Why It Pays to Prep For Writing a Novel (A Love Letter)

I am not big on preparation. I am more of a jump-right-into-whatever-I’m-doing kind of gal. I never read instructional manuals, instead preferring to just start pushing buttons and see what happens. I glance at recipes and often halfway through realize I’m missing crucial ingredients.  And, much to the consternation of my husband, I rarely follow maps.

Yet when it comes to writing, the best experiences I’ve ever had banging out a novel came when I had spent lots of time preparing ahead of time before I got to the actual writing. (And I’ve taught prepping for the novel numerous times.) But the last couple of novels I’ve written fell into the category of brilliant ideas that came to me like a lightning bolt from the blue, which meant that I was so eager to get to them that I just launched right in.

And so I did. With varying results. I wouldn’t say the first drafts were terrible, but in both cases they had some pretty big plot holes and character issues.  Which then required serious revision in the next go-round. And I’ll be honest, sometimes dealing with big issues in a rewrite is hard, hard work.

The rewrite I’m working on right now is…hmm….the second? Third? for my agent (I’m truly blessed that she is willing to work with me until I’ve gotten it right). And only recently, after much pondering, note-taking, and hair-pulling-out, have I gotten to the point where I understand some basic things. Like my main character’s motivation. And her flaws. What she truly wants, not just what she says she wants. Her love interest’s character arc. And so on.

And so, I am here to tell urge you to do some prep work for your novel, for freaking God’s sake. You will be so much happier when you launch into the fun of rough draft writing because you will have some idea of what is going on.

You might like to know, at bare minimum:

A lot about your characters. Use a character dossier, or try out The Story Planner, which has a ton of different ways to suss out a character, and nail the externals first. Then proceed to the internal—desires, motivation, flaws, etc. For my money, it all hinges on the characters. You can never do too much prep work on characters. Figure out as much about them as you possibly can, I say!

The setting. Get a good idea of the basic locations you’ll be using before you start. (You can add on as you go.) Where does your character live? Work? Hang out? Doe she live in the country or the city? How does this affect the story?

The plot. I like to work from a loose list that can be added to or rearranged. And lately, I’ve fallen in love with using index cards, which can easily be shuffled and changed up. It really is helpful to have some idea where you’re going.

Writing a novel is a back and forth process. You do some scene writing and then realize you need to know stuff, so back you go to your character dossiers and your plot list. And then you get ideas for scenes so you return to the writing. That’s the nature of the beast. But I strongly advise you to do as much prep work as you possibly can before you lunge into it.  The next novel I start is going to be supported by as much prep work as I can possibly do.

And I might even start using maps once in a while. Or reading all the way through a recipe before I begin cooking. Or read instruction manuals. Nah, can’t really see that happening.

Are you a prepared type of person or more like me? How does this affect your writing?

And if you are struggling with any aspect of writing a novel, from prep to rewriting, I do have a couple of openings on my coaching roster.  Pop me an email and let’s talk!

The Relief of Routine (A Love Letter)

Routine. Since returning home from France a week and a half ago, I’ve struggled with establishing a writing routine. In France, I followed the same routine as I have here at home for many years: wake up, get coffee, sit down to the computer and write.  Okay, I will admit to looking at email while the coffee brews. My excuse is that this allows me to make certain there is nothing pressing to deal with (lame, I know). And yes, I DO GET DISTRACTED from my purpose to write, just like everyone else. But I’m pretty good about eventually getting down to it. After a couple hours at the computer, I eat breakfast, shower, and carry on with my day.

But, in my month-long absence, my daughter and her family moved in, complete with two small boys, one of whom loves nothing more in the world than hanging out with me in my office. And so, all of a sudden, my precious routine was totally disrupted. Jet-lagged and stiff in every muscle in my body after 14 hours on two different planes, I woke early and groggily sat at my computer in the living room. My daughter had organized a sweet office for me in a tiny room upstairs, but I couldn’t quite face setting up there yet.

For several days, I felt unmoored. Unrooted. Adrift in a strange new world, which was chaotic after the calm, focused days in France. I wasn’t getting any writing (or any work of any kind) done. But I was worrying a lot. How would I ever do any writing with all this going on around me? Would I ever return to my rewrite or the novel I wrote 30,000 words on in France? How would I ever accomplish all the things I want to do?

