writing process

Chunking It Down

You know the old question, how do you eat an elephant?  And the answer is, one bite at a time.  Well, this post is sort of like that.  Because we're going to talk, you and I, about how you write, which is somewhat like how you eat an elephant: you write one chunk at a time. Elephant-IMG_1981

I did a whole piece on this in my recently concluded Writing Book Proposals That Succeed teleclass (which, by the way, I'll be repeating in the fall), and it turned out to be one of the most helpful sessions, according to class attendees.

The Tiny Picture Frame

Anne Lamott, in her class book Bird by Bird, writes about how she keeps a small empty picture frame next to her computer.  And then when she needs reminding, she holds the frame in front of her monitor and peers through it.  This reminds her that all she has to focus on is that one little tiny bit of writing.  A word, a sentence, a paragraph.  Bit by bit, chunk by chunk, you focus on one little bit at a time.  And soon you have finished the entire thing.

A Vague Outline

One thing that will help you utilize this process is an outline.  It can be vague, or even detailed if that is how your brain works.   It can be as simple as a main topic with several sub-topics, or a main topic with questions for sub-topics.  Or just a simple list.  Whatever works for you.  But do write something up, however loose, because we're going to use it in the next step.

The Beauty of Prompts

I know, love 'em or hate 'em.  Doesn't matter how you feel about them, give this process a try.  Instead of using a prompt that someone else has written for you, you're going to write your own.  And yes, you smart ones have figured it out already.  You're going to use you topic heads and sub-heads as your prompt.  Focus on one topic at a time.  You can set a timer and free write or do it however you want.  But stick to the subject as much as possible and write.  As you're writing, keep a list of things that occur to you that you want to write more about or research more about.  Voila, new prompts

Cut and Paste

Once you've come to the end of your vague outline, you can now put things in order.  Pile them up.  Sometimes I label a separate piece of paper with each topic and pile everything related there, then cut and paste them back together.  Go through and write transitional material and hey, you've got a rough draft.

The Fictional Way

Fiction does not lend itself quite so easily to topics and sub-topics, obviously.  But you can still use the chunking process.   Just remind yourself that all you have to stay focused on is the scene at hand.   Build it word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.  And then one day you will look up and say, Hark!  I've written myself a novel!

What methods do you use to get your words out of your brain and onto the page?  Have you used the chunking method?

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**Also don't forget that the price of my Get Your Writing in Gear one-hour Kick Your Butt sessions are going up at the end of the summer.  You can book now (or book for a friend or family member or for a gift) and use it any time.  Check out all the details here.

Photo by xandent, from Morgue File.

Getting Your Work Out in The World: The Mindset

So, you're done with it.  You've gone through the rewriting and revising stages and your novel (or memoir or short story collection or romance or mystery or article) is finished.  Concluded, finalized, ended, done!

And now the real fun begins. Everystockphoto_197072_m

The marketing.

Otherwise known as getting your work out in the world.  Maybe you'll be seeking an agent, or sending it to editors at smaller houses, or submitting to magazines.  It doesn't matter what your plans are at this point (I'll be discussing the mechanics of getting your work out in the world on Friday).

What matters most is your mindset.

Before you research agents, ponder websites of publishing houses, peruse writer's market lists, before you do anything, you've got to get  your head on straight. 

Because if you've got any doubts about the project, are lacking in confidence about it, or believe in your heart of hearts that it still needs more work, you're going to face an uphill battle.  Our beliefs are what block us.  And they are also what set us free.  So take a look at the following handy Mindset Checklist.

Mindset Checklist

My book (or article) is the best it can be.  I've done everything I can on it until I get the professional advice of an agent who wants to represent me or an editor who wants to buy my project.

I bless the publishing world.  Instead of cursing the publishing world for its excesses, or lamenting the fact that its changing before our very eyes, I am ready to bless it for all its wonderful quirkiness instead.  Because this simple act alone is paradigm-changing.

I'm ready to put myself out there, too.  There's more to marketing than my book.  There's…me.  And I understand that I, the author, am a vital part of the equation these days.  I am ready to write a blog, sign up on Twitter, and create myself a page on Facebook.  I am ready to engage.

