Category Archives: The Writing Life


Giving Credit

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Of course you can protect your work with a copyright notice. And you can take the additional step and protect it with the U.S. Government, so you can sue a violator not only for use, but for damages. (You can’t … Continue reading

Reading Isn’t Believing

As a blog omnivore, I read a lot of advice, thoughts, and beliefs of other writers and artists. It’s a big world, populated by writers of every emotional and spiritual stripe (and rant).

Smart-is-when-you-believe-half-of-what-you-hearThe last two days, I’ve been reading about other people’s success stories about blogging and book promoting. (I have a tendency to read about what’s on my plate). Interesting what happens in my brain (maybe yours, too) when we read something new that we don’t agree with. The other person must be smarter. Particularly if we don’t know them. Because no matter what our experience is, surely the other person is smarter, richer, wiser, and a better all-around human being. (Inner critic alert).

I’m amazed at my own gullibility. “Content is no longer king,” says one blogger, and I gobble up his article, afraid that one of my basic truths has vanished. “The reader is king!” he proudly proclaims, “content doesn’t really matter.” Oh. And what is King Reader reading? Content. And why will King Reader read the content? Because it is interesting to King Reader. So, finish the circle, content is still king.

“If you are still doing book signings, you are over 60 and a dinosaur,” says another blogger. Her idea is that everything is virtual, and social networking is the only action that sells books.

I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure people buy books for lots of reasons, and a good reason is to meet the person who wrote it and talk to them if they are available. And that means I want to make myself available. Because people who are satisfied tell others. (Not as many as people who are unsatisfied, which is motivation enough.) But can’t I do both? The Inner Hero book had two launches (one in California and one locally in Phoenix) and is having a fun run on several people’s blogs.

Before you believe everything you read (I call this “the last person I talked to is an expert” syndrome) run it through your value-meter. I’ve been writing for a long time, and content matters. If an article is cheap starchy filler, I leave faster than a barefoot pedestrian crosses a freshly-tarred street.

imagesMy value-meter knows that meeting people face to face and hearing their stories is what made me write my book in the first place. I heard so many people say, “I’m not really good at anything” while hungering to make meaning in life,  it was impossible for me not to write the book.

Of course, I also learn a lot from reading blogs.  I’m happy to explore new ideas, and I’m a big fan of change. But change for change’s sake rarely sticks. Change is fueled by current failure, pain, or general misery.  What makes change possible is that the current plan isn’t working.

What works for someone else might not work for me. And if it doesn’t match what I know to be true from my own life, it’s probably not true for me. My life is a big circle, and I invite a lot of people in. But it doesn’t mean I have to follow them around in circles.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach whose coaching practice is based on working with deeply-held values and, well, change.

Drafts: Zero to Three

The client was terse. “Your copy did not hit the mark, I will write the copy myself.” And she did. I suppose she was unhappy because the first draft didn’t mimic her own ideas. Or maybe she had forgotten my request that a first draft would be a start, and her feedback would be a way to get to the heart of the matter.

page1“If you can’t get it right the first time, you aren’t much of a writer,” she said. I thought about how that would look if we applied it to the rest of life.

To a toddler: “Just one step? If you don’t get up and run 26 miles, you aren’t much of a marathoner.”

To a calf: “You are still drinking milk? If you can’t produce milk yourself, you aren’t much of a cow.”

To a seedling: “Just one leaf? If you can’t produce an apple, you aren’t much of a tree.”

Writing is an art of iteration. Of drafts. Of writing long and cutting it down. I’ve never seen a first draft that was perfect. I’ve seen lots that aren’t very good but that get better with each draft. It’s funny that clients think that if you need more than one try, you aren’t talented.  Thomas Edison tried 6,000 different materials until he found one that worked as a light bulb filament. James Michener’s boss told him to quit thinking he was a writer, instead, he should keep his eye on doing his job as an editor or he’d be fired. This was months before Michener won the Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific. He went on to write 40 other titles, including Hawaii, Chesapeake, and The Drifters. Each one went through several drafts.

Julia Child cut up piles of onions before she felt competent wielding a knife. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger had been flying airplanes for more than 30 years before he put the U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson so that all 150 passengers could stay alive. Bet he couldn’t have done that the first time he stepped into a plane.

So, alas, I lost a customer. I did not shed a tear or spend more than two deep breaths mourning the loss. Good writing takes drafts. Good writing takes cutting and feedback. And if you don’t think it does, you’re getting bad copy.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and coach. She has a practice and loves practicing.

Last Page of Your Journal

You already know what to put on the  first page of that new journal. No more staring at blank pages for you!  Once you get past the middle, you can decide how to end your journal.

How do you  end a journal so you don’t have to continue a thought, a project, or a story into another journal?

Step-cut of last three pages. The page that binds the signature to the book is left untouched to keep it strong.

