One Way to Manage Procrastination

I’ve come to believe we don’t put things off because we’re lazy or disorganized, we put things off because we don’t think we can deal with the feelings that come up for us when we even think about doing whatever it is that we want to/have to/need to do. 

For writers, I think we have to deal with a lot of fear just to sit our butts down in the chair and start typing. Especially if it’s something creative or something you feel passionate about. 

Our primitive brain starts yammering as soon as we walk toward the writing desk: What if it’s no good, what if I have nothing to say, what if nobody likes it, what if I make everyone angry?

Have you noticed how often that primitive brain, that critical voice, talks about “everyone” and “no one?” It’s scarier that way—and more vague, so harder to refute. If our primitive brain said something like, “what if my brother doesn’t like it?” my evolved brain would just answer, “That’s nonsense. He likes everything I write.” 

So it sticks to “everyone” and “no one” to keep us from writing. To keep us out of our chairs. To keep us in fear. 

Because the primitive brain doesn’t care about your book, your blog post, or your email. It only cares that you survive until tomorrow, and it’s fine with you living a very small life. It thinks turning on Netflix is a great idea. 

And because fear is such a difficult emotion for us to manage, we often do just turn on Netflix. The brain does not distinguish between fear of physical danger and fear of what others will think of us. We have the same physiologic reaction to the thought of others not liking what we’ve (not yet) written as we do to being cut off in traffic while driving. Our hearts start to pound, our hands get clammy, we find it hard to breathe. 

But we can manage the fear that’s not related to physical danger. There are ways. Here’s one that works for me:

As you approach your writing desk and you start to hear all those negative questions, write them down. Start a journal entry or grab a pad of paper and write it all down, all those thoughts. 

Acknowledge your fear and notice the physical symptoms that come up. Also notice you are not in any actual physical danger. All is well. 

Then tell that part of yourself that is so scared that you’re just going to write. You’re not going to show it to anyone, not going to publish it right now. You’re just going to write. 

Then, after all those reassurances to that primitive (scared) part of yourself, stay in your chair and write. 

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Diane MacKinnon, MD, is a Master Certified Life Coach who used to work as a Family Physician. She’s passionate about writing and journaling and is (still!) working on her first book, a self-help book for medical peeps. You can find her at her website, www.dianemackinnon.com.

Write Now!

Write Now!

Due to complications of my husband’s broken jaw, I have to Write Now!

This afternoon’s writing time was unexpectedly pushed aside to pick up liquid Ibuprofen, a pill crusher, a WaterPik, and energy drinks for my husband, who’s had his broken jaw wired together this morning and will be on a liquid diet for weeks. I rushed home to cook dinner for friends arriving from Great Britain momentarily, and I haven’t written Tuesday’s post yet.

Write now!

I remember days when writing time would be supplanted by a childcare-giver’s day off, a sick child, a grandmother’s broken ankle, chicken pox, strep throat and a child’s broken ankle. Emergencies happen, yet one can still write in the waiting room, in the car, in the sick room, while the kids are playing dress up or make believe or watching a movie.

Write now!

Write now!

You can write anywhere, write now!

Then there are the planned trips to the shop for car maintenance. I’ve come to love those waiting rooms. With earplugs to drown out the TV, I use the hour to write.

I’m driving on the Interstate, headed to or from a gig at a library and the words for a commentary start bubbling up. I pull over, pick up my pen and notebook.

Write now!

The dishes are piled in the sink, the clean laundry needs to be folded, the trash needs to go out. Take care of the trash. Everything else can wait.

Write now!

I’m told my mother-in-law sold her washer and dryer, subscribed to The New Yorker, and read it in the laundromat every week. Have to do laundry? Write now!

The emails are incoming thick and fast. Turn off email – write now!

If social media is no longer a tool but a distraction, turn off your internet connection – write now!

Whatever you’re doing, write now!

www.deborahleeluskin.comEven though I prefer to write in my studio, life happens. I write here, there, and everywhere, at all hours of the day or night. I always have paper and pen with me. I’m always ready – write now!

 

 

The Forest for the Trees

fall-trees-skyWith New England’s hills ablaze in their autumn foliage, it’s impossible not to see the forest for the trees. But the forest is made up of individual trees, each of which turns a characteristic color this time of year.

Generally, it’s the maples that turn scarlet and the poplars and birch that go yellow and gold. Sumac turns purple, and hobblebush burgundy. For the most part, oak stay green before rusting to brown, and they hang on to the branches long after the leaves of other trees fall.

I’ve always loved the autumnal forest, but lately, I’ve become interested in individual trees. I’m learning how to read the New England landscape in order to know it better, and to be able to hunt the white tailed deer. This weekend, I finally learned how to differentiate four types of maples by examining their leaves.

sugar-maple

sugar maple

The sugar maple has smooth-edges between its five points, which looks to me like an open palm, like a sign of peace.

 

 

 

red maple

red maple

The red maple has saw-toothed edges on three major points, like a fleur-de-lys.

 

 

silver maple

silver maple

The silver maple leaves are long, narrow and jagged, like a skeletal hand.