I don't take rejection personally.  I understand that a magazine editor might love my article, but have run a similar one last issue.  I get that an agent my love my novel, but not feel she can sell it.  I know that there could be a million and one reasons why I've been rejected, and not a one has to do with the quality of the work.

I am willing to do whatever it takes.  I'm going to hang in there for the long haul.  And when my hand-selected agent decides not to represent me, I'll send queries out to 20 more.  When I've exhausted every angle of the publishing world, I'll research print on demand options. 

I am open to all options.  Even though my vision of publishing a book includes a top-notch agent, a big New York publishing house, and a glamorous book tour, I'm willing to hold that intention while remaining open to other options.  Because, who am I to manipulate and control the world?

If you can say yes to all of these things, you're ready baby.  Go for it.  And come back here to report your success. 


Brain photo by jkt_de, fro Everystockphoto.



Writing Process 3: Rewriting

This is part four of a continuing series of the writing process.  For the previous articles in the series, see the end of this post.

What's there to say about rewriting? You just get in there and do it, right? So what's there to write about?

Well, plenty.  For starters, let me make one thing clear: I make a distinction between rewriting and revising. 

Rewriting is what you do after you've written a rough or discovery draft, glumping everything onto the page.  You've written the rough draft, which is you figuring out the story for yourself.  And now you have to figure out best to present the story to your readers.  So you work on things like character arcs and ways to show theme and plot.  

Revising is what you do after you've rewritten that first draft a gazillion times and finally feel you've gotten all the big picture stuff down pat.  Revising has to do with word choice and making sure you have lots of different kinds of sentence structures, and grammar and punctuation.  (And its the subject of next Monday's post.)

So, here's the deal about rewriting: at first, its hard.  Because at first, especially when working on a long project, there's puzzlement about how to find a way back into your work.  The logical place to start is with reading it again, but that can be confusing, also.  Because, what are you supposed to be looking for while reading? How do you know what to change?

This is when giving your rough draft to trusted readers  (critique group or a mentor) can be incredibly helpful, because they can give you a starting point.  But what if you don't have access to such readers? Or if you're simply unwilling to yet show your draft to anybody(which is your right–follow your intuition about when to share)?

Here are a few tips:

1. Begin with reading.  Because, really, you've got to go back to the beginning and remind yourself of how it all starts.  I don't know about you, but by the time I've written some 350-odd pages, I have a hard time remembering every single nuance of the start.  Or even the middle.  So, print out  your manuscript, grab a pen and notebook, and go sit in your favorite chair.  The one where you sit to read books (of the sort written by other people).  Read through your manuscript and take notes.

2. Find a way in.  Your entry point might be something you notice about a character–how, for instance, he talks about his desire to become king in chapter 10 but really needs to inform the reader of this vital point a bit earlier.  Or maybe you realize that a crucial plot point is misplaced.  Or perhaps it is something small, like a description that you think could be rewritten.

3. Expand on your notes.  When you're finished reading the draft, go back over the notes you took.  Between the notes and the reading of your draft, you should now have a better idea of things you want to work on.  Turn your notes into a plan for rewriting, even if its just a to-do list.  This will help you enormously.

4.  Look for places to go deeper.   Rewriting is most often a process of adding to, not removing, contrary to popular opinion.  Far and away the biggest problem I see in scenes is that they are not developed enough.   There's not enough description, not enough scene-setting, not enough of the viewpoint character's thoughts.  As an experiment, choose a paragraph at random from your draft and pull it apart and add to it. You might hear this referred to as unpacking.

5.  Remember that rewriting begets more rewriting.  Because once you've changed certain areas of the story, other areas are revealed.  You've gotten the character arcs straightened out, so now the parts of the plot that need work are evident.  And so on. 

Those are my tips. By the way, an excellent book to use as a guide for rewriting a novel is: Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass.  (The companion book is Writing The Breakout Novel, but I don't find it as helpful.) Another, more general title, is The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell.

What are you best tips for approaching the rewrite?  Do you find any books especially helpful?

Previous Posts

The Writing Process, Again

5 Guidelines for Critiquing the Rough/Discovery Draft

Writing Process: The Three Ps of Glumping

The Writing Process, Again

Apparently I'm more of a creature of habit than I thought.  Every year about this time I write a post about going back to the basics.  These pithy thoughts may be disguised in several different ways, but basically what I end up writing about is the writing process.

