Prepare Yourself for a Writing Life Shakeup! These Two Epic Resources Will Change How We Outline and How We Produce

Grab these two resources, and prepare yourself for a writing life shakeup! | lucyflint.com

Welcome to AUGUST, my lovelies! This is my birth month, so I always see August as a time to take stock, get clear on priorities, and then start afresh in September.

There's a whiff of new beginnings in this humid, cicada-loud, late-summer air.

... Besides, we're just about to hit back-to-school season. Cheap notebooks, colored pencils, and all that school-supply smell in the stores? Makes me want to take on all kinds of new projects!

With eerily perfect timing, I came across two books in the last few weeks which have ... um ... 

Oh gosh, how do I say this...

Massively rebooted my approach to novel-writing and production. 

Nope. That doesn't quite say it. 

I feel like I've been electrified, y'all. I am all charged up, frothing at the mouth, pounding my boots on the floor, and shrieking battle cries.

Yeah. That's about right.

... You know how it feels when you've been struggling to understand something, bruising your brain against it for a long time, and maybe-kinda-sorta giving up a little bit.

And then the perfect resource—with the right tone, the right insight, the right blend of information and rah-rah-rah—drops into your lap?

It doesn't happen to me all that often, but when it does, it's like my entire work-life has been baptized in caffeine and I am roaring to go. 

That is exactly where I am at the start of this month. It's like my birthday came early, handed me flowers, and then kicked me in the bum and sent me hurtling into my next year.

It came in the form of two perfect-for-me resources. The first was Jim Heskett's The Juggling Author: How to Write Four Books a Year While Balancing Family, Friends, and a Full-Time Job.

(Go ahead and let the miracle of that subtitle sink in for a sec.)

And the second was Libbie Hawker's Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.

... And basically you can just stop here, go and read those two books, and have your own writing life revolution. I'll wait, no problem.

Because they're just SO GOOD.

The Juggling Author helped me see that publication and production is a skill set. It's a way of thinking, a way of operating.

And merely getting better at the craft of writing, while essential, is not at all the same thing as getting better at the craft of production.

This is really, really good news! Because I've been secretly frustrated with myself that production isn't just kinda happening all on its own.

(That feels oh-so dumb to type out, but I know that some of you know what I mean!) 

There is so much to learn about writing novels and writing them well. And then there are all the mindset skills to learn so that you can keep on writing: how to deal with self-doubt, creative droughts, perfectionism, comparison, and creative stamina.

I've been focusing 99.9% of my time and energy and effort on dealing with all of that, and I feel like I've somehow trapped myself in a draft-after-draft neverland.

So I've spent that last 0.1% of time kicking myself for not also learning how to produce novels: how to complete them and polish them and send them out the door, again and again and again.

It's a different skill set! It isn't just going to magically happen, and it isn't going to feel like the obvious and inevitable outcome of novel-writing. 

It has to be learned.

And wow, that comforts me so much. Because we can learn anything, you know? And I am definitely on board for learning and practicing Jim Heskett's approach to continuous novel production.

Or as he puts it, becoming a perpetual motion fiction machine.

(I had to keep taking breaks from reading his book, just so I could jump up and down, and run around saying "!!!!!!" to my family. It just sounds so doable.)

And then, with my head still spinning and hope still dancing, I picked up Libbie Hawker's book on outlining (because Heskett recommended it super highly). 

I've learned a lot of good info about novel structure in the last few years, and I've also had a kind of meh relationship with outlining. So (she typed sheepishly) I didn't think that Hawker would teach me much. And I also didn't hold out much hope for a new outlining process, but hey, whatever, I'd give it a try.

A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Oh guys. If you haven't read Take Off Your Pants, you need to, stat. She has a way of figuring out a character's path through the story that was just magic for me. 

See, I've spent my summer getting a grip on my middle-grade trilogy, while also overviewing the other writing projects I've dreamed up. Trying to get a sense for all these projects and where I should focus next.

And then Hawker's book strolled up and showed me how to get fresh traction on every single story that's been humming in my head. How to clarify the narratives, build the conflict, and infuse each story with a sense of purpose.

... If you've ever outlined your novel, drafted it, and then felt like it still didn't work somehow (which is exactly how I spent 2016, by the way), then this book might be the EXACT ANSWER you're looking for. 

AND, if you've ever been frustrated about how to make your character's internal growth pair well with her external conflict, and you've been pulling out your hair over it, then this book is your (and your hair's) ideal solution.

I promise. SO GOOD. Gaaa! Okay, just go read it.

So now my mind is full of two huge gorgeous lessons:

1) How to outline beautifully and effectively, in a way that I can be certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will actually create a compelling story. 

(Woo! I get all swoony just thinking that. *fans self* Ahem.)

2) Production is a skill, and one that I've paid zero actual attention to. But it's one I can absolutely learn, and I have a stellar guide to help me.

Taken together, these two resources point me toward one massive conclusion:

I am going to concentrate everything I have on rebuilding, reoutlining, rewriting, and then producing and publishing my middle-grade trilogy.

As my cousin once said, I'm not just going to put my nose to the grindstone— 

I'm gonna put my everything to the grindstone.

Which means I'm about to become deeply obsessed with all things to do with the writing-and-producing process

I'm going into lab mode. I feel like my office is turning into a workshop, an operating theater, a blacksmith's forge. 

A place to test methods, try new things, move swiftly, learn on my feet, and—more than anything else—produce quality fiction.

In order to add as much fuel to that fire as I possibly can, I'm making a big change here on the blog: 

I want to shift the focus of my posts away from the big lessons that I'm learning about the writing life; and instead, I want to zoom in, ultra-close, to the writing process itself.

To go from the truth about the writing life to the truth about the actual writing. 

I'm gonna keep a production diary, y'all!

I don't know about you, but I am a total process nerd, and I LOVE seeing how other people think and work. I love knowing what goes on behind the scenes, and I find it enormously comforting to read about someone else's creative process.

Especially the trial-and-error side of solving creative problems. The mess of it. 

