I’ve recently entered the brainstorming stage of my next book. It’s a fun, crazy time. Sometimes my mood is rainbows. Sometimes it’s angst. Right now my mood wants lists (as it often does), so here you go: a step-by-step guide to plotting a book. All you writers out there, this is for you. You’re welcome.
1. Find the most inconvenient time/place. Showers are good. Cars, too. Lying in bed, comfortable, mostly asleep? Perfect.
2. Think about something else.
3. Bolt of lightning crashes above you, singeing little bits of your hair as it sizzles past. Geez, that was close.
4. You’ve got it! THE idea! (By the way, you’re brilliant. Good job.)
5. Ignore it or write it down? Debate the options. Decide to wait. You are wet/busy steering/warm and comfortable. The idea can hold…Can’t it?
6. Suddenly remember the last time you told yourself that. Disgraced and petulant, that particular World’s Best Idea slunk away, never to return again. The only things you remember about it are that it had something to do with the letter ‘R’ and it felt like perfection on a milkshake. So, yeah, not helpful.
7. Curse your memory. Curse the timing of lightning. Curse the notepad, which always parts ways with the pen you were certain you put it next to. Curse writing. Who invented it, anyway? It’s their fault you’re even in this mess.
8. Find both the pen and the notebook. Finally.
9. The pen even works. It’s a miracle. Celebrate.
10. But not too long, because ideas have an expiration date, and this one’s nearing it.
11. Grab a towel/pull off the road/sit up in the dark.
12. Write. Begin to feel giddy. This is the best idea ever! Ooh! And there’s a nice subplot! And a turning point! The first? Second? Whatever. You’ll figure it out.
13. Maybe later, though, since you ARE naked and freezing and hogging the bathroom/getting honked at/burning under the glare of a grumbly spouse who JUST WANTS YOU TO TURN OUT THE LIGHT ALREADY. These people do not understand the joys of writing, poor things. They deserve your pity.
14. There’s no time for pity. You have an idea to write. Get back to work.
15. When you are satisfied, stash the notebook and pen and resume your mundane, non-writing task, all the while planning time to type in those pages and further flesh out your idea before you a) forget what you meant by “arrow moonbeam swirl” and b) forget how to read your own handwriting.
16. Repeat process until book is outlined. Then repeat throughout the writing phase. And revisions. And after you turn in your revisions. And basically until you start a new book. And maybe even a little after that.
BONUS STEP: Later, when you are visiting an elementary school, describing your writing process, an earnest third grader will ask you where your ideas come from. A few good answers may cross your mind: Wal*Mart, the newspapers, dreams. But ultimately you will find yourself telling the truth: “Bad timing. My best ideas come from the worst timing.”
1) Carefully read instructions on oatmeal packet. This time you will do it right. For once, breakfast won’t end in messy defeat.
2) Stir together milk and oatmeal.
3) Set microwave according to directions. Hide pre-victory grin. Whistle. Exude confidence.
4) Watch oatmeal spin on tray, ready to halt all cooking at first sign of boilage. Squint a little. Hold breath. Fear overflow, despite yourself.
5) Stir and check status. (Answer: Oat flakes drifting in warmish milk soup.)
6) Another minute in microwave.
7) Still floaty dry oats + milk. This could take a while.
8) Set microwave for one more minute. It’s still raw, and barely lukewarm. You’re totally safe.
9) Go set table. Take your time. Swagger a little.
10) Saunter back to microwave, spoon in hand, poised to stir.
11) Open microwave door. Discover that, in your absence, your impending meal became an oatmeal volcano, spouting thick, gloppy, magma-esque mess all over clean microwave tray.
12) Congratulations! Your oatmeal is hot and (mostly) cooked. So is the tray beneath. Blow on breakfast. Wait for it to cool so you can finally eat it.
13) Clean-up time. Soak bowl for sixteen hours. Chisel cemented cereal off bottom of microwave. Try not to swear.
14) Vow to use water instead of milk next time, though tasteless paste isn’t your preferred dining choice.
15) Scribble “Buy bigger bowl” on shopping list. Amend to “Much, much bigger.” Underline. Add exclamation point.
