What to Do When You Hit a Creative Wall

Last weekend, I hit a creative wall. It wasn’t full-blown writer’s block, mind you, but a wall. Maybe a half-wall. I’d been working steadily and strongly all week on a couple of chapters and finished them. That got me to a natural stopping place before the next action began.

Admittedly, most creative walls are not this cute. Mine sure aren’t. Photo by Hannah Lim on Unsplash

Only problem was, I wasn’t sure of what that next action might be.

It’s easy for me to tell when I’ve hit a wall because of a couple things: First, I’m resistant to sitting down at the computer or page. And second, I’m not thinking of the work much. Not connecting with it mentally in odd moments throughout the day, as I usually do.

And when that happens, the forward progress stops.

And let’s just pause here and remember: writing is hard work. Committing to any kind of writing project is challenging. It is also exhilarating, engaging and exciting. But those things are challenging to manage, too. So: hard work. Give yourself a break, okay?

That’s recommendation one for what to do when the creative wall hits. Take a break. Go relax and do something that refills the well.  NOTE: generally wandering about on the internet or checking email does not count as refilling the well. Neither does scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. I’m talking about doing something that inspires, energizes or relaxes you.

You might be familiar with a more formal version of this concept from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way. She calls it an artist’s date, and recommends you do it once a week, by yourself. I’ve always had a bit of a hard time with this concept, mostly because it adds one more thing to a burgeoning to-do list and I risk feeling guilty about it if I don’t do it. Then it’s not rejuvenating, it is guilt inducing.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

But you can do a mini-version of it without making a big production about it. Depending on what you enjoy, pick up a pencil and draw. Bust out the watercolors (maybe your kids have some you could borrow?) Pick up your knitting. Plan a garden. Bake a cake. Cook a gourmet meal. Go for a walk to the park. Swing on the swings. Read a book, or leaf through a magazine.

The point is to indulge in some intentional relaxation, doing things that make you happy. (And note I’m not including watching movies or TV on this list. Yes, I realize you might find it relaxing, but I’d guess you take plenty of time for all kinds of screen time already. Just saying.)

But, here’s the deal. (And this is why I often don’t allow myself to relax.) Don’t let all this intentional relaxation go too far. Because if you do, it can quickly turn into a full-blown block. So that’s recommendation two: don’t indulge in this creative-wall-relaxation for too long.

Which brings us to recommendation three, which is to force the issue. Sometimes you have to twist yourself back into the writing flow, that’s all there is to it. Give yourself some good old-fashioned tough love to get yourself back into it.

Here are some things to try:

Free writing to prompts. You can take a prompt from your WIP if you like, or use a line of poetry, or search the archives on this blog (see tags on the right column) to find some. Set yourself a timer for 15 minutes and go to it.

–Mind-mapping, which, as you likely know, is a right-brained way to outline.

–Meditation. Quit your bitching and just do it (she said to herself as well as everyone else). It will free your brain and open you to new ideas.

–Journal. Because getting your whiney crap thoughts down on paper is always a good idea.

–Read. Something, anything. Words in, words out. Sometimes reading a novel or memoir or short story will give you an idea that will get you started again.

And then, of course, if none of these work, then go back to recommendation one and start over again.  Just remember not to give up.  Because you really, really, really do not want this brief interlude to turn into a long bout of writer’s block.

Good luck. Let me know how it works out for you. Leave a comment!

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On Leaving..And Coming Home (A Love Letter)

As you might have guessed, I am home from France. Jet lag has not been terrible this time. We got home Tuesday evening and as I write this on Friday, I’m feeling pretty good. Which gives me time to dig into all the things that got put on hold while I was gone.  And, boy, do things pile up.

Some views of Collioure

I’ve got a ton of recommendations this month because I had a lot of time to read and also many confined hours on long flights in which to watch movies (which I’m usually bad at). But I did want to write a brief recap of the trip and encourage you to think about coming with next year. So here goes.