And then, finally, I set up my computer upstairs and the next morning carried a thermos of coffee up with me very early. And got to work. Jumped back into the rewrite. Suddenly, the world opened up again. I felt like myself again. Because I was writing.  The planets had righted themselves and my life was back on a firm foundation.

Because writing is the foundation of my life and if I’m not finding a way to work on it, I’m unbalanced. Yes, I heard the pitter-patter of little feet an hour and a half into my work session, and my grandson appeared in my office. But by then I’d gotten enough work done that I could cheerfully let him play with my colored pens while I dealt with email.

And the only way I got back to it was by returning to my routine. Finding a way to make it work again, which really wasn’t difficult. If I hadn’t had that routine in place I’d probably still be casting about in the dark for a way to get my writing done.

It is easy to think of routine as boring and rote, the province of boring, rote people—certainly not creatives! But, ultimately, it is routine that will save you. Do you have a routine you follow? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment and tell me or head on over to the Facebook group  to talk about it.

By the way, I’ve got room on my coaching roster for one or two clients.  Email me if you want more info and we can set up a time to talk about it.

Lessons Learned From a Month-Long Writing Retreat (A Love Letter)

First of all, Happy Easter! And if you are not into that holiday, then you can always celebrate the coming of spring. As a kid growing up in the Unitarian church, that was the emphasis we learned.

As you read this newsletter, I’ll be settling into an apartment in Lyon, France for two days, my month-long writing retreat in Ceret over. It was a great success. I wrote 33,000 words of a new novel and then switched gears to focus on a rewrite of a different novel to my agent’s notes. That required a lot of rearranging and so forth, and I’m happy to report that I got a new annotated outline done. So all I have to do now is plunge into the actual writing.

But beyond that, I learned some good lessons this past month. These are taken directly from what the five of us talked, stressed and obsessed about:

–Motivating your characters—giving them credible motivation—is all important. If your character’s motivation is weak or illogical, it throws everything off. But figuring out motivation is hard. Sometimes it takes a lot of thought and working through several drafts in order to truly understand your character.

–Arc in character, plot and scene, in other words, macro and micro is also crucial.

–Timelines are a bear. First of all you have to try to keep track of them. Then you need to monkey them around so they conform to the plot. It’s enough to send a writer to drink. Fortunately, this region of France is full of good, cheap wine.

–Having expansive time and space in which to concentrate on writing is truly remarkable.

–But, for me, probably the best part of this retreat has been the writerly camaraderie. The opportunity to discuss plot over Happy Hour is so helpful. One afternoon, I went to the upstairs apartment and blathered on my character’s lack of motivation. Jenni said one thing, Debbie said another and all of a sudden I said, “I’ve got it! I think I figured it out!” This is for a novel on which I am three drafts in, and I never would have discovered it without their input—and the strong espresso. Never underestimate how powerful writing community is. We writers work in isolation far too much.

I’m grateful for the time I’ve had to concentrate so deeply on my writing and also have a lot of fun. This week its back to the states. And it will be good to be home, too. And more writing surrounded by family and friends—which will be wonderful in its own way.

The moral of my story today is that if you get the chance to go on a writing retreat of any length even one day, do it!

Have you ever taken a writing retreat? What was the result? Leave a comment!

Losing Faith in Your Writing, Part 2 (A Love Letter)

Dear Writer,

This week, I was happily working on my next novel—ten chapters in—when I got a cheery email from my agent. “Notes coming tomorrow!” That would be notes on my previous novel, which I’ve rewritten twice, working with her.

Ruh-roh.

Because if she was sending “notes,” that meant there was more rewriting to do. The email I really wanted to get would be the one that said we were ready to start sending it out. And then the notes from her and her team arrived, recommending rewrites more extensive than I had imagined.

And I have to confess—it threw me. I read and re-read the email, but no matter how I spun it, there was more work to do. And it felt like being rejected all over again. Like my book wasn’t good enough. Like I wasn’t good enough.

It was all I could think about for a little bit. Rejection is like that—it overwhelms you so that all you can do is obsess about it. I had a hard time moving forward for half a day or so. Couldn’t quite process what I needed to do for the rewrite, couldn’t get back into the flow of the new novel. Spent time feeling sorry for myself. (In the middle of a month-long writing retreat in the south of France, I might add—how ridiculous is that?)

