Literary Devon: How to Enjoy Time Travel From Your Cozy Couch

I sat down at the computer this morning to check my to-do list. But instead, I became delightfully lost in mid- to late-19th century Devon, England. Literary Devon beckoned to me. The poet John Keats, who lived and wrote in the Devon town of Teignmouth, once called the place a “splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod county.”

Literary Devon

I’m researching what it was like in that southwestern county of England in the Victorian era because I’m writing a book that dips into that place and time. Although research wasn’t on my calendar for this morning, I can’t stop. I wish I could time-travel back and spend a few days then and there.

Literary Devon
Croyde, North Devon / Photo by Red Morley Heritt on Unsplash

This morning, I ended up focusing on the many books and movies set in Devon. They let one see, feel, experience what older Devon might have been like. As a result, I want to order them all, put on the kettle, and binge-read and -watch until I’m done. If only life allowed that kind of time!

What I learned

Agatha Christie used to roller skate with her friends in the seaside, South Devon town of Torquay, where she was born in 1890. That’s also where you’ll find the International Agatha Christie Festival every year (the next one is in September 2019). Many of Christie’s books take place in Devon, and how fun to reread/rewatch and check out the settings. Miss Marple lived in Devon, and in The ABC Murders, Hercules Poirot lives in Churston, Devon. ITV’s crime drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot filmed its episode “Dead Man’s Folly” in Devon, as well.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, used the Devon town of Dartmoor as his setting. Doyle’s story may be based on the legend of the squire Richard Cabell of Buckfastleigh: When Cabell died in the 1670s, black dogs raced across Dartmoor, howling and breathing fire. Yikes. You can imagine what the sheep would have thought of that.

Literary Devon
Dartmoor National Park / Photo by Oli Metcalfe on Unsplash

Stepping into the movies

My tumble down the old Devon rabbit hole inspires me to rewatch the 1995 film version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant. Director Ang Lee’s set many of the scenes in Devon, including those at “Barton House,” where the girls lived. Mr. Willoughby’s estate was actually Devon’s Compton Castle, which also appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon.

Similarly, literary Devon points to the book and movie War Horse, based on Iddesleigh.

The BBC1 also set its series The Coroner in several South Devon towns, as well, including Totnes, Dartmouth, Hope Cove, and Brixham.

Literary Devon
St. Mary’s parish church, Totnes / Photo by Wigulf, CC by 2.5

Literary Devon in Other Great Books

Many other books show us what the county was like. Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmore, and many of Thomas Hardy’s novels, including Tess of the D’Urbervilles, are set in Devon.

Also, The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert (which was written in 2006 and dramatized by the BBC in 2012), is set in the fictional village of Hollow Bay, based on Lynmouth in Exmoor National Park in Devon.

Literary Devon
Lynmouth / Photo by John Mark Strange on Unsplash

Have you read the nature story Tarka The Otter, written by Henry Williamson in 1927? It hasn’t gone out of print since then and now I really want to check it out. The story takes place on the Taw and Torridge Rivers of North Devon.

Literary Devon
Westward Ho! Beach, looking north toward the Taw and Torridge estuaries / Photo by Arpingstone

Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho! takes place in Devon. Now there’s a real village with this name, named after Kingsley’s book, which took place in nearby Bideford, Devon. Several places in the village are also named for similar places in the novel.

Ted Hughes, Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1984 until he died in 1998, is often called one of the greatest writers of the 20th century as well as other much less kind things. He was born in Yorkshire but most people associate him with Devon. And some of his poems describe parts of the county in great detail.

Literary Devon
Irsha Street in Appledore, North Devon / Photo by Fee Billen on Unsplash

I’m not the only reader, or writer, thinking about literary Devon. The Guardian article Devon Sent: Why Writers Can’t Resist the County made me want to forget about the 19th Century and go to Devon right now:

Devon is irresistible, the sort of place you imagine retiring to, in good health, with a little capital, and the prospect of writing that book you always meant to write, and perhaps establishing an English country garden. (The great Irish novelist William Trevor has done exactly that: wisely moving to Devon in the 1950s, he has since produced works of genius and an English country garden.) Having won the Booker prize for Wolf Hall in 2009, Hilary Mantel was finally able to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition: to live in Budleigh Salterton. 

