Are you a plotter or a pantser? I’m the latter. Without a doubt. In fact, I vehemently resist plotting. My intuition guides me through my story. I know who my characters are, I know what they want, and I know where they will be at the end.
I’m happy to sit down and pour out the connecting scenes that bubble up from my unconscious and get them on the page. I don’t suffer from writer’s block.
BUT… and this is a big one… there’s a lot to be said for creating a timeline/outline that serves as a road map for the creation of a novel. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a bunch of scenes only to realize you’ve left the protagonist’s deepest desire in the dust or the connections aren’t being made or the pacing is out of whack or…
This week, in preparation for NaNoWriMo, I’ve been working on my in-progress novel, Miranda’s Garden, which is about one-third of the way “finished.” I’ve created a time/outline in various forms.
A long-form textual portrait-oriented document that breaks down my acts and everything I’ve completed so far so I can fill in what’s to come – So. Much. Detail.
A more abridged version of that long-form document wherein I distill the key plot points and pinch points of the story, with each one highlighted for easy identification, and also includes the percentage of the story that should be told at each juncture, along with anticipated page numbers, based on a 250-word novel and a 300-word novel.
Index cards on the floor that condense and distill even more.
A highly distilled landscape-oriented version of the above. (See image below.)
If you want to get the most out of NaNoWriMo, I highly recommend creating one of these, even if you’re a pantser like me. Even if you highly resist doing so—like a cat being put into a tub of water—like me.
Creating this timeline/outline for yourself won’t rob you of your pantsing opportunities. There will be plenty of room for that within the framework you create. And I have to admit, seeing it all boiled down in front of me makes it all feel a whole lot more doable.
Best of luck to you in your novel writing adventures in November. I’d love to hear how the diagram helps and what your experience was like when December 1 rolls around.
October will soon come to a close and November will be upon us. That means it’s time to prepare for NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month.
This will be my first year taking the challenge. Instead of officially registering for the event on the NaNoWriMo website, I and my writing group are doing the challenge to get our in-progress novels completed by the end of November. (I’m about one-third of the way in on mine…)
Having intention is one thing, but we need to do more if we want to see success with a challenge of this magnitude. Planning is essential, and it paves the way for successful implementation.
So first, let’s look at the goal itself.
The NaNoWriMo challenge assumes approximately 50K words total. That equates to 1667 words per day (5 double-spaced pages / Times New Roman 12 pt font) or 69 words per hour.
Having these numbers in mind will help you begin to break down the task into manageable pieces.
Now, here are some tips to help you do that.
Plan—Take care of any business or obligations in your life that can be completed before November.
If you celebrate Thanksgiving and it’s traditionally your job to shop and cook, make your shopping list before November 1. When the day comes, enlist people to help you. (Do it!) And if you absolutely must miss writing on this day, decide where you’ll double up on another day—in advance—to stay on track.
If you have other special days to celebrate—an anniversary, a birthday—again, get your shopping done before November 1. If you need to mail packages, get them wrapped and ready before November 1. Mark the trip to your package delivery service on your calendar.
Create a Plan B. No matter how much we plan, people and situations beyond our control can interfere. If you have a solid Plan B in place for the days that go awry, they won’t throw a giant wrench in the works and will only derail you for a short time.
Schedule—Block out the times you’ll write on your calendar. (I’m a geek for calendars, so this is one of my favorite parts of preparing for projects.)
Determine which calendar works best for you: digital or analog. (I use a combination of both.)
Reserve blocks of writing time in your calendar. If you use digital, color code those blocks time with a color ONLY used for writing. If you use analog, use a highlighter to accentuate the blocks of time you’ve designated for writing.
Shift Your Mindset—Rather than think of the challenge as daunting, make it fun. Starting with a defeatist mindset from the get-go (or at all) will be a giant deterrent to successful completion.
Write down mantras. (“Writing is fun.” “This draft is only for me.” “Perfection is not necessary.” “My writing comes first.”) Or make up your own. Repeat them to yourself every time your mind drifts into defeatist territory.
Write a letter to the voices in your head. Let them know they are not welcome, at least, and especially, not for the month of November.
Commit—Treat your commitment to NaNoWriMo as you would a commitment to someone you care about very much. Make it a priority. Privilege it (at least in your thinking) above all else. Just for a month…
Clean and prepare your workspace. This will send a message to your brain that this is important, that you mean business, that it matters to you.
Enlist the help of family and friends. Tell the people in your life what you’ll be doing. Tell them how much it means to you. Ask for their help in the form of respecting the times you’ve set aside to write.
