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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

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Can You Take Yourself Out of Your Writing?

One field of science my physicist husband studies is called “uncertainty quantification,” which, to my understanding, is pretty much what it sounds like: finding ways to quantify how uncertain scientists are about computational and real-world applications.

I’ve always thought it sounded like a rather poetic (and difficult) mission. Isn’t uncertainty something you feel? How do you put a number on your feelings?

Paul admits that this is a problem. “Uncertainty quantification implies that there is a person who has uncertainties,” he said to me the other day. “A scientist’s goal is to be objective – to take himself completely out of the equation — but UQ rests on the notion of a person with uncertainty.  The scientist is automatically a part of it.”

“Isn’t it virtually impossible for scientists to take themselves completely out of their work anyway?” I asked.

Paul admitted that it was.


This is what our baby looks like when she is uncertain.


My writing life has many uncertainties. Will I ever get a book published? How long will it take? If I do get a book out into the world, will anyone read it?

I feel certain that I will have my novels published one day, but that’s just a feeling. It’s not based on anything scientific.

In fact, were I to be scientific, I might feel less certain. A quick google search tells me that most agents reject 99% of the queries that come their way. And getting an agent doesn’t guarantee that your novel will get published. Even if it’s published, you can’t be certain that people will read it.

I’ve just started querying agents with a new middle-grade novel, and I’m feeling anxious about it. In part because this book has so much of me in it.

The main character is an eighth grade girl who loves math and writes poetry. Hmm… Hits pretty close to home. (You guys were aware that I used to be a math teacher, right?)

In fact, I got the idea for the novel while reading one of my old diaries, and though the protagonist is not me, nor is the story something that happened to me, I certainly poured a lot of my actual middle school feelings into this book. There’s even one line in the novel that I lifted nearly verbatim from my ninth grade diary because it was just too perfect not to use.

So it’s scary to send this manuscript into the world. It was easier when I was querying a novel set in the middle ages about a disabled girl who goes on a magical quest. Not only was the book written in third person, which gave me a feeling of distance, but the protagonist and her story had very little in common with me and my life. This new novel, on the other hand… The protagonist and I definitely have some similarities. And her story, as well as her emotions, draw on my own teenage experiences. When an agent rejects the book (which will happen, of that I’m certain), I might feel like it’s not only my book that’s being rejected, but my experiences and feelings as well.

It’s scary to put your writing out there. It’s even scarier when your writing contains so much of yourself.

But isn’t it virtually impossible, you ask, for writers to take themselves completely out of their work? And I must admit that it is.


My 8th grade school photo.  Note the flannel shirt — it was 1993.


My husband likes to say that physicists are storytellers. The universe is too mysterious for us to be totally certain about anything, and though I’m a huge fan of science, its theories are, in the end, simply stories. They are stories that help us explain and understand our world. And as much as scientists may try to take themselves out of their experiments and observations, the fact remains that they can’t separate themselves totally from their work.

I’ve often thought that I write fiction as a way to understand my world. Even if I’m not writing about my own experiences, I’m still there somewhere in the writing. I can’t take myself out of it completely.

And maybe I shouldn’t worry about separating myself from my writing. In some ways, I think this newest novel is the best one I’ve written so far. Perhaps because it contains so much of myself.

No matter what I write, I’m always going to be a part of the equation.

Of that much I’m certain.

photo (24)

This is the type of book my husband likes to read for fun.  No joke.


What I’ve Learned from Agent Rejections

What I’ve Learned from Agent Rejections

Two years ago, I got an agent. He loved my middle grade fairy tale novel. While we worked on edits, he asked me, “so, do you have any other middle grade fairy tale retellings?”

“Um, no,” I said. I had a YA book that needed revisions, and an adult novel I was working on.

“It would be good if you could write one. It doesn’t have to be a sequel, but something similar to your first book. Publishers want to know you’ve got something else coming down the pipe. Maybe we can get you a two-book deal.”

Sounded good.  So I took his advice. I wrote another middle grade fairy tale retelling.

Seven months later, we finished revisions on my first novel, and my agent drew up a submissions list of New York editors from all the big publishing houses.

