Writers With Answers

Editor's Note: Every Tuesday, for the foreseeable future, we'll be posting some short answers to literary questions from Lighthouse faculty. 

Tuesday, May 26: What narrative device do you particularly admire in books and why? Can you give us an example of a book in which the author pulls this off expertly?

Tiffany Quay Tyson: I’m particularly fond of a layered narrative. I love it when an author weaves several stories into one book. I like it best when the various stories are offered as different forms—one as a straight narrative and one as a series of letters or journal entries or a book within a book, for example. It forces me to read more deeply, to search for connections, to puzzle out the parallels. I think Margaret Atwood does this beautifully in The Blind Assassin, where we have a narrator who is writing a story interspersed with sections from her dead sister’s novel. I also really love Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932, which weaves together multiple narrative segments including epistolary chapters, reports from journalists, a biography within a novel, and more. It’s complex and it could have been a mess, but it isn't. The sum of the novel is greater than its parts, but the parts are pretty darn great. I think that’s amazing.


Tuesday, May 12: What is your process for revision? What advice do you have for someone facing (or lost within) this daunting task?

Denise VegaI am a big advocate of multiple passes through a manuscript where I focus on one or two things during each pass. It helps me keep things straight. One pass might be character consistency and arc/growth. Another might be pacing and plot points. Another subplots or secondary character trajectories. Another would be chronology. And so on. In each of these I'm asking a variety of questions or looking for different things based on my own intentions for the book as well as any feedback I have received from my critique groups or agent. I attended a session led by the talented author Rachel Weaver on revision that offered a similar approach with questions designed to really get writers thinking deeply about the story during different drafts.  

If it's early in the process and the story is still pretty messy, I usually go back to my protagonist's wound/ghost/misbelief and character arc as well and my story point to make sure I'm not veering off on tangents that don't support these vital elements which for me are the backbone of my novel. I see the story point/theme as the backbone of a picture book story so I work to be very clear on that. The picture book stories that I've had the most trouble with are the ones where I don't know the point of the story. I might be enamored with the character or the title but if I don't know what my story is about on that deeper level, I can't focus my writing and tend to write all over the place!


Saturday, May 9: What advice do you have for strengthening scene work?

Mario AcevedoI would strive to make something happen in the scene, in other words, add drama. What’s the protagonist’s agenda? What does he or she want? And why can’t they get it? That makes for conflict. Let the protagonist enter the scene with defined expectations and then upend them. Have the other characters react opposite to the way you first envisioned the scene.

Another technique to strengthen a scene is through word craft. Select words that amplify the desired mood. For a mystery: shards of light slashed through the forbidding murk. In inspirational prose, the same scene would be: sparkles of light glittered through the velvet darkness. Also try backloading, which is ending a sentence or paragraph with the most evocative word that fits the scene. Example: Our last kiss was what I most remembered about Karen. Or…What I remember most about Karen was our last kiss.

Tiffany Quay TysonI find it’s helpful in my own work when I spend time expanding and compressing a scene. First, I like to really stretch out a scene, by which I mean including every detail I can think to include. I’ll run through all the senses, with a particular emphasis on smell and taste. I’ll try to consider what my POV character might be thinking and feeling at every moment. I’ll widen my focus and consider things that might intrude upon a scene—the wail of a passing ambulance, perhaps—and I’ll put all of it on the page until the scene is a baggy mess. Then, I’ll work to compress and sharpen the scene, with the goal of keeping only the best details and cutting everything down by half or more. This whole process of expanding and compressing helps me find the surprising moments and the unexpected details in a way that a single draft does not.


Tuesday, May 5: Do you ever want to call your book done before it's actually done? What advice do you have to combat impatience?

Mario Acevedo: As a writer, as a human being, I have many faults but impatience is not one of them. I’ve learned that for me, writing is a slow burn and I account for that time to let my work smolder. Sometimes I’m lucky when a piece appears on the page in one great burst, but mostly it’s like every word has to be pried out of my brain. The fun part is realizing when I’ve arrived at the final scene and savoring the moment when I write The End. At that point the first draft is done!