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When You Have Absolutely No Idea How To Write A Novel

how to write a novel
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Maybe you have no idea how to write a novel, but decide to write one anyway.

But – hopefully – in an informed way. You don’t want to write a BAD novel.

Maybe you’re even a professional writer already, like me. But not of novels. Perhaps it’s crystal clear to you that you have no idea how to sit down and structure a novel, even though you’ve been reading them forever.

You really want to figure that out. You want to teach yourself how to write a decent novel. So, first thing is you read many many books about writing.

Straight off my bookshelves

Here are some really good books on craft and inspiration that I’ve read over the years.

On craft and inspiration:

   how to write a novel how to write a novel    how to write a novel      how to write a novel   how to write a novel   how to write a novel    how to write a novel

This one is “the classic guide to writing nonfiction,” but the 30th Anniversary edition I have has an extra chapter about writing family history and memoir, which I love, and I think the whole book is excellent.

how to write a novel

Because maybe learning how to read literature well helps you write it well.

how to write a novel

Subtitle: fiction workshops and thoughts on the writing life.

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing has interviews and articles by all sorts of interesting novelists, including Margaret Atwood on “As a Writer, You Must Do What Beckons You;” Sue Grafton’s, “The Use of the Journal in Writing a Novel,” John Updike’s, “Whatever Works, Works: Kurt Vonnegut on Flouting the Rules of Fiction,” and more.

how to write a novel

Really have no idea how to write a novel? Read these

Learn about some of the basics from the Writers Digest “Write Great Fiction” series:

how to write a novel        how to write a novel    how to write a novel

And read the kind of books that tell a (real or fictionalized) account of family history or historical fiction or whatever type of story you are writing. Here are some of the family history-style books that have inspired and taught me, although there are a lot more, too.

how to write a novel   how to write a novel   how to write a novel   how to write a novel

But then, after you skim/read/listen/take notes/overdose on all those books other people have written, it’s time to get busy.

That’s the key, of course. Getting to work. You can read about how to write a novel forever, but there is a point where you need to stop and become that person who actually does it.

You check out the right tools. For me, so far, it’s Scrivener,

a great journal,

how to write a novel

and some nice pens.

Just do it

It’s time to, finally, to take action. You lounge in a comfy chair with your journal. Or you sit at a bench in the park on your lunch break with your yellow pad. Or you open your Scrivener program at your desk and start a new fiction document. (I do all of these things.)

And you begin making notes. Novels don’t generally come to mind fully formed, although I guess once in a while that happens (I’m looking at you on the delayed Manchester to London train, J.K. Rowling). More often you start with a kernel of an idea and then think about some of the important scenes that will appear. Then carefully, strategically, you consider which scene will lead to what happening next, and why. The birthing of a novel is not magical. It means sitting down and doing organized, painstaking, structural work.

You start taking notes about your characters and seeing each one in your head and on paper. What are they like, and why? What motivates them, both internally and externally? What are they trying to achieve, and what keeps them from it? How do they overcome those obstacles?

You figure out your settings in a similar way. What does it look like, smell like, feel like? How does your setting emphasize your story’s theme? How does it drive the conflict?

And then you (okay, I) go over and over and over your outline until it works. Really works. (This is where I’m at right now.) It’s rough and brief and leaves lots of room to discover how the story will unfold. But the broad outline keeps you (me) going, I think. It gets you from A to B to C to End.

Because the most important thing is getting to the end. Even if it’s not great yet, you have to write the thing before you can make it better and better. You cannot work on improving your novel until there is a novel. So much of writing is revising. I know that part, already.

Now to follow my words above and get myself through and to the end. 

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Make It Happen, Step 2: Time to Start Actually Writing a Novel

writing a novel
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Getting started on writing a novel, it turns out, can be hard.

Step 1 of my goal to write a novel in 2019 was to “choose the path.” I was trying to decide between two ideas, and I chose the one I am more excited about; the one I’ve already been researching in my spare time for years.