And that's what I'm going to write about again today.

Actually, this is the first in a whole series of posts on the writing process, that will continue throughout next week.  Each post will focus on one aspect of the writing process, as I see it,  including glumping it on the page, rewriting, and revising.  Oh, and on Monday there's a bonus post about critiquing and the writing process. I've written about the parameters of the writing process so much I'm not going to do it here again today, so if you need a refresher go here or here.

Today I want to talk about why I'm such a fervent believer in the writing process.

Because any other manner of writing makes me into a crazy person.

Say I set out to write an article about, hmmm,  pugs.  And since I know a fair amount about pugs, I decide that I should be able to write this baby up right quick.  And so I make up an outline and then take each step of the outline and write about it.  Piece of cake.  Except what comes out is tight and boring and constricted.


Because I'm imposing perfection on my article.  I'm assuming I know so much that I don't need to write a rough draft and then another draft and then another and another.  Because I know so much that the rought draft, my first pass, will be perfect. 

But the opposite is true.  In bypassing the writing process, I've bypassed all the places where the magic happens.  The first place is in the glumping phase, when you just let it all hang out on the page, every single damn bit of it, in a glorious unorganized way.  Sometimes in this phase you learn stuff you didn't even know you knew, or fresh ideas appear unbidden.  Which is why this step is sometimes called the discovery draft.

And magic happens further down the line, too.  It occurs when you go back to that discovery draft with fresh eyes, seeing it as beautiful, raw treasure.  And then you get to shape it into a thing of even more beauty, a thing that your readers will love.

The first draft is for the writer to figure out the story.  The second draft is for the writer to figure out how best to present the story to her readers.

And that's just all there is to it.  Of course, as far am I'm concerned, the best rules of writing are the ones that work for you, so if you've found a better way, feel free to share in the comments.  And come back on Monday when I discuss the role of critiquing in the rough draft.


7 Ways to Make Lazy Summer Days Work to Your Advantage

It's hot.  It's summer.  The living is easy and all that.  Who wants to work?  Who wants to think? Who wants to write?  Isn't it ever so much better to take a vacation, to relax, lie on the beach, doze, tan…languish.

But there are things to be done, words to be written!

Ah, to hell with it.

If you don't want to work, don't.  

Really, just don't.  And so, in the spirit of taking a break from it all, here are some ways you can not work and still feel productive.

1.  Use the power of your subconscious (sometimes called noodling).  Read a paragraph or a page or a chapter of your project, command your subconscious to ponder it, and go do something else, like meet friends for Happy Hour.

2.  Read a book.  Or books.  Summertime is made for reading.  Read trashy guilty pleasures, read  literature, read poetry, read memoirs.  Just read.  Writers can teach themselves a lot through reading, and if you don't read why do you want to write?  Just sayin'.

3.  Meditate.  Or do what I do, and start to meditate and then doze off.   Its refreshing either way.

4.  Nap.  See above.

5. Drive.  God, I love a road trip.  Nothing like long roads and crossing vast expanses of space to liberate the mind.

6. Change your venue.  If you must work, go someplace else.  Take your laptop out in the yard, or to an air-conditioned coffeeshop.  Change your location and allow new impressions in.

7. Forget about it.  For real.  Put the computer to sleep and head out for a refreshing day off, whether you go to the beach, the mountains, or enjoy an urban adventure (museums! fountains! shopping! movies!)

What do you think?  What are your favorite ways of playing hooky?  How do you convince yourself that you are really working?

Another Post on Process

On Sunday, I officiated at a wedding.

This is a wee sideline to my writing career that developed a few years ago when friends asked me to get ordained so that I could officiate at their wedding.  One thing led to another–I think they call it word of mouth–and since then I think I've done five or six weddings.  It is pretty fun, I must say, and I also always feel extremely honored when I am asked.

Most of the time, the bride and groom write their own ceremony, with a bit of guidance from me.  Usually, things are short and sweet.  After all, people don't ask someone like me to officiate if they are traditional types who would want, say, a Catholic mass for their wedding.  But this particular time the bride and groom asked me to say a few words of wisdom.