Step-cut of last three pages. The page that binds the signature to the book is left untouched to keep it strong.

Create a table of contents of favorite pages.  I like to come to the end of a project or idea flow in my journals. I don’t mind having a few blank pages in the back. Over time, I’ll fill those blank pages with dates of pages I keep looking up or those with favorite quotes or poems.  I don’t number my journal pages, but I date each page, so sometimes I write the start and end date at the end of the journal. It becomes a useful index to the contents.

Decorate the end pages. If there are a few blank pages left, I also cut steps into them. I trim the last page about an inch from the end, the next one two inches, and the third one three or four inches in from the book edge. Using a craft knife, I cut a wavy line and create a three-page landscape. Remember to put a cutting mat under the page you are cutting.

Tinting the page edges gives it a nice finish. I use a water color wash to keep the color pale. You could tear the pages straight down or give them a deckled-edge look. I like the curved look better.

dont-throwmeUse stickers or postcards. Daniel Smith, the art supply house, puts a sticker on small or lightweight packages in larger deliveries. The sticker is bright orange, about 4 x 6 inches and says “Don’t throw me away.” It strikes a chord, so I often use one on the final page of a journal. It seems about right. You might be done with it, but there is lots of meaning to be made.

Add a photo of yourself, your children, your pets.  That way, when you look back over them in the years to come, you’ll have an evolving view of what you looked like. Adding a photo of your house shows how it changes over the years. A photo of the kitchen is always fun with advancing technologies changing what our appliances look like.

The last page of a journal doesn’t have to be an ending. For a powerful last page, flip back to the beginning, and read the first post or two. End the book with a recognition of how far you’ve come.

–Quinn McDonald keeps journals. She’s also the author of The Inner Hero Creative Art Journal, and keeps loose leaf journals.

Fast Fiction (Review and Giveaway)

FastFictionAlways wanted to write a book? Have the story but don’t know how to start–or keep going to write a novel? Denise Jaden has your answer. Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days is the answer to most of the question you’ve had about how to write that novel.

Yes, I know National Novel Writing Month is barely over (or still eight months away), but you don’t need the challenge to write a book. And if you use Jaden’s book, you will be done by the time November rolls around.

I was a bit skeptical when I picked up the book. I may have even muttered about the way we do everything so fast and without real thought. But after I read the book, I changed my mind. Jaden herself says, “If someone had told me during my early writing days that I would be able to write a draft of an entire book in less than a month, I probably would have though they were crazy,”

Jaden guides you through the first draft of a 50,000 word novel. And she does it just in time for the novel-writing March Madness contest she holds each year on her own blog.  The book is divided into three parts–Before the Draft, During the Draft, and After the Draft. She doesn’t leave you hanging with a draft and no idea what to do. But I’m leaping too far ahead.

web+banner+booksIn Before the Draft, you’ll learn how to narrow down the idea for your novel, separate plot from story idea, and set a three-act structure (and she tells you how to do each step.)

You will also learn why theme is important, how much to develop your characters (and how much to let them develop themselves), and why setting is important. She helps you develop a list of scenes (in clear terms), and to write a story plan and how you will write your first draft.

All of this will happend before you start launching into During Your Draft. In that section, you will get help for each of 30 days in which you are going to draft your novel. Jaden reminds you that it is a first draft, not a finished product. One of the pieces of the book I found most useful is the weekly checkpoints she helps you set at the beginning of the 30-days.

For each of the 30 days of drafting, there is an encouraging portion of avoiding pitfalls, writing tips, and hints. Then there is a Simple Task for each day. Following her advice and using the tips will have you writing 2,000 words a day.

I expected to hear some repetition in the 30-day section, but there wasn’t any. Each day is molded by the goal for that week, and has a new idea and fresh approach to old writing problems. No clichés, no trite affirmations, no platitudes.

The last section, After the Draft, Jaden talks about revisions, using first readers to help you identify problem areas, and how to fix those areas.

I found myself wanting to write a novel for the first time in a long time, just to try out her method. I love the positive town that never sounds cheerleader-ish, and the real advice.

I received the book as a review copy and would love to keep it for myself. But I give away review copies. Leave a comment and I’ll give the book away on Thursday’s blog. If you’ve wanted to write a novel, but weren’t sure exactly how to do it, you’ll know how when you finish.

Quinn McDonald is tempted to write a novel now. She has always said she is not a fiction writer. She used to say she wasn’t a book author, either. She is the author of The Inner Hero Art Journal.

Journaling While Traveling

It’s not a travel journal–that’s a journal for a vacation or a special trip. I journal while I travel. In an ariplane, at a restaurant, in my hotel room–a few notes, observations, capturing characters or scenes. More than that feels like work.

