Connecting with your readers.

I've heard a theme lately in my conversations with writers. You want to write because you want to connect with others. The admission comes with a hesitant tone, as if you don't want to be presumptuous that you would be published someday.

But you want to entertain people. You want to make them laugh. You want to make them think, consider things from a new perspective, and maybe even learn from your experiences. You want them to feel something when they read your work.

As a writing coach, I love that. It means that you want to give your readers a meaningful experience. And I know that when you do, it will be a meaningful for you too.

IT IS NOT SILLY TO DREAM THAT YOUR WRITING WILL MAKE READERS FEEL. IT'S IMPERATIVE. 

You can harness that desire and use it to hone your writing by giving readers the types of details that let them experience the story as if they were really there. Sharing what you or a character saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched lets your reader have an actual experience. And when they can see and feel what's going on, they can sense the emotions, understand the lessons, and feel a sense of kinship with you. The writer.

If it sounds like a tall order, remember--it's all about practice. And as you play around with it, I know you'll see a change in the way your writing affects others. You'll see stronger, more powerful connections with readers. In your writing group. On your blog. When you show a friend. And even when you publish.

Let Curiosity Take the Wheel

A few weeks ago, I led a workshop exploring the five senses through writing. A few days ago I finished leading a 21-Day Creative Writing Challenge (which many of you signed up for, so I took a break from the WritingStrides newsletter--I figured that hearing from me every day for three weeks might be enough!).

DSC_8012_largeFor both, I carefully selected the prompts. At the workshop, to highlight sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. For the challenge, to spark ideas and get to know characters--including yourselves.

Many people stayed on topic, and discovered whole new stories, revisited old memories, and got to know characters or themselves in new ways.

And yet some writers went off track, writing about something else entirely. The prompt got them to the page, and the writing led them from there. It's a good reminder:

A WRITING PROMPT IS NOT AN ASSIGNMENT. IT'S A TICKET TO EXPLORE. 

It's an invitation to enjoy the feel of your pen against paper and see where it leads.

It's an opportunity to let curiosity take control. What comes up next? And where does that lead?

Eventually, you will stumble on something interesting, and that's your signal to write an actual piece.

The spirit of exploration can take some getting used to. I've had workshop participants talk to me after class about the way other writers didn't follow the rules because they didn't follow the prompts--even when I gave permission to do just that.

This type of concern isn't about the other writers, of course. It's a discomfort with giving up control, or possibly doing something wrong.

But here's why it's worth practicing: when you learn to explore, writing feels good.

Almost every writer I've emailed or talked to about the writing challenge has told me that they had fun. They felt good about writing again. And that's the ultimate writing goal, isn't it? To enjoy it?

So here's my suggestion for the coming week: hand over the reins to curiosity. Let yourself explore.

Lost steam? Here's one way to create momentum again.

Momentum can feel like such a fickle friend, can't it? You go to a retreat, get inspired, head home, lose focus. You start a piece, feel energized by your progress, and then life pulls you away. You can't seem to pick your writing back up again. Or there's my preferred form of avoidance--writing a full draft, setting it aside, then having a hard time revisiting it.

One client recently told me she needed a magic potion to recreate her momentum. And you know what? We found one. Writing.

I know, I know. So cheesy to put it like that, but bear with me. Writing really is the anecdote for lost momentum.

MOMENTUM SLOWS TO A HALT UNDER THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATIONS.

Whenever I talk to writers who are stuck, they're focused on getting things right.

  • The retreat participant wants to recapture what it felt like to be at that retreat, so clear in her vision for her book, and get it on the page as she saw it then.
  • The writer in the middle of an essay wants to remember exactly what she was going to write next, before she got derailed.
  • The author getting ready to rewrite the first draft of his piece wants to make sure it's worthwhile--that things come together in a meaningful way.

That desire to get things right leads to re-reading, incessant planning, and too much thinking, all in an effort to figure out how the story will come together before you start writing. And because you can't figure out how that's going to happen, writing feels hard.

