September 15, 2017: Redefining overwhelm & spinning straw

It's true: sometimes the life of a novel writer resembles a fairytale.

Specifically: Rumpelstiltskin. When the girl is in the tower room full of straw, and everything depends on turning it all into gold by morning. ... Only, no promising away of a firstborn, and no death threats so far.

But the straw thing—that feels legit.

This week, I've been clarifying the outlines for my main protagonist and her allies, in response to the antagonist work I did last week. That sounds like fairly tidy work, but in reality, it means sifting through huge clots of ideas and possibilities and questions and rabbit trails, and finding the clear true kernel of where the next scene should go. 

As I've said before, I'm a complexifier. And pawing through the mounds of ideas and possibilities I've helpfully created earlier takes a bit of work: My brain feels smudgy and my eyes are doing that flattened look they do, but on the whole, the work is moving forward.

... Obviously, it feels more than a little daunting, but it hit me earlier this week that a lot of that dauntedness comes from my perspective, from how I'm framing it.

I was journaling about this next step of the process, about how many ideas I'd generated and how I'd need to reread them, reconsider things, discard what wasn't working, press in with better questions, polish the bits that are miraculously going in the right direction—ack, ack, ack!

I am overwhelmed, I wrote. I am so, so overwhelmed.

But as I looked at those words written out, the real solid truth of what I was saying struck me. And I got ... excited.

Because what overwhelmed REALLY means is: I am dealing with something bigger than myself.

SO much bigger than myself. 

And isn't that what we're after when it comes to novels, when it comes to books, when it comes to stories that don't let us go?

I mean,  s e r i o u s l y : my favorite novels are BIG. They are not tidy, tiny packages with all neat edges. They aren't small and meek in character or scope or conflict. 

Know what I mean? There's a reason that they refer to the universe of a book, to a storyworld.

I'm making something far bigger than myself. It's gonna feel big. 

Which means that I am doing my job. I'm making something larger than myself!! And yes, that's daunting. But it comes absolutely with the territory.

In other words: I tend to make the assumption that if I'm overwhelmed by the scope of the book, it must mean I'm doing something wrong. When I changed what I said, to: I am working on a project that is so much bigger than me, I felt weirdly buoyed up.

Yes, there is a lot to do. Yes, it's wild and unpredictable and NON-LINEAR (which always KILLS me). But that's what this story is, and that's what it means to write it.

So I'll keep on working, working big, working beyond myself... one scene-pile at a time.


Helping out in my imagination's pit crew this week: This great keynote speech from James Clear.

I know, I know, I have to watch out for being sucked into an all-habits-all-the-time obsession, but still, his talk was really good, with some great ideas to apply right away. (Like, I instantly changed the homescreen on my iPhone, so that it looks the way he describes. Relief!!) And what he says at the end, about identity, was truly brilliant, and definitely applies to all us writerly folks as well.

Also, I've been referring like mad to my notes on Libbie Hawker's awesome book on outlining, Take Off Your Pants! It is definitely helping keep me sane. 

September 9, 2017: Seeing things from the antagonist's point of view (and seeing myself from a better one)

I have been drowning myself in kombucha and am—for the moment—healthy. Can we declare it a miracle cure? I'm voting yes, because my body is back and I'm able to focus again, and if that's due to fermentation and funk, it's good enough for me!

So, what exactly am I doing now? I finally took to heart what Shawn Coyne has pointed out multiple times in the phenomenal Story Grid Podcast: that, for an action story, the antagonist is the most important character.

Meaning: it's what the antagonist wants, and what the antagonist will do to get what he wants, that drives the story. 

I've nodded along to that for a while, but it finally clicked with me: I should build my novels from the antagonist's point of view FIRST. Which suddenly felt like the most obvious of all obvious things—but I've never done it that way. I've always focused on my protagonists instead.

So that's what I've been industriously doing: getting mega-clear on what each antagonist wants, and the clearly defined steps they're going to take to get there, for all four major antagonists across three novels. *cracks knuckles*

... And by industrious, I mean cycling between sheer idea generation, staring in confusion at my computer screen, meticulously trimming the split ends off my hair, and lying flat on my back in a state of paralysis.