16) Or there’s always toast. Toast is safe. Usually.
Your turn – what’s something you repeatedly attempt, even though you know it will lead to your ultimate doom? Talk an elderly relative through way-too-techy computer issues? Jump into NaNoWriMo with the threat of Thanksgiving (and all those pies you have to bake) hanging over your head? Make coffee in that complicated machine in the break room? Sew pants? Come on! Make me feel better. Spill it. (Yeah. Spill. You and my oatmeal…)
Here’s the thing about first drafts: They are fun, but they are also scary. They are messy and muddled and awkward and hard. They have no guarantee. And they can make perfectionists like me very, very uncomfortable.
But they are worth it for the times when everything works and, anyway, they have to be done in order to get to revisions. Even on the difficult days.
And those days do come.
Unfortunately, there’s no category for Personal Cheering Section in the help-wanted ads, and the cats would rather sleep on the couch than rah-rah-rah me into getting all the new words written. So when I’ve used up my last jar of inspiration, and my motivation has fled, I have to flail those pom-poms myself.
Throughout my recent two-month long frenzy of creative chaos — otherwise known as a first draft — I did just. To be specific, I built a page of reminders to look at any time my typing lagged. As the manuscript grew, so did my list, because I learn new things every time I write a book or, more likely, I learn the same things over and over, forgetting in between.
Here, prettied up for your sake, and shared in case it provides inspiration (perhaps to those embarking on NaNoWriMo), is my memo to myself:
Tell a good story.
Write now. Revise later.
Have fun. Smile. And then send a knife hurtling toward your protagonist.
Go on. She can take it.
Forget layering in emotion, setting, symbols, and theme for now. This is an empty tortilla, baby. Only one floppy layer to be had. Fill it later.
At some point — usually three days — it will be harder to stop than it is to keep going.
Until then, write it anyway.
You have finished books before. You will do it again.
Probably even this one.
Comparing an untamed first draft to a previous book’s reworked, polished, final form is like comparing a supermodel’s eighth grade school picture with her Vogue spread. Not fair. Everyone looks awkward at the beginning. The pretty comes later.
The book will not be perfect.
The book will not be perfect.
The book will not be perfect.
But it can be fixed. That’s what revisions are for.
Don’t look down.
How do you convince yourself to keep going on difficult writing days?
In retrospect, the fertilizer might not have been a good idea. Over the last few weeks, this summer’s garden plot has become a very scary place. We’ve been overrun by groping vines and in-your-face leaves. Melon sprawl and wall-to-wall carrot carnage. Sweet pea forests. Six-pound marbled orange beefsteaks. Eggplants that grow like Pinocchio’s nose, expanding by the second.
The only thing that’s not getting any bigger is the size of our garden space.
Give me strength. I fear I may not make it out alive the next time I venture in. Yesterday I barely escaped, stumbling onto the safety of the back patio with just a fistful of dirt-clotted weeds and most of my sanity. Today? Who knows. The lettuce is looking feisty, and the cucumbers have come of age. We may have a real fight on our hands.
Still, someone has to prune the pumpkins before the patch infests the neighborhood, so I’m going in. Soon as I re-tie my shoelaces. And adjust my sunglasses. And gas up the chainsaw. And any other delay tactics I can think of while still looking brave and unhesitant. I hear pumpkins can smell fear.
If you don’t see me staggering back out of this jungle by Thursday, Husqvarna in one hand, wide-brimmed hat in the other, shut off the sprinklers and send in the rescue crew. They’ll know what to do.
Oh, and if you’d like to help hack away the foliage, I’d be forever grateful. I hear the garden center has a nice pair of pruning shears they may let you use. I’m a good customer; surely they’ll share. Just sign this waiver right here, and we’ll get started.
P.S. Salad, anyone? There’s a feast for at least forty in here somewhere.
I had forgotten how good graham crackers could taste. And Cheerios, and Goldfish, and animal crackers, and every other crunchy, carby kid food.
Until I had a toddler.
It’s not just the flavor, either. It’s the crackly bag, the tantalizing smell, the convenient thereness. Irresistible. And I can’t eat any of it. Not if I want my morning milk, evening chocolate, or, say, lunch.
But it’s hard to turn down tempting treats when you’ve got a two-year-old snack pusher in your household. Sunshine’s not subtle, either. Like my grandmother, her namesake, she’s a high-impact sharer who hates to eat alone. And I’m her preferred dining partner – or at least the most convenient one.
Each time I break out Sunshine’s snacks, she pinches a few in her fidgety fingers and sweetly offers them to me. When I turn her down, she tries again, pushing the crackers against my hands, my mouth. She chants, “Share! Share!” and eats a bite herself, then waves the gnawed-on remains in front of my eyes. After all, if she loves them, then Mommy will, too, right? (Yes. Unfortunately.)
A short quiz, plus a confession: Do you know how hard it is not to share with a two-year-old who wants to snack with you? (Answer: Impossible.) Do you know how hard it is to turn down a Goldfish when its cheddar essence has brushed against your lips and hovered under your nose? (Answer: Even more impossible.) The truth: I want those snacks even more than she wants to feed them to me.
When I am strong, I clench my lips shut, and force myself to smile, and praise Sunshine for being nice. I mentally count my calories, subtracting exercise, adding dinner. How many in a handful of Goldfish? (Answer: 140.) How many in one animal cracker? No, strike that. Three animal crackers? (Because eating just one is the most impossible feat of all. Oh, and by the way? 23.) How many in the Cheerios Sunshine just offered me? (Answer: x times the number of Cheerios, minus y, wherein x is Sunshine’s determination and y is my ability to adhere to my diet.)
When I am weak, which is often, I take the proffered food. Sunshine grins, thrilled with my choice. I chew and mentally praise the goodness of crunchy snacks, trying not to regret them before I’ve even swallowed.
I want Sunshine to share. I want her to be generous and giving. I want her to say, “Yours!” instead of “Mine!” I want her to have a healthy relationship with food, whatever that means.
And, oh, God, I want to eat those honey grahams.
I just want not to be a blimp tomorrow.
Life is like this, a constant weighing of good vs. bad, a never-ending list of choices. And, frankly, most are bigger than whether or not to ingest twenty-three calories’ worth of crunchy circus animals. Like which prom dress to wear. Which subject to major in. Which person to marry, which house to buy, which book to write next. When to have children.
So when I do give in to Sunshine’s enthusiastic, pushy-grandma ways, I try to see her goofy smile and not the calories. And I remind myself that, well, at least we’re not choosing colleges. Yet.
In seventh grade, in the back of my parents’ car, on the way home from another disastrous school-wide dance, my friend Rebekah and I lied to each other in the nicest possible way.
“Nerds,” we told ourselves, “Are awesome.”
They were the most misunderstood subgroup in the high school hierarchy. Everyone should want to be one. Those snotty popular girls who had hurled insults down the school hallway toward us that night? They were just jealous. And they were wrong, too, because we were most assuredly not nerds.
Okay, fine, we admitted as the car turned a corner and a street lamp splashed yellow light into the back, highlighting our awkward hair and gawky arms. So what if we
sort of were? It might not be permanent. If we could outgrow training bras, dollhouses with hand-painted shutters, and unrequited crushes, we could outgrow this. Nerdhood? Already speeding into the past, baby.
Only, that was a lie. The biggest of all.
Because now, two decades later, I have realized something. Almost every major decision I have made in my life has depended on my latent nerdhood, from my English major to my novel writing. And every purchase backs it up. The deluxe, shiny black Scrabble board on its spinny little stand. The pressed-wood clipboard and cushy mechanical pencil whose sole job is to support our nightly New York Times crossword habit. The books spilling off the bedroom shelves. This laptop, on which I’ve written novels in my free time instead of shopping at the mall, loitering around the bike racks, slipping frogs into the principal’s pillowcase, or whatever it is the cool kids do at age thirty-five.
I am a nerd, a bookworm. Still. Always. Even when I hide it. I have not outgrown it, and I probably never will. And lately I’ve decided I don’t want to. Because the hobbies that earned me taunts when I was twelve make me happy now. I embrace them.
I will always read novels in public, and scribble in notebooks, and continue to not know the rules of football. I will be introverted and sometimes awkward, and see my tendency to lean against walls at parties as character research. I will be bookish. Someday I will probably wear glasses. I will never be graceful. I will never be cool. But I’ll take joy over those things any day. And that’s one thing that has changed.
Because you know what? We were right, that painful, long-ago evening. Nerddom is awesome. So are confidence and joy and doing what you love. The rest really doesn’t matter.
What about you? Are you anything like you were in high school? Most importantly, what kind of nerd are you?
Whew! I’m back! Now that I’ve turned in my latest set of revisions, I’ll have a real blog post coming up soon, plus a giveaway and interview with fabulous debut author Robin Bielman. In the meantime, I’ve not only redesigned my site and my photoblog, but I’ve also been playing around on other people’s sites.
Here’s the guest post roundup:
A post about my inner narrator’s refusal to hush up, at the blog for the Chick Lit chapter of RWA: http://bit.ly/zJUwvZ
An interview with SCBWI’s COO at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog: http://bit.ly/I4vL4j
Hope to see you there!
Considering a career change? Need a job for a character in your next novel? No need to ask an actual person for his or her job description. Just watch movies. According to Hollywood, here’s what a variety of different jobs entail:
Look horrified while pulling imaginary brakes.
Gaze sternly into camera.
Spray spittle and vitriol.
President of the United States:
Fly around in helicopters.
Make grave speeches.
Walk in step with perky young aide.
Research life-or-death stories spouse/editor/creepy anonymous voice on the phone told you not to touch.
Fall in love with source.
Surreptitiously print exposé up-and-coming reporter wrote, printed, handed to you, then asked you not to run. Declare it their best work yet.
Holler “Cut!” and, on occasion, “Action!”
Motel/Convenience Store Clerk:
Shrug in bored fashion when someone shoves a photo under your nose and asks, “Have you seen this person?”
Frown at witnesses.
Shout “Order!” and “Overruled!” at random intervals.
Cruise streets without picking anyone up.
Make witty banter while chasing another car or racing toward the airport.
Glance at passengers in rear-view mirror. Make bug eyes when you see what they’re doing back there.
Casually order multiple murders.
Examine well-buffed fingernails.
P.S. There’s a fantastic discussion going on in the comments right now! Be sure to read everybody’s brilliant ideas about what they’ve learned from movies, then add yours if you’re so inclined. (And I hope you ARE inclined, because I adore comments!)
When my brother and I were children, my parents believed in nurturing our talents and helping us become whatever we wanted to be. Kindergarteners have a very small skill set, but they get to paint a lot, so one September day I brought home a roll of manila paper. It was heavy with paint, damp and creased from where my fingers clutched it on the walk.
Prepared to gush over any bit of artwork, no matter how rudimentary, Mom and Dad watched me unfurl the paper and thrust it their way. Stunned, they stared at the masterpiece I’d so casually brought into the house. It was like something out of Jackson Pollock – The Kindergarten Years. Bright splashes of color dotted the paper, flirting and frolicking in an arrangement that dazzled the eye. Abstract and playful, it was the work of a confident painter, one much older than five.
The next day they quietly began saving for a fancy art school. I would be the first artiste in the family, and they wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to mix more media than crayons and fingerpaints.
Excited to show off their daughter’s talent, they had the picture framed and hung in a place of prominence over the dining room table, where we could admire it.
And then one night during dinner, as my brother kicked me under the table so my parents couldn’t see, my mom turned to me and asked, “What made you decide to put that dab of blue right there?”
“What?” I asked, more worried about Mom catching me kicking my brother back than about answering her.
She repeated her question.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Well, what about the red, right there in the corner? What inspired that?”
“I don’t know.” Thinking the chat finished, I surreptitiously fed another pea to our golden retriever, who hovered hopefully beneath my heavy wooden chair.
“And the yellow?” she tried again, waving one hand at a few blobs.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “It’s not mine. I didn’t paint it.”
Silence, as my parents’ forks froze over their plates. When my mom could form a coherent thought, she asked, “You didn’t?”
I shook my head, oblivious to their tension and, not understanding that my entire future as an artist hung on my next word, said, “No.” Then I went back to shoveling stuffed peppers in my mouth because, really, they were delicious.
“So, uh, who did?” my mom asked gently, as if hoping my answer had been a mistake.
I looked up, mid-bite. Seriously, were we still talking about this? “I don’t know.”
“But why do you have it, then?”
“My teacher told us to take a painting home. I liked that one.” After all, even if I had no talent in the visual arts arena, I could still recognize a pretty picture when I saw it.
Silence. My parents’ eyes flicked to the picture. To me. To the picture – the one I hadn’t done with my own skinny little fingers and globby kindergarten paint.
They stopped saving for art school but, just in case, asked me to bring home a few paintings of my own instead of leaving them for my teacher to discard – an easy request since I created a new masterpiece every afternoon. And each day it was the same: a house with curtains in the windows, a slanting stick figure family of four, sun in the upper corner. Tulips. Grass. Our pets made an occasional cameo appearance. Sometimes there was a rainbow.
To this day my drawings look as if I did them with my left hand while crossing my eyes, but that’s okay because I never had art school aspirations anyway. I wanted to be something much more practical: an author.
Please welcome Liz Reinhardt! Not only is she one of my favorite bloggers, but I’m lucky to have her as a critique partner, too. She just published her first novel, a YA romance featuring snappy dialogue, a love triangle, to-die-for heroes (two of them!), and lots of humor. It’s the first in a trilogy, and is already netting some fabulous reviews. So read and enjoy her guest post, then go buy her fabulous book. Take it away, Liz!
My newly published book is bumping around out in the world and, I don’t want to brag or anything, but a whole 20-something readers (I can never remember the exact number…okay, I can! It’s 23 last time I refreshed the sales page!! WHEEE!!) are reading it! And tons of them are total strangers, NOT people who I shared Doritos and poetry and too many secrets with in high school, or who drank cheap keg beer at field parties with me and my husband back when he was my boyfriend, or who danced to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in a fist-pumping-Jersey-girl-dance-athon at my wedding.
Okay, maybe just I wish tons of them were strangers…because as amazing, awesome, generous, fun, sweet, helpful, and gorgeous as all these life-long crazy friends are, they know a lot. And they think they know more! And they’re guessing about people and places and events that are fiction. But, you know, fiction that’s based on reality, because I’m not that creative. And I’m sort of lazy. And my friends know that.
Even my husband thinks he knows more than he does. When I was writing Double Clutch, I was in love. Like swoony, butterflies in my stomach, can’t sleep, obsessive love…with this book and Brenna, Jake, and Saxon, the main characters who lived and breathed for me, through me! The need to share this love was absolutely undeniable. And I had a captive audience in my loyal, loving husband, who has a very hard time saying no to me when I get that maniacal gleam in my eye. Also our house is too small to hide in, and he could only stay at work until the bosses forced him to go home, kicking and screaming.He wanted to relax after a long, grueling day, watch “Overhaulin’,” work on his truck, and sit on the back porch quietly contemplating life while the stars appeared in a slow speckle across the darkening sky. He wound up listening to me read AN ENTIRE novel in rushed, breathy spurts, stopping frequently to edit sentences that rang wrong in my ears, and often abruptly leaving him alone on said porch under said lovely stars so I could get down the entire scene that had just blossomed in my brain before I lost it.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that Frank (my husband) assumed he knew at least something about these characters who I so adored and forced him to adore even as he watched them steal his wife away and leave her completely uninterested in things that had never really interested her very much, like laundry and cooking and attempts to keep the floor from getting so sticky certain spots could pull the sock right off of your foot. My husband knows when he’s come against a force stronger than he is. He wanted to stop having to sniff the armpits of his shirts before work in a desperate attempt to find the least smelly one. And he wanted company for star-gazing, and peace when his favorite shows came on TV. He knew he needed the book to end. So he willed it to end.
“Just have Brenna choose the right guy and end it,” he urged as he stuffed our daughter’s red dress into the washer with a load of his undershirts and socks one night when I was close to finishing. The words hot pink flashed a dangerous warning through my brain, but I was too consumed by the Brenna/Jake/Saxon dilemma to give them any serious notice.
