5 Minutes a Day: Resurrecting Your Writing Life

Five minutes a day. Although it may not be the ideal amount of writing time, it is all you need to squeeze in an effort to write.

I proved this to myself the last few weeks with my brother-in-law in one hospital and my father in another across town.  Then there are the fruit trees we bought before all of this started.  Getting them in the ground at the community garden was a must. And I had bought herbs for my own garden.

Some people can simply not write for months at a time.  Busy planning a wedding.  Getting ready to move.  New baby.  And those are all good reasons not to write.

But for me it isn’t really an option.  But how do you write when your life is full to the brim.  You do it in five minutes a day.

And the first step is believing that it is possible both to find five minutes and to doing anything worthwhile in five minutes.

Most of us can find five minutes if we give ourselves permission.  Five minutes in the driveway before you enter the house after work.  Five minutes after breakfast.  While one of my writing friends is waiting for her kids, she sits in the car and writes on her phone.  I keep a small notebook in my purse.

But can five minutes a day add up and become anything worthwhile?  I did it for a month and drafted 5400 words on a middle grade novel.  Not tens of thousands of words but a lot more than I would have done otherwise. So what could you do with 5400 words in one month?

Tune in on Fridays for more “Five Minute a Day” posts.




5 Minutes a Day: Explore the Library of Congress

If you aren’t familiar with the Library of Congress, spend some time whenever you have a few minutes and poke around.  There are so many resources available including a wide variety of research materials.

Two of the newest offerings are:

The Theodore Roosevelt Papers.  approximately 276,000 documents, this is the largest collection of Roosevelt documents in the world. The collection includes diary entries, letters and illustrations.

Betty Herndon Maury Maury Papers. Maury kept this two volume diary from June 3, 1861, to February 18, 1863.  It details her experiences during the Civil War and includes information on the part played by women as well as the impact on Confederate soldiers.

Other digital collections include:

Benjamin Franklin Papers. Approximately 8,000 pieces from the 1770s and 1780s. The collection includes both his work in politics and his work in science and although not all of it is online, this is a start.

Alexander Bell Family Papers: The online collection contains about 51,500 images of correspondence, scientific notebooks,  blueprints, and more.

After the Day of Infamy: These man-on-the-street interviews were recorded following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The collection consists of 12 hours total although I’m not sure how much has been digitized.

Ansel Adam’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar : I just recently learned about these photos so I was excited to see that they can be found at the Library of Congress.

In addition to the digital collections, you will find the following available online:

Library of Congress Magazine (LCM) which is available online.

Science Research Guides which are themed research guides with lists of resources.

Journeys and Crossings which are webcasts on various topics.

You aren’t going to get through everything that interests you in five minutes, but pop over to the Library of Congress (LOC) when you have tine and you will find a wealth of resources, story ideas, and more.


5 Minutes a Day: NaNoWriMo

Do you plan to take part in NaNoWriMo?  For those of you who have somehow missed the phenomenon that is NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month.  During the month of November, each participant commits to drafting a 50,000 word novel.  No, you can’t rewrite something you’ve already written.  No, this isn’t the time to finish up something you’ve started.  When you sign up, you are committing to draft at least 50,000 words of a NEW novel.

I’m not going to be doing NaNoWriMo for three reasons.

  •  I will most likely be rewriting a book I just got paid for.
  • I will most likely also be rewriting a book that is due at the beginning of November.
  • I already started drafting my novel.

That said, NaNoWriMo can be a great program to get you started.  But be sure to spend some time planning your story.  Yes, planning.  Here are 5 five-minute tasks for you to complete before November 1.

  1. Decide which of your great novel ideas you will pursue.  If you are as busy as I am, the temptation is to spend October getting things done with little time spent thinking about what you are going to write.  After all, I have a notebook with 261 story ideas in it.  No, really.  I just checked.  261.  To be successful you have to know which story you will draft because you have some prep work to complete.  That leads me to …
  2. Write a premise or elevator pitch for your story.  In broad strokes, what is it about?  Where does the tension come from? What is the character’s goal?
  3. Spend some time getting to know your main character.  What does she want more than anything?  What is on the line if she fails?  What stands in her way.
  4. Are the stakes high enough?  Is her ambition big enough to carry a book?  Because if not you may have troubles making that 50,000 word count.  Take a good look at what you’ve laid out and increase the stakes as needed.
  5. Outline.  I can hear the pantsers screaming from here.  I’m not saying do a detailed outline but do jot down the broad strokes.  What is the inciting incident?  What is the climax?  I know it is out-of-order but those are the two points I tend to start with mentally.  What attempts does the character make to solve the problem?  How does she fail?  For some people, this is enough to get started.  If you aren’t one fo those people, spend a few more five-minute sessions laying things out.

NaNoWriMo.  It’s doable especially if you’ve done some prep work.


5 Minutes a Day: Writer’s block

No, I’m not saying that you can get beyond writer’s block in 5 minutes.  But if you spend five minutes figuring out why you have it?  Then you’ll know which of these methods to try.