It's an understandable approach. You remember what it felt like to have momentum, and you want to feel that way again. But the truth is that you didn't know anymore about your writing then than you do now. You'd simply gotten in the flow of creativity.

MOMENTUM HAPPENS WHEN YOU ASK YOURSELF, "BASED ON WHAT I KNOW NOW, WHAT CAN I WRITE NEXT?"

If your outlines, plans, or expectations make the process of writing feel heavy, what can you do to make it feel light?

My client looking for that magic potion said she would set aside her outlines, jot a couple ideas at the top of the page and write from there--write to get her heart onto the page.

I thought that was a brilliant idea, because it will get her back to the page and into the flow of her own creativity. What about you? If you set aside your expectations, what can you do to make writing feel fun?

Not sure what to write next? Sometimes the idea is the reward for showing up.

Last week, I wrote about the power of an idea as its ability to get you to the page. But what about those times when you're not sure what to write next? Or you just don't feel like writing? One of my clients is writing a book, and she recently experienced a few days of inactivity. As part of our check-ins, she was going to email me to say that she hadn't written. And then, even though she didn't feel like it, she wrote. Here's the email she sent me instead:

"I had no inspiration but by the time my fingers hit the keys I had this little tiny inkling and it just opened up into something new I hadn’t thought about."

 

THE SIMPLE ACT OF SHOWING UP CAN RESULT IN IDEAS YOU MIGHT NOT DISCOVER OTHERWISE.

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Yet it can feel uncomfortable to write without knowing where the story is going to go. Maybe your day job has trained you to think things through or be clear on the end result. Maybe you like assurances that you'll create something worthwhile. Maybe you just aren't sure it will work, or you're afraid of wasting time.

Here's the thing: this approach to writing is thoughtful and methodical. It's not haphazard or reckless. You're showing up. You're putting your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). And then, you're listening.

What comes to mind? Where does it lead you?

It's an actual process, and it creates results. It's just a new process, which means it takes some getting used to. But you know what? Once you do, it's FUN. As this same writer had to say:

"The most fun I have is in seeing where the story goes. To see what comes out of my head when I just let the words flow and I’m not forcing or grasping...

"There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from just writing, just showing up. Writing even when you aren’t in the mood. But, the fun and adventure and excitement comes when I am discovering and following the seed of an idea. Sometimes, like this morning, I had to just show up to even get to that seed. It started with just one sentence and then 40 minutes later I had to stop and was late for work and I was just beaming and I realized, this is it! This is me being a writer!"

This is the kind of thing that makes me so HAPPY to read. (Even the part about being late to work... because it means she's writing!)

 

RELINQUISHING THE NEED TO CONTROL THE STORY OR KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT OPENS THE DOOR TO A NEW KIND OF WRITING PROCESS: ONE THAT'S FUN.

 

So try putting it into practice. Even if you don't feel like writing, put 15 minutes on the timer. Release the need to write something good. Think of the first thing that comes time mind, and go.

When you do, let us know what you discovered in the comments below.

The Power of Your Ideas

A story idea isn't about good or bad. Its power lies in its ability to get you to the page.

This week, I revisited an old story I wrote about a stray dog coming to visit. It was fiction, but based on an actual visit by a dog on a walkabout (there's something about dogs taking themselves for walks that has always intrigued me). He had a home but hung out on my porch like he was moving in.

Cat and dogs on a walkabout.

I wrote the story a couple of years ago, and something about it never felt right. So I stripped everything away but the dog and the main character, a young wife. And then I asked myself, why would she find the dog's visit such a relief?

Suddenly, I had an image in my mind: the woman standing on her deck, the baby asleep in the house, and the woman fighting an intense urge to run away. Enter the dog.

 

I had no idea what came next, but I sat down to write anyway. An hour later, I had a complete first draft (a rarity to discover the story that fast, so it felt great). Here's why this is important:

When you want to write, you don't need to wait until you know the whole story.