Next, I started writing about my ideas in a notebook. What it is, the main characters, their story lines, what it all means, and more. Writing this stuff down is so concrete and good. It means grabbing a hold of the ideas that flit into your mind, seem interesting, but then flit out again. It makes a big difference.

Writer Shaunta Grimes happened to write today about the writer Jack London and what he said about keeping a notebook, and I feel exactly the same way:

“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory. – Jack London

I find a notebook really useful.

But I can’t just write about it in my notebook all year. Now it’s time to move and do the real work. I need to start writing the novel itself.

Writing a Novel

Writing is not a sudden whim of mine, and I’m not starting from zero. I’ve worked professionally as a writer for 20 years now, and wrote for years before that, too. I have a degree in journalism. I was even editor of my high school newspaper. I’ve always been a writer.

But I don’t have experience as a novelist. Mostly I write nonfiction, which is very different. A novel has its structure and rules that I know of from reading about novel writing (and from reading novels themselves), but I don’t yet know in my bones how to create that structure, the way I understand structure in nonfiction writing.

When it comes to, say, an article, I completely understand why it works or doesn’t work. I can glance at something I, or someone else, has written and tell you about how many words it is, how it holds together or doesn’t, and what it’s missing. That comes from having worked as a nonfiction writer for so long, and it’s a great feeling to be at this point in my career.

But I’m not at that point yet with novels, although I hope I can get there. It will take practice and some hard work to figure out how exactly one structures a novel that holds together and is, hopefully, well-written. I’m excited about it, and at the same time it feels a little daunting. (Mostly, I’m excited about it.)

Opening Up Scrivener

I use a physical notebook for ideas, but for writing projects themselves, I use the inexpensive yet incomparable app Scrivener. A writer created it for his own projects, which is probably why it makes so much sense to me. You write each scene as a separate section, and they are easy to view and rearrange. When you are ready to print, you “compile” your manuscript into a Word document or similar. It even formats text for publication as an ebook.

When I have pieces of research for my story – a block of text, a link, a photo, an MP3, or something else – I can store it right there where I am working on the story. I can use the split screen function to look at the piece of research right alongside my blank document as I write. There are so many other features, too. It’s an amazing piece of software. I wouldn’t dream of starting a big project like this without it.

So, Step 2: I’m off to create a new project in Scrivener, and then folders for each chapter, and character and setting profiles. I’ll also start loading some of the research I’ve already done into the program.

I find this exciting! Once my novel has a structure that shows its chapters, right there on the page, it’s just a matter of filling each one in, right?

How’s that for optimism? It might be a bit more work than I just made it sound, but I can’t wait to see how it goes.

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How to Write Historical Fiction

historical fiction
Photo by Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

 

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know I’ve been trying to decide between two fiction writing projects to devote my head and spare time to this year. And – ta-da! – I have chosen the new novel idea, which is historical fiction. I chose this over working on the children’s novel that I have already drafted. (I’ll get back to that another time.)

In 2019, I’ve decided, I’m going to write a novel based on a true story from the past that’s been swirling around in my head forever. I’ve been thinking about this and writing bits and pieces of this story for years and years. It is, I am realizing, a historical fiction project. Historical fiction can be defined as a fictional story set in the past that uses some true characteristics of the period.

It never dawned on me that I could turn this into a novel until recently, although now it seems obvious to me. I’m excited about this project.

Avoiding the Rookie Move

In life, of course, a real story doesn’t go the way a novel needs to play out. This one sure doesn’t. And I know it’s a rookie move to try to write a novel based on a true story unless you take steps to “novelize” it. You need to turn the fact into fiction and carefully create (and discard) characters. You let the story move forward without requiring yourself to stay true to the facts, which might not work in novel form.

At writepractice.com, author and story coach David Safford says there are four things you must do to write a book based on a true story:

  • Remove yourself from the story
  • Cut characters
  • Exaggerate (or invent) motivations
  • Edit a true story into a great story

I plan to take the gist of this true-life tale that fascinates me and fictionalize it. I’ll have to do research about the parts I don’t know or that don’t fit the story I want to tell. I’ll need to create characters who are fleshed out, so to speak, “real people” that a reader will care about. Then there’s the importance of settings, and adding conflict in the right places, all that.