We landed in Paris on the last day of the month and spent an afternoon wandering about the neighborhood near the Gare De Lyon, which was surprisingly appealing.  Also, getting a good dose of daylight helps with jet lag. After a pretty good night’s sleep, it was on to Perpignan via the fast train, which is comfy and relaxing.  Dali called the Perpignan train station the center of the world, and while that seems a bit excessive, the city is growing on me. We stayed in the historic center, full of twisty streets and fun shops and a divine place to eat, Restaurant Le St. Jean.   (In case you ever find yourself there, it is right next to the Cathedral St. Jean and you actually eat in a courtyard right next to the church.)

The next day it was on to Collioure, our location for the next three weeks. That included two weeks of writing workshops and one week of leisure in between. There is something so special about sinking into one place for an extended period of time. Even though I was working two weeks out of three, it is infinitely relaxing. On workshop weeks, we meet every morning from 9:30 to 12:30 (except on Sundays and Wednesdays, which are market days, so we meet at 10 in order to give everyone time to wander the stalls). Our teaching is a combination of mini-lectures on writing, discussion of assigned books (see below), writing exercises and prompts, and discussion of the assignments everyone has completed the night before. You may think that people don’t make much progress on their writing when billeted in paradise, but the opposite is actually true. Every year we see writers make huge leaps in their works in progress, get re-inspired, and write more than they thought they would—all while enjoying the hiking, shopping, eating and drinking of the region.

But three weeks does fly by—and last Saturday it was back to Paris, this time to stay in a lovely Airbnb in Montparnasse , my favorite neighborhood in the city. It rained like a mofo on Sunday afternoon but once the rain cleared, everyone emerged, and we were able to celebrate the hub’s birthday at a fun restaurant. The next day we played tourist and went to the top of the Arch de Triomphe (there was an elevator, thank god—my poor hip couldn’t have done the stairs).  And then, sadly, the next day it was time to leave.

But leaving is made easier by knowing I’ll be back next year. And even more than that, by knowing that my family awaited me back home. Along with good friends, my own comfy bed, my crazy fat cats, the even crazier family dog, and good plans for the fall—not to mention crisp autumn days. (Temps in Collioure were in the mid-80s, but the humidity was very, very high and the mosquitos were killer.)

So that’s my story about leaving and coming home. Oh, while there, I read over my novel one last time and fixed a couple inconsistencies. My agent is submitting it even as we speak I write. And I made some good progress on my next book. So, there was that, too.

We should now be back to regular weekly programming here. So, I’ll see you next week—but please do leave a comment and tell me what you’ve been up to.  And see below for the links to September reading and watching, as well as a new feature, a weekly prompt or two!

A Prompt

We had such fun using prompts at the writing workshops in France, I thought I’d start a new series and give you a prompt thematically linked to the love letter’s topic each week. Here is this week’s effort:

Write about a time you hated leaving. Now write about a time you couldn’t wait to leave.

September Round-up 

Reading

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones.  This was one of the books we assigned in our France workshops (the other being Educated, by Tara Westover, which I highly recommend). I had decidedly mixed feelings about this novel and can’t help but feel it is over-rated. We did have lively discussions about it, though!

Pardonable Lies, the third Maisie Dobbs mystery, by Jacqueline Winspear.  I picked up #10 or #11, not sure which, of this series and liked it so much I’m reading them from the beginning.

The French Exit,  by Patrick DeWitt. I hate to speak ill of a fellow Portland writer, so I won’t. But I will say this book was just not my cup of tea.

Two books by J.A. Jance, both in the Ali Reynolds series. A friend finished Deadly Stakes in Collioure and gave it to me to read. I enjoyed it, so I downloaded the first in the series, Edge of Evil.  I’ll definitely read more.

Slain in Schiaparelli, the third Joanna Hayworth vintage clothing mystery, by my friend Angela Sanders. I love everything she writes, her capers and her kite mysteries written under the name Clover Tate, as well.

Watching

 A Wrinkle in Time. This was my favorite book growing up—my sister and I read it a million times. But the movie was terrible, awful, wretched. I hated it.

The Post. Conversely, I loved this one. It tells the story of the Washington Post publishing the Pentagon Papers, and how that turned the paper into the national publication it is today, as well as changing Katharine Graham from a D.C. socialite into a powerhouse publisher. Highly recommended.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Mr. Rogers documentary. Proof that Fred really was as nice as he appeared on TV. Wonderful.

