11
Aug 17

How to Start a Big Writing Project

One of the questions I get all the time is how to start a big writing project. Admittedly, big is a relative term, and means something different to everyone. But whether you’re a middle school student working on a five-paragraph essay or a doctoral candidate trying to crank out that thesis, getting started can be a stumbling block.

Tackling a big writing project can be tough! But I've got 5 tips to help you get through your next big writing project right here.

Original photo by Kari Shea

I feel right here is a good time for me to make a disclaimer.

If you’ve seen me on Twitter, then you know how prone I am to procrastination. There isn’t a week that goes by that I’m not putting something off by looking at all the tweets. So, if you feel that I may need to heed my own advice that I’m about to give, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Do you struggle when it comes to starting a big writing project? Click To Tweet

And while I admit that there is a fair amount of procrastination to my process, there is even more getting down to business. After all, I’ve completed more than one big writing project in my day. Whether it was my master’s thesis or books for ghost writing clients or the syllabus I’m working on now (HOW IS IT AUGUST ALREADY?!), I have a tried-and-true process to get you started on that big writing project that you need to crank out.

001: Minimize distractions.
This is when we close that Twitter tab on our browser. In fact, we shut down the whole browser. We close out everything that isn’t the word processing software we happen to be using. And we put our phone in the other room. And make sure the notifications are off.

I’m not trying to be jerk here, but you can’t write if you’re distracted. There is literally no such thing as multitasking, and if you think you’re succeeding at doing two things at once, you’re really just half-assing those things. (If you’ve got three things going, you’re third-assing. I could go on forever with the fractions.) Multitasking is a great way to make minimal progress on multiple things at the same time. So do yourself a favor and focus in on writing. That will make you get through your task a lot faster, and it won’t seem as daunting.

002: Get in the right headspace.
I know exactly what I need to create the perfect environment for writing. It’s taken me so much time to figure this out, but I’m glad that I finally have. I know I need quiet. I know I need to minimize external stimuli. I know that I need to be as far away from people as possible.

For that reason, I NEVER post up in a coffee shop. In fact, I can barely read in those places. Maybe there is an ideal, quiet coffee shop in an alternate universe that would be perfect for me, but for now, I live in a college town, and every cafe is chock-full of loud-ass students.

When I picked a new place to live, I made sure I found a place that had a space I could use as an office. I know I need the dedicated space to catch all my paper clutter associated with teaching as well as a place where I could sit and do any big writing project that came my way.

I know not everyone can have a dedicated space to work on a big writing project, so you gotta work with what you got. I highly recommend Ambient Mixer to help you tune out the world and get shit done. Invest in some headphones that cancel out other noises. And let everyone around you know that you are not to be disturbed. Because every time you stop to acknowledge a distraction, it takes you that much longer to get back into that headspace, and even longer to get your writing done.

003: Create a road map.
You aren’t going to remember all those brilliant points that you thought about when you originally conceived this project. In fact, if you haven’t written any points down before you begin, congratulations on creating the hardest project of all time. I’m not saying you have to create a full-fledged outline (though, depending on the project, you probably should because it can only help), but you need to know where you’re going.

I used to work with a kitchen manager at this professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart (real long story for another time), and every day he’d grab an index card and write out what he needed to do. And with that card that he kept in his front shirt pocket, he never missed a food order or delivery. He kept his crew tight, and the kitchen ran like a well-oiled machine. We’d open the restaurant together, and he’d say, “You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t have a map.” Then he’d flick the corner of that to do list, and go about his day.

I still follow that advice. It’s not uncommon for the screen of my laptop to be surrounded by Post-Its with the nonsensical ramblings of a mad woman. But I need those because they have my ideas, and those ideas are the map.

004: Don’t overestimate your potential output.
If you wouldn’t go to the gym after a long period of inactivity and try to max out your squat, then don’t do it with writing. Sure, you’re probably not going to tear a muscle writing, but your brain and body aren’t used to it, and you’re going to do more damage than good.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. And while I’m not one of those militant writers that believes in working on projects every single day, I do believe that you have to work most days. So, if you’re a student who has spent all summer doing nothing besides eating processed food and watching YouTube videos, you aren’t going to go back to school in the fall and suddenly be able to bash out a 10-page paper in one night.

