Getting good at anything requires a lot of practice, and writing is no exception. Join us as we discuss the ways you can hone your skill and build your writing muscles all the way from the first inkling of inspiration through the finished manuscript.
Stephanie: Now Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years. And in this podcast, we try to take some of the confusion out of writing a book. And in today’s podcast, we are going to talk about how authors can build their writing muscles. So, Angela wrote this article for the Editor’s Corner and we’re gonna let her kind of start us off today.
Angela: Thank you for the introduction. Basically, what we’re talking about is when you are out in the world somewhere doing things that we all will do, grocery shopping, whatever you like, and all of a sudden an idea pops into your head for a book. I don’t know how often this happens to other people, but I get these all the time. And I was actually wondering, Stephanie, like how many ideas for books do you think have been in people’s minds that just never get written?
Stephanie: Oh my gosh. I’d say … You know, honestly, probably 90% of-
Angela: That’s what I think. I was thinking like, I think I had last week. And if you don’t write it down, it just kind of fizzles out and goes off into the either. And somebody else-
Angela: … out in the universe takes it over, right?
Stephanie: Right. And then you know, think of all those people who like just completely get discouraged and think, “I could never do that.” And let that stop them as well.
Stephanie: You know, and then the pressures of life and kids, and family, and jobs, you know?
Angela: Exactly. And I mean, we … I think you and I both discuss this on our blogs and even in Editor’s Corner articles about, “Well, you just have to find time and make time, because it’s important.” And-
Angela: … it’s so easy to say, but I mean, you and I, we both know that is not always quite how it goes. I mean, life definitely gets in the way.
Stephanie: You have to do your best. You have … Yeah, you have to fight tooth and claw.
Angela: Exactly. Well I mean, there’s no perfect solution. I mean, if somebody decides, “Well, I’m gonna get up at 5 A.M. and I’m gonna write then.” That may be great for that person, it may not work for anybody else. So you have to kind of find what works for you, and it’s gonna change maybe daily, maybe every month.
Stephanie: Right, absolutely.
Angela: Yeah, so you roll with the punches, right?
Stephanie: Right. Yeah. I mean, with our two kids, you know, that … We have a plan, my husband and I, to get up at 5:30 every morning and sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. You know, and to get ourselves prepared for two hours before the kids wake up [crosstalk 00:02:34]-
Angela: Exactly. I think the only thing that gets me up that early anymore is hearing the cat in the other room start meowing, and know that if I don’t get out of bed, all hell is gonna break loose. So if you need motivation, get a cat.
Stephanie: That’s absolutely true. Get a cat
Angela: That’s right. Yeah.
Stephanie: … a cat is much cheaper.
Angela: Yeah, ’cause young kids will be up playing at like 5 A.M. with Lego’s and you’ll never be able to sleep through that. So putting aside the idea that you have to find time, basically all we want you to do is sit down and tell yourself, “We’re gonna try it.” It’s just-
Angela: … a book. We’re not gonna try to change the world with this book. It’s gonna be imperfect, and that’s okay. And Stephanie actually just wrote an article for one of her personal blogs about that very thing. Putting something that’s imperfect out into the world. And I wondered if you could kinda tell them about that a little bit.
Stephanie: Sure. You know, I think that … Again, as I mentioned earlier. I think a lot of ideas never make it out there, because people get overwhelmed by the idea of being out there in the world, you know? There’s the fear of criticism. You know, we’re told from an early age, “Well, can’t do that. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can never amount to that.”
Stephanie: You know, and they come from a lot of different directions. And so there’s always that voice of a critic inside us too, saying, “Well, I’m not good enough to do this.”Or, “I’m not good enough to do that.” And so sometimes you have to just put something out there and know that it’s not perfect. This is a book, nobody’s life is at stake. And as much as … You know, we’re editors, as much as we want things to be perfect, we have to give up that urge for everything to be absolutely perfect.
Stephanie: It’s not gonna happen.
Stephanie: You know, this is life. And so you just kinda have to suck it up and face that fear, and know that probably most people are never even gonna notice mistakes-
Angela: That’s true.
Stephanie: … that are in your work. And some might, you know those people who just relish going over something with a red pen, “I can’t believe it. Look at all these mistakes.” And it’s gonna happen. But I don’t … You know, there’s no point to be afraid of that. You just … Yeah, again, you just have to steel yourself for it and say, “It’s just a book. I got this.”