For more detailed and hands-on help, check out the first four COMPLIMENTARY modules of my Conjuring Clarity course, created to help you accomplish these first four steps.
Now, for the writing itself.
Know your people—Make a list of your protagonist(s), antagonist(s), and supporting characters.
What traits and characteristics define who they are as people? Think big. Think small.
Know your people’s backstories—Knowing your characters’ histories will inform why they want what they want and why, as well as what obstacles they will face, both internal and external.
Where are they from? Where are they now?
What has happened to them in the past (especially their deepest wounds).
Know your milieu—Make detailed notes about your story world. Do research beforehand, as needed.
Where does your story take place? What are the characteristics of this place?
When does your story take place?
Do any special rules apply to your story world (as in fantasy, sci fi, or magical realism)?
Determine your opening scene and inciting incident—Having a clear starting place will go far to start you off with a smooth beginning.
What is your opening scene? How will you set the stage and engage the reader? What does the status quo life of your protagonist look like when the story begins?
What (inciting) incident or event will turn your protagonist’s world on its axis and set them on their journey?
Create an outline—While it’s true that we gain insight about characters and what they want and why as we write, having some kind of framework to focus on will help you keep moving forward with a tight deadline like this.
What is your protagonist’s deepest desire and why? (Hint: This is oftentimes connected with their wound from the past.)
Given your protagonist’s personality, how will they attempt to realize their desire?
Given what your antagonist wants, how will he/she/it interfere with your protagonist’s progress?
What’s your ending? This can be hard to know sometimes, but make a guess for now, then set up a series of events and/or key scenes that you know will be relevant to the storyline.
Relax, trust, and let go—Surrendering to the process, letting go of any preconceived ideas about the finished product will give you the creative space to see you through to November 30.
Think of this draft as an abstract painting. Put down what comes to you without feeling the need to edit as you write. (You can do that in December.) Use big, broad brushstrokes. Use tiny, finite brushstrokes.
Be willing to both stick to your outline and shift your course when new, surprising ideas show up. This is the give and take of the creative process.
Want to go even deeper with Steps 5-8? Check out the second four modules of the Conjuring Clarity course.
Want to go even deeper with Steps 5-8? Check out the second four modules of the Conjuring Clarity course.
Want to go even deeper with knowing your people by experiencing the magic of the Writing Through the Body™ method?
“Writer’s block” is a widely embraced ideology, not just in writing circles, but in time-honored narratives around the writing process. We don’t hear about painter’s block or composer’s block or dancer’s block. While painters, composers, and dancers may, indeed, experience periods of time when the flow of their work is more challenging than usual or when it comes to a halt, writers are the only creative demographic that get a name for this struggle.
Fear of what they don’t yet know—the subconscious can be a scary place until we make friends with it, and rooting around in one’s own darkness can unveil all kinds of startling discoveries.
Fear of what they already know—we’re indoctrinated at a very young age to fall in line with cultural norms. When we don’t shame is a significant detractor in being true to ourselves.
Fear of what others will think—our need to be accepted and not abandoned is an inherent human need.
I had a conversation with a group of writers the other day about feeling that tug of holding back when writing, thinking about what other people—family members, in particular—will think.
Not wanting to make waves and jeopardize our connection with our Tribe—our connection with the people who gave us life and shaped us: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—is understandable. Our history can feel like a lifeline, and our culture tells us these blood ties should be maintained at all costs.
But I disagree.
Virginia Woolf wrote about the angel in the house in her paper, “Professions For Women.” According to Woolf, the angel was the voice of society that sits on the shoulder of every female writer with its great white wings and whispers in her ear about what was acceptable and not acceptable for a woman to express on paper. She wrote about killing her angel by clocking it in the head with her ink well.
One of the first things I do when I work with clients and students is ask them to write a letter to their angel—or angels (some of us have many). The purpose of this letter is to create a story that allows for the killing of the angels so the writer is free to move forward with her writing project, unfettered of the ignorant, uninformed, narcissistic yammerings of the voices inside her head, which usually belong to the writer’s culture and/or family.
I can tell you from experience that doing this exercise will piss you off and getting pissed is essential to not caring, a skill all creative people, and maybe especially writers, must acquire.
“Why get pissed?” you might ask.
Every time someone reacts to your words, every time someone whines or shames or cries or yells at you for what you’ve written or what you’re in the process of writing, it is an attempt to silence you. They may not see it that way, but it is.