Sometimes I'm inspired by their solutions. Sometimes I just find courage in knowing that I'm not the only one in way over her head!

And sometimes, just being around the description of someone else's work is enough to kickstart my own momentum and get me back to my desk.

So this is my offering to other process nerds: a totally authentic look at the unpolished, gritty side of drafting.

I want to talk through what's working, how it's working, and what isn't working. To share resources right as I'm discovering them, and then to show what I'm learning about this whole production side of things as I learn it.

Making messes and writing about them: that's where I'm headed.

Be prepared for lots of sawdust on the floor, weird spills and stains and smells, burnt and pinched fingers, bruises and battle stories. :) And high-fiving. Hopefully lots of high-fiving.

If you're not a process nerd: hey, no worries. I'm opening the production diary under a separate tab, so I won't clutter up this blog feed with all my drafting updates. (And if you wanna check out the production diary, just check out that new tab at the top of the site.)

So, in a nutshell: this means that as of today, I'm going to stop posting how to have a lionhearted writing life-esque posts on a regular schedule. 

Instead, I'll frequently update that production diary—at least once a week, if not more often. Oh, and the posts will usually be short, instead of the monster-long articles that live over on this blog. ;)

When possible, I hope to come back to this space and share what I'm learning in the more coherent(ish) way that I usually do here—more of the big picture, heart/mind/courage discussions. 

But until then, if you'd like any cheerleading, inspiration, or motivation, do check out the Archives: I've basically posted everything I know about the writing life so far, so believe me, you've already got access to my best!

... OH I'm excited about this, my friends! And I do hope that my fellow process nerds will find it encouraging.

Because it can get lonely at the desk, am I right? So here's to a much less refined, less polished, more immediate look at how I'm approaching things.

Here's to all of us making messes, learning from one another, and then making new messes! Here's to learning the skills of production, and moving on to the next stage of our writing lives.

Here's to becoming perpetual motion fiction machines, lionhearted all the way.


(Psst. Hey. You. Yes, you, the one who's been on the edge of starting something new, because it's been tugging hard at your heart, but you're not sure about beginning or not... 

Consider this an invitation to dive in. Let's join hands, my brave friend, and jump.)

Explode Your Creativity (and Just Have a Lot More Fun!) by Strengthening This One Dynamic Skill

An essential skill that's usually in desperate need of strengthening, if we want to create better stories ... and a more satisfying writing life. | lucyflint.com

Have you ever read a book that felt like the author was standing waaaaay too far away from you?

There's this weird kind of distance—like they're standing outside of their own book. That incredibly tedious, frustrating sensation that the writer is writing about their story. 

Know what I mean?

Their scenes feel like static, lifeless things that the writer is pointing to and explaining to me.

... Instead of whisking me up and sticking me right in the middle of the story itself. 

Confession One: With this kind of book, I don't last long as a reader.

Confession Two: And I can totally become this kind of writer, when I'm not careful.

Yiiiiiiiiikes.

Spoiler alert: I'm not about to dive into the differences of "showing versus telling." And I'm not going to unpack the more descriptive styles of writing as opposed to the more stark.

Nope. What's on my mind is the big, overarching, world-shaping superpower that we all have access to as writers. 

Imagination.

Today we're gonna dive into how we can strengthen that oh-so-vital aspect of our craft.

But before we start, WHY does it feel so silly to talk about imagination? Like it is so very uncool and unadult.

After kicking off this series on strength-building, I feel like I've just waltzed into a weightlifting class and announced, "Today, we fingerpaint!"

And yet. Training our imaginations has a lot more to do with athletic prowess than anything goofy or simplistic. (Not to knock fingerpainting. Fingerpainting is awesome.)

After all, my friends, we're creating people and conflicts and settings and whole worlds in our minds

That's one heck of a barbell to hoist off the ground.

Okay? So let's not belittle ourselves by sneering at the term "imagination."

It's just the name of the muscle we happen to use for this incredibly powerful work we do.

How We Get Toned, Build Muscle, and Increase Imaginative Flexibility

As I come back to my novel after a turbulent summer, I'm realizing how much time I've spent away from the inner workings of my story. I've used my creativity to solve daily problems ... instead of using it to dive into my characters' world.

So my imagination has lost a whole lot of muscle mass. It's gotten scrawny. It skips the stairs and heads for the elevator. And its joints are all stiff and inflexible. 

So when I ask it to work hard on my novel, it kinda gasps and shakes and then looks around for a bag of chips.

No bueno.

I want my novel to thrive this autumn. Right? And you want yours to be amazing too, I'm sure. 

Which means it's time to build some serious strength in imagination!

So ...

So, how do we do that?

Well, a lot goes into this, for sure. We could talk about nurturing our curiosity, pouring ourselves into wonder, and taking ourselves exploring on artist dates, all of which are essential components to a full imagination-health routine. 

But I think that there's one skill that's more vital than all the rest.

Something that can totally dry up when we forget how important it is. When we start "coasting," and skimp on our attention to it.

But when we practice it over and over, ohhhh, look out.

Our writing gets richer, stronger, and generally more awesome.

I'm talking about the simple yet incredibly challenging practice of fully visualizing what we are about to write.

This is the practice of taking a scene that exists as an idea in your head, and then experiencing it. As if you were there, in the scene. 

Being present inside it, as completely and totally as possible.

THAT.

Yeah. Like I said: it's simple. Yet super challenging. 

James Scott Bell sums up this kind of imagination practice so well in his book Plot & Structure: "Be an actor." He says: 

I'll ... try to live the emotions. I'll act out the parts I've created. Almost always what I feel "in character" will make me add to or change the scene. ...
     Vividly imagine the scene, step by step, in your mind. Let it play like a movie. But instead of watching the movie from a seat in the theater, be in the scene.

Be. In. The. Scene.

So—we've probably all done this to some degree. There are scenes and moments in our stories that tend to just drop into our imaginations, right? And other pivotal scenes can be easy for us to tumble into and experience vividly.

