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Monthly Archives: August 2015

Welcome to Me!

Welcome to Me!

The other night I watched the movie Welcome to Me on Netflix. I’d never heard of it before, but it stars Kristin Wiig (I love her), and the premise sounded right up my alley: “When Alice Klieg wins the Mega-Millions lottery, she immediately quits her psychiatric meds and buys her own talk show” (from IMDB).

What a good choice this was for me! Notice, I did not say what a good movie this was. It had a simple plot with little to no character development and was basically a chance for Kristin Wiig to do and say outrageous things… and I enjoyed every minute of it.

In the movie, Alice Klieg has an extreme version of borderline personality disorder, which makes her inappropriately emotional, impulsive, and narcissistic. She buys her own talk show with her lottery winnings and calls it “Welcome to Me.”

“I come out in a swan boat,” she says, explaining her vision to the producer (played by Wes Bently). “And then I talk about myself.”

The talk show includes cooking segments, dog castrations, and re-enactments of injustices that have happened in Alice’s life such as “Someone’s Been Tampering with My Make-Up Bag.” It is a magnificently awkward, insane, and self-absorbed spectacle.

Kristin Wiig in Welcome to Me

Of course, the funny thing about Welcome to Me is Alice’s never-ending narcissism.  She honestly thinks that viewers at home want to watch two hours of her eating meatloaf cake, arguing on the phone with her mother, and re-enacting the time she pretended to drown. “Come with me,” she says, riding a bike across the stage, “into another time that happened to me.”

“Oh my gosh,” we think. “Who would do that?  She’s so crazy.”

But is she?  Don’t we all do this?

Because I got to thinking, wait a minute, I sort of have my own “Welcome to Me.” For over three years now I’ve been writing a blog about things that happened to me. Oh sure, I throw in some stuff about writing, just like Alice does her cooking segment, but really… isn’t this entire blog just me talking about myself?

Welcome to Me.

Welcome to Me.

The Internet and social media have made us into a society of narcissists. Or, more likely, we always were narcissists and now we have the means to indulge in it. I  wonder sometimes if I should stop indulging — get off facebook and Twitter, stop writing my blog. If I stopped, would anyone miss me? There are thousands of other blogs out there in which people talk about themselves.  I’m not special.  (Or, as I’ve heard it said, “I’m special, just like everyone else.”)

Anyway, in the movie Welcome to Me, Alice’s talk show does better in the ratings than expected. And though my blog is nowhere near mainstream, I do have readers. I guess if you put yourself out into the world, there will be at least a few people who want to hear the special things you have to say.

I’ve been listening to the podcast How to Be a Girl.


I’ve been listening to a ton of new podcasts lately, and a lot of them, like StartUp, Radio Diaries, and How to Be a Girl, are essentially “Welcome to Me” podcasts because they are people talking about themselves. But I enjoy them because they are interesting people with interesting things to say. In StartUp, Alex Blumberg chronicles the humbling process of starting his own business; in How to Be a Girl, a mom describes having a transgender daughter.

On the one hand, I worry that we’re all being too narcissistic (myself certainly included). But on the other hand, isn’t it wonderful that we now have ways to share our thoughts and experiences, and hear the stories of others?

I guess I’ll keep my blog. But I’ll hold off on the swan boat for now.

Eva’s Revenge & A Fan-Fiction Writing Exercise

Eva’s Revenge & A Fan-Fiction Writing Exercise

Over the weekend, Paul and I went to my mom’s house in Virginia to pick up our wedding gifts that we’d been storing there since April.

“Can you also help me get some stuff out of the attic?” she asked. “It’s only ten or fifteen boxes.”

“Uhh… more like thirty,” Paul said when he got to the top of the stairs. He handed boxes down to my mom, who handed them to me. I pawed through them, making exclamations like, “my Raggedy Ann doll!” and “my sixth grade Social Studies project!” I stacked everything haphazardly in my mom’s office until it looked, as she said, “like the 90’s had exploded in it.”

Choking on dust, we started going through the boxes, trying to make a pile of things to give away or throw away. But it was hard! As warped and yellowed as my Pippi Longstocking books were, I couldn’t bear to part with them. And, for some reason, my mom wanted to keep my 1992 Clarksville Lake Fest t-shirt.

I got rid of some high school plaques and awards, as well as a few moldy books and a folder of math notes. Then I found a stack of my old writing. Paul grabbed a few pages out of my hand and started reading: “I lying there staring out my window, when it opened and in flew a blindow.”

