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. ❤️

Advertisements

In Which I Reconfigure My Schedule YET AGAIN

Sooooo… remember how I used to tweet out the number of words I’d written on NEXT BOOK, and then I kind of stopped?

Remember how it coincided with my newest freelance gig, where I pitch/write/file stories in the morning instead of the afternoon?

Remember how I told myself that I could switch my schedule around and do creative writing later in the day, after I did all my freelancing and admin and the rest of it, and how it would totally work?

Turns out it totally didn’t.

I’d dutifully close out my email and all my tabs and fill my laptop screen with nothing but NEXT BOOK, and then I’d stare at it.

And re-read it.

And identify a problem with the story that was probably keeping me blocked.

And solve the problem.

And then stare at the draft again.

I was able to write both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People on evenings and weekends, but for whatever reason—maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because my freelance career has grown and I’m taking on more challenging work—I can’t do 3,000 words of freelance writing and then another 1,000 words of novel-writing.

So I switched it back, and I’ve been working on NEXT BOOK first thing every morning again.

I’m not giving NEXT BOOK quite as much time as I was able to give it prior to my new freelancing gig, because I also want to prioritize sleep—but I’m working on the draft for at least a half hour every day, and I’m waking up excited to spend time with the characters and see where we go next, and the words and the ideas and the creative energy are all flowing just like they used to.

As of this morning, the draft includes 25,853 words. ❤️

On Writing That Scene

I wrote that scene this morning.

You know the one.

The piece of the project that inspired the whole project.

The piece of the project that you’ve been carrying in your head (and in your heart) this entire time. Imagining how someone else might react when they get to it. What you hope they might think or feel.

And then you have to write the scene or, if you’re working in another medium, create the moment, however you do it, and it’s never quite what you felt, just like a retelling of a memory is not the same as feeling that memory which is not the same as having that experience the first time.

And part of you is like “Yay! I did it! I got so far into the project that I finally got to write the scene!

And the other part is like “Oh. This is the best I could do at this scene, and it’s already disappointing me, and even though I know I can always revise it I also know that it’ll never be the thing I imagined in my head because you can never make anything exactly like you imagine it.

But hey, I’m 18,547 words into this project and I finally got to write the scene.

And I’ll get to write again next Monday, and add another thousand words to the story. ❤️

The Perks of Having a Writers’ Group

Today’s guest post is from Kimberly Lew, a published playwright and writer whose work has appeared online on websites including The Washington Post, Real Simple, Fodor’s, The Toast, and The Billfold. Learn more at www.kimberlylew.com.

When I first started working at a play publishing company, I was immediately taken by how creative my coworkers were. They were mostly in their late twenties, and they all wrote plays or directed or produced on the side.

I remember early on, when I was just an intern, one of the founders of the company — a very prolific playwright himself — hosted an informal reading of his latest comedic one-act, and I was invited to participate. I wasn’t an actor by any means, but no one seemed to care. Despite fumbled lines and lack of writing expertise by some of the participants, me included, we had a really productive discussion about the piece and all got a sense of what was really working and what wasn’t.

I had done writing workshops and classes my whole life. I knew the graces of a good compliment sandwich and the pained challenge of perfecting a piece in time to be shared with a classroom. But never before had I felt the vibe of room that was so constructive and so fun while simultaneously educational.

When the play company moved to bigger offices that included a small but well-kept conference room, a couple of my coworkers, who had been friends since college and were both playwrights published with the company, began using the conference room as a meetup space for their after-hours writers’ group. As the company grew and a few other young female 20-somethings joined the team, I helped organize us into our own writers’ group, which remained a consistent creative outlet for the next couple of years.

That informal one-act reading I attended with the company founder was deceiving, though — while good discussion and feedback doesn’t necessarily require professional writers and creatives, there is a delicate balance that separates a constructive creative meeting of the minds from the dry writers’ workshops that leave you wishing you’d stayed home.

Here are a few things I’ve since learned about having a successful writers’ group:

Everyone in the group needs skin in the game

Theoretically, everyone who joins a writers’ group shares a common love of writing, but everyone has different creative processes and produces differently. In a good writers’ group, everyone needs to be able to feel like they are learning and growing from the experience — or they’ll be less inclined to contribute.