But I know that, for myself, I tend to not make this immersive imagining a key part of my writing routine.

Instead, I get by on low-grade visualizing. Barely seeing it in my head, I instead think my way through: I guess the character could say this, and then he'd reply with this, and so she'd counter with this

But too much of that, and writing just feels like manipulating ideas of people, notions of conflict, rough sketches of setting.

Instead of the living, breathing story itself. 

Instead of the kind of story that makes its readers stay up waaaaay too late at night finishing it.

The kind of story that haunts readers and inspires their dreams.

My friends, visualizing our stories changes everything.

It keeps us from standing outside a scene and writing about the action. Instead, it plunges us inside it, so that we create the scene. First in our heads, and then on paper.

And our readers? Better be prepared to be carried away.

Five Essentials for Imagination Practice

This is a practice, so be super patient. Especially if you're as rusty at it as I am!

Be incredibly kind to yourself, refuse to expect perfection, and just keep coming back to it.

As you do, here are five things to remember that might make all the difference for you.

1. Be willing to move slowly.

It's when I'm trying to hurry through my work that all pretense of richly imagining the scene just goes straight out the window. 

I'll have the merest glimmer of the scene in my head as I pound it out on a keyboard.

Now, I'm not at all against writing fast: I think it's the coolest thing ever, and I want to get better at it. (Because THIS!)

But as we get ready to write quickly, our preparation time is a key moment for visualizing. 

That's when we can slow down, and take the time to fully sink into whatever it is we're about to write. 

If you're tempted to rush, like I can be, it's good to take a deep breath and remember what it feels like to be totally blown away as a reader.

Is it worth it, for an incredible scene? 

OH yeah. Totally worth it. 

2. Build the whole scene.

It's terribly easy for me to fall into a rut with what I imagine for my scenes. If I could get away with it, I'd have faceless, undetailed characters and nearly blank settings. I'm stronger on voice quality and emotional beats and overall action. 

But setting details? Physical characteristics? 

Ack! I have to remind myself to not leave them out.

So, as you plunge your imagination into the scene, feel into all these lifelike details: 

  • The sensations of the air, the temperature, dampness or dryness...
  • The quality of the space—claustrophobic, exposed, oppressive, frivolous, light...
  • All the sounds: of gadgets, people, movement, weather, animals, distant traffic, or hollow stillness...
  • Scent. It's so easy to forget! The smells of the people, the rooms, the outdoor spaces, fabrics, foods, mustiness...
  • And then of course, the feel of the emotions: tension, excitement, nerves, hope, shame, uncertainty, expectation...

We could probably come up with a list five times as long as this. (Which would be awesome, but really overwhelming too, haha!) 

The point is: try to be as present in your visualization of the scene as you would be in real life.

Notice what you notice. Feel what you feel. And figure out alllll the little details that affect you.

3. And definitely expect it to feel super weird.

It can help to remember: this might be really uncomfortable.

Sometimes, when I'm visualizing a scene, something in my head says, "Hold up. This is a really strange thing to be doing. NOT very normal. Not very adult. So let's not." 

Right? 

It's important to remember that, especially when we're new to this kind of imagination training, it might seem really weird, or childish, or wild, or uncertain. 

But it's still worth it.

Basically? Keep on going, even when it feels strange.

Even if something in you wants to say, "Ack, that's enough, right? We have a general idea of this scene. Let's just hurry up and write it already." 

Hang on. Even in that tough place.

Why? Because this is where strength starts to build.

Strength happens every time we don't quit when we want to quit.

Just like when we're jogging a longer route than usual, or wobbling in a yoga balancing pose, or lifting a weight that's right at our limit—we will want to quit.

We cry, "Okay, enough, I'm done!"

But if you push through the discomfort, if you hold on, then you get better, stronger, more flexible, more stable. 

You're inventing worlds in your mind, my friend. It takes strength and skill. Keep going. It's worth it.

4. Don't grab the distraction bait.

When it gets tough or challenging, it's so easy to think, "I need back-up!"

So we drop out of our intense imagining, and go find: a good Google image spread, or a Wikipedia page, or maybe check out that one Instagram account, or go make coffee.

Or basically do anything but the imagining.

But the longer we can focus allllllll our attention on this, the more rich and deep and well-constructed it will be.

So if you need more details in your scene, just make them up. Even if they might not be accurate or will need updating later.

If you're getting bored and this visualizing feels tedious, add something that puts you back on your edge. Raymond Chandler would send in a man with a gun. Personally, I like to throw in something weird, off kilter, askew.

What would most re-engage your attention? Send it in there.

5. Whatever else you do, don't hold back the most essential part of the scene. 

Deeply imagining a scene is a choice. And a skill. I've felt it get easier with practice... and then much harder when I'm out of practice.

So when we engage with this, we're increasing our skill, for sure. 

But we're also re-choosing and re-committing to our own story. 

We're deciding to live in it. Inhabit it. Participate inside it.

When I do this, I'm pushing myself to experience my story not just as a reader, but essentially as a character. 

I become someone who can peer into the absolute central workings of it. I get to witness all the exquisite moments that won't make it onto the "main stage" of the finished page. I spend my working hours wandering other realities.

And that is when I feel like the writing life is the most incredible, satisfying, and adventurous life that there can be.

It's pretty freaking amazing, in other words.

What we have to remember is that this isn't just an exercise.

It isn't just a strength-building, creativity-enhancing strategy.

It's a way of life. A way of working.

And it's the most literally mind-bending part of our craft.

It gifts us with the ability to write our stories from inside of them. Instead of from a distance, like we're merely pulling puppet strings.

If we’re not imagining, we’re settling for less. Less from our stories, less for our readers, but also less of an experience as writers.

When I think of fully imagining a scene, I'm reminded of this quote by—guess who!—Julia Cameron, in her book Walking in This World. (She's referring to the start of a larger project, but I think it applies equally well to this idea of visualizing our stories.) 