“Blindow rhymes with window,” I corrected him. “Obviously.” Below my seven-year-old handwriting was a marker drawing of a boy holding the hand of an orange creature with wings and what looked like a frozen yogurt swirl on top of its head

The book went on, in rhyming couplets, to describe a midnight adventure (led by the flying blindow) to a wacky and wonderful place called “Holiday Land,” where the Easter Bunny lives year-round.

“This is so creative!” Paul said.

I shrugged. “I was just copying Dr. Suess.”

a page from my Dr. Suess -inspired book

a page from my Dr. Suess-inspired book.

As we went through the boxes, it became clear that I wrote mostly fan fiction in elementary school. In third grade, I had written my own American Girl book called “Meet Eva.” I had copied everything about the American Girl series, right down to front cover (in this case it was Meet Eva:  An American Girl, 1989).

The first book in the American Girl series always looked like this. Molly, from 1944, was my favorite.

Then there was my fan fiction Baby-sitter’s Club book. I called it, “The all new Baby-sitter’s Club (a new member, Eva Langston).” The title of the book was Eva’s Revenge, and, naturally, I was the main character except, instead of being eight-years-old and living in Southwest Virginia, I was fourteen and a resident of Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

“Oh man,” Paul said. “I wonder what your revenge was?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember writing this.” We decided to take it home with us and read it in the car on the way back to Maryland.

As Paul drove, I read from Eva’s Revenge. The first chapter was entirely devoted to introducing the characters: Kristy, Claudia, Stacy, Dawn, Mallory, Jessi, and Eva, the newest member. Since Paul has never read a Baby-sitter’s Club book before, he didn’t realize that some of this was direct paraphrasing, right down to the description of how the club works.  I was a little embarrassed by my lack of creativity.

In the second chapter, the story started in earnest. Someone is making malicious prank phone calls and wreaking havoc on Eva’s friendships with the other club members.

“This is rivieting,” Paul said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not until he said, “keep reading.”

And then, fifty-one notebook pages in, the story stops abruptly in the middle of chapter five, mid-sentence even.

“Well what happens?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know. I never finished it.” I was a little disappointed, too.

Eva's Revenge

Eva’s Revenge.

When I was in elementary and middle school, my parents and teachers would sometimes encourage me to read things other than the series books I was so hooked on. And it’s true that The Baby-sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins are not of the highest quality. The first chapters were always a bunch of telling instead of showing, and the writing was full of adverbs and lazy descriptions. As for the theory of “you write what you read,” well, I was writing books exactly like the Baby-sitter’s Club.

But that’s the thing. I was eight-years-old and writing books. Which is pretty amazing.

As a former math teacher, I know that kids need scaffolding when trying new things. You can’t just throw out a challenging word problem and expect them to know how to solve it. You need to ask step-by-step questions, give examples, suggest an algorithm.

As far as writing goes, series books provide excellent scaffolding. The setting and characters are already established, along with a framework for the story. Plus, there are plenty of examples. All a kid needs to do is use his/her own story idea and plug it in to the framework of the series. Plus, chances are, the kid already loves the story-world and wants to imagine other things the characters might do.  This is why people write fan fiction in the first place, isn’t it?

People tend to make fun of fan fiction, but it could be a great way for kids to write creatively and learn how fiction works.

And, come to think of it, creating fan fiction is not a bad way for writers of any age or experience level to practice writing. If you’re feeling stuck or frustrated, why not try this exercise: choose a book you love and write in that style, with those characters. Maybe even insert yourself as a character, just for fun.  Since the story-world is already in place, you can get started right away with the plot instead of getting bogged down by character sketches or describing the setting. Write about what happens to Tom and Daisy after Gatsby dies and Nick goes back west. Write your own James Bond novel. Write a new Harry Potter adventure from Hermione’s point of view.  Use the story-world scaffolding and see what you can build.

As for me, I better hurry up and finish Eva’s Revenge.  Paul’s dying to know what happens next.

Image result for great gatsby

Or hey, write an alternate version of The Great Gatsby in which Jay and Daisy stay together, and then send it to me.  I wanted that to happen so badly when I read the book in high school. photo credit.



Breakout!, or, The Magic of Mysteries

Breakout!, or, The Magic of Mysteries

Last weekend my husband and I happened to be travelling through Dayton, Ohio on the birthday of our friend Bobby (who lives in Dayton). His partner, Lela, asked us if we wanted to go to Breakout for Bobby’s birthday.