Then, he had a mid-life crisis. Or something. I don’t know what happened exactly, but he went incommunicado on me for months, and when I finally heard from him, he told me he had quit his job and was no longer agenting. He suggested I find a new agent.

And for the past year, that’s what I’ve been trying to do.


This is face I felt like making when my former agent told me I needed to find new representation.


I suppose you could say it has not been going well. After all, it’s been a year and I still don’t have a new agent. But, instead, I choose to look on the bright side. I’ve had a lot of interest from agents. My query letter is obviously working because I get a lot of partial and full requests. And my rejection letters are usually quite encouraging. In fact, I’ve been noticing something similar about my rejections lately.

Let’s take a look, shall we?


Dear Eva,

Thanks so much for sharing YOUR NOVEL with me. I really enjoy your writing style and think it’s spot-on for middle grade readers. Unfortunately, I’ve found the fairy tale retelling cannon to be so saturated of late. I simply don’t think I can sell another retelling right now unless it’s wildly different from the pack. I’m sorry not to have better news about this project, but if your agent search persists, I’d be delighted to consider any other middle grade or YA projects that you might have. Please keep in touch!


Agent X

Dear Eva,

Thank you for your patience while we considered your work. In the end, while there was much to be admired, we did not fall in love with the overall execution in a way we need to take on a project, especially given this is such a difficult time for fiction.

For what it’s worth to know, we think you have talent, and would consider other works from you in the future. With that said, the problem with this ms was that while not bad, and definitely better than most we see– retellings are VERY difficult to sell… It’s a breezy and interesting read, but in the end we don’t think it’s strong enough all things considered, again, since it is a retelling.

With much respect,

Agent Y

Dear Eva,

Thank you for sharing your work with me– for your lovely note — and for your patience in waiting to hear back. You write well, but I’m afraid that I just didn’t have that “Yes! This is for me!” feeling–so I’m going to bow out.

That said, I’d be happy to hear about any future projects you may have.

Whatever happens, I hope you will continue writing and sending out your work.

Again, thank you for sharing this with me.

All best wishes,

Agent Z


So they rejected me — at least they were nice about it!


And that’s just a few of the many nice rejections I’ve gotten over the past year. In a lot of ways, these letters are encouraging. In all of them, the agents say I am a good (or at least not bad) writer. That’s something to celebrate, right?

The problem seems to be that I’ve written something that is — at least for now — difficult for agents to sell.

It’s frustrating. It’s really hard to motivate myself to write a new novel when I have TWO completed fairy tale retellings just sitting around gathering dust. But as much as I want to throw up my hands and say “I give up,” I know I can’t. Because there’s something else those agents said: they would be interested in seeing other projects from me.

I guess that means I need to get busy writing something that ISN’T a fairy tale retelling. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’m 50-plus pages into the first draft of a middle-grade contemporary novel, and I’m feeling good about it so far.

I am sharing my rejections with you guys in part to show how difficult and fickle this business can be. Two years ago, my agent literally told me to write another fairy tale retelling. Now, agents are telling me that fairy tale books are nearly impossible to sell.



Maybe I just need a little literary luck!  (Photo by Umberto Salvagnin)

At the end of the day, traditional publishing is about the market and about what will sell. But you can’t write to the market because it takes ages for a book to get published, and what’s popular at the moment might not be two years from now.  So basically I’m getting rejected, at least in part, because of something outside of my control. And as frustrating as that can be, I have to take comfort in the fact that at least I’m not getting rejected because my writing is bad. In fact, I’m getting told that my writing is good.

So I’ll keep writing. And I’ll cross my fingers that the next novel I create will not only be well-written but also something that an agent thinks will sell. I won’t try to predict what that might be. Instead I’ll write what I want to write, hope for the best, and accept the fact that the road to publishing is a long one.


Why Is Writing Getting Harder Instead of Easier?

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Why Is Writing Getting Harder Instead of Easier?

A decade ago. I quit my full-time job so I could write a novel. Then, in the span of two months, I wrote one. It was terrible, but it was pretty easy to write. I guess it’s easy to do something badly.

Luckily, I recognized that the novel was bad. So I enrolled in an MFA program, thinking this would teach me to be a better writer. And I suppose it did, in it’s way. I got pretty good at writing literary short stories. Got a bunch of them published in literary journals that no one reads. (See here.)

