Writing Rituals

Laura K. Deal

By Laura K. Deal


I started my daily writing practice when my children were preschoolers. As a stay-at-home mom, I spent a lot of quality time with them, playing, reading books, and answering endless questions. I limited their TV exposure to Sesame Street, and when the theme music started to play, I’d hurry to the computer, where I could keep an eye on them and get some writing done. In those days, I didn’t have the luxury of time to perform any more complicated ritual than turning on the computer and opening the current file. The theme music was quite inspirational!

That was fifteen years ago, and over the years, with the kids in school and more self-sufficient, my writing time expanded. Some days I’d sit down with hours stretching before me in which to write. And some of those days, the words came reluctantly. I’ve settled on a few little tricks to get myself into the work when I’m resistant:

When writing the first draft of a novel, I sometimes pull a card from a Tarot or oracle deck to use as a meditative focus for the day’s work. Occasionally, the meaning of the card or the image on it insinuates itself into the story. Generally, though, it’s simply a bridge activity to get my mind more focused and ready to listen for the day’s words.

One writer I met long ago told me that he would get up early each morning, re-read the last four pages he’d written, and then write four more pages for his daily output. He had the advantage in this practice of working on a typewriter, so the urge to edit and tweak those previous four pages was easier to ignore, I suppose. I do find that reading a few pages will help get me back into the story, but it’s easy to get caught up in fiddling with what’s there rather than starting the new page.

Sometimes I light a candle, or do some breathing exercises, but the truth is, after all these years, most of the time I’m back to where I was in the Sesame Street days. The only ritual I need is to turn on the computer, open the correct file, and let the words flow. Some of the best rituals are the simplest.

What rituals do you use?

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6 comments to Writing Rituals

  • Hilari, that’s one I could try, after I wrote down whatever dream recall I had. The subconscious is amazing, isn’t it?

  • Ceil, I don’t think I could leave it dangling mid-sentence. It’s interesting what tricks people use, though, isn’t it?

  • Pam, I admire anyone who can think before breakfast! I’ve never been a morning writer. Or a morning much of anything!

  • I try use the fact that the subconsious works best while you’re sleeping to my advantage. Before I go to bed, I think about what’s going to be happening in the pages I want to write the next day–particularly if I have an unanswered question, or am not quite sure how to approach something. When I first wake up I spend some time thinking about the next scene…and then just turn over in bed and start writing, longhand, in my spiral notebook. Great way to start the day!

  • Ceil

    Nice blog, Laura. I’m always interested in writers’ habits and unique ways of approaching their writing. I, too, read a page or two of what I last wrote, and also find it hard not to tweak which is why I limit how much I read. I know a writer who stops writing in mid-sentence because it makes it easier for her to get back into the story when she starts again. Very interesting topic!

  • I always read the last few pages I’ve written–and it is hard to resist tweaking. A little of that is okay, but the temptation to re-write can be overwhelming. I’m trying to tell myself it’s okay to leave it until the next draft. I think you’re right about the simplest rituals being the most effective. Mine is: Rise early, make tea, head for computer, work at least an hour before breakfast, and absolutely no internet until after breakfast!

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Laura.

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Dragging That Muse

Photo of Shawn SheaWhiney WriterNOTE: Whiney Writer is on a “Top Secret Writing and Maybe Illustrating” retreat and will return in three weeks. Artist Shawn Shea has kindly stepped in for her this week.

by Shawn Shea

Whew! November is over. Never one to wish away ANY time or day or passing of the calendar, I truly am officially OK with November’s slipping over the horizon.

It seems along with the growing of facial hair ( for men in most instances) November has become the month of numerous “nose to the grindstone” writing and drawing “events.”

There’s the truly marathon-esque NaNoWriMo ( National Novel Writing Month) just slam out a 50,000 word novel between all your other daily tasks in November. Close on the heels of that is NaBloPoMo ( National Blog Posting Month ) wherein you write/post a blog a day for a month. This event’s creator says she’d started it as sort of a joke after failing at NaNoWriMo the year previous.

Not to be left out of this month of frenzied creativity is an event illustrators can join in, PiBoIdMo ( Picture Book Idea Month) where you come up with a wonderfully creative, original concept for a picture book EVERY DAY! Thank goodness November has only 30 days in it.

One quite creative “event” (and from the looks of the creators’ output the efforts seem truly joyous ) is Linda Silvestri”s SkADaMo ( Sketch a Day Month ). There’s no real prize or giveaways, no rigorous structure- more genuinely a nudge to take a few moments out of your day and make a sketch. For more info, visit Linda.

All of these are glorious ways to get your creative juices flowing or gushing or flooding the gutters. And we creatives can always use a bit of a gentle poke now and then to stay at it. However there can be, in my humble opinion a bit of a double-edged sword to it all. To stay up with the demands of a daily regimen of creative output there can be the tendency to become a bit repetitive. Or allowing to slip into the mix something you might not have let go by except for the demands of that daily output.