Angela: Exactly. Exactly. Well, and that’s what, you start with what you have. I mean, you’re not gonna start with the … Well, I mean I guess you could start with the entirety of the book in your head, but really when you start to sit down and start writing it, little pieces that you would’ve never thought of are gonna come out. So don’t expect to begin the book with every single thing perfected and you have all your characters, and all of the things that are gonna happen, ’cause everything will change. So all you have to start with is-
Angela: … you start with something. You start with a line of dialogue, and that’s one thing that always pops in my head like, some kind of thing that a character says and that’s the catalyst for the rest of the story. Or you start with the ending of the story. You know where your characters, where you want them to end up. That’s what you begin with and you kinda work backwards from there. It doesn’t matter what you have or where you start, but you have to start or the book is never going to get written by you.
Stephanie: You don’t have … That is absolutely-
Angela: Well, you know-
Stephanie: … one of the major problems with anything in the world.
Stephanie: Just getting started, getting over that initial hurdle.
Angela: Exactly. And I think one of the things, I remember hearing like, if you start telling everybody about this book you’re gonna write, that you’ll never write it. So keep it to yourself, write it down on pieces of paper, store those away where only you can find them, and just let it kind of be your little secret and see what kind of thing you can create without having to worry about like Stephanie said, all the nay-sayer and all the critics that are gonna tell you, “Well, that’s too hard. You’ll never get it published.” And all of those things that are really, it’s their problems, not yours.
Angela: People like to tell you that you can’t do things because they don’t feel like they can do them.
Stephanie: Absolutely. You know, and a lot of people do that. They will say that you can’t do something because they can’t imagine themselves doing it. So don’t let anybody talk you into that track.
Stephanie: But you know, really, if you’re writing, do it because you enjoy it. You know, sometimes it’s hard … What gets me through a task whenever it gets challenging, is saying, “I really enjoy what I’m doing.” I’m … You know, maybe I’m dreading getting through the task. But if I just stop and focus on what I’m doing rather than the deadline-
Stephanie: … it makes it a lot more enjoyable. And you know, I think that the product, the final product is a lot easier … I mean, you know, as you’ve mentioned we both write personal blogs, and we write for the Editor’s Corner. And you know, we have deadlines.
Stephanie: And sometimes … Sometimes you just have to write and just get it done whether it’s gonna be good or not. And sometimes that deadlines looms and you just say, “Okay, I’m just focusing on what I gotta do.”
Angela: That’s right.
Stephanie: I’m just being in the moment, and I’m gonna enjoy it.
Angela: Exactly. Well, that’s the cool part about writing a book. I mean, unless you’ve already got some kind of contract with a publishing company, your deadlines is what you choose for it to be.
Angela: So if life comes at you and you end up in the hospital like, in traction for a month, that’s … What we’ll say, “It’s okay. I’m really sorry that you ended up in traction.” But the book will wait, and-
Angela: … that deadline will be extended, and everything’s going to be all right. You don’t have to worry so much about getting it done in a specific amount of time, or in a specific way. Or even really concern yourself with what’s going to happen once it’s done. All you have to do-
Angela: … is get started and kind of see where it leads you. If you’re writing-
Stephanie: You know, I think it’s also important to remember that, you know you mentioned what’s gonna happen when it’s done.
Stephanie: It’s important too, to keep your eyes focused on what you’re doing. You do want to have kind of a broad overall picture and goals. But you know, try not to get caught up in thinking about, “Oh, how am I gonna market my book?”
Angela: Yes, yes.
Stephanie: I mean, that is important. But try not to get caught up in that before you’ve even finished your first draft.
Stephanie: You know? So you want the big picture, but try not to get too caught up. Try not to get ahead of yourself. And that’s where you know, in your article how you know, focus on the road ahead and discover your motivation. You know, and we’re kind of taking those out of step, but those are very important. Don’t … You know, try not to get ahead of yourself. You’ll run, you’ll miss steps.