In the end, it will no longer be the real story at all. But I will have worked through this true story that fascinates me and made it my own. I suppose that’s historical fiction.

This article from The Writer is about writing historical short stories, but its tips are good and apply to novels as well. Chuck Sambuchino‘s Writers Digest article discussed whether it’s possible to be completely accurate historically and still tell a great story. (He says he doesn’t think you can do both — and that maybe it’s not even necessary.)

Historical Fiction Novels

As I figure out how to write historical fiction, I realize it’s my favorite genre. Here is an eclectic list of such novels that I have especially enjoyed, in no particular order. I gathered them here merely to remind myself to aim high (not because I expect to be able to pull off a first novel written at this level, holy cow!).

Or in case you, too, like historical fiction novels and would enjoy some recommendations. You can click on any of these titles to read more. They are all great.

(When I find lists of novels that are especially interesting to me, I always imagine ordering them all at once. In my fantasy, a box arrives filled with all these wonderful books I am completely interested in. I carry it in off the doorstep, make a cup of coffee and then stretch out and read all day, every day, for weeks. This is not the life I live, at all, but it’s one I dream about!)

historical fiction   historical fiction   historical fiction      historical fiction   historical fictionhistorical fiction  historical fiction   historical fiction   historical fiction      historical fictionhistorical fiction   historical fiction    historical fictionhistorical fiction   historical fiction

Now that I’ve thought about each of these books as I copied code into this post, I want to reiterate something: I have no illusions I am going to write the next Gone With The Wind this year. There are some amazing historical fiction novels out there. Sheesh. I love all the books above, but revisiting them while talking about my own novel is a little overwhelming. I will just figure out how to write historical fiction and then do the best job I can.

Doing Some Pre-Work. (Which is Still Work.)

I haven’t quite started writing yet—soon—but I’ve been thinking a lot about this new novel. That has been helpful. I’ve sat with a notebook and figured out why I want to write this particular story and it’s taken me deep. Part of the answer? I’ve been researching and thinking about this story for years, trying to fill in the holes. If I didn’t have to earn a living it’s what I would be working on anyway right now.

And I’ve been trying to come up with one sentence that describes this book I want to write. All of these questions are themselves writing projects that require a lot of passes. I’m still working on them. Each gets to aspects a little deeper and more interesting than the last.

These questions I’ve been answering are the some of the first exercises from Author Accelerator’s 7-Day Writing Challenge, which is great. One is to zero in on what I want to get across with this story. It’s like a road map, I think, that will keep me on track throughout the writing. I like the idea of thinking about this ahead of time. It seems like if I know where I am heading, I’m more likely to get there.

I’m sure things will change along the way. Although I work as a professional writer, I’m new to writing novels and I don’t have structure and other technique figured out yet. I will have to learn that as I go.

But I like the idea of having a plan as I work, so there’s something concrete I am working toward. That should make it easier to actually finish. If my story’s direction changes while I’m writing it, I can go back and rework my overview to match. It means, I think, being aware that it is changing, and thinking it through intellectually and knowing why you are going in a particular direction. Making sure, as much as you can when you’re a new writer, that it all makes sense and still holds together.

That’s the plan, anyway. Hold on—I’m getting started! I’ll be back soon to let you know how it’s going.

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Make It Happen, Step 1: Choose the Path

Make It Happen
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

It’s time to make it happen.

It’s one week into 2019, the year in which I proclaimed I’m going to write (and actually finish) a novel, and I thought I knew my plan.

Suddenly, though, I have two projects to choose between. I need to make a decision.

Let me tell you about the first project, A few years ago, during NaNoWriMo, I wrote a full draft of a children’s book. It’s a middle grade novel, to be more specific.

When I finished, I sketched out two more books in the series and wrote their first drafts. And then I mostly just left it all alone.

