Writing Tip #17: Sometimes You Have to Walk Away

A plate from Audubon’s Birds of America. Not my mystery bird, but he’s awfully cute.

Last week I had the good fortune to have a week alone in cabin at a writers’ retreat. Every year I try to carve out a week to spend at a place like this that cuts me out of my day-to-day life and forces me to focus on a creative projects. It’s great because the workaholic in me goes into hyper-creative mode, thinking “Hey, I took this week off of work, which means it’s costing me (hours x hourly wage) to BE HERE. So I’d damn well better BE HERE NOW and do what I came to do” (e.g. the thing I can’t do in the evenings at home).

A caveat: yes, I am a writer. Yes, I can write at home on my laptop. IF I stop doing all of the other daily tasks like doing laundry, cooking dinner, answering emails, taking a shower. Most days, that’s a big IF. I find it extremely difficult to tune out all of the mundane tasks that are competing for my attention and devote time just for myself, to focus on creative work.

So last week, I spent 6 days in a cabin with no internet, no cell service, and no other people.

It was glorious.

A book I’d been thinking about for a long time came pouring out, and I wrote over 25,000 words. And the best part? It was FUN. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like what I was supposed to be doing with my day. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stumbled onto an old book and walked away from my project one day.

I put a lot of pressure on myself to make the most of my time in a place like this: once I settle in and start working, I don’t want to stop for acts like eating and socializing. I had to make myself stop sometimes, and go do something else just so my fingers wouldn’t fall off from all the typing. I went to dinner in the lodge and met some other artists. I took walks in the woods. I went to the old library on site and happened upon a 1942 volume of Audubon’s Birds of America.

This was exciting for two reasons: (1) I love Audubon’s paintings and I geek out over birds like you wouldn’t believe. So this book is basically catnip. (2) My new book in part centers on an unusual bird that’s been sighted—one that was believed to have been extinct. When I went to the library that day, I needed to know what this bird was. I was starting this book, but I had no idea what the bird was, and it was a central character in itself. All along, I’d been thinking it would be something like the ivory-billed woodpecker. Maybe a Carolina parakeet. It needed to be a bird that had a unique call, and one that had been seen in South Carolina.

A quick internet search gave me my answer: a warbler. Just for fun, I flipped through the Audubon book, and there was my mystery bird. A warbler named for Audubon’s best friend, and one that had nested in the southeastern US. It was easily confused with hooded warblers and magnolia warblers, and there were unconfirmed sightings in the 1980s, but it’s thought to be extinct. It was perfect.

That discovery energized me. I went back to my outline, and filled in the gaps. Suddenly the story took more shape, and I felt less worried about how it just felt like a hot mess. The important pieces fell into place—enough to get started on that zero draft—and that’s when the book started pouring out. This bird was a touchstone, much like it is for the heroine in my book, and all I could think was, “Hey, it’s a good thing I wandered into the library today.” It’s a good thing I walked away and took a breath.

The point of all this is that I needed a reminder. I needed to remember that even when we’ve carved out time for ourselves, and we’ve sat down to make this next creative thing, we still have to give ourselves a time-out. We still have to take time to relax, to explore, and to discover. Those moments outside of work time, when we let ourselves daydream, and let our minds wander—those are the moments that let the magic seep in. Those are the moments that happen when we walk away.

Slowing Down Means Time to Grow

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is just finishing the dang book.

I recently read an article where the author argued “If it takes you more than a year to write a book, then you’re doing it wrong.”  

My boyfriend said, “You should be wary of any article that tells you if you’re not doing things a certain way, then you’re doing them wrong.” He has a solid point. We have to find the way that works for us. And slow isn’t always a bad thing. 

I envy authors who can sit down and bang out a book in a month or two—or even six. But there are plenty of us who struggle with finding the right words, crafting the story the way we envision it will be best, and making sure every piece of it fits together snugly. I’m a perfectionist with certain things, and books are one of them. I want my books to be as close to their perfect as I can get them before I unleash them into the world.  

Before I wrote novels, I made artist books. I’m a letterpress printer, and a printmaker. I carve wood blocks to print, and I make books by hand when I’m not writing novels. (You remember Audrey Niffeneger and The Time Traveler’s Wife? She made some killer artist books before she wrote novels, and she completely inspired me to keep doing both, because in my world, you can never have enough creative projects happening. Fun fact: Audrey made handmade paper, too, just like the main character in her novel. I met her at an artist’s retreat once, and she is an amazing lady.) 

When I first started making books, I hand-set metal type, one little upside down letter at a time. The process is anything but fast. I printed broadsides for poems (and looked for short ones from visiting poets because DANG hand-setting metal type takes a long time). But as I wrote my own texts to print, setting that type by hand forced me to think hard about my word choice, and say things with precision. (I’m not saying that everything I wrote was elegant, because I was in grad school, for heaven’s sake. But it made me think hard about my word choice, and that made me get serious about killing the darlings as I revised every book after that.) 