Book Club. Pure fun. Loved it. Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, and Diane Keaton.  So good.

Facebook Group

And of course, don’t forget to join the Facebook group if you haven’t already.  I post lots of good links and we often have lively writerly discussions going.   https://www.facebook.com/groups/1910275502543679/

 

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter. It  contains affiliate links.

 

 

 

 

Your Story Needs Something. How to Figure Out What That Might Be.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

When my granddaughter Olivia was a toddler, just learning to talk, she used to suddenly stop what she was doing, say, “need something,” and stagger in a babyish sort of way to the kitchen.  When Livie said “need something” she always meant food, so it was easy to satisfy her.

Alas, it is often not so easy for writers.

I’m in Collioure, France, teaching the second of two week-long workshops.  We meet every morning for instruction and writing and most often the assignments we give are related to the writer’s work in progress. During the first week, my co-leader Debbie decided that one of the pieces “needed something.”

I immediately thought of Livie, of course, because it always amuses me to hear those words. But then I thought further–about how to figure out what it is that your work needs. Sometimes that can be quite opaque. You know it needs something, but what? And how do you identify that what? These are the kinds of thorny writer problems that can stop you for days–or weeks.

But “needing something,” doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. Rather than let it do that, apply the cold light of writerly analysis to it, or at least as analytical as it gets around here (this being the province of a dedicated right-brain, ENFP, process-oriented writer).

Most often you’ll be asking yourself what is needed for a scene or character, but you can also apply some of these ideas to the big picture. You could try asking the following:

Collioure

Does it need a different setting? So often, a simple location shift can suddenly open up a scene.  Amazingly, nine times out of ten I find this to be the case. Changing a scene to a different setting is sometimes just what it needs. Sounds so simple as to be un-useful, but trust me and try it.

Does your character need more depth?  I am the type of writer who figures out the basics, doing some prep work in character, setting, and getting a rough idea of the story, and then plunges in. I learn from the middle what the story needs. And this often results in characters needing more depth. When this happens, I go back to the well, and learn more about their backstories and motivations. I look at their arc–where they start and where they end up–and study how that will affect events that happen in the novel.

Does the dialogue need more differentiation?  It is easy, especially in first draft writing, for all characters to end up sounding the same.  And, let me stress, this is totally okay in first drafts, because you’re just trying to get the story on the page. But if you’re feeling like your story needs something while you’re immersed in a later draft, take a look at the dialogue. Try giving your characters speech tics, or phrases they say repeatedly. Also remember that some characters might talk a lot, some only a little. Some might speak in long sentences, others in short bursts. Play around with it.

Does your scene rise or fall? Or, in other words, is it flat? A scene with rising or falling action starts in one place and ends in another.  Your main character may start out the scene feeling on top of the world–and end it as discouraged as she’s ever been. Or vice versa, in multitudes of variations. Examine your scene and see if you can give it some life by un-flattening it. An excellent book that tells about this in depth (maybe even too much depth) is Story by Robert McKee.

Do you need a second thing? Sometimes, a story, whether long or short, just needs another element.  We writers are often afraid to put too much into our stories, scared we’ll lose the focus. But often the opposite is true–we don’t put in quite enough. Is there a sub-plot you can add in? Something that

So as you can see, when your work needs something, you can view it through the lens of the fundamental aspects of fiction and figure out what is missing. I hope. Let me know how it works out for you.

And if you want to come to France for a writing workshop in an idyllic location next year, you can! We’ll have information about the 2019 event shortly.  In the meantime, you can check out our website for more information. But if you want to get on the mailing list, just email me.

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It’s My Birthday Soon–And I’m Giving Away Presents!

Photo by Stephanie McCabe on Unsplash

This Tuesday is my birthday. No, I won’t tell you how old I am going to be. Suffice it to say I don’t feel as old as I am. And, because it is my birthday, I’m giving you presents!

Here’s the deal. It is hot here in Portland at the moment (98 degrees) and I hate the heat. I think it melts my brain, making it difficult to think, let alone write. (And I just read on my app that the heat wave will continue through Tuesday! Ack!)