Paul and I weren’t exactly sure what that was, so Lela explained it to us like this: “They lock you in a room like you’ve been kidnapped, and you have one hour to solve puzzles that lead to your escape.”

Naturally, I thought that sounded like fun.

Breakout Dayton was located in an eerily quiet office park, and it was only when I signed the waiver that I learned we would be handcuffed and blind-folded inside the locked room.

“Do people ever freak out?” Lela asked the kid at the front counter.


“I better go to the bathroom first,” I said.

The kid led me down a long, gray-carpeted hall with numerous black doors on either side. As we passed one of the doors, I heard the screeching of metal and a human shout. I went to the bathroom quickly and returned to the others.

Then it was time. We were blind-folded and led one by one into the room, where we were handcuffed to a metal bed frame.

I won’t give too much away, but I will say that it took us an embarrassingly long time to figure out how to get out of the handcuffs. The room was dark and creepy and littered with clues that we then used to open several lock boxes, all of which contained more clues. Some of those clues were in the form of body parts. (So cool and creepy!)

The ultimate goal was to figure out the combination to the lock that would break us out of the room. Every now and again the voice of the “kidnapper” came over the loud speaker, telling us how much time we had left until his return, and by the end we were frantic, running around the room, shouting out numbers and holding up fake body parts.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get out in time.

But still, it was fun.

They made us display this embarrassing sign. But we really were so close!

They made us display this embarrassing “So Close!” sign. But we really were so close!

On the way home, we rehashed the experience. I thought it was interesting how we willingly — no, eagerly — paid twenty-five bucks each to experience a fake kidnapping. “Humans obviously crave this sort of thing,” I said. “Solving puzzles, feeling the adrenaline, having an immersive experience.”

It’s why we go on roller coasters and watch scary movies and read crime thrillers. Because that rush makes us feel more alive.

It’s also interesting that the creators of Breakout (and there are other “rooms” to play as well — Museum Heist and Casino Royale, for example) make these multi-step puzzles that are challenging enough to stump a room of five people with advanced degrees (us), and yet possible for the average person to solve in just under one hour. You don’t need any specialized knowledge or physical strength. Only the ability to think creatively.

And then I thought, given how much I enjoyed Breakout and how much I love puzzles in general, I clearly don’t read enough mystery novels. Why not? Well, I suppose they’re often seen as more “low brow” and not so “literary.” But I’ve read that one of the best ways to learn how to plot a novel is to read mysteries. Mystery authors, the good ones anyway, excel at building tension towards a climax. They are great at doling out the clues just when you need them, tossing in red herrings, and making all the strands tie together into a satisfying ending.

There’s no Breakout here in the DC area, but there is something called Escape Room Live, so I definitely want to check that out. Until then, I can read mystery novels and have a similar heart-thumping and brain-scratching experience. Plus, I might learn a thing or two a plotting along the way!

P.S.  In the two days of driving after leaving Dayton, I started listening to the new podcast Mystery Show.  Host Starlee Kine (whose voice is cute for about thirty minutes, after which point it gets annoying) solves very low priority mysteries such as “how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal really?” and “why did some random woman have the licence plate “ILUV 911?”  But it just goes to show you how much people crave a mystery with a satisfying conclusion.  Starlee always solves her mysteries, and she gets some interesting stories out of people along the way.  I would recommend the Britney Spears episode.  Skip the Jake Gyllenhaal episode.  As you might imagine, the answer to that mystery is not overly exciting.

Packing & Feedback

Packing & Feedback

Last weekend my husband and I packed up our apartment in Minneapolis and moved to our new place just outside of Washington, D.C.

Oh, did I say we packed up? That’s not quite right. Paul’s job paid for moving expenses, which included professional packers (fancy!). We quite literally did not know what to do with ourselves. For days before the move, I kept asking, “but do they pack everything?” (The answer is yes, they pack everything, from fragile artwork to a toilet plunger to a half-used box of pancake mix. ) And, in fact, we were discouraged from packing anything ourselves. If we packed it and it broke, too bad. If they packed it and it broke, we would get some sort of compensation.

“They said it would only take a few hours,” Paul said. “I don’t understand how that’s possible. It takes us days to pack.”

“They’re professionals,” I said.

“Do you think it’s because they don’t have any emotional attachment to the stuff? Like, they can just see it for what it is and move on?”


Still, we felt like we should be doing something to prepare. It was weird.

Almost as weird as this camo formal wear we spotted in Cumberland, Maryland, our last stop on our cross-country drive.