And if that doesn’t royally piss you off, it should. It should offend you. It should rile you. It should make you want to come out punching and jabbing, metaphorically, of course. And what better way to punch and jab at the world and its attempts to keep you in its tidy little box—so no one has to feel uncomfortable, so no one has to encounter a truth other than their own—than to use your exquisite voice?
This isn’t easy, especially when we love the people who react to our work. If a stranger calls me out on my content, I really don’t care. If someone I love calls me out on my content, I still don’t give a care (which is different from not caring about the person), but there’s the complicated tug of knowing someone I care about isn’t able to take in my work, isn’t able to celebrate the thing that means the most to me. Ultimately, it means that they aren’t able to see me.
It’s a shame, to be sure. But hear me now, dear writer. We are not here to pet the boo boos of others. We are not here to hide ourselves so other people can maintain the comfy little personal world they’ve created for themselves. We are here to utilize the gift we were born with—to use words to make meaning of life, and in doing so, to make the world a little bit better.
A family member once accused me of “making fun” of our family. The piece they referred to was actually doing the opposite—honoring what I come from and realizing that, despite my attempts to “rise up” and out of the blue-collar existence, I had, in that moment, come full circle and found myself square in it: cleaning houses for a living with four college degrees. Oh, the irony.
A friend once wrote to me and said, “I’m worried about you,” when she read a blog post I wrote that discussed the certainty of death. How gauche of me.
And I’ve had family members experience anxiety when they believed my stories hit too close to home, when they believed they recognized themselves or other family members in the writing.
As Ann Lamott once wrote, “If people wanted you to write warmly of them, they should have behaved better.” AMEN.
Part of this problem comes from non-writers not understanding how a writer’s mind works, how the creative process—specific to writing—works. They don’t understand the spark that may, in fact, come from a lived experience can morph into a fictional story about a fictional character who is not the writer or the writer’s child or partner or ex-partner or parent or whomever the hell. They don’t understand that while we may—oftentimes, subconsciously—model characters after real-life people, we’re not writing about the actual people. We’re likely making sense of our lived experience that could, possibly, include someone else’s stupid bullshit behavior.
A friend, also a writer, once told me a story about a writer friend of hers who published her first novel. She was nervous about her mother seeing herself in the shrewish mother in the story. When her mother read the novel, she did see herself… but not in the mother. She saw herself in the kind and loving aunt. So, it seems that people will see themselves in our work the way they see—or what to see—themselves in life. They will feel exposed by our work no matter what we do. Bottom line: We’re all narcissists to some degree. Some people want to put themselves at the center of our world. They can’t imagine this not being so.
Not all resistance is to our writing is about perceived exposure, though. Sometimes, it’s because we’re touting beliefs that run counter to what we were taught. In my mind, this is very simply, a phase of growing up. Of individuating.
When I teach my Writing Through the Body™ workshops and we discuss the traits and expressions of the Root Chakra, we talk about how sometimes the Tribe doesn’t have the capacity to allow the individuals within it to transform into their own unique persona. Sometimes, this requires breaking from the Tribe in some way.
In the workshops, we’re applying these traits and expressions to characters, but they apply to us as well. (In fact, they applied to us first.)
The truth is: people will do what they do, and they’ll think what they think. Our job is to mine the narratives of our lived experience to make meaning of the human condition. Nobody said it would always be pretty. Nobody said it would always be fun. But one guarantee is that when we have the courage to step out of the tiny, suffocating box our culture and our family has constructed for us, when we have the courage to set our bizarre, ghastly, taboo, crazy, kinky, beautiful thoughts free, they have a chance to find connection with other people who have the same bizarre, ghastly, taboo, crazy, kinky, beautiful thoughts, we find our people. Because it’s very possible that the people who brought us up, who shaped our identities are not, in the end, our people.
If you’re faced with the fear of offending family, making someone mad, or hurting someone’s feelings, try this letter writing exercise.
Write a letter (BY HAND) to each voice.
Give the voice a name and a shape. (If you can put a live person to the voice, use them, or if, after reading the rest of the exercise below, you aren’t comfortable doing that, make up a name and give it a shape. It can be anything.)
Describe to the voice what it says that stops you.
Tell the voice how this affects you.
Tell the voice what it takes from you.
Tell the voice why you won’t allow it to stop you anymore.
Tell the voice what you’re going to do to stop it.
Write, in great detail, a descriptive passage of you squelching the voice—killing the angel in the house. Be as graphic as you like. No one will see this but you.
Finish with a “now that you’re gone” passage. What will your writing life look like moving forward?
