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  • Writer's pictureLissa Cowan

Never Do These Things When Writing a Book

Ever get those flashes of genius, and you know that if you don't jot down what's in your head, it will vanish in a puff of brain smoke?

That's exactly what happened to me last week. The problem was though that I had a needle sticking between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and could see, out of the corner of my eye, an impending needle jutting from my right temple. Gingerly raising one foot, I spotted another prickly number jutting from my big toe.

I had a particularly perfect turn of phrase in my head that I wanted desperately to write down. It was something I was sure a character in my new book would say, and if I didn't get it on paper in the next 20 seconds it would be lost forever.

And so I called out to Lana, my acupuncturist, asking her in the sweetest way possible if she could please be my amanuensis and write down what I was about to tell her. I couched this by saying what an awful memory I had, and how what was in my head was so perfect, and that she'd really be doing me a HUGE favour if she helped me out. That in doing this nice thing she was sort of a co-writer, and that I would name her in the Acknowledgements if the f'ing thing ever got published.

Yes, I went a bit overboard, but only because I felt so grateful to be able to download my perfect phrase. This brings me to my first point, which is really what got me obsessing about what NOT to do when writing a book: never underestimate your flashes of genius.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, and I'm sure you've had these experiences too where you waken at 2 a.m. by a brilliant thought boring a hole in your skull, yet then fall back to sleep only to wonder the next morning whether that burst of brilliance was really a good idea or just the evening's meal digesting.

On occasion I've stumbled out of bed and written down my so-called good ideas, only to realize the following day that they were really just brain farts doing vaudeville. Although, that doesn't mean dear reader that ALL bursts of so-called genius should be discounted. It turns out that the phrase I asked Lana, my acupuncturist, to write down while I was impersonating a pin cushion led to a scene between two characters in my book, that was, shall we say, pivotal.

And, so along with that thing about not discounting your 2 a.m. flights of fancy, here's a list of other stuff it would be good to never do when scribbling in a creative way.


1) Never underestimate your flashes of genius. (If you didn't read that part, then see why just above)

2) Never try to write a bestseller. Writers generally just write down their crazy ideas; sometimes this wildness or wierdness becomes BIG, as in the case of Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, Cheryl Strayed's Wild, or a little children's book series you may have heard of featuring a protagonist called Harry Potter. None of these authors thought they'd hit the big-time, they were just live-streaming their imaginations hoping someone else would enjoy what they created.

3) Never shrug off small wins. We writers are known for beating ourselves up if we don't clock up 1,000 words a day or meet our deadlines for drafting our outline, first chapter, and so on. Without small wins the big wins wouldn't even be possible, so give those little guys some lovin' won't you? You finished a chapter?! Glass of champagne! You settled on a title?! Walk in the forest! You completed your first chapter?! Movie night! You know what I'm talking about.

4) Never lie and tell people you're not really writing. Remember those times when you sat at your desk playing with your imaginary friends and feeling ashamed, like you were five-years-old playing doctors with the boy or girl next door? Perhaps you told people you were cleaning your fridge or nursing a cold when you were really writing. I realize it can be batshit scary to expose what you're up to because it feels unsure and nebulous. Yet, the more you tell people you're writing, the easier it will be to be O.K. with it. In time hopefully you'll learn to NOT feel ashamed of bringing your creative gifts to the world.

5) Never deprive yourself of food or sleep or exercise. Yes, I know French writer Marcel Proust survived on opium and croissants and a few minutes of sleep, but that was Paris in the 20th century and this is now. Today we know that our body and our mind work together like a finely tuned clock. If you abuse your body through lack of sleep and snack on Cheetos for dinner (all right, once in a while's O.K.) then eventually it will catch up with you.

6) Never go out if what you really want to do is stay in and write. Of course there are some exceptions to this rule such as your mom's birthday. Or a friend who's in crisis mode and really needs you. Or an outing with your kids that you've been planning for weeks. That's all!

7) Never follow the voice in your head that's critical of every word you write. Acknowledge the voice, yes, even thank it for keeping you safe with a roof over your head and food in your belly. Then politely decline its invitation to abuse yourself and your work, and go with the sunnier voice that says, "Hey girl or hey boy you're onto something!"

8) Never drink one bourbon, one scotch and one beer in succession as the song says. I know the writer archetype is of a boozer, though it's hard to write when you're two sheets to the wind or feeling sickly or too tired. I suggest you pick one poison and stick to it. If you mix your liquor with beer or wine then the night just gets ugly. A shot of bourbon between bouts of writing has never (to my knowledge, ahem...) ever hurt anybody's output.

9) Never make a pact with the devil. You know those scenarios where you over-promise something to someone (i.e., credit card companies, banks...) so you can have that fancy vacation or that fancy car and then you have to keep doing that thing that you don't really want to do such as working long hours, which takes you away from your writing? Your future self will thank you if you plan wisely and say no to that shiny thing.

10) Lastly, never ever ever underestimate how amazing you are--the breadth of your imagination, and the beauty of your heart and mind. Never. Ever.

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