Monthly Archives: July 2010

Guest Post: Writing Coach Suzanne Harris

I invited my good friend and personal cheering section Suzanne Harris to write a guest post for me. Suzanne is an accomplished writer and poet, and has a thriving clientèle as a writing coach. Check out her website here.

Finding Time to Write

I thought twice about calling this post “Finding time to write.” I worried about setting up false expectations; maybe you’d think there was a simple solution you had overlooked. But I’m willing to bet that if you’ve been writing or wanting to write for any length of time, you already know the truth: deciding to write when you find time guarantees you won’t write much of anything at all.

You need to take the time.

When people come to me for writing coaching, one of the first things we do together is get clear about what their goals are, what they intend to achieve. Are they working their way through a novel? Dreaming of a collection of poems? Trying to get writing, period?

The next thing we do is look for time they can take for writing. Of course we check the obvious places to start: small pockets of ‘free’ time and inefficiencies—the loose change of the daily schedule—and maybe we’ll come up with lunch breaks or morning commutes on public transit.

But the reality is most people these days lead crazy-busy lives. We are over-allocated. We fill time, like our homes, with a lot of stuff. We want it all: work time, family time, social time, gym time, TV time, online time, email time, coffee time, volunteer time, reading time, play time, sleep time, down time AND writing time. We are busy busy busy, and that’s fine…except if you really, really want to write.

Ultimately, if you want to make progress toward your writing goals you have to take time from the activities that fill your days and re-allocate it to writing. A lot of writers make a habit of getting up early or staying up late to write. Yep, they shave time off sleeping.

Look at how you spend your days. Do you really need to watch Jeopardy? Play that video game? Answer email? Dip into Facebook? Chat your friends? Okay, maybe sometimes, but right now? (If you say yes, I’m going to be forced to ask you how serious you are about your writing!) Take an hour. Take thirty minutes. Take fifteen.

Writers write. Decide that writing is a priority and take time for it.

Our lives are full of obligations and distractions, but people are still cranking out novels, stories, poems and memoirs. They have jobs. And families. Their only secret is that they make a commitment and they sit down and do it. They take the time. And they keep at it. Ask Matt. He just finished his fourth novel a couple of weeks ago.

What is your goal? What would you like to write today?

Take the time.

Do it.

Suzanne Harris is a writing coach living and writing in Edmonton, Alberta. When she has a work in progress her mornings are dedicated, sacred time. No emails, no Facebook, no meetings, no coffee dates, no appointments, no errands, no laundry. Life and things like it are put off until after noon. She won’t even answer the phone. Her friends know this and support her by not even bothering to try to reach her until she surfaces later in the day. You can contact her through any time you like, just don’t expect her to answer until after lunch.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test has been making the rounds lately, and people have started to look at whether films (or some kinds of films) pass the test.

The test is quite simple. A film passes if:

  1. It includes two or more named female characters
  2. Who have at least one conversation with each other
  3. About something other than a man

The results are interesting and quite sobering.

If you put any of my writing to the test, it would fail utterly. Part of this is because of my narrative approach: I use third person limited, or first person, and my protagonist is male. I’ve further hamstrung myself by choosing environments with strongly-defined male-centric hierarchies as my settings. Although I hope I have female characters with some merit, I’m sure I’ve never come close to passing the Bechdel test.

I suspect, however, that books pass the test more often than movies. I think women have much greater influence on the publishing world, in that there are probably far more female authors than there are female film producers and directors. But the requirements are so miniscule, it should not be remarkable if a film or book passes the test.

I also wonder whether what the results of a reverse Bechdel test would be, on the films that pass the Bechdel test. I’m guessing that the pass rate of the reverse test will be higher, but for movies where the entire story is from the perspective of one central female character, some might not make it. But the overall trend is obvious, and it’s not good.


I did it. The next book in the Famiglia series, currently titled On the Heat, is now complete.

Well, the first draft is complete. There’s still a ton of work to do before I’ll even give it to anyone else to read — at the very least, it needs to be typed up. But there it is, in real live ink. 523 pages of first draft.

Feels pretty good.

I was pretty disappointed on Friday when I knew I would have no way to finish the book. But that’s all gone now. And one of the reasons is what I started to talk about, or tried to start to talk about, in my last post. It’s not just about making or missing goals; it’s about setting goals in the first place.

I’m lucky to have some people in my life who help me do that. My wife is the one who first said I could and should write a novel, and the one who tells me to keep writing. She’s one of the best reasons I have to pick up the pen at all.

And I have a friend — who’s also a writing coach as it happens — who’s constantly pushing me to set goals and make them. Seriously, if you’re feeling under-energized and don’t know how to get moving on your next project, consider using her services. It’s amazing what some well-placed advice and encouragement can do.

Anyhow, it’s a big milestone, but it’s only one in a series of milestones. There’s lots of work to do on this book, and in the meantime I have more books to write. And already I’m itching to buy the next notebook and starting to fill that one too.

But for tonight… things are all right.


Today is my birthday.

Normally birthdays are a mix of good and bad, for me. People send you e-mails and write all over your facebook wall, you get to go out for dinner, you get cake. I don’t eat a lot of cake for most of the year but it’s nice to have a reason to indulge.

This year, my birthday includes a bit of disappointment. It’s my own fault. I set a goal on my birthday and I’m not going to achieve it. The goal was to finish my next novel, tentatively titled On the Heat.

