Nanowrimo Update: Some Core Truths for Maintaining a Writing Practice

Typewriter_Writing_Writer_238822_lI know. This is like, the ten thousandth blog post you’ve read on Nanowrimo.  I wrote one myself (well, okay, it was sort of about the election, too), and there’s another good one here.  

But, here’s the deal. As the headline promised, I’ve been reminded of some helpful core truths about the writing practice as I’ve toiled away on my Nano novel this month.   None of these are new, nor are they earth-shattering.  What follows are just plain, practical tips for getting the freaking words on the page regularly.   Here we go, in no particular order:

Set a word count goal.  When it comes to Nanowrimo, if you’re going to win the damned thing, you need to attempt to write a certain amount of words every day. I choose a goal of 2,000 words, because that gives me some wiggle room for days when I don’t write. (Like this morning, for instance. For some reason Saturdays are not productive for me when it comes to writing.)  And this is helpful even when it’s not November, because it gives you at least a vague idea of how you’re progressing.

Lower your expectations.  Yeah, I know. This sounds contradictory to the above advice.  And it is, sort of.  What I mean here is this: if its 11 PM and you’ve not yet hit your word count, adjust accordingly. Maybe this is a day when you get 500 words in. That’s nothing to sniff at!

Know where you’re going.  This is the single most helpful thing I can tell you. Even if you are a pantser and hate outlining, always have a sense of where you are going next.  Make a few notes about the next scene before you end your writing session for the day. Keep an ongoing scene list. Have a pad of paper handy next to your computer to scribble reminder notes.

You can get unstuck.   If you find yourself stuck, don’t despair. You can pull yourself out of it.  Turn to your journal and do some free writing, either specifically about your WIP or to a random prompt. Or plow ahead in your project–I’m continually amazed at how often the unstuck-ness comes in the actual writing.

You can write more than you think possible.  2,000 words a day sounds like a lot to some people, but you could do it if you tried.  The other day I wrote 6,000 words, participating in 10K for Writers day.  It was exhausting, but exhilarating, too.

Momentum carries the month.  There’s nothing more exciting than knowing you are making steady progress on a WIP.  You wake up every day and chug along. The pages pile up. And life is good, because part of you is living in the lovely fictional world you’re creating every morning.  Momentum carries you through when you miss a day. It leads you back to the page, reminding you that all is not lost, that you can pick up where you left off.  This doesn’t happen when you write only occasionally.

Brain.fm is a revelation.  This is a site that advertises itself as “music for the brain.”  You can listen to tracks for relaxation, sleep, or focus. I plug my ear buds into the computer and choose which kind of focus music I want (chimes and bells, cinematic, rain, forest sounds, and thunder are just some of the options), and off I go. I swear it helps enormously.  You can get 10 free sessions before you commit. I was so taken with it I bought a year’s subscription.

Find your best routine. It works best for me to get up early, take a quick look at email to see what’s going on, and then get to it. If I can (if I have no morning appointments), I write until I reach my word count. This way I feel good all day, knowing I’ve accomplished my most important thing. But I could spout off about writing first thing until I’m blue in the face and if this routine doesn’t work for you (if, say, you are a night owl), then you’re just going to ignore me. With good reason. Because you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to get up at the crack of dawn when you’ve been up late the night before.  Moral of the story: find what works for you. And then do it.

Thanks for reading.  What tips do you have for maintaining a writing practice over the long haul?

PS. You can find my books on my Amazon author page here.

What it Takes to Be a Writer: Part Three

You’ve revved up your brain, planted your butt in the chair, and now you’re ready to write. I sometimes envision this moment as that of a piano player: you place your fingers on the keys, expecting great music to pour forth….and nothing happens.

You freeze. You don’t know what to write. Or the words won’t come. Or you are so damn critical of the words that do come that you shut down the computer and decide to go clean up dog poop in the backyard.  Because dealing with that kind of shit is better than dealing with the crap you’re putting on the page.

Ahem. I have news for you. Writing crap is good.  Writing crap is desirable (at least in a first draft). GETTING ANY WORDS ON THE PAGE AT ALL IS YOUR ONLY GOAL.  So do it. That’s my first bit of advice:

Write Crap

Just write, even if that means reminding yourself how awful you’re doing as you go. My first drafts are full of all caps exhortations about what terrible work I’m doing. Like: THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE AND IT’S REALLY STUPID. Once I’ve gotten it out of my system, I can carry on with the rest of it.