So many stuck writers tell me that they have an idea, but they feel like they need to figure out the whole story before they can write it.

Yet that approach leads to one outcome: feeling stuck. Just the need to "figure it out" BEFORE you write can be overwhelming.

In my workshops, we practice writing as a form of exploration and discovery. If you begin writing, what image, idea or scene appears that you never would have dreamt up without that pen in your hand?

The power of an idea is to get you to the page, to help you begin writing and see what happens next.

So if you have an idea for a piece, what is the first scene or image that pops into your head? Put 15 minutes on a timer and write it with the idea that you are not thinking something up, you are listening and watching for the story to reveal itself.

As you finish the first scene, what new image or idea pops into your mind? Let the act of writing be more like listening, and see what emerges.

You're Worth It

Writing. On the surface, it sounds like such a simple thing. Put your pen to the page or your fingers to the keyboard and do it.

The trouble is that writing is never just about writing.

It's always about something else. I talked to a writer today who's going to write a book, and while it started out as a way to honor someone close to her, she realized that it was actually about herself. Claiming her own story and her own voice.

Another writer told me that she wants to finish her book because she wants to feel the sense of freedom that comes from finishing it. To know that she can do it, and that when other ideas and opportunities come along, she can say yes.

And still another writer recently admitted that her lack of progress is somehow related to self-doubt. Who is she to want more from life? To want something different than a 9 to 5 and a steady paycheck.

So doesn't it make sense that writing rules aren't always enough to get us to the page?

Here's what I know: every time you make a bold decision, it's exciting and scary as hell.

  • Who am I to write a book?
  • Who am I to have anything unique to say?
  • Who am I to want more?

It can be enough to kick your fight or flight response into gear.

I tend to fight. I've quit jobs before thinking it through, signed up for programs without telling my better half that I was going to spend the money, pitched half-formed ideas, and submitted less-than-stellar work.... all out of a fierce and stubborn insistence that THERE HAS TO BE MORE.

You might choose flight. Avoid what you want. Pretend it isn't there (or that you didn't spend the money), or get half way through something and decide that it's easier to stop.

You might bounce between both. Either way, know this: You're worth it. I know this whether I know you personally or not. Because every time I see a writer let go of the fight, or give up the flight, I see extraordinary things happen.

You find your voice. You say yes to opportunity. You discover that you can have more.

So what are you doing right now with your writing? Are you avoiding it? Are you plowing forward without taking the time to honor it? Whatever you find, don't judge it. Just acknowledge it, and think of the one thing you wish you were writing. Brainstorm a list of 5 scenes, images, ideas or questions you have about that piece. Put 15 minutes on a timer, pick one, and begin.

Just 15 minutes. See what happens.

 

P.S. Only two spots left in my book planning and writing retreat. Check it out!

The #1 Way We Make Writing Harder Than It Is.

Writing isn't hard. It just feels that way.

When I finished graduate school, I thought I knew about writing. And then I had an idea for a novel and realized I had a lot to learn. I'd been writing creative nonfiction and memoir. Short pieces that happened to add up to a book.

But fiction? And a whole book?

I emailed a friend and asked for advice. Should I outline it all before I started? Or just write? Her response didn't help: either.

Since I had no idea how to create a workable outline, I started writing. For a little while, things went great. And then my enthusiasm gave way to overwhelm:

  • There were so many unknowns. How was I supposed to keep going when I wasn't completely sure what happened next?
  • So many ideas and tidbits were popping into my head, but I had no idea how to use them or where they fit in the book.

Eventually, I decided that I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I quit. (And, I might add, felt lousy about it).

I didn't realize that when it comes to writing, there is a middle ground between outlining and shooting from the hip.

I also made the #1 mistake a writer can make when it comes to actually writing: I assumed that I was clueless, and that someone else (or everyone else) knew better than I did.

