Friday, May 20, 2022

The Joys and Challenges of Accountability--Figuring Out What Keeps You Writing

For decades I've studied the element of accountability--what it means for the creative person, especially those involved in a long-haul project like writing a novel, memoir, or nonfiction book. A colleague once joked that books are like marriages. She added, "Sometimes I miss the one-night stands."

Books are indeed long commitments, and they require creative stamina, as I posted about last week, but they also demand a system of accountability to self, to project, to whatever keeps you writing.

They take an emotional and psychological toll which can wear away at any stamina you have, unless the accountability is in place. I love this quote from writer Red Smith: "All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." How do you keep writing if you're bleeding all over the place?

How do you keep bringing that vulnerability, even courage, to the page? Especially when your life explodes, other stuff demands attention, you feel all dried up?

One thing I've noticed: First-time book writers think success with finishing a book is just about the writing. If you learn how to craft good sentences, if you figure out the secrets to plot, you're home free. That's why so many "write a novel in 20 days" books are so appealing--it all seems like magic, not work.

Magic counts. I've been grateful for the times that something beyond my limited abilities helps me create a better chapter or scene. You can call it grace as well. That extra gift that shows up when you show up consistently.

That's where accountability enters.

Each book project you take on demands two kinds, or so I've learned through my personal study of accountability. We'll talk about each and you can see which is working for you right now, to keep you in the race. And what you may need to strengthen.

Internal Accountability
Enthusiasm for your book is often high in the beginning. Ideas are sheer fun. Anything is possible. You read a bestseller and think, I can write better than that and I have just the right plot to try.

A writer automatically has internal accountability when it's easy to show up at the page or the writing is going well.

You're finally doing what you've wanted to do for years!

You probably recognize this honeymoon period if you've been there and lost it. It can last months, sometimes far into a first draft. We just keep writing, no worries about quality. It's golden to be flooded with ideas, to think about your book all the time.

Truthfully, we don't know better--we don't know what it takes to actually finish a book. Thank goodness for this kind of start. Otherwise, who would write a book, right?

But there's a point where we begin to need some feedback and we share the chapter or draft with someone we believe will just echo our enthusiasm. Instead, they give us critique. Or we run out of stamina and begin to doubt all on our own. Internal accountability builds on whatever momentum and faith in the book is created by the writer herself. But something usually happens to derail it.

That's when the Inner Critic takes a front-row seat. This sucks, you know. Are you really a writer?

Might as well stop now, before anyone else reads this.

When we work from internal accountability alone, unless we have years of experience with the voice of the Inner Critic and know how to keep writing despite it, the writing dries up overnight. Many writers, especially if this is a first book, will walk away at that point.

That's the purpose of the other kind of accountability: external support.

External Accountability
Writers who know that internal accountability has limits, know that they will need support. Ever read the acknowledgements pages of your favorite books? Most published writers thank legions of supporters.

External support comes in lots of forms. Online classes are big for me. I look for ones that foster a sense of community, boost the external accountability with weekly deadlines, and give me new ideas (generative) to keep me exploring new directions.

The best classes give me a weekly opportunity to gather my internal accountability again, recommit to the marriage (with my book).

Writers groups are another form of external accountability. I have a weekly exchange with my writing partner and a monthly by-phone group. It took me many years and many false tries to find these wonderful people. It was worth it. They make me work hard, they give me new ideas, they keep me going when my internal accountability is low.

It's important to cultivate a group, though, that boosts your internal accountability. If there's too much critique too soon, if one person dominates, if you only get positive comments when you're ready for more depth, they can make you falter.

Putting Them Together
I've learned that the two types of accountability toggle back and forth. Internal accountability--what keeps my enthusiasm strong and new ideas coming--depends on how much external accountability I have in place. I set up both, when I start a new book project. I plan my writing time each day, I make lists of what I want to work on (to avoid the horror of the blank page on a bad morning), I read voraciously and study the craft.

But I also set up deadlines for feedback, and I sign up for online classes.

One series of classes just ended this week and I've signed up for another starting in July. Summer is a tricky time for my writing; there's a lot to do, plus we travel more. When I try my usual tricks to just handle it all, the writing totally disappears. So I need these classes, the accountability of showing up every week, people who care about me and my book. It offers the chance for a creative life for me this summer.

What is going to keep you accountable to your writing these next months? What internal accountability do you have, and what have you set up externally as support? What can you change or add to make the marriage with your book last?

Friday, May 13, 2022

Where Do You Dream of Publishing Your Book? And What It Might Take

Where do you dream of publishing your book? How realistic is that dream? What are you willing to do to get there?

I am fortunate to know writers who are great manifesters. By that, I mean they clearly envision what they want with their writing, and they do absolutely everything to make that happen. It comes down to making themselves available to earn this gift. Which might sound odd to some. They also know that they can only control their side of things, not what actually happens once they release their book to the agent, publishing, or reader world.