Here is an unedited glimpse of what I wrote yesterday as I tried to get going:

Okay I’m just sitting here with the cat, staring at the computer.  What the f#%k. Staring never got the writing done. Just write something. This is where prompts are really handy!   Start with the image.

And I did. I started with the image and the scene flowed from there.  Writing crap, and reminding yourself of it, is incredibly freeing.

Write Crap Often

Like, every day. We already talked about making time and conserving energy for writing in part two.  Do your best to write as often as possible. It makes a huge freaking difference, I’m not kidding.  Doing this, you gain momentum. You have that lovely feeling that half of you is living in your fictional world.  And because of that, you’re in love with the real world you actually do inhabit.  And when you are in love, you want to spend more time with your beloved, correct? So you will be eager to return to writing your novel.  And that, my friends, is the power of writing every day. (Even if it’s crap.)

Plan Ahead

I’ve proven to myself over and over that I procrastinate and get distracted when I don’t know where I’m going.  This is why I like to write a loose outline for the plot of my novel, and why I’m such a huge fan of character dossiers.  The other thing I like to do is write notes to myself. I do a lot of “writing about” the project in my journal, and I just about always write little notes to myself in the manuscript as to where to go next.  Then when I open the file first thing in the morning, I know where I’m going. I often diverge from my plans, but at least I have a way in to get started.

Employ Systems

There’s lots of help out there for writers.  You can download Freedom, which will turn off your access to the internet for a predetermined amount of time.  You can use a Pomodoro timer that allows you to write in spurts (or just use your phone’s timer).  You can use Scrivener.  The point is, there are all kinds of tools out there that will help you in your daily writing. Find the ones that work for you and use them.

So there you have it. What are your favorite tricks to get words on the page?

What it Takes To Be a Writer: Part Two

(For the best part of this whole post, scroll to the end for the video. Seriously.)object_smiley_fruit_241984_l

When last heard from on Sunday, I was extolling the virtues of meditation and other such mental activities. Which might lead one to believe that one can sit in one’s chair and let one’s mind do all the work. Ha! Only if you have monkeys to do it for you. Too bad we can’t get them out of our brain and put them to work, right? But I digress.  Here’s the deal: YOU HAVE TO SIT YOUR BUTT IN THE CHAIR AND WRITE. You just do.  And worse, you have to do it over and over and over again, day after day after day to finish something.  You can’t just think about it. You can’t just ponder great, delicate thoughts about it.  You have to do it.  And I can’t help you with this. (Hell, I can barely help me with this.)  You just have to freaking do it.

And this is hard. It is hard for a couple reasons. Yes, because it takes time, and we have to find it, but really, that’s just an excuse. (A good one, and I rely on it often.) Because you can find time to write if you really want to do it. You can get up early, stay up late, sacrifice your lunch hour, give up Happy Hour with your husband, forgo watching TV.  You can, if you want to.  You (and I) just don’t. Because:

Energy and Bandwidth

What I think is a much bigger issue is twofold: having the energy and the bandwidth to do it.   We are all busy people, most of us way too busy.  (And we wrap that busyness around us like a shield at times, too. I know I do it.) And busyness is exhausting. Which leaves us with little energy for writing. It also leaves us with over-full brains.  Sometimes I want to write, but I just can’t connect with my WIP. Can’t find a way in. Can’t remember where I was, why I wanted to write the book in the first place. I simply don’t have enough mental bandwidth.  I’m exhausted, and so is my brain.

The antidote?

  1. Recognize that you’re exhausted and get some freaking rest. Sometimes you just have to say enough already and take a break. (For a helpful push in this direction, read Wayne Muller’s How to Be, Have, and Do Enough.)  I have a hard time doing this because its inbred in me to feel guilty when I take a break.  And then, funnily enough, when I do take a break, all I want to do forever is laze about.  Which may be why I resist relaxing in the first place, because I’m afraid I’ll never stop. (And now that I think about it, this is a clear sign of letting the busyness get to me.)
  2. Cleanse your brain. Besides meditation, which I’ve already recommended, the best way to do this is to watch what you eat. And, as far as I can tell, the only advice that everyone seems to agree on when it comes to nutrition is to eat lots of fruits and veggies. Beyond that, I believe that you need to figure out what works best for you. Some people do need to be gluten-free. Others can happily eat pasta and bread without a problem. And yet others, like me, need to be mindful of having enough protein at every meal to prevent energy crashes.  Only you can figure this out.  But remember that old adage from the sixties–you are what you eat–really is true.  And it affects our writing as well. (There’s also the issue of you are what you drink, but I’m not going there at the moment.)
  3. Take imperfect action.  When I get anxious and stressed is when I magnify things in my mind. I don’t just have to write a blog post, it has to be the best blog post ever. I don’t just have to write a scene in my novel, it has to be compelling and thrilling. Pretty sure this is the brain’s way of signaling overload.  But if you allow yourself to be imperfect and just do something, anything, you’ll feel good about it and then you can start to build some momentum.
  4. Say no. Or cop to the activities you’re saying yes to. What is more important to you–being volunteer of the year or writing your novel? I’m not asking facetiously, it is a serious question. Maybe it is most important for you to spend hours you could be writing at your volunteer post. No judgement. But if it so, then admit it and quit stressing about not having time to write. Just clearing the stress will open up mental bandwidth. Also, it is a good thing to say no. Period.