Until the obsessive fog cleared and I started thinking more clearly. And then I realized something. A couple of somethings, actually. First, my agent is determinedly helping me make this book deeper and richer. When first I wrote it, I thought of it as a simple romance. And now it is moving into women’s fiction territory.

And second, I have a top-flight agent willing to take this time and energy and care with me and I’m complaining? She wants to help me make this book as good as it possibly can be.  She has, in a nutshell, faith in me. So shouldn’t I have some faith in myself as well?

Yes, yes I should.

Last week on the blog, I wrote about a friend who spun in many different directions, never landing on one, because she lacked faith in herself. This week the spinner was me. The one who counsels other writers never to lose faith, to keep going, to get to the page regularly.

I should know better, right? Well, yes. But I share my story to emphasize that it happens to all of us, all the time. And the only trick is to let it wash through you and then carry on. Take a day or a week to spin, instead of a lifetime.

And then get thee back to the page.

Don’t Lose Faith in Your Writing (A Love Letter)

This week I read an ominous post on a friend’s Facebook feed. Something to the effect that people were praying for her, but there was no specific information beyond that. I messaged a mutual friend and learned that the worst had happened: my friend had died.

I’m very far away from home, and so there is not much I can do. I’ll likely miss the memorial service, because I’m here in France for a few more weeks. One thing I have been doing, though, is thinking about my friend. A lot. It’s my way of honoring her life.

She was a lovely, creative woman, and I admired her for that. And yet, when I think of her I think of her spinning, in the metaphorical sense. She’d go in one direction, then stop herself. Become convinced that a new direction was the ticket, but then she’d stop herself again, before she even had a chance to make progress. And the thing of it was, if she’d only kept going in the same direction, it would have been awesome. Because she was awesome. I’m just not sure she knew it.

Because she’d no sooner get started on something, then she’d lose faith in it.

I know how easy that is to do, and you probably do, too. Committing to writing, or any other kind of creative project, over the long haul takes courage. It takes energy and focus. I’m not saying that my friend didn’t have any of those qualities. She did. But I think other traits overtook her.

And it is so, so easy for that to happen. I’ve experienced it repeatedly. It’s the voice that says you’re not good enough. Your writing isn’t good enough. Why are you wasting time on this? You’re never going to make it. Look at all those other writers who are so much better than you—why do you even bother? People will laugh at you. Everyone will hate you.

Most of us who write regularly give into these taunting voices briefly and then forge on ahead. But I do know there are many, many people out there who, once they’ve given in to the voices, have a harder time moving on.

I hope you’re not one of them. I hope you’re able to maintain your faith in your writing, to stick with it, to keep at it, no matter what those critical voices say. Because you don’t want to die with the best of your stories still in you.

Please join the Prolific and Prosperous Facebook group for some fun writerly discussion!

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Steady Improvement (A Love Letter)

So here I am in Ceret. (If you missed the story on this, click here to read all about it.) And I’m not going to lie, it is glorious. The temperatures are just starting to warm into the sixties, flowers are blooming, and the sky is a deep, deep blue against the worn stone of the old buildings.

The days have been going pretty much like this: in the mornings we write; in the afternoons we wander around town or perhaps take a mini-field trip. Then we return home and write some more before the most one of the most important parts of the day, you guessed it, Happy Hour.

Because the wine here is amazing (not to mention the bread, cheese, pate and sausage). Formerly known as plonk, the wines of the Languedoc region have improved mightily recently. They are wonderful—and cheap.

So every night while we drink sip wine, I knit. I’m working on the perfect travel project. It’s a shawl that is made from one multi-colored ball of yarn. (Only one ball to tote along! However, I must admit I brought along another project, just in case I finished this one.)  I increase two stitches, one at each end, every other row. Once every 10 rows, there’s a more complicated thing going on, with a lot of increases happening all the way across. I started with just a few stitches, like three, and by the time I finish, there will be nearly 300.

Since I’ve been knitting and chatting every night, I’ve not paid all that much attention to my progress and the other night when I picked up my needles, I was amazed at how many stitches now covered it.  I thought, steady increase. It’s amazing how it adds up.

