Sandra Gulland

Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations. For either one, if you subscribe (see lower left), you will be notified whenever there is a new post. I promise that you won’t be swamped with emails.

Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question: I love to answer.

Quill copy

New covers for The Shadow Queen and a suitcase of research books

 herald 2 copy

Tra la!

Here’s The Shadow Queen cover for the U.S. Anchor paperback edition, coming out in January:

Shadow Queen Anchor (US) ppbk cover

It’s almost identical to the hardcover cover, which pleases me very much, since it is so very striking, my favourite cover ever.

I am curious to see what HarperCollins Canada comes up with; their intention is to create something quite different.

As for different, here is The Shadow Queen cover for my Sandra Gulland INK edition, by the ever-so-talented Kris Waldherr.


It should be ready to launch soon. I’m toying with the idea of publishing print editions as well as digital. We shall see.

Suitcase of books

With this last suitcase of research books now unpacked, I’m very nearly settled into my office in San Miguel de Allende. Time to get to work! I’ve a Dec. 1 deadline for The Game of Hope, and that will be upon me sooner than I realize.

Have a wonderful weekend! I hope you’re reading something delightful. I’m reading a rather horrid little book on the virtues of being tidy. More on this later. The author does make some good suggestions.

November 8, 2014 @ 7:40 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Last day in the bunker, first day of my 70th decade


Today is our day to pack up, for tomorrow we leave first thing, heading to Toronto. On Thursday late afternoon, we’ll be driving into beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


I’m always delighted to arrive in San Miguel, but I’m also always sad to head south—sad to leave my library of research books, my lovely office (“the bunker”) overlooking fields and forest. It’s a difficult process. In the next 6 months I’m going to be finishing The Game of Hope as well as beginning the next Young Adult about Hortense (tentatively titled The Princess Problem). What will I need? It’s so hard to know.

Today I will finish going through all the piles of papers and books I’ve stacked up, decide what must come, what can stay, and what should be scanned into Evernote. The life of a Historical Novelist Snow Bird is made much easier with computers and the Net (there is so much more on-line now), but there is still a surprising amount I must take with me.

And … !

Today is my 70th birthday! My party was two days ago; it was wonderful and I feel splendidly fêted. It had a 60s theme (because I was in my final days of being a 60-something), the costumes were fantastic and the playlist I put together—with the help of this site—kept us rocking ‘n rolling all night. Old folks grooving!

Most special, our son Chet made a surprise visit from New York!


Frankly, I was a bit depressed for a time about the approach of this shocking milestone (What?! Me, elderly?!), but now I feel that there is something quite energizing about turning 70. One realizes that it’s time to begin to focus on what’s important. I feel it will be my most creative decade.

Bring it on!

November 3, 2014 @ 3:14 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Embarking on draft 4


Revision is daunting, and each revision is daunting in it’s own way. It always feels like a strange and unwieldy process. How to begin? Where to begin?

I began by making a list:

  • easy changes
  • harder changes
  • hard changes

When starting out, it’s best to begin with easy changes, and work up to the more challenging ones.

I was stopped in my tracks at the first heading. What was the name of Hortense’s school? What was it called at the time?

This simple question plummeted me into Google-land research, which, in the way of the Net, opened up wondrous worlds.

Then, of course, I was compelled to post to my research blog, Baroque Explorations:

Handwriting samples: Napoleon’s, Josephine’s, and that of Christophe Duroc. 

On-line research: subscription publication—an 18th century method of fund-raising?

Yes, a form of procrastination, I know.


It just now occurred to me that my deadline is five weeks off, and that I am travelling for most of it.

Full stop.

I believe it time for me to make a list of essential changes, never mind easy, harder and hard.

As Napoleon would say: Basta! Get to work!




October 18, 2014 @ 7:59 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: perseverance furthers


A reader asks:

“I’ve written my second novel and I just can’t seem to get it to the next step. I’m stuck in the querying process and it is quite the daunting process indeed.”

Daunting: yes.

Perseverance is key

Perseverance is the key to succeeding as a writer:

  • perseverance in continually learning about the craft,
  • perseverance in not being discouraged by rejection (and even learning from it),
  • perseverance in never giving up.