There are several “Painting a Day” kinds of websites, not so much events but ongoing explorations of what you can do when you commit to that process. Some even have commerce attached to them. You execute a painting every day, post it on the site ( for which you pay a monthly fee) and offer it for sale or auction. It DOES offer a good way for artists to get their work out to a broader buying audience, but I’ve seen far too many examples of folks posting what I’d label as formulaic or at the least “not up to standards” pieces simply to stay in that daily precept. ( www.dailypaintworks.com is one such website that allows you to post and sell a painting a day. )

Creativity and strident daily output could well be viewed as mutually exclusive terms, but I’m also of the thought that you show up every day and drag that “muse”, maybe screaming and kicking, to the arena and get after the work / joy of putting out into the world something beautiful and enlightening that never existed until you brought it forth.

Then there’s always that thing about the beards.

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2 comments to Dragging That Muse

  • Jane Bigelow

    It is possible to estimate the severity of the coming winter in your area by tracking the number of males in that area who begin growing beards in November. Other categories of beard growing are statistically insignificant.

    Seriously, I agree with Hilari. The ability to edit that mad rush is critical. I can see the value of NaNoWriMo in breaking a writer out of the Loop of Infinite Fiddling, but I’ve never even attempted it–seems like turning the joy of writing into drudgery.

  • I can’t speak to the beards–and I’ve never done NaNoWriMo either–but with NaNoWriMo, editing is supposed to follow that burst of creativity. I think that’s the problem with your “sell a painting a day” sites–no chance to edit, afterward.

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Word Weavers : what is a sub-plot, anyway?

Hilari Bell
by Hilari Bell

I recently co-hosted a schmooze about sub-plots—when I first agreed to that topic, I thought, “Sub-plots. OK, I know about those.” But the more we discussed it, the more slippery the definition of a sub-plot became. And the Harry Potter series turned out to be a really rich source of differing examples. Yes, a sub-plot is a storyline that isn’t the main storyline, though it usually intersects the main story at some point in a meaningful way. Like Dobby and Kreacher, and the house elves’ liberation movement. But if the sub-plot intersects the main plot too meaningfully, doesn’t it become part of the main plot? Like Snape’s story—can you really call that a sub-plot? And some sub-plots don’t intersect deeply, but provide a contrast to the main plot without deeply impacting it, except in the way they makes the reader think. Like Neville and Cedric, who might have taken Harry’s place had Harry not existed. If a subplot can be removed from the story without the main plot falling apart, then is it extraneous and should it be cut? Like Fred and George, despite the glorious comedy relief they provided. What if the sub-plot only involves the protagonist’s personal relationships? Like Ron and Hermione’s romance—or for that matter Harry and Ginny’s romance. The more we talked the deeper the morass grew, until one of the schmoozers threw out a metaphor that made sense of the whole thing.

She said she’d once read an article where someone claimed that in order to have a full novel, you needed somewhere between seven and thirty story threads. Harry Potter might well have more than thirty. But when you abandon the phrase “sub-plot” and say “story thread” instead, the whole thing suddenly works. You need several thick, sturdy threads to hang your main plot on. Harry’s battle with Voldemort, which deeply involves Snape. You also need thinner but still sturdy threads that fill up the weave, and create the fabric between the thicker threads. Like the house elves. And the whole Malfoy family. And you need threads that add softness to the cloth. Like all the romances. And even some that simply add flashes of color and brightness to the weave, and make it beautiful. Like Fred and George.

Without all these threads, you don’t have a whole cloth—but they all have to be woven securely together. A thread that’s too loose has to be twined in more tightly, or you may want to pull it out. But either way, the finished cloth must be sturdily interlaced or the novel will have holes in it—and might even fall apart.

It’s also worth noting that this is why, when your critique group tells you that you have to make “a few simple changes” they invariably expand throughout the novel—and the change where you added just a few pages leaves you tweaking paragraphs fourteen chapters later. You pulled a thread…and threads can run for a very long way.

Anyway, I found this metaphor a lot more useful than the idea of “sub-plots”—and I wish you happy weaving.


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7 comments to Word Weavers : what is a sub-plot, anyway?

  • It ups the “difficulty factor” a lot–but I find that when I do it, the fabric turns out not only stronger, but a lot more beautiful. It was one of our better schmoozes–and we’ve had some good ones!

  • This re-weaving of the story thread is especially important when the author pulls a thread and needs to re-insert/weave it in a different place with a slightly different ‘coloring’ to it. Yep, it does cause “re-weaving” to happen to almost everything that follows and sometimes to stuff that comes before. The shifting of threads often turns on the ‘difficulty’ factor but hopefully the fabric is stronger and more beautiful when it comes off the loom.

  • Very helpful metaphor, Hilari! Thank you :)

  • Hilari, you did a fabulous job articulating what we discussed at the schmooze. It’s beautiful, actually. I’m working hard on keeping the weave together in my latest MG tapestry!

  • Jane Bigelow

    Thank you for giving me such an excellent image of a novel’s structure. I’ve just started revising one, and this will definitely help.

  • “Story threads” is a perfect metaphor for it, and it makes so much sense! Thanks for sharing what your schmoozers came up with. Now I can look at my own work in a different way and make sure I have the right threads for a strong, beautiful fabric. :)

  • Ceil

    Very thought-provoking blog, Hilari. Funny how you think you understand something until you try to define it for others. I love the metaphor with the cloth. No wonder my “minor” changes turn into major “re-weaves”!!

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