faster at writing, but I learned to outline much better. You need to know the shape of the story. Most downtime in writing is figuring out what happens next. If you have an idea of where it’s going, that becomes less of a problem (and less stressful). I got stuck in Pelz when I couldn’t figure out how to get from her birth to her adolescence, but I knew that’s where I needed to be. The solution ended up being so simple:

Fifteen years passed…

You need to stay alive to the story; don’t stick slavishly to your outline. Characters reveal new facets, you think of even better ways to make your characters suffer. The map may change. But it’s much easier to alter your journey when you know where you are heading.

Otherwise you may end up going in circles.



Don’t forget, I’m going to be talking about these Writer Wednesday topics at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers on March 25th at 7pm. It would be great to see you there.

Hey, there’s another contest for So It Goes: how are your photoshopping skills?

Writer Wednesday: Making Time Productive

From the McManus Gallery

From the McManus Gallery in Dundee

Okay, if you’ve been following along on the How to Keep Writing When it’s Not Your Full Time Job or whatever I called it last time, then you have carved out some time to use for your writing. Now those minutes stare you in the face demanding that you be creative RIGHT NOW!

How do you get the most out of your limited time?

One thing that I have long found essential to managing writing tasks — particularly ones that have become onerous (usually that means an academic piece that has gone from a great fun conference paper to a revised essay that an editor [or four] would like substantially revised to fit into an entirely different context) — is the Pomodoro Technique. Originally it was developed to help music students make better use of their practice time. It’s the motivation of the ticking clock in short bursts. While some people like the rush of things like Write or Die, I prefer this method as it works on discipline rather than anxiety. As Wikipedia has it:

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.[1] The technique uses a timer to break down periods of work into 25-minute intervals called ‘Pomodori’ (from the Italian word for ‘tomatoes’) separated by breaks.

There are five basic steps to implementing the technique:

  1. decide on the task to be done
  2. set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
  3. work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
  4. take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. every four “pomodori” take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

You can get fancy and buy a special timer or take courses — or download free apps — but you need some kind of a timer and a plan. The plan can be simply the project you need to work on: have a goal for X number of words, or working out a particular section. Say you have an hour: that’s two pomodoros and a break between. Get everything ready (your pad of paper or your laptop or whatever), write out your goal (500 words) set your timer and go!

Write until the timer goes off. Take your break however you want — go check out Facebook, make a cuppa, run laps, whatever. When the timer dings to say your break is over, sit back down, write your second goal (even if it’s the same) and go again. Don’t stop until the timer rings.

You will probably be more productive in that hour than you have been in a week. Don’t worry if you struggle at first. Remember Octavia Butler’s wise words: you’re building a habit. You may not want to think of yourself as a Pavlovian dog, but the more you build the habit of being productive with your limited time, the better you will feel. You will see the results as your words add up. Better yet, you are creating habits of productivity that will sustain your writing. Discipline is good.

Pat yourself on the back — then go do another pomodoro!


Whether your genius comes from the faeries, the daemons, your subconscious or the gods, you will doubtless find Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on managing your elusive genius interesting. I sent my writing students off on spring break with these words.

See all the Writer Wednesday pieces here.

Writer Wednesday: A New Project

My favourite bench in Galway

Usefulness! It is not a fascinating word, and the quality is not one of which the aspiring spirit can dream o’ nights, yet on the stage it is the first thing to aim at.

~ Ellen Terry

I’ve been thinking about usefulness and one of the ways I thought to employ my own usefulness would be by sharing my experiences on the thing people ask me about most:

How do you write so much?

Honestly, the short answer is I just do what interests me and a lot of things interest me, but I find that people don’t generally consider that helpful. So I’ve decided to use the Writer Wednesday tag to gather together some tangible bits of advice toward that goal (yes, with the eventual idea of putting them together in a single volume).

The timeline has been aided by my schedule: March 25th I’ll be offering another version of my ‘How to Keep Writing With a Full Time Job’ workshop at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. The workshop is free and will be at Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

People seem to always want advice on how to write; I can offer my point of view from a variety of genres, fiction and non-fiction, in which I’ve been published for close to twenty years. More importantly, I have never really had the luxury of writing full time apart from the glorious Fulbright year (happy sigh!). I wrote Pelzmantel while I was writing my dissertation on Old English, Old Norse and Old Irish. So keep in mind I speak from the perspective of being a very busy woman with a demanding job, important relationships and a desperate need for idleness and fun.

Is your New Year’s resolution to write more? Or at all? Then join me here every Wednesday. We’ll start next week with Getting Organised (and more importantly, staying organised, which can be the greater challenge).


News: Quite pleased to learn that my piece ‘How to Succeed in Academia’ has been accepted for So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. How pleased my colleagues will be when they read it, however… >_< It was written in the midst of grading AKA the prime curmudgeonly zone, so I hope it’s as funny as it is bound to be bilious. I don’t recall actually. Things you scribble in the madness of inspiration — they come from another place.