Many writers’ groups operate workshop-style, where people take turns bringing in pieces to be critiqued by the group. In ours, it was especially nice that a lot of people had long-term projects that they could share in smaller chunks, instead of needing to bring in a finished piece every time. This gave everyone a forum to try new material still in development and bounce ideas off the group.

We also had members set goals from week to week, so even if we didn’t have a piece to discuss, we could discuss the progress we were making with our creative projects. As we became better friends, this became an opportunity to share goals related to both our careers and our lives. Writing wasn’t just about making a script for a play or typing out a short story — it was also about setting up a website for clips or submitting an application to a development program. We weren’t simply commenting on each other’s work; we were providing a support system for people’s creative endeavors.

A writers’ group needs structure

It wasn’t enough to simply open the floor to anyone who wanted to bring in a manuscript and have them share with the group. We needed to make sure that everyone had a fair chance to both receive and give feedback. We also wanted to make sure that everyone felt represented in decisions about how the group was run.

The ways in which we structured our meetings varied over the years. At one point, we had everyone take turns running the meetings, and usually the person who ran the group would have a piece to present. We also took notes every session, usually by having someone record any goals we discussed and circulating those goals to the group after the meeting to hold us accountable. When people were having a harder time consistently bringing new material to the writers’ group, we instated short writing prompts, sometimes for free-writing sessions during the meetings and sometimes for us to develop short pieces that would be shared in the meetings.

We also once tried to instate a “punishment” for people who didn’t meet deadlines. This involved creating alternate song lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” as a shame song for not fulfilling writers’ group duties, and then singing our song out loud as a group. This was all in good fun until we realized that this actually just punished all of us who had to sing in front of everyone.

A writers’ group doesn’t need to be just about creative writing

While it was always incredibly helpful to use the writers’ group as a forum for getting feedback on creative writing projects like plays and stories, it was also a place to get feedback on anything. As one of our members began getting more and more interested in graphic design and printmaking, she would share some of her art with us. When I started blogging for an arts website, I shared my initial posts with the group.

I feel like everyone could benefit from a writers’ group, even if they don’t think of themselves as a writer. It could be a great forum to get feedback on a resume, or a letter to an editor, or a Yelp review. Sometimes it’s nice just to get another pair of eyes on your work — and sometimes, in our group, we would simply share ideas about what wanted to see happen with our writing and our lives. It was nice to have a built-in think tank to discuss ideas with, even if those ideas never evolved into anything.

A writers’ group isn’t and shouldn’t be confined to one space

While our writers’ group met regularly in the office conference room, we would often go out to support each other in the real world. We often attended each other’s readings and performances. It was nice to have a group of people at these events who understood the nature of a work in progress — and how far our work had progressed!

We also planned a writers’ retreat once, where we all went up to the Cloisters for a day writing around the property. We split off to sit in the little courtyards, working on whatever we wanted to. We even stopped by the park on our way home for a quick writing exercise where we all sat on a park bench and wrote as much as we could in a few minutes. It was a great opportunity to get ourselves out of an office setting and feel like our creativity could roam free.

A writers’ group doesn’t have to last forever

In a successful writers’ group, everyone feels like the group is helping them grow as a writer and a creator. Unfortunately, not everyone grows at the same speed. It’s important to communicate with your fellow members and check in with how everyone feels about their contributions to the group. If someone doesn’t feel like they’re getting what they need out of the group, or that their time is not being well spent with the group, it’s fine to re-evaluate whether or not the group is serving its purpose. It’s important to keep people accountable, but depending on where you are in your creative development, sometimes you need to reprioritize to be accountable to yourself first.

Our writers’ group ended quite unceremoniously. Our goals just weren’t as aligned as they were when we had started and we were finding that we were getting less and less value out of our meetings. When one of our members decided not to continue, we disbanded. I missed it a lot, but with time I’ve also come to see that sometimes a writers’ group is a support group for a moment (or luckily, in our case, years) in time.

Bringing other people into your writing is always a tricky thing, but when you find a group of people with similar goals who genuinely want to give feedback, it can feel like the most valuable thing in the world. A writers’ group doesn’t have to follow a blueprint — you don’t have to bookend your criticism with compliments or have regular in-person meetings. You can form a writers’ group over email or FaceTime. You can discuss your latest novel or your list of failed ideas for novels. All you need for a good writers’ group is the ability to share your work with creative people — and a clear structure and/or agenda that ensures everyone gets what they need. It may sound simple, but when done right, it can be the most magical thing in the world.