All of your questions (and more) will be answered in this excellent YouTube video interview by John Truby.

John Truby is a screenwriter, director and teacher of screenwriting. He has a very great deal to offer on the craft of story, so centrally important to novels as well as film.


In terms of plot craft, Truby’s book, Anatomy of Story, is excellent, but an even better book—at least to begin with, I think—is Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. It is short and to-the-point.


Study the craft, revise, persevere.

(While you are waiting for responses to your second novel, you are working on your third novel: right?)

For more in this Writer’s Routine series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative head space

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

A writer’s routine: where to write

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline

A writer’s routine: how to be productive

A writer’s routine: on hunting & gathering

Image at the top from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.

October 14, 2014 @ 2:14 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Run-around ping-pong & other Canadian Thanksgiving sports


Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians!

We host a rather large table of 20+ family and friends every year—a jolly pot-luck feast followed by fun and games (pool, run-around ping-pong,* a walk down our long driveway in the dark). My favourite holiday.

The Game of Hope

I’m finishing the read/edit of the 3rd draft of The Game of Hope (working title). The first 50 pages have some seriously sluggish spots, but by page 200, the novel seems to gather steam. Much to be done, of course—too many dropped threads—but not impossible. I may feel differently by the time I finish … and when I get feedback from my first editor (Allison McCabe) on Monday.

The book report


I’m making my way slowly through a magnificent book I was very lucky to be able to acquire (thank you, Peter Hicks!) at the Fondation Napoléonn in Paris: Atlas de Paris au Temps de Napoléon, by Irène Delage and Chantal Prévot.

Atlas page spread

It is full of wonderfully detailed information about Paris in those years, with amazing charts and illustrations.


I don’t think I mentioned a book I read this summer, an on-the-road interview with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky, Although of Course you End Up Becoming Yourself. There are many moving things about this account, notably the sadness knowing that DFW killed himself in 2008.

The foreword by David Lipsky described the long period of absolute hell David Foster Wallace went though as doctors tried (and failed) to find a medication that would help his depression. We have all, no doubt, known someone who likewise lost a battle with depression; I consider it as serious and potentially fatal condition as cancer, and far less understood. The foreword by Lipsky helped me to understand how extremely hard this struggle is, even with loving support and help.


Of the interview itself, I found much of it interesting — insider gossip about publishing, etc. — and also enlightening. I liked how he felt beholden to his publishers to do as much as he could to help sell the book — Infinite Jest, in this case. I myself feel that way, and I know of big-time authors who don’t need to promote, who do so just for this reason.

I was amused that at one point, working with his editor, he was worried about how long the manuscript had become, and sent it in 9-point font, single-spaced. I did the reverse.  Worried that I had cut too much from The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., I sent it to my editor printed out in a bigger-sized font.

It was interesting having a glimpse into the lives of these two men born in the early 60s. I had no idea that people of a certain generation could be so addicted to TV. Not being a TV-watcher myself (except for the occasional drama-series binge), this was a revelation.

* Run-around ping pong: a game for at least ten people, preferably in a somewhat inebriated state, each with a paddle. The object is to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, the players circling, taking a turn at the ball. If we can get to ten: big cheer!

October 11, 2014 @ 1:50 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Travel-lag, research-lag, To-Do-List-lag



We’re back from a trip to London and Paris—I’ve a lot to absorb! No wonder I feel so “lagged” (not just jet-lagged).

Today I began the read/edit of the 4th draft of The Game of Hope. I always think I can whip through a manuscript in a matter of days—this one is only 70,500 words, after all—but I began this morning at 6:00, and I’m only on page 41.   (Sorry, I couldn’t resist an emoticon.)

Not that there isn’t a lot going on.

I’ve been posting a blog series on writing, a lovely thing to do when not writing. My latest post: A writer’s routine: on hunting & gathering. I hope to pull them all together for a modest Sandra Gulland INK e-book publication.

Speaking of INK publications, we have a beautiful cover by Kris Waldherr for the INK edition of The Shadow Queen.


