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It’s the big, huge things we can’t control that frighten or depress us. The Japanese have a concept called Kaizen ( It’s all about improvement through small, incremental changes.

Americans tend to like big, transformational changes (think, “I’ll lose 50 pounds in three months by only eating wheatgrass and ice cream.”)

The way of Kaizen asks, “What small, insignificant change could I make to improve?” That concept has proved invaluable in business for the Japanese. One small change built on another until they had created significantly better cars. That thinking was how they got quality into their cars when Americans couldn’t back in the eighties and nineties. (We’ve since imported their technique to great effect.) So, the key to getting productive answers from your brain is to take many very small steps to your goal.

Let’s focus now on the specific work you’re doing as a writer. You can get real help on your work in progress by asking yourself small questions about how to make it a better book.

We’re talking really small at first, so you don’t invoke that fear or depression. Some examples from recent classes we’ve given where students learned to ask productive questions are:

  • What one small thing can I do to make my heroine more likable in this scene?

  • What does my hero want to happen in this scene?

  • Why would my hero act this way?

  • How can I put more tension in this scene?

  • How can I weave the exposition into dialogue in this scene?

Notice we’re not asking questions like “How can I make this a better book?” Too big, too vague, and way too scary.

We’re not asking negative questions such as, “Why isn’t my heroine likable?” A really long list of answers will just be depressing.

Keep it small (one scene, even one paragraph, one character, one action, etc.). Then let your brain work.

Sometimes, especially at first, when the brain isn’t used to answering small questions calmly and promptly, it can take a few days to come back with an answer. A great example of delayed response is when you rack your brain about where you left your keys.

You’re frantic, you’re scared, you just can’t think about anything except how you don’t have the money to replace that expensive automated car key or that if anyone found the keys they could get into your house and murder you, so should you really just have all the locks changed, but who can afford that? And by the way, why do you always lose things, and hasn’t this been a problem all your life, which makes you just incompetent?

You’re totally shut down. And then two days later, you just realize out of nowhere that they must be down behind the garbage can where you sorted the mail and threw away the circulars that afternoon three days ago. You had to get beyond fear and depression in order to quiet the mid-brain and let the cortex do its job. If the cortex doesn’t come back with an answer at all, then think about reframing your question, and maybe making it even smaller.

A really good strategy is to ask yourself the questions you’ve carefully formulated right before you go to sleep at night. The cortex will work on them overnight, and then you get the morning “a-ha” moment. For Susan, it’s in the shower. Einstein used to say he got all his best ideas while shaving.

This technique is great for advancing your story, improving your writing, and getting yourself out of writer’s block. You can use it to create discipline about your writing life as well.

Try asking yourself how you can take a very small step toward becoming a productive writer. Think really small. Can you think about your WIP for 15 minutes and write down your thoughts? Set a timer to keep it small. Can you write a paragraph about what your main character wants? Don’t make promises like “every day without fail.” That pretty much guarantees failure. Just gradually build up and let your brain do its work.

You’ll find that one small success will lead to another and another.

This method is also useful in everyday life:

  • “What one small thing could I do to improve my relationship with my husband?”

  • “What one small thing could I do this week to eat healthier?”

  • “How can I put 20 minutes of exercise into my day today?”

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