Writing is like a muscle. You have to exercise it or lose it. Click To Tweet

(You might be able to. But, it’s going to hurt like hell. And you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even if you pass this one paper, know that some professors won’t put up with shitty writing, and at some point, it will come back to bite you in the ass.)

So if you haven’t written in a while, maybe set yourself a small goal. Maybe on the first day, all you do is create that road map for the paper. Then, on the second day, you organize your research and pull the quotes you want to use and create your reference list. Then, you’re already familiar with the topic, and you’re ready to go. Sure, it will require hours of work and revision, but you aren’t overextending yourself in the beginning.

005: Stop tongue kissing boys.
One of the biggest mistakes my students run into is not managing time. No one writes all day long. (I mean, maybe on occasion, but not all day every day.) There’s a lot to life that’s way more fun than drumming your fingers on a keyboard while your eyes stare blankly at a screen. And that stuff will always come before writing if you let it.

When I was an undergrad, a particularly folksy professor of mine asked the class of junior-level creative writers what we were reading for fun. As creative writing majors, we had to take so many writing classes in addition to literature classes, and our nights and weekends were spent catching up on Tolstoy and Milton and Brontë. Surely none of us had time to read for fun too!

Wrong.

As my professor so eloquently put it, “If you got time to be tongue kissin’ boys, you got time to be readin’.”

(I feel I should state for the record that at that time in my life, I couldn’t figure out how to get a boy to tongue kiss me. Also, I had never heard the phrase “tongue kissing” in my life.)

Here's the thing about writing: It's a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. Click To Tweet

Here’s the thing about a big writing project: It’s a lot more fun to do other stuff like tongue kissing boys. But the writing will still need to be done. So, if you’ve got time to gallivant around town with any ol’ fella who will kiss you, you’ve got time to write. Be honest about how you’re time is spent, and plan out how you will be using your time when you’re in the midst of the big writing project. It will save you so much hurt at the end.

Now let’s say you’ve followed these five tips.

And then what? Well. Okay. Here’s the thing.

You still have to write.

That’s the thing about a big writing project. It’s still a lot of work. But, if you follow these five tips, I promise you that it will become easier for you to complete. That’s not to say that it will be easy. But you’ll learn how to approach a big writing project, and honestly, knowing how to do that is half the writing battle.

 

What about you, fellow writers? How do you attack a big writing project? What are your keys to success? On average, how many hours a week do you spend tongue kissin’ boys?


05
Jul 17

Hey Writers! Throw Away Your Old Notebooks.

I used to have a stash of writings that I kept in my closet. I referred to it as “The Warehouse,” because some clever guy in my undergrad creative writing class wrote a meta fiction piece about his warehouse. Basically, he was going through old ideas and writings to pull ideas, like you’d go into a warehouse to find parts.

Hey Writers! Throw Away Your Old Notebooks.

My warehouse was overflowing with notebooks and binders. I had lugged some of those pieces from my parents house to my first place. Then, to Chris’s house when I moved in with him. And back in May, I started to load them in a box again to move them with me to the swingin’ bachelorette pad.

The stash had grown significantly. There were journals full of morning pages, notebooks of to do lists and outlines, planners that showed everything I had done that day, and scraps and bits that didn’t really have a category.

So I looked at the box, overflowing from only half the contents of my writerly stash.

I hadn’t really pulled any ideas from it, not since undergrad, which ended 10 years ago.

Looking at the notebooks, I couldn’t easily say what each one contained. There was no system for storing these. Basically, I finished a notebook and threw it on the shelf. There were countless dog-eared black Moleskines, some about half my age.

And I hadn’t even looked at them since I tossed them on the shelf.

But I had lugged them to new locations.

If I remembered correctly, there was some insanely cringe-inducing things in there. Like the story where I pinched a huge plot point from Dorothy Gilman’s Maze in the Heart of the Castle, but somehow made it about pro wrestling. Or any of my poetry, that was basically like the lovechild of e.e. cummings and The Bouncing Souls. Or just any emotions that were journaled between the ages of 12 and 25. Those were some dark-ass days, y’all.

I felt like I had to pack these up, like I had to keep lugging them, like I had this cross to bear just because I was a writer.