I got close, though. Early last December, I decided to pick up the pace of the writing — I was around 20,000 words in by then, I think. Things started moving very quickly and by the end of the year I hit the 30,000 word mark. The novel was hitting its stride and I was very optimistic. I figured the novel would be around 75,000 words long at the end, which was a good 10,000 words longer than the first in the series, La Famiglia. At the rate I was moving, it would be done by the late spring. I set the target at my birthday — six and a half months away.

The winter and spring were productive; I would write about 2,000 words a week, working an hour a day three times a week or so, plus one or two hours each weekend. I write around 500 words an hour, so that put me at 2,000 words a week, a very good clip. In addition, my wife and I went away for a weekend in February and I got 10,000 words written from Friday evening to Sunday evening. I reset the goal to July 1, then to June 1, as the finished pages piled up.

But the goal kept moving. I have a number of problems with plot and pacing, and my approach to resolving them was to write all the stuff that needed to happen, whether it was in exactly the right place or not. That meant more words; I blew through the 75,000 word mark, I think, sometime in April, in a period of unemployment. I hit 90,000 before June, although my output slowed again as I started a new job. I’m expecting the finished product to be around 100,000 words.

And I’m so close! I am on the last chapter (though there will be a short epilogue chapter as well). I’m into the last scene. There are about 5 pages left. And I didn’t quite get there.

Well, what are goals for, anyway? If I hadn’t been shooting for June, I probably wouldn’t have pushed so hard during the winter. If I hadn’t been trying to finish by yesterday, I would probably still be two or three chapters from the end at this point.

So I’m not so worried about missing my goal — I’m just going to get as close as I can. I’m very, very close already. I’d better get some champagne ready, just in case…

A good Word tip

I’ve been learning to use Microsoft Word in earnest for about 13 years, now. While I was in school, I was pretty good at making things look consistent and so on, but didn’t really get Word. Once I started working as a tech writer, that changed. I quickly became a Word expert.

One of the problems with Word has always been how Microsoft has added “features” to make it more “understandable” and “usable”. These “features” usually render whatever functionality they affect incomprehensible and unusable. Part of the challenge of using Word–especially when a new version comes out–is turning off all the helpful features so that you can get the damn thing to work the way it’s actually supposed to.

One of the most effective and underused tools is the impressive styles functionality. I might have more to say on the topic in the future, but in the meantime, here’s an article for all you Word 2007 users that will help you to rein in the styles menu. I know I’m going to refer to this as soon as I sit down to a fresh Word 2007 installation.

Cleaning up Word’s Style pane

The effect of life on writing

I was going to take an hour to write this afternoon. I did go for a walk but I was too upset to think about writing.

Our dog, the one we got just after buying our first house, the one who’s been with us for almost ten years, is dying. She’s feeling okay, not in a lot of pain or discomfort, but it’s a matter of weeks at best. Our close little friend, the smart, independent, loving little dog who slept on my shoulder when she was a puppy, won’t be with us for much longer.

I don’t know how I’ll feel in a few days — the wound is really raw right now. But just as I was coming to the end of things, just as I was going to put it all together, I’m faced with some horrible, horrible feelings. There’s no way I’m going to be able to shut them out for a while, and I don’t know what effect they’ll have on my writing.

Doesn’t really matter, I guess. Our poor girl. Things won’t be the same without her.

Finishing a book

I last finished a book just over three years ago, in spring of ’07. I was down in the Dominican Republic for a week, and spent every afternoon and evening in the bar, writing, fuelled by a constant stream of gin and tonics (which was itself fuelled by some careful tipping of, and friendly conversation with, the wait staff all week).

It was a great feeling. I had been working on this book for two and a half years, and four months before our vacation, I had stopped dead around the two-thirds point in the book. I had no idea how to go on, no idea how to get to the end, only the very vaguest idea of what the ending would be. My wife provided the idea I would eventually use, but I still didn’t know what to do to get through the current spot.

Once I got down there and started writing, it flowed nicely. In the six days there, I wrote about 20,000 words, working six to eight hours a day. As I proceeded, page by page, it started really taking shape — then gathered momentum, and soon took off with an energy of its own. And on our last afternoon there, with an early shuttle to the airport the next morning, I was driving towards the end. Around six o’clock, I laid the pen down. Done.

I had to go for a walk to try to calm my nerves. I wouldn’t even be keeping the stuff I had just written; the last chapter I had to rewrite significantly to change the focus, and the epilogue has been tossed out and rewritten completely (as has the first chapter). But I was done. I could relax.

I’m getting close to the finish line on the next novel, the sequel to that one. I’ve only been working on it for a little over a year, but by my birthday (in less than two weeks), I intend to have it finished. I had originally planned to have it done by my birthday, then moved it up to July 1 and then June 1 — then slowly moved the target date back to its original place. I was originally trying to write 75,000 words, though, and am somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 now, so it’s taken longer than expected.

I won’t be feeling so good when I get to the end of this one, unfortunately. I know that I have far, far more work to do once this one’s done than I did for the previous one in the series. But it will be a milestone, for sure. And it will be good news for my agent (who is busy trying to sell the first one in the series, and will be happy to be able to tell editors that the second book in the series is done), and good news for my wife (who will not have to hear me griping quite so much about how the book isn’t as good as I want it to be).

So mixed feelings. Plus I have to think about what I’m going to write next, while I work on whipping this one into shape. But a milestone is a milestone, and I’m going to have to find a good way to mark the end of the first draft. Maybe a good bottle of wine, to soften the blow of all the editing I’m in for as soon  as I finish typing this thing up…