 

 

 

striped maple

striped maple

And the leaf of the striped maple reminds me of a medieval shield, bold and protective. It on this tree that white tailed buck rub with their antlers to mark territory and to let the does know they’re around and interested.

 

 

I once had a professor who said, “Truth lies in minute particulars.” Learning to differentiate leaves requires observing the minute particulars. It’s in the details that we see difference, in details that a story becomes vivid.

Without details, we might only see the forest, and not the trees.

Over the chin of Mount Mansfield - Vermont's highest peak

Over the chin of Mount Mansfield – Vermont’s highest peak

Deborah Lee Luskin divides her time between her desk, the outdoors, and http://www.deborahleeluskin.com

The English Language On Word Order Depends

I-need-you-I-miss-you-I-love-you-3-love-10112773-1024-768While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published October 22, 2013.

The English language on word order depends.

If that sentence doesn’t convince you, try this:

Take the adverb “only” and place it in different positions in the following sentence.

He said, “I love you.” (Nice thought.)

Only he said, “I love you.” (No one else said it.)

He only said, “I love you.” (He said nothing else.)

He said, “Only I love you.” (No one else does.)

He said, “I love only you.” (He doesn’t love any one else.)

He said, “I love you only.” (His love is exclusive.)

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White advise that “Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the word they modify.” When modifiers are misplaced, the result is always  ambiguity – and often hilarity as well. Consider this Classified Ad: “Piano for sale by lady with carved legs.”

Because English depends on word order, “with carved legs” describes the lady, not the piano. The prepositional phrase needs to be placed in proximity to what it describes – the piano.

Here’s an example from The Harbrace College Handbook. “The doctor said that there was nothing seriously wrong with a smile.” I used Harbrace when I taught college nearly thirty years ago. Surely there have been advances in medicine since then, but smiles have always been terrific, especially when it’s the doctor who’s smiling while delivering the good news. The doctor said with a smile that there was nothing seriously wrong.

The rule for clarity is to always place modifiers as close as possible to the words they describe. Modifers include adverbs, adjectives, phrases or clauses, and they become misplaced when they are too far from what they describe. Here’s an example from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well.

 Chason-sisters-old2           The two sisters were reunited after 18 years at the checkout counter.

            I know, I know – it sometimes seems as if it does take forever to check out, but more likely, the author really meant, After 18 years, the two sisters were reunited at the checkout counter.

            Here are some other examples of misplaced prepositional phrases that should make you laugh – and help you keep your words in order.

  • “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”  -Groucho Marx
  • Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. (Was the envelope harnessed to a coach?)
  •  We found the address he gave me without difficulty. (What’s so hard about giving someone an address?)
  •  We watched the tree come crashing down with bated breath. (Trees have bated breath?)
  •  Squirrels ran up the tree with their mouths full of nuts. (Trees have mouths full of nuts?)
  •  Under the couch, Dave spotted the cat playing with catnip. (What’s Dave doing under the couch?)
  •  On the hay wagon, the horse pulled the group of students. In the ice, several skaters saw the large crack. (Why is the horse on the wagon, and how did the skaters get in the ice?)
  •  A lion startled the hunter with a ferocious roar. (Oh, those roaring hunters . . . )
  •  The profits were deposited safely in the bank from the bake sale. (Did the baked goods taste like money?)
  •  “He dialed the number at the hospital of Dr. X.” (Who did he dial? Was Dr. X holding him hostage at his hospital?)

             While it’s great to make your readers laugh, you can make sure they’re laughing at what you say and not how you’ve said it by observing the English language’s dependency on word order.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin taught grammar and rhetoric at Columbia, where she earned her PhD in English Literature before moving to Vermont to write novels and raise chickens and daughters. She is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Starting and Stopping

Starting.

Starting.

The more I write full time, the more I learn about how to get started and when to stop, knowledge that makes me more efficient in a job that often is not.

STARTING

I’m learning to start by writing a rough draft: Rough as in scrawled in a notebook or typed without consideration for spelling, syntax or grammar. Usually, doing this shakes the ideas loose in no particular order. Often, the order becomes apparent before I’ve finished turning out all the pieces, so I number the sentences but keep pushing on to what may be the end. Or not.

Ideally, I then wait. That is, if I’ve left myself enough time before a post has to go up or before a deadline arrives. When I can, I let the rough draft mature overnight and return to it the next day. I’m a strong believer in the process of fermentation for both writing and wine, and often while I kick back with a glass, my subconscious continues to work.

When I return to the draft the next day, I’m always surprised by what I find: sometimes it’s a welcome surprise, “Damn, that’s good!” More often, it’s a set of notes with a workable idea buried in it, and I have to dig to find it, typically by writing another draft. And another.

Stopping.

Stopping.

STOPPING

I’m freshest in the morning. Today, for instance, I started at 5:30, drafting Holiday Weekend for Living in Place, my personal blog, which publishes on Wednesday. That’s tomorrow.