After graduating with my MFA, I tried to write another novel. This time it was harder. I was much more aware that I didn’t know what I was doing. (Because, truth be told, my MFA taught me NOTHING about writing novels.) As I was writing, I started to hate the novel, but I forced myself to finish.  Then I stuffed it in a drawer, never to be looked at again.

Then I took a hiatus from writing and went back to working full-time as a high school math teacher.

pie 1

As a high school math teacher, I had a pie thrown in my face during a school fundraiser.  Ahh, teaching.  Good times!


For two years I hid behind a teaching job that sucked away all my time and creative energy. I didn’t tell anyone I was a writer. I wasn’t writing anything anyway. I was afraid of trying again and failing.

But then I turned 30 and told myself to get serious. I quit teaching and made the decision to focus on writing. I started reading books on how to write and plot novels. (In hindsight, I probably should have done this from the get-go and saved myself the thousands of dollars I spent on my MFA. Of course, then I wouldn’t have met a lot of my awesome writer-friends, or gotten to go to Spain and Mexico through my MFA’s study abroad program. There’s good and bad in every decision, yada yada.)

Anyway, I started writing novels again. Now that I knew the basics of plot, I understood better what I needed to do to write a satisfying novel. The first one came without too much of a struggle. (Although I spent the next three years revising it.) The next two were harder to write, and they weren’t very good either.

Still, I thought, I just need to keep trying. The next one will be better.

And I have continued to try. But here’s the problem: the more I learn about how to write a novel, the harder it gets to actually write one. I find myself practically paralyzed with the knowledge of all the things a novel needs to contain. I find myself stopping before I start, and when I do finally start, I find it nearly impossible to keep going.


Will I EVER get good at writing novels??


Oh, how I pine for those days of blissful ignorance when I just sat down at my computer and let the words come flowing out of me, not worrying about character motivation or where the story was going or what the climax might be. Now, I feel like all this knowledge I’ve obtained is blocking me from actually writing anything. I brainstorm and outline. I make charts and plotting diagrams. I sit at my desk and stare out the window.  But I can barely manage to eek out a page of prose without second-guessing what I’ve written and wondering if I should scrap the whole thing.

Back when I didn’t know how to write novels, I could write them with seemingly little effort. Not that I know (in theory) what to do, I find it agonizingly hard. And I’m getting really scared. I’m scared that I’m going to keep failing at this, and that’s making things even harder.

I’m not sure what to do.

Somehow I need to find a balance. I need some of that un-self-conscious, open-to-the-muses whimsy I had ten years ago. I need a part of myself that can stop judging my own writing for a minute and just let the words flow. But, I also need to make sure my novel has a decent plot and the sorts of things agents and publishers look for in a book.  (Because that IS my goal — to get traditionally published.)   So I need the planning and judgment aspect as well.

Perhaps most importantly, I need to stop being afraid because that’s making everything worse. In fact, maybe it’s not the knowledge that has been blocking me all this time. It’s been my fear. The fear that came when I learned how hard writing a good novel really is and started to worry I wasn’t up to the task.

My conciliation for now is this: if writing bad novels was easy for me, maybe writing a good novel will be difficult. Which means it’s okay for me to struggle – the fact that I’m having a hard time doesn’t mean I’m not cut out to be a writer. Maybe all this difficulty I’ve been having means I’m finally getting to the place where I’ll finally be able to write something good.

Eva Langston

I can’t let this professional writer headshot go to waste, now can I??


All of this reminds me of something Mary Kole says in her book Writing Irresistible Kid Lit:

“ …people trying to master something move through four stages, from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence,” to “conscious competence,” to “unconscious competence.”

I guess I’m trying to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence.  It’s not easy!  (You can read more about this idea here and here.)

Enough Is Enough (Again), or, How to Know When You’ve Written Enough

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Enough Is Enough (Again), or, How to Know When You’ve Written Enough

Since it’s summertime now, I am reposting an old entry about writing and sunbathing from several summers ago, when I first started this blog.