Because I travel only with carry-on luggage (one suitcase, one backpack), my journaling has to be limited to a small space and a few implements. Here’s how I manage it:

Travel1A practical carrying case for pens and brushes. Two zippers make it easy for me to peel back the cover and the stiff bottom means it stand upright. Writing implements, top to bottom: A white Sakura gel pen, a Pitt pen (Fine) permanent, a Yasutomo Koi pen (watercolor, for shading), Niji waterbrush, bookkeeper pencil (writes like a lead pencil, but when wet, it writes in bright turquoise and becomes permanent), and a lead holder with a lead for writing and shading.

Travel journal © Quinn McDonald 2013.

Travel journal © Quinn McDonald 2013.

It’s all I need for basic sketching and writing. What do I write on? No room in the backpack for a big journal, so I use shipping tags that I paint before I leave. I attach them through the existing hold with a photo-album screw post. The post allows the tags room to swing, so I don’t have to take them apart and can write on them. Not a lot, but enough to help me remember that great restaurant, that interesting woman sitting next to me on the flight from Houston to Dallas.

Tiny journal © Quinn McDonald

Tiny journal © Quinn McDonald

While I travel, I use bricollage–a French word for collaging with whatever is at hand. These bright colorful lines are the pieces between the stamps.


Best of all, the journal packs comfortably into the pencil case. Everything in one spot.

Tiny Journal 2© Quinn McDonald

Tiny Journal 2© Quinn McDonald

When I have filled up the pieces I carry with me, I separate them by date and put them together with a screwpost and wing nut. It’s a great way to collect memories and it doesn’t take a lot of space in the creation or in storage!

--Quinn McDonald gets more done when it doesn’t require a lot of extra materials. She may be a minimalist.

Email Hassles (Sorry, Mr. Kilmer)

I think that I shall never see
an email answered thoroughly.

Replies that answer questions asked
instead of adding to my task.

Concise with information needed
Instead of three-times asked and pleaded

sadtree2And then forgotten with a Huh?
A smiley face, a shrug, a “Doh!”

I hunger for a sentence rich
with information, scratch my itch!

It isn’t hard, first read, then write
Answer the question, end the plight!

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who wishes for emails that answer what was asked, preferably the first time, although the second time will do.

Creality, Revisited

What separates success from disappointment (not failure, which is not as bad as being disappointed in yourself) is the ability to be OK with “not yet.” The sense of being an experimenter comes out as the strength to be satisfied with your creative output while knowing, at the same time, that you will do another round, and it will be different, and maybe even better.

Caption at the metro station in Victoria Station, London.

Caption at the metro station in Victoria Station, London.

I’ve covered creality several times, but this is the step after creality hits. (Creality is the term that T.J. Goerlitz introduced me to. It’s the gap between what is in your head and what you produce. )

This quote by Ira Glass  (host of This American Life) jumped out at me today, and it was perfect for my state of mind. Maybe yours, too.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.

We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”   ― Ira Glass

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and art journaler. She’s still fighting.

Dreaming of June

MISA1June seems like a long time away-but like the seed catalog that reaches you just as you had given up all hope for Spring, I want to whisper some green hope in your ear. Polar vortices, sleet, shoveling snow–leave them behind for a minute. Tuck yourself into a cozy place in your house and imagine June on an island that is a green prairie. It has rocky and sandy beaches, rivers tucked into coves. This place is not just imaginary, it’s Madeline Island in Lake Superior. And you can restore your soul and learn to laugh again this summer.

thumb_seed-packets-wedding-favourFrom June 2 to 6, I will be teaching Jungle Gym for Monkey Mind at Madeline Island School of ArtsThe class is based on the Inner Hero book, and we’ll learn something new every day. You’ll try your hand at writing poetry, surface decorating papers, using the papers to make seed packets for those tiny beginning ideas you want to grow into big, sturdy plans.

You’ll discover your inner heroes and what you have in common with them. You’ll make friends and have time to visit art galleries and restaurants. If you like a noisier time, you’ll find bars and restaurants to keep you up all night.

MISA2If you are ready to retrieve your soul from where it has drifted, this class is the one for you. Every participant will receive a free creativity coaching session to help them explore the inner landscape that is so often neglected. The island is a perfect setting for coming back into who you want to be.

MISA3We’ll learn specifics every morning and you can explore how to use them in the afternoon. The classroom is also open all night. No locks, just space and time. You can work any time. Just turn out the light if you are the last to leave.

You’ll create monoprints and gather your results into a book, a journal of memories and encouragement to take back into your changed life. It’s time to restore that part of you that has to be strong and give all year.

Think about it. And begin to plan it. It’s an experience like no other. No art or writing experience necessary. Just a sense of adventure.

Quinn McDonald taught at Madeline Island last summer and is dreaming about returning. She welcomes you to join her in a remarkable experience.

Looks like a painting, but it's the view from the classroom at Madeline Island School of Arts

Looks like a painting, but it’s the view from the classroom at Madeline Island School of Arts