The flipside to impatience is procrastination, which I suspect is a bigger obstacle for most writers. In fact, in my years hanging out with writers, I can never recall one saying, “I can’t wait to rush through this story.” But if you feel impatience with your work, ask yourself why? Could it be that you’re not invested in the piece, or that in rushing through it, you’re avoiding the hard work required to make the prose shine?

Andrea Rexilius: I typically go through three to five iterations of a full draft of a manuscript before I call it done. As a poet, I’m building a manuscript out of long poems, sections, and/or individual poems, so as I’m revising my drafts, I’m also culling pieces that don’t feel quite right in conversation with the whole. Then I write more to build up a full draft of the manuscript again. And so on. It’s a process of constructing and deconstructing until I get to a place where I don’t see anything else to cull from the manuscript. Then I know it’s finished.

As for patience, I try to see the act of creating a poem or a manuscript as part of an ongoing creative process. Reading, going for walks in the Botanic Garden, making experimental embroideries, creating multi-media collage, listening to music, planting in my garden, are all opportunities to feed my creative brain. In that sense, I’m finishing things and being steeped in things all the time. Redefining what success means is a great way to combat impatience.  


Saturday, May 2: What do you find most difficult about writing books? How do you get past it?

Nick Arvin: As someone with a day job, like most writers, the biggest difficulty for me is usually finding time. Although at the present moment, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, my biggest problem—actually, come to think of it, this is also time-related—is breaking away from doom-scrolling the news long enough to focus on writing. I often write by hand, so one thing I do is put my devices in another room, with a mental rule that I can't go look at them again until such-and-such time. I also sometimes use an internet blocking app on my computer, and the "Forest" app on my phone.

The world is changing so rapidly now, as the news evolves from hour to hour, that it feels urgent to pay attention. And it probably is! But it's also unhealthy to stare at our phones all day, and the world needs stories now, too, stories for understanding, and stories for distraction.

Denise Vega: For both picture books and novels, the hardest part is not diving in right away! Now I hold off actually starting the book until I've done some brainstorming and planning first. I used to dive in and just write--and stall early on, unsure where I wanted to go. I always relished my "pantser" approach and I know it works well for many writers. But I've discovered that planning ahead—identifying key plot points (even if they change), having a deep understanding of my protagonist's wound (Michael Hauge)/ghost (K.M. Weiland)/misbelief (Lisa Cron) is a huge help to my writing process. I thought for sure planning would stifle my creativity but I've found I like the roadmap and my creativity is free to roam as the story morphs and changes as I write. And much of this "pre-writing" isn't pre-writing at all for novels—it's backstory that makes it into the book in the form of flashbacks and memories that inform the character's motivation. 

For novel planning I've combined suggestions from Hauge, Weiland, Cron (especially her book Story Genius) and Jessica Brody and her adaptation of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat story beats from screenplays to novels. For both novels and picture books, it's knowing that story point or theme—What am I trying to say through this story?—in advance as this provides a touchpoint for me as I draft and because it's something I care about, it helps keep me going. This story point can change, but that doesn't happen for me very often.


Tuesday, April 28: Do you have a hard time staying focused on your writing in the midst of life’s demands, especially all the new stresses we are facing currently? What do you do to stay focused and to keep your book or story moving forward?

Elizabeth Robinson: For the past several years, I’ve been working two jobs. For six years I was working with chronically homeless people in Boulder and now I live in Oakland where I am the associate pastor at a church. It so happened that the senior pastor went on sabbatical right before this pandemic emerged, so it’s been a very interesting time. I have discovered that no matter what the circumstances I will somehow find a way to write. I often think of the poet Bernadette Mayer’s statement, “Writing is a necessity and, when there is time, a luxury.”  

Lately, I am not doing what I would consider my own creative work so much, but have been writing daily missives to my congregation and that has actually really been interesting, reflective, and stimulating to me. Writing has most often been my interior pursuit, but now I am writing as a way to establish and support community. I am not unhappy to be having this experience. 

