Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—a month-long novel-writing frenzy? Thousands of coffee-fueled writers are pounding their keys to reach their goal of producing 50 thousand words before the stroke of midnight on November 30. Read more on the Los Angeles Editors and Writers blog.
“Books, if you don’t put them first, tend to sulk. They retreat into a corner and refuse to work.“ —Salman Rushdie
Nomi Isak is available for coaching sessions, critiques, and editing, whatever will help you get your book out of the corner and back on the front burner. Call (310) 842-8358 or email her at Nomi.theWriteCoach(at)gmail.com to set up a free consultation.
If you have a question about writing, and you think the answer might benefit others as well, please send me an email at Nomi.theWriteCoach(at)gmail.com, and I’ll set to work on a blog post that answers your question. (It’ll be kind of like you’re giving me a writing prompt and benefiting from what I come up with!) If I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to find you some resources where you can find the answer.
Then, keep your eyes open for my response (in the form of a blog entry)!
It gives me great joy to share what I’ve learned about the craft of writing over my 20 + years as a book editor, writer, and writing coach.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I’m all ears.
It’s true. I do. I love deadlines.
Not that I always love the date attached to the deadline. But no deadline at all is not the writer’s heaven I used to think it was.
I learned early on to work with a contract, even when it wasn’t generated in-house. If I did some work for an individual author or writer, I’d draw up my own contract. I was slower to learn about the value of including a deadline in that document. I wrote a beautiful contract once, covered all bases, got contract advice from the wonderful National Writers Union (NWU: consider joining!), and presented my document to the author I would be writing for. He requested a few changes to the contract, which I made . . . but he said nothing about the absence of a deadline. Woo hoo! Was I a clever girl! I had squirreled out from under the dreaded deadline pressure—which I was sure would squash my creativity. I could now write in peace. I could craft a masterpiece. I was blessed.
. . . until a year into the project, when the book manuscript was not done and I’d run out of money. I now had work I owed someone and more work I needed to take on to pay the rent.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t been writing during that year. I’d been writing every day, loving life. But I hadn’t been focused on the manuscript’s finish line . . . because there wasn’t one. I would get there when the manuscript was complete. Completion was my finish line. But I’d forgotten to take into consideration how long my funds would last.
A painful lesson learned. Now I love deadlines.
Besides, if you have a deadline, you are one of the lucky ones—a writer or editor with a job or a project. It is cause for celebration. And if your deadline is not externally imposed, then you are one of the disciplined ones. Also cause for celebration.
How about you? Do you love that deadline? (We’d love to hear your experiences—the good, the bad, the ugly!)
When I was growing up, sitting under my mom’s desk to play, comforted by the resounding tap, tap, tap of her manual typewriter, and then later shut out of her writing den so she could concentrate, I thought it was normal for a writer to write for hours and hours on end. My mom woke up and got to work by 5 or 6 in the morning and she didn’t leave her typewriter, and then later her computer, until 1 or 2 in the afternoon.
That’s eight hours of writing!
When I began to write (after years of resisting being a writer, since I figured one was enough for one family), I found that my normal rhythm was about three or four hours a day. And when I tried to write more, I was utterly exhausted after five hours. What’s up with that? Although I didn’t fall far from the tree, I did seem to be a completely different kind of apple.
We were in many ways two very different writers. My mom wrote stage plays and television screenplays; I write fiction and memoir. My mom’s work was plot and dialogue driven. My work is very visual (though I do write good dialogue too; thanks, Mom). My mom wrote from the outside in—getting the concept and perhaps the structure in place first, and often not getting to the emotional content until later drafts. I tend to write from the inside out, spilling my guts onto the page and then muddling my way to finding some sort of plot.
Is our difference in style what made it harder for me to write longer than 3 or 4 hours? Or was it just that my mom was a bit of a powerhouse-superwoman-wordsmith? I mean, the woman only needed to 3 to 5 hours of sleep.
Well, when I recently began writing a book on a deadline, I found that suddenly I was writing five, six, seven hours a day! One day, I even wrote for eight. And I didn’t even feel exhausted . . . well, maybe a little. But I also felt exhilarated.
The mighty deadline has pushed me through the glass ceiling. Perhaps that was the difference all along. My mom wrote on deadline for years. Or . . . maybe my mom’s lovely spirit has been hanging around helping me out.
In any case, with that triumph in my back pocket, I still cherish the lovely writer’s day that goes like this: write in the morning; nap and then exercise in the afternoon; socialize in the evening. Perhaps one day I’ll get to write that way again.
In the end, there is no right number of hours for everyone. Virginia Woolf, I have heard, wrote for one hour a day. Stephen King supposedly writes ten pages each and every day (a lot of writing! Anyone know how long that takes him?). Many, many writers claim the 3–5 hour a day rule.
How much do you write a day? Do you shoot for hours or word count? Please tell us how you write n’ roll.
Are piles of paperwork, screaming kids, and day-to-day responsibilities keeping you from your writing? One thing that has always helped me get back on track with a project is to get out of town.