Give a try and let me know in the comments how much weight you shed. I’m pulling for you, creative soul.
I’m off now to write something that will bring discomfort to someone, somewhere.
“Monsters are real. Ghosts are real, too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” ― Stephen King, The Shining
I tried to find a way to smoothly and seamlessly bridge the practical tips I wanted to share with the faithful followers of my email list and other “unrelated” issues that won’t leave my mind and heart: thoughts and emotions that stem from the state of the world, and especially what’s happening right here at “home.”
I thought about not getting political or personal—to stick with a business-as-usual approach—and keep me, the businessperson, separate from me, the person. But honestly, they’re all part of the same big pot, and I’m a little exhausted from trying to maintain a “professional” face and keep my passion and wrath to myself. So, fuck all that.
The truth is, I can’t move forward in my day or week or month or life without acknowledging how incredibly off the rails the world is. I think the pandemic is just one more event that’s showing us what “humanity” is made of. It’s so ugly I’m having a hard time finding the words to express how sick and sad I am in my heart over it all.
I’ve walked around with a broken heart for a long time over the atrocities black and indigenous people of color face and fear every day. It’s beyond discrimination. It’s reprehensible, vile, animalistic, base behavior.
Andrena Sawyer has said, “I can’t bring myself to watch yet another video, not because I don’t care, but because we’re all just a few videos away from becoming completely desensitized. The public execution of Black folks will never be normal.”
And I suppose she’s right. It’s a mechanism we all have. To desensitize, to numb out, in a way, and shield ourselves from trauma. We can only take so much.
When I consider the privilege I reap due to the color of my skin and how sick and sad and traumatized I feel every time I read a news headline or an article or see a video and then see how long it takes for arrests of white people—some of whom are police—who commit heinous crimes against black and indigenous citizens to be made, I’m crushed with grief for what I can only imagine it must be like to live as a person of color.
So, I have a question: Where do we draw the line between desensitizing and making the ugliness in the world so apparent it finally moves us—as individuals and as a culture—to take some kind of meaningful and lasting action? And what does that even mean?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. As I sit here and write this, I don’t know.
I’ve always believed the best, most important, most needed stories are those that people don’t want to hear. I know I don’t WANT to feel that sick nauseating ache inside me every time I read another headline, watch another video, or learn of another story of a black man or woman who’s been killed simply because they were living a life.*
But I know I need to, and I know I need to share the stories and speak out against the murderers because if I’m going to have any kind of integrity at all around the work I do, I have to practice what I preach.
I have to share stories. And not just my stories. And not just stories that speak to my existence as a white, educated, middle-aged woman. I have to share stories about people who aren’t like me, who don’t have my privilege, who suffer and struggle because of the color of skin they were born with.
I have no qualms about making my disgust known for white police officers who are hellbent on maintaining their perceived superiority over BIPOC (and the departments that are complicit in their heinous behaviors and crimes). I have no qualms about making my disgust known for those who chose to “look on the bright side” of life, which is a nice way of saying, “Look the other way.”
In my world, the “bright side” is what comes after we expose the monsters—within us and around us—giving them no place to hide. Because when we do that, the monster can be seen and named, then purged and eradicated. It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s not something we get to pick instead of the truth.
I might turn off some people. I might piss off some people. Some might even stop following my work. I don’t care. I’m only interested in surrounding myself—in my work and in my personal life—with people who are interested in making a difference in the world.
By that, I mean taking on the project of healing the world through story. And not just the feel-good story.
I suppose we do run the risk of becoming desensitized by a regularity of violent videos resulting in the death of BIPOC, as Sawyer says, but what I’m hoping is that by watching them, or at the very least, making ourselves aware of the ugly, sad details of these stories, it makes us so sick and so angry that we can’t do anything but rise up and become active participants in rewriting history.
Way too many people are terrified to feel, to face the shadows of their culture, of their families, of themselves. I have no respect for that. At all. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to evolve.
While I will always be behind those who have the guts to share their stories, right now, I’m way more behind those who are willing to share other people’s stories… stories of people who don’t look like them and who suffer at the hands of people who do look like them.
Writing, storytelling, and story sharing are the tools we use to expose the monsters that live within us and around us. When we look away, we’re letting the monsters win.
Educate yourself about each of the stories below and acknowledge what you feel. Imagine the life that was cut short. Imagine the families and friends they left behind. Honor the victims in your thoughts.
Write about them. Share their stories with your friends and family.
Share their stories on social media Tag me when you do.
Let’s create a web of intolerance and accountability against racism and the brutality towards black and indigenous people of color.
