Moving a Novel from Brain to Page

The last time I was drafting a novel, I used checklists, maps, house plans, foam boards, photos, a loose outline, and a bunch of notes to keep myself on track. It worked beautifully. That manuscript, working title The Bone Garden, is making the rounds among some literary agents I deeply respect. I have high hopes for it to be my debut novel.


But in the meantime, I’m beginning my work on a new manuscript. This time around I’m doing some of the same preparatory work. I’ve been busy reading background material and making notes.


I’ve managed to outline the first half of the book and am already adding notes to it.


I’ve been spending a lot of time simply focusing on who my protagonist is and where she is coming from, work that I’ve not done quite as much of on the front end in the past.


I’m doing much more of this preparatory backstory work now because I’m hoping to write in a very deep first person point of view, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t know your protagonist intimately from the very start.


I’ve made a list of big thematic questions that will be considered in the course of the story. I’ve even written the beginnings of a query letter to focus my mind on the core story.


All of this preparation amounts to me being able to start off the drafting process with a clear idea of where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. Every day new information falls into place. Every day I add to my little notebook. Every day the story takes up more permanent residence in my brain.

And on November 1st, the first day of NaNoWriMo, it will begin to take up residence on the page.

My Mind Full and My Pen at the Ready

The scales have tipped, the tumblers in the lock have fallen into place, the dominoes are all lined up and the finger is making contact with the very first one.

What am I talking about? My next novel.

Next novel? But you haven’t even published your first one. Yes, that’s true. But writers write. And this next one, which I hope will be my second to be published (eventually), has been brewing in my mind since the day after I typed “The End” at the bottom of my last manuscript. And on Thursday night, a key plot element was birthed in my mind like a baby star and I am just about ready to really start writing.

Since early March, I have been feeding my mind a steady diet of classic literature in preparation for writing this next novel, and a few weeks ago I finally picked up this beautiful book, a gift last Christmas…

dickinsonI’m smitten anew and excited to say that Emily Dickinson’s life, spirit, and poetry will get a major nod in the novel. In fact, the backbone of the story is constructed of books and poems, the kind that stay with us throughout our lives and to which we return again and again. It is precisely the kind of story the English major in me can hardly believe she will be privileged to write–one that celebrates our vast body of literature in English, makes a case for the singular importance of the printed book, and traces how our identities are wrapped up in what we read at formative points in our lives.

I’m so excited to get started, I don’t know that I will be able to wait until NaNoWriMo, which I had been thinking of attempting for the third time. And if I cheat, I simply could not wear a t-shirt like this with any sense of integrity…

tee shirt

And this is kind of how I feel about that shirt…

napoleon-dynamite-gifWill patience prevail? Only time will tell.


Research, Reality, and Reaching Out to Other Writers

Have you ever been “done” with research only to find that you are just getting started? Over the past few months I’ve read several books (two of them around the 500 page mark) and watched about 30 hours of documentaries on various historical aspects of the time periods my WIP covers (or will cover if I ever get done researching). I felt I was done.

Then I went out to dinner with my friend Valerie.

While waiting to be seated at a restaurant, we wandered over to Schuler Books & Music and perused the used book section, where I found (with her pernicious help) two more l-o-n-g books to read as background research. Mind you, I was not looking for these books. They were looking for me. Nothing from these books will actually end up in my novel, as the time periods they describe are not covered in my story, but the background knowledge they promise to provide is really essential for understanding some socioeconomic and cultural realities in a particular place and time that will be covered in the book.

All this to say, I’m not ready to write as gung-ho as I would have to be in order to do NaNoWriMo. Beyond that, I have not been able to finish November’s short story this week as I had hoped, so I will have that to do next month as well. Releasing myself from NaNoWriMo madness also allows me to work on that nonfiction book about intentional writing I mentioned. So I’ll still be writing, I’ll just be switching the order that I work on two of my projects.

In addition to that, I will be a contributing editor to the Women’s Fiction Writers Association‘s newsletter and I’ve been asked to prepare a feature article for their first issue. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to reach out to other writers beyond those of you who read this blog through my involvement with WFWA and through the writing book (which I hope to release in January now).

So the plan for the rest of 2013 will be to finish up my last two short stories, finish my nonfiction book for writers, start writing and editing for WFWA, and really finish my research. And that is plenty for just two months. In January, once the writing book is released, I’ll work on formatting my collection of short stories for a print edition for all you non-techies. And then, once those other items are off my plate, I will have the time and mental energy to devote every free moment of writing time to my novel.

So that’s how my year is wrapping up. What about you? What do you want to finish before 2014 rolls around? Tomorrow begins a new month. Thirty days to work toward the finish line of whatever goal you have right now. What are you going to do with the time you have?

Should I Really Get Myself into This?


I’m sure that some of you out there know what this is. For the rest of you, go here and then come back.

Are you back yet?

Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo and started writing a novel that I still intend to get back to at some point, but I didn’t finish out the month. I actually don’t really remember why I dropped the project.