One of my Mom’s favorite sayings was, step by step we travel far. Same idea, really. In productivity circles the idea of making tiny changes incrementally is called Kaizen. And it occurred to me that this is also applicable to writing:

  • It starts with words, of course. One word after another after another is power. (That sounded familiar, so I looked it up. Margaret Atwood said it. We would all do well to remember it.)
  • The pages add up as you write them. Even one page a day is 30 pages by the end of a month.
  • Your skills amp up. When first you begin writing, the words come out clunky and awkward. But slowly, the vision you have in your head gets put on the page.
  • Your fear of facing the page lessens. Familiarity with the process makes everything easier.
  • That feeling that it will all come to nothing dissipates. Because, increasing steadily, you realized that the simple act of writing regularly is enough in and of itself.

So, keep up the good work, even if the work is going, as my mother also used to say, slowly, slowly. One day you will add up those words and be astonished with how many there are!

Follow me along my French retreat on Instagram. And do join the Facebook group for more writing talk!

On Chaos, Retreat, and the Solace of Writing (A Love Letter)

Things are hopping around here.  I’m preparing for a major life transition—we’re in the midst of planning an addition so that my daughter and her family can move in. Yep, soon I’ll be doing the multi-generational living thing, attempting to keep up a full writing schedule with a six-year-old and a two-year-old running around. But that’s not all. I’m leaving on March 1st for a month in France. To write, not teach.

And, there’s even more—I’m doing my best to finish the latest rewrite (in my head, I’m calling it a tweak) of my romance novel to get to my agent before I leave. This, even as I’m packing books and furniture is being moved out of my office as I work. Literally.  Like I said in the subject line—chaos.

But I’m keeping up with my writing as best I can. Because writing is solace in times like these.  I often wonder how people who don’t write make it through. Because for me, whether it is writing journal entries or working on fiction, writing is an escape. It’s a place to go in my head when the craziness of the world is swirling around me.  And I am so, so grateful for it.

And soon, there will be retreat. Let me tell you a little about that. We’ll be staying in the lovely town of Ceret. It is my favorite town, ever. We held our workshop there two years ago (and the very first year we taught it). There will be five of us the entire month, and another small group coming for part of it.

I’m looking forward to sinking into the rhythms of a small town for an entire month, especially at a time when there won’t be many tourists. (Not that there ever are in Ceret, which is one of its draws.) And I’m especially looking forward to jibing that rhythm with my writing.

I read a newsletter this morning from the wonderful Kim Werker, a writer and maker, and she talked about the power of intention. I’m approaching this retreat with the intent to take full advantage of the glory and luxury of a month devoted to writing—and seeing what I learn from it that I can bring back home to the chaos.  And my clients. And you, my wonderful readers.

I do plan to keep blogging while there, but I’ll also lose a few days to travel time so if you don’t hear from me for awhile, never fear, I’ll return soon.

And, hey–would you like to go to France with me in September? We’ve still got room for a couple more people. Check out the details here.

Whining on the Yacht (A love letter)

One of my dearest friends read last week’s post with the subject line, a love letter about winning, and wrote me that she thought it said whining. To which I responded, what an excellent idea for a newsletter. And so here we go.

In the spirit of the Olympics, I am a championship whiner.  I can whine about anything, and I do.  It’s too rainy, it’s too sunny (only a native Oregonian would whine about that), I’m too tired, I’m hungry, I’m full, I can’t focus, my knee hurts, I don’t want to exercise, my writing is crap…on and on it goes.

Until I get pulled up short and reminded how lucky I am.  Most recently it was when I was watching a Facebook live event of an energy healer.  (I’m pretty fascinated with this guy, Charlie Goldsmith.) As he worked with people on camera, others commented. By the time I quit watching, there were something like 18,000 comments. And 99.9% listed the terrible physical problems people were having, and begging for help.

If that doesn’t make you sit up and realize how lucky you are, I don’t know what does. Which is when I remind myself of the phrase, no whining on the yacht. I’m not sure where this originally came from, but I first heard it from my daughter-in-law a couple years ago.  (Okay, I just looked it up.  There’s an article dated 2010 that attributes it to U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer.)

I have a wonderful family and friends, an amazing agent who loves my work and is determined to sell it, and oh yeah—I get to spend the whole month of March in France, writing. So yeah, not a lot to whine about.

And, most of all, I’m a writer. I get to write every day of my life and many days I get to work with other writers.  I have an activity that I never get tired of, and I never, ever get bored, because there’s always another story to uncover.

So yeah, my novels may not have found a publisher yet, and I may wish I had more time to devote solely to writing them. I’m not rich, money-wise, and I do have chronic knee pain.  I get called on way too often to watch grandchildren or drive neighbor kids to school because I work at home.  I’m always, always, always, looking for more time to do the things I love.