My poetry collections tend to grow organically, so I’m not really focused on completing a discrete project at the moment, though I was invited to put together a “selected”—and this might be an ideal time to do that. Rather than generate new work, this could be a good time to organize my work and take stock. My big project right now is a creative nonfiction manuscript and I’m not doing a good job of working on it. I think that’s partly due to current demands, and partly due to the fact that organizing a larger project in a new genre feels intimidating to me. I stay focused by doing collaborative projects or having accountability with friends who are writers. For instance, I’ll tell them that I will give them a piece of the nonfiction project by a given date to insure that I will follow through. It’s really all about community right now.


Saturday, April 25: What role does reading play in your writing? What advice do you have for writers regarding their reading habits?

Nick Arvin: I'm always reading things, mostly fiction. I try to keep up a mix of contemporary writers and older stuff, which might be classics or less-than-classics, and also work in translation. The most important thing is to read what inspires you and fires up ideas in your mind. But I do think that if you're only reading the books that everyone else is reading right now, you'll probably end up writing things that read like what everyone is writing. So I encourage writers to read work from different cultures, countries, and time periods. That's often where I find the most inspiration. Also, read some poetry.

Jenny Wortman: It plays a huge role in the sense that reading first inspired me to write: I wanted to make other people feel the way I felt when I read something I loved. And I continue to experience that desire: reading that excites me inspires my own writing. I also, of course, look to reading to learn about craft. I’ve learned so much by studying writers I admire but also by noting where a work seems to fall short: negative examples are at least as instructive as positive ones, I think. Mostly, though, I love to immerse myself in what I’m reading and let it wash over me. Passive reading can have as many benefits as active reading, because you learn unconsciously and internalize the knowledge until it becomes second nature—much like how a child learns language. Much of what I know about writing I learned from the passive reading of my youth.

As for advice for writers about their reading habits, I’d say balance reading for pure pleasure with challenging yourself, which can be a different kind of pleasure. But don’t let reading become a chore if you don’t have to. Life is too short! I also highly recommend reading across genres to spark new ways of thinking about your work.

Andrea Rexilius: Reading serves writing by keeping writers engaged with ideas and artistry. I read so I have something to think and dream about that isn’t what I do at work or what I watch on TV. If you expose yourself to many examples of writing, you enhance the potential and possibilities for your own writing. You develop, consciously or not, new tools for creating forms and lines.

Advice: Keep books around you at all times. Have a reading stack that feeds different aspects of your thinking. For instance, I have a reading stack that includes poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, art, critical theory, biography, and (non-creative) non-fiction. Have a notebook where you can write something down that strikes you (a quote or an idea, or a line of poetry, or a sentence for a story, etc.).

Tuesday, April 21: What tricks do you have for developing strong characters in your work?

Sarah ShantzMy writing mentors always told me to make sure my characters never “break character” to make them as “realistic” as possible. At first this makes sense. They need to be consistent, right? Just like your best friend in real life is always late, the characters we create also need to have their own habits and rituals because such traits help define who they are. But this is only true to an extent. When I was writing Fig I kept making the mistake of thinking the grandmother was the antagonist of the book when the real villain is a cruel combination of circumstance and mental illness. Nevertheless, I wrote scene after scene where Gran just gets meaner and meaner, but interestingly enough this only made the book more and more boring. Somehow, I decided to see what would happen if Gran broke character and did something nice instead—that is, as nice as someone like Gran can be. I also chose to try this at a moment when the reader would most expect her to be the opposite. Not only did it end up making more sense for her to react this way rather than the cruelty I’d originally plotted, the break in character made something real actually happen at a point in the book where this is precisely what the story needed. As a result, both Gran and Fig changed; they deepened and expanded as humans, and in turn their relationship shifted (they didn’t become bosom buddies but they did learn to accept each other for who they are). I’ve come to understand that real people only change when we break free of our comfort zones, when we break from our own habits and routines to try something new whether or not we want to. So the next time you think a character needs to do X, Y, or Z, try writing A, B, or C just to see what happens. I think you might be pleasantly surprised to see what unfolds from there.