After I got done laughing (me? words of wisdom to a bride and groom?) I started in.  It was a writing project, and I approached it as such.  But I learned something really important this time through.  Here it is:

I'm nervous until I am fully prepared.

When I'm fully prepared, I am no longer nervous.  When I've been through the process enough times to be confident in my work, the nerves disappear.  I was making last-minute changes on my remarks on Sunday morning, because I woke up nervous.  And I realized this meant I was not yet satisfied with what I'd written.

And this is why I'm a believer in process.  I like to give myself plenty of time to work on projects, because I need noodling and thinking time in between.  (Noodling is distinct from thinking in that it often involves doing other things, such as enjoying a class of wine with friends or family, which does not, to the untrained eye, look like writing.)  My process looks something like this:

1.  Realize the deadline is a couple weeks away and decide I better do something about it.  Make notes.

2.  Think about it.  Often I think deep thoughts while driving.  I love driving.

3.  Write more notes, or add to the ones I have already taken.

4.  Noodle.  See above.  This is often the most overtly entertaining part of the process.

5.  Do the actual writing of the first draft.

6.  Rewrite.

7.  Rewrite.

8.  Rewrite.

9.  Feel pleased with results.

10.  Wake up in a panic and realize that everything I've written is crap.

11.  Return to the work and rewrite until the panic subsides.

So there you have it, my writing process in a nutshell.  Is yours similar?

Why Is It So Hard….

…for other people to figure out what it is that we writers do?Computer_keyboard_typing_225253_l

Yesterday, a member of my family (who, for the record, I absolutely adore) was talking about people working, people who are retired, and me, about whom he said, "whatever it is that you do."

I just laughed because I get this so much.  I'm not sure what people think it is that I do, but I don't think their image is anything like the reality, which is that I sit at my computer for long hours, with my hands on the keyboard, putting words on the screen.  (Or I talk on the phone or in person with people who want to know how to sit at the computer for long hours, hands on the keyboard, putting words on the screen.)

For people who don't write, the process seems magical.  This is borne out by the number of people who think it is so easy to write a book and get it published and then have it hit the bestseller list.  I recently interviewed with some folks who wanted me to ghostwrite a book for them, and this is what they assumed I could make happen.  Hon, if editors and agents knew the magical formula for making a book a bestseller, believe me, they'd be selling it to us.  And we'd be buying!

Those of us who write every day know that the process is far from easy.  It is one of the most difficult things to do, ever.  And also the most interesting and absorbing and fun. 

But here's the funny thing, these days we all need to write.  Whether you want to focus on creative writing or not, you'll need to master the writing process.  Why?  Because these days, coaches, entrepreneurs, healers, and artists–what I call creative professionals–all need blogs.  And they need info products to sell.  And newsletters to share what they do.  And articles.  And so on and on and on.

So the writing process needs to be de-mystified.  Even though, for those of who write every day, there will also be a bit of mystery.  Those moments when you are writing along and suddenly the words combine to make the most beautiful sentence you've ever read?  Mysterious.  That time when you are working on your novel and a character you yourself didn't create walks on the page?  Mysterious.  That moment when you find the exact right way to describe your business and what you do?  Mysterious.

Mysterious and most wonderful.  That's why I love writing so much, because it is challenging, concrete, logical, and…mysterious.

Thoughts?  On the mysteries of writing or the straightforward aspects?  On what it means that we all have to write now?

Putting Joy Back Into It

I've been slogging through the "final" rewrite of my novel lately.  

Its a funny thing with working on a long extended piece over time, such as a novel or a memoir.  You rearrange one chapter and this rearrangement uncovers other things that need attention.  Thus, more work and more rewriting.

As the days I've allotted for the rewrite stretch into weeks and then months, my will flags.  I want to get this novel published more than anything in the world.  It has been a lifelong goal to be a novelist.  And I think I have a better shot at it with this one than ever before.

But, dear lord, I'm tired of working on it.

The thing is, I also see that this rewrite is making my book into the novel it truly was meant to be.  With every rewrite, the novel's characters become truer and the plot gets stronger.   Civilians (ie, non-writers) tell me that if an agent likes it, he or she will forgive all the problems and take me on. But I know that the publishing world has always been a tough nut to crack, and now even more so now.  While it is tempting to take the civilians' well-meaning advice, throw up my hands and just send it out, as is, I'm holding out to finish this one last rewrite.  I know that agents look for the smallest excuse not to take on a client.  I know we have to send in our absolute best work.  And I'm willing.