Stephanie: Just focus on the goal, the task. And-
Angela: Exactly. Because it just gets to the point where it’s so overwhelming that … I mean, I don’t even think it’s a problem for procrastinators, it’s a problem for everybody, that when you’re faced with this hugely overwhelming task, I mean, you kind of tend to kind of crumble and go, “Well, yeah. That’s way too hard.” And especially if it’s a side-project. Like you don’t have to write this book, it’s something you’re choosing to do. It’s a lot easier I think, to kind of push away and go, “Well, maybe in like a week or two, we’ll look at that again.” You know? So if-
Stephanie: Right. Right. “We’ll that’s not important. I don’t need to worry about-“
Stephanie: … “that. The kids are more important right now.”
Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. Your kids are important, but you can always find an excuse if you-
Angela: Oh yes.
Stephanie: … really … If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to find excuses.
Angela: Exactly. And I think that’s what it comes down to. We just want you to understand everybody gets overwhelmed, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You’re just gonna sit down, you’re going to start writing. And when you get to that point where you need a little bit of an extra push, you go looking for some extra motivation. So in the article, we talk about for fiction writers. Go through magazines or websites that help you put faces on your characters. I think that’s one of my favorite things that when I’m writing, is to actually try to envision what these characters are looking like. Because once you have that vision in your head, I mean, all of these little things fall into place. You can imagine like, the quirk of an eyebrow when someone is like, making a little quip. Or you know, the way they scow when they’re upset, or even kind of like the way they move and the way they walk. So those like, photographs, I mean, it just helps fiction kind of move along. Then non-fiction-
Stephanie: Well, and-
Angela: Go ahead.
Stephanie: I’m sorry. It’s those little things too. If you can envision it, you can help your writers-
Angela: Oh, yes.
Stephanie: … envision it. And that’s gonna be … That’s a great practice, you know? That’s really wonderful in building your writing muscles. Build your imagination muscles, you know, picture it. Get it in your mind. Because if you don’t see it and you don’t know how it looks, then your readers are never going to.
Angela: Exactly. And I think that’s you know, looking at photographs and stuff can actually help you imagine it even more clearly so that when you’re describing it, it comes out that much more vividly. But just let it be fun. It doesn’t have to be this tedious process. I mean, even for non-fiction, you know, we talk about things like going to the library, go research old maps, go to like rooms … What do you call them? Like the places you go to libraries and they have collections of old material, like old diaries and old letters?
Stephanie: Aren’t they just like sometimes the collection rooms?
Stephanie: Collections room, or something like that.
Angela: Like rare letters. Yeah.
Stephanie: Yeah. Sometimes I think they tend to have special names, like they’re named after someone-
Angela: But I can’t … You know, if you’re writing a non-fiction books, I would think things like that would just be gold, because you immediately get the vision of sense of place, and sense of person in the way they speak and what they’re dressing like. And I mean, little things like how much something costs or what they did, their life was like. And I think that can really-
Angela: … kind of kick you down that road and help get you rolling again if you’ve been stuck.
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The beauty of research.
Angela: Yes. Well, for fiction and non-fiction, I mean, it’s really important.
Angela: But I’m kind of jealous of non-fiction writers just because they have all those little like awesome things that they kinda go and discover about history, you know? So we talk, discovering your motivation. But then you also have to have the right tools at hand, because if you got the motivation, that’s great. But if you don’t have a way to keep track of it and write it down and to keep a record, you’re in trouble, right?
Stephanie: Absolutely. It’s so easy to lose that idea.
Stephanie: You know, it pops into your head, and if you don’t get it write down right away, everything you know, the kids scream and the doorbell rings, the phone rings, somebody texts you and then, poof it’s gone.
Angela: Oh, yes. And please, please, please, no Facebook, no Instagram, no Twitter. Or [Tweeter 00:13:57] as my son calls it. Just turn off the computer, turn off your phone. You will be very surprised. It’s probably if you’re like me, the first time you do it, the world is gonna feel very strange because you’re not having that constant twitch, you know?
Angela: But it will make you be able to focus so much more clearly. And even if it’s only like 15 minutes a time, everything’s gonna be okay.
Angela: Turn it off.
Stephanie: Right, and at first that maybe all you can [crosstalk 00:14:27]-
Angela: That’s true.
Stephanie: … without all that stimulation.
Angela: [crosstalk 00:14:29] ironically it’s like, the title of the article, Building the Muscle. You know, you have to give yourself a chance to get used to that kind of quiet again.