Next, I turned to a fourth (or maybe a fifth?) draft of a piece I’ve been working on for days. It’s taken a lot of writing to hone the one idea into just four hundred words. Thinking I finally nailed it, I emailed it to my producer at Vermont Public Radio for edits. Meanwhile, she returned a draft of a different piece with small changes and approval to record it later today for broadcast tomorrow.

In an effort to get ahead, I promised myself I’d draft this post a week in advance so I could go backpacking in good conscience when this posts. But I knew my concentration was done in for the morning.

The tell tale signs of needing to stop are attention to email, wandering over to Facebook, and staring out the window. Even though it was just eleven, I stopped to eat lunch.

Usually, the dog takes me for a walk after I eat, but today I have to go to the studio to record for VPR before a slew of meetings for the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, where I volunteer.

So I returned to my desk, wondering what in the world I was going to write for this post; by allowing myself to write a rough draft, I found out.

How do you start a piece? And how do you know that staring at your computer any longer won’t help, so it’s better to stop?

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin is a writer by compulsion and a Vermonter by Choice.

 

Our Summer Vacation: Using Your Voice

OUR WRITING ROADMAPTwo weeks ago we started our writing summer vacation by talking about plotting. Today, I want to address how you are going to tell your story–what voice are you going to use?

I write my current series in first person, from the point of view of amateur sleuth Ruth Clagan. I only use first person. The pros of this choice? She is my protagonist, and first person lets her voice ring out loud and clear. She sets the tone for the scenes. Cons of this choice? She has to be in every scene. If she isn’t present, then a scene needs to described to her, which can be very boring since it doesn’t allow her to experience it.

First person also does something else–it gives the reader the perspective of the narrator. Her prejudices are passed on without editorial comment. There is always a perspective involved, and that impacts the reader expectations.

The other choice is third person. Even then there are choices. Close third person still slants towards a specific perspective on the story, since it will often focus on one character as the center of the narrative. Omniscient third person is like a camera that doesn’t use close ups. Everyone is always in the frame. There is no specific point of view.

You can change points of view within a novel. Jessica Estevao’s new book, Whispers Beyond the Veil (due out in September) is told in first person and third person. Agatha Christie used third person, moving from close to omniscient. Murder on the Orient Express is a great example of that technique. First person doesn’t mean the narrator has to be the center of the story–see how Nick Carraway tells The Great Gatsby, and the effect of that choice by Fitzgerald. Always remember, writing is a craft that is honed over time. Playing with points of view will come easier over time. Or, maybe, it will be less scary.

Your choice of point of view determines your story in a lot of ways. One thing I’ve found is that when a story isn’t working for whatever reason, I change the POV and that usually helps. I’m not going to say one is easier or better than another. What I am saying it that one choice is the correct one for your story. It’s up to you to figure that out.

Given the plot you’ve worked out, how are you going to tell that story?

Friends, there is a Goodreads Giveaway this week (through July 9) for my next novel. You can enter to win here at the link.

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Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. She also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors, and starting in July will appear on Killer Characters on the 20th of every month. Her next novel, Clock and Dagger, will be released on August 2.

What Every Writer Wants

Google GI asked Google, “What does a writer want?” I found a variety of answers. Lev Raphael says we want “Everything,” and quotes Roxane Gay saying writers “want and want and want.”

Some writers will say they want fame, others money, some just want luck. I think what a writer really wants is Audience.

Writers want what they write to be read.

But as the explosion of blogosphere and the self-publishing industry demonstrates again and again, publication does not guarantee readers. Good writing might.

Here are some ideas for finding and building an audience with a blog. None of these ideas require an advanced degree in rocket science; they all require hard work, and they’re all working for me.

  1. Write for your audience. (This post is for Live to Write – Write to Live readers: writers – you.)
  2. Say what you want with economy and grace.Like everyone else on the planet, your readers are pressed for time, so don’t waste theirs. (I aim for a post of 400-600 words.)
  3. Practice your craft and give your audience a polished performance. If you
    Practice your craft and give your audience a polished performance. (pixabay)

    Practice your craft and give your audience a polished performance. (pixabay)

    were a pianist, you wouldn’t invite your audience to listen to you play scales or learn a new piece; as a writer, you don’t want to show your audience your rough draft. (This essay went through three drafts.)

  4. Commit to a publication schedule. While an audience may like to be surprised in the content of what you write, it also likes to know when to expect a new post. I post here every other Tuesday, and I post to my own blog every Wednesday. It’s hard work that has garnered non-monetary rewards, namely a growing audience. I have readers who look forward to my posts; I know because they tell me.
  5. Keep writing and other opportunities will follow. I keep writing; in addition to meeting new readers, editors I don’t know now ask me to write for them; invitations for public speaking and proposals for writing projects arrive in my inbox. I get to decide what I want to write and for whom.

I wouldn’t say no to fame and fortune, but it’s my audience who will determine that. Of course I’d like more readers, more publications, and more royalties. I believe they will come if I continue to do my job, which is to write stories that will cross that membrane between writer and reader, to engage in that intimacy that occurs when my words get under my readers’ skin, into their thoughts, and maybe even change how they think.

Deborah Lee Luskin, M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin,
M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. She blogs every Wednesday at Living in Place.