Daniel LevineI like to start with a physical template. Pick a person I know: it can be family or friend or someone I’ve seen in the store or the street, but a person with a distinctive physicality that’s caught my attention, that seems right for the dynamic of the character. Give the template a name. Names are tricky—sometimes you know the character’s name from the start, sometimes it takes many drafts to figure out their true first and last, a name that matches their personality and essence and is fun to write on the page (don’t be afraid to change the name around until you get it right). So now you have a hand puppet, essentially, a body, a way of carrying him/herself, a name. Next you need to make them talk. At first, you’ll be moving their mouths, forcing words to come out, and it may sound forced and artificial. That’s okay. First you make them talk, and later, as you draft and redraft, the puppet will begin speaking for him/herself, and you’ll acquire a keener sense for how they express themselves—cadence, syntax, diction, emotional tone. Let them react naturally. Ultimately a good character is a piece of your personhood—not the one you present to the world, necessarily, possibly a more subverted part—but it’s you, and so the natural expression will come from a natural, if unknown, part of yourself. When your characters’ reactions and expressions start to surprise you, then you’re on the right track; it means they are coming to life from within.   

Tanja Pajevic: When I’m working with fiction, I want to make sure my characters are fullly realized human beings on the page, with competing needs and wants. I try to fill out the all-important question of “what does my character want and what’s stopping them from getting it” by making sure they’ve got multiple conflicts—a main one, yes, but also the minor conflicts that fill us out as real people. When I’m teaching memoir, I always encourage my students to make sure their characters are a mix of good and bad, light and dark. It’s too easy to demonize someone or put them on a pedestal, when in reality, we’re all a messy mix of competing thoughts and emotions.

Saturday, April 18: You all work with many students. What would you say is the most common crafting problem writers run into?

Paula Younger: One common problem is revision. Too often people starting rewriting their beginnings, and then tire out. Most of the time, we don't keep our beginnings because they weren't the right start. Don't start with your beginning. I tell my students to pick a section of the story to rewrite at a time. It's often better to choose part of the middle, a problematic scene that is keeping you from getting your story to work. A lot of revision comes from asking questions and free writing. Thinking about the story in your head. I'll ask questions about my characters and the scene in a notebook and just write answers. I often come up with something important writing outside of the story. If I give myself assignments for each rewrite, instead of trying to rewrite it all in one sitting, I get more done. One of the best parts about writing is how malleable it is. We don't know what an event or a story means until we've finished the narrative. Then we can play around—dive into the layers, decide what to emphasize/enhance and assemble the writing into a coherent, moving story. 

But a larger issue is writing the wrong story. One of my favorite exercises that I use is from when Lorrie Moore visited Lighthouse. This is my paraphrased version of her exercise: 

Every story has been told before, but not by you, if you truly care about it.

1st Part – Write a description of what your most recent story was about. (Think about writing the description like it would be for a magazine. Keep it short. Just a few sentences.)

2nd Part – Answer these questions. Be as specific as possible. Be honest with your answers, not what you think the answer should be. At different points in your life, your answers for each question will probably be different. 

1) What is the thing that people (friends, family, acquaintances) say you should write about?

2) What is the worst thing that could happen to you?

3) What is the best thing that could happen to you?

4) What is your most important relationship?

5) What do you see as the world’s most pressing problem?

After you have done both parts, see how how much overlap you have with your 1st and 2nd parts. 

The most common mistake that writers make is writing the wrong story. If you’re not writing about the right material—from the center of who you are—then craft won’t help. If you’re writing about what interests you and what you care about, deeply, then your writing will have that energy too. If you're a fiction writer, you're protected. We can cloak the people we know as characters, we can change big details, we have freedom to do whatever we want, but we should be writing from the center of ourselves—what concerns us, what our biggest fears and desires are, etc. The more overlap you have between the two sections, often the stronger your writing will be. You don't have to write about everything that happened to you, but you should be invested and passionate about the story material and details. If there’s something people tell you that you should write about and you think, “absolutely not,” then you should think about digging into it.

