On Making Sure Your Story Answers Its Own Questions

I got stuck again with NEXT BOOK—which seems to be happening every week-to-two-weeks, now that I’m in the part of the story where I have to put all the pieces together, balance and resolve the tensions, and get everyone to the end.

Then I read a Time Magazine article about the end of Game of Thrones that included this quote:

A happy ending isn’t the same thing as an ending satisfying enough to keep you up at night, thinking about how the show’s elemental questions were resolved (see: Six Feet UnderMad Men and, just this week, Fleabag).

This made me ask myself what elemental questions were at the core of NEXT BOOK. I’d always known it would be a story about “stuckness vs. possibility,” as well as “what would happen if an adult with responsibilities found herself in the middle of a portal fantasy,” but as I’d been writing the draft, I’d also realized that this was a book about family, and that many of the questions re: stuckness and possibility were tied up in my protagonist’s experience with her extended family.

So I decided to do this exercise I learned in theater school, where I break down every “scene” by what the protagonist wants, what the protagonist does to get what they want, what the other characters do that gets in the way, and how that reaction changes what the protagonist wants.

I mean, the big thing the protagonist wants generally stays constant throughout the whole act (that’d be the superobjective) but the thing the protagonist wants in each scene (the objective) is generally different.

With that in mind, here’s how I broke down the first big chunk of NEXT BOOK. Spoilers ahead, but not too many:

Because Ellen feels stuck in a caregiving role, she wants to find ways of separating from her extended family and its responsibilities/routines.

She tries doing a Solstice ritual to celebrate her own winter holiday and bring magic into her life

But the ritual doesn’t make her feel better.

Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever.

***

Because Ellen assumes she will be tied to her family forever, Ellen wants to connect with her family.

She tries inviting her sister to tour the Banner House holiday decorations

But Grace (who is newly pregnant and not feeling well) stays in the car.

Ellen takes the tour by herself and connects with Robin instead.

***

Because Ellen has connected with Robin, Ellen wants to learn more about Robin.

She tries asking her grandmother, her friends, and the Banner House staff

But they do not give her answers.

Ellen decides to return to the Banner House and find Robin herself.

***

Because Ellen finds Robin herself, Ellen wants Robin to be as interested in her as she is in him.

She tries flirting and following Robin upstairs

But then he asks her to follow him into his world, which is something she is not ready to do.

Ellen goes back to her unsatisfying life and its responsibilities.

***

Because Ellen is unsatisfied with her life, she wants to know whether Robin’s story is true.

She tries asking her grandmother why she always claimed to have been brought home through a fairy door,

But learns that the family story was put in place to hide Grandma Trudy’s true parentage.

Ellen is angry that it’s all about family again.

***

Because Ellen is angry, she wants to be alone.

She tries going for a bike ride

But Robin finds her and asks her to follow him again.

Ellen says she will think about it and arranges to meet Robin later.

***

Because Ellen said she will think about it, she wants to get a few more questions answered.

She tries asking Robin for details about his world

And he provides them.

Then she asks for a favor and he agrees.

Since Ellen has what she wants, and since Robin has shown that he will care for her needs, she is ready to ask herself how to separate from her family and move forward.

So. Writing this out showed me where my scenes didn’t match up with what was in my draft—that is, the “because this, then that” is either unclear or nonexistent. In other words: as I was writing this, I was making notes to myself like “we need another conversation between Ellen and her friends HERE,” or “we need to make it clear that the reason Ellen accepts Robin’s invitation is because he is providing care to her, which nobody else in her life is doing at the moment.”

Writing this out also showed me that some of my scenes might not follow each other super-logically. Does Ellen start asking herself whether there could really be a portal to another world because she is unsatisfied with her life, or because SHE JUST DISCOVERED THERE MIGHT BE A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD? Is there ever a moment where a person who made that discovery would legitimately say “sorry, gotta go back to my everyday life and not think about this for a while?”

I’ve faked it a little by having a responsibility that Ellen needs to get back to right away, during which she can remind herself that she is unsatisfied with her life and that she can’t stop thinking about this Robin fellow and his secret door, and that might work.

Likewise, the “because Ellen finds Robin herself, she wants Robin to be interested in her” thing doesn’t match up. I have a scene where Ellen’s friends are all “did you finally meet someone who could be a romantic partner,” so that could be how it matches up: because Ellen’s friends suggest Robin could be a romantic partner, Ellen tries flirting. Either way, I know that section needs more work because the cause and effect don’t quite harmonize yet.