But for the last couple of weeks, I've had to flog myself to work on it.  Honestly, it is hard enough to fit in time to work on the novel when I'm excited about it, but when the joy is gone its nearly impossible.    (The great irony in all of this, of course, is that I teach and coach this stuff–how to make time to write, no matter where you are in the process.)

But this morning, I felt it again–that joy.  The energy, the connection, the lift off the page to my heart. So, how did I get it back?  And how can you?  When I stopped to think about why this might have happened, I realized that I did, in fact, have some suggestions.

1.  Show up at the page.  This is far and away the most important thing.  There's a famous quote by Woody Allen, something to the effect that "90% of success is just showing up." So true.  Some days I showed up and sat and stared, but such effort is eventually rewarded with a flow of words.  The universe and the muses look kindly upon consistency.

2.  Take a break.  I know, I know, contradictory advice.  First I tell you to show up, then I tell you to not show up.  What I'm advocating here is taking a planned break.  Allow yourself to get totally and completely away from it without guilt and do something replenishing. (Julia Cameron calls it the artist's date.)  The key here is the planning.   I fall into the bad habit daily of taking an accidental break by checking out the latest news on the internet.  But  this is far less renewing than if I actually stepped away from the computer and took a planned break.  Figure out what relaxes and renews you and then go do it.  You can take a big break–like a whole morning off–or a little break, like a quick walk around the block.

3.  Accept you are in a different place.  If you are in the rewriting phase, like me, It is not the initial place of invention and excitement, but rather an area of discernment and editing.  If you need invention and excitement, take notes for another project.  Being in this different place you are not necessarily going to feel the joy of creation as when you first began it.  For me, just realizing this in a conscious manner paved the way to get back to work.

So those are my suggestions and if anyone has any more, I'd love to hear them.  All of this pondering on getting the joy back has brought up another topic in my mind, namely, when is it time to quit the tinkering and let it go? 

Ah, but that is a subject for another time.

The Writing Process: Digging Deeper on Trees and in Writing

I took down my Christmas tree on Thursday night.

I know I'm a bit late in getting this done, but I've had good reason.

I developed a bit of a system this year.  First, I removed the soft ornaments, home-made stuffed fabric Christmas shapes and gingerbread men, as well as furry bears from various sources.  Those could all be stored in a plastic tub without a lot of wrapping.  And, many of them sat on the tips of the tree's branches.Snow 031

Then the ornament removal got more complex.  The next round were glass bulbs, which needed to wrapped in tissue and placed in the big ornament crate that had partitions.  Included in this round were the most precious ornaments, funny little things my kids made through the years that never fail to make my heart skip a beat.

After these two rounds I'd  gotten most of the ornaments off the tree.  Or so I thought.  But as I started to walk away from my finished job, I noticed another one hiding amidst the pine needles.  And when I looked harder, I saw another, and then another.  There's something terribly sad about the image of a forlorn ornament getting tossed out with the tree, so I started beating the branches, looking for more.

And throughout all this, I couldn't help but think about writing.  Looking for more ornaments, even when you think you've found them all, is similar to the writing process.

As a refresher, here's the writing process as I see it:

1.  Write a rough draft, also known as a Shitty First Draft (or SFD) in the world of Anne Lamott, or the Glumping it All on the Page Draft (GAPD) in the world of Word Strumpet.

2.  Rewrite the draft.

3.  Rewrite the draft again.

4.  Revise the draft.  (I think of revising as having more to do with removing commas or adding them, fussing with words and so on.  Rewriting is for the big stuff–character arc, plotting, and so on.)

5.  Rewrite and revise the draft one more time.

6.  Read it again, decide it needs another rewrite, finish the revision.

7.  An impatient editor or other pressing deadline such as old age or senility finally forces you to send it off.

So it is easy to see how this endless rigorous writing process is much the same as ornament hunting.  Just when you think you've found the last plot problem, suddenly a light goes on and you realize that Jimmy didn't go to jail but Bobby did, and then the whole story has to change.  Or, after numerous rewrites, it may suddenly occur to you what the theme of your story actually is, a eureka moment if ever there was one.