Write from what you are passionate about, solve problems with each rewrite, and then send your writing out into the world. No story/essay/book is ever perfect, but we do our best to make each word/phrase/sentence/insight count. We change every day and our writing should too. Don't be ashamed of your earlier writing--it's what helped make you into the writer that you are now. Writing is a craft and, if we're doing it right, we will continue to improve. 

Erika Krouse: This one's easy: I think the biggest craft problem in prose is a weak, absent, or too-abstract antagonist (or antagonists). If the antagonist isn't strong enough, the conflict wobbles, stakes disintegrate, the protagonist has nothing interesting to push against, and the story and characterization tend to collapse inward. But look what happens when we all have a common enemy, such as a virus (or a president)? Mass engagement, endless drama, and we feel every emotion in the spectrum.

Rachel Weaver: In each session, I have about thirty students in Lighthouse classes whose work I read. I also teach at Regis in the MFA program where I work one-on-one with up to five students a semester, reading their books and offering feedback. In addition, I edit 1-3 full manuscripts a month through my editing business. This is all to say, I’m involved in a lot of people’s books. The most common issue I see boils down to one of three questions not being fully addressed yet. These are the foundation questions of any memoir or novel. If they aren’t carefully thought through, anything you build on top ends up off kilter: 1. What is your main character actively trying to do throughout the book? 2. What’s in his way of getting it? 3. What’s at stake if he can’t get it?


Tuesday, April 14: How did you navigate the road from beginning writer to published writer? What do you wish someone had told you way back when you were just getting started that would’ve made the journey a little smoother?

Paula Younger: I wanted to be a writer since I was 8 years old. Like most writers, I was a big reader. I loved getting lost in books as a child. Books are magical—you can go anywhere and be anyone. That was a gift for me, growing up on a farm in northern Colorado, miles away from towns and friends. The author photos on the backs of my books seemed to come from another world, something and somewhere that wasn't attainable. But still, I tried. I typed up my first novels on our family's Apple IIE computer and sent out a cover letter that said: "Who better to write for 12-year-olds than a 12-year-old?" I got no responses. Then I didn't really submit my work anywhere, except to MFA programs. 

I was accepted into a top MFA program. At a party, I told another student that I had never been published and my husband said: "It's because you never submit anything." In my second year, I was the fiction editor for Meridian, our literary journal. Once I experienced the deluge of stories that we received every day, I realized how low the chances were of getting published. Oddly, that helped me. Journals weren't necessarily rejecting me and my writing; it was a game of odds. Many of my friends who were well-published were submitting machines. I would send out one of my stories to a few journals, five at most. Some of my friends were sending out one story to 25 different journals at a time. Sometimes 50 different journals. 

I wish someone would have told me in the beginning (and I tell my students this all the time): "Don't reject yourself. Let the journals/publishers/agents reject you." You never know who will pick your writing, who your reader is. So submit to as many places as possible and hope for the best, but expect the worst. I almost didn't apply for the Bronx Writers' Center Fellowship. I had just moved to New York City. My writing wasn't urban. I had to print 5 copies and have them bound, and then mailed. My dad was visiting me, an added stress and another story, but still, I dragged him around New York City to Kinko's and the post office. I won and the judges said I was their first-ever unanimous decision. A big moment for me that I almost didn't have. Of course, there are plenty of other journals/contests/fellowships I thought my writing was perfect for, but didn't even make the finalist list. Don't reject yourself. Submit a lot. Keep rewriting in between submission periods. Celebrate your accomplishments. Don't let the rejections take you down. When you receive a rejection, send that story to a new place as soon as possible. Have momentum on your side. 

Erika Krouse: If you're reading emails from Lighthouse, you're already following a wiser path than I did when I started out. I got a (mediocre) master's degree but I didn't continue to seek out quality learning afterward. Out of all my many terrible career mistakes, this was the biggest one, and it cost me at least a decade of wasted time. So keep doing what you're doing! Learn craft, and continue your education any way you can. 