But again—this is why it’s a draft, and why I’m doing exercises like this, and why I’ve given myself a good long time to play with this story.

Because I want readers to end the book thinking about the way the story’s elemental questions were resolved. ❤️

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Let’s Do Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer

Currently, my NEXT BOOK draft includes 33,460 words.

I suspect it’ll be just over 50,000 words by the time the draft is finished, although I anticipate adding to the draft during the revision process (remember, there are sections where I feel like I’m only writing 70% of a story).

Which means I am very excited that author Jami Attenberg is running 1000 Words of Summer again this year.

Unlike NaNoWriMo, which asks you to write 50,000 words in a month (that’s 1,666 words per day, which would be totally doable if I wasn’t already writing four articles a day for my freelancing clients, also I gotta do family stuff over Thanksgiving), Attenberg is inviting us to write a thousand words per day for fourteen days.

June 17 through July 1.

I can do that. I couldn’t last year, because the project coincided with my book tour and vacation (and although I did keep writing throughout my book tour, I said no to writing during my four days of vacation) but I can this year.

This means that I’ll probably have the NEXT BOOK draft finished by the end of 1000 Words of Summer, if not before.*

That’s both unbelievable and totally believable.

Anyone else want to participate? ❤️

*If I do end up finishing the draft before 1,000 Words of Summer is over, I’ll revise a 1000-word chunk of text each day, or something like that.

A NEXT BOOK Update

I’m at a very strange point in NEXT BOOK.

I had an outline before I started, with some gaps at certain points where I knew that I’d have to get the characters from A to B eventually but didn’t know how they’d get there.

I’m in one of those gaps at the moment, and the way I’m solving it is by, like, literally writing down what the characters do and how they feel about it.

Which is, pretty much, the essence of storytelling.

But it’s not all of what makes a good story.

Here’s what I mean:

So I’ve already told you that this book is a portal fantasy, and because of that it should come as no surprise that my main character goes through the portal. Like, that’s barely even a spoiler.

It might be a bit of a spoiler to say that she goes back into her own world and then has to make the decision of whether to return to the portal world (and for how long, and how often, and whether it should be a permanent transition, etc.).

I know the choice this character makes, but I left myself a gap in “figuring out how she gets there.”

Which means I’ve started writing scenes like this:

The buses began running again on Saturday morning, so Ellen was able to get to the assisted living center without booking a Lyft and leaving a digital trail. Getting to the Banner House would be more difficult; they ended up setting up a new account under Grandma Trudy’s name, Ellen trying to be patient as her grandmother tapped her credit card number into her tablet, hoping nobody she knew would see her. She thought about running down the hall, bursting into Millicent Banner Hayward’s room, saying “guess where we’re going!” She still had to talk to Millicent at some point. Maybe. Once she figured out what to say.

This feels like 70 percent of a story. It tells you what’s going on, it tells you why it’s going on, and it tells you what Ellen is thinking and feeling.

But there’s something missing. Too much logistics, maybe. Not enough sensory detail. The obvious fact that neither Ellen nor I know whether she’ll end up talking to Millicent Banner Hayward (or whether Millicent will end up being a character in the story long-term; she might not actually have a role to play beyond “being the person who did the SPOILER SPOILER thing, fifty years ago”).

Still, I’ll keep writing. I’ve already told myself that I’m going to have to go back and rework a lot of this later, so that means the part of the story I write today can be as tactical and sparse as it needs to be, as long as I keep putting words on the page every morning. ❤️

One More Thought on The Hustle

Look, I’m not saying I agree with Danielle Steel, but this is an interesting piece of synchronicity:

Steel struggles with the idea of burnout culture, the “millennial affliction” of being completely exhausted by work and the world. She recounts a conversation with her son and his partner; both are in their twenties. Her son told her that he never works past a certain time at the office, a model of that elusive work-life balance. Steel balks. “They expect to have a nice time,” she says. “And pardon me, but I think your twenties and a good part of your thirties are about working hard so that you have a better quality of life later on. I mean, I never expected that quality of life at 25. I had three jobs at the same time, and after work I wrote. Now it’s a promise that it’s all going to be fun.”