I’m turning 70 —  (heh) — in one month, and I admit that it’s throwing me for a bit of a loop. Normally I’m fine with birthdays; I celebrate them! But 70?! How did that happen? I’ve been too busy to notice.

To be thrown for a loop: such a curious phrase. According to one Net site, the loop “alludes to the comic-strip image of a person pushed hard enough to roll over in the shape of a loop.” Another says that “loop” refers to the force of a train, plane, or roller coaster when it travels in a loop, causing your head to spin. And yet another, of a calf brought down by a lariat looped around a leg. All very colourful. I’ll go for the comic-strip image.

Re. the craft of writing, this is a wonderful interview with John Truby, author of Anatomy of Story. Everything he says about scriptwriting applies to novels.

What I’m reading:


I’ve been listening to the biography Washington: a Life by Ron Chernow. (It’s excellent.)


The Paying Guests by Sara Waters, also excellent.

I’m also reading, for research, a number of books, but I’ll just mention here a book on Fanny Burney which includes snippets that were deleted from her diaries, many having to do with the mundane details of daily life. Of course I love it.

The image at top is of the novelist Madame de La Fayette, also weary.

October 7, 2014 @ 8:41 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: on hunting & gathering


A friend asks:

When you are reading recreationally do you take notes if something triggers an idea for your latest work?

There is a part of the creation process I call “hunting and gathering.” This is most often when you’re fully immersed, looking for solutions, and ideas seem to come from everywhere. I’ve learned to always have note paper and a pencil on hand.

Or, do you try to turn your “work brain” off when reading recreationally?

By the same token, I need to wind down in the evening, so while I might jot down a note, I do not read for research, and draw the line at having a high-lighter in hand. (Yes, I mark up books.)

If you are driving in the car, out on a walk, or anywhere other than your desk and an idea comes to you (which would be great for your work), what is your process for remembering it?  Dictaphone, notepad?

For note-taking while walking, nothing beats a scrap of paper and pen in a back pocket, but taking notes while exercising — on a treadmill, for example — can be tricky. Also, I’ve not yet found a good way to take notes while driving. I do keep a post-it pad stuck to the dash and a pencil handy, but it’s a bit dangerous if I can’t pull over.

Some writers use a dictaphone, and I’ve gone to some trouble to learn to use one, but I’m not very good at keeping it charged or playing back the notes. (I’m working on this.)

There are, of course, apps for just about all of this: apps for dictation, for note-taking.

Some writers find inspiration in a shower: what then? If you’re a shower-inspiration writer, consider wet note-pad paper.

shower notes

When inspiration hits in the middle of the night and you don’t want to wake your partner, use Nite Note or similar product — a pad or pen that lights up.

Nite note

By equipping your world with note-taking tools you’re sending a message to your brain that you’re listening. Be ready.

Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative head space

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

A writer’s routine: where to write

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline

A writer’s routine: how to be productive

Opening image from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.

October 6, 2014 @ 8:15 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Paris: research adventures, food & wine, French class & Smart Board infatuation

My husband and I have been over two weeks in Paris, and today is our last day here. :-(

I’ll be spending much of it in the library of La Fondation Napoleon, but I’m tempted to slip in an hour as a flâneur this morning, strolling the book stalls by the Seine … and perhaps even take some photos.

I’ve not taken many, in part because it has been very much a working trip.

For the first two weeks I was in class at l’Alliance Française Paris.

photo 3

At level B1, I was in way over my head, but the teacher was fantastic, very charming, and so I persevered—and I’m happy I did so. I’m less shy now about speaking French, and in another ten years … who knows? By the time I’m 80, I might be able to understand what people are actually saying.

In any case, I was absolutely enchanted—besotted!—with the teacher’s Smart Board. This technology is years old, but it blew me away. I had no idea! On a Smart Board a teacher can move images around, write, move words, scroll, call up videos, play audio, switch between pages, connect to the Net: anything.

Immediately I thought: every home needs a Smart Board. More to the point: I need a Smart Board. Imagine outlining a novel on it, calling up character images … ! Seeing a Smart Board, I felt the same kind of revery I experienced first seeing a computer. What a tool!