Rachel Weaver: One time on a road trip in the Yukon, I came upon a wooden sign with an arrow pointing to the left that read Arctic Circle. I glanced down a narrow dirt road that disappeared between two gorgeous mountains, thought, that looks cool, put on my blinker and took a left. I didn’t really think much about how much food I had or the fact that there was no indication exactly how far away the Arctic Circle was. Two hundred and fifty dirt road miles and a week later, kind of hungry and really dirty, I stood on the Arctic Circle.  There were a lot of bears and moose and flat tires along the way. There was a pack of wolves and I had to collect rain water because I got really thirsty, but I made it!! And it was really cool! That’s pretty much exactly what the road was like to publication.  

What I wish someone had told me was to relax. I was so hard on myself in those early years. I thought I should be accomplishing much more than I seemed to be, even though now when I look back, I realize how much I was learning as I was writing, all of which serves me now. But it was so hard to measure back then, and I really wanted to measure it, to know I was getting somewhere. 


Saturday, April 11: How do you handle writing about what you don’t know? Do you research ahead of time? Do you just wing it? Do you have a person read the manuscript who knows about that thing you don't know much about and help you fix it all once it's already on the page? 

Robert McBrearty: My favorite method of research is to talk to people who know something about the subject I'm interested in. For instance, I've been interested in writing about the time period just before, during, and just after World War II. A few months ago, I sat down with my father, who was in the Army Air Corps during the war, and talked to him about his experiences and that time period. It wasn't exactly an interview - I didn't take notes, but I listened and learned a lot. I wasn't even exactly sure about what story it was I wanted to write, I just wanted some background info, and not too long after, I did start writing a story which drew on that conversation. I'd suggest talking to people from different backgrounds or who work in different types of jobs, even if you don't have a particular story in mind. You might find you will use the information in some form or fashion later on. 

Victoria Hanley: I tend to wing it and then bring in second readers. Savvy beta readers of my fiction have pointed out things I didn’t even know that I was ignorant about. I’ll never forget having written what I thought was a brilliant scene in a novel (my favorite scene in the book, to be honest)—and then giving the manuscript to my engineer dad to read. The scene in question involved full bottles of wine floating on the surface of the ocean. With a rueful chuckle, he informed me that wine bottles would sink to the bottom. Ha! As for my nonfiction, well-informed people have repeatedly helped to identify gaps in my knowledge. I’ve also sought the advice of experts, by consulting search engines and conducting email interviews.

So yes, I believe it’s wise to assume there will always be something I don’t know. This doesn’t mean I can’t employ my most daring imagination and broad curiosity when writing. It does mean involving others in the process and then revising to include their expertise, thus enlarging my understanding and perspective as well as giving readers a bigger view.


Tuesday, April 7: What do you think is one of the most common roadblocks for beginning/intermediate writers and what advice do you have to overcome it?

Paula Younger: A lot of beginning writers talk about writing instead of doing it, and they become too attached to their ideas. They have an ending in mind and they rush through their story, ignoring the majority of the story where the rising action and character development happens, to get to the ending. That ending isn't as powerful or as great of a twist as the writer expected because it hasn't been earned. They are left with flat characters, little tension, and a story that could take place anywhere. The writer missed out on what a story is. Write and finish, but also take your time. 

E.L. Doctorow has the famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It can be hard writing a book-length manuscript that way, but this works well for stories and essays. Take your time. Slowly make your way forward in your story. 

The other common writing advice is to plant yourself in a chair, stay in the room and write. But staying in the room also means staying in the room of your story. Pay attention to what the situation and the character gives you. Fumble around. Try things out. Surprise yourself and have fun. That's the best way to make it surprising and yet believable for the reader too.

Erika Krouse: I think one of the biggest writerly roadblocks is the myth of the golden pen—the idea of natural talent. A talented writer is supposedly able to produce great writing without trying hard, but that's simply not the case. This expectation hampers many writers at every level, making them stuck, scared, demotivated, lazy, intimidated, or even (sometimes) too egotistical to get out of their own way. It's hard to feel inspired to write when you're judging yourself and your work as "good" or "bad."