But then I had an even better thought.

What if I just threw them away?

But then I had an even better thought. What if I just threw them away? Click To Tweet

And so I did. I got a big ol’ trash bag and loaded it up with everything that was the writer I used to be. I didn’t think twice. I just did it and tossed it in the big green city-issued dumpster.

It feels oddly freeing, especially since you’d think getting rid of your hoarded ideas would make you feel very sad — like losing the last 45 minutes of work in your Word Document when you think it’s autosaving but it’s not.

But instead, I feel like I’m finally free to be the writer I want to be. Which is weird, because a shelf of notebooks in your closet shouldn’t really dictate who you are, but it kind of does. It’s like being shackled to stories you don’t want to tell anymore.

And now I’m not tied down.

Obviously, this is not for everyone. But maybe let me leave you with this thought that really jolted me into making this decision.

“If I were to die, who would have to clean up this pile of notebooks, and would they read them?”

I knew that it would be my parents, and the answer would most assuredly be yes. (Also, I think they’d pack them up and keep them forever, even though those notebooks were garbage.)

I knew I didn’t want that. So, I threw them away.

And I’m only posting this here because I want to leave my writerly friends with this question. Are you holding onto ideas or the writer you used to be at the expense of new ideas or the writer you going to become?

If I were to die, who would have to clean up this pile of notebooks, and would they read them? Click To Tweet

If so, may I recommend taking a trash bag to your warehouse?

 


29
Mar 17

The 40 Reasons “Why Do You Write?” Challenge

Have you heard of the 40 Reasons “Why Do You Write?” Challenge? Bryan Hutchinson over at Positive Writer posted about it on Sunday. Because I’m super defiant and love a good challenge, I thought I’d take a whack at it. Plus, I really wanted to take stock of why I write.

Why I Write

Without further ado, here are the 40 reasons why I write.

40 Reasons Why I Write (Thanks, @ADDerWORLD!) Click To Tweet
  1. I’ve always had a knack for it.
  2. Teachers and family encouraged me to keep it up.
  3. I communicate better in writing than I do in speaking.
  4. I daydream too much not to write it down.
  5. Writing is how I clear my head.
  6. I love the feel of a pen in my hand.
  7. I love the feel of a keyboard under my fingers even more.
  8. I want to feel in control of language, even though I also believe it’s the number one deterrent to communication.
  9. Someone has to fill up all the notebooks stores sell. May as well be me.
  10. I have a desire to be viewed as an intellectual, and writing scratches that itch.
  11. I like to express emotions in terms of the synesthesia they inspire.
  12. I love proving to money-hungry jerks with logical careers that writing is a thing you can earn money for.
  13. I enjoy breaking all the rules your English teacher taught you.
  14. I can’t just turn off my brain after the workday is over unless I write.
  15. I think writing is a gift from the Universe, so I have to share it.
  16. Without writing, I literally have no idea what my hobbies would be.
  17. I write because if I don’t, I get super depressed.
  18. Writing is like a puzzle I want to solve. I set out to make a paragraph, and I have to figure out where the pieces fit.
  19. I believe I’m smarter than 95% of the population, and writing reaffirms this. (NO APOLOGIES.)
  20. I write because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write.
  21. Sometimes inspiration bashes me over the head like an avalanche, and I have to.
  22. Even if a piece I’ve written gets rejected, I don’t feel like I want to quit. Writing is the only thing I never want to quit.
  23. Writing is my calling. It’s my higher purpose. It’s why I’m on this planet.
  24. Because people automatically think I’m interesting when I tell them I’m a writer. #sovain
  25. I write because I empathize with a lot of people, and I want to give voice to the feelings this empathy brings me.
  26. I write because I can understand the motives of a person within knowing them for an hour. (Thanks, mean girls from my childhood. Your guileless transparency was a great primer.)
  27. I like sharing ideas with a broad range of people.
  28. I read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in the second grade and decided I was going to be a writer. (Thanks, Beverly Cleary!)
  29. I write because it’s often like picking off a scab and digging around in the pus to find what’s causing the problem.
  30. I have stylistic intentions for my commas, and believe parentheses are like hugging your words.
  31. Writing lets me take stock of moments and record them.
  32. I want closure for so many things, and writing is the only way to get closure in a lot of situations.
  33. Because I want my thoughts to resonate with someone.
  34. I write to share my experiences with others.
  35. Because I literally have no idea what people do with their time if they’re not writing.
  36. I write because some day I want novel writing to be my day job.
  37. I write because you can’t name another Persian Mexican Native American writer that’s your favorite.
  38. Because writing is fun when I’m manic.
  39. Because writing is life-saving when I’m down.
  40. And finally, because 200 years from now, people will know my name. It’s all about the infamy.
200 years from now, people will know my name. #amwriting Click To Tweet