When I wasn’t in class or frantically preparing homework (or eating fine food and drinking fine wine), I plunged into research. Our first weekend in Paris it was the Journées du Patrimonie, when many historic places are opened to the public. I wanted to see inside the Petite Luxembourg Palace, where Josephine, Napoleon and “the kids” — Hortense and Eugène — lived before the move to the Tuileries.

The lines and crowds were overwhelming, and the public was only allowed into a few rooms of the Petite Luxembourg, but I did see the room believed to be the one Napoleon worked in.

Nap's office in Petit Lux

Of course, it would have been a bit thread-bare then.

The Luxembourg palace itself is, of course, amazing. Here, the library:

Lux library

It would have been quite a bit different just after the Revolution, of course. It had been used as a prison, and had no doubt been vandalized.

Also around Paris, I searched out sites:

—the location of La Chantereine (discovering how very long the laneway must have been);

—where the mother of a character killed herself during the Revolution;

—where Talleyrand lived (and gave a ball);

—where Napoleon’s brother Lucien Bonaparte lived (and likewise gave a ball).

And, of course, the Louvre, where I lingered by portraits of my characters.


I loved seeing the glittering detail of Josephine’s gown up close:

Louvre shoe detail

Venturing out-of-town, we went to Château de Grignon, the home of Hortense’s best friends (and now a school)…


… and to Joseph Bonaparte’s country château Mortefontaine, where I was very very lucky to connect with the owner and be given a private tour.


Mortefontaine      Mortefontaine hallway Mortefontaine staircase

Last, we went to Saint-Germain-en-Laye where I was again very lucky that a former resident was kind enough to show us into the place where Madame Campan’s school used to be. Much of it is new, but there are some remnants of the former Hôtel de Rohan:


In the back garden, there was this intriguing bit of antiquity:

Campan mystery rock

A bit of the former chapel, perhaps?

Of course, as is always the case with travel research, I discover that I have quite a few changes to make in the next draft, which I will begin next week. But until then, time to flâneur.

October 1, 2014 @ 5:59 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: how to be productive


A friend asks:

When you first started your career as a writer, was there something you were doing each day, which you now know to be unproductive?

When I look back on my early days, in fact, I’m amazed that I accomplished as much as I did. My husband was often away, and I had two children, a dog, horses, a garden and chickens to look after. Plus, I was still editing free-lance and active in my community: co-editor of a newsletter and volunteer principal of an alternative school.

How did I do it?

The magic word: no

The answer, in part, is that I was young, but mainly I learned to start saying NO—perhaps the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary.

When I got the contract to write the Trilogy the first thing I realized is that I would have to give up my community volunteer work.

I didn’t want to, but there is a limit to how much one can do. I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that my life would carry on a usual and that somehow these novels would magically get written. Something had to give. 

I also put my paid editorial work on the back burner: I gave my best hours—my morning hours—to writing.

A novel needs room to grow. Ask yourself: What can I give up? How can I make more time in my day?

Make writing the priority. Put it at the top of your To Do List.


Write Time: Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision-and Beyond (formerly titled A Writer’s Time) by Kenneth Atchity is a good book on how to get a book written and—most importantly—revised. Unlike a lot of books on writing, his is practical, the nuts ‘n bolts of tackling a big job.

One of Atchity’s suggestions that I have found useful all these many years is to include holidays in the writing process: by finishing drafts before a holiday, you give it time to “age,” and return to it with a fresh perspective.

Also in the making-breaks-work-for-you vein (a blog post): The New Habit Challenge.

Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative head space

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

A writer’s routine: where to write

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

September 30, 2014 @ 1:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline


A friend asks:

What have you learned over the course of your career that you wish you knew at the beginning, in terms of your writing routine/productivity?

I wish I had known how important it was to outline before beginning to write. I might have saved myself years of fruitless effort.

Resisting outlining

Like all novice writers, and many very experienced writers as well, I detested the thought of outlining in large part because I didn’t understand that an outline is an early draft (a conceptual draft) of the story, but also because I associated outlining with the dreaded word plot.

One reason I initially leaned toward writing historical fiction was that I mistakenly thought that the plot was already there, laid out before me in the historical record.

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

I also felt that since I was “no good” at creating a plot, I would be sidestepping this weakness by writing biographical historical fiction.

Wrong again.

What I’ve learned over all these many years is that:

1) history is merely the stuff from which a plot must be created;

2) a writer can — and must — learn about plotting.

What’s wrong with being a Pantster?

Some writers—often the “pantsters,” those who proclaim against outline—have an intuitive feel for story, gleaned from decades of reading and revising. They also usually take years longer to find their story arc.

A novel will take years to write one way or another, but without a plot outline, it will take—I venture to guess—twice as long.

So you decide:

a pantster novel: 8 years

a plotter novel: 4 years

But aren’t plotter novels “commercial,” and pantster novels “literary”?

Wrong again. There are both plotter and pantster novelists in every genre.

Why writers resist writing an outline … 

1) It’s hard.

2) It’s abstract, conceptual.

3) (For some) One needs to—or should—first study the mechanics of plot.

Imagine that you are going to build a house. It’s kind of fun to think of ordering in piles of lumber and just begin sawing and hammering away.

You can see where this is leading.

Instead, of course, a builder begins with a plan, a plan that will go through many, many drafts. Once the plan is fully refined, the building begins. But even then, changes will be made and it’s “back to the drawing table,” as they say.

In the case of a novel, rather large changes will often be made, and then, too, it’s “back to the drawing table”—that is, back to the outline.

The many shapes and sizes of an outline

There is a mistaken idea that an outline puts a writer in a straightjacket and that the actual writing then becomes formulaic, mechanical and … Well, one often sees the word boring used.

This is not how it works.

A novel is conceived in imagination. And then notes. And then more notes: voices, scenes, snippets of dialogue. These begin to congeal, cluster, take form. At some “quickening” point, these notes can be laid out (or, if on computer, shifted around) to form a story arc.

And there you have it: an outline. It may be a one-page sketch, a stack of index cards, or a 40-page document. (My preference at this time is to create a scene-by-scene outline.) There will be gaps, places you know something has to happen, but you don’t yet know what it is or how it’s going to come about. What you do have is a shape: a beginning, a middle and an end.

For the next draft, the first in fully written form, and for all the many drafts that will come after, many things will change. But without an initial “conceptual” draft, you will be looking for the story instead of fulfilling the story: and that’s the difference.


Required reading! From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, by Robert Olen Butler—specifically Chapter Five, “A Writer Prepares.”

When it comes to plot, I’m a big fan of books by screenwriters, the plot-masters. Here are my favourites:


Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. I especially recommend this book because it is short, amusing, and to the point.


Story, by Robert McKee.


The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, by Christopher Vogler. I love this book. It’s especially relevant with respect to character, and the role of different characters in a story.

For these and other books on screenwriting: “Top 10 Screenwriting Books.”

Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative head space

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

A writer’s routine: where to write

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

September 28, 2014 @ 2:00 am2 comments already! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: where to write


My friend asks:

Where do you write?

If in multiple spots, do you find any difference in your quality of work?

Have you tried writing in places that just don’t work?  (I.e. couch, bed, yard, park, coffee shop, etc?)

Do you like having windows to look out?  Or, shut the blinds?

Do you need silence or listen to music?

Are you okay writing with other people or pets in the house, or do you need quiet?

Do you have a special chair?  Writing hat or outfit?

I love having my own office space, and I think I would have a hard time writing without one. That said, the important thing is to feel detached from the world so that I can immerse myself on the page, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. When I’m travelling, for example, sharing a room, or in a busy space, I wear ear plugs and headphones.

I write on a laptop—my beloved MacBook—and usually sit on a couch with the mouse on a thick book beside me. I find that more comfortable ergonomically than sitting at a desk.

If you work at a desk, and even if not, it is important to move, stand, walk, swing your arms—do something—every hour, if not more often. I found this out the hard way. At one point my right hand was in such pain I thought I would have to give up writing. Now I set a timer. It’s shocking how quickly an hour goes by … and also shocking how serious the effects of concentrated time at a computer can be. Move. Change position. Exercise. 