Almost as weird as this camo formal wear we spotted in Cumberland, Maryland — our last stop on the cross-country drive.

It got even weirder when the packers — tattooed and drinking Mountain Dew — arrived. “Divide and conquer,” the big one said. He took the kitchen while the guy with the toothy smile took the living room and the scrawny new kid took the bedroom.

Paul and I hovered at the edge of the living room, watching. It wasn’t like they were doing anything drastically different from what we would have done. (Well, except that we would have been wrapping our fragile items in blankets and socks instead of butcher paper.)

Basically, they were putting stuff into boxes. But they were doing it faster and better than we would have ourselves.

There are all sorts of services like this where strangers help you with immensely personal tasks, like organizing your closet or sorting out your finances.  Or, giving you feedback on your writing.

When you get feedback on your writing, it’s not always because you think the people giving feedback are much better writers than you (although that doesn’t hurt). It’s because you know they have an emotional distance from your work that you’ll never be able to get. They can look at your story with a cool eye and see it for what it is.  They can help you figure out how to fit the elements together.

Our empty Minneapolis apartment.

Our empty Minneapolis apartment.

Once you get feedback, you then have to sort through all the comments, just like Paul and I will have to sort through all of the boxes once they arrive (and dear goodness, I hope that’s soon — I’m sitting on the floor to write this blog and my butt is really hurting.) You will have to unpack the comments and suggestions and decide how to incorporate them into your revision.  Often, the feedback will include things you probably would have noticed or commented upon in other people’s work, but you didn’t see it in your own work (or couldn’t admit that it needed to be changed).  You’ll need to put your finger on the backspace button and kill some darlings.

It can be hard to let someone else read and comment on your creative work.  Just like it was hard for Paul and I to stand there and watch three tattooed dudes pack our personal items.  But they did a good job.  And, chances are, you’ll be happy (in the long run) with feedback you get on your writing.  It’s important to receive honest impressions and suggestions from people who are not as emotionally invested in the work as you are.

And hey, if you’re looking for some feedback and revision help on anything from a short story to a novel or memoir-in-progress, I am now available for manuscript consultations and editing.  For more information, click here.  And wish me luck in my new home of Silver Spring, Maryland.

Me, looking rather sad to leave our Minneapolis apartment.

Me, looking rather sad to leave our Minneapolis apartment.

Yet Another Cross-Country Move: Goodbye Grain Belt, Hello Beltway!

Yet Another Cross-Country Move:  Goodbye Grain Belt, Hello Beltway!

Well, it’s that time of year again.  Time for Eva and Paul to do another cross-country move.

Yes, that’s right.  It’s the third summer in a row in which, in lieu of a beach vacation, Paul and I will be driving through a whole bunch of states, on our way to a new home.  In the summer of 2013 we drove from Richmond, Virginia to Seattle, Washington.  Last summer we drove from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota.  And this time (our shortest trip yet!) we’re driving from Minneapolis to Silver Spring, Maryland (right outside of D.C.), which is where we hope to settle for a good long while.  No more big moves in the foreseeable future. (As I type this I am furiously knocking on wood.)

On Saturday we left Minnesota and drove through Wisconsin and Indiana.  On Sunday we stopped in Dayton, Ohio to have dinner and fun with some friends.  Today we’ll see friends in Columbus, Ohio and then scoot through West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Finally, on Tuesday we’ll head on down into Maryland.  A measly seven states this time.

Since I’m currently busy driving and eating at Subway, I’ve decided to entertain you fine folks with memories of our past cross-country trips.

Here is a post about our trip in 2013, when Paul and I got in a fight at a road-side attraction in North Dakota:  A Fight at Frontier Village

Here are some pictures of our trip in 2013:  Another Cross-Country Move

And here are some pictures of our trip in 2014:

Playing checkers at a road-side stop in Idaho.

Playing checkers at a road-side stop in Idaho.  Paul is displaying a little-known candy bar called an Idaho Spud.


Spying on buffalo at the National Bison Range in Montana


Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, SD


Driving all day is exhausting.  Here’s my face plant to prove it.  


Of course we had to go to Mt. Rushmore.

View of the Mississippi from our new apartment in Minneapolis.

View of the Mississippi from our apartment in Minneapolis.

Baby-sitter’s Club Super Special & Novel Artifacts

Baby-sitter’s Club Super Special & Novel Artifacts

OK, I take back some of what I said about Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent blog post I gushed about what a beautifully-written and engaging book it is, but that was when I’d only read about twenty percent of it. The engagingness starts to taper off after a while in the 477-page novel.

To be clear, I still think it’s a pretty good book overall, and I’m glad I read it. It brings up a lot of interesting issues about race in America. But it’s not quite the page-turning story I thought it would be. It starts to lose steam in the middle, and it drags by the end.

But, one thing I thought was fun about the book is that the main character, Ifemelu, is a professional blogger (as in she gets paid to blog…sigh…wouldn’t that be nice?), and the novel is interspersed with her blog posts about race in America.

I started reading Americanah in Mexico, and one of my friends there told me, “oh!  I loved that book!  I could not put it down!”  (So maybe it is a page-turner for some people.)  This is the same friend who, when I told her I wrote YA and middle-grade novels, asked me with great excitement, “oh!  What was your favorite series as a kid?”

“Baby-sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins,” I said without hesitation.  Then we reminisced about the good old days, going into the B. Dalton  bookstore at the mall to buy the latest Baby-sitter’s Club.

“Remember the Super Specials?” I asked.

“Oh my god… Yes!”

These were the extra-long books which, instead of being narrated by just one of the baby-sitters, had chapters alternately told by each of them.  I remember in particular the Super Special in which the girls go to summer camp. There was a map of the camp at the beginning of the book, and each chapter began with a letter or postcard written by that chapter’s narrator, in her handwriting.  (I distinctly remember that Stacey, the girl with diabetes, dotted her “i’s” with hearts.)

I don’t know about you, but I often find these sorts of “artifacts” (letters, emails, drawings, poems, blog posts) to be a fun and creative addition to a novel.  In Americanah, for example, as things happen in Ifemelu’s life, we see them reflected in her blog posts, which then help to carry the theme of race and relationships throughout the novel.

There are a million examples of “artifacts” in novels, and they can be done well, or not.  (The emails in Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, are boring and terrible, but then again I think that book is boring and terrible in general.)

An example of artifacts done well is the novel White Oleander by Janet Fitch; the main character’s mother is a poet in prison for murder, so every now and then we get one of the mother’s poems, or one of the letters she writes from prison.

In Beautiful Ruins, author Jess Walters incorporates dialogue from fictional plays, the lone chapter of a failed novel, and a passage from the memoir of one of the main characters into his sweeping novel about Italy and Hollywood in past and present day.

In Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, we get drawings and sketches done by the narrator (but actually drawn by Pessl herself), as well as references in the form of footnotes. Pessl’s follow-up novel, the murder mystery Night Film, is filled with documents (like a missing person report) that the main character studies in his attempt to solve the case.  And Pessl takes us into the digital age of artifacts as well; she created an interactive app with videos, audio files, and additional text to supplement the novel.

One of the drawings in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. (In the book, they were drawn by the narrator, Blue, but they were actually drawn by Pessl herself.)

One of the many “artifacts” in Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. Ashley Cordova is a fictional character who is found dead at the beginning of the book.


These little tidbits are fun for the reader.  They help bring the characters to life.  And, I suspect, it’s also fun for the author to create the artifacts. Janet Fitch gets to be both a poet and a novelist. Jess Walters gets to write prose and plays. And Marisha Pessl can show off her artistic talent as well as her novelistic capabilities.

For Adichie, she got to write a novel and a series of essays about race in America. Pretty sweet.

That’s one of the many great things about novels.  It’s a form that can so easily incorporate other forms.  If you’re a novelist and a poet, you can find a way to incorporate poetry into your novel.  If you’re a novelist who loves music, you can name each chapter after a song title (like Lish McBride), or maybe even create an interactive app for your novel that contains a mix tape your character made or a playlist that accompanies the story.

I get excited about this sort of stuff — just imagine the possibilities!  I could write a novel about a woman finding love through Internet dating and have each chapter begin with the online profile of a guy she dates. Or maybe I could write a novel about a Hollywood starlet, interspersed with the transcripts of her media interview or her Twitter feed.  In fact, I could actually start a Twitter feed for my character.  See what I mean?  Creating these artifacts can be a fun way for a writer to stretch their creative muscles.

And, for a blogger like me, reading Americanah made me think, hey, maybe one day I’ll find a way to incorporate my blog posts into a novel.  You never know.