I have privilege as a white person because I can do all of these things without thinking twice: I can go birding (#ChristianCooper) I can go jogging (#AmaudArbery) I can relax in the comfort of my own home (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson) I can ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #RenishaMcBride) I can have a cellphone (StephonClark) I can leave a party to get to safety (JordanEdwards) I can play loud music (JordanDavis) I can sell CDs (AltonSterling) I can sleep (AiyanaJones) I can walk from the corner store (MikeBrown) I can play cops and robbers (TamirRice) I can go to church (Charleston9) I can walk home with Skittles (TrayvonMartin) I can hold a hair brush while leaving my own bachelor party (SeanBell) I can party on New Years (OscarGrant) I can get a normal traffic ticket (SandraBland) I can lawfully carry a weapon (PhilandoCastile) I can break down on a public road with car problems (CoreyJones) I can shop at Walmart (JohnCrawford) I can have a disabled vehicle (TerrenceCrutcher) I can read a book in my own car (KeithScott) I can be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover) I can decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese) I can ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans) I can cash a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood) I can take out my wallet (#AmadouDiallo) I can run (#WalterScott) I can breathe (#EricGarner) I can live (#FreddieGray) I CAN BE ARRESTED WITHOUT THE FEAR OF BEING MURDERED (#GeorgeFloyd)
White privilege is real. If you’re a white person, please take a minute to consider a Black or indigenous person’s experience today. #BlackLivesMatter
*I copied and pasted this list … please do the same
The first level of editing a professional will undertake is a developmental edit regardless of how many developmental edits and revisions you’ve already done. (If you find an editor who offers to skip this level of editing, I’d say find another one.) The more “finished” the draft you submit to your editor (whether it’s the second or the sixth), the better equipped she’ll be to give you clear and helpful feedback (and probably in less time).
Your editor will read through your manuscript with a focus on the same key points you used when doing your own developmental edit. The difference is that she will come to your work with a complete outsider’s view. This is invaluable.
After being with your manuscript for so long, even after multiple passes, you’ll miss gaps in meaning and wrinkles in organization. Your editor will approach your manuscript as an objective reader, which will allow her to make your already good manuscript even better.
At this stage, you will implement your editor’s valuable recommendations.
Developmental Edit / Heavy Line Edit
The next step in the editing process could be a combination development/heavy line edit. Or, if you’ve been able to get your manuscript in good enough shape, you may begin working with a professional editor at this stage. (How will you know? See my next post on how to find an editor.)
During this process, your editor will take another aerial view of your work and begin to move deeper into the manuscript. This step will likely be the biggest investment, in terms of time and money but what you’ll get is a thorough read-through and in-depth comments (both in your document and in an accompanying review/report) on how to improve your manuscript in the areas mentioned above, as well as at the paragraph/line level.
You’ll complete another revision/rewrite, depending on the recommendations of your editor
Line Edit #2/ Copy Edit
Depending on the condition of the manuscript you initially submitted to your editor and the revisions you complete, a second line edit might be necessary. This level of editing usually addresses the stylistic aspects of writing to ensure a smooth transition and read on the sentence level and from one line to the next. Or, you and your editor might decide that it’s time to move on to the next stage, copyediting, which focuses on grammar, punctuation, and diction. Sometimes a second line edit and a copy edit are combined.
Depending on your manuscript, your preference, and your editor’s recommendation you may do yet another revision to incorporate the recommendations of the second line edit, or you and your editor may decide it’s time to move into proofreading mode, which focuses on making sure the manuscript is typo-free.
Here’s a condensed version of the stages of the editing process.
Take your manuscript to an editor who knows to begin with a developmental edit.
Do your revisions / rewrites.
Return your manuscript to your editor for a developmental edit/heavy line edit. (Depending on your manuscript, only a heavy line edit may be in order.)
Make another round of changes based on editorial recommendations.
Do another line edit / copy edit or move to proofreading.
Avoid doing every step yourself. We live in a very DIY world these days, and it’s easy to think we can create a book from start to finish and do all the stages—from conception to publishing—well.
This is oftentimes done in the interest of saving money (understandable) and not wanting to relinquish control (also understandable). The bottom line, though, is this: If you’ve spent so much of your precious time getting your meaningful stories and brilliant ideas onto the page, complete the follow through.
The follow through is getting your manuscript to the polished, professional stage. After our eyes have been on a project for so long, we miss things, even with breaks in between revisions. Having a caring, professional eye on your work is what your manuscript deserves.