Three-Act Structure vs. Hero’s Journey

As promised, I did some work last night to reshape NEXT BOOK’s plot into a traditional three-act structure.

Except once I got started, I realized that my outline for NEXT BOOK already fit a fairly standard plot structure: the Hero’s Journey.

The two plots are similar, in that they both follow the general “exposition, inciting incident, midpoint, rising action, climax, falling action” shape, but the specifics of each path are slightly different and YOU KNOW I’M ALL ABOUT SPECIFICITY.

I don’t want to get too spoilery about what I’m planning to write, but I’ve already shared enough about NEXT BOOK that very little of this should be new information. At this point, my outline goes something like this:

Our 30-something graying-haired heroine feels stuck in her responsibilities and MILLENNIAL BURNED-OUT.

She meets a mysterious stranger* (one of the two ways to start a story, if you believe the cliché) who’s all “you’re interesting, let’s have dinner.”**

Since she’s a 30-something woman in a year that is very like 2019, she’s all “um this is not how it’s done these days, also I don’t have a free hour on my calendar until April and maybe I don’t even want to deal with men right now” and nopes out.

The very next thing she does, according to my outline that I wrote before I reminded myself of what the Hero’s Journey actually was, is visit her grandmother. Because eldercare is one of her many responsibilities, and also because Grandma’s got some intriguing information to convey.

At this point, I was all huh, that’s the Refusal of the Call followed by the Meeting With the Mentor, wonder how the rest of my outline fits into the Hero’s Journey and it turns out that it fit, like, 80 percent perfectly and the rest can be handled by tweaking or not caring.***

If you would like to learn more about the Three-Act Structure and/or the Hero’s Journey, Reedsy has some excellent posts on each, with infographics (I love a good infographic):

How to Write a Novel Using The Three-Act Structure

The Hero’s Journey: an Author’s Guide to Plotting

And at this point I do think I’m actually ready to start writing. Which is good, because that’s my favorite part of the process. ❤️

*Yes, I know you’re thinking “but she said this would be a portal fantasy,” where do you think the mysterious stranger came from?

**The minute I figured out the whole “if you eat a food, you have to leave your home and live in a strange world” thing was not just a big deal for fairies, but also for Greek mythology and literally the story of Genesis, was a BIG MINUTE.

***Even some of the episodes I had originally written into my outline fit the Hero’s Journey — “our heroine Slacks her friends to ask whether they would theoretically go through a theoretical portal if they had the theoretical chance” counts as Gathering Allies, and the friends turn out to be very helpful at the end, NO SPOILERS.

What the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams Seminar Taught Me About Plot

I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids this morning,* but I wanted to tell you all that Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar was AMAZING and HUGELY INFORMATIONAL and OH WOW I WANT TO START WRITING THIS BOOK RIGHT AWAY EXCEPT I HAVE A FEW MORE PIECES I NEED TO PUT TOGETHER FIRST, and if you were thinking about attending one of the upcoming Portraits and Dreams seminars you have my word that it is SO SO SO SO WORTH IT.

That said, I’m not going to give you any specifics as to what was discussed at the seminar, because no spoilers.

I will note that before I actually start writing NEXT BOOK I am going to do some extra background work on the mood I’m trying to convey with this story, which is not technically a spoiler because Maggie Stiefvater has already written about the importance of mood in storytelling on her Tumblr.

I’ll also note that the seminar made me think absolutely 100% differently about plot. This I think I can share, because it wasn’t actually discussed in the seminar at all.

Well, plot was. In the traditional three-act-structure sense.

I have never been a huge fan of the traditional three-act structure, mostly because I could see through it by the time I was ten years old. (It was 1992. I was watching The Mighty Ducks, and when they got to the part where the coach did a bad thing and the team split up but then someone came back with an inspirational speech and they all went out on the ice anyway I remember thinking all these stories are just telling the same story and I was furious.)

This is one of the reasons why The Biographies of Ordinary People is episodic. That and the fact that I was trying to write a contemporary book that made 30-something readers feel the way we did when we read (or re-read) Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, both of which are episodic stories.