Chicken & Yogurt, or, How Making Lists Can Help You Write

Chicken & Yogurt, or, How Making Lists Can Help You Write

Recently I went to Mexico for five weeks, leaving my dear husband at home to fend for himself. He did a pretty good job. After all, he did manage to feed and clothe himself for years before I came along. But, as he’ll be quick to admit, living with me has increased his standards, and he’s grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle of health and tidiness.

While I was away, he tried hard to maintain this lifestyle. He learned how to make his own fruit-and-veggie smoothies. He made the bed most mornings. But, he also had some struggles. One day I was talking to him on Skype and noticed, in the background, that all the kitchen cabinet doors were open — and the cabinets were empty. “Where are all the dishes?” I asked.

Paul glanced behind his shoulder. “Oh. Um. Yeah. They’re all dirty.” He then told me about his recent trip to the grocery store.  He didn’t know what to buy, so he ended up buying four pounds of chicken and six pounds of yogurt…  and that’s it.  “It was twenty dollars worth of yogurt,” he said.  “I got up to the cashier, and she probably thought I was crazy.  Like, what am I going to do with all this chicken and yogurt?”

My husband.  He really likes yogurt.

My husband, Paul.

“Paul lost weight while you were away,” one of his coworkers told me the other day. “I think he ate nothing but beans and rice for a month.” And, apparently, chicken and yogurt.

When I got back from Mexico the kitchen was rather bare, except for several cans of beans and a bag of brown rice.  So I headed to Trader Joe’s.

“Thank god you’re home,” Paul said when I returned with four full grocery bags. “How do you always know what to buy?”

“I don’t know.”  I laughed.  “I think about what we have, and what we need, and what we might want to eat.”

“Do you make a list?”

“Well, yeah. That, too.”

Paul did come and visit me for a long weekend while I was in Mexico.

Paul did come and visit me for a long weekend while I was in Mexico.

Do I make a list? Ha — what a question! At any given moment you’ll find at least three lists on my desk. One is usually a grocery list. But I also write lists with to-dos, people I need to call, topics to write about, books to read, fun things to do on the weekend. The other day I sent Paul and email with a list of places I want to go before I die. He thought it was weird, but what can I say? Making lists makes me feel in control of my life.

When I was in high school, I used to make “favorite” lists in my diary. I would list top my ten favorite outfits, bands, food, books, people. I would list boys I had crushes on, and, as I got older, I’d make lists of the boys I’d kissed. I thought I would use these lists when I grew up to be a writer and needed to remember what it was like to be a teenager in the 90’s.  That was my reasoning back then, but I think what the lists actually did was help me define and understand myself at that crucial time in my life.

I think making lists can be really helpful for all sorts of reasons, including writing. And I’m not talking about those “list” articles that pop up online and tempt me into wasting time by clicking through them, although it’s true people do like those. What I’m talking about is making lists as a part of the writing process.


Here are two Buzzfeed list articles I wrote a while ago:  10 Things Writers Are Tired of Hearing and The 14 Stages of Writing a Book

Several years ago, I went to a storytelling workshop through Speakeasy DC in which we had to list every person we could think of who might make a good character and list every location we could think of that might make a good setting. We were to mine our own lives for possible stories.

But the idea of making lists as part of the pre-writing process goes even deeper than that. In Book in a Month, Victoria Lynn Schmidt suggests making some of the following lists before you start on your novel:

  • What are you passionate about? What is important to you creatively?
  • What keeps showing up again and again in the stories you write and/or the stories you love to read?

She says that until you answer questions like these, developing your writing goals can be difficult. “You’ve got to tackle the big questions: Who am I? What genre should I specialize in? How do I want to be remembered?

John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story, says that before you start writing your novel or screenplay, sit down and write a wish list “of everything you would like to see up on the screen, in a book, or at the theater…you might jot down characters you have imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue. You might list themes that you care about or certain genres that always attract you.”

Once you’ve done that brainstorm, he suggests writing a premise list: every premise or idea you’ve ever thought of, each expressed as a single sentence.

Both Truby and Schmidt recommend looking for patterns in these lists and using the lists to determine the answer to this one question: what is it that you love? Because that is what you should be writing about. If you are writing about something you love, the writing will come easier than if you’re writing what you think people want to read, or what you think you should be writing. Like my “favorites” lists from high school, you are defining and understanding yourself as a writer.

In a way it’s similar to making a grocery list. You think about what you have already — your experiences and passions, for example. Then you think about what you need — the sort of book that will make you feel proud and understood. Finally you think about what you want. Because, most importantly, you should be writing a book that you would totally want to read.

Street art on a wall in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Street art on a wall in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico