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A Little Bit Every Day – without Fear or Judgment

September 12, 2012

I am delighted to welcome Leslie Budewitz as our guest on Birth of a Novel this week. She’s a multi-talented person and I’m confident our readers will be as inspired by her advice as I have been. A little bit about her:

Leslie  watches deer and chickadees from her office windows in northwest Montana. A practicing lawyer who loves helping writers get legal details right, she’s the author of Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction, and 2012 Anthony and Macavity Award nominee.

 Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, and elsewhere. Her cozy series, The Montana Food Lovers Mysteries, will debut from Berkley Prime Crime in 2013.

 Now, let’s hear what she has to say about writing:

 “Write every day,” most writing teachers say. To many writers, it sounds ideal. To others, it’s a terrifying and unsurmountable barrier.

 And because, when I started more than fifteen years ago, the very idea of writing was itself so astonishingly crazy, I paid no attention to the rule. I practiced law Monday through Thursday, wrote all day Friday and on some Saturday mornings. Wrote two novels that way. Later, I started taking Wednesdays off and with two full days a week, wrote two more mysteries, a handful of short stories, and a nonfiction book for writers. (Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure, Quill Driver Books, 2011.) My muse–clown, goddess, demon, patron saint, best friend, and worst rival–showed up faithfully on the appointed days. In a variation of Somerset Maugham’s statement that he only wrote when he was inspired, and he saw to it that he was inspired every morning at 9 a.m., she knew “this is our time.” She arrived promptly and we made the most of it. She rarely bothered  me in between writing days, but if she did, I faithfully made a note, and at the next scheduled opportunity, we picked up where we had left off.

 This last spring, my day job as a lawyer, researching and writing in a small civil litigation practice, slowed to a crawl. Twas a gift from the Universe, because I had just signed a three-book contract with Berkley Prime Crime for a cozy mystery series. Then I trotted my half-finished first ms. in the series off to Hood River, Oregon for a week at the justifiably famous–or infamous–Breakout Novel Intensive Workshop, led by literary agent and teacher Donald Maass. Nicknamed BONI, it’s held every spring outside Portland and in the fall in Orlando. (http://www.free-expressions.com/breakout-novel/ )

 BONI turned my novel inside out and upside down. I made the long drive home, and started the manuscript over.

 Two days a week wouldn’t do. I spent two weeks reviewing my workshop notes, ms., and outline, and planning the revisions. I counted up the words and the days, and realized I needed to write five pages every day to finish on time, with room to air the thing out and see it clearly.

 I found a quote I’d collected ages ago. “When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself,” Isak Dinesen said. My version: “A little bit every day, without fear or judgment.”

 Writing every day changed my relationship to the page, and to the text itself. My subconscious began to work more easily, seeing more connections and possibilities. I was able to implement workshop lessons and ideas easily because they were so fresh. My head was so full, I did not have time to be afraid. Well, except at three a.m., though happily not every night!

 Less fear. More words.

 The characters jumped to life. Of course they did–we spent hours together every day. I saw aspects of Erin, her mother Fresca, their friends, the shopkeepers, the killer, and the victim that I had only briefly glimpsed when our time together was more limited and spread out. I made better use of imagery, working so closely with it–I could see where to repeat, where to echo, where to draw out and where to abbreviate. The novel’s structure–my bugaboo–appeared more clearly. Because I knew the story so much more intimately, I could quickly see when a paragraph or scene was something I as author needed to know–not something the reader needed.

 I forgot where I was and lost track of time. I surprised myself by working all day Sunday– only to remember that it was Sunday in the book, but Wednesday in real life.

 Some writers say when they get “in the zone,” or “in flow,” they forget to eat. Well, let’s not get ridiculous. But we ate a lot more pasta and threw dinner on the grill more often than usual. We survived. 

 Natalie Goldberg refers to “writing practice.” For her, writing is meditation. In meditation, we take ourselves out of the busy-ness of life for a while. The goal is to focus–on the breath, an intention, or the interconnectedness of all beings. Writing a novel is not like that for me–it’s both work and play, and far more active. I stand and pace, wave my hands to act out dialogue, get down on the floor pretending to be my protagonist as she figures out how the victim died. I let the cat out. I walk to the mailbox when a scene won’t take shape, and dash back inside and up the stairs to my office when it unfolds before me.

 But the daily act of honoring my intention, fulfilling what I see as part of my purpose in life, by sitting down to write, serves the same goals as meditation in a way that my two-day routine never did.

 Flip that phrase “writing practice” around. When you are on the page every day, you can literally practice your writing. You can rewrite a dialogue exchange two or three ways. You can try a paragraph or two in a different character’s view. You can focus on a line or an image you’re not sure works, and play with it–without losing the thread. Without losing your momentum. Without feeling like you’re wasting limited time when you must produce more words.

 At BONI, Don Maass made a point of reminding us not to hurry. (“Except you,” he said, knowing I had a contract and a deadline.) It’s more important to take the time to find the heart of the story and the core of the characters than to rush to the end. So, oddly, writing every day slows us down. We get to the end faster, but in a more meditative state. More connected to our stories and our story people.

 And through that, more deeply connected with ourselves.

 Okay, we can’t all do it. Not all the time, anyway. None of us lives in our own ideal worlds. The stars aligned for me this time, thank goodness. But you don’t need all day. An hour will do. Heck, fifteen minutes will do. It doesn’t take as long to pick up the threads when you last touched them yesterday, not ten days ago. Your muse will learn, as mine did with that two-day routine, that this is her time and you will be there for her.

 More words. Less fear. Better story.

You can do it.

Visit Leslie’s website and blog at www.LawandFiction.com or join her at http://www.facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

You can read an excerpt from Crooks, Books & Counselors at http://www.sandracareycody.com – It’s a quick bit about what constitutes evidence and is a good example of Leslie’s clear, concise writing style.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2012 4:44 PM

    Great post. Enjoyed every word of it. I also visited Leslie’s website. Very nice.

    • September 12, 2012 4:55 PM

      I agree about Leslie’s website. She’s a valuable resource for writers. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. September 12, 2012 5:34 PM

    Thanks, Sandy & Loretta. Delighted to report the cozy now has a name: Murder with Marinara, first in The Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries!

  3. September 12, 2012 8:36 PM

    Fabulous, and I’m so grateful you shared. That we can make it happen in our “two days” if that’s what it is, and that going to BONI might be better when we’re farther along in our career (although we can certainly benefit anytime), that we don’t have to do everything all at once, and that there is a beautiful relationship with our work that will unfold. I feel like you told us to trust our instinct, or at least for me to trust mine. I have to keep one foot in the mundane world right now, and am thrilled with your description of moving from doing that to putting both feet into your story and letting it work through you as you solved issues and rewrote and retried different representations of that in words.

  4. Rae permalink
    September 13, 2012 8:32 AM

    Leslie,

    I’ve been a big fan of yours for years. A very inspirational and helpful blog post.

  5. September 13, 2012 8:44 AM

    Wonderful post! I love the quote from Isak Dinesen and copied it for future reference. It’s absolutely fascinating to read about Leslie’s process — from two days a week to full time writing — and how that transition improved her craft, slowed her down, but, in an odd way, speeded things up as well. Bringing in the information about Goldberg’s book and the meditative state that writing can induce at its best was also brilliant. Thanks for sharing with us!

  6. September 13, 2012 9:22 AM

    Spectacular post. You’ve hit on something that is very hard to do, but exhilarating. I’m working on a new novel, using this non-judgmental technique for the first time, and I can’t wait to see where my characters take me.

  7. September 13, 2012 10:20 AM

    Oh, my, you all made my day with your kind responses to my essay! Diane, you summarized my experience beautifully. Thank you! The bottom line for me is to be honest with yourself. Can you really not write because you only have a few minutes a day, or one morning a week – or are you letting what Stephen Pressfield calls “The Resistance” get between you and your art? Do you insist on an outline, or refuse to write one, because that’s really the best method for you–or because you’re avoiding the hard work?

    I don’t discount the practical challenges of writing – or painting, or composing, or any art – with toes still in “the mundane world,” as Diane says, or of “the transition,” in Gretchen’s phrase. But instead of fighting it, find a way to embrace it. Thank the day job for supporting you and your habit of art. Look for tiny ways to blend the two. Ask yourself how your day job has benefitted your writing. (I just wrote a post on that subject for the Crime Writers’ Chronicle, http://crimewriters.blogspot.com/ , which should be up on Sept. 30.) Ask it to do more! Remember, the Universe wants us to succeed.

    Rae and Liz, many thanks. And thanks to Sandy for the invitation.

  8. September 13, 2012 10:22 AM

    Thanks, Leslie, for sharing your writing words of wisdom. I’ve always found writing to be a type of meditative practice, and it was interesting to read how the process is more active for you. However we approach writing (or meditation), it’s the “daily act of honoring our intention” as you stated, that is so important. Thanks again!

  9. September 13, 2012 11:08 AM

    Thanks, Marielena — and what a pretty name. For me, journal writing does become meditative, but writing for publication has quite a different feel. It’s been interesting to explore that here.

  10. September 13, 2012 11:45 AM

    Oh–this brings tears to my eyes. Thank you. Brilliant! And life-changing. My mother always said “You will if you want to.” And I think of that every day.

    Congratulations on your wild success…and thank you Sandy!

  11. September 15, 2012 10:05 AM

    Great post, Leslie! And looking forward to the published product!

    • September 15, 2012 4:47 PM

      Thanks, Charlotte! I trust you’re writing up a storm — or should I say, revising like a wild woman!

  12. October 2, 2012 11:15 AM

    Great points, Leslie. Writing is both a creative process and a craft. The first cannot be rushed. The second requires discipline. Fear and laziness are the writer’s enemy.

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