She writes: 

Horseback riders who jump the Grand Prix fences of terrifying heights talk of "throwing their heart" over the fence so their horse jumps after it. We must do the same.

That image just grabs me. Can't that be how we pursue this?

Let's not make visualizing just one more static exercise for mere technical improvement. 

Let's turn it into an opportunity to throw our hearts more fully into our scenes.

And let the action and the details and the writing itself jump after it—to great heights.

Your All-Purpose, Idea-Discovering, Secret Weapon! (My hands-down, favorite, most-used technique.)

The easiest, clearest, best, favoritest, all-purpose idea making strategy EVER. (I love it. Can you tell? I really love it.) | lucyflint.com

Last November, I had a ton of fun inventing a list of fifty off-the-wall plot twists to help out all my writing buddies doing Nanowrimo.

Fifty plot twists! I was surprised at how quickly I thought of them all (more to come on that!). And I loved the quirky list when it was done. (It's a little bizarre. Just what I love, haha!)

Well, it turned into my most popular post of all time. I'm thrilled that it's been such a helpful resource for thousands (and thousands!) of people. 

But the coolest thing about all that and what I love most about it: It was so easy to come up with all those ideas! Seriously!

To generate so many crazy plot twists in just one afternoon, I turned to a method that I've enjoyed using for a long time.

I learned it from Roger Von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head—which is a MUST READ if you want to supersize your creativity! 

He calls it creating an oracle. (Check out more of his explanation on his blog.)

I've seen this method other places too, but Von Oech's book was the first place I saw it. And he was the only one who referred to it as an oracle. Which is, let's face it, a pretty cool name.

I've mentioned it before on this blog, but it's such a life-saver that I had to talk about it again, here in the midst of Idea Camp

The premise of the oracle method is really straightforward and simple. But it's incredibly powerful. Why? Because your brain brings all the magic. And our brains are pretty incredible.

So, buckle up!

At the heart of it, the oracle method is all about connecting two dots. You provide Dot #1 (your question or problem). The oracle provides Dot #2 (a random word or concept, which usually feels completely unrelated to your question).

And then: your brain steps in and connects the dots.

That connection—sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes wild, sometimes fantastic—that is your new idea.

Sound fun? Because it's totally fun!!

Give yourself some time to practice it, and then marvel as your brain provides one solution after another.

So here's the real step-by-step. 

1) Find your oracle.

Yes, that sounds a bit weird. But all Von Oech meant was some book or resource that provide you with nouns.

I use a dictionary, or an encyclopedia. Or even, in a pinch, any novel or book lying around.

(He says you can even use a magazine and refer to the pictures... but I'd get too distracted!)

2) Define your problem.

Yep, you're all over this step by now!

You don't have to go mega in-depth, but you do need a crystal clear sense of what your problem is. The clearer you are, the better. This is your Dot #1!

3) Open your oracle and get a noun at random.

Open the book at random. And then grab a word off that open page. 

Oh, and don't try to select a juicy word.

At least until you get the hang of this, force yourself to get a random one: the top left corner, or the bottom right are good places.

Pick the very first noun there, and then close the oracle.

4) Consider your "answer."

So this word you've just grabbed? That's your marvelous Dot #2. And you owe it to yourself to give it a little thought.

You don't have to do a ton of research about it (unless you really want to!). Just mull it over in your mind for a second.

What does it mean? What images does it bring to mind? What special meanings might this word have for you? 

And then what are its other uses? Is it also used as a verb, or a proper noun? How many things could it mean? Does it represent other, bigger concepts as well? Are there metaphorical uses you're familiar with?

What else does it make you think of?

Feel free to jot some of these down. Again, it doesn't have to be laborious... just see what comes to mind, and take down a few notes.

If you have several angles to work with, you're in pretty great shape.

5) Give your brain the chance to connect the dots.

This is where it gets crazy and fun: the creative process up close! 

Decide that this Dot #2 somehow gives you the answer to your problem or question

Yes, that can feel a little weird. You might stare at it in frustration for a while, thinking, how in the heck are these two things related?

Because that's what you're looking for: A connection. 

Any connection. 

Give your brain a little space. Doodle on the edges of your paper. Stare out the window for a while.

Just keep turning the two things over in your mind: the problem, and this weird, doesn't-make-sense "answer." 

And keep looking for how they might be related.

It could be really off the wall. It could make you laugh. It might be too strange to credit at first.

But the more you play with it, the more you see how it actually, really, truly could work.

6) Call in extra help.

Usually one word is all I need for this. But now and then, I honestly can't think of anything workable with my first chosen word. I'll do all the thinking, and give myself time, and nothing breaks loose.

What to do? Flip open the oracle and grab a second word! Sometimes even a third. 

Play around with a few more concepts. See how your new words interact with the first one, how they're similar, how they contrast. And see how they react with your proposed problem.

Give them some time, and see what shows up!

So far, I've never needed more than three words to hit on a brilliant idea. So, even if you're frustrated with the process, hang in there! Let your brain play longer. Take a break and come back. Doodle more.

7) Take notes on your fledgling idea.

As soon as you feel like you're on to something, take those notes that you need! 

Flesh out the idea, add anything else that you're thinking of, the supporting details, the other information you'll need, anything you see in your head.

If your solution has stirred up more problems, you know what to do: Grab that oracle and launch into the next idea-finding session.

And then apply it to your draft or project, and you're off and running!

8) Repeat as necessary (and feel like a genius).

This gets easier—a lot easier!—with practice.

The more you trust the process, the longer you can hang in there when it feels uncomfortable. You get into a rhythm. You instinctively feel your way to the wild possibilities a lot faster.

Best of all? You get kind of addicted to that miraculous feeling of a new idea sparking in your mind.

(Because it is SERIOUSLY cool. And really fun.)

And then... go crazy! Invent to your mind's content. You can solve a dozen story problems in an afternoon. Or dream up fifty plot twists! ;)

This is truly the problem-solving technique that I use the most. It's easy, it's quick, and it's deliciously fun. 

Please give it a try, and let me know how it goes for you. 

