Six Lessons – Part One

By Brenda Buchanan

I’m writing this in early November, barely six months after launching my first novel, Quick Pivot, and a month after release of its sequel, Cover Story.

Amazingly enough, the third book in my Joe Gale Mystery Series, Truth Beat, already has been put to bed, as we say in the newspaper biz. Written, edited, proofed, gussied up with a beautiful cover to be revealed soon, Truth Beat is done.

Fini. Terminado. Críochnaithe.


I’m now working on character sketches for my next book, one of my favorite parts of the process. I start with a few vague ideas about who will populate the story. I brainstorm names, backstories, genders, personalities, character flaws, then ruminate about these folks when not otherwise occupied. I dream about them, talk with them while driving (alone) and pretty soon I have a whole new community of imaginary friends with whom to share my life.

It occurred to me the other day that before I get too far along into the next book, it would be a good idea to take stock and share a few newfound insights. Here are the first three of six important lessons I have learned along the way. I’ll write about the other three in December. 

Lesson #1: Make the Time.  I could not have written three crime novels since 2008 if I didn’t write every day. At first, I didn’t appreciate the necessity of a routine. I thought I could only be productive if I had hours to sit down and immerse myself. I didn’t even try on days when I was busy, tired or uninspired.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this approach was unworkable. I have a rather demanding day job and numerous family and other commitments. If I didn’t make time to write, it wouldn’t happen. Creating a regular rhythm required me to transform the way I thought about my writing. Instead of it being something I might do after work, I decided to make it something I would do, no matter what kind of day I’d had and no matter what else was competing for my attention.

At first it felt rather grim, like rejoining the gym after a long absence, when your muscles ache after ten minutes on the Stairmaster and the acerbic voice in your head razzes you about how stupid it is to spend your time climbing imaginary stairs. Why are you wasting your energy? You don’t have time for this foolishness.

But I stuck with it. As with the gym, once I found my writing groove, I began to feel out of sorts if my routine was interrupted. It wasn’t always fun to park myself in front of the computer, but as time went on it felt good, in an odd sort of way.

Linear gal that I am, I started at the beginning and moved toward the end at a clip of two pages a night. I only deviated from this method when I found myself writing in circles or stepping on my own clues, which necessitated going backward only enough to get myself back on track.  This dutiful approach resulted in a complete first draft, which at the time felt like more than half the battle. (It wasn’t, but the beauty of revision is a lesson for next month.)

I know that other writers take different approaches. Some write the last chapter first, or write in scenes, not chapters. I don’t think it matters how one goes about writing the book so long as there’s a regular routine to keep you engaged with the process, day in and day out.

Lesson #2: Create The Space.  My decision to commit to my writing happened shortly after I moved from Peaks Island to the mainland. I put a desk in the part of our finished basement that the prior owners had used as an office and christened it Brenda’s Writing Cave. I stuck it out for maybe six months before realizing a subterranean space where I felt completely cut off from what was happening in the outside world was not for me.

Going to the other extreme, I set up shop in the den, which had the opposite drawback—it was in the middle of everything. Too close to the fridge and the TV, with a perfect view of the birdfeeders where something fascinating always was happening. So I moved my writing spot upstairs, which has proved to be the charm.

I am sitting in my “study” right now, which doubles as our guest room. It is quiet, especially in the cold weather months when the windows are closed. I have a bookcase for my stuff, and a beautiful photograph of the islands of Casco Bay above my desk.

The photo of Casco Bay that hangs above my desk. Beautiful, and less distracting than a window.

The photo of Casco Bay that hangs above my desk. Beautiful, and less distracting than a window.

I work here most of the time, though sometimes avail myself of the Sunday morning solitude of my unoccupied law office or seek out a quiet nook at one of several local libraries. No matter where I sit, water is at hand, occasionally coffee or tea. There are both pencils and pens within easy reach, and for reasons I can’t explain, a tube of lip balm  is essential.

