How Four Words Got Me Back on the Writing Track

The Hard Part_Quote design by Jann Alexander ©2015

The Hard Part Quote designed by Jann Alexander ©2015


In 2005, two unlikely stories that appeared side by side in The Washington Post caught my attention, and became the basis for a novel I have struggled to finish ever since. It’s been an on-again, off-again affair of my passion for the writing and for the story, while painting, photography, an art gallery, an art studio, designing, exhibiting art, blogging and just plain old life got in the way.

Staying with it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and there are plenty of threats to its completion, even though at this stage I’ve written more than 45,000 words—nearly enough, some would say, for a novel, but for its author, the story isn’t yet fully told.

The two stories that I read were of such unlikely events, one incredibly wondrous, lucky and happy; the other, abominably dark, horrifying and tragic. I saved the section of the paper where they’d both appeared, grateful that I just happened to be visiting Washington, DC that day to discover them, and later, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

I thought about how each situation might have occurred, how the back stories of those involved might have gone, what the ramifications of the unlikely events might be, and most of all, how I might weave two completely unconnected events together in one novel, loosely inspired by them but each event having no other relation to the other—except for the happenstance of being reported on the same June day.

A week later, when I found myself in the non air-conditioned passenger seat of a jostling, loud vintage jeep on a days-long driving trip across the desolation of the West Texas summer, into Colorado and then New Mexico, I formed my novel in my mind as a coping strategy.

The Long Road Out by Jann Alexander © 2014

The Long Road Out by Jann Alexander © 2014


And over those miserable days of driving in summer temperatures with nothing to see but cotton fields, cactus, the occasional tumbleweed and only the promise of distant mountains, my novel took shape. Remarkably, I remembered a lot of it when I got home and was back at my computer. For awhile, the words flew out. But it’s a long road to epic.

Thus came the side tracks, those inevitable distractions that take you down the rabbit hole to another pursuit, until pretty soon, the writing is so far recessed into the mind that its story and characters can no longer be summoned. Thus began several years of a passion pursued, dropped, renewed, abandoned. What’s true about writing a novel is that you need to tend it daily, as you would a garden, to keep its prose from slowly dying of thirst.

“You need to tend your novel daily, as you would a garden, to keep its prose from slowly dying of thirst.”   Tweet:

The rescue arrived in the form of a book I discovered as the promise of a new year was upon us, called Manage Your Day-to-Day (edited by Jocelyn K. Glei for the 99U series). It was in a chapter by poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness. While the book contains plenty of pearls (from dozens of productive creative experts) that remind you to put your creativity first, the advice he offered in the first chapter made the most sense to me:

“Creative work first. Reactive work second.” ~Mark McGuinness

Why’s he so right about doing creative work first? If you don’t put your own priorities first, you’ll never get to them. The rest of the world will make its demands upon you, and when you oblige them, you’ve given control of your most precious commodity—your own creativity—to others. No wonder it can take years to finish a novel—if ever. So you choose who you want to determine your destiny. And I choose myself.

Create First Quote designed by Jann Alexander ©2015

Create First Quote designed by Jann Alexander ©2015


I shortened that sage wisdom into just four words. Like a mantra, they’ve guided me as I’ve spent the first part of my work day doing one thing, and one thing only: working on my novel. It’s a great feeling—to get your most important work done first, knowing that the rest of your day you can coast on to email, Twitter, answering phone calls, walking the dog, paying bills, doing the tasks that life throws at all of us, but doing them after I’ve actually done the thing I most want to do: Write.

Heading into day three of my new workflow, I can visualize an end to my novel. On Day 1, I produced 1500 words before 11am. On Day 2, 1700 words before noon. The improvement in my self-confidence has been startling, too. Just like any other writer who wonders if what she’s writing is any good, I’m no longer worrying about that—because all I’m focused on is doing my creative work first.

It turns out the world can live without my email responses and my clever tweets for a few hours each morning. And when it’s finished, perhaps the world will even be able to live without my epic novel. But I can’t live without writing it. First. 

Where are you with your novel, and how do you stay focused on it?

Jann Alexander's A Habit of Hiding_Book Cover

You can get a sneak peek of my upcoming novel: 

Read an excerpt from A Habit of Hiding here

For more on the art of writing, look HERE.


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26 replies

    • That works well for me too, Kevin, with lots of coffee and while still feeling unencumbered by events yet to unfold . . . if it’s later in the day, a glass of wine eases me out of the daily grind and into the writing frame of mind. Another trick I like is to use a handy little app called Coffitivity to mimic the low buzz of a coffee shop. Yes, I know. Even with wine, it’s an up-and-down thing. Thanks for commenting.

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  1. “Where are you with your novel, and how do you stay focused on it?”

    I’m at the start of the final editing stage as I prepare for publication in 2015. Right now, it’s hard to stay focused on the manuscript because I lost some of the punchiness from the initial draft.

    Your entry inspires me to return to it and trust the process. I can create a story quickly, but I get bogged down if I focus on editing as I write. “Create First. React Later,” is a wonderful mantra what I need to refocus on the process. If I have something to edit, then I’ve succeeded at “Create First.” The rest is just acting on that manuscript until it’s ready for public consumption.

    Thanks for this inspiring post, Jann. I look forward to hearing more about the novel you are preparing. You definitely sound like you have a compelling premise with conflict and excitement at every page’s turn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great to hear a prediction of my future (when I get to editing), and equally great to hear that this post and my graphic mantra helps you. Trust the process, yeah. That’s like saying, Trust yourself. Which you should.

      The only thing I can add is what would motivate me: If you don’t finish your edits, you’ll never publish that sucker! All that hard work and creativity lost to the world. 😉 Hope that helped, too.

      Appreciate the time you took to share your process. Best of luck.

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  2. That’s fabulous, Jann! LOVE the quote about tending your novel – I am so going to tweet that around. And it’s so true! It’s easy to fall back into the story when you work on it regularly – but once you let it go, it’s much harder to get back into it. Sounds as though you’re back into it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Appreciate your high praise. Yes, I’m trying to tend my novel, though I confess I rarely tend a garden any more. I’m in that place where the tilling is tough (in my story). At least the ground is too frozen (finally) here in Austin, Texas to worry about what I’m ignoring there. Glad you read and liked the piece.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad you’ve found an approach to writing that works for you! I’m also taking a good hard look at my writing schedule this year and trying to improve it. Sadly, I am not a morning person and could never write before the other work. So I’m doing the opposite – getting the emails and tweets and other tasks out of the way by a certain time and then BOOM! Start writing. The key for me was setting a deadline to finish the un-fun stuff so it doesn’t cut in to my writing time. Here’s to finishing novels in 2015!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am two years and two months into this undertaking that is just the most self-impacting thing I have ever done. Right now I’m waiting to hear back on submissions, but I am with you on the ‘create first’ part. I know if I don’t prioritize it, no one else will, so I get up and 3:30am and write every morning before my day. It became like a vacuum that sucked me in and now that the writing is done and the rest as begun, even more so. I know it sounds like more work, but for me, my blog was such a help to writing the book, although the two are not the same. But the weekly affirmations posted to the comments on the blog fueled me on the book project. But however each of us manage it, it’s all good. It isn’t like this is required homework, after all. I’m anxious to read your book, Jann.

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    • I like your observation, “I know it sounds like more work, but for me, my blog was such a help to writing the book, although the two are not the same. ” It’s both affirming to me, since I’m in agreement with you on my motivations in blogging, and it’s consoling to know others write for those reasons, too. You sound very dedicated, and that’s a recipe for success. Hoping your novel meets with plenty of it. Thank you for your kind words, Anna.

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  5. I love this mantra, Jann! I’ve been writing for years and years and have been the most unhappy when I’ve allowed the details and demands of life to sidetrack me. If I create / write before anything else gets done, I’m not so grumpy about the unexpected happenings that always occur later in the day. And honestly, it’s SO difficult to get back on track that even if I only spend half an hour on writing, it will save me months of spinning my wheels later. Best of luck to you in your writing journey!

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    • That’s just how I experience interruptions to my creative time, too, Suzanne, I am much more able to be generous with others once I’ve had my quiet time with my writing, or any of the other creative practices I enjoy—but especially the writing. I know there are plenty of writers who squeeze in bits here and there between other demands, but for me, writing needs dedicated time to get in that other-world reverie I’m creating. Thanks so much for your comments. Looking forward to hearing more about your novel.

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  6. Had this discussion with a writing group just last night. It’s much too easy to get out of touch with the characters and the setting and the flow if you leave it for too long. Love your mantra and will pass it on. Inspirational!

    Liked by 1 person

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