My only follow-up comments about this post are:

a)  This is the first summer of my adult life that I don’t care so much about getting tan.  (OK, fine, I want to get a little tan, but I’m not going to be a freak about it.)

b)  I still, four years later, worry that I’m not doing enough writing each day.  I still feel guilty and worry that I’m being lazy.

c)  The other day I sunbathed for the first time this summer.  (Only for an hour, and at 4pm instead of mid-day.)  And, you know, at least when I sunbathe, I read.  I figure, as a writer, reading is part of my job.  So technically, I’m working in the sun.

Anyway, here’s the old post, first published July 30, 2012.  (Nearly four years ago!)

Enough Is Enough!

The past few days have been rainy here in Cape Cod, so today, since it was actually going to be sunny, I decided to go to the beach for some good, old-fashioned sunbathing. (Right now my mother is screaming in horror and making me a care package of SPF 50 and a giant, floppy hat.) I know, I know, it’s very bad for me, but I like to lay out in the sun. It feels nice to have a blanket of solar heat against my bare skin as I drowsily read and listen to the waves. But, I must admit, I do it in large part for the vain reason that I think I look better tan.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much more concerned about wrinkles and skin cancer and unsightly moles, so I don’t sunbathe as often as I did, and when I do, I take more precautions than I used to. For instance, now, when I go to the beach, I wear a hat, and SPF 50 on my face. My chest and back and stomach get SPF 15 or SPF 30, and they may or may not get a reapplication, depending on how responsible I’m feeling that day.

My legs, more often than not, get nothing. That’s right. Nothing. I think my legs look better tan.This habit is probably why the following conversation occurred when I visited my friend Dawn and her husband, Scott, in Philly a few weeks ago:

Scott: Eva, are you wearing pantyhose?
Me: What? No.
Scott: Are your legs just that tan?
Me(Secretly delighted) What? Yeah, I guess so.
Scott: They’re like a completely different color from the rest of you.

Which I guess is true. My legs are a few shades darker than my arms, which are a few shades darker than my face, which makes me look sort of like one of those 1-2-3 Jello Parfait desserts:



It all begs the question: how tan is tan enough? When will I be pleased with my level of leg-tan and stop feeling the need to go to the beach every time it’s sunny?  The answer, it seems, is never.

I am by no means tanorexic like the disturbingly-tan mom who was accused of bringing her 5-year-old in the tanning bed with her, but I’ll admit that I sometimes plan my day around finding the optimal time to lay outside and tan. I’m always pleased to see my tan lines in the shower, but no matter how tan I am, I always think that maybe I should get just a little bit tanner.

*  *  *

This morning I told myself I would write until lunchtime then go to the beach in the afternoon. After all, I hadn’t sunbathed in a while, and heaven forbid my legs lose their tan! I spent the morning alternately writing and slacking off. And when I mean slacking off, I mean doing things that aren’t writing. My slacking off included:

-booking a plane ticket to Ohio for a wedding
-vacuuming and mopping the entire house
-finishing The Psychopath Test (awesome book – I highly recommend!)
-eating various snacks

However, despite all this slacking off, I managed to write nine and a half pages on my novel. Still, I wasn’t sure this was enough to warrant the treat of going to the beach in the afternoon. “I don’t know, Eva,” I told myself. “You could write more. Joyce Carol Oates would scoff at this measly bit of writing.”

The question is: how much writing is enough for one day? Because no matter how much I write, I always think that I should do just a little more.

Cape Cod July 2011 013

Me on Cape Cod.  I’m sun-safe, see? I’m wearing a big hat!


I guess that’s true with a lot of things. When do you know when to stop? When you’ve done what’s expected of you? When you’re tired? When you’ve gone on a three-week-bender and written an entire novel on scrolls of paper ala Jack Kerouc?

When I first got to Cape Cod, I set myself the goal of writing five pages per day. But now that I’m routinely exceeding that goal, I’m not sure when to call it a day. Last night on the phone, a friend told me  I haven’t set my goals high enough. But what if I set them too high and can’t reach them?

The thing is, we can always do more. I could always get tanner. I could always find more things in the house to clean. I could always write more (and maybe I should). For other people, they can never make enough money, run enough marathons, buy enough clothes. But “enough” is a relative term.  What’s enough for one person might not be