My desk, with pencils at the ready. The mugs feature my book covers, a gift from my thoughtful sister-in-law Chris.

My desk, with pencils at the ready. The mugs feature my book covers, a gift from my thoughtful sister-in-law Chris Kenty.


I don’t snack while I write, or attempt to write with my laptop balanced on my knees. I need a desk or table and a reasonably comfortable chair.

I get down to business without detouring past email or social media. Like a diver swinging her arms before climbing the tall platform, I re-read the pages I wrote the previous day to warm my writerly muscles. Then I plunge in, and stay there until I’ve met my word goal for the day.

Having a comfortable, dedicated space to create maximizes the chance of uninterrupted work, and fewer interruptions mean greater productivity.

Lesson #3: Treasure those who love you.

No one does this alone. I knew that going in, but now I really know that.

While I’ve been busy writing, my spouse has managed our life. I still cook, but she does most everything else. Laundry. Cleaning. Gardening. Social calendar management. She helps me with writing-related tasks (like managing my mailing list) and is my first reader and the giver of much helpful feedback. She also sits in the front row at all of my speaking gigs.

This kind of active support is precious. As important—perhaps even more so—are her regular reminders to unplug from the intensity. We have a Sunday beach walk routine, no matter what the weather. We’re working our way through the eight seasons of Foyle’s War (how did we miss them when they were first aired?), and we swim every chance we get in the warm weather months. This counterweight to my every-day-I-must-write obsession is critical to my mental health.

I also am lucky to have a supportive group of friends, who I don’t see enough. We all have a lot going on in our lives, but for the past couple of years, I’ve too often been the one turning aside invitations, claiming not to have time to meet for dinner or go for a walk. Righting that particular imbalance is my goal for this winter, because life is too short to spend all my time with my imaginary friends when I am blessed with so many wonderful real ones.

Balance. It’s all about balance. How do you try to achieve that complex equilibrium? I am interested in your thoughts.

Stay tuned next month for lessons 4 through 6.



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14 Responses to Six Lessons – Part One

  1. Karla says:

    Very useful ideas and reminders. Thanks for posting, Brenda.
    PS After Foyle’s War, you might try the Ann Cleeves ‘Vera’ series…

    • Ah, Karla, we have sampled the Vera series already and know it will be the next. I’ve been on an Ann Cleeves reading kick since meeting her at Malice Domestic last May. She said she has been happy with the TV treatment of her work, especially how Brenda Blethyn has brought Vera Stanhope to life on the screen, so I can’t wait to really jump in.

  2. Jewel Hanley says:

    Nice one, Brenda. Looking forward to December’s ‘revision’ post.

  3. Michelle says:

    Great lessons!

  4. Kate Cone says:

    Thanks, Brenda! Even though I’m dabbling in social media BEFORE I write this morning, I come to it for posts such as yours….I am a person who has 10 WIP’s going at once, so my focus for winter is picking one and finishing. I am blessed too to have my own study, which is warm and cozy. I have yet to figure out how to get the dog and cat to respect my writing time (good luck with that one!), and my husband is there to tell me, “You’re a great writer, keep going.”

  5. Peter Murray says:

    As a fledgling, I want you to know how much posts like this one are appreciated. They are instructive and reassuring. It would appear that I have been doing some things right by intuition. Thanks for bolstering my discipline level.

  6. Barb Ross says:

    What a wonderful post, Brenda. Make time. Make space. Seek balance. Good words for life, as well as for writing.

  7. L.C. Rooney says:

    Terrific advice, Brenda!

    Time: check (I’ve been writing full-time since February, so no excuses).

    Space: check. Room with a view that I have to get up out of my chair to see…that helps…if it were in front of me, I’d never get anything done.

    Encouragement and Support: check. The hubs and daughter have that covered in spades…AND he brews my coffee every morning, so there’s that. 😉

    Thanks for posting, and I’ll be looking for the next three lessons next month.

    Crime Bake was fantastic! Looking forward to seeing you again soon.

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