Here's to overflowing with ideas! 

Don't Skip This Essential Step Before Finding A Swoon-Worthy Idea

Next time you need an idea to sweep in and save you, start with this vital (and incredibly helpful!) process. | lucyflint.com

So we're about midway through Idea Camp. Can you believe it?!

(Hey, June! Slow down!! Haha! ... Okay, but I'm serious. Slow down.)

We've covered a lot of awesome idea-generating tools so far: three topic lists that work incredibly well together (one and two and three), as well as a few idea scouting techniques (this one and this other one) that will absolutely get you some good results.

Whew!

Are your imaginations fizzing yet? 

Today we're going to take a look at idea-finding from the opposite end.

This is one of the most important things you can do when you're in desperate need of the right idea, the perfect solution.

Define the problem.

Does it sound mundane? Boring? Obvious?

Ah, but don't be fooled. Don't underestimate this incredibly important step—like I used to.

Because sometimes, just doing this process of analyzing the problem will give you the exact perfect idea to solve it.

Whoa, right? 

I can't tell you how many times I've hit a snag in my story, and then beat my brains up trying to figure out what to do next.

Maybe I've run into a problem with a character, a setting, or the conflict. I'll have backed my protagonist into a corner—and have zero ideas about what to do next.

It's great for story suspense, but pretty bad for my writing day.

So I used to make a lot of noise, growl at my computer screen, and rack my brains trying to come up with the idea I needed.

I spent a lot of time mentally spinning my tires, until I figured this out: That I needed a crystal clear definition of what problem I was trying to solve. 

Sometimes we can come up with a good idea on impulse. But for the more complex, more elusive solutions, it pays to back off and take the time to study the problem itself.

It's tough to remember to do! Usually I just want to plug away until I have the solution I need.

But in order to design the right fix, you have to know exactly what you're looking for.

And you need to diligently uncover all the hidden requirements of the particular idea that you're after.

We can't solve anything until we're clear on exactly what we're solving!

My favorite way to "define the problem" is with a lot of informal freewriting.

Basically, I interview myself about exactly what's gone wrong. I'm looking for the most precise description of my problem, of the story snag, or the hole I'm trying to fill.

And then I take plenty of notes on my answers.

Writing it all down is key, because all your discussion with yourself about the problem is full of good clues: pointers to your needed idea!

Just remember: You're getting the exact dimensions of your missing puzzle piece. That's the only way to recognize the best solution.

Obviously, the questions that you ask yourself will look different depending on the idea that you're after. But the first place to start is by asking: 

What exactly isn't working here? What is the problem really

And then, go into detail.

Like, a lot of detail.

You really can't have too much detail! If you're an overthinker like me, just do your thing. Let it all out.

So, for me, I need to define the problem most often because I've hit a major snarl in my plot.

Like recently: I needed to figure out what my protagonist was going to do during a critical part of the climactic sequence. I knew what happened just before this moment, and I knew what happened just after. 

But there was a big gap between the two, and I had nothing.

And after being frustrated for a while (stomping, staring, roaring), I remembered to start asking these questions. 

I opened a new document on my computer, and I wrote it down: "I don't know how to get my protagonist into this important building at the end of the story."

And then I imagined my computer saying (in a calm, thoughtful voice): "Tell me more about that."

This is when you start discussing every single component of the problem. 

So, for my problem, I wrote about who my protagonist was at this exact moment in the story.

What she had been learning, and what she was up against. How tired she was, and all the conflicts between herself and her allies. And also how she felt about the villains at the moment.

I also wrote down anything pertinent about her skills, her strengths, her flaws. What was her biggest fear? What was her chief objective, and what was the motive behind it? 

I reviewed all of this good stuff. (Brilliant ideas are lurking in these kinds of questions!)

Then I thought through my other characters, and what they were doing during this exact moment in the plot.

And then, too, the antagonist and all his friends: What were they up to? What were they worried about? How were they gathering for the climactic scenes? What did they still have up their sleeves?

I took a zillion notes, and then sat back and kept thinking.

What else was part of the problem?

Well, the building she needed to get into: it was extremely important to the story, and it had some special plot-related requirements of its own. 

So I wrote down everything that I could think of about that

And then I thought through everything else going on in the story's setting: the surrounding area, and the weather, and anything else that could be a part of it.

Another great question if you're looking at a plot problem: What story resources are still untapped?

What about these characters have I not used in a while? What haven't I exploited about the setting?

See how it goes?

The main thing is to drill wide, and drill deep. 

And don't stop until you feel like you have the most accurate representation of the hole you need to fill. 

Also, you can take some time to explain why other solutions don't work. 

This can be really clarifying. It's also a little cathartic, since you've probably had to abandon a handful of ideas for certain reasons. Get all that down, so that you know where you are:

I can't do this, because of that and that and that. I can't do this other thing, because of x and y and z.

Then ask:

What else will the solution have to take into consideration?

What other constraints are you operating with?

And (since sometimes you're filling a gap, and you know what's on the other side of it) what will this solution have to lead into?

Whew! 

After I've written everything down—and then some!—I'll usually take a break from this "Defining the Problem Q&A." 

I'll come back a few hours later, or the next day, and reread all the scribbling I've done and see if I've left anything out.

Once you've gotten every single possible element of your problem onto paper, you're set. Good job!

You have just become the expert on the idea that you're looking for. 

So where does that leave you? 

Actually in a really good place. 

When I did this process for that climactic story snag I had? The exact perfect solution dropped into my head, while I was writing down all the things that wouldn't work.

It feels like magic when that happens! Like "Congrats, you're a genius!!"

The right solution fell into place, and I love it. It feels unexpected in the story (I think!), and it ties up all the concerns I had about the moment itself.

But there's no way I would have been clear on that, if I hadn't gone through this process.

If the perfect idea doesn't show up, at least you know exactly what you are looking for. And that's a powerful place to be, when you need the perfect idea!

So how do you go about finding it?

That's what we'll talk about in the next post.