Read the full article at Glamour, just because it’s great (Danielle Steel writes at a desk shaped like giant Danielle Steel books, for starters), and then… um… think about how that quote ties in to everything else I’ve published this week:

Brandon Stanton’s thoughts on when to hustle and when to ease up

My review of Juliet’s School of Possibilities (and its reference to my review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You)

Em Burfitt’s guest post on why she likes writing for content mills (for now)

There does seem to be an unexpected theme here, even though I am also very very very very in favor of work-life balance. You hustle better if you give yourself time to rest between sprints, after all. ❤️

When to Ease Up on the Hustle

I don’t know if you saw this tweet or not, but I’ve been thinking about it all weekend:

The screencapped text is from Brandon Stanton’s Patreon, and I will admit that I feel a little weird about sharing text he originally reserved for Patreon subscribers (and did not elect to tweet himself, as you’ll notice), but maybe more people will subscribe after seeing the tweet? Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself?

Anyway, if you don’t want to read tiny print, here’s the important part:

I think for every successful artist and entrepreneur, a good portion of their psychology remains anchored in the early days. When nothing was working. When nobody cared. When nobody was paying attention. When it felt like you were in a giant hole and the only way out was to work harder, and harder, and harder. And you were always scared that you were going to fail, unless you stay focused. And don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Then suddenly it’s ten years later, and somehow you’ve made it. But you feel like the only reason you made it is because you didn’t stop. And you must keep going. Because there’s an hour of daylight left. And you can still fit in one more interview…

But you shouldn’t.

Because things are different now.

Things are definitely “different now” for me. I’m not worried about whether I can pay my rent this month, or whether I’ll be able to build a career and a reputation as a writer. On the other hand, I’m nowhere near the point where I can afford to go without continuous paying work—and I’m smart enough to know that if I want to keep booking work a year from now or two years from now, I need to keep building my skills and portfolio and network and readership.

So in my case, it’s figuring out the balance between not hustling every second and not letting my hustle slide to the point where I’m not growing.

I am very sure I haven’t found that balance yet.

What about you? ❤️

How I’m Adjusting My Schedule to Accommodate My New Writing Gig

Last month I wrote an article for Lifehacker titled How to Schedule Your Day When You Work From Home.

It included a summary of my daily routine and the boundaries I set to accommodate my workflow, including the big reveal that I don’t check email until 10 a.m.

Then Lifehacker invited me to write daily posts for them, and… well… I check email before 10 a.m. now.

So I set aside a big chunk of no-email-time in the afternoons, instead.

***

The Lifehacker schedule is morning-oriented. Assignments go out first thing, and we’re encouraged to bring our own ideas to the assignment table, which means I need to be at my desk at 8 a.m., opening my inboxes and reading my feeds and looking for new stories worth sharing.

It takes about an hour to get all of the assignments sorted, which is also a good time for me to process my email, fill out my Daily Spreadsheet, and do any admin work I’ve got scheduled for that day.

At that point, I theoretically could switch back to my old routine of “working on NEXT BOOK before I wrote anything else,” but since my head is already filled with Lifehacker assignments and ideas, I write those first.

Then I write this post.

Then I eat lunch!

(This’d be around 11 a.m., if you’re curious.)

Then I do another quick pass through my inboxes and my feeds.

Then I go play the piano for 20 minutes. YES, I KNOW NOT EVERYBODY CAN DO THIS. If I didn’t have a piano, or if I weren’t working from home, I’d probably go for a walk. What I’m actually doing is creating a ritual that tells me it’s time to switch from “short project brain” to “longer project brain.” (I’m also giving myself a break from work.)

Then I come back and do a couple hours of work on a longer project. Maybe it’s a 2,000-word post for Bankrate or Haven Life. Maybe it’s a class I’m creating for Hugo House. Maybe it’s NEXT BOOK.

(My goal is to save two afternoons each week for NEXT BOOK, btw.)

I start running out of long-project-steam around 3 p.m., so I jump back into my inboxes, grab a snack, do some reading for Reedsy or some editing work for one of my editing clients, and do my shutdown ritual at 4 p.m.

So far, this new schedule works — and you know I’ll change it if it stops working.

***

I know not everybody gets to choose how they work, or how to structure their workday, but if you do, I’d love to hear how you do it. Do you also put in “transition rituals” to get you from project to project? (I bet a lot of us take some mental transition time no matter how we work; we check social media or get a cup of coffee or go outside for a few minutes.) Do you try to do the same things in the same order every day? Do you try to spend some time, every day, with your inboxes closed?

Let me know. ❤️

How to Create the Systems/Structures in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 3

Okay. To catch everyone up:

THE THESIS: Setting aside time in which to do your creative work will get you 90% of the way there — or 80%, if we want to make the Pareto Principle comparison. (Percentages are not meant to be, like, 100% accurate.) Creating a structure that helps you be ready to do your BEST WORK during your creative work timeslot is the other 10–20%.