“But who does she wind up with?” I mused, my laptop staring at me with its coolly taunting blue light.
“What do you mean?” He banged the lid of the washer down and narrowed his eyes at me before crossing to the dishwasher. “You know who she ends up with. The right guy.” He picked up the bottle of dish soap in one hand and the dishwasher fluid in the other and looked at them both with a frown.
“But that’s the whole point.” Frank held the bottles up, and I pointed to the one that wouldn’t break our appliance. “It’s not that easy to choose.”
“Sure it is,” he growled, holding up the dishwasher liquid for emphasis. He banged the dish soap on the counter. “One works. One doesn’t.” He squirted half the bottle of dishwasher liquid in the tiny dispenser square.
“No. Each one offers something different. Each guy is awesome in his own way.”
Frank’s face darkened. “Um, no. One guy is a loser. One is a decent guy. Stop pretending there’s any question.”
“You’re simplifying, Frank…” I began, but I was shocked into silence when he banged the dishwasher door shut and glared.
“Fine! Let Brenna pick the dirtbag, okay? If she’s too stupid to know who she should end up with, she doesn’t deserve him!”
Part of me was foaming at the mouth with excitement! He was so passionate! He was banging the dishwasher shut! He was in a rage! OVER MY BOOK! Part of me was confused. He was in a rage over my book?
I followed him as he stalked across the sticky floor. “Why are you so upset?”
“Because I know who I am in the book, and I know who you are, and I can’t believe we’re not getting together!” he bellowed.
“It’s fiction! I’m not in the book! You’re not in the book!” I insisted.
Then Frank listed a dozen examples of interests, mannerisms, sayings, and situations that he shared with ‘his’ character, and he was absolutely right. I had plucked details from the guy I loved and peppered them into a fictional guy I loved.
But Frank was also absolutely wrong. See, he did pick up on exactly how he was like one of the guys. He just conveniently missed how he was exactly like the other guy, too. And he didn’t see the other real life guys who made up Jake and Saxon. Obviously! Because I don’t kiss and tell. Okay, that’s a lie! I totally kiss and tell, but I do it in fiction and I hide a lot of it in layers, the same way, I’m sure, a ton of writers do.
My past loves aren’t the only ones who made it into my book, either. For example, Frank has a really charismatic, frustrating, good-looking cousin who we’ve laughed with and watched work his magic a million times. We also watched him fall in love with the girl who inspired him to change his life. They’re both in Double Clutch.
I have a friend whose gorgeous, sweet husband was the object of just about every girl in our county’s crush…and he took full and complete advantage of all that admiration. When he met my friend, The One, the girl who swept him off his feet, she had to make peace with his very active romantic past, and she talked to me about how that felt. They’re in Double Clutch.
I watched my little sister, my best friend, my college roommates swoon with love…first love, unrequited crushes, crushes realized, soul-deep-let’s-get-married love, heart-wrenching-long-distance-love. They’re all in Double Clutch.
So is the guy I imagine my husband was before I ever met him. So is the guy I traded sly glances with every Tuesday and Thursday in Art History 105 but never got up the guts to ask out. So is the girl my ex-boyfriend eventually dated after me, and the next girl, who are both extremely nice, smart, funny ladies (hey, he always had good taste!). They’re all in there, wrapped up and taken apart, sprinkled around and put back together.
I am a little like Dr. Frankenstein. I’ve taken names, personalities, stories, glances, kisses, daydreams and molded them into a walking/talking world all my own but also everyone else’s. So when emails pop up and say, “Okay, is so-and-so based on so-and-so?”, the answer is…yes. And no. And yes. And no.
So I typed the last chapter, and read it to Frank, who crossed his arms and pouted a little, but said that it ended right enough as far as he was concerned. Then I steam-mopped the floor, threw together a fairly edible chili, bleached all of his socks and undershirts white again, and joined him on the back porch after we tucked the baby in. All was right with the world.
Are you in Liz’s book? Go check out Double Clutch and see! It’s available for the Kindle and Nook. The print version and sequel are both coming soon. If you want even more Liz (and who wouldn’t?) check out her blog or like her Facebook page. Have a question or comment for her? Leave it below, and she’ll see it when she checks in.