Tuesday, November 27, 2012

5 Game-Changing Gifts for Writers

By Karin Gillespie

 “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Long ago, when I first read the statement above, I imagined an encounter with a big-bellied, toga-wearing monk who would whisper the secrets of the universe into my ear.

Over the years I've learned you don’t necessarily need a monk to show you the way. If you’re open to it, wisdom comes in many guises, such as advice from a friend, a passage in a book, an overheard conversation or even a sudden insight.

What follows are the valuable writing gifts I have received over the years. Depending on where you are in this journey, they may or may not resonate with you, but each one was precious to me and changed my way of thinking about my craft.

Morning Pages

Since I was a little girl I always dreamed of being a writer but it wasn't until I started doing daily morning pages that I gained the courage to face the blank page.  And what are morning pages?

Simply, first thing when you wake up in the morning, you write longhand in a notebook for twenty minutes without stopping. It’s best if you practice morning pages for two or three months and you shouldn't read what you've written until much later.  The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron popularized morning pages but they've been around for decades.

Morning pages train your subconscious to write. It coaxes out the muse, and, trust me, the practice is utterly magical. Morning pages work best with new writers or writers who have abandoned the craft for a while.

Save the Cat!
Storytelling is a skill separate from writing beautiful sentences and Blake Snyder, author of “Save the Cat Strikes Back!” explains plotting in the most eloquent and accessible way possible.

After reading his book, I knew I would never again plot myself into a corner or abandon a project because of structural problems.  Although his work is written in a breezy style, there’s something very elemental and old-world about Snyder’s approach.

He died a couple of years ago, and even though he was a successful screenwriter, I think his insightful how-to books were his true legacy. I recommend all of his books but if you were only to buy one, I’d get “Save the Cat Strikes Back.” In addition to giving structural advice, he shares the very personal story of how he changed his writing life around. An inspiring man who will be missed.

Pomodoro Technique

Former Girlfriend April Henry turned me on to this incredible yet simple technique. Basically you write for twenty-five minutes, no interruptions, and then take a five minute break.
Repeat as many times as necessary. This method has increased my focus ten-fold. I no longer worry about being distracted by the Internet or e-mail, because during each twenty-five minute period, you trick the brain to attend only to the writing. Here’s more about the Pomodoro technique if I’ve piqued your interest.

Rachel Aaron’s Amazing Productivity Method

Recently I decided I wanted to write first drafts faster, and I ran across author Rachel Aaron's advice on that very topic. Using her method, I easily upped my daily word count from 2,000 words a day to 3,000. (Accomplished in a four-hour time period with brief breaks) The secret?
Aaron suggests writing a brief summary of what you’re going to write each day before plunging in.  Her advice should be worth a $1,000 it helped me so much. But I only spent $.99 on her book. Thank you, Rachel Aaron! XOXO

A recent insight about the writing game

Once during one of the best performances of his life, Laurence Olivier came off the stage and was approached by a reporter who was bowled over by his mastery. Olivier acknowledged he’d done well, but he also said, “I don’t know if I can ever repeat it, because it did not come from me.”

The more I write, the more I understand that the best writing is achieved when I leave my ego outside the writing room, and surrender to my unconscious mind.

 If I show up every day, the muse will arrive, and if I’m humble and understand that I’m only a conduit or co-creator at best, then good writing will almost always result. When I’m co-creating, the supply of ideas are endless, and I never get stale. Maybe this gift was the most important one of all.

So those are the best gifts I've received in over twenty years of writing, and I hope at least one will speak to you. And since it’s the gift-giving season, I would love to hear the valuable insights you have received during your writing life. I’m always looking to add a few more to my treasure chest.     


  1. What an amazing post, Karin. This advice is truly invaluable for any writer-- so inspiring.

    Off to scream about it from the rooftops....

  2. The always fab Karin dazzles once again!

  3. I'd say this is a sixth gift! Thank you!!

  4. Thank you, Brenda, Jill and Judy. You are so kind!

  5. Karin, Christmas has come early: thanks for a bunch of great tips! I know I might be in the minority, but "Save the Cat" never quite resonated with me. I did just come across a book about storytelling, structure, etc. that looks very intriguing: "The Story Template" by Amy Deardon. I'm excited to try some of the exercises with my WIP.

  6. Excellent gifts, Karin.
    It took me many years to learn to listen to my unconscious early in the morning before life takes over.I tell people that it is much like meditation, except I let my hand scribble on a legal pad while I am in the trance.

  7. Love this post! And right now as I'm bogged down with the day job and family drama and the holidays, I'm fighting writers block in a big way. I think the "morning pages" idea could help authors struggling with blocks like that as well. :) Thanks!

  8. Wendy, I have a whole list of books now on storytelling and I also like John Truby's book and Alexandra Solokoff has an e-book I consult a lot. I will look into Amy's book because I'm a sucker for those things.

    Anon, the planning does feel like a meditation to me as well, and I do it as soon as I get up. Then I try to get deep into the book, about 1,000 words before I do e-mail or social media.
    Sharla, I hope your block improves and that morning pages help. It sounds like stress might be a factor. Hope it clears up soon.

  9. Karin, this was soo helpful. I'm a morning pages advocate who's forgotten to practice what she preaches. And I look forward to more on the pomodoro technique. And the summary. And Lawrence Olivier's great insight about who does the work.
    great post!

  10. This is awesome! Save the Cat is an essential; I'm looking at it on my shelf right now.

    Great, great tips. Going to integrate a few of them into my own routine!

  11. Thanks, Shelia. When I find something that works for me I become such an evangelist. (Annoying some people I'm sure!)
    Thanks, Jess. It's really one of my favorite craft books.

  12. I just loved this post, Karin. It should be required reading for writing students regardless of experience. Can't wait to share it with my class.

  13. Karin, your post is a wonderful gift to all of us. Thank you. I used to do morning pages in my earliest writing years, and I *love* Save the Cat!! I don't even think about starting a book without Blake's beatsheet. I'll have to check out Rachel Aaron's advice to increase writing speed (I need help with that, LOL), but I tried the Pomodoro technique recently and found it definitely helped me focus. Must point some writers to your post right now!
    p.s. Reading Ralph Keyes's The Courage to Write was a game changer for me :).

  14. Thanks so much, Saralee. I hope they find some of the tips helpful.

    Marilyn, I have "The Writer's Book of Hope" and I loved that so I must get this other one. Thank you for suggesting it.

  15. Surrender. I think it's the most important word in the entire post. One I have to remember more often. THANK YOU!

  16. Love this post. My son is a gifted teen poet and not a morning person. But every day he writes for five minutes before he gets out of bed. Those weird scribblings had led to some pretty incredible poems!

  17. Love this post. My son is a gifted teen poet and not a morning person. But every day he writes for five minutes before he gets out of bed. Those weird scribblings had led to some pretty incredible poems!

  18. Love all of this advice and it's something I need to give to me this year. Okay, right now.

  19. One of my favorites is Anne Lamott's Bird by bird simply because she legitimizes my neurotic writing self!

    I've heard about Blake's book enough times now that I think the muses are telling me to buy it already and stop whining about plotting. Since I'm still teaching full time and already waking up at 4:30, I'd have to be able to dictate my morning pages during my hour-long drive to school.

    I have, though, spent time during the summers doing morning pages, but sometimes I think they're draining my brain instead of revving my muse...Have I not stuck with them long enough to be immersed in the practice?

    Love your suggestions and Pomodoro has saved my butt on the way to deadlines!

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