That limit doesn't stop them. Not in the least.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Finding the Best Writing Class or Conference for Your Book Right Now

A blog reader suggested this great topic: what's the best way to go about finding the "right" writing class or conference for my book, my writing, right now?

There are so many out there, good ones and not so good. How do you choose wisely?

First, let's talk about the need for writing classes or conferences. What do they offer a writer? How can they possibly benefit you in your book-writing journey?

I'm a writing class junkie; I'll admit that first off. I love taking them and I usually love what I learn.

Friday, April 29, 2022

A New Take on Storyboards for Your Book

Last week, when I taught my all-day workshop on storyboards, I didn't tell the 30 wonderful writers my real feelings about storyboards.

Truth is, I dislike them. I revere them, and I use them because they work, but I absolutely hate the startle they bring when the process shows me all my gaps and errors: places I have too much or too little, where I've written on track or on a tangent.

Everywhere my book isn't yet working well.

Friday, April 22, 2022

My Love Affair with Scrivener--Software for Both Sides of the Brain

My love affair with Scrivener didn't exist before I wrote books. I was a dedicated Word user; I wrote stories, essays, and poems, columns and articles which suited themselves to the restrictions of a word processing program.

Short stuff doesn't demand much organization. I kept copies of the multiple versions of each short story or article in separate files within Word--I found it fairly easy to scan the directory and open when needed.

I also printed hard copies just because I had doubts about the voodoo of all-electronic at that time, and I kept them in a paper file folder until the piece was published.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Query Letters That Actually Worked to Catch an Agent or Publisher

Query letters are a bear to write. So many writers who have finally published their novels, memoirs, or nonfiction books remember the agonizing process of learning how to write and refine this all-important document. It's the first thing an agent or editor (if you bypass an agent) will see of your work, so not only does it need to carry the flavor and tone of your writing, it needs to be catchy, snappy, and slick enough to stand out, while being heart-felt and authentic at the same time.


I've personally worked harder, sometimes, on my query and synopsis than on many parts of my books. I've hired editors and coaches to just help me hone the query--that paid off, by the way--and I've given myself many months to work on it so the process didn't feel rushed. It does require a different part of the creative self than the manuscript, though, and I often found it tough to toggle between the deep immersion of writing and living in story and the marketing focus a query required.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Narrative Perspectives--Which Will Serve Your Story Best?

Deciding who is telling your story--that's a big moment in writing a book.

But even more important is deciding where your narrator will be standing, as he or she tells the tale. Is the narrator speaking in real time, as the story is happening?

Or from what's called the "retrospective" point of view, looking back from the distance of years?

Which narrative point of view will best serve your story best? And if both will, how do you move back and forth between them, weaving them together to make a cohesive book?

Friday, March 11, 2022

A System for Tracking the "Internals" in Your Fiction or Memoir

In my post a month ago, I ranted a bit about IM, or internal monologue, a technique that so many writers use to reveal the internal landscape of a character in fiction or memoir. IM is literally a monologue--a thought process, like dialogue except not spoken aloud. (If you missed that post, go to

There are other ways to reveal internals in your story, though--not just IM. But we may not be aware, as writers, that they are already present. When I learned from one of my past students about a nifty tracking systems for internals, I wanted to try it out and share it here.

Interiority or "internals" is a fancy way to describe the reader's view into your characters' inner lives. Some genres require a lot of this (memoir), some much less (thrillers). Internals are what makes a character real to the reader. Skilled writers reveal interiority in several ways. It's important to know what your genre requires and how to plant and build the interior lives, without having them slow the momentum of the story.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Making Your Characters Real Individuals, Making Them Stand Out

A MG (middle-grade fiction) writer in one of my past online classes posted a great question that sums up the main struggle most of us have with writing vivid characters.

How do I make my characters more distinctly individual? Different from each other, realistic enough to be believable, clearly so on the page?

Developed characters, fictional or real, should be individuals: distinct from others in the story. If they all blur together, it's hard to make them come alive for the reader.

One key to writing clearly individual characters is their backstory, the history that informs their story decisions. That's internal research that's often fun (and challenging!) to do.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Do You Need Quiet or Noise to Do Your Best Writing?

My home is noisy these days: two young dogs, all their toys and bones and chewsticks, the running and growling and play they love. I love it too, and I'm not in any hurry for it to change--they will only be puppies once. But my writing is. It craves quiet.

So just like a new mom or dad with an infant or toddler, I set my writing times when the pups have natural naptimes.

Before the pandemic, I wrote best in a noisy, bustling coffee shop in the next town. I'd head there with my laptop and earbuds and phone and order an exotic tea, a big enough one to keep me a few hours. Then I'd plug in my earbuds, find wordless music on my playlist, and begin writing.