Some writers thrive writing in a public space—a coffee shop or library—but I think I would be distracted. I like having windows—light!—and I prefer being able to come and go without being interrupted. I’m not at the computer then, but I’m thinking. Dreaming is a writer’s work. We mutter and pace. Dickens would have lively dialogues looking into a mirror. I think you have to have enough privacy so that you can mutter and gestulate without embarrassment, which could be a problem in a public place.

I need to feel safe from interruption at certain stages of the writing process. In my early years of writing, I would only schedule home repairmen etc. for Mondays or Fridays, so that I had a run of house-empty days in the middle of the week. I’m fairly strict about protecting my morning hours. It’s important to let your family know when you need solitude.

With time, one learns to immerse more easily, and distractions become more manageable. Professional writers, especially those who are often on tour, learn to write all the time under any circumstance.

A relevant book: The Writer’s Desk, by Jill Krementz:


This from a Paris Review interview of the historian David McCullough, “The Art of Biography, pt. 2“:

“Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” David McCullough says, and so his own office has been reduced to a windowed shed in the backyard of his Martha’s Vineyard home. Known as “the bookshop,” the shed does not have a telephone or running water. Its primary contents are a Royal typewriter, a green banker’s lamp, and a desk, which McCullough keeps control over by “flushing out” the loose papers after each chapter is finished. The view from inside the bookshop is of a sagging barn surrounded by pasture. To keep from being startled, McCullough asks his family members to whistle as they approach the shed where he is writing.”

I was charmed to learn that McCullough doesn’t allow any visitors, with the exception of grandchildren, “the younger the better.”

The ergonomics of writing often dictate where and how one writes. A number of authors—most famously Hemingway—use stand-up desks (some even like treadmill-desks). Lin Enger, author of The High Divide, had this to say on the blog The Quivering Pen:

I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself? Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886.

And, perfect reading for this subject, a book that influenced me decades ago:


A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf.

I’ve long loved this image —


Other posts in this series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

September 19, 2014 @ 1:09 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?


My friend asks:

How many words do you write a day? For how long do you write? How many days a week?

In other words, what’s the production schedule?

This may strike some as a mechanical approach to a somewhat mystical process, but for me and many other writers, it’s key.

Daily goals

The more you write, the better you get. It’s that simple.

The aim of the first draft is to get from the beginning to the end.

Keep in mind Anne Lamott‘s mantra: “I am responsible for quantity. God is responsible for quality.”

Many writers set daily goals. Mine are usually 1000 to 1500 words on work days, 100 words on “off” days (sick days, travel, family, and commotion days).

At the challenging beginning of a project, or after a time away, I will start with modest goals: 100, 200, 300 words a day, building up to 1000 or 1500. Be gentle with yourself, but persevering.

I clock in first thing, using “word count” to record the number of words in the manuscript file. I write this number on a calendar (a small Levenger notebook I buy for this purpose), write down my assigned allotment for the day and record the sum. Circle it. That’s the word count I must meet.

When I’ve met or exceeded that word count, I calculate how many words I’ve added to the manuscript. Write that down. Put an exclamation mark or smiley face beside it if I’ve done well. All those grade-school things.

This method encourages me to write new material every day, move the manuscript forward. Once my daily goal is met, I may go back and edit, fuss, cut, rewrite to my heart’s content.

Some days I’m like a tired factory worker and stop the instant I hit my goal. On other days I will write hundreds of words more without even noticing.

What about burn-out?

My friends also asks:

Are there times when you have burnt out on writing?  If so, how hard were you pushing and what did you learn from that experience?

Getting to the end of a draft, getting a novel ready to send out, is completely exhausting. Crossing that finish line! (Some have asked, “How do you know when you are finished?” Exhaustion is the clue.)

It’s okay to exhaust yourself at the end—but it can derail you in earlier stages. Pacing is important. You are an athlete.

In setting your daily writing goals, it’s important to under-estimate what you can do in a day. It has to be achievable.

And, as I will say over and over: writing daily is key.

Not all stages of  writing can be measured by word count. Working on a plot counts as “writing”; so does dreaming scenes, research and revision.