The work progresses, is what I mean.

But seriously, I'm loving this shift in perspective. The more I dig into my antagonists and their goals, the more fascinated I am by their personalities, their relationships, their worldview. (And I completely love two of them. Even though I'd never want to actually meet them, because YIKES.)

All in all, it's making for a much richer story and a much happier writer. (That plus the kombucha, anyway!)

All good phases in my writing life mean that I have a stellar Pit Crew working on behalf of my imagination. You know what I mean? The resources that are currently cheering me on, challenging me, and championing the work.

Right now, the frontrunner is Lauren Sapala's SUPERB book The INFJ Writer. It's incredible. I devoured it earlier in the summer (when I first got bitten by the Myers-Briggs bug), and I've been going back through my notes on it again lately. (This interview with Sapala is also super helpful!)

She's so good at pinpointing the ways that I usually self-destruct (perfectionism in its many guises, like hyper goal-setting, over-structuring, anxiety, self-judgment) and she directs the way back to good writing practices, through intuition, a focus on growth, and an acceptance of a non-linear path.

I seem to forget this on a weekly basis. Like last week. I was obsessed with all things on habit development: after reading Gretchen Rubin's truly excellent book Better than Before, I immediately wanted to habit-ize my entire life. 

Until yesterday it hit me: I don't want the same exact routine every day. I don't actually do well with hyper-structure, even though I'm usually in love with it. ... Don't get me wrong: of course some habits are helpful. It's just when I say "some" I usually jump right to "twenty-five and I must be great at ALL OF THEM."

It seems I'm always coming back to what I've learned/am learning: Let go of rigid ideas about how the process must look. Let go of strict.

Embrace the things I can't always define. Embrace the mess. Aim for nourishment, immersion, momentum. Keep writing.


PS: Okay, another thing I've been loving lately is the podcast What Should I Read Next, by Modern Mrs. Darcy. Seriously, this show is my new best friend: charming people talking about their opinions on books? I can listen for hours. (Although my "to read" list is growing at an alarming rate...) If you're getting a little dry in your reading life, you especially need to give it a listen! 

August 30, 2017: There are always reasons.

True story: there will always be reasons to not write. Good reasons.

Lately, my list has looked like this: Fending off a cold, and then another cold, and then a stomach bug. (Um, immune system much??) Hosting a lovely relative over a long weekend; gearing up for a milestone birthday for another relative; visiting a third relative who's going through a hard time.

And then of course there are weird moods, a solar eclipse, bad nights of sleep, a bewitching young corgi who would like me to play fetch all the time, as well as a totally different novel project singing its siren song...

Universal Truth of Writing: If I look for them, I'll always find reasons to not write.

Amended Universal Truth of Writing: Okay, actually I don't even have to try and look. They just show up, one way or another: slipping into my thoughts, sliding onto my calendar, ambushing me in the middle of a day. 

There will always be reasons, good reasons, to not write.

Which is why this past weekend I hit up Target for some beautiful things. It's back-to-school season, after all, and I don't know about you, but my work area needed some love and refreshment. And a bit more beauty in my work space helps amplify the invitation to write. It can help anchor me, when I'm prone to distraction. (Which is all the time.)

So I stocked up on all the basics—pens, composition notebooks, paper clips, Post-It notes. I replaced my broken stapler, I finally picked up a small bulletin board to showcase my latest favorite quotes, and I found a sweet little desk organizer to corral my various pen mugs.

But then I went a little further: I found a sparkly paperweight that makes me happy. I picked up a white marble bowl and tipped my copper-colored paper clips into it—which means it's gone right past functional into truly beautiful.

And then I found a decorative snail made out of mango wood, which made me laugh so hard that I had to bring it home too. Because it seemed to say, in a wise, patient, snaily voice: even if you're moving more slowly than you'd like, you can still make something beautiful. 