Before I wrote on the computer, I loved going camping to write. (Yes, I used to write my first draft longhand!) One time, when I was having difficulty with a particular chapter, I went to Palomar Mountain (San Diego County). I set up my tent and made myself a promise that I wouldn’t leave the mountain until I had finished the chapter. I didn’t care how long it took. I ended up staying a full week but I headed down the mountain with a finished chapter tucked under my arm.
If cost is a concern (and you’re not the camping type), think about whether you have a friend in the boonies with a guest cottage or perhaps you know someone who needs a house sitter. Another possibility is a retreat center; some spiritual retreat centers are quite affordable.
It’s important that you go somewhere where there’s not a lot of cultural diversion (i.e., New York City is probably not the most conducive to a focused retreat). If there’s a choice of a room with no T.V., go for it and dive into your written world.
If you’ve done a writing retreat, please comment and tell us about it!
“First I have to feed the cat,” I said when my mentor told me to write first thing when I got up in the morning.
“OK, so feed the cat. Then write,” she told me.
“But once I go downstairs to feed the cat, I get distracted.” (There were a myriad diversions downstairs—email, roommate, watering the garden, scrubbing the grout in the kitchen tiles.) This was a few years back and I was following a program of writing 30 minutes a day . . . period. (See my post “The Timer Is Your Friend.”)
The next thing my mentor said delighted me as much as it surprised me.
“Write in bed,” she said.
I loved getting advice from another writer. No one but a writer could come up with something so entirely decadent. Truth is, it was equal parts decadent and logical. You’re distracted once you get up + you have a laptop = write in bed. Of course!
So, for the next few months when I went upstairs at bedtime I took with me my laptop and a snack for the next morning to tide me over till breakfast. (My darling cat, Treepuck, would have to wait 30 minutes for his breakfast, till I finished my writing.)
When I woke each morning, I would reach for my laptop without setting foot on the floor. I did this daily and made my way through a couple of chapters tucked cozily beneath my comforter.
Unexpectedly, over the ensuing months I eased my way from the bed to the floor and eventually down the stairs to my living room office, all without ever being distracted.
So if you find yourself distracted in the morning . . . take your writing to bed.
When life was simpler—before smart phones and Facebook—writers retreated easily from the world to pen their works. Virginia Woolf didn’t have to remember to silence her Beyoncé ringtone or do her daily blog post in order to build her platform. She simply retreated, and wrote. (She did, of course, have to procure a room of her own . . . but that’s for another post.)
I’m not saying that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers didn’t need discipline to get themselves to write. Even these early writers could find a tempting distraction. (Think opium and Henry Miller’s frolicking between the sheets.) But today’s writers have all that and more, the biggest distraction being one click away—the Internet.
A number of years ago, wanting to flee the distractions of the modern world, I tried to find a suitable hideaway for a writing retreat. (I’d done this a few times, and my writing output had been phenomenal.) But the reality of my limited finances at the time kept hitting me in the face. I could not find a hotel or retreat center within my price range, and, it being November, it was too cold to go camping (writing while shivering makes for illegible penmanship). So I asked myself: “What is it about going away that makes my writing so productive?” The answer was this: No one knows where I am. (This was pre-cell phone—at least for me—and pre-Internet-connection away from home.) Simply put: When I went away to write, I was unplugged.
So, I thought, what do I have to do to be unplugged at home?
The following day, I set about answering that question. I bought groceries enough to last me through my retreat (so I didn’t have to talk to people at the store or be bothered with the “chore” of shopping). I changed my outgoing message to let people know I was on writing retreat. (I didn’t mention it was a staycation. Let them think I was out of town!) I unplugged my Internet connection and my television. And I decided that my only obligation each day of my retreat was to write for four hours. Nothing else was mandatory. Think of it . . . I had only four hours out of each 24 where I was obligated to do anything. Thus, my writing retreat was not only productive in terms of literary output but it was also restful, and fun. I took long walks, made paintings and collages, stared out the window, essentially did whatever I was moved to do (outside of my four hours of writing). And because my mind was so free of outside distractions, the ideas that were seeded during my writing hours continued to germinate during my nonwriting hours. (I always took a small notepad and pen on my walks and almost always needed to use them.)
My stay-at-home writing retreat was so wonderful and so productive that I adopted a once-weekly writing retreat day, a tradition I followed for about a year. Every Wednesday evening, I changed my outgoing voicemail to say I would return calls on Friday morning. My extreme discipline with unplugging each and every Thursday delivered extreme productivity, and extreme luxury. I craved the benefits of these retreat days so much that the discipline was not at all challenging. In fact, it didn’t even feel like discipline; it felt downright indulgent.
So, why do I no longer have Unplugged Thursdays in my life? I suppose I feel the weight of more responsibility these days—more editing and writing and coaching to do, more emails to answer, more blogging and posting. . . . I just feel unpluggable. But I have a hunch that this “unpluggability” is, on some level, an illusion. I mean, what would really happen if I didn’t answer the phone or go online for one day? Would the world stop because I haven’t logged in?