Last year, I showed the first couple chapters of the first book to a literary agent at the ASJA conference and she gave me some good feedback. She suggested changing an aspect of the plot, which she said was a little too dark for that age reader. It made sense. She said after I did that, she’d like to read it again.

I reread the trilogy a few months ago and realized that while it needs a lot of work, I still like the story. I should get back to this, I thought.

Then the other day I realized that another idea, the story I have been trying to write for half my life, is actually a novel. Suddenly I am really excited about writing that novel and cannot get it out of my mind.

But then—there goes that seesaw again—last week I got an email saying the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Hawaii was going to start offering meetings here in Hilo.

Other writers, right here in Hilo!

I went to the first meeting and felt my body relax into an, “Ah!” While I have many writer friends, most live outside of Hawaii. It can be lonely writing on a rural island in the middle of the Pacific. When I looked around that meeting, I wondered if maybe some of these children’s book writers and illustrators could be on-the-ground writer buddies.

We met in downtown Hilo’s former Koehnen’s building, an elegant 1910 building that takes up a whole city block. It’s a lovely, gracious, and well-maintained Renaissance Revival style building with koa walls, ‘ōhi‘a floors, and a grand koa staircase. Originally it was the Hackfeld Company, then Koehnen’s, both retail enterprises.

Now, it’s the National Oceanographic Institute’s Mokupāpapa Discovery Center, which interprets the natural science, culture, and history of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and their surrounding marine environment.

We gathered upstairs, under the very tall, open-beam ceiling and next to huge, unscreened windows that let in the breeze. In the distance, beyond coconut trees, I saw two canoes full of paddlers glide slowly across the gentle, gray ocean.

There was a reminder of the building’s current marine science focus in the corner—a large, papier mâché “rock” sporting orange, gold, and green coral.

Listening to Richard Peck

Among other things, we watched a Master Class interview with children’s author Richard Peck. Decades ago, when he and I were both much younger, I once heard him speak in person at Henderson Library in Torrance, California.
Make It Happen

I was already a big reader and fan then, and he was already a successful novelist. He went on to write an astonishing 41 books for young people before he passed away last summer.

Here’s some of what he said in the video that interested me:

• In a children’s book, the young person has to solve his/her own problem and find his or her own way.
• Their parents must be kept in check—supportive, but in the background.
• You should write from observation, he said, not from experience.
• He said he always sits behind young people on the bus, and hangs out in malls. That’s how he gets the dialog right.
• Take yourself out of the story by always writing in first person. Then it’s a child’s diction.  Make It Happen
• He said he was born listening. “I grew up under tables and behind doors, listening.”
• He loved to listen to the old people and now, he said, the grandparents and great-grandparents were coming out in his writing.

I really liked hearing that last bit. I am all about the family stories, the generations, and the connections across time. They come out in my writing, too—my children’s book trilogy has all of that. So does my other novel idea, actually.

After the SCBWI meeting, a couple of writers talked about starting up a critique group, something I’ve been thinking about lately. It had me thinking seriously about choosing to work on my very rough children’s novel for this 2019 project.

What to do, what to do.

In my next blog post, I’ll tell you about the other possibility. And I’ll make a decision already!

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How (and Why) I Will Finish Writing a Novel in 2019

finish writing a novel

 

 

Why make it a goal to finish writing a novel? The quote below explains why Wyl Menmuir and I are into the whole novel-finishing thing.

Q:What made you decide to start a novel?

Wyl: I read somewhere that action tends to happen when the fear of not doing something overtakes the fear of doing it. That was true for me – I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember and I’d reached a point where I realised if I didn’t just sit down and do it, I’d end up as a frustrated would-be novelist rather than someone who had at least given it a good shot. The other side of it was about knowing I had the right story to tell.  

Yes! EXACTLY THAT.

Menmuir is an English writer whose debut novel The Many was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. He achieved his goal, and he’s on the other side now.

I’m a professional writer (of nonfiction) with a Big Goal for 2019: I will craft a novel from some ideas that have been swirling around in my head for years and years and years.

By the way, I don’t know Menmuir. I just read his quote, and it was like a cartoon anvil swung into my head.