THE PREVIOUS DISCUSSIONS: The importance of planning for the experience you want to have and the value of aligning your disparate goals so that they support each other.

In other words: if you want to bring your best self to your creative work timeslot so that you have the best chance of doing your BEST WORK, it helps if you figure out what needs to happen in the rest of your day to support that goal. Also, it is possible to align a few competing goals (do well at your job, spend time with family, complete a big creative project) within a structure that supports and balances all of them.

WHAT WE’RE DISCUSSING TODAY: How I do it.


I will begin by acknowledging that I stole this idea from Ben Franklin, who famously made a list of both the ways he wanted to behave and the emotions he wanted to feel and then tracked both his actions and his moods to see if he was living up to his goals.

I, in turn, created what I call my Daily Spreadsheet.

The Daily Spreadsheet lists what I want to have in my life on the day-to-day level. Some list items are binary; “reading,” for example, is either a yes or a no. (Technically, “reading” means “reading a book, not just the internet,” but that would take up too much space in the spreadsheet cell.)

Other list items are metric-based; for “sleep,” I include both the hours I slept and the percentage spent in deep sleep, according to my Fitbit.

Other list items are subjective, like “mood” and “energy,” and I use a lot of colorful and descriptive words to describe both. Interestingly, these are the items that are the most out of my control; as Ben Franklin must have discovered, you don’t actually get to choose what mood you wake up in or how energetic you feel.

I’m pretty sure he also discovered that working towards the rest of the items on his list helped increase the chance that he’d wake up in a good mood. (Or a contemplative mood, or a generative mood, or a joyful mood.

EDIT: I should note that the mood/action connection doesn’t always work, especially if there are other mental health or neurotransmitter issues present. If that’s you, go read about what Maggie Stiefvater did when her neurotransmitters got all bunged up and she realized that she couldn’t “do” her way to the work she wanted anymore. (Also yes, there is a Maggie Stiefvater blog post for just about every situation.)

I color-code my spreadsheet, every day; “reading” and “music” and “human connection” turns green if I did it and red if I didn’t. For metric-based stuff like “sleep,” I go green if I get more than 7-and-a-half hours, a pale red if I get between 7 and 7-and-a-half, and a darker red if I go below 7 hours.

Here’s the other important thing: there are no fully green days.

This isn’t completely true. Sunday, March 10 was my last fully green day. They do come up once or twice a month.

But most of the time, I have to make choices about what to prioritize, and that means one or two cells go red every day.

It’s when the same row starts showing a string of red that I know something in my life is out of balance — but usually I don’t let it get quite that far. However, I have made a few big changes in my life based on what I’ve learned from my Daily Spreadsheet, and so far those changes have all made my days better.

Will all of this help me create my BEST WORK? I’m not sure yet. My NEXT BOOK draft is only 21,404 words long, and some of those words are really rough.

But, four days out of five — there’s that Pareto again — I’m coming to my draft with good energy and a good mood and enough sleep, so I’m hoping that’ll count for something. ❤️

How to Create the Systems/Structure in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 2

Yesterday, we looked at the idea that it takes effort to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day you get to ride Space Mountain — that is, if you want to enjoy the ride on a day when you’re not tired or hungover or feeling ill from too many park snacks or whatever, you need to start planning for the mood you want to have in advance.

This is easier said than done, I know. (Especially when you’re trying to create a structure that will increase the likelihood that a whole family will be in a Space Mountain mood on the day they ride Space Mountain. You can’t control other people’s feelings or desires or needs, but you can theoretically institute an early bedtime… in an unfamiliar hotel room where you all have to sleep in the same space and some people might be too excited to sleep and you all might be jetlagged and the air conditioner might be making noise and so on and so on. Best of luck.)

So let’s add on another layer — this time from an article by Kira M. Newman that first published at Greater Good and then ran on the Washington Post. The piece is titled Why You Never Seem to Have Enough Time, but since you can probably come up with a list of reasons why you never seem to have enough time on your own, I’m going to focus on the part of the article that looks at how to align disparate goals:

Why does passion seem to free up our time? The researchers who observed this phenomenon wanted to discover what was really going on.