I do realize that people who have children or jobs where others’ lives are at stake (e.g., ER doctors or psychiatrists) are not necessarily in the position to unplug for a full day, but even they could arrange to unplug for a morning, or for an hour.
So, my invitation to you is to Just Say No to cyberspace . . . just for the day. Tell your Facebook friends that you have very important business to tend to . . . and then shut down your Internet. Commit to a certain amount of time at your computer or notepad, but be sure to have down time surrounding your writing time. (Muses love down time.) Ask your spouse or roommate to support your need to retreat. Don’t answer your phone. Don’t send any texts. Don’t turn on the television. Let the silence envelope you . . . and see what happens. Then please tell us all about it!
I will surely be joining you soon in the land of the Unplugged.
Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month? That’s right. Every November thousands of slightly crazy people all over the world (200,000 last year) participate in this month-long novel-writing frenzy. “The goal,” says the NaNoWriMo web site, “is to write a 50,000 word (approximately 175 page) novel by 11:59:59, November 30.” But wait, fingers off that keyboard! You can’t start before November 1. You can prep (i.e., outline, make notes, etc.). But the NaNoWriMo guidelines say you’re not allowed to actually start writing the novel before the “starting gun” fires.
Some of you may be thinking: “Oh, that’s not for me. That’s for veteran writers with several books under their belt.” Not true. Sure there are lots of experienced writers who participate. But NaNoWriMo is actually perfect for the individual who has always wanted to write a novel but is too daunted to actually begin.
“Because of the limited writing window,” says the web site, “the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality.” The site goes on to say, “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.” Perfect for breaking the meanest of writer’s blocks!
There’s even plenty of support and community surrounding NaNoWriMo. Just check out their web site (below); there are forums, groups, and ways to share the experience.
Have I ever participated in National Novel Writing Month? Hell no! (My body hurts just thinking about sitting at the computer for that many hours.) But if you think you can do it without hurting yourself, then go for it! It’s certain to get you past any writer’s block.
So, get yourself ready. NaNoWriMo starts in just 4 days. But don’t forget to sign up!
To Sign up for NaNoWriMo: http://www.nanowrimo.org
To read more about NaNoWriMo: http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/about/whatisnano
For the guidelines: http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/about/hownanoworks
In the post “Your Life Story: How Much to Tell” (September 17, 2011), I promised a follow-up article that addressed the issue of whether or not to use people’s real names in your memoir. Here is that promised follow-up post:
“What should I do? Should I use their real names?”
This is a question that gets asked every time I teach Write Your Life. My students, and many of my clients, are writing about their own lives. But they can’t very well write about their lives without writing about the people in their lives. None of us lives in a vacuum (except maybe a monk living in a cave in the Himalayas, but so far I haven’t had any cave-dwelling monks take my class).
Of course, this question wouldn’t arise if the people in my students’ lives had behaved nicely. My students aren’t worried about writing that Uncle Saul was an absolute angel. Let’s face it, we want to write about our lives because it’s been hard. We had a harrowing childhood or we’ve escaped from an abusive relationship or we’ve built our dream despite all the naysayers. If there’s drama or conflict (and drama and conflict make for good story), then at least one person was a jerk.
But just because someone was a jerk doesn’t mean we want to ruin their life by exposing them in public. (And we certainly don’t want to end up getting sued for slander or libel.) So what do you do? Do you write your story as fiction? Do you move your town halfway across the country and rename all the characters? Do you change all recognizable traits?
Anne Lamott provided a hilarious answer at a reading I attended many years ago. Someone in the audience had asked the very question at hand and, in true Lamott style, she said: “Give the character a small penis.” (Clearly Uncle Saul would not step forward to claim slander if it meant he’d have to identify himself with the small-membered character.) Once the laughter in the audience had died down, someone else asked, “What if the character is a woman?” Without missing a beat, Lamott said, “Give the character a small penis.”
If anyone tries this tack, I’d love to hear how it works. If, however, you’d rather not mention genitalia in your book, you’re still left with the question: “Do I use their real names?”
The answer I usually give students and clients comes in three parts:
1) Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.
2) When you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth), then you can decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.
3) Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.
Here’s my thinking behind this three-step approach:
1) You (and every writer that ever lived) already battles with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write, don’t make it worse by censoring yourself. The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page. (Save the editing and critical thinking for a later draft.)
2) This is one place where procrastination will serve you. Put off your decision about whether to use real names until a later draft.
3) The purpose of getting feedback from others is that we’re far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly. Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask them how they think you’ve portrayed a particular character. You might be surprised. You may think you’ve portrayed Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, and your editor or friend may find him endearing. (There may be no need for the small penis after all.)
In the end, you’ve got to make a decision you can live with. Whatever feedback or advice you get, you’re the one who has to live with the decision, and any consequences.
I (and other readers) would love to hear how you have solved this dilemma of whether or not to use real names.