Because there are always reasons to write, too. 

Persevering at a difficult-yet-rewarding craft, making amazing worlds out of nouns and verbs and character arcs and plot structures, weaving a story about family and love and hope and adventure.

There are those character voices that I know so well by now, and a land that exists only in my head and my fingertips and my drafts. So I've lit one of my new candles, and I'm buoyed up by the sight of fresh sunflowers in a vase beside my keyboard.

And now it's time to step back in, to "fill the form," as Julia Cameron calls it. To do the work.

Again, and again, and again.

August 16, 2017: It's beautiful and unglamorous and unpredictable. Hello, process. [Day 15]

Welp, I am NOT going to post any of this, because I'm guessing no one needs to hear how totally uninspiring my process is at the moment. 

I meanwhat am I even doing? Fending off a weird illness that's vampiring all my energy away, leaving me drained and feeling like a ghost myself...

which would maybe be cool if I were writing about ghosts, but, um, I'm not. (Yet.)

Anyway, what have I been doing? Investigating each of my main characters, listening to music that inspires me and closing my eyes and trying to see into their minds. Trying to feel my way into their bodies, their hopes, their forcefulness, their dreams.

I'm trying to believe, even for just a second, that I'm not me, that I'm each one of them.

What are you thinking, my motley mix of people? My rag-tag crew of characters? 

What do you care about so much that it's shaping you, your every scene? What's driving you? 

What's forcing you to grow, to change, to fight, to run, to do the absolutely unthinkable thing?

And then what happens next?

I'm dreaming, I'm scribbling down the moments of clarity, I'm stirring the soup in my mind, and I'm dreaming again.

What does it look like? Nothing, honestly. It looks like pulling apart everything that didn't work in the last draft of the trilogy. It looks like rebuilding, with unfamiliar tools.

It looks like a writer who feels like she doesn't know what she's doing, even though, maybe, at this point, she kinda should? Can she trust that wily grinning imagination inside her?

It looks like doubts and it looks like pure lightning-bolt truth too, when the plot knits itself together and reveals itself in a flash. Breathtaking and beautiful and lighting me up inside, my pen racing to catch up with the fading vision. 

But it also looks like naps and sweat and bleary squint-eyes and hot toddies. Because germs. 

August 9, 2017: Giving the imagination just what she wants [Day 9]

I've always had a crush on deadlines. I mean, they're so sleek. So clean and sharp and clear and definite. Whenever I can, I'm all "yes, yes, by all means, let's add deadlines!" I'll fling them anywhere, and that's 100% what I did at the start of planning this project:

I sprinkled those beauties everywhere I could. Novel-prep milestone? Let's seal it with a deadline. Mwah!!

They're so pretty. 

But when I shifted from planner to novel-plot-thinker-upper, the deadlines all grew fangs and basilisk eyes and I got all petrified.

I kept thinking that I was the problem, and that I just needed to put my head down and work, because all those pretty deadlines have to be right, with their perfect knifelike edges and slick certainty.

Oh, but knifelike has never been the key descriptor of how my imagination works. *insert laugh-till-the-tears-come face*

Nope, my imagination is much more like a strange old lady wearing a huge rumpled cardigan with dozens of pockets, and her tangled flyaway hair may or may not hold pencils and bird nests and yesterday's lost set of keys. 

She is AMAZING at her job when I don't insist that she be sleek and clean and knifelike, because knives aren't her style. (If she needs something cut, she'll just bite it, no prob. Very stubborn teeth she has.) 

Once I remembered who she is and how she works, I went back to all those deadlines and set them free. No more aiming at calendars and timetables and specifics, not during the precious planning and dreaming-up stages at least.

Instead, my imagination loves three things. Well, more than three, but there are three specialties she needs to thrive. And if I aim at these three, then I happen to be productive (and get awfully close to the original deadlines), almost by accident. 

Nourishment. Immersion. Momentum.

Nourish: Keep feeding the imagination, keep playing, keep adding those amino acids of creativity into the stew.