So you’ve got yourself all cleared and psyched up. Ready to go.  Your butt is in the chair. There you sit, ready to write. What next? That’s the topic of my next post. (I really didn’t think there were going to be three posts in this series, but this one is already pushing 800 words so it seems like a good idea.)

And, because we were talking about monkeys, and because I love ya, here’s a compendium of trunk monkey videos

What are you monkeys up to these days?

The Tyranny of Word Count

Every morning on my calendar I note how many words I’ve written (my main fiction writing time is early in the morning).  My goal is 1500-2000 words a day, which is a nice pace for me. If I’m on, I can hit 2K easily, but on off days, 500 words is a stretch.  Counting words is a great way to remind yourself of how much you’ve accomplished, and of course you know that what you focus on, grows. (I imagine myself staring at a page of words, willing it to multiply like the dandelions on our front yard.)

And its not just the daily word count that we focus on, but we think about it in other ways as well.  We fret and stew about how many words a book should be.  How long is a novella? How long is a short story? If I go over those standard word counts wills something bad happen? And so on and so forth.

And so even though I love checking in on my daily word count notations, I sometimes think they can become a bit tyrannical. And result in bad habits. Tell me I’m not the only one who:

  1. Writes complicated sentences–because they entail more words.
  2. Use two words when one will do. Because, word count.
  3. Catch myself repeating something and then letting it stand. Because, you know why, word count.
  4. Endures excruciating moments when I’m straining for just 100 more words to meet my quota.

Okay, okay, I am writing raw as coal-before-it-becomes-a-diamond drafts.  And I know that the value of rewriting is inestimable.  But still, sometimes I wonder if there’s a better way to keep track of it all, or if I really do need to keep track? To answer that last question first, when I’m writing regularly, I think it’s important to have metrics.  The novelist J.T. Ellison says that we must “touch our story, think about it” on a regular basis, and I agree. (Regular basis=daily.)  Keeping a word count reminds you of the importance of this.  When I wring my hands and tell myself I’m not much of a writer, all I have to do is flip open my planner and there it is, ink black and white (well, okay, color from gel pens), proof that if nothing else I do get up and throw words at the page regularly. And if there are lots of blank days with no word counts listed, I am reminded that I’m slacking.

But is there a better way to keep track? I suppose I could write to the end of whatever scene I’m working on and list how many scenes or chapters I’ve completed.  But often when I end my writing session at the close of a scene, I close myself off as well. (Hemingway famously ended his writing sessions in the middle of a sentence.)  And of course, there is rating yourself by time as well.  If you’ve sat at your computer for two hours, you’ve done your job.  Except one could easily sit at said computer for two hours and not write a word.  I know, I’ve done it I had a friend who did it.

I dunno. Maybe you can tell me a better way?

The truth is I’m the worst goal setter in the world.  The standard advice to block out time for writing on my calendar doesn’t work for me, because I rebel against myself.  As in, look at my calendar and say, meh, don’t feel like doing that today. This is clearly a variation of the childhood refrain, “I’m doing it because I want to and not because you tell me to.” Yep, childish as all get-out, not to mention counter productive.  I actually love to set elaborate goals, goals that even the most vigorous Type A personality could never meet.

And for some unknown reason, writing to word count, tyrannical as the process is, works for me. It is the only thing I’ve found that keeps me productive on a regular basis.  And so on bad days I groan and strain and complain until I reach at least 1,000 words and on good days I pat myself on the back when I easily sail past 2K.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. (And if it was, we’d be bored.)

What metrics do you use to keep track of your progress?

And by the way, for the truly nutty among you, my friend Milli Thornton runs 10K Days for writers every month, twice a month. There’s one coming up tomorrow (July 20) that I’m participating in, and one this Saturday as well.