So far this year, I’ve written 6 contracted books.  I’ve rewritten 4 of them.  I’m about to write #7.  I’ve also written one picture book and am about done with another.  And I’m drafting a novel.

Given this schedule, I know what my problem is when I can’t write.  I’m tired.  Physically and quite likely mentally.  I need to apply technique #2.  I need to do something creative or fun and recharge.

But earlier in the year before I met all these deadlines, I couldn’t get the novel outlined.  It just wasn’t happening.  I finally realized that it was because I was intimidated.  I’m good at nonfiction.  Fiction?  Not so much.  Instead of facing the blank page when it was time to draft a scene, a copied a paragraph from the outline.  Ta-da!  The page is no longer blank!  Goofy?  Yes, but the word started to flow.

Solution #3.  That’s what I need to employ when I’ve been writing but something just feels off.  I take a break and fold laundry or walk.  Exciting things like that.  I think about the project.  And very often it becomes clear that I’ve written myself into a corner.  I need to take a new direction.

When you get blocked, spend a few minutes noodling over your schedule, your project, and your emotions.  Once you know where you stand, you’ll have a better chance of getting past that wall.


5 Minutes a Day: Testing Your Characters and Your Setting

Are your characters unique?  Is your setting woven into your story? These are the kinds of things that can make a story top-notch instead of ho-hum.  Here are some simple thing you can do to test how well you’ve done.

Change the setting for your story.

If your story is contemporary, consider resetting it 100 years ago.  If it is set in modern New York, move it to San Antonio.

If this is easy to do and nothing changes, you need to weave your setting deeper into your story.  The time period needs to be seen through the culture, the artifacts, and how people get around.  The environment needs to impact people’s clothing and outdoor activities.  The culture of where they are needs to come into play.

If your story can take place any-where and any-when, sadly you have work to do.

Swap one character for another.  

Two of your characters are about to confront the antagonist.  Swap the secondary character for a different secondary character.

Or your main character has just discovered who the informant is.  Swap this sneaky so-and-so for another secondary character.

Does your main character have two sidekicks?  Find a scene with both of them in it.  Can you cut it to only one sidekick?

Or find a scene with only one sidekick.  Can you swap this sidekick for the other.

Love interests, adversaries, and mentors can all be tested in similar ways if there is more than one.

You’ve probably guessed by now but if you can swap one for the other or eliminate one altogether, they are too much alike.  They are probably also two-dimensional. Contemplate what you can do to make them both interesting and integral to the story.

If you’ve discovered that your setting and/or your characters are ho-hum, don’t panic.  Rewrites are a great opportunity to fix problems just like these.  Speaking of which, I have a two-dimensional sidekick to bring into a three-dimensional world.


5 Minutes a Day: World Building

Recently I read a post on the SCBWI Summer Conference Blog about Malinda Lo’s session on world building.  As a science fiction and fantasy author, Lo spoke on the importance of creating a culture and setting that make the story feel real.  This isn’t something that takes place only in science fiction and fantasy.  As I read this post, I realized that it is something I am doing in my mystery.

Here are 4 5-minute exercises you can do to help build your setting.

  1. What do people notice?  When someone steps into your world, what is the first thing that they notice.  I live in Missouri.  When exchange students from Malaysia arrived here in the fall, even these young people from Southeast Asia commented on the humidity.  Yep.  We’ve got that in abundance.  In the alpine deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, it is the space. At the base of a mountain or an overlook, you notice that you can see a remarkable distance.
  2. Unique food or drink. There is going to be something, no matter where you are, that no one else seems to eat.  Louisville has a turkey sandwich called the Hot Brown.  St. Louis has toasted ravioli and crab rangoon.  Texas and the Southern US?  Sweet tea.  What is it in your setting?
  3. What is the question that people ask?  In St. Louis, everyone asks where you went to highschool.  Outsiders don’t get it, but this question reveals where you live, your socio-economic status and whether or not your family has engaged in white flight. Other questions that can be just as telling are what sport your child plays and where you picked up the gift for a child’s birthday party.
  4. Unspoken rules.  Rules are something that Lo spoke about.  Unwritten rules are tough and every place has them.  I remember staying with my aunt in Florida.  She sent me to my room to change 4 times.  She wouldn’t say, “You can’t wear slacks to church.” Finally I had to start putting on my mom’s clothes which solved the problem.  She packed no slacks. I packed no skirts.  A lot of these rules have to do with clothing but there are also a lot of food rules – no one eats tacos with chocolate sauce or stuffs a turkey with hot dogs. What are the unwritten rules of your setting?

Take five minutes and brain storm one of these topics.  Work through all five of them and you’ll have pulled together information on the physical world of your story as well as the culture.



5 Minutes a Day: Brainstorming Story Ideas

I’m at 198 and counting. I’m one of those writers who keeps a list of story ideas.

Some of them are fairly fleshed out and would function as a premise.  Others are much less so.  I may have an idea for a character.  Other times it is a title.  And then there are the “what if” questions.  What if so-and-so met so-and-so?  What if so-and-so found themself in this situation.