Rather than try to write something good, try to write something interesting. And for a subject to interest others, it must captivate you. Stop monitoring yourself and follow your passions. Grammatically.

Rachel Weaver: I think the biggest roadblock is expecting that it will take much less time than it does to write a book. Then self-doubt creeps in when suddenly it’s been a couple years and your friends have switched from asking you in excited tones how the book is coming to avoiding the subject altogether. Most of us start out thinking I’m going to write a book! We imagine writing two, maybe three drafts, and then bright lights and big cities. That’s what I did, anyway. And when that didn’t happen, I figured I was not good at this whole book writing thing and that I better get some nicer shoes and get a job in a bank. But I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, I stuck with it, draft by draft, year by year, studying all the intricacies of craft, and working at it until I could get all the moving pieces working together, all of which was one of the hardest and most satisfying things I’ve ever done.


Saturday, April 4: How do you keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed as you are working on a book length project? Or, once you get overwhelmed, what do you do to combat it?

Jenny Wortman: I keep myself from feeling overwhelmed by breaking the project into small pieces. Usually this comes naturally, as I mostly write short and flash fiction. But now that I'm writing something that could be a novel, I look at it as linked stories or a novel-in-stories, which helps me navigate it both practically and psychologically. The other thing I always do, no matter what I write, is give myself permission to write god-awful first drafts. I invite sloppiness and sloth into the process, and that cuts against my perfectionism until I have enough material to shape into something better. Knowing I'll make significant changes later allows me to relax and get the words on the page.  

John Cotter: One of the things that makes writing a book so taxing is the loneliness: you have no one to talk with about it, at least not anyone who really understands the details you understand, feels the urgency of the thing in their bones. So, you need a friend; more specifically, you need a friend who is exactly you. You can make such a friend for yourself with just ten minutes a day—or less—by keeping a novel journal, a running catalogue of your ideas, doglegs, fears, changes of heart, inspirational jags, triumphs, existential frets. I like to keep my journal electronically, in a single document, typing new entries at the top of the page and scrolling down to read the older ones. Try it for a couple of weeks and you'll see how helpful it becomes: the journal becomes a voice that speaks to you, cautions you, cheers you. Just the other day the novel I'm writing began to feel sort of endless and impossible. Scanning through my journal that night, I was amazed to see how quickly I'd put a few chapters together only the month before; I realized I could do that again. I commiserated with my own fears—and smiled to see that some of them had been unfounded. I felt relieved to see all the bad ideas I hadn't pursued. I was put in mind about a note for a scene I'd wanted to add later on. Now was the time to add it. The journal helps you understand both yourself and the book being born, and feel less alone.

Karen Auvinen: I work on one chapter at a time. I don’t think about the next chapter or the next section or the end. I just work, for the most part, on one piece at a time. Of course, it helps that I have an outline and a proposal already written—so I kinda know where I am going. When I’m focused on a chapter, it’s the only thing that exists. If I get ideas that come later in the book, I just put them in a file labeled “extra” so I don’t have to worry about them. The only way to write a book is one page at a time.    

Robert McBrearty: Break the longer work into smaller pieces. Select one scene to work on. Set a timer and for the next 20-25 minutes, focus just on that one scene. Don't answer the phone, don't check your email. Just stay very concentrated on that one scene. When your timer goes off, take a 5-minute break and then come back for another 20-25 minutes on that same scene. Chances are you will improve that scene or at least you will be seeing it more clearly. At the same time, by improving that scene you may gain a greater understanding of the larger picture as well. Maybe you learn something about a particular character, or you discover the right voice or tone or something important about the theme. The next day, try the same approach with another scene. The timer approach works well for me. Knowing I have a break coming up helps me keep focused on what I'm doing. Most of the time, even if I started working reluctantly, after the timer goes off the first time, I'm usually really into the work and I keep resetting the timer and I'll end up working for several hours. I try not to worry too much about the results from day to day. Don't worry about solving all your problems at once. 