So, I was going to write a blog post about tracking time (like years) and other things, as it relates to writing, but I don’t have it in me. And then I remembered (told you the heat melts my brain) that I just posted one on Medium. I’ve been trying to post a lot there, both new and revitalized older posts. So, here’s the one about tracking words and time.

And, besides, what you really wanted was to get to the presents anyway, right? Right. So here you go.

Photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash

Present #1: A copy of a book I wrote a few years ago called Set the Words Free: Ideas, Advice and Guidance for Smashing Writer’s Block.  It’s a 42-page PDF full of info and prompts about how to write regularly. If you’d like a copy just hit reply and let me know. I’ll send it to you straight away.

Present #2: I’m offering a steep discount on coaching sessions. You can nab one hour of my time for $64. (There’s significance to that number but I’ll let you guess what it is.) And you can buy several. Or just one. Usually I charge a lot more than this, but I’m feeling magnanimous.  If you want to take advantage of this deal, again, email me,  and we’ll get it all set up. But do it by  midnight on July 17, because the deal expires then.

Each session includes a 30-minute phone call (or Skype, or Zoom), and reading up to 10 pages of work. If you don’t want to discuss work, I can help you get your writing mojo going (or get it back), or we can discuss creativity, productivity, publishing, how to prep for a novel, really anything related to writing and the writing life. You can use them now, or you can buy them now and use them later. (Be aware I’m in France all of September.)

And that’s it, that’s all I’ve got. Now I’m heading back to sit in front of the air conditioning unit (we only have the window kind). Hope it is cool where you are.

Oh, and by the way:

 –We have a couple last minute spots open for France. It is not too late to buy plane tickets—prices have been holding steady for awhile now.  A week in France, devoted to camaraderie, hiking, sitting by the Mediterranean, eating delicious fish and bread and cheese and drinking wine? Plus a transformational writing experience? Yes, please.

–Join the Facebook group.  Participating in groups is the only way I like to be on Facebook and this one is good. It goes quiet periodically, but then it perks up again. I try to post something of interest every day (or at least every few days). Do join us!

 

 

When You Can’t Write (A Love Letter)

A client/friend emailed me. (Hi, Shari). Due to things happening in life, as they do, she hasn’t been able to write for a while.  And this got me thinking—shit happens. And sometimes you find yourself without a single second, or a free brain cell, to write.

Maybe you just had a baby, or a death in the family. Maybe you moved from one city to another, or changed jobs, or had surgery, or have an illness. Maybe you are planning a wedding or an around-the-world journey. It could be anything, good or bad. But the fact remains that you’re in a spot when you just can’t write.

It happens to all of us at one time or another. It is not fun to endure such a fallow time, but think of it this way—you’re giving your creative brain a rest and when you do get back to your writing, you’re going to be able to look at it with fresh eyes. And in the meantime, here are some things that might help:

Don’t beat yourself up. It happens to all of us. I repeat, it happens to all of us. It is not personal, it is just life. The worst thing you can do is berate yourself about it. So don’t.

 Remember that this too shall pass. Writing is your passion and you’ll return to it as soon as you can.  There will come a moment when the brain fog or the schedule clears and you’ll get back to it. I promise.

Don’t let the bastards get you down. This is for those of you who have been walloped hard by rejection. I remember  A friend told me about a time when she got rejected by a publisher and couldn’t write for six months. Remember, this is a subjective business. If you’re not writing because a rejection shook your confidence, you’ve let them win. Don’t!

Stay positive. I was driving earlier this week and saw this hand-written sign tacked on a telephone pole. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. It will not do you any good at all to think about what a lout you are for not writing. Instead, tell yourself repeatedly, and I do mean repeatedly, that you’ll get back to it soon and it will be there waiting for you when you do.

Keep your hand in any way you can.  Take notes when you have an idea or think of something germane to your WIP. Read writing blogs (ahem), or magazines, or books.

Those are simple things that have helped me when I’m in a fallow period because of life happenings. Do you have any to recommend? Leave a comment and let me know.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that there are still a couple of spots left for the France writing workshop. One of my all-time most favorite things is France. I got to spend the whole month of March there, and I’ll be returning again in September, this time to the beautiful village of Collioure. Think sun, sea, vibrant Catalan colors, heavenly fish, wonderful wine, great hiking, fun shops and cafes, daring commandos training…and oh yeah, writing! Lots of it! Get inspired—come with. Click here for more info, or reply to this email and I’ll tell you all about it.