But Maggie was talking about the way she used three-act structure in The Raven Boys, and I was sitting there thinking “well, but that isn’t really three-act structure because there isn’t the part where the coach does a bad thing and then the team splits up and then someone comes back with an inspirational speech and they all go out on the ice anyway OH WAIT.”

Substitute Cabeswater for “the ice,” and literally all of that happens in The Raven Boys. It’s just not the emotional focus of the story. When Gansey and Adam fight and the team does in fact split up, you don’t really notice that’s where you are in the three-act structure because emotionally you’re with Gansey and Adam in this intimate, human, complicated moment. You don’t even notice that the team has split up because the team doesn’t think they’re split up. (Or, more accurately, they’re still hoping they can stay together.)

In other words, unlike the types of books that made me never want to write a traditionally-plotted novel in my life, the chapter doesn’t end with “The door slammed. That was it. The Raven Boys were through.”

Maggie did not discuss how to write the type of story that has the emotional satisfaction of the traditional three-act structure** without the predictability of such, but it made me think of her blog post about how to create characters that aren’t cartoons or clichés.

I suspect the path towards creating a plot that isn’t a cliché leads in the same direction.

Anyway, NEXT BOOK is going to have a traditional three-act structure now.*** First to see if I can do it, and second to see if I can hide what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

Wish me luck. ❤️

*This is a lie. Not the part where I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids on Monday morning. The part where I actually wrote this post on Sunday night.

**We did discuss emotional satisfaction in the seminar, so no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to hint that Aristotle was right.

***I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a goof, but no I didn’t really have a structure for NEXT BOOK. My outline had an opening, and it had an inciting incident, and then it had a bunch of episodes because I’m reallll good with episodes, and then it had a big thing that changed everything, and then I told myself I’d figure the rest out when I got there. TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT, and also cut a few of those episodes and make the whole story actually story-shaped.

Jane Friedman on Strategy vs. Tactics

First, a weather update: as predicted, I will not be flying to NYC on Thursday. (Both Chicago and NYC are experiencing EXTREME WEATHER — as is Cedar Rapids, for that matter — and the flights have already been canceled.) Depending on how all this rescheduling goes I may still make it there on Friday, which should give me plenty of time to make it to the Maggie Stiefvater writing seminar on Saturday.

We’ll see.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to suggest you read Jane Friedman’s article “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion” at Publishers Weekly, because even if you don’t plan to self-publish your book you’re still going to need to think about the marketing component, and even if you aren’t ready to think about marketing right now this advice also applies to the work you are currently doing on your creative project.

In short: there is strategy, and there are tactics.

Tactics are the steps you take to achieve results, and strategy is why you take those steps.

Why you make those particular choices, knowing that any individual choice both limits and shapes your remaining choices.

Friedman argues that most people launch into tactics without first creating a strategy, and I agree with her.

Some tactics may seem essential—because everyone is using them and thus they are required to play the game. But always question and assess. Is Amazon advertising going to be effective for the book you’re trying to sell (factoring in your book’s pricing, packaging, and positioning)? Is social media a suitable tool for your genre/category, given the amount of time that you have to wait to see results? Do you know enough about your target readers to understand how they discover books to read?

For example, I’m repeatedly told that I should get into podcasting because it’s big and growing. But should I adopt that tactic when it would require me to stop accepting paid work or stop other activities that are effective and even growing? Possibly—but only an evaluation of my strategy would lead to an informed answer.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever, like, try things just to see what happens. TRY ENERGY can be a powerful thing, and you’ll learn a lot from putting a harebrained scheme into action.

Sometimes your TRY ENERGY is inspired by what a specific audience needs at that very moment — I’m thinking of Twitter user @leftistthot420, for example, who made a joke about how someone would create a Twitter account featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing to every song and then immediately created the @aoc_dances account herself.

Sometimes it’s just something you really want to do, and you can’t not do it.

So do it!

But if you’re thinking about taking on some best practices (whether for the novel you’re writing or the marketing campaign you’re creating) simply because you’ve heard they yield certain results, it’s best to consider your overall strategy, and how each tactic might help or hurt that strategy, first.

As Jason Fried of Basecamp (one of my favorite productivity softwares) wrote about the myth of low-hanging fruit:

In my mind, declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do. And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude.