Have you ever completed a rewrite, certain it was your last, only to discover almost to the end that you have to go through it one more time?  And even though your civilian friends think you are nuts and that you should just submit it already, you know that making the changes will make the book into the book that you see in your mind and feel in your heart.

Writing is, above all else, a process of digging deeper and discovering what lies hidden amidst the branches.  When first we begin writing, we tend to fall in love with our work, just as we fall in love with a newborn baby, and we don't want to do a thing to change that lovely creation we've brought into the world.  (Anne Wayman wrote a great piece on falling in love with your work this week which you can read here.)

But it doesn't usually take long as a writer to start to appreciate the wonders of rewriting.  I know you've heard it a million times–writing is rewriting.  It's true, to the point where many writers begin to prefer the rewriting phase to the hard work of writing a GAPD. 

And then the problem becomes how to get yourself to stop rewriting.  But that is a topic for another post.

The Writing Process

The thought occurs that reminders about the basics are a good thing.  I know for certain that I forget things about writing all the time and then when I remember them I feel like I've discovered the fountain of youth or the secret to cloning Brad Pitt.  No, wait, I hear that Johnny Depp is the current hot boy.  Well, you can clone Johnny and I'll clone Brad.

One of the things that is easy to forget about is the writing process. Or, perhaps we should capitalize it, The Writing Process.  It sounds official and mysterious but really it is the easiest thing in the world because basically all you have to do to partake of The Writing Process is write.

Sounds easy, and, um, logical, right?

Too bad we silly, wonderful humans allow ourselves to get bogged down and forget how easy it is to write.  Instead, we get mired in the muck of perfection.   We may begin to think that every sentence or even every word must be perfect before we move on.  We decide that we should know every single thing about our main character and her arc and every single scene we are going to write and every detail of it before we move forward.  We convince ourselves that this is how we are supposed to write, and we also convince ourselves that the "real" writers produce sterling prose the first time out, without ever having to revise.

Not even.

The most prolific writers follow The Writing Process.  It is damn difficult to be prolific when you are obsessing over every word that must come from your brain, through the fingers, onto the page.  It is really hard to get a lot of writing done when you are locked in a war with yourself about perfection.

On the other hand, there's also the trap of putting words on paper as they occur to you and assuming your are done, that your genius needs no revising.  This is most often seen in beginning writers.  There's that rush of creation and it feels so damn good that it is difficult to believe that the slightest thing could be wrong with your creation.

Steer a middle path through these two extremes and you'll find The Writing Process, which allows you to alternate between the two extremes.  Here's a rundown of it:

  • Rough draft.  Some people call this the discovery draft, because you are discovering the story.  You start writing at the beginning and push on through to the end, without stopping to revise or edit or make the changes your critique group told you about.  Even if you make a major change mid-stream, you keep writing.  At many times throughout the process you may feel lost, but once you get to the end, you'll know much, much more about the story than you did when you started.
  • Second draft.  This one is going to be a bit shapelier, but still not gorgeous.  You'll be looking at big issues this time around, such as how the plot functions and if the character arcs work.  You've learned so much from writing a rough draft that you'll be applying all those stellar ideas to this draft.
  • Third draft.  Probably more of the same, unless you're really good or you've made a deal with the devil.  Every draft that you do will allow the novel to unveil itself to you, and you'll get to a deeper and deeper level with it.
  • Fourth draft.  In reality, you'll probably do so many drafts that you'll lose track, but for the sake of the story, let's assume after the third draft you're satisfied with all the big issues and ready to move on.  Now you look at style, such things as using active verbs and varying your sentence structure, making sure you don't overuse the word "that" and so on and so forth.  I once had a mentor tell me to spend an hour per page in this stage, but I've never been able to manage it.
  • Fifth draft.  The fine-toothed comb draft.  Every word, every comma, every semi-colon, is up for consideration. 

After all this, finally, you will have a draft you can be proud of and eager to send out.  And then the real fun begins, as you navigate the dangerous waters of the publishing world.  And that is a topic for another post, or more likely, another person with more expertise than me.