But who freaking cares? Because I’m a writer. I’m one of the lucky ones in the world, because I get to make up stories and bring them to the world.

(This article first appeared in my weekly newsletter, The Abundant Writer. If you’d like it to arrive directly into your inbox each Sunday morning, you can subscribe in the form to the right.)

On Winning (A Love Letter)

I’m all in on the Olympics this month. (Read my blog post from earlier this week about my love of them here.)

And no matter what anybody says about brotherhood and world peace and all that jazz, the Olympics are about winning.  So, maybe the silver is kinda okay, but the bronze.  Bah-boom.*  Everybody wants the gold, right? You don’t get the cereal box if you don’t get the gold. You don’t get the lucrative endorsement.

You gotta go for the gold. For the win.

And as writers, so do we.

But here’s the deal: it is up to you to figure out what winning is for you. What’s your win?

My wise friend Angie often talks about defining what success means. For you. Not for the other writers in your writing group. For you.  Do you want:

To be a best-selling writer?

A contract with a traditional publisher?

To make a living writing?

To quietly write books that maybe only family and friends will read?

To write for fun?

To find satisfaction in journaling regularly?

To write a family history for posterity?

To get letters to the editor published?

To share your poetry?

To pump out as many books as you possibly can?

It doesn’t matter how you answer.  But answer honestly. Because writing success is a long game, and so you better make yourself happy while you’re doing it. Because otherwise, what is the point.

So while I’m engrossed in watching the Olympics this month, I’ll be thinking about my definition of writing success.  How about you?

* Here’s an interesting factoid for you: there’s actually an online sound dictionary! Here’s the link. I couldn’t figure out how to write the sound a buzzer would make, and I looked it up. And still didn’t find one that satisfied me, so used another. But, cool, huh?

Hey–I’m offering one lucky person a coaching slot for March. Email me at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com if you’re interested.

How Writers are Different (A Love Letter)

Hey! Come join us at the Prolific and Prosperous Writers Facebook page. Just head on over here and ask to join and I’ll approve you!


We’re just alike you and I, and that makes us different than the rest of the world. Because we are writers.

Years ago, in a writing workshop, I learned about the “we’re just alike” moment that nearly every movie has.  Watch for it and you’ll see it—there’s a point where the protagonist and the antagonist realize they are have similarities as well as differences.  I’m not as up on screenplay tropes as I should be, so I’m not entirely sure of the point, but I do know I see it (when I look for it) all the time.

And that’s how I feel about being a writer.  I’m just like you because we’re writers. We have fictional characters rumbling about in our heads and sometimes they are more real than the people in our family.  We get a glazed look in our eyes in the middle of a dinner party as an idea for a story hits us.  Every thing in our worlds is grist for our writing mill.

And you and I are different than the rest of the world.  There’s the creative tension I talked about last week, for instance.  That alone would be enough to separate us from non-writers. But there’s also the fact that many people can’t imagine spending hours alone at a computer, let alone doing an activity that some hate. Or having the passion to rise early, or stay up late, so you have time to write. Or understanding an arcane language full of words like WIP, pantser, and plotter.

So, what’s the point of all this? (Besides the idea that if you’re writing a screenplay you might want to include such a moment?) It’s that you remember this and honor it.  Because if you honor that you are a writer, through and through, you’ll remember that there’s one key thing that makes us different from everyone else: we write.

So remember it and get thee to the page.  I went on an internet spree while I was writing this searching for a particular quote to include.  Didn’t find it—but found a bunch of others. So I’m going to do something a little different this week and post them here for you.  So that they might help to remind you.  Post them somewhere you’ll see them when you’re tempted to go mop the kitchen floor or reorganize your junk drawer instead of writing.

“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.”  Oscar Wilde

“The world is a brighter place when we each manifest who we are.” Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness.” Allen Ginsberg

“Don’t compromise yourself—you’re all you have.” John Grisham

“Let yourself be drawn by the stronger pull of that which you truly love.” Rumi

“Follow your heart, listen to your inner voice, stop caring what others think.” Roy T. Bennett

Do you have a favorite quote about writing, or motivation, or inspiration? Leave a comment and tell me, or better yet, head over to the Facebook group and share it there.

And whatever you do, honor yourself as a writer—and go write.