 

Confessions of a Reforming Writing Pantser

Nearly all my writing life I’ve considered myself a planner. But for the last two books I’ve written, apparently I’ve been pantsing like crazy.  And it hasn’t worked all that well.

I will share my sad story, but first some definitions for those of you who might not know:

Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. No planning, they just have at it and see where the story takes them. They don’t want to be constrained by an outline or any preconceived notions.

Planners plan everything out ahead of time. They write up character dossiers, figure out the plot according to one of many different theories of story and don’t leave anything to chance.

And for years, I’ve been a planner. There are few things I like better than filling out character dossiers.  There’s so much possibility in it! I’m creating a brand-new character and getting ready to put her into action–much like God.

I’m also a story wonk. I love reading about various types of story structures, from the three-act framework to the Hero’s Journey and I’ve studied these in depth.

I also adore figuring out settings–big and little. I love pondering where the character lives and works, what his house looks like and where she hangs out.

These all fall firmly into the planning category, in case you hadn’t noticed.

So why have I abandoned these supports for my last two books? I think because I got enamored of the idea of writing fast. I have a lot of stories in me and I want to get them out into the world. Writing fast is the best way to do that.

But I’m coming up on the limitations of it, or at least the way I did it the last two times, because I know there’s a third way I’ll detail in a minute. But first, my sad story.

I finished the rewrite for my agent last week and sent it off. And, determined to actually finish another project, I unearthed a novel I wrote a couple years ago.  I started it when in France, and for that reason alone I’ve always been fond of it. But I also love my main character–a globe-trotting journalist who loses her career and her relationship pretty much in one fell swoop. However, I knew the book had big plot problems.

So I started reading it earlier this week. Yup, plot problems. For the first 75 pages I was convinced they were insurmountable. And so I did what I always do–made my life much more complicated by deciding that this story could be split in two. New characters and settings appeared in my head! Excitement abounded! Because I am an excellent starter (and a lousy finisher in case you hadn’t guessed). I took notes and wrote with excitement.

First, though, I told myself I had to finish reading the manuscript. And, somewhere around page 100, a funny thing happened. I fell in love with the story.  Realized I didn’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water and reconstruct it–and write a whole other novel with some of the characters. I had plenty of good stuff to work with. Plot problems, yes, but a host of fun characters and some interesting themes.

So I’m going to rewrite it as is. First, though, I’m going to do some serious prep work, writing material to help me understand my characters and figure out a plot that will support the story.

And this is how I’m proceeding from here on out:

-Do all the prep work.  Write character dossiers and dig deep into their motivations.  Create memorable settings. And most of all, figure out the damn story ahead of time!

–Write fast.  When all the above is done, then it is time to write fast. When you know where you’re going, it is a hell of lot easier to do this. And I shall. And it will all be brilliant. Right? Right.

Part of the way I’m going to prep is to write scenes on cards. I’m currently reading Writing Love, by Alexandra Sokolow and it is helpful in this regard. She bases her ideas of structure on screenplay writing and tells you the exact scenes you need to have in your story. I take things like this with a grain of salt but I at least like it as a starting point. At $2.99 for the Kindle edition, its a cheap reference. Well worth a look.

Photo from Every Stock Photo.

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Writer, Know Thyself! (A Love Letter)

How well do you know yourself as a writer? Know how to motivate yourself, operate at your most productive, achieve your writing dreams? After all these years of writing about these exact topics I thought I knew myself pretty well.

Turns out that’s not true.

I’m taking a class called Write Better, Write Faster, about which I’ve already written. The whole point of it is to figure out how your brain works and thus how you can best put it to work. So far I’ve learned:

–I’m very externally motivated. Duh. I’ve always known I was deadline-oriented. And that if I make a commitment, I’ll follow through on it no matter what it takes. But I never extrapolated that to a bigger picture, or, um, to writing fiction. Class teacher Becca gently informed me that I need an accountability buddy for my writing. Something I have for my business, but not my writing. If I’m honest, its because I don’t place the same importance on my fiction because—baboom—its not a huge money maker.

–I need systems. I’m the loosiest, goosiest human on the planet.  Read this if you don’t believe me.  I need a system for editing, for instance, because otherwise I’ll get distracted and keep going back to the beginning, never getting anywhere. I have a great, never fail system for rewriting. I used to have a system for prepping for the novel, but I strayed from it—hence the multiple torturous rewrites of my most recent novel.

I share all this in case any of it resonates.  And to encourage you to learn all you can about yourself and your own writing style.  You can start by taking a watered-down version of the Meyers-Briggs test here.  We had a lot of fun with this on the Facebook group this week.

Any thoughts on how well you know or don’t know yourself as a writer? Leave a reply!

This post originally appeared in my newsletter. If you’d like to receive it directly into your inbox every Sunday morning, plus get first notification of events and books, sign up in the box to the right.

On Motivation (In Your Characters and Yourself)

Last Saturday, I co-lead a workshop on motivation. 

We chose this topic because while I was in France, I realized that the motivation of my protagonist was weak. Very weak. And damned if that didn’t affect the whole plot, making it saggy in places and utterly not logical in others. Neither of which are good for creating stories that work.

We talked mostly about motivating our characters so that plots don’t sag. But we also talked some about what motivates us as writers and how, once we’ve found that motivation, we can keep tapping into it. I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first I wanted to share a couple of take-aways from the afternoon and a terrific list of motivations we came up with. A few take-aways:

–Motivation can come in layers. You think you have it nailed, and then you realize you need to go deeper. (Thank you, Jenni, for putting this into words. I was dancing around it.)

–There’s two kinds of motivation, external and internal. Think of external motivation as what the character wants (something can cause this, too); and internal as why she wants it.

–A good way to uncover your character’s motivation is to ask why. And keep asking why. This will lead you deeper and deeper.

And now, the list of motivations:

Avoid confrontation

Get out of an abusive marriage

Escape

Find the truth

Money

Fame

Power

Control

Fears

Family Duty

Grief (processing it)

Scientific discovery

Seeking knowledge

Self acutalization

Adventure or thrill seeking

Sex

Love

Avoiding death

Recovery from an illness

Presenting a facade to the world

Survival

Jealousy

Atonement

Creative urge

Mastery

As you can see, this is quite the list! I plan to save it somewhere I’ll have access to it and make additional notes on it. Because, trust me, you will save yourself time and misery if you figure out your character’s motivations ahead of time!

And now, the all-important question–what motivates you to write? That is something only you can answer, but after listening to the group members share their reasons, I can tell you it’s a good thing to ponder.  Ask yourself that question and write about it in your journal. You might be surprised with what comes up!

The other topic that came up often in France was arc. As in, what is it and why do I need it? So that’s the subject of our next workshop in Portland on May 19th. There’s still a couple spaces left if you’re interested. All the details are here. 

What motivates you as a writer? Care to share? Or tell us about your character’s motivation? Leave a comment! Or come on over to the Facebook group and discuss.

Write It Imperfectly, Do It Imperfectly

I was meditating this morning. My legs twitched. I was antsy in my seat. My eyebrow itched and finally I succumbed and scratched it. My back tingled. All these things took my attention away from my mantra–Hum Sah.   And then I started thinking about emails I needed to write and work I had to complete.

I was meditating imperfectly. VERY imperfectly. But, I consoled myself, at least I was doing it. Meditating imperfectly is better than not meditating at all. So, too, with exercise, right? And cooking, and gardening. And–you knew it was coming–writing.

It is important to let yourself write imperfectly. You know this. I know this. But do we remember it when we are writing? Do we let our fingers race across the keyboard, not worrying about how “good” the words are? Or do we stop and obsess about what should come next? What sounds right. What our readers, or agent, or editor will think when they read it?

I do that far too often. Hmm, let me think–maybe I even did it this morning when I convinced myself that one aspect of my character’s backstory had to be figured out in excruciating detail before I could go any farther. When I stepped away from the computer, I realized that wasn’t true at all.  I just needed to write it imperfectly–and then come back and fix it later.

Your job as a writer is to put words on the page. Period. They don’t have to be perfect words. They don’t even have to be good.  The only requirement is that the words come out of your head, through your fingers, and onto the page. Period.

Simple, right? And oh so hard. Just remember–imperfection is your friend. Put it on a post-it next to your computer: IMPERFECTION IS YOUR FRIEND. And remember this in the rest of your life as well.

Let me know how that works out for you, will you? Leave a comment!

On Story Questions and Traveling Home

After a month-long writing retreat in France, I am home! The trip back was even more chaotic than the journey there, but we made it. So here I am at home in Portland, smack in the middle of chaos.  While I was gone, my daughter and her family moved in (that includes two small boys). We are putting on an addition to make room for everyone to live together but until that happens we are all crammed in together. Boxes are piled everywhere. Their dog terrorizes our cats, who spend most of their time down the basement now. My computer sits atop a table covered with paper and markers.

And in the midst of all this, I am pondering story questions. Allow me to elaborate. I’m reading Still Me, the third book in the series about Louisa Clark by Jojo Moyes. I’m not that far in and I’m enjoying it immensely. Louisa is a charming character who does funny things and dresses outlandishly. But I bought the book on the strength of having read the first two, and I don’t know that much about it. Since I hurriedly downloaded it for my Kindle before I left, I haven’t read the front flap or back cover copy. Usually that would give me a clue.

This morning I realized that I have no idea what the book’s story question is, based on my reading so far.  What do I mean when I say story question? I define it as the motor that keeps the reader turning pages, because she wants an answer to that question. She wants to know what will happen.

In a way, it’s the point of a book. In a romance, the story question is, will the woman get her man (or vice-versa)? In a mystery, it is, who is the killer? In a thriller, the story question is, will the protagonist escape/outwit/best the villain?  Of course, in genre fiction, we pretty much know what the answer will be, but the question is always in our mind as we read.

And here’s a real-life explanation. Earlier this week, as I made my way home from France, all kinds of snafus occurred, as mentioned above.  After leaving our small town in the south, Debbie and I planned to spend three nights in Lyon, then take a train early Tuesday morning directly to Charles De Gaulle airport and connect with our noon flight.  But Tuesday happened to be the first day of a planned nation-wide rail strike, and we were advised to take an earlier train. Which meant leaving a day early, finding a hotel to stay at in Paris, and several trips to the train station to see about changing our tickets to Monday.

Turned out exchanging tickets was not so easy.  The bored clerk offered us only the opportunity to spend 273 Euros each for standing room only on a train that might or might not actually depart.  And so, because we had to make that flight, we rented a car and drove to Paris.

If you were writing about this adventure, the story question would be, will they make their flight? Will they ever get back home? Believe me, there were many times this was in doubt. One way to look at it is the simplest construct in all writing. Our goal/desire was to make it to the airport. All the snafus were the obstacles in the way that made the question arise: will they make it?

So back to Still Me. 

The story is about Louisa’s year in New York City, working as a companion for a very wealthy family. The story begins as she arrives in the states from the UK.  The idea is that she’s spreading her wings and trying new things in homage to her late employer/boyfriend, Will Traynor, who we met in the first book.

So at first I thought maybe the story question would center around her employment. But no, at least not entirely. There are some quirks there, but that doesn’t seem to be it. So maybe there’s drama in what she left behind in England? No, her family seems happy and she has a new boyfriend she loves with home she Skypes often. In my reading session last night, a new character was introduced, a man who reminds Louisa of her beloved Will. I suspect he has a lot to do with the story question. Will Louisa develop a relationship with him? Will she then stay in New York or go back to England? What is her true place in life?

Me not knowing the story question has not put me off this particular book. I trust this author and I love the characters she develops. But if I were reading a book by an unknown author not quite as adept at craft, I may have been tempted to set it aside.

Readers these days more and more often won’t have front flap or back cover copy to guide them–only description on a website, a sample from Kindle, or a “look inside the book” preview. So I think it behooves us to be aware of our story questions and make them clear from the beginning.

Of course, that assumes that we know the story question. Which can be difficult! But that is a topic for another time…..

Have you ever read a book where you were confused about the story question? Leave a comment or head on over to the Facebook page to discuss.

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