Immerse: Keep diving into the story, keep believing in the characters, keep seeing and smelling and sensing the settings in surround sound.

Pursue momentum: And finally, keep moving toward the story—deeper and deeper—until it begins to pick up its feet, and move faster, pulling me along with it, tangling me up in it.

Give her these things, and the imagination chuckles and settles right into work. She doesn't need everything neat and pretty and clean and perfect. She wants food, she wants depth, and she wants movement. 

That's how she works best.

(Though she'll also accept the odd bits of knitting, fancy chocolates, old spiderwebs, half-forgotten songs, used books, overheard conversations, the sound of rain . . . )

August 7, 2017: Because more isn't always better [Day 7]

So today I've been realizing why, just why exactly, I found Jim Heskett's and Libbie Hawker's books so dang exciting. 

It's because they are, for me, freeing.

Even though it's a lot to take in: I'm wrapping my mind around a new way to think about production and a new way to think about story. But it frees me up because both Heskett and Hawker are teaching me how to simplify.

S I M P L I F Y .

If there's one thing that I never, ever, EVER naturally do, it's simplify. I'm a complexifier. I will overcomplicate anything if you give me five minutes and a pencil.

Which is why I needed their books so badly: 

Heskett's production process has a cut-off point at a certain draft: after that, you stop adding new things to the story.

I read that and just sat there staring at my Kindle with my skin tingling. WHAT? It feels silly, but this would literally never occur to me on my own. NEVER.

If I have a good idea, it goes in. Never mind if the story was fine, if the story was working, without it. ... Which is how I create mega-drafts over mega-amounts of time, and never ever finish! Ha! So I'm definitely embracing the concept of the cut-off.

With Hawker, her take on keeping a story whole and unified all comes down to the main character's flaw. It is so beyond brilliant and I'm convinced it's gonna work beautifully for my stories. But it's simple, at heart. It makes it so clear: what fits, what does not fit. 

Simplicity. I've been haunted by the idea of simplicity in creativity, ever since I scrawled down this quote while watching Chef's Table: France: Alexandre Couillon, in his episode, made the beautiful point that simplicity is where so much emotion comes from. 

He was referring to when he realized his dishes were way too complicated—they were, he said, three or four dishes mashed into one. And diners couldn't make sense of them. (This is exactly how some of my massive drafts sound too! Three or four novels mashed into one.)

But then—actually by accident—when Couillon created a very simple, exquisite dish, it was perfect. Memorable. Classic.

And yes: it even got emotional. 

I scribbled down that story and then added a note to myself: Don't be afraid of simplifying the story. Don't be afraid of drawing a line in the process and saying, no major changes now. Don't be afraid of making sure the whole story lines up and revolves around one main thing. 

Don't be afraid to simplify. 

August 3, 2017: Love your mess and your mess will love you back. (We hope!!) [Day 4]

In that early start-up part of a project, I'm always rummaging around, trying to get a sense of "we're all in this together, right?!" So I go browsing for other people reporting on their process. 

I found this gorgeous TED talk by Tim Harford on embracing our mess. Such a great point about creativity, and how messiness in our work doesn't really mean what we tend to think it means. I really needed to hear this: 

I've also been hanging out on the Masterclass website. FRIENDS! You can get a HUGE amount of creative-process inspiration just by watching, um, every single trailer and clip for every single class that they have. 

... Okay, yes, that's funny, but SERIOUSLY: So much good stuff here. Herbie Hancock, Steve Martin, Hans Zimmer, Usher ... It's brilliant. I was scribbling down great quotes just from the trailers. So do check it out. 

Meanwhile: I'm digging into prewriting with my main characters, using Libbie Hawker's tactics for mapping out the character arcs. Getting really really excited to tell this story. Um, again. 

Still. Definitely excited. 

July 31, 2017: The course of true work never did run smooth [Day 1]

Oh, the beginning of a project! There's always such promise, such eagerness ... and such getting tangled in my own feet. Pfft!! :) Today is the start of re-opening my trilogy, and applying Libbie Hawker's genius outlining methods to my own characters. 

I always imagine projects feeling a certain way when I begin: I picture myself being decisive, clear-headed, and confident as I sail into the start of things. But ... that's not so much how it goes.

In fact, this is the super glamorous way that I've spent the past week, backing into the start of this project: 

  • Clean and reorganize everything. EV-RY-THING. Deal with all mystery stains, obscure filing projects, junk drawers. Slay all dust bunnies.
     
  • Scan commitments and obligations and try to get out of absolutely anything that doesn't have to do with work. Does this make me a bad person? Muse on that likely prospect, and then cancel anyway.
     
  • Begin dreading anything that I couldn't get out of. Even if it's several weeks/months/years down the road. 
     
  • Grab a calendar and plan the course of the project. Oh, wait: Have any of these plans really worked out before? Haven't I sworn off/picked up planning multiple times before? But then, didn't Eisenhower have a great quote about plans being worthless but the action of planning essential?
     
  • Feel better. Make the plan. Then wander around with "planning hangover," feeling the weight of all that undone work.
     
  • Pick up a new app to help keep track of the plan. Remember how steep my learning curve usually is with new technology. 
     
  • Come down with a weird, indefinable, but truly-I-promise-it's-legit virus. Right before the kickoff.
     
  • And then psychoanalyze self: is this illness Resistance? or is this really a weird bug? Should I push through it and work anyway? or will the work be crap if I do that? but does it matter if it's crap? OR, do I rest as much as possible and hope to head it off at the pass, and then get a lot more work done later because healthy-me works so much faster than sick-me?
     
  • Take a nap to take a break from psychoanalyzing.
     
  • And then, oh hey, the first task is pretty tame and harmless, and I can probably knock that out, even though I feel crummy . . . 
     
  • And, um, maybe this other one, too . . . 
     
  • And hey, I got all the stuff done on my novel's to-do list for today. How did that happen?
     
  • And can I pull it off again tomorrow?? 

Haha! Oh, the nerves. At least I recognize them by now. Going to pat myself on the head for trying, make a big mug of tea, swallow all the vitamin C I can find, and go to bed. 

July 27, 2017: Is there such a thing as re-beginning?

Three things to say, right here at the re-beginning: 

(Can I call it that? Kicking off a new bloggish endeavor; pulling apart and putting back together my beloved trilogy-in-progress? I'll totally call it that. The Re-Beginning.)

So, you never know what's around the corner, right? Two books have just staged a major shake-up in how I think and feel about my work. MAJORI'm talking revolution-scale.

1. Jim Heskett's book The Juggling Author: I zipped through this at the end of last week, and it ignited a fire in me to learn the skill of production. To learn how to produce publishable fiction, reliably, at a quick pace. I loved Heskett's practical tone. His methods simplify what I've been way overcomplicating.

And listening to him describe his process, it just felt so doable. I mean—really hard work, of course, but DOABLE hard work.

I love doable. Doable is my favorite. So now I'm dreaming big, consistent-production dreams.

2. Libbie Hawker's let-me-convince-you-outlining-is-worthwhile book Take Off Your Pants: HOLY SMOKES. If my other beloved structure books helped me understand a novel's skeleton, Hawker's approach has shown me how to create a story's circulatory system.

It's like she said, Um, you can't just duct-tape a heart on the outside of your story and call it good. Here's how you put it on the INSIDE, from the start. 

Heart, arteries, veins, capillaries, all of it. Her approach showed me how to get blood to every scene and paragraph of the story. 

3. Which means that I went into a flurry of planning. I'd already been working on rebuilding my trilogy, and then these two books sailed into my life with Better Ways Of Doing Things. 

So here I am. With all those nerves that come with digging back in, all the trick-candle uncertainties, all the scar tissue from past attempts at figuring things out, and, mostly, all kinds of hope.

Seriously, there is so much hope. Waking up before my alarm each morning, with my stomach full of butterflies. THAT kind of hope. 

Re-beginning. Here we go.