Angela: And then of course, we get into, you’ve sat there. You’ve put your butt in the chair, you’ve been writing, you’ve been diligent. And then you get to this really hard place, what do you do? Well, we say, motivate yourself. Find a reward that makes you want to keep going. Find a reward that once you finish something incredibly difficult, you have something to look forward to. Me personally, I am like traditionalist. I like chocolate bars, and going outside when it’s really nice. But just … I mean, anything that makes you kind of want to keep sitting and keep working at it, right?
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mine is a nice cup of warm tea.
Angela: Oh, yes.
Stephanie: You know, if I hit a block and I need to think-
Stephanie: … I get up and I go brew myself a cup of tea. And you know, the little bit of caffeine helps.
Stephanie: And then you come back, you’ve given your mind a break. You come back and you’ve got that warmth there in your hands and the smell of it. And then the ideas start to flow again.
Angela: Well, just taking those little breaks. You know, I mean, you’ll get into periods when you’re writing where the ideas are just flowing, and you don’t even need to stop. You can write for hours. But then when you’re having those days where it’s kind of like a trudge, and you just can’t quite get there, taking those little breaks, just do it. It will refresh you, it makes you feel better, it’ll make the ideas come a lot easier.
So you’re stuck by yourself sitting in the chair when all that happens, but you don’t have to be. I mean, there are tons of … Gosh, writers groups online, in person. Every city … I mean, even if you’re in a small town, you have a major city nearby. Or you can at least connect with people online and do like live chats with them. Just-
Stephanie: The beauty of the internet.
Angela: Exactly. It’s just something to kind of keep you honest almost. Somebody to kind of bounce ideas off of-
Angela: … make sure that you’re not only progressing, but that you’re … I guess you’re progressing in a good direction almost. Like, your writing is resonating.
Stephanie: Yeah. Right, yes. I mean, my husband and I do that all the time. You know, it’s easy to get an idea and run forward with it and think that it’s a great idea. Or it’s also easy to have an idea you think it’s terrible.
Stephanie: And then you talk to somebody else and like, “Oh no. It’s a wonderful idea.”
Stephanie: You know, Angela does this with me all the time for one of my blogs, my personal blogs. You know, very much, “No, that’s a great idea. You should go with that.”
Stephanie: And that can help with your motivation like you said, because it is easy to tell people that you’re writing a book, and you don’t want them to have hold you to a timeline. But sometimes you have to be held accountable.
Angela: Right. Exactly.
Stephanie: So you’re walking that fine line of somebody helping you stay accountable, but then also who will let you wiggle enough when life doesn’t go your way. And writing groups are great for that, because there are people who understand.
Stephanie: Sympathize with you. And who also … You know, you’re gonna probably have … Find people who have a range of experience, so there are people whom you can mentor and who will mentor you. And you know, I find that that’s been incredibly helpful as well. When you teach others, you actually learn yourself. And when you talk about your book or your topic at hand, that happens too. You learn as you teach.
Angela: Well, and it helps you clarify ideas and all sorts of things. If you have to explain something to someone, you kind of start to realize how much you actually understand it, right? Yeah.
Stephanie: Yes. Well, and if you have to explain it, that happens all the time too, my husband and I have a breakfast conversation, and I’m explaining something to him. And it dawns on me, “Oh my gosh. That’s what I need to do.”
Stephanie: “That’s what I need to explain. That’s the key that I’ve been missing.”
Stephanie: And that does help a lot.
Angela: Well, and friends in a writers group are never gonna get tired of hearing about your book either, where other friends might be like, “Okay, that’s great. Now it’s time to talk about me.” You know? So having a writer’s group or even just one other person that’s going through a similar course like you are, can make a big difference.
Angela: So we’ve kind of run the gambit on everything, but we have one more thing we need to talk about. And that is what we call, moving on. Basically, you’ve run your marathon and you’re stuck. You just … You’ve got no more get up and go, all the ideas are just completely crapped out. You’ve got nothing. So the question always is, you know like, do you just give up the idea entirely? Do you just set it away for a while? And honestly for me at least the answer is it just depends. I mean, a lot of times, if you will take a break. And I mean like, a break like a week or a month away from it. When you come back [crosstalk 00:19:37] … Yeah. When you come back to it, your gut pretty much knows if you’ve got something to keep going on, don’t you think?