Ooooh. Story problems: brace yourselves!!

You Are Completely Surrounded By Potential Ideas: Here's One More Way To Capture Them!

You have a wealth of ideas right at your fingertips: here's a fun, easy way to capture them! | lucyflint.com

One of the most stimulating forms an idea can take is that of a marvelous title

Know what I mean?

A really juicy, intriguing, provocative title just gets my imagination whispering (and maybe bouncing up and down a little). 

Obviously, titles do so much to set the stage for a book.

They create atmosphere and build the world. Or they nod to the main characters and what they're up against. 

The best titles are a tantalizing welcome mat for the story inside. They wave their arms to the ideal audience, saying, "Come read me! You will LOVE this story!"

... Okay. I know. I get a little worked up about titles. 

But for those of us who are idea-seekers, titles are incredibly valuable: Even if you only have a title, you're set. You have a potent, miniature writing prompt. 

Come up with a title with the right kind of ring to it, and it's a bit easier to invent a story to go with it.

You start to develop a sense for the story, for what it might hold, what it promises. 

Big surprise: I love inventing titles, even when I don't have any plans for writing books to go with them. 

So, by now, I have a huge Title File. It's ... well, it's really, really big. 

I've arranged it by category: titles that refer to a character, a conflict, a central image, a setting, a genre. (And then of course, a miscellaneous section for all the crazy titles that didn't seem to fit.) 

When I used Scout Files to write a novel for Nanowrimo, I also used my Title File. I pulled out a bunch of titles that seemed to have the same feel as my central idea, and I used them as chapter titles for the whole project. 

Every day, I wrote a new chapter. And each chapter had a delightful, pre-brainstormed title. Which gave me an incredibly strong launch point for that day's work.

It sped up my process and guarded me against clichés. And it hugely influenced the sprawling, rambling, fun-for-me feel of that draft. 

Oh, TITLES. Look out: They can steal your heart.

There are two ways that I go after creating intoxicating titles.

1. Remix.

We've already established—multiple times—that I'm a total word nerd on this blog.

So, maybe it won't surprise you if I confess that I, ahem, make a game out of remixing titles. 

It's so fun. Seriously—it is SO FUN.

Here's what you do: looking at a bookcase or a list of books, you grab a few juicy titles. You can look at books that are near each other, or just pick whichever ones you like best.

Write 'em down. 

And then you just jumble up the words. Mix and match. Swap parts of titles around, until you get compelling images, phrases, ideas. 

And then you write down those titles in your Title File. 

Super straightforward. 

Did I mention it's easy? And fun? 

So... just for kicks, just because it's Monday, just because we like to have fun: here are a handful of titles from my bookshelf. 

  • Great Expectations
  • The Mysterious Benedict Society
  • Peace Like a River
  • So Brave, Young, and Handsome
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
  • Wildfire at Midnight
  • The Wind in the Willows
  • The Woman in White

All right, lionhearts! Get in there and mix and match. Make some new titles!

There's no wrong way to do it: You can even cut words in half, or sprinkle in extra parts of speech when you need 'em. 

Remixing the above list might give you titles like:

  • At the Bottom of the Willows
  • The Brave, Mysterious Peace
  • Handsome Midnight
  • Pie Expectations
  • The River Society
  • The Sweetness in the Wind
  • In the White Wildfire
  • The Young Woman at Midnight

Just play around until you find titles you like. 

And—this is important—not every title has to be amazing. In fact, they don't have to be amazing at all. They might just have a ring to them that you find... intriguing.

Like: Would Pie Expectations be a series of essays about pie? Or would it be a weird kind of modern day Hansel and Gretel retelling? Or maybe it would be about a young girl who works in a bakery and changes the feel of her whole city when she ... 

Hmmmmm. See what I mean? A pretty calm title. But some interesting possibilities.

This is a great thing to do when you feel stuck on your work-in-progress, or when you need a warm-up, or when you can't work for whatever reason: Look over your bookshelves and fill a page with remixed titles.

2. Out of not-too-thin air.

This is when you just pluck titles out of your surroundings. When you turn everything that you're observing around you into a possible title.

No big explanation needed, because that's really all there is to it: Turn your environment into titles.

So for me, sitting here at my desk and looking out the window, some titles could be: 

  • Wildflowers in a Pitcher
  • The Undrunk Coffee (Oh, doesn't "the undrunk" sound like a zombie spoof??)
  • Supplements: A History
  • Pinestraw Afternoons
  • Heat (and What Happens In It)

One of my favorite ways to do this exercise is when I'm sitting in a coffee shop or a waiting room.

I listen and observe for a while, picking up bits of the moods, of the other conversations and interactions between the characters, I mean, people around me.

And I'll start dreaming up as many titles as I can. Usually I'll challenge myself to fill a whole page, and I'll try to exhaust every possibility that's right in front of me. 

Obviously, some of them are more quiet and less noteworthy. But they can still be valuable. 

Title files especially earn their keep when you use them in conjunction with your Scout Files and Idea Lists.

Once you start taking entries from the lists you've made, and stir in a few great ideas from your Scout Files, and sprinkle in some of these titles to help guide the way...

Whew!!

Seriously, the ideas start flying, and your brain fills in the blanks with much more ease.

That's why it's good news for us that title making is kind of, um, addicting.

You can do it literally anywhere, and it's only going to strengthen your work. 


I would LOVE to hear any of the remixed titles that you created from the list I gave you... or even remixes from your own shelves! And if your surroundings start whispering titles to you as well, feel free to share those too in the comments!

Fifty Plot Twist Ideas for Your Work-In-Progress!

It happens to the best of us. Mid-drafting-marathon, or mid-Nanowrimo, your plot ideas can turn stale. But I've got your back, lionheart. Read on for 50 plot twists. One of 'em is sure to save your bacon. | lucyflint.com

Hey there, lionhearts! I hope you find the following fifty plot twists fun and exciting and helpful. 

And if you want more where they came from... check out the new idea series I've just posted!