Tuesday, March 24: How much pre-planning or outlining do you do before you start a story or novel? Why do you find this method works best for you?

Tanja Pajevic: When I’m writing essays or memoir, I always plan out what I’m writing. It may change as I go, but when I’m writing about real-life events, it’s too easy to go down the rabbit hole. That’s why I take the time to get clear on the specific story I’m wanting to tell, why I’m writing it and who it’s for. From there, I plot out my narrative arc. This helps me stay on track and somewhat organized instead of falling into overwhelm. By contrast, when writing short fiction or poetry, I write my way into the piece. When I tried to do that with memoir, it drove me batty as well as added months (if not years) to my projects.

Sarah Schantz: All the way from grade school to my first years of college I used to panic whenever a teacher asked for an outline. I never could wrap my mind around how to write one or why I needed to (I did however love those sloppy thought bubbles some teachers did on the board with you). Now that I’ve taught for a long time, I understand why outlining was so difficult for me. Any kind of writing is a form of deep thinking. Studies in pedagogy have demonstrated again and again that people formulate ideas when writing they wouldn’t otherwise formulate (or formulate as quickly just thinking about). I needed to write to discover what I even thought or knew before I could even possibly begin to organize my thoughts so I always just wrote my essays way before everyone else just to create the outline I needed to turn in (until I said screw it all and dropped out of high school). Now I can outline simply because I work in a college Writing Center where I help students outline all the time (it’s also easier to outline someone else’s ideas).

Creative writing is no different. The only real outlining I do before writing is to sometimes come up with constraints or a prompt to follow. For example, I sometimes write the Before & After of a particular event, or make a list of ten words I want to use, then weave them in. But mostly I write to find out what it is I need to say. To bump into the ideas I apparently need to explore. To meet the characters who evidently wander around my psyche waiting to be discovered. To see where it is my characters are going. I’ve likened the writing process to being a medium before because it’s true—when I write, when I am really writing, it’s like I’m not even there and I’m just a vehicle for the story to channel through. But that does mean I end up with messy plots that need a lot of shaping, coaxing, and reworking, which is when I do use plot systems to weed out what I don’t need, to reorder, or add the connective tissue.

Daniel Levine: Outlining the story arc, before I actually start to write, has begun to feel like drawing a map to a place I’ve never been, based only on what I’ve read and imagined. It’s useful. Otherwise you’re bushwhacking blind out there, stumbling into ravines, branches whapping your face at every turn. Having the map, the outline, guides you through the raw space. But what happens to me is the gradual realization that the map doesn’t—it can’t—actually depict the storyscape because the story doesn’t exist yet except in my head. The map was my armchair fantasy of the territory, not the actual lay of the land, which I think you can only discover by writing it—trimming away the wilderness until clear paths emerge.

That’s when my maps start to be really useful: once I’ve slogged through the story a few times and realized what it’s actually about. Then I can stamp down those paths and chart out the details and distances with much more precision. I think the problem with mapping everything out with exactitude in advance is that you limit your opportunity for discovery. You get attached to the way you’ve preconceived it, and maybe try to force the landscape to fit your map, rather than the true way around.

So by all means, outline before you start. But don’t be afraid to wander, get lost, turn your map over to the blank side and draw it again.  

Victoria Hanley: When writing fiction, I’m purely a pantser (fly by the seat of the pants). No outline. As pantsers everywhere understand, this method is agonizingly delightful. When writing nonfiction, I have a vague plan in advance but carry it in my head rather than completing a written outline—which inevitably leads to the need to revise and rearrange. Why go about things this way? Well, every writer is different, and apparently, it fits my nature to leave a lot up in the air when writing a first draft. I’ve tried other methods—such as attempting to outline fiction or to be more concrete when planning nonfiction. The result? Discouragement leaning toward depression. Therefore, I stick with what works and urge other writers to find their own path to a draft.