I like to keep the pressure on (I am my own task-master), so I will devise some appropriate daily goal or deadline—i.e., so many pages revised a day, an outline of two chapters, one character sketch—in order to keep moving forward.

Pushing through resistance

It’s important to realize that the first stage of writing is resistance to writing. Stage two is finding a way to push through that resistance.


For overcoming resistance, I recommend Walking on Alligators, a book of meditations for writers, by Susan Shaughnessy.

Still having trouble? I’ve become a fan of Jerry Seinfeld‘s “Don’t break the chain” method for motivating myself to do something daily. (It has succeeded in getting me to exercise daily, a small miracle.) For a year-at-a-glance continuous calendar, click here, or click here to download my own.

Websites on this very effective system:

Don’t Break the Chain

Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret

Ready to rocket? How I Wrote 400K Words in a Year.

Other posts in the “writer’s routine” series so far:

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

{Illustration at the top is from BibliOdyessy.}

September 16, 2014 @ 12:33 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?


Pantster or Plotter?

Writers often talk about whether it is better to be a “pantster” or a “plotter.” (Google “pantster or plotter” and you will get some idea.) A pantster is someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”—that is, without an outline. A plotter, of course, is someone who begins with a plan.

Alison PickWriting Tips:

I myself am a firm believer in having some kind of plan. The late great Alistair MacLeod used the analogy of a carpenter, who does not just take a bunch of random nails and two-by-fours and start banging. She knows, first, what she is trying to build. …

Virtually everyone detests making a plan—which might be a fifty-page detailed outline, a one-page summary of plot-points or a loose pile of index cards. Most beginning writers resist making a plan, citing the many fine writers who work without one. These writers are also experienced and take a very, very long time to complete a project.


Robert Olen Butler‘s book From Where you Dream is excellent on the pros and cons of working with or without a plan. See Chapter Five: “A Writer Prepares.” His conclusion is that working with a plan helps get a book written faster.

A plan helps getting that first draft on paper. When I was first starting out, I assembled clumps of index cards for each scene: character notes, details, plot points. Now I spend months evolving a scene-by-scene plot before I begin a first draft. Either way, I basically know where I’m headed each day.

Alison Pick: Writing Tips:

Having a plan doesn’t mean the plan isn’t flexible. It will change—dramaticaly—by the time it is transformed into an actual book. But a plan gives me confidence. It steers me in the right direction. Knowing loosely what has to happen in each chapter divides the process into baby steps. I can think of the book as a series of small tasks rather than one enormous one.

Books on plot

On plot, I highly recommend books for scriptwriters.


Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder is short, amusing and to-the-point.


Another great book is The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

Vogler’s story structure is similar to that outlined by Blake Snyder simply because we are hard-wired for story (as originally explored by Joseph Cambell in Hero with a Thousand Faces).

Vogler describes character archetypes—the mentor, the trickster, the shadow, etc.—defining the roles of the various characters in a story.

Examining your story in terms of the classic story cycle and identifying the archetypes your various characters play will help you to refine it, make it stronger … and get it written faster.

Other posts in “A writer’s routine” series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace

A writer’s routine: evolving what works


{Illustration at the top is from BibliOdyessy.}


September 14, 2014 @ 12:13 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative headspace


My friend asks:

Does it take you some time each day to immerse yourself in your writing?  If so, any tricks to ease into the creative headspace?

Writing has stages: a first draft is dream-like, immersive, while subsequent drafts are part cerebral/part immersive and often involve gnashing teeth, pulling hair, and moments of despair interspersed with joy.

Whatever the stage, you need to show up—daily.

For the early, intense and immersive writing stage, some recommend not speaking, talking or reading anything on waking, and to begin writing while still half-asleep. Others use a meditation practice to reach that imaginative space. Some write to specific music or look at an image chosen for a project. Many (Jane Smiley, for one) swear by a hot shower, or long walks. If there are distractions, I will use ear plugs as well as headphones.

Because the imaginative space can be so illusive, writers often try out different techniques. It’s hardest when you are new to writing, but it can be hard even for experienced writers, especially at the beginning of a new project. Over time, it gets easier to shut the world out, to concentrate, to lose yourself in a fictional world.