Happy writing!

 

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Write

Thoughtful-creative-moved-22614-lSo there you are.  You've cleared your schedule and made time to write.  The kids are farmed out, the dog is asleep, your partner is happily watching something stupid on TV.  You open a file, place your hands on your keyboard, and ….. nothing happens.

You don't know what to write.  And when you don't know what to write, writing doesn't happen.

This can occur whether you are starting something new, or in the middle of a writing project.  And no matter when it happens, it can stop you cold.  Maybe you're trying to parse out the plot of your novel, or maybe you're partway through and you thought you knew where you were going but suddenly you don't.

One of the single best pieces of advice I can give you, writer to writer, is this: always know where you are going next.  (My daughter-in-law drove up to Bainbridge Island last weekend to hear one of her favorite authors, Annie Barrows of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society fame speak, and guess what?  That's the exact same advice she gave.)  I'm experiencing this first hand as I get up and work on my new WIP every morning.  The days I know where I'm going next, my fingers fly.  The days where I'm not sure, I meander.  And on those meandering days I get nothing done.

But what if you find yourself at the page and you don't have a freaking clue what to write?  Here are some suggestions.

1.  Write about your project.  Don't worry about writing within the project, write around it.  I always keep a spiral handy for notes and "writing about" sessions.  These help me clarify where I am and can get me back to the project at hand.  I thought everyone did this, so much so that I'd never bothered to mention it–but then we had a long discussion about it in the writing group I lead and to most, it was a novel idea.  Go figure.  Anyway, for me, inspiration always comes through the writing itself.

2.  Use a prompt.  Yeah, I know.  But they work.  There are tons here and a million other places on the web.  The thing to remember about using prompts successfully is to not make yourself hew to them religiously.  By this I mean, use them as a starting point.  Doesn't matter if the prompt is about a cat and you write about dogs.  The idea is to get you getting words on the page.

3.  Fill out a character dossier.  This is another thing I thought everyone did.  Turns out, not so.  I have standard character forms I've developed from a variety of sources over the years–and I invariably find myself figuring things out as I write fill them in.  (If you need a template for that, just email me and I'll send you mine.)

4.  Remember, nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is valuable just to plunge in.  Put your character somewhere and start writing.  It may not turn into anything at all, but then again, it might.  And even if you don't use it this time around, maybe it will work itself into your next WIP.  Who knows? The muse works in mysterious ways–but she's happiest when you meet her partway.

5.  Also remember that maybe something is wrong.  If you are in the middle of a project and you don't know what to right, consider that something isn't working.  Maybe you've conceived the scene wrong, or it belongs in a different place.  Maybe it needs to be in a different location or with a different set of characters.  In order not to get stuck here, either move on to a different scene, or write something else–play around with a short story or an essay, for instance.

6.  Make a list of what you know and don't know.  Approach this like free writing and set a timer, then write down every thing you can think of that you don't know.  Ask yourself questions.  Make odd connections.  See what comes out on the page.  You know more than you think, you just need to unlock it from within.

7.  Change up your routine.  I rarely listen to music while writing, but at the moment I'm listening to a soundtrack that purports to zap you into the right brain and allow the words to flow.  It seems to be working! (Though I must admit I found the bird calls on it a bit distracting at first.) I've written recently about how working outside every morning has improved my writing.  So try something different–it may give you inspiration, and that's really what we're talking about here.

8.  Write a description.  Some people love it, some people hate it, but writing it is good practice.  Maybe you'll actually use it somewhere–or maybe it will spark the words you're looking for.

9.  Walk away.  If all else fails, go do something else.  Take a walk, mow the lawn, pull weeds, something.  It amazes me how often I don't know what to write next, get up from my chair, and find myself running back to the computer because everything has clicked into place.

10.  Keep a writer's journal.  Carry a journal around with you and take notes.  I don't do this as often as I should but when I do, it makes me happy.  Write about the woman with magenta hair and tattoos sitting next to you at the coffee shop, make notes on dialogue.  You can do this quickly, in phrases and lists, or elaborately, whatever your pleasure.  Then when you're sitting back at your desk, despairing because you don't know what to write, flip through it for inspiration.

So….what do you do when you don't know what to write?  Please share in the comments.

Photo by corpitho.

Writing In the Summertime

Writingoutside

My outdoor writing space

It is hot here in Portland, mid to upper 90s all last week and more of the same this week, with temps predicted to reach into the 100s by the weekend.  We usually get some hot hot weather during the summer, but this is very early for a heat wave and it is lasting a long time.

My office is upstairs (I'm in process of moving it downstairs, but that project is taking forever) and that automatically makes it hot.  (We, like many Portlanders who live in older homes, don't have air conditioning.) But it also gets stuffy, the air stagnant, and because it is full of boxes (the afore mentioned moving project), its not a very inspiring space at the moment.

In self defense, I moved my computer and all my notes downstairs last weekend and then one early morning around 6 AM I got the idea to move my operation out back.  I set up on the outdoor table on the deck and listened to the birds sing and wrote my heart out.  I started out a few weeks ago setting my Iphone timer for 15 minutes and telling myself I was just going to write, simply as a way to get to the page.  But now, I think it is safe to say that these daily outside writing sessions are turning into my next novel–and that my daily writing practice has transformed my writing life.

Firtreeoutback

The tree above me

I now set up outside every morning and it has quickly become my favorite time of day.  It is peaceful and cool and quiet aside from the occasional dog barking and I am getting a lot of writing done every morning.  It is amazing to me what a change of venue can do for your writing.  Some people love to go work in coffee shops, but me? Not so much.  I'm far too distracted by people and noise and activity.  Besides, I do my best work early in the day, in my pajamas, and that doesn't work so well anywhere but home.

By 7:30 the sun hits my back and lights the screen and I can't see so well and I'm starting to flag anyway.  But the point of all this, besides encouraging you to look at where you write and how well it is working for you, is to share a few tips I've learned (relearned?) as I start writing a long project (i.e., a novel), again.  

1.  Call it Daily Writing Practice.   Some times the daily writings  are just random scenes, sometimes they actually turn into a scene for my WIP, and sometimes they become me obsessing about where I am in the WIP.  But gradually, the daily practices have turned into real, consistent work on my next novel, and the sessions have lengthened out considerably.  But at the beginning, I just called it daily practice and all I had to do was write something, anything for 15 minutes. Whether or not your writing sessions pertain to your WIP is up to you—but if it doesn't, that's okay.

2.  Keep a Writing Log. I've started a daily writing log, wherein I write about my feelings and thoughts on what I'm writing.   I wish I'd done this during the writing of my most recent novel, The Bonne Chance Bakery.  Now that it is finished, that novel exists in a sort of magical haze for me, and I've convinced myself that writing it went smoothly from the idea to the end.  But a few days ago, I opened, by chance, one of my daily writings from last summer–and read a whole long rant about how stuck and frustrated I was on the progress I was making.  Because, the thing is, when a novel is done, you forget the day to day grind that went into it.  Because the Bonne Chance was somewhat magical in origin, with the entire story essentially downloaded to me in the shower, it has been easy to forget the hard parts. Instead, I labor under the delusion that the writing of it was easy and sure in every letter and word.  While parts of it were, much of it wasn't.  And it is reassuring to remember that as I struggle to start anew.

For a look at how a major literary figure used a diary, check out this great Brain Pickings piece about the journals John Steinbeck kept while writing the Grapes of Wrath.

3.  Set Word Count Goals.  Once you get beyond the random daily writing practice (and its okay if you never do, truly), it is fun to set yourself some goals.  I was hitting 1K words a morning with ease, so today I notched it up to 1,500.  It helps to give me some kind of framework for what I'm doing.

4.  Give Yourself a Place to Go the Next Day.  If you are working on a long project, write a sentence or two about what happens next, so that you know where to start the next day.  If you are doing random writing, choose a prompt so that you don't go in search of one on the internet and get distracted.

 5.  Stay Organized.  For some dumb reason that I will probably regret, I like to save each days' writing in a separate file, labeled with the date.  I think I like to see the files pile up in the folder I've created for them.  What I will likely soon do is put all these pieces together into a file labeled "full manuscript."  But I am notoriously terrible at organization, so you can probably figure out your own system that works well for you.

Okay, that's it!  I hope you are making progress on your WIP or enjoying writing something.  Do you have any tips for sustaining a regular writing practice?

Writing Fiction: The Two Nows Structure

The task of a novelist is to tell a story so riveting that it will hold a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages. To do this, the author must first know the story intimately herself—which is the reason we write rough drafts (also known as “discovery drafts” or, my favorite, from the beloved Anne Lamott, “shitty first drafts”). After you’ve finished a first draft (or many drafts) and are convinced you know the story inside out, you can start thinking about structure (though there may well be a lucky few who write novels with the perfect structure from the outset). Structure is the way your story is presented to the reader—the ordering of scenes and chapters.