Stephanie: Right. Because sometimes you’re just burned out and you just need that time away, you know?
Stephanie: For your brain to refresh, and you come back full of ideas. And now, sometimes you come back and you realize, “No, there’s no way this is going to anywhere.”
Stephanie: And I don’t you need to necessarily dispose of it right away. You know, I go back sometimes to journals from, I don’t know, 20, 25 years ago.
Stephanie: And then I see something that was just a note then, but it sparks something now. So you know, I’m not saying that you should keep everything for 20 plus years.
Stephanie: But you know, maybe now is just not the time for that idea. And that’s okay, because you haven’t lost any of that work.
Stephanie: It might just … You might just repurpose it later too. You never know.
Angela: Well, and you don’t every really lose anything in that way. All of that work you’ve done has brought you so much learning. And it will take you-
Angela: … on your next project, it will be so much easier, because you have learned so much from your first project. I-
Stephanie: Right. And sometimes this first project … I’m sorry.
Angela: No, it’s okay.
Stephanie: Sometimes this first project will actually just start you on a new project, and it wasn’t really the one you wanted to do after all. You know, you get into … You know, there’s some tangent, some piece you learn and you’re like, “Yes, this is what I really want to do. Not that other thing.”
Angela: Exactly. Exactly. And I mean, I’ve got folders of old stories and pieces of novels, you know. Keep them in a folder, keep them out of sight, ’cause I mean, you don’t want to have to like stare at my list of failures every time I walk into a room. So they can be in the closet.
Angela: That’s fine. But just kinda keep them out of sight, and then every like six months or so, kinda go back and look at them. Because something that looks at or impossible to you today, six months from now, you may feel completely different about it. And-
Stephanie: Oh, yeah.
Angela: … like Stephanie said, there may be that little piece in there that you go, “Well, I don’t really like the novel, but this character. This character has something to say, and I would love to take that character and put it in a completely different situation.” And I mean, that’s how all novels get written. That’s … You know, how you get new ideas for things.
Stephanie: Yes. Absolutely. You know, I’m sitting here looking at our list, and I’m think you know, let’s just kind of recap.
Stephanie: We’re gonna go over that list again. You know, really get going, get yourself going no matter what.
Stephanie: And then start with what you’ve got. Get it down, get it down, get it down. And then just see what happens. Follow it, go where it leads.
Stephanie: Create your plan. And you know, once you’ve got your plan, keep going. Find your motivation wherever you can. Stick to your plan, stick to your motivation. Keep your tools on hand. Remember to turn off your distractions, but keep your tools on hand so that whenever that idea strikes you, you’ve got it. And keep going, keep going.
Angela: We’re seeing a pattern here.
Stephanie: Find your motivation, find your tribe. Don’t let one bad idea, one bad story that dead-ends, don’t let that keep you from the main story. If other things are working, leave that for a little bit, come back to it later. Sometimes characters and stories have a way of evolving on their own.
Angela: Oh, yes.
Stephanie: Go with it if you need to. And make sure that you find somebody who can support you and make sure that you’re carving out time to write. Even if it’s two hours a week, it’s all you can find, do it. As long as you consistently practice, it makes it easier. Your brain will get in the habit, “Okay, this is when I write. So will right.”
Angela: Yep, and it makes it easier-
Stephanie: And don’t forget to-
Angela: Sorry, but it makes it easier to carve out the time too when you make it into a habit, ’cause you expect it to be-
Stephanie: Absolutely does.
Angela: … at that day and that time.
Stephanie: Yes. And don’t forget to give yourself a break. Build in writing … Build in breaks in your writing as well. Even if it’s just as simple as going and making yourself a cup of tea, or having a regular-
Stephanie: … off. Sometimes that happens. And don’t be afraid to let it go.
Stephanie: If it turns out that it’s just not going anywhere.
Stephanie: So those really are the keys to really building your writing muscles. And again, if the story goes nowhere, this novel goes nowhere, you’ve still been building those muscles, and they’re gonna be stronger for your next project.
Stephanie: So that is wrap for us this time. And so, please come back next time and join us when we will be discussing the most common mechanical mistakes that we Dog Ear editors see in manuscripts. Until then, keep writing.