“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Ah, there’s nothing like being infatuated with a new story idea.
I’m over-the-moon excited when a fresh tale is brewing in my mind, because this one will be the best ever! I’m prone to rush headlong into my manuscript, hitting the juicy highlights of the narrative. But the devil is in the details…
“Details.” That’s what my literature professor said I lacked when I (tearfully) asked her why I couldn’t earn more than a B on my papers. What I thought were precise essays were actually vague. And boring.
The fix? Brainstorming. For the next essay, I chose my topic, then I made a list of all the relevant ideas I could think of before I sat down to write. The result? An A.
Details — especially those involving the senses — breathe life into a story and cast a spell of verisimilitude that pulls in the reader: The hour-glass birthmark on your antagonist’s forehead. The leaning tower of books in the den and the frayed fabric on the easy chair. The way your protagonist’s mouth quivers before she answers her opponent.
Without them, characters are lackluster, rooms are empty, and plot holes abound.
How can you imagine all those necessary details?
Even mundane items — small things — can lead to big developments. For example, simple clues — a ladybug tattoo, a missing key, a white pill — may identify the murderer in a who-done-it.
I like to carry a notepad in my pocket as I go through my day and jot down my observations, or record them in a voice memo on my phone.
Here are a few little details I noted while doing my morning chores. I may use them in my new
I might use the mixer episode in a humorous scene as my protagonist tries to impress a potential love interest who works as a chef. Or the image of the bats would enhance a gloomy, suspenseful atmosphere in a mystery. You get the idea.
Natalie Goldberg says this in Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within:
“Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else….Using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.”
How do you mine your everyday life for ideas? Let me know in the comments.
An inch, a word at a time, will do.
Big things begin with small efforts.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Earnest Hemingway
Cultivate one true thought and write it down.
Then do it again.
…until you have a story.
Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. I had the seed of a story that wouldn’t sprout. I brainstormed and jotted down some notes, but in the end, my setting was boring, my characters were clichéd, and my premise was just dumb.
I was stuck.
So I did what I usually do when I need inspiration: I scoured the web. I turned to my favorite writing blogs and podcasts — rich sources of encouragement and instruction over the last five years. I watched videos. I opened the newsletter emails I subscribe to. I pulled out my favorite books on crafting fiction and ordered new ones.
The muse was silent.
I doubled my efforts. Every spare minute, I read another article or listened to more of my favorite writing podcasts until I was steeped in information, as if I expected to fix my writing by osmosis.
But my mind was waterlogged by other writers’ advice. I was inadvertently drowning out my own voice.
Don’t misunderstand me: it’s helpful to draw from the well of others’ experiences; we all need teachers. I’m grateful for authors and editors who share their knowledge. What would I have done without them?
But if we rely too heavily on outside sources, if we never trust our own instincts, we may become stunted.
“We are most original when we are most ourselves.” Rebecca McClanahan
It’s harder to be myself when various voices are shouting the rules in my head — when I’ve consumed too much advice, too many rules, too many instructions.
At some point, I must stop procrastinating because I have enough information. I HAVE ENOUGH.
For me, creativity blooms with white space. Mental white space. So instead of taking in another brilliant podcast about plotting, I should take a walk instead. Or sit on the rock in front of my pond and let my imagination wonder.
Even bite-size tweets and Pinterest memes add clutter to my mind like salty French fries add pounds. Too many articles and blog posts and podcasts lead to information gluttony. The resulting bloat doesn’t feed my creativity. It stifles it.
I need a mental environment where creativity can grow. Here are a few things that seem to help:
Like watching my tuxedo cat bathe himself. Nigel licks his paw and draws it over his face starting at his eyes, reaching further with each stroke until he has cleaned behind his ears. His sandpaper-tongue catches my skin as he considers my hand an extension of his body.
Focusing on one small action is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s a luxury. It calms and clears the mind.
I hope these practical suggestions will help someone else, too. In the last week I’ve realized how much my mindset also smothers my creativity, but that’s a post for another day.
If you’ve ever taken earplugs to a movie theatre, you also might be an HSP–a Highly Sensitive Person.
If perfume gives you a headache, if those bright fluorescent lights in the grocery store make you squint, if flashing images and crowds drain you, you might be an HSP.
When I turned fifty, I realized more than half my life was over, and I still hadn’t pursued my childhood dream of writing a book. I’d buried this desire deep under a pile of worthwhile obligations, self-doubt, and busyness—much of which amounted to mere people-pleasing. I put everything ahead of the dream.
But when I celebrated that milestone birthday, I felt a sense of urgency. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life never having tried. So I made writing a priority.
If I really wanted to publish a book, I had to find the time to do it. It came down to numbers:
500 words x 160 hours = 80,000 word novel
If I can write 500 words an hour, I told myself, I’ll finish my first draft in 160 hours. Writing an hour each day, that’s 160 days.
Or maybe, I thought, I can dash off a thousand words an hour and finish twice as fast.
1000 words x 80 hours = 80,000 word novel
At this rate I would complete the rough draft in less than three months. I liked that plan.
After an enthusiastic and naïve launch, I nose-dived into reality: most days I didn’t have an hour of quiet leisure to write.
I had read all the advice to
write first thing in the morning,
guard your writing time,
find a quiet place.
But for me, these wise recommendations became excuses for not starting each day. The reasonable voice of Resistance* would tell me, “It’s noisy in the house. And you only have fifteen minutes before you have to cook supper. Might as well check Twitter instead.”
A few months ago, after I failed to write for several days and the frustration mounted, it hit me: finding enough time is less about changing my circumstances and more about changing my thinking. Finding enough time starts in my mind.
My insistence on perfect conditions was keeping me from using what time I had. I’d made a few erroneous assumptions:
1) I need solitude.
Of course, it’s easier if I’m alone and the room is quiet and no one is interrupting. Yes, it’s less efficient to write while surrounded by distractions, but maximum efficiency is a luxury. Perfectionist thinking told me I couldn’t be creative unless I had seclusion. This is false.
2) I need a large block of time.
Nope. I can do things in spurts. Ten minutes here. Five minutes there. An hour-long session would be the bee’s knees, but I’m amazed by how much I can accomplish piecemeal. Again, I had to drop the all-or-nothing thinking.
3) I need a designated place and hour, i.e. my easy chair in the morning with the cat by my side.
Now I snatch moments in various places. I write on the go. I have Microsoft Word on my phone, and if I’m sitting in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist’s office, I compose a few sentences or jot down a few notes.
If, like me, you can’t follow the recommended practices of other authors, don’t despair. Find what works for you. If you can take activities off your schedule, do it. If you can delegate tasks, do it. If, instead of cooking, you can order Chinese takeout, make that call. Then, after you’ve cut the deadwood from your to-do list and your calendar, find a way to write with your life as it is, not as you wish it could be.
I’m curious to know if other people struggle with this. Leave me a comment if you have other thoughts or suggestions.
In the next post I’ll talk about Speed.
*Author Steven Pressfield talks a lot about the evil monster Resistance in his books on writing. You can find him here.