In other words, don’t start a podcast just because you’ve heard that podcasting might get you an audience for your next book. You have to get a whole separate audience for that podcast first,* and that takes time away from the work of building the audience for your book (unless your readers are the type who are likely to try out new podcasts).

But go read Jane Friedman’s post on strategy vs. tactics, because she’s got more to say on the subject than what I just summarized, and then go read her blog because it is full of excellent information about both writing and publishing.

*This comes after the work of learning how to create a podcast that doesn’t sound like amateur hour. One of the reasons I stopped doing my Writing & Money podcast was because I wasn’t able to get my kitchen-table recording to sound professional enough, and I knew that taking the time and money to create a better podcast would take away from the bigger goals I wanted to accomplish.

How I Found the Time to Write NEXT BOOK

I’m going to be attending Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar this weekend, assuming the ARCTIC OUTBREAK doesn’t ground me in Iowa.*

Here’s the workshop description, aka “why I signed up in a hot minute:”

Join Maggie Stiefvater as she covers developing ideas into novels you’ll truly love (and finish), crafting memorable characters, writing supernatural elements in unique and meaningful ways, and structuring your writing work day. Four hours of lecture and one and an hour of informal Q&A.

I am particularly interested in that “writing supernatural elements in unique and meaningful ways” part, as it is one of the big problems I have to solve in NEXT BOOK.

But I’ve told myself that, when I come back, I start writing. I’ve spent plenty of time outlining and thinking about the characters and pulling together inspirational images and researching the death of the universe.

So I do the workshop, and then I start.

And I see what happens.

The question then becomes: when should I do this writing?

My original assumption was that I’d write after hours and on weekends, same as I did for The Biographies of Ordinary People. However, my life is a little different than it was back in 2015 — I’ve gotten involved in a lot of stuff, from running a small business to singing in a choir, and maybe it’s just because I’m a little older, but I don’t have the energy to put in evening work in addition to my all-day work. Evenings are for reading and playing the piano and spending time with people and choir rehearsal and taking Les Mills classes at the YMCA.

Then I realized I had created this lovely slot of focused writing time, right here, right now, first thing in the morning when I tend to do my best work.

So I’m going to give some of these writing slots to NEXT BOOK.

This means you won’t get a new Creative Practice Club post every day, since I’ll be spending some of this time actually doing the creative practice.

Right now I’m thinking MWF for blog posts and TTH for book drafting, though we’ll see how it goes. I reserve the right to make things work the way they need to work so I can get THE WORK done.**

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted — and I’ll keep posting. ❤️

*Right now, my educated guess is that my Thursday CID-ORD-LGA flight will be canceled but they’ll get me there on Friday. The workshop itself is Saturday, and I gave myself that buffer specifically for this type of situation. Midwest winters, y’all.

**That’s what building a creative practice is all about, after all.

Paul Harding’s Thoughts on Writing, Publishing, and the Self

Today you need to read Pulitzer-prize-winning author Paul Harding’s essay about how he created Tinkers, which is to say that I needed very much to read this essay today (it was published this morning at LitHub), and I’m pretty sure I’ll need to read it tomorrow and the next day as well.

Here’s your link: When a Very Small Press Wins a Pulitzer: Paul Harding Looks Back at Tinkers, Ten Years On.

Here’s your excerpt:

My wonderful writing teachers, Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth McCracken, always urged never to confuse publishing with writing, that they were two very different things. I took the rejection of Tinkers by the market to mean that if I meant to continue, it was possible that I would be a writer who wrote but did not publish. Rejection, then, freed me from thinking about publishing.

At first, of course, it didn’t feel a thing like freedom. I despaired at what I thought of as my fatally quaint and antique interest in and capacity for lyric pastoral, for birchbark metaphysics. But really, I’d been given the privilege of working my way out of the self-consciousness that comes from evaluating one’s natural artistic inclinations against prevailing conceit and fashion and into the self-awareness that makes for intellectual and aesthetic autonomy.

Here’s your other excerpt, because this hit me SO HARD:

Few things interest me less than myself as a subject for my writing. But few things interest me more than the experience of being a “self” and portraying the experiences of selfhood through literary characters composed of words.

Read the whole thing. Read it twice. Bookmark it so you’ll have it when you need to read it the next time. ❤️