Fast-forward to now, when I’m trying desperately to finish the next book in the Bayou Sabine series, Trouble Will Follow. I wanted this series of books to all be standalones–you get a fuller picture of these people I write about if you read the series in order, but you don’t have to. Each book stands on its own, too. It was important for me to write them that way. My new book, Trouble Will Follow, has taken me over a year to write. There’s a lot of my own life tangled up in this book, and it was hard to write about some of those pieces—but I felt like I had to. And I had to get it just right.

I had to just slow down, and be patient, and cut myself some slack. And give myself some time.

Life feels like it moves super fast most days, and I feel like I have a ticking clock on every project. But sometimes we need to relax, and let our minds wander a little, and give the creativity a moment to take root and grow. For me, rushing through a project defeats the whole purpose of doing something creative: it strips away that time where we meander, and wander, and discover. It’s just like this time when I went hiking with an acquaintance—we were both at a retreat, and wanted to hike a nearby trail. To my horror, this woman took off like a rocket, speed-walking along this rocky uphill trail in the Appalachians. It was my first time at that retreat, and I was looking to take a leisurely stroll and soak up the wildlife. Instead, I spent the whole hour keeping up with this woman and trying not to break my ankle or be left behind. When we were finished, I couldn’t remember a single detail about that trail—the kinds of trees or flowers we’d seen, the kinds of birds we’d heard. All I remembered was watching the ground so I didn’t trip and fall. (I should have just let her go ahead and taken my time—never again did I go on a hike where I didn’t take the time to enjoy it.)

For me, writing is just like that hike. Speeding through it strips all the joy away. Giving myself permission to slow down gives me space to seek out the wonder.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

Writers, Find Your Superpower

This post originally appeared over at bluecrowpublishing.com, in a slightly different version.

Caution: Excellent publishing advice ahead.

A couple of weekends ago, I was pleased to be a part of the NC Writers’ Network Spring Conference in Greensboro, NC. This annual conference brings together writers, publishers, and bibliophiles from all genres—for just one day. This year, I went with Katie P., the other (usually more energetic) half of Blue Crow Publishing. (For those of you who don’t know, Katie and I formed BCP a few years ago as a small, traditional press.) We always enjoying meeting new people at NCWN events and talking books, and last Saturday we saw old friends and met some fabulous emerging writers that bowled us over with their stories. If you’re a writer, NCWN events are a great place to meet fellow writers, take workshops to hone your craft, and network with folks in the publishing industry. And it’s really one of the most welcoming, friendly groups of people you’ll meet.

One of the highlights of the day for me was taking part as a guest editor in “Slush Pile Live”—it’s like speed dating for manuscript review. In these sessions, writers leave a 1-page submission in a box, and the panel moderator reads each submission (names withheld) to the group. Three guest editors listen as the piece is read and then provide feedback, as if the piece were a query that came across their desks.

As a guest editor, I had an inkling of what to expect (thanks to a recording of a 2016 Slush Pile Live, which then of course induced a moment of panic with the realization that I might end up on YouTube when this was all over), but of course you never know what the submissions will hold. I watched the faces of the authors in the crowd as the first piece was read, and thought, “How can I be of help to these folks? What can I offer about these short, 300-word samples that might help them with their submissions to presses like mine?”

We heard poems, young adult fiction, sci-fi, historical fiction, romance, mystery—some samples were ready to submit for real, and some needed editing. But here’s what I thought as I heard the moderator read, and heard the critique from the panel, and watched those hopeful faces in the crowd:

Every writer has a superpower.

Every writer has that thing she’s really great at. Sometimes it’s dialogue. Sometimes it’s a way of seeing connections between unlikely pairings of objects (like that wonderful haiku that compared a mockingbird’s song to a crazy quilt). Sometimes it’s a way of nailing a character in just a few sharp turns of phrase. Sometimes it’s an image that sticks with you like a dream.

It’s easy to let yourself get jaded as an editor, to get annoyed by typos and adverbs and cliches. But it’s also important to remember that old adage about a diamond in the rough. Sometimes a writer has an amazing story to tell, and instead of being told “thanks, but no thanks,” they need a nudge to help point them in the right direction.

So if you’re struggling with a submission, or an edit, here’s my nudge for you:

Find your superpower. You have one.

Find that thing about your writing style that is attention-grabbing, unique. Ask a friend or writing partner to help you identify this strength—they might see something you don’t (writing can’t be a solo activity, sorry—no writer is an island). Ask your partner to read a page or two, and underline the most powerful sentence (got more than one? Great.).