Yet every time I sought answers, I found completely unhelpful advice (do whatever works) or a lot of rules (write a book plan first, or make a detailed outline of the plot, making sure that X happens by page Y, and A happens by page B).

 

I'm going to be honest. If I waited until I knew everything that happened in a story, I would never write.

Eventually, after a lot of trial and error, I found my own way to do it. An approach that helped me plan and stay on track, but also write before I had all the answers (in fact, write to find the answers). For the first time, I wrote a draft of a novel from start to finish.

Now I know that as a writer, the best thing you can do for yourself is ignore any "how to" that feels overwhelming, makes your chest feel tight or your head spin. Follow the advice that feels like freedom. Play in the space outside of the rules but stay attuned to common sense--your very own instincts about right and wrong.

Think about it. If you ignored the rules that didn't fit, and you followed the advice that felt like freedom, what would you do differently in your writing? Email me and let me know: WritingStrides@gmail.com

It's a liberating turning point as a writer, and it's the philosophy I'm bringing to my book planning retreat in April. I'll share my approach to writing so you, too, can play in the freeing space between too many rules and just enough guidelines to keep you moving.

Together, we'll get clear on what your story is about--what you know and what you don't (truth: you know enough to begin). We'll also create the focus and confidence you need to begin writing and discover what happens next. You'll have to tools you need to write the first draft of your book in three months.

It will be transform you as a writer and set you off on an adventure: writing a memoir, a novel, or a story inspired by your own life experience.

  noname-9Will you take the leap and join me? It's not for everyone, I know. There will be no rules or unnecessary structures, only guidelines and starting points. But I think you'll be surprised how much that changes your writing for the better.

You will feel like an author.

 

Spaces are filling quickly, so please don't miss out. You'll get a copy of my original ebook, The Clear Focused Writer: Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Onto Paper.  And if you're a WritingStrides subscriber, when you sign up you'll get a laser coaching session from me--30 minutes, on-on-one. You'll be amazed what you can uncover in a focused conversation.

Take a look, sign up, email me to talk about whether it's the right experience for you.

WritingStrides@gmail.com

I look forward to hearing from you! Alissa

PS The three month timeframe might sound bold, but it's no joke. With this retreat as your foundation, you really can choose to write the first draft of your book in 90 days. And with the ebook (a $47 value) and the potential of a laser coaching session (a $75 value) there's no better way or time to sign up. This is an intimate, small retreat--once those spaces are gone, they're gone. So follow that inkling, that small voice whispering yes. You won't regret saying yes to your writing.

You're exactly where you need to be.

Last week, one of my writing clients confessed that she thought she would be farther by now--as in, she's been coming back to writing off and on for ten years. After a full decade, shouldn't she have accomplished more by now? She is an extremely optimistic and positive woman, but I could hear the frustration in her voice. It was showing up in her writing process, too--her pieces were good and getting better all the time, but her drive to write was waning.

The problem with this kind of doubt is that it sounds really damn convincing.

"If you were good enough," it says, "you would have [written a book/published in your favorite magazine/fill in your dream here]."

To fight back, you start scanning your life for evidence. And if you haven't done those things then you start to think, Maybe I can't do this.

You completely miss out on the things you're actually accomplishing. In my client's case? She had written two new pieces and was in the heart of revisions. Not to mention, she had recently ordered a new writing desk AND told someone that she was a writer.

If you've ever struggled to call yourself a writer--out loud--then you know what a big deal that can be! 

And taken together with the new desk, the new essays, and our work together, I could see that she was exactly where she needed to be: transforming from "off and on" to "ready and committed".   By the end of our conversation, she could see it too--and I could hear the relief in her voice. She knew, just like I did, that the steps she's taking now are far more likely to help her achieve her goals than any voice of doubt.

If you're feeling impatient, take stock. What are you doing and learning right now? Or, what do you need to do or learn? Resist the temptation to jump six steps ahead and judge yourself prematurely.

From scrapping it all to seeing the potential in your writing.

