The end of a year is full of actions you're meant to take, from setting earnest health goals (you can do it!) to making amends with friends. (P.S. Does it really matter if your words were taken out of context when feelings were hurt? Make like a Real Housewife and apologize.) December is a grand rush to tie up loose ends and skate into the new year fresh and apple-cheeked, your date book ready to be filled.
No date book? What's a dance card? I don't use a day planner like an old fool, Katie?
OK, maybe it's just me. But what we do have in common, my saucy friends, is that we want to write well, and we want to do it year-round, not just in January. And even though in the act of writing -- the practice we're trying to cultivate -- the journey is the mission itself, let's be real: We really want to see our work in print.
So let's talk about the self-care work you'll want to do before you even start writing that outline.
I had big plans here of using "Be Prepared" from The Lion King as a jumping-off point for talking about just that -- being prepared -- but, my goodness, have you paid attention to the lyrics? Let's instead pretend there's a positive, upbeat song playing now about the power of being organized. I feel like maybe Sebastian from The Little Mermaid sings it and the Mary Poppins children are tidying up while it plays?
When you think about your writing life, what's your #1 struggle? Maybe it is:
Or something else altogether.
Why does this hurdle keep coming up for you? Real-talk here: I'm having a hard go of it making the time to write, and it's largely because I have a rough sketch of the book I want to write next, but creating fully realized characters has me teetering at the edge of the high-dive before saying "Nah" and climbing back down the ladder to settle in with The Crown on Netflix.
Well, you know as well as I do: The book will never get written this way, no matter my good intentions. I'm setting aside tomorrow evening to revisit this piece about fashioning characters who come alive.
Here's the thing about being honest about why your struggle is so hard: You only have to tell yourself. The very nature of the self-to-self relationship invites total vulnerability, so go there. Your writing will only be better for it, but more importantly, friend, you will be better for it.
Side note: This makes me think yet again about the important work we do in The One-Week Daily Writing Devotional. It's a deep-dive into who we are as people first, separate from who we are as writers. Because we work so hard at gaining confidence in our creative work, we are so tied to that identity as creative people -- but we're people first! If you haven't yet taken this (free!) exploration, you might consider joining:
Make a list (or 4)
As you think about the work you want to accomplish in the next quarter, there are four reflections I recommend making. They'll inform and direct your creative work, putting meat on the bones:
- What were your favorite books you read last year? Break it down into fiction, non-fiction, young adult, middle grade, children's and essay collections.
- What's your favorite piece of writing that you created this year? It might be a whole book, a story or simply a sentence. It's totally normal to fall in love with a sentence. (Right? Right? Anyone?)
- You know those nebulous ideas you have floating around -- from a character to a fictional community to a story arc -- without a home? Write each idea on a notecard, and separate them into piles by what they are: people go here, places go there, etc. Do any go together? Could you introduce them to one another to see how well they play together? What might that be like?
- To write the stories you want to write, make note of what you need to know first. Maybe you need to read up about bird migration, familiarize yourself with Native American culture, refresh your memory on comma splices. What are you curious about? Fill up that library hold list with your new study guide.
Find a mentor, if only for a moment
I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I find it incredibly rewarding to reach out to writers I admire. Sometimes they don't write back, but the act of writing to them in the first place makes me 1, fall in love with their work again (woo-hoo!) and 2, be able to articulate what I'm engaged with. That benefits me as a writer, too.
But sometimes, sometimes they do write back. And they're full of encouraging words and hope, reading recommendations and shared struggles. Other times, they contain typos, which remind you that we can each benefit from a good editor.
I wrote to a beautiful writer soon after graduating from college to let her know that her book had inspired me to write my first short story. (And now it's the closing story, called "Cicadas," in my short story collection Cheers, Somebody.) She so kindly took time to reply -- and there were multiple typos. I loved this. We're both writers! Who are human! Maybe all would not be lost for me in my quest for publication if this less-than-perfect writer has herself been published!
Extend yourself some kindness
Here's where you roll your eyes, but stay with me, comrades: Write yourself a letter for the new year. What should Current You know about Future You? Who does Future You want to be?
Include the following:
- How it feels when you perceive yourself to be writing poorly
- How it feels when you know you're writing well
- The nicest thing you could do for your writing life
- How you can create more moments of happiness while writing
It might sound hokey, but my goodness, being published is not the holy grail. It's attainable. It's doable. You can get there.
Or, frankly, maybe you don't want to. Maybe you simply want to become a better writer because it feels so damn good to create something from nothing. I love that about you. I hope you love that about you, too.
Whatever you're working toward in the next quarter (and beyond!), I implore you to get there while being kind to yourself. Writing is a long (long, long) road, as anyone who's been asked at a party what it is they're working on can attest. If it's going to take five years to write your book (or you're Marilynne Robinson, with a 24-year gap between your first two books), don't you think you deserve to be treated well for that spell?