But this year the timing is just right. My research for my next venture is nearly complete, I’m chomping at the bit to get started, and I really want to commit to consistent writing to get a huge chunk of this sucker done before the end of the year and keep the momentum going. My husband is also ready to start his next novel, so we can write together every night just like we did a couple years ago.

I do have my last three short stories to write. October’s should be done this week and I think I could get November’s started up as well so I wouldn’t be doing the entire thing next month. But another reason for me to go gung-ho on the novel during November is because early next year I want to put together my short story collection, which will require time to do interior design, and I want to write an ebook about my experiences with more intentional writing this year that will contain lots of great advice about finding a writing rhythm, dealing with problems and blacks as the arise, and self-pubbing.

So I figure if I have 50,000 words of the novel’s first draft written before December…well, I’d feel pretty dang good about myself.

What about you? Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo? Ever thought about it? Think you could give yourself over to your writing for one month? Imagine what you could come out with on the other side…

If Writing Is Packing Your Bags, Editing Is Taking the Trip

I love writing. I enjoy the actual process of putting thoughts down in words on a page/screen, and especially that mysterious reverse aspect of writing–when the act of writing actually drives your thoughts. It is fascinating to be part of the interchange between process and product, the fluid state where you aren’t sure who is in charge of the story that is taking shape.

But even more than writing, I have to admit, I love editing. Writing can never achieve on its own what writing and editing achieve together. Writing is only the very first part of the journey. You might compare it to a hiking trip. It’s packing your pack and reserving campsites and planning how far you will hike each day. It’s making sure you have everything you need, gathering the essentials of your story–characters, setting, plot, etc. But just like a hiking trip, you don’t want to stop with the prep work. You want to actually go on the journey. You know it will be hard work, but that it will all be worth it in the end.

I’m not talking about overarching revision, though that is often important, especially when you push yourself to write at a quick pace as so many of us are doing for NaNoWriMo. And I’m not talking about proofing, that necessary nitpicking that gives you a clean manuscript.

I’m talking about  looking at individual words and judging their merit. Are they hardworking or lazy? Are they unique or commonplace? Do they truly mean what you want them to mean? Is there a better one, a more complete one, a more interesting one that could be substituted to bring your writing to the next level? This is like looking down at the forest floor on a hike, noticing the individual plants and flowers and mosses, spotting the snake slithering away or the butterfly sipping nectar. It’s paying attention to the little things, because the little things are what make up the whole of the experience of the trip and they are important. If your readers are tripping over the roots or rocks that are poorly chosen words, this is your chance to  level the path.

I’m talking about looking at individual sentences with that same critical eye and asking yourself if that sentence is truly the best it can be. Does it say something important? Does it say something true? Does it say something necessary? Is it essential? Does it move the reader forward? This is like looking at everything around you at eye-level. This is seeing the path ahead, seeing the deer tip-toeing among the trees, seeing the play of sunlight and shadow on the water. This widens your scope from individual words and takes into account the somewhat larger landscape of your story. If your readers have come to a river with no bridge in sight, this is your chance to build one for them so they don’t have to slog through the mire of unclear sentences.

I’m talking about examining a paragraph and then a chapter and applying the same criteria to it. Is it unique, necessary, dynamic, clear, interesting, and compelling? These are the breaks in the trees that allow you to experience the bigger picture. They are the overlooks, the vistas, that you miss if you are too focused on the ground. These are the points at which you (and your reader) can get a glimpse of what is coming ahead in your story.

So, writers, if your bags are packed (you’ve written your story) it’s time to enjoy the editing journey. The lovely thing about editing is that this is your chance to reshape your literary landscape, to remove obstacles that trip readers up, to improve the scenery and make the path clear. And, just like a hiking trip, you can start from the beginning again, make the same hike, and notice new things every time, so you’ll want to plan multiple trips through your story.

My own penchant for editing has thrown me way off my NaNoWriMo schedule and I’m quite behind now. I took a break to finish an edit on an earlier work (possibly my 20th time doing that hike) before sending it off to a literary agent. I also succumbed to the temptation to go back in my current manuscript for NaNoWriMo and do some revising and editing. But, in my defense, in the early stages of writing a novel, sometimes that really does have to be done or else you will find yourself lost in the wilderness days later having taken a wrong turn way back in chapter 3. Better, I think, to retrace your steps now, consider your options more carefully, and take the right path. After all, blazing new trails is hard work and if you’re going to do it you want to end up in the right place. Or, to put it in terms of our packing metaphor, I don’t want to get too far into my hiking trip and find that I neglected to pack my water purifier or my tent.

Not sure where to start on your editing hike? One of the best books I’ve read lately on the subject is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. It’s a veritable field guide to editing success. If you take his advice seriously and apply it to your manuscript, you will end up with a far better product than you started with.

Enjoy the trip!

Things I’m Discovering During NaNoWriMo

Several years back I dabbled in NaNoWriMo but I didn’t commit. That story never got finished and it never will (mostly because I’ve been pilfering scenes and characters here and there for other, better stories). So I didn’t really get the full NaNoWriMo experience. I wasn’t connected to the larger NaNo community and I didn’t post word counts on the website and I didn’t live, breathe, and eat my story for a month.

This year, I’m committed to the full package. And so far, this is what I’ve discovered:

1. Writing from 1st person POV when your protagonist starts the story in his teens (and isn’t a serious student) is extremely limiting. I want to use the kind of vocabulary I have as a 30-something-former-English-major-turned-copywriter-and-novelist…but I can’t.

2. Must…fight…urge…to…edit.

3. Writing mostly at night after the boy is in bed often means posting word counts on the NaNoWriMo website after midnight, thus skewing my numbers to look like I’m not keeping up. But I am! I swear!

4. I’m jealous of people who have the time to blow by the daily word count goal. I was happy with 6,591 on day four until I saw someone post on Facebook about passing 17,000 on day four.

5. Enjoying the sensation of having my story on my mind in kind of a low grade constant way just like I did in late 2011. I didn’t do NaNoWriMo for A Beautiful Fiction, but I did write nearly every day. That kind of story immersion is like a creative snowball rolling around in your head, picking up material all over the place, getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Feels great, if slightly imbalanced.

6. When words won’t come, procrastinate with art. The other night I had to get myself back into the fledgling story when I didn’t know where it should go next. So I mocked up a cover for it to stall and to give myself an image to write to.


That’s enough for now. There are more lessons to be had later in this month. But I did want to give you an update on my writing. It’s a different animal than my last work, but different is good. It feels fresh and challenging and I think I will be pleased with it once I’ve had the chance to revise and edit, oh, let’s say…fifty times.

How Green Day Derailed My NaNoWriMo Plans

1995 was a pretty incredible year for music. The Smashing Pumpkins came out with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Oasis gave us (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom. Debut acts like Foo Fighters, Garbage, Collective Soul, The Presidents of the United States of America, Ben Folds Five, 311, and Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill flavored the radio waves with a hit or two or three. dcTalk gave us Jesus Freak and Jars of Clay’s Flood could be heard on every station, sometimes simultaneously. Everclear, Silverchair, Radiohead…

And, of course, Green Day.

Green Day had been around for a while and 1994 saw them break out into the mainstream (to the horror of many alternateens who simply couldn’t bear to like something that was popular) with Dookie. But it’s 1995’s Insomniac that has dramatically affected my spare time for the next month.

Allow me to explain. The low brake fluid light came on in my Explorer this past week, so when I went into the office on Thursday I drove my husband’s car for safety reasons. While my vehicle is filled with the fairly low-key folk rock music of Brandi Carlile, Bob Dylan, and the Indigo Girls at the moment, my husband’s tastes run toward the much more energetic. I was already on the road when I realized I had failed to bring some of my CDs in the car and I had failed to even review what was in the 6-disc changer in the glove box. So I punched through until I found something that worked for me (FM Static) and drove to Grand Rapids.

But on the drive home, I switched over to Insomniac. It had been years since I’d listened to the whole album. As hit after hit emanated (no, leapt is the more appropriate word) from the speakers, I was astonished I had let so much time go by. What Green Day lacks in technical skill and enunciation they more than make up for in melody, energy, and sheer aural satisfaction. They may not be good musicians (or at least they weren’t in 1995) but they make some dang good music, a perfect little package of apathy and angst wrapped up with a peppy bow on top.

Now, what, you may be asking yourself, does any of this have to do with National Novel Writing Month? Well, the day this all went down was November 1, the first day of NaNoWriMo. I had been planning to either pick up on a story I’d abandoned at 18,000 words a while back that involved a woman attending an artist’s workshop on Mackinac Island, or start a new story I’d been thinking of that would involve a young woman, her cantankerous great aunt, sewing, home restoration, and recovering a lost past. Green Day has no part–no part–in either of these plot lines.

But years ago I had an idea for a story about a young guy wanting to make it big as a musician, his father’s fruitless quest to do the same, and what happens to those around them as they pursue their dreams. Enter Insomniac. Listening to that album on the way home from the office inspired me to pursue the story about the budding guitarist.

So that’s what I’m writing this month. I’m quizzing my guitar-playing husband who was covering Green Day songs as a teenager in high school and had a band in college as well (and is already training up our son to love rock).

I’m listening to Pandora’s 90s Alternative Rock station (every song is awesome). I’m channeling my years of following my husband (then boyfriend) to gigs in church basements and at outdoor festivals, carrying gig bags and amps, blaring WGRD as we barreled down the S-curve through downtown Grand Rapids in college. I’m using my own experience growing up in a house that was saturated with music (more jazz and blues than punk or hard rock) and my recent attempts at learning to play guitar.

And even though I have no outline and I don’t know where this story is really going, I’m so far enjoying the ride. And the soundtrack.