They don’t have to be well-developed to be classified as an idea.  And that is definitely something you can do in only five minutes when time is precious.  The good news is that story ideas can come from anywhere.


Sometimes an article that is sent to my in-box inspires a story.  I’ll read about an event in history and wonder what happened before or after.  Or I’ll misread a heading.  I’m kind of famous for that.  This week I received “How to Turn Beans into Dinner,” but bobbing along on the treadmill I saw “How to Turn BEARS into Dinner.” It all started when Baby Bear misunderstood something he read.

A Location.

When we were in the Smoky Mountains, we saw tons of signs warning us about elk and black bears.  Before we left, I had two different story ideas – one about elk and one about black bear. Two more story ideas came from the mountains themselves.  And then there are the eight inspired by various museum and visitor center displays, and one inspired  by a local pronunciations.  That’s 13 total.


Sometimes all I need for inspiration is an image.  I do a lot of photo research for various projects at Pixabay.  The front page is an un-themed display of recent images.  Sometimes someone will post something new that sparks my imagination.

A Conversation.

And don’t forget to draw inspiration from the people around you.  One of my husband’s cousins is doing genealogy and is flabbergasted that he can’t find his grandparents’ death certificates.  Yeah.  You can’t toss something like that out in front of me and not generate a few ideas.

All it takes is a few moments to jot down a story idea.  Just keep your eyes open and a notebook handy.


5 Minutes a Day: Sensory Detail

Bringing your setting alive is often a matter of including true-to-life details. But they have to be more than realistic.  They have to be real.

What are the things that you would notice if you were there vs if you simply researched your setting?  I contemplated this last weekend as I took part in my first Pickle Making Party.  Simply put, three days of rain led to rapidly growing, monster cucumbers.  No one wants to eat one cucumber that big let alone 35 pounds of huge cukes.  So we pickled.  This was my first time making pickles and I drank in the details.

The good thing is that there details don’t have to go into your first draft.  Or your second draft.  There are the kinds of details that you can add into draft three or five.  When you have a few minutes, take a look at one page of your story.  If you don’t have three sensory details on that page, add one or two or even three.  And mix things up. These should all be sights.  Go for the more difficult touch and motion.

To show you how, I will brain storm sensory details for five minutes.

Sight:  Dark green peels.  Feathery dill.  Ivory garlic.  White cucumber flesh.  Shiny pepper flakes.  Billowing steam.

Smell: The tang of vinegar.  Pungent garlic.  The freshness of orange (someone had a snack).

Sound:  The swish of  water going into a pot.  Bubbling.  The purr of the dishwasher.  The hum of the exhaust fan.  The clang of the pot lid.  Hissing pressure cooker.

Taste: The tang of the brine.  Mellow cucumber.  The bite of garlic.  The green taste of dill.  Yes, to me dill tastes green!

Touch:  Rubbery cucumber flesh.  Prickly cucumbers straight off the vine.  Papery garlic skin.  Lava hot jars.  Cool tap water.

Motion: The whirlpool motion as you stir the brine. The subtle motion as the lid is sucked down and seals.  Billows and swirling of steam.

Not great but I got this many in five minutes.  What could you come up with if you only had to think of three?


5 Minutes a Day: Getting Back into a Project

When I work on a book or article daily, it is easy to get back into it.  The voice and style are accessible and handy.  But this week I’m trying to get back into two projects.  As you know, last week we were in the Smoky Mountains.  I came home to a request for more information from one editor and a rewrite request from another.  By the time I dealt with those two weeks had passed before I worked on either of these books.  Here are five five-minute methods to get back into a story after an absence.

Read what you have.  If you’ve written several chapters for a longer book or several spreads for a picture book, reread what you’ve already written.  Don’t read silently.  Read it aloud so that you can literally hear the voice.

Revisit your inspiration.  What inspired you to write this piece in the first place?  Perhaps it is something you were inspired to write after hearing a news story on NPR.   Listen to this piece again.  Or reread the news article that made you want to cover this topic.  For me this is often enough to renew my enthusiasm and get me going again.

Visit the time or place.  If you are writing a piece set in a specific time period.  Get back into that period.  Listen to music.  Maybe you can find a recording of a news cast or other period material.  Visit Youtube and see if someone has posted a video of your location.  Get a feel once again for the time and place of your story.

What’s been going on?  Ask your character what it has been like waiting for you to get back.  Why does she want you to get going again?  I know this sounds hokey but this technique always brings new insight into my story and makes me want to dive back in.

Engage in a writing or rewriting ritual.  Do you have something you do every time you sit down to write?  Mine isn’t a writing ritual but when I do hard copy rewrites, I set things up in the dining room.  I have my print out, an automatic pencil or nice pen, my licorice candle, and a cup of coffee.  I have no clue why this works, but it tends to get me going when nothing else does.

The next time you are trying to get over a long absence from a project, see if one of these techniques doesn’t get you started again.