They found a clue when they asked employees about how conflicted or aligned their goals were. Employees lacking in passion said that their goals were competing with each other, fighting for time and attention; for example, the drive to do well at work might make it hard to get home for dinner with the family. But passionate employees were different: They saw their goals as supporting each other. After all, healthy home cooking and family bonding might give them more energy and motivation tomorrow.

This is the type of example that’ll immediately devolve into a comment fight that goes something like “if I can’t get home in time for dinner then how am I supposed to do the healthy home cooking thing” followed by “I batch-cook and freeze meals on the weekend” and then by “I can’t (or don’t want) to spend my weekends cooking” and then by “there are websites that teach you how to make a month’s worth of meals in a day,” and then a reminder that some people live in food deserts which makes that kind of prepwork difficult, so now that I’ve had that argument, you all don’t have to.

Instead, focus in on the part where the “passionate” people (not a huge fan of that word but okay) are trying to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day they get to ride Space Mountain.

Once again, the typical comment: “yay I get to cook my own food so I have energy to give my labor to capitalism,” and yes, I totally get that, so let’s extend that last sentence a little. Healthy home cooking and family bonding might give these employees more energy and motivation both at work and with their families.

Or at work, with their families, and at their creative practice.

You know where I’m going with this, after all. 😉

Now that I’ve set up this idea of planning for the experiences you want to have and aligning disparate goals to support these experiences, I’m ready to tell you how I structure that planning and alignment in my own life.

I mean, I’ll tell you tomorrow.

Because I have to build the suspense just a little. ❤️

How to Create the Systems/Structure in Which to Do Your Best Work: Part 1 (of Many)

Last week, I wrote a short post about how we know when we’re doing our best work.

Over the next week (or so), I want to write several posts about how to create the systems and/or structure in which we can do our best work — because although I absolutely agree with the whole “putting your butt in the seat is 90 percent of doing THE WORK” thing, it’s that other 10 percent that can transform THE WORK into your BEST WORK.

(Yes, I know that not all creative work involves a butt in a seat, don’t @ me.)

I’m going to kick this discussion off with something I heard on a recent episode of the Rope Drop Radio podcast, since I currently have Walt Disney World on the brain.

Also, it’s super-relevant.

In Episode 148, Bad Disney Advice, Derek Sasman and Doug McKnight explain why the whole “don’t get your FastPasses 60 days in advance because you don’t know what mood you’ll be in when you visit the parks” thing is terrible advice:

DOUG: I’ll tell you what mood you’re going to be in, in each park, 60 days out. You’re going to be in the Pandora mood, you’re going to be in the Slinky Dog mood, you’re going to be in the Space Mountain mood, what other mood am I missing? Test Track, Soarin’ mood? Come on, folks. Maybe a Frozen mood? I don’t even know you, and I know what mood you’re in when you’re going to walk around the park. But then you’re going to be miserable —

DEREK: Because you’re going to be waiting in line for two hours [without a FastPass].

DOUG: Have fun with that.

I agree with the gist of this — like, most people who visit WDW are going to want to ride one of the big headliner rides, and getting a FastPass in advance will help with that — but I want to look more closely at the word mood.

Because, as anyone who’s ever done a family vacation (or any kind of vacation) knows, you can spend six months thinking about how much fun it’ll be to ride Space Mountain and then, on the day of, you’ll be in the tired mood or the hungover mood or the my feet hurt mood or the if my dear loved one complains or whines one more time I’m going to scream mood.

So what you actually have to plan for, in addition to the FastPass, is how to be in a Space Mountain mood on the day you’re going to ride Space Mountain.*

I’d say “what does this have to do with creating your BEST WORK,” but I’m pretty sure you’ve already put it together. Planning to work on your project at a certain time, getting your butt in that seat, is only half of it.

The other half is doing your best to come to that seat in the right mood.

This is why you see many creative types say things like “I don’t check the news or social media until I’ve completed my work session, because I don’t want to see something that might turn my thoughts away from THE WORK.”

Why Tara K. Shepersky’s writing ritual included an early-morning walk before she sat down at her QWERTY.

Why I don’t do email until 10 a.m.

Those are just some of the systems and structures people put into place to help them do their BEST WORK — but, as this post title suggests, they aren’t the only ones.

We’ll discuss more tomorrow. ❤️

*Take this advice from someone who had Blue Bayou reservations and then ate this nasty Galactic Grill** meal that made her feel so gross that, two hours later, she wasn’t in a Blue Bayou mood. HUGE REGRETS. 

**Do not make the mistake of walking up to the Galactic Grill and thinking “yay, a place with no line!”