Writers whose novels contain a lot of important backstory often struggle with ways to weave in flashbacks without stopping the forward motion of the story. One approach is to “chunk” in the flashbacks: present several chapters of the story line to get the action moving, and then pull in several chapters (a “chunk”) of explanatory backstory.

But what if your backstory is so compelling or so important to the protagonist’s character arc that you don’t want to wait several chapters to impart it? This is the issue I struggled with repeatedly in writing my first novel. My heroine moves to a new part of the country, which is where the action begins. Yet what makes her move so painful, and the action unique, is her deep love for her left-behind home. My problem was how to get the story moving and keep the reader engrossed while also showing Collie’s ordinary world—the place she left behind.

The answer finally came in a critique session with trusted fellow novelists. Why not try running a dual story line? Tell Collie’s story from the moment she moved to Santa Fe as one narrative arc, and intersperse the backstory in alternating chapters—a dual story line. Chapter one begins the story and immerses the reader in the contemporary story line, chapter two moves back to the beginning of the flashback story line, Chapter Three returns to the present, and so on.

I’ve christened this the Two Nows Structure, because one important feature is the immersion in the “now” of each arc. This is the key element of this construction. We are in the head of the characters as they are at the moment. The flashback storyline is not told retrospectively, with the wisdom of the years that have passed. It is told in the now of that narrative arc. Accordingly, such a structure works best with a limited point of view, either tight third person or first person.

Each storyline has a distinct narrative arc, with its own conflicts, disasters, and troubles for the characters, and its own forward movement and mounting action. To decide where to begin each throughline, bear in mind the advice of writer Jack Bickham, from his book, Scene and Structure, which is “start your story at the time of the change that threatens your character’s major self-concept.

In my research on this structure, I’ve discovered two main variations. The first is a linear style, in which each story is told in strict chronological order. This is the structure used in the recent novel, A Blessed Event, by Jean Reynolds Page, which is the story about a woman desperate for a baby, and the controversial actions she takes to get one. In dealing with the consequences of those actions, the protagonist uncovers secrets from her past. The contemporary story begins in Texas in 1983, and the backstory action starts ten years earlier. Chapters alternate between the two time periods, and each story line moves steadily forward until they begin to merge about three-quarters of the way through.

A permutation on this linear storyline structure is found in Jane Hamilton’s novel, The Short History of a Prince. While Hamilton’s two narrative arcs also follow chronologically, her novel begins with the flashback storyline. The book alternates between 1972 and 1995, with each distinct arc covering roughly the same period of time—the months of a school year, September to June. In Prince, the events of the past storyline are so strong and compelling that they have affected every single character in the twenty years since, which is no doubt why she chose to begin in the past.

The second variation on the Two Nows Structure is the thematic style. In this construction, the flashback chapters are arranged in seemingly random order, but the author has placed them so for thematic reasons. Maryanne Stahl’s novel, Forgive the Moon,, is fashioned in this manner. The story of a woman whose marriage is threatened, the contemporary action takes place over a one week vacation on Long Island, and the flashbacks show snapshots of the protagonist’s past which illuminate her current behaviors and decisions.

Both the linear and thematic structures tend to follow a similar pattern—chapters alternating consistently between the two nows with an equal emphasis on each storyline. Occasionally, authors allow us to remain in the contemporary storyline for more than one chapter, but this rarely happens with the past storyline. Its important to keep the contemporary narrative moving (which is why you chose this structure) and lingering in the past will not accomplish that. By the last third or quarter of the novel, the two storylines will, of necessity, start to merge until there is one seamless narrative remaining.

Why choose this structure? In rewriting my first novel, I found it benefits my writing in several ways. By not relying on flashbacks and instead immersing my characters in the “now” of their lives, I am forced to write with more immediacy. Instead of lapsing into telling, I easily see ways to show. This, in turn, helps me to show character motivation in real time, instead of using a flashback that stops the action of the story to explain why a character does what he does. For instance, in my own novel, I revealed a crucial character motivation in a flashback scene. Try as I might, I could see no way to get this information out in any other way—until I recast the novel in the Two Nows structure. Immediately, I saw how this bit of info could be revealed in the contemporary story line, thus pushing the action ahead and keeping the story moving.

The Two Nows Structure is a useful paradigm for a variety of novels, but especially for those which rely heavily on backstory. Ultimately, I decided not to use this structure for my novel, but its certainly something I’ll consider using for future novels.