A writer needs to occupy an imaginative space for many months, perhaps even years. Touching base with it daily, even if only for a half-hour, is key. In my experience, one day away equals at least two days lost in trying to get back into that fictional world.

Some writers are night-time writers but most work in the early hours. If you begin first thing in the morning, you will be unconsciously thinking of your story all day.

The more you give yourself to your work, the more immersed you will become, and ideas will come to you in dreams or at unexpected moments. Many a writer has holed up in a bathroom at a party to note down thoughts.

Always have a notepad with you as well as one by your bed, so that you can write down the ideas that come to you on the fly. (A friend’s daughter calls these fly-by ideas “art attacks,” and dives for the closest paper and pencil.) Some writers use a dictation device that is always with them.

The important thing is to respect these thoughts. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you will remember them.

Proust‘s notebook:

New Yorker cover, NY Proust's notebook

At a critical point in the writing process—often nearing completion—a writer will seek some form of retreat, move into an isolated space in order to be able to concentrate fully. Over the years, I’ve checked into motels, B&Bs, silent monasteries, a snowed-in cabin.

The next question in “A writer’s routine” series: How do you conquer writer’s block?  What do you do when you are looking for inspiration for your work?

Essential reading: Chapter 5, “Harnessing the Unconscious,” in Dorothea Brand‘s wonderful book Becoming a Writer

These two books demonstrate how individual the writing process can be:

How I Write: the Secret Lives of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe: so that you re

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey.

Another post in “A writer’s routine” series: Evolving what works.

{The opening image at top is from “A most delicate art” on BibliOdyessy.}

September 12, 2014 @ 2:53 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: evolving what works


A friend has just quit his day job in order to devote full attention to writing. He has a number of interesting questions about writing, and especially about writing routines. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, so this is a subject very much on my mind.

Here is his first question:

What does your typical writing day look like broken down?  I know you mentioned you write first thing in the morning.  Do you wake up and start writing immediately (open eyes at 6:00 am and writing by 6:05 am), or do you take time to have breakfast and shower first?  

Do you write 2 hours, then have breakfast?  Go for a walk halfway through day, etc.  

Every creative (writer, artist, composer) finds, by trial and error, a routine that works best, but here is mine:

I wake, usually around 6:00 am, make myself a mug of coffee and go directly to my computer. I glance at email (I can’t help it), and then begin the writing of the day. I call this my “Cup of Work,” and I hold to it daily, even while travelling.

It’s important for me to be in a private space, but if that’s not possible I wear ear plugs and headphones so as not to be distracted.

At around 8:00 I break to eat, dress, chat with my husband and plan the day. At 9:00, I go back to work, usually until 11:00, when I break to exercise, lunch, read, and attend to the chores of life, including the many non-writing tasks that are a necessary part of a writer’s life (correspondence, research and social media, for example).

I retire early, often around 9:30, and read for pleasure.

And that’s my day: it amounts to about four hours a day devoted to writing. On non-work days, I will at least have my Cup of Work first thing, although it might only be for a half-hour.

As a beginning writer, I used some tricks that might be of help. The day before, I would put notes by my computer, indicating the scene I was heading into. Because I was a mother of two youngsters, I had to rise before they did in order to get a jump on the day. I programmed the coffee pot to start perking so that when my alarm went off, the smell of the coffee lured me out of bed.

There is no single way to be a writer. The most important thing to do is figure out what works for you.” — Alison PickWriting Tips

Next up, the question: “Does it take you some time each day to immerse yourself in your writing?  If so, any tricks to ease into the creative headspace?” Stay tuned …

Doris Lessing

From Doris Lessings acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature:

Writers are often asked: How do you write? With a word processor? An electric typewriter? A quill? Longhand?

But the essential question is: Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?

For more of Lessing’s acceptance speech: In search of the imaginative space: wise words from Doris Lessing.

Also relevant: An amazing writer at work …  my blog post on the daily routine of power-writer Joyce Carol Oates.

{Illustration at top is from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.}

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September 9, 2014 @ 8:07 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment