17 Ways to Break Back into Your Writing Project

For most of this year, and obsessively this summer since coming home from France, I’ve been working on my mystery novel. But summers have not, historically, been my best time for getting work done.

Summers are usually my time for letting work lie fallow. Summers are for hanging out with my kids. Summers are for family trips and family reunions. Summers are for swimming in really cold water. Summers are for campfires and marshmallows flaming at the end of pointy sticks.

Then, every year, inevitably, summer begins to draw to an end. Lately a few of my friends have remarked on their sense of fall already in the air, but this morning was the first morning I really noticed it for myself. It wasn’t raining this morning, the sky was blue. But there was a nip in the air. I turned on the heater in my cabin (just for a minute!) before I settled down to write. On my forest walk, I picked up a scarlet leaf.

This year is also, I remarked to my husband, the first late summer of many (since 1998!) that we have not been sending one of our own children off to school. No new paper or pens, no new backbacks, no pleading (from already fully kitted-out daughters) for “new school clothes.”

Maybe you’re the sort of person who greedily jumps straight back into a writing project, without hesitation. But if you, like me, have some difficulty re-entering a project (for me, it’s more like having to carve my own battering ram and then break down the door), here are 17 suggestions:

  1. Remember how you felt as a little kid, getting new school supplies? Remember how eager you were to use them? Take yourself school shopping and buy a new notebook and pen. Don’t do anything with them the first day! (Remember your mother telling you that you couldn’t use them until school started? Remember how eager that made you–or am I just weird?)
  2. The first day back–don’t “write,” just list details, images, or issues that you want to include in your writing project. (List 20 or more!)
  3. Write a list in which each line begins with I could write about ….
  4. Try listing what you will definitely NOT write about.
  5. Tell yourself that you’re NOT going back to your writing project, that this is just an experiment. Just play.
  6. Put a foil star or draw a fat red star or some other symbol on your calendar for every day you work. Hang this up where you can see it from your writing desk. Think of putting the star up as a reward for having written.
  7. Speaking of “play,” think of a beginning pianist practicing scales or simple songs (interesting that we “play” music, but don’t think of writing, usually, as play). Try writing out someone else’s poem or paragraph, just for practice. “Play” on the page.
  8. Draw a picture or a map of what you want to write.
  9. Set a timer–timers make great, non-judgmental bosses. At least for me, when I set a timer, I seem to click “off” that part of my brain that throws up a lot of resistance.
  10. Keep the timed writings short–no more than 15 minutes, but as little as 5 (or even ONE) if you’re having a lot of difficulty.
  11. Robert Maurer in One Small Step suggests simply holding the journal on your lap for a minute. I haven’t had to resort to this, but I think it would work in extreme cases. Just hold your notebook or your laptop for a while, as if holding yourself or whatever that small part of yourself is that is having difficulty getting started. Don’t deny it.
  12. Write an email to someone very very good at encouraging you. In this email, describe your project. (You don’t have to send the email.)
  13. Imagine writing the whole thing in one line per day, for instance on Twitter.
  14. Skip the opening line. Go straight to the second, or even later. (You can write the first line later.)
  15. Write an acknowledgments page. Thank all the people who will help you with this project, all the people who are waiting eagerly for it.
  16. Write something–even if only a few lines, or for a few minutes–every day, even weekends or holidays, for 3 days straight. Or 40 days. (Don’t forget your star!)
  17. Write the dedication to appear at the beginning of your writing project. This is for my mother, who read all of Agatha Christie, at least twice. 

I’d love to read it!

Writing the Circle: Prompt #3

“Your ability to make a choice and stick to it—your will—is your most powerful inner resource.” –Laura Day

Whether you used the last prompt as encouragement to generate 8 of your top writing wishes or 100, today’s prompt is all about choosing just one of these, for now, to focus on.

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around this prompt for awhile, and I think part of the difficulty for me lies in a reluctance to encourage anyone to have pie-in-the-sky dreams about their writing career.  Two books that have helped me with this are Rachel Ballon’s The Writer’s Portable Therapist and Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life. 

In short, Ballon showed me how “unrealistic expectations [can] block your creativity and prevent you from ever realizing your writing dreams,” and Maurer taught me to take on the big stuff one small–really small–step at a time.

There’s (still) nothing wrong with your desires, by the way, no matter how large, but I want to give you a lesson now in imagining the smaller, moving parts to your desire. (Because before you can have a novel hit the best-seller list, you have to write a novel. Before you can write a novel, you have to develop a habit of writing that will sustain a long-term project.)

Even the “baby steps” can turn out to have smaller moving parts. If you need to learn how to write dialog, you’ll have to figure out the steps for how to learn to write dialog. (Buy a book? Take a class? Study authors who have killer dialog? Join a writing group and practice? All of the above?)

I learned this the hard way. If you look at my 10-year planner (or the one before that) you’ll see that I’ve been writing “Take a walk every day,” or “Be a person who walks every day” (and other variations) ever since my kids were small. For a short time I was able to muscle my way through this and actually do it, but then I missed a few days, and soon I was back to almost never taking an intentional walk.

Then I decided to make my goal of walking more specific and way, way smaller. I committed to taking a 5-minute walk each day (click on the link to read my blogpost about this), and just like Maurer promises in his book, accomplishing that small goal led me to increasing my minutes until now it’s a rare day that I don’t walk 30 or 40 minutes.

This achievement made me wonder if I couldn’t use the same strategy to move closer to one of my big writing goals, which was to write a mystery novel. (Something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid!)

Unlike earlier attempts at writing novels, this project was not going to be open-ended. I set myself up for failure to start with by saying I’d write my mystery in a month. I had to regroup at the end of the month, but it worked to an extent–I had something tangible by the end of 40 days of writing, a working premise, a cast of characters, and about 100 pages. It was enough to give me forward momentum. Despite being a rather slow writer (and my mom…and teaching fall quarter…) I kept the project inching forward and by December 31 I had a complete if very rough draft. And on January 1, I turned my sights toward revision. I am still working on the steps: I enlisted another wannabe novelist to revise with, creating our own very small mastermind/encouragement group, and I set some interim goals (submit to PNWA in February) to motivate me.

So, to return to Laura Day, she gives very clear advice about how to word your desire in positive, present-tense, specific language, and why that’s important.

1) To start with, narrow your focus to a single wish. Yes, you can take on more, but for now you’re practicing focusing–and focus requires us to, well, focus.

Distinguish, too, between the things you can control, and the things that are better given over to God or the universe. You have no control over the whims and moods of the editors at _______ poetry journal, but you do have control over how many submissions you make this year. You have no control over whether your book will be a best-seller, but you do have control over writing the best book you are able to write.

“One of the most profound traits that distinguishes you from other animals is your ability to imagine things that do not yet exist; your ability to envision future possibilities and to choose among them; in short, your ability to create.” -Laura Day

2) State your wish in positive, present-tense language. Not, I will no longer suck at dialogue, but I write AMAZING dialogue!

Stating your wish positively simply means saying what you want, not what you don’t want. While you’re at it, you also need to give up the word “wanting.” There’s a little psychological roadblock here (think of it this way, want = lack), and I think it also has to do with our deeply engrained language patterns. In essence, I’ve come to feel that a “want” list is often a “can’t list” in disguise. I want a new car, but I can’t have one. I want to get my novel published, but it can’t…. I want to have a better marriage, but there are all these reasons that I can’t. (Wah, wah, wah!)

Of course you want it, but let’s try putting it into different language. Not I want to write a mystery novel or I want to walk every day, but–

I am writing a mystery novel.

I walk every day. 

3) Finally, be specific! I’ve already addressed this above, but I want to emphasize the power of breaking your wish into smaller parts, and making it visible. Even “write a novel” is on the vague side (and so large it is more the universe’s job than yours). But you can write an outline of a novel, and then a paragraph and a page and a chapter. You can decide what sort of novel it is, who your readers are, and how long you want it to be. All of these things are specific and they’re 100% in your control.

I am revising my first chapter so I can read it aloud to my Wednesday writing group. 

I’ve used this strategy, by the way, on poems, too. This summer I was invited to write a poem for an Orca anthology, and–given that my mother was dying–I just couldn’t seem to do it. But I knew that writing a single poem wasn’t an unrealistic desire, and I truly wanted to write it. So I began drawing my circle in my journal each morning and writing inside it: I am writing a poem for Tahlequah and her calf. I built that poem image by image and line by line, but I managed to workshop it with an amazing group at Litfuse, and I submitted it to the anthology editors five days prior to the deadline–and three days before my mother died. I didn’t know if they would accept it or not, but they did. The poem, as it turned out, is as much an elegy for her, as it is for the orcas, and I’m grateful that I made time for it.

Here’s your assignment:

I’m a little worried that all my qualifiers in this prompt will be discouraging. They’re not meant that way. What I wish for you is traction for your writing dreams.

Whatever you’ve come up with–this wish that you know you can turn into reality, given the focus–your job right now is to draw a circle in your journal (the bottom of a coffee cup or a lid or a round coaster work great for this), then to write your wish in that space (in positive, present-tense, specific language!). You may want to write it on another sheet of paper to post above your writing desk.

I’d love it if you’d take a picture of your circle and send it to me!

On this first time through The Circle, this is a free series, and I plan to continue with emails to a small group of subscribers, so comment below or email me at — I’d love to have you on the journey with me.

One Small Step

I recently came across a small book titled One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. The author, Robert Maurer, didn’t really tell me anything new, but he did reinforce beautifully what I already knew. And in an extremely simple way.

As it is a small book, One Small Step was also pretty easy to just … well, read, all the way through. The interesting thing is how (given how much I read) it has stuck with me.

I’m always preaching the wisdom of writing for just 15 minutes. Robert Maurer breaks that down even further. How about five minutes? Still can’t get yourself to do it? How about one minute? What if you just thought about the change, deliberately, intentionally, for a few seconds every day at a given time?

“The little steps of kaizen are a kind of stealth solution….Instead of spending years in counseling to understand why you’re afraid of looking great or achieving your professional goals, you can use kaizen to go around or under these fears.”

One Small Step includes the story of a working, single mother Maurer encouraged to walk in place for one minute, during a commercial break of a TV show she liked to watch after her kids were in bed. For a writer who wants to start a journal habit, but has been unable to, Maurer suggests sitting with the notebook open, pen at hand, for a minute. A minute! He addresses a lot of subjects — test anxiety, relationships, business goals — and in every case, he suggests the smallest possible components toward building a solution.

Of course the beauty of writing for fifteen minutes isn’t because, over a span of days, the minutes will begin to add up, but that dedicating a little thought, a little willingness to go in the direction you want to go, tends to create more of the same.  The science of it has to do with building new nerve pathways. But you don’t need to understand the science to know that it works.

I don’t know why we feel so much resistance to doing what we in fact want very badly to do (be healthy, get in shape, write a book, travel, fill-in-the-blank-for-yourself), and I have been told that there are people who in fact don’t feel the resistance; they just do it. But if you’re like me, you could begin by brainstorming how to break down what you want to achieve into its smallest conceivable component — this morning or in your life (or both). Then, just do that one small thing.

I won’t go into full-lecture mode about “repeat daily.” But how can you say no? One minute!

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.