Colette’s Top Ten Tips for Writing with the Proverbial Gun to Your Head

21 Oct

Galley and pillowsRecently I completed the manuscript for my second novel. It was harder to complete than the manuscript for the first novel. It has been pointed out to me by experienced novelists that this may have been due to the fact that the maximum amount of time I had to complete the second novel—if I had started when I received a signed, sealed and official contract—was seven months. The first book took more than four years. Can you see my problem opportunity? Not that I’m complaining. I’m just saying it took some getting used to. It was a crucible of sorts, a fiery little crucible containing an abundance of what my friend Hal calls “ass glue.” But in the end (no “ass glue” pun intended), it worked.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, where you have a limited (read: oh-my-god-why-did-I-not-get-more-done-sooner-I-thought-I-was-doing-so-well-but-this-is-an-impossibly-small) amount of time to complete a task, here are some strategies you might find useful.

1. Go into mole mode. No means no. You decline invitations, no matter how alluring. (Well, unless it’s super-duper alluring and a once-in-a-lifetime deal, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips asks you to go to Iceland with her to lace her hiking boots.) You can go to stuff later. For now, you have to write. It will all be better soon, I promise.

2. Avoid the temptation to nap. See photo of dog on bed. This is a warm, soft dog who is really nice to pet. He is Supreme Pillow Commander on a warm, soft bed. You tell yourself you would only sleep for a few minutes. Do not be fooled. The dog is tantamount to a strumpet (just look at those demonic eyes!). No good can come of this! Run away! Run away!

3. Buy frozen entrees. If I do say so, this was genius on my part. I started out believing in my heart of hearts that I’d grill things. After all, grilling is healthy (except for the char carcinogen factor, but let’s not go there), quick and easy, right? Except that even throwing a chicken breast or burger or steak on the grill with asparagus or peppers or eggplant requires time. I didn’t want to spend time dealing with olive oil and salt and pepper, and cleaning up the dishes, because even though I wasn’t doing Julie and Julia, I was still taking time to cook and clean up. So I looked up “healthiest frozen entrees,” and voila! my writing time expanded. It takes much less time to pop something into the microwave than to grill. Or to make a pb&j, which I did for lunches.

4. Don’t dry your hair. This was difficult for me, a relatively vain person whose hair has no inclination to do anything attractive unless forced. I showered daily, but only dried my bangs (because believe me, if I had to catch a glimpse of my bangs if I hadn’t styled them, I wouldn’t have been able to write anything other than curses). I wasn’t going anywhere, I looked presentable if there was a fire, and I saved more precious time.

5. If your characters refuse to speak to you, write anyway. Oh but this was tough. I had read about this phenomenon but hadn’t experienced it. Those days are over, because it happened several times. I knew what I had to write, but my characters were all listening to their iPods or texting their friends or doing their nails—anything except helping me. What to do? Write anyway. Write crap. Make yourself do it. It’ll either get easier and some of the characters will actually pitch in and help, or at the very least you’ll get the all-important words on the page and fix it later. You don’t have the luxury of waiting for your muse to return your call. You don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. You’re not a waiter, you’re a writer. You write.

6. Go offline. The Internets and the Googles and the Facebook are fantastic places to goof off and not write. They are not your friends. Do not associate with them. They are there to suck up precious time you need for writing. Ignore them. I sometimes went to Ted’s Montana Grill and wrote at the bar because they didn’t have wifi. It was a godsend to be cut off. (No, the bartender didn’t cut me off, smartie.)

7. Shoo away distractions. If you have a spouse who is the equivalent of a Labrador retriever puppy, as I do, you must put up the equivalent of a verbal doggy door to block off the area where you write. I found that a simple, sharp “Eh!” accompanied by a stern look did the trick. He would slink out of the kitchen and leave me alone.

8. Make your desk purty. Even though I was thrilled to have to write a second novel with a deadline and everything, it was still work. As Nora Roberts says, “If writing a book was easy, everyone would do it.” I cut some roses from my garden and put them in a vase on my kitchen table/desk. I also got a little lamp and used it when the sun went down because I abhor overhead lighting. This made my writing space all cozy and happy and inviting and for some reason made me feel more like a “real” writer.

9. Eat things you like that aren’t too messy. I viewed grocery shopping as gathering supplies for the foxhole. This is not an excuse to go crazy and eat poorly (although…). This is a strategy to keep your creativity fueled. I stocked up on healthy snacks and allowed a couple splurges in the unhealthy category. I also allowed myself a glass (or two) of wine in the evening. (My characters thanked me.) Apples are good because they are easy to eat while you write. Same with those mini carrots. (Please note these are also horse-approved foods.) Dark chocolate is a must. And I don’t like to drink water, but if put it in a fun little bottle, it becomes appealing. So do that. I used an 8.45-oz. San Pellegrino bottle. It made me feel European.

10. Move. I know I said you have to stay put because you have, after all, applied a generous amount of ass glue. But exercise is important. I mostly walked my dog every morning (if you don’t have a dog to walk, borrow one. Or try walking the cat. A plant? How about a spoon? Then the neighbors can call you “eccentric,” which is perfect for a writer.), and sometimes took two walks. I did crunches. I did push-ups. The beauty of exercising is you can think about your book while you do it, and often those scenes that weren’t quite working miraculously sort themselves out in your head when you’re busy doing something else.

Well, there you go. My wisdom broken into digestible bits. If you have more (and I know you do!) please share. Go! Write! Win!


  1. Tammy Baumann Says:

    All fine advice, Colette. But I MUST know where I can procure a gallon of this ass glue of which you speak. (Hopefully online, because, after all, we’re supposed to be in front of our computers sitting on the place we will be applying said product 🙂

    Congrats on finishing book two!!!

  2. admin Says:

    Tammy, thanks. As for the ass glue… It’s in the same aisle as the dialogue generator and the plot perfector.

  3. Elisa Beatty Says:

    Hilarious and wonderful advice, Colette!

    And, yes, if you can bottle and sell that ass glue, sign me up for a case!!

  4. admin Says:

    Hmm…I’m sensing a theme here. Looks like there’s quite a market for this ass glue stuff. Excuse me while I search “ass glue farm” online…

  5. Talia Quinn Says:

    LOL! Love these.

    Since I just finished the first draft of a novella in two weeks, I’ve come up with some of my own thoughts on this, which I will now tell you whether or not you want to know them:

    1) Try to write at the same time every day. The muse starts to expect it and actually shows up more or less on time. (I am currently trying to convince my muse that 11pm is NOT in fact an optimal time to show up, that 9 am would in fact be far better all around.)

    2) Designate a writing place. Again, the muse responds to this. I don’t quite get it, but the writerly muse is a serious creature of habit. To coax her out, you apparently have to make it easy. This is not just my muse, BTW. Other writers have said the same thing.

    3) Designate a word count for the week. Also for the day. Do not allow yourself to stray from this, or if you do, make sure you catch up in the next few days. This does two things: it makes you feel like you’re making progress, which, yay! Also, it cues that muse-thing again. (See above. Muse needs lots of cues.) If you use Scrivener, you can keep the project target window open and keep constant track. I also have a spreadsheet because my muse is anal compulsive and likes to see facts and figures.

    4) Judicious application of a mild alcohol lubricant like wine or sherry is not entirely inappropriate. On occasion.

    5) When entirely stuck, take a shower or take a walk or meditate and tell yourself you CANNOT think about the story problem (because then of course you will).

  6. Terri Osburn Says:

    This is so accurate. Thank you for passing along your hard-earned wisdom.

  7. Joanne Cook Says:

    Hahahhahah I love it! I KNEW there were more reasons I didn’t write, other than Im challenged!.. Now you can hire ME to do all those things you cant do, except lace boots, I wont do that….. way tooo tall. But I’ll gladly do the rest for you. As for Tom, you’re on your own.

  8. Jean Willett Says:

    Love this list! I”m printing it out, adding in those from the comments and posting on my closed door. Write At Work.
    Thanks, Colette for the reminder that we must move. Healthy foods, movement and sleep recharge the mind.
    Thanks for the no-dry hair. I cut mine off in an effort to take less time dealing with it. It’s not pretty if I don’t dry it and invariably, someone comes to the door…sigh.
    Love it all. Thanks for sharing and good luck with book #3.

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