Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lisa Genova's 10 Rules of Writing

1. Show up and stay there.  Stay in your seat.  Nothing is coming to you, you say?  You’re staring at a blank page or the blinking cursor on a white screen?  Stay.  Resist the urge to flee and do something else (check Facebook, text someone, eat something, do laundry, take a nap).  Learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

2. You can’t edit nothing.  Write something.  You can edit something.

3. Give yourself permission to begin without it being perfect.  I begin with pen to paper, writing in a loose, sketch-like, journaling, incomplete sentence form.  This allows me to find a way into the “real” writing.  I usually begin with what I’m unsure of, afraid of, pissed off about, dreading.  I jot down a flash of a thought about what needs to happen next, what a character might say, and then and then and then.  And then, I’m in.  There’s something magical in the connection from brain to hand to pen to paper.  Grab a pen and go.  Let loose.  Don’t be judgmental or afraid to be sloppy here.  Julia Cameron calls this process “morning pages.”  Natalie Goldberg calls it “getting the pen moving.”  I call it “permission to begin.”

4. Tell the truth.  Always.  If you lie to your readers, they will break up with you.

5.  Be present.  Slow down and be in the moment within your story.  What is there to see, smell, hear?  What’s the temperature, the emotion, the energy?  Go inside moment to moment.  Breathe and really be there.

6.  Believe it’s already done.  In some kind of time-space continuum, I believe every book I write is already written.  So why am I avoiding writing chapter 12?  It’s already done.  Show up, stay there, and get the words down.

7.  Do your homework.  This is not simply a Google search, people.  Whenever possible, go to the primary source.  Your story takes place at Yellowstone National Park?  Go there.  Your main character is a lawyer?  Start hanging around a courthouse.  Writing about a woman with Alzheimer’s?  Get to know people who have Alzheimer’s, their families, caregivers, doctors.  Three-dimensional research will breathe three-dimensional life into your story.

8.  Cross-training.  I write novels.  I read everything—scientific journal articles, medical textbooks, spiritual texts, nonfiction, memoir, classic literature, contemporary fiction, plays, poetry.  Listen to all kinds of music.  Go to the theatre, the ballet, museums.  Keep your senses open for what works and what doesn’t, what’s beautiful, what makes you care, what lights you up, for the universal threads of human experience.

9.  Show yourself.  Be brave.  Be vulnerable.  Open your heart.  That’s where the real stuff lives and breathes.  Now write.

10. You’re going to be dead someday.  Write it now.


  1. This is so powerful. I am all about #6, I am adopting that as my mantra from here on out. Thank you for sharing, it's always refreshing to know even successful authors started somewhere and get stuck every now and then.

  2. Thank you soooo much for posting this. I am in final final FINAL revision stages of my novel... self imposed deadline of March 1 to have it complete and start agent query process (again)... with a punch list of about a dozen scenes I need to add. Feeling a little stuck and afraid - so your 1,2,3, and 6 - ALL tremendously helpful in getting me to keep moving. THANKS!!! xoxo

  3. This is the greatest list of advice I've ever seen. Very relatable. From one new wannabe writer to a very experienced powerful one, I thank you.

  4. Having just turned in my first manuscript this week, I agree. It was the hardest thing that I have done yet. Since it is a non-fiction, I relived my experience of trauma. Thanks for your books and this post.