Strategies

I also liked reading his article How to Finish a Novel, where he talks about the tools he used to write, and finish, his novel. He was very strategic. He used software that blocked his social media access; a word tracking app; set daily goals, and more. It worked for him.

Ninja Writer Shaunta Grimes also recently wrote something interesting about why you should finish writing a novel, if that’s your thing. She wrote, “A finished manuscript, whether that’s a novel or a blog post or a social media post for a client, is pretty much the only hard MUST. We all know of writers who make boatloads of money off of poorly written crap—but all of those writers finished writing the thing.

Of course, she’s right. Whether it’s an, um, “valiant effort” or a brilliant masterpiece, you have to finish it or there’s zero chance of publication or boatloads of money.

I don’t know that I can write a novel that’s brilliant (or even valiant), but at the least, I will have succeeded in completing my “practice novel.”

An Eye-Opener

I also admit to being slightly fascinated with an idea I got from Gretchen Rubin, who does the podcast Happier. It made me realize why I have been finding it so difficult to finish a personal writing project.

Rubin says people fall into one of four personality types regarding how they respond to the idea of a rule, whether it’s internal or external. She calls these personality types the “four tendencies.”

  • Upholder
  • Questioner
  • Obliger
  • Rebel

Knowing which one you (or the people around you) are helps you answer the question, “How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?” She wrote a whole book about this and it’s interesting.

I’m not one to follow every pop-psych trend, but what she was saying made sense to me, and so I took her online quiz. I learned I am an obliger.

Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves.

Obligers meet outer expectations just fine (give me an assignment and a deadline, and I will meet it), but resist inner ones (even when I very much want to finish writing and revising a novel, I don’t).

The answer for us obligers, says Rubin, is to create systems of external accountability.

It makes so much sense. It was the cartoon anvil to the head again. It’s why, for instance, I take regular walks every week. Though I like walking by the ocean, I only go because my friend Angie is waiting for me.

To finish writing a novel, I need external accountability. That’s why I’m going to keep writing about my 2019 writing goals and how I’m doing with them. Because it makes me feel accountable.

I feel like I have people expecting me to achieve these goals now. And I meet external expectations.

Here we go!

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New Year’s Goal: Finish My Writing Projects in 2019

 New Year's Goal

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Do you have a New Year’s goal? I have big plans for 2019.

This is going to be the year I make it happen. I’m going to finish some personal writing projects I’ve been working on for way too long without completing, and take each to its next steps.

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” – Neil Gaiman a.k.a. @neilhimself

I’m also going to do it “out loud.” I’m going to write here about the routines, processes, and other tricks that help me finally get these writing projects to the finish line.

What exactly does my New Year’s goal include?

  • I’m going to finish a novel I’ve been working on and take it to the next step.
  • I will finish a non-fiction book I’ve already started, self-publish it, and start on number two.
  • I will also finish at least two essays and submit them.

Subscribe to these posts if you’d like to see how this all plays out in 2019 (I’m curious, too).

The difference between my day job and personal writing projects

I don’t have any trouble finishing things in my “day job.” I have a business writing and ghostwriting for brands, agencies, magazines, and publishers about technology (especially hospitality tech), travel, tourism, and Hawaii, where I live.

Those projects come with deadlines, and that makes it easy.

Writing projects I do for myself, on the other hand—ones that no one expects me to send them by a specific date—are harder, even though they are so satisfying when I do actually work on them. There are always so many other things that need to be done, and I get distracted.

That is why the New Year’s goal. Not only am I going to figure out the resources, processes, and other tips that help me keep going and finish my writing projects, I’m also announcing it and blogging about it, so I have some external accountability to help me along. Knowing people will be reading about what and how I do makes me sit up a little straighter.

Do you have a creative project you’re going to make happen in 2019? Comment about it here, if you like. Or just decide on a goal, and, you know, make it happen.

Perhaps some of my processes will work for you, too. Worst case scenario? Maybe I will prove to be a cautionary tale. (Although I really, really hope not.)

I’ll talk to you again soon, and Happy New Year!

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