16
Mar 17

I’m Going to the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs

The Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs

Today I’m heading to the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to do something that I never thought I’d do — attend a writer’s retreat.

Writer’s retreats are things I dream about. Sometimes I catch myself perusing Air BnB for the perfect little escape off the beaten path. I think of all the things I’d like to work on when I finally have some solitude, or just a quiet space where I’m not nagged by chores or papers that need grading. And ultimately I never do it because it’s always expensive, because I don’t have enough free time to do it, or because I just don’t think it’s in the cards right now.

Well, that has changed.

The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs reached out to the Women Bloggers for a group of writery bloggers to come to a free retreat in exchange for some bloggy and social media love. So, in addition to the writer’s retreat experience, we’re also getting tours of downtown Eureka Springs and a haunted hotel.

This is basically my dream scenario. Pretty much the only thing I write about is ghosts. And pretty much the only thing I love more than writing about ghosts is seeing ghosts!

I’m also very excited to have the opportunity to do this with some really awesome women. Mari Farthing, Heather Davis, and Rebecca Loper will all be attending.

I’ve got a bag packed full of projects to work on. I want to focus on a short story that’s been banging around my head for a couple of years. I’ve only managed to get about 1,500 words of it on paper, but I’m optimistic that this will be the weekend that good things happen for that story. I’m also bringing a half-baked novel outline to keep on deck for when I hit a point in the short story where I need to back away.

And naturally, I’ll have my journal with me. I posted about In Your Own Words Journaling on Instagram earlier this week, and I’m definitely bringing those journaling prompts with me. I may use them first thing in the morning, or as warm-ups for working on other projects. Or hell, if I find that I’m unable to write anything else (God forbid) then I’ll hit my journal hard.

If you’re interested in following along on my trip to the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, I’ll be posting quite a bit on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. I may say something over on Facebook, but most likely I won’t. (I mean, I may share an Instagram post or two directly to my page, but that’s it.)

And of course, you know me. When I go out of town, I have to make a hashtag about it. So, follow #MarisawritesDairyHollow and you can keep up with all my shenanigans.

 

Have you ever attended a writer’s retreat? Anything special I should do in Eureka Springs?


04
Nov 16

10 Ways to Make Time for Writing Even If You Think You’re Too Busy

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of an idea must be in want of some time to write. But let’s be real. The hardest thing about writing is figuring out how to make time for writing.

10 Ways to Make Time for Writing

In undergrad, I majored in creative writing. One of my best friends at the time was pre-med. Once I told her that I couldn’t go see a band play because I had to write. Her response was “I wish I had time to sit around all day and write.”

Wish you had time to sit around all day and write? YOU DO. #amwriting #NaNoWriMo Click To Tweet

To this day, it remains one of the shittiest things anyone has ever said to me, even though I doubt she meant for me to take it that way.

The thing is, everyone has time to write, and I find it hilarious that she didn’t see what I was giving up something to MAKE TIME FOR WRITING. But whatever.

Anyhow, that’s what this post is about. In honor of #NaNoWriMo, I thought I would bring you a list of 10 ways to make time for writing. So, if you’ve fallen behind a little in your word count goals, don’t stress. There’s always time for writing, and here’s how I make time for writing.

001: Wake up early.
I’m a morning person, so it’s easy for me to wake up, brew a pot of coffee, and settle in to write. There’s just something about grabbing a notebook or laptop and getting your brain out on the page before anything else has a chance to dilute your thoughts. Plus, coffee just tastes better when you’re writing.

002: Use your lunch break.
When I worked at the job from hell, I used to take my iPad with a bluetooth keyboard to the foodcourt at the outlet mall. I’d buy some frozen yogurt and type my heart out. The foodcourt was nice and quiet during the middle of the day, and it was the best way to escape for just a bit. While I didn’t really write anything that turned into something bigger, I was able to crank out a lot of words.

003: Embrace your phone’s notes app.
I think one of the biggest complaints I have about everyday life is the amount of time I waste waiting on other things. Standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, or just killing the next 15 minutes before a meeting DRIVES ME CRAZY. Ideally, I’d never have these weird lulls so I could get everything done and then head home for the day. Unfortunately, that’s not possible. So, instead, I use my phone’s notes app when I find myself in those situations. Generally, I just outline stuff, but occasionally I’ll be able to bash out a whole scene while I’m waiting for my day to resume.

004: Say no to an invitation.
Remember when I told my friend that I couldn’t go see a band play? I made time for writing by saying no to an invitation. We are currently in that time of year when there are no less than 76 billion invitations to various events. You’re going to have to say no to some of them, especially if you’re going to write.

005: Call in sick.
Okay. So, this isn’t always advisable. But sometimes, it’s necessary. I know that most writers are hustlers. By that I mean that if you’re a writer, then you probably also have a side gig. And when you couple that with family and life obligations, it’s easy to see why calling in sick might be the only way a writer can get some time to hit their word count. When I was in grad school, I called in sick to work because I had approximately 9 hours to write a 20-page paper. So, if you’re way behind in your word count and you have the paid time off, call in and take your day.

(P.S. I made an A on that paper.)

006: Batch other tasks.
I absolutely hate taking time out to cook dinner every night. If I’ve worked out, gone to my day job, and dealt with life in general, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to also cook dinner. So, on Sundays I prep all my meals for the week. I make enough for lunches and dinner. Overall, this takes about 2-3 hours on a single day, but it makes big windows of uninterrupted time in the evenings on week days. Instead of having to make something, I can pop a plate in the microwave, and have a full meal. Then, I have the rest of my evening to write and not babysit a pot on the stove.

007: Never turn on your TV.
I am one of those horrible millennials who doesn’t have cable. But I definitely like to binge watch. And, even when I’m not watching Netflix, I’m totally addicted to PBS’s Create channel and all the great cooking shows they have. (Do you think Jacques Pépin wants to be my French grandpa?) If I’m not careful, I’ll spend way more time in front of the TV than I intend to. And that goes double in the morning when I’m sipping coffee and listening to Charlie, Gayle, and Nora on CBS This Morning. So, if I know I need to get something done, the TV has to stay off.

008: Take away what makes you procrastinate.
It’s really easy to tell yourself that before you hunker down to write, you need to check your email and Twitter. And then, before you know it, you’ve lost the whole hour you had to write. So, to make time for writing, you have to take away what makes you procrastinate. I’m always more prolific when I don’t have an internet connection. Recently, I purchased a used AlphaSmart 3000 on Amazon, and every time I sit down with it, I get a lot of words in fast. Why? Well, because it’s a word processor that doesn’t have an internet connection. That means I can’t stop writing and Google information that I probably don’t need in the middle of a writing session. (That’s what editing is for, dammit.)

Writer tip: Take away what makes you procrastinate.#amwriting #NaNoWriMo Click To Tweet

009: Do it first thing on your day off.
I don’t teach on Fridays. This means that while Chris is at work, I’m home alone. I try to take advantage of this time as much as I can. While my to do list is generally jam-packed with every sort of teaching administrative task that I can’t get done during my office hours, I prioritize writing first. That means I have to bash out some words before I will allow myself the privilege of putting grades into a spreadsheet. And once it’s done, I feel so much more productive and motivated to get other things done.

010: Live in squalor.
Okay. Maybe this is an exaggeration. But if you’re trying to write something, that means you have to let something else fall by the wayside. And you know what’s really easy to give up to make time for writing? Cleaning. I’ve read interviews where both J.K. Rowling and Rainbow Rowell have stated that while you’re writing, the house is going to be a mess. And I have to say, I’m fine with that.

 

So what about you? How do you make time for writing? Any tips or hacks for making time during #NaNoWriMo?