Last week, I was ready to make a lot of changes to my novel. Move it from a Minnesota setting to Colorado. Change it from focusing on a wolf hunt to the reintroduction of a single wolf. Essentially: scrap it all. I had reasons. I have a hard time placing the book in Minnesota because I am so immersed in Colorado. Plus, the politics of Minnesota's wolf hunt get complicated, and then complicate my book. And, I had this gut feeling...

Then I remembered that I would advise my clients to take a simple step before rewriting everything: Read what you wrote. 

I printed the whole thing out, and it changed everything:

  • First of all, it was so thick! Instead of feeling depressed about the changes to come, I felt awesome. I wrote a book!
  • Second, when I started to read, I saw a lot of good and a lot to build on, whether it takes place in Minnesota or Colorado
  • And third, I realized that my mind is tricky and unreliable. I was convinced that certain parts would seem silly. But when I read them? They had the most potential. The parts I thought I'd love were flat.

A stack of paper never looked so good.

 

The big reminder? The way you feel about your writing is not an indication of its quality. The only way to know what you've written is to read your work, without judgment and before you throw it all away.

That can, of course, be so hard to remember. And figuring out how to see your work clearly can be a tricky transformation as a writer. If you're doubting what you've written, or ready to scrap it, don't. Condisder joining me for a free workshop first, on February 12th:

 

 

Finish What You Start The creative writer's path from giving up to getting it done. Thursday, February 12th Noon, Mountain Time Save Your Spot Now

 

We'll meet by phone, so you can call from anywhere, and we'll be talking about how to approach your writing so that you finish what you start instead of throwing it all away.

There's no sales pitch and no hidden agenda. Just a chance for us to connect and for you to feel renewed when it comes to finishing what you start. Visit http://www.writingstrides.com/FinishWhatYouStart to sign up.

And as for all those changes to my book? They might still happen. But for now, I'm reading. I'll let you know how it goes.

It Turns Out You Can Write Your Way to Happiness. Science Even Says So.

If you've attended ANY of my workshops, you've heard me talk about free writing--writing by hand to get at the truth. Rather than worry about sounding good or how your words will come across, just write until you arrive at something new. An insight. A realization. A mental space that's less cluttered. I expect people to love it or hate it. And if they hate it, I've come to expect reasons like these:

  • It's S.L.O.W.
  • It feels like a waste of time.
  • It's too much "I" (You know, too much focusing on yourself.)

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I try not to sweat it. I put it out there and trust that people will use it when they're good and ready. But you can imagine my delight when a WritingStrides subscriber sent me a link to a New York Times article on the benefits of "expressive writing".

First of all, I love that name and might need to borrow it. Second, researchers are discovering something I find pretty darn awesome: writing and then rewriting your story can lead to changes in behavior and increased happiness. Here's the thinking, according to the article:

"The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health."

It went on to share several examples from the research on expressive writing, but the one that struck home--and that seems most pertinent to writing--had to do with diet and exercise. People wrote down their reasons for not exercising. And then they took a closer look, revising what they'd written to get at the real reasons. Turns out the second version was more truthful. (You can read about it in the full article on the New York Times website.)

And isn't writing all about revisions??   Perhaps the idea of getting to the truth sounds scary. I get it. You could call my entire graduate school career an experiment in expressive writing. I wrote in depth about my life, and it forced me to see the truth in ways that I did NOT want to see it. I spent a good year and a half scared of whatever I would write next. But then? Staring all that truth in the face, I stopped feeling scared. I started making different choices. Choices that landed me in Colorado and in the middle of a life I wouldn't have dreamed possible before all that writing.

So here's the takeaway that I see: when you engage in free writing or expressive writing, you have the ability to not only arrive at truth, but to call yourself out on your own b.s. And seeing your own b.s. isn't it about failure or being flawed or even discovering, once and for all, that you're really a fraud. It's about uncovering the power to do things differently... So yes, I'll buy the idea that writing can lead to happiness.