It's a nine-part series (I know, I know, I get carried away!) on EVERYTHING I know about generating tons of awesome ideas...

including the principles I used to create these fifty plot twistswhich is far and away the most popular post on this site!

If you never want to run out of ideas,
you gotta check it out:

Here's the roundup of links: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Hope you love it and find it super helpful! Okay, and now to the fifty plot twists...


Has inspiration evaporated? Is your imagination flagging?

Does your plot feel a little ... limp?

No worries. I've got your back. Here are fifty (yes, FIFTY!) random ideas for plot twists. All ready to be adapted any which way, and popped into your beautiful work-in-progress.

Prepare to be re-energized...

In no order whatsoever, here they are. Fifty plot gems, at your disposal:

  1. Someone important to the action is poisoned. 
  2. Give a minor character an unshakeable faith in something that the main character doesn't believe in. How does this set them at odds?
  3. A case of mistaken identity: Someone mistakes your main character for an important cultural icon, a known villain, a spy, or someone from their past. Shenanigans ensue... 
  4. The place that your character was just traveling toward--whether it was the kitchen, the school, or another city--suddenly no longer exists.
  5. Startling, direction-altering information is brought to your characters' attention by ... an animal.  
  6. The next step for your main characters is revealed to one of them, with crystal clarity, in a dream. Only ... it turns out that the dream was wrong.
  7. Your character is locked in a prison of some kind. The only way to get the key is by singing. 
  8. Set an important scene in an art museum. One of the paintings or sculptures reminds your character of something important, long forgotten.
  9. A rumor gathers momentum and ugliness. It soon divides your main character from her allies.
  10. The only one they can trust right now is a con man.
     
  11. A coin toss takes on tremendous importance. 
  12. A character is suddenly inducted into a secret society. Will the other members of the society be the worst sort of antagonists, or unexpected allies?
  13. It was the last thing they ever expected to find in the kitchen.
  14. What character does your protagonist most revere? And what happens when she finds out that that character isn't all she thought?
  15. An unexpected gift seems like a wonderful present at first. But it quickly becomes a source of damage, chaos, and grief.  
  16. The only one who (grudgingly) agrees with your main character is his least favorite person. Now they'll have to work together.
  17. Their next bit of insight, or their next clue, comes from an important historic figure.
  18. Your characters have to escape into a garden... Which, it turns out, is full of something other than flowers and plants. 
  19. There's a word no one should say. Or a name that no one will mention. A place nobody talks about. Or a proverb that no one repeats. ... Except for your main character, who totally goes for it.
  20. Two characters fight over where they're each going to sit. It gets out of hand ... fast.
     
  21. The next calm scene is interrupted by water: a flood, a leak, rain coming through the windows, an overflowing bathtub, a spilled teacup... 
  22. Some part of your character's life, something she has taken for granted all this time, turns out to be a message for her, in code.
  23. Someone from the character's past shows up out of the blue, intent on revenge.
  24. No one's ever eavesdropped quite like this before... Your character is forced to stay in a painful or precarious position to hear what he desperately needs to know. 
  25. Some part of your cast now has to rely on an unusual (for them, at least) method of travel. A reindeer, or hot air balloon, or roller skates... 
  26. Your characters are somehow forced to interrupt a funeral. One of the mourners provides them with unexpected wisdom.
  27. Your villain becomes obsessed with knock-knock jokes. Her alarmed second-in-command plots a coup.
  28. They unexpectedly find their dream house. And it changes everything. 
  29. Just when they couldn't slow down, your characters get caught in a local celebration, festival, or holiday. 
  30. That terrible fear that your main character has been nursing, and having nightmares about... Yeah. If he doesn't face it now, he'll lose everything.
     
  31. An essential character steadily refuses to talk to your main character. For reasons that no one can understand. (Yet.) 
  32. They come across a chair with magical or mythical properties. Does your character sit in it, or not?
  33. Whatever problem your characters are facing, they cure it with salt water: sweat, or tears, or the sea.
  34. Just when your characters thought they could relax, the roof falls in. (Or a tree limb drops. Or the tent collapses. Or the mine caves in.)
  35. To stave off certain doom, your character has to invent an elaborate story.
  36. A minor character falls in love with the worst sort of person for her, at the worst possible time.
  37. The next stage of your characters' plans are thwarted by a massive insect attack. (Ew.)
  38. Whatever tool or skill or technology your characters were most relying on--it breaks. It stops working. It's faulty. Now what?
  39. Something disagreeable surfaces in your protagonist's bowl of soup.
  40. It turns out that all the old tales about this time of day, or this character, or this place, or this tradition, were true. And that is very bad news.
     
  41. Your characters knew that they were running out of time. New information cuts their remaining time in half. This forces your characters to rely on someone they know to be untrustworthy...
  42. If you haven't killed off a minor character yet... do it. If you have killed one, try resurrecting him, one way or another.
  43. And then they find an old letter, with terrible implications for them, for what they're about to do, and who they're up against.
  44. Your characters (either the good guys or the bad guys) interrupt a play, concert, recital, movie, or sporting event, and demand help from the entire audience. 
  45. Someone falls: through the flooring, through the ice, into quicksand, through the stairs. Wherever they are, the ground gives way.
  46. Something irresistible tempts your main character, but if she gives in now, she loses everything. How does she fight it?
  47. A barrier that everyone counted on--whether physical, mental, social, financial or emotional--gives way. In the chaos, what does your character do?
  48. Time for a natural disaster. Storm, flood, fire, earthquake, avalanche... Send your characters scrambling.
  49. To move forward, your main character must travel to a place to which he swore he'd never return.
  50. Your main character risks everything to save someone weaker than herself.

... Any of those give your story a boost?? I hope so! Just for fun, let me know which number restarted your draft.

Okay... back to those words! 

The Key to Discovering Your Ideal Outlining (or Not Outlining!) Style

It's really not about plotter versus pantser. It's about learning how your brain works best. Here's how I figured out mine. | lucyflint.com

When I started writing my first novel, I found out that I had to choose a side.