Now think on that sentence—what makes it so compelling? Keep doing that. Identify the strongest lines that you’ve written, think about what makes them so fabulous, and bring the rest of your writing to that level. Use your insight. Consider that thing you did a tool, and apply that tool to the rest of your writing. Is it a unique description? An awesome metaphor? A detail about a character? If you’re superb at writing sharp dialogue (are you the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey?), then apply that sharpness to the overall narrative voice. Apply it to descriptions of objects, places, other characters. Use that tool to shape the whole story.

Then, trim out all the unnecessary words so that those really amazing ones shine. Consider this your de-cluttering. (You’ve watched Marie Kondo? Cut out all those words that don’t have meaning, all the filler that’s just there taking up space.) Your book needs to be lean and mean.

When you’re ready to submit, make sure that superpower shows up on the first page. Showcase that eye for detail, that witty dialogue, that arresting voice. Show the editor that thing you’re so good at on page one, and keep it steady through your whole MS, like a heartbeat.

And remember: every editor has different tastes, different loves, different turn-offs. Submitting a manuscript really is like speed-dating. Editors are inundated. Their eyes have glazed over from mundane manuscripts. You have 1-2 pages to make a bold impression, to hook that editor and make her want to know more about this story you have to tell. If you don’t fit with one editor (or a dozen, or fifty), keep going. Move on to the next one. Everybody has bad dates. Not every pairing is the right one. But we hit the lottery when we do find the right match—the one that sees our strengths and wants to make them shine.


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How to Make Time

These days, I often wish I could make time: as in create hours, manufacture minutes. It seems there are always so many tasks to do, so much work to be done. By the time I get through my daily to-do list (ye gods, when did I get so overwhelmed that I had to get apps that will remind me to do the tasks and tick the boxes?) there’s barely time to relax and shut my brain off before it’s time to get up and do it all over again.

Some days I feel like I’m drowning. Some days I think I’ll never check all the boxes fast enough and won’t be left with the time I want for other things, like painting, and writing, and gardening, and seeing my friends.

So here’s the thing I’m learning: I have to make that time. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. What’s easy is getting lost in the little tasks: make dinner, wash the dishes, do some laundry, vacuum, get gas, answer emails, post some new online content, check book stats, schedule some promotions, read that new submission that came in last week, post a few things to social so readers know I’m still alive and interested in saying hello to them—and so on.

Some days, it’s true—this is a procrastination technique. Some days, if I do all those little tasks, then I “don’t have time” to do the hard thing, which is edit that damn book I have to finish in a month. But some days, I just want an hour to paint some birds, and sometimes that feels like it’s too tall an order.

So I’ve had to re-prioritize some things. I’ve had to carve out bits of time each day (and even—gasp—a chunk of time on the weekend) to do some little things that bring me joy. I started with an hour a day. Some days I read. Some days I paint. Some days I plant some succulents. (I might have developed a bit of a problem there, since I discovered I can order them online, and they come in like, literally a thousand different varieties for about the cost of a latte. The fella, though, assures me this is not a problem. “You can order more until we run out of window sills,” he said. “But really, I think people who take care of live things have more empathy. So I support this hobby.”

He’s a good guy. I’ve placed a jelly bean plant on his window sill.

The point of all this is that just taking an hour a day to do something that doesn’t feel like work, like a task that HAS TO GET DONE, DAMMIT actually helps me recharge. Some days I feel like every waking hour is devoted to someone else, and that gets tiresome. But to have a little time to do something fun or creative, or relaxing—to do something just because it makes me happy for a little while—that helps me maintain some balance. It’s always been hard for me to find balance. I never thought of myself as a workaholic until recently—and I realized that’s not who I want to be. Sure, I have dreams, and goals, and high expectations for myself—but I’m not unique in that regard. Lots of us feel that way. But the trick, I think, is to not get to the point where we lose track of the little tasks that bring us joy and solace—those tasks don’t make it onto the to-do list. They don’t get ticked off every day. But I think maybe they should.

What really set me on this path was when my fella surprised me with a new set of paint brushes last week for my birthday. I was a little bummed at turning 41, thinking, “Where on earth did the last ten years go? What have I done with all of that time?”

The answer was: not quite all the things I wanted.

And then when the fella gave me brushes, I was surprised and delighted. But the best part was the reason he chose them: “I want you to spend more time doing what you love,” he said. And I thought, I want that, too. So I’m carving out a little more time each day to use those brushes, and plant some spring flowers—and even write that book I’ve been putting off. After all, doing what we love helps us cultivate balance and gratitude, and I don’t think we can have too much of that.

So how do you start? I made a list. If you had all the time in the world, what are five things you’d do for yourself—just yourself—we all want to spend time with our friends and most-loved people, but we need to think about ourselves for a minute, okay? Here are mine:

  1. Write novels
  2. Practice painting with new techniques
  3. Carve wood blocks to print
  4. Exercise
  5. Gardening
  6. Read
  7. Do something outside

That’s how I started. Five, plus a couple bonus items. So go ahead, make your list. Once things are written down, it’s easier to make them happen.