There was a heated debate about the best way to dive into this thing. It crops up on every writing site sooner or later. You've heard of this, right?

It's the Outliners versus the ones who say: Nope, not gonna. The Plotters who have it all settled in advance, versus the novelists who create by the seat of their pants--a.k.a., the Pantsers.

Do you figure it all out first and then sit down to write?

Or, do you go by your gut and your feelings every day, and kind of ooze your way toward your finished draft?

Well. I didn't need to think much about this decision.

Heck, if you've been reading for a while, you can probably guess which side I picked. 

After seventeen years of schooling, I knew that I'm the kind of girl who will make a 99-item list and then know that all is right with the world.

Who likes creating schedules to cover the next four years. Who counts list-making as a favorite activity. I plan for fun.

I mean, come on. Outlines all the way, right?

So for my first three novels, I outlined. These outlines were amazing. They were massive airship carriers of ideas. No storm could touch these babies. They were solid. They were impeccably structured.

I looked at those huge documents, and I knew I could write the novels they described. 

But I ran into trouble.

One novel was so fun that I poured all my story energy into the outline, and had nothing left over for the actual draft. No curiosity, no drive, no nothing. I never wrote that book.

The next two novels I worked on had fifty-page outlines for each draft. (And together, they've gone through seven drafts, so... now you know how I spent my twenties.)

I loved the certainty. I felt so prepared. It was just like school, like planning a semester around a few syllabuses. I was so organized. The books would be wonderful.

But passages that outlined well didn't translate to prose. One antagonist never really found his feet, even though everything in the outline said he'd be perfect for this role. Huge parts of these stories felt dull, crammed with everything that should be there, full of all the tidbits the structure books told me to put in.

All right. I can (finally) take a hint.

For my next book, I set off in the wild opposite direction.

I went pure pantser. 

I knew a few details about the main character, the general direction of the book, a few supporting characters, a radically new setting, and a kind of atmosphere that made my heart skip beats.

And that's it.

I dove in. Writing that draft was like taking a bunch of polaroid pictures, and waving them around to see what developed, and then assembling them into a quilt. I had no idea what the next day's work would hold. Which, let's face it, was pretty cool.

Honestly? I love that novel. I love it so much.

But it's a Swiss cheese of a story: there are some major holes that I just haven't been able to fill, problems that don't reconcile, gaps where every bridge I try just doesn't feel right.

Also, I was so anxious when I was writing it, that I literally had to crawl into bed every day and write from under the covers.

I checked in with another writer who was a total Non-Outliner. Is it supposed to feel like I'm drowning? Like I'm going blind? I asked her. YES! she said. It's so EXHILARATING.

But I didn't think I could survive another book like that.

And then I realized something. Writing a novel isn't at all like doing homework. It isn't like school. So my hyper-planning strategies from school days: wasn't gonna work.

At the same time, writing a novel isn't at all like summer break. Floating through it with some vague ideas of where I was going: also not going to work.

I found my best writing strategy when I remembered this: writing a novel is like going on a trip.

Right?

I mean: there's a beginning, a middle, an end, each with their own kind of energy, their own shape. You get yourself out there, and then you have to figure out how to get home.

There's always an "I'M PRETTY SURE WE'RE LOST" moment. High points, low points. Action balanced with reaction. Weariness and cheerfulness, excellent views and crummy alleyways. Heroes and villains. Unexpected characters. Conflict and plot twists. Maybe even a bit of danger, a bit of romance. All that.

Every novel holds its own world, and the narrative is the journey we take through it.

So I finally asked myself: How do I best like to travel?

Outlining seems like planning a trip in detail.

And the hyper massive outlines I created: That was like knowing the names of my taxi drivers in advance. Getting my hotel room number (heck, and a key!) before leaving home. Pinning down the date I'd wear each outfit. Looking at menus for restaurants and picking what I'd order.

Get the picture?

FYI: this is not how I travel.

But then the other extreme, my pantser novel: Well, that was like saying "I'd like to see this city around these dates, and hey, I'll bring these jeans." And that's it.

Also not how I travel.

When I go somewhere, I like to have a grip on what I consider the basics: general ideas of transportation. Definitely know which hotel(s) I'm staying at. And I'm a food lover, so if there's a restaurant I can't miss, I'll make sure I know the address. And then I'll get a general idea of what museums or parks or views I really have to catch. 

AND THAT'S IT. 

I like leaving room to be struck by impulse. To have a total change of plans without worrying about throwing everything off. To explore. To yes, get a bit lost.

To say: This looks good, that sounds great, hey there's a festival over there, maybe we should step inside that place--is that fudge?!

A chance to make up a lot of the trip on the spot. But not all of it.

It's not a hyper outline. And it's not just a vague intention.

It's somewhere in between.

When I wrote this trilogy during the second half of last year, I had a loose, super-gentle outline for each book. It was not hysterical. It was not highly structured. It didn't do what the outlining books said to do. 

But it also wasn't blank.

Every day when I sat down to draft, I knew one or two points I needed to hit that day, in order for the climax to happen, or in order for the tension to build. I had a general idea of who would be carrying the action and maybe what the setting would be. 

But that's it.

Enough of an outline to keep me breathing. I knew what my job was each day. But I also had plenty of room to wander, to be struck by new ideas, to take new tracks, to explore.

And guess what. It was the happiest, calmest, and best drafting experience I've ever had.

It was a near-perfect balance of structure and imagination in the moment. Freedom + safety net. With neither side outweighing the other.

So when people ask you to take a side, outlining or not outlining, just remember that it really doesn't have to be either/or, all or nothing. It's a spectrum. 

And as you prepare your next draft, don't think about homework, and don't think about summer breaks.

Instead, think about how you travel.

What rhythm feels right when you're on the road? How much structure or lack of structure helps you have the best trip?

What keeps you engaged in the experience of traveling, without making you too anxious about what you don't know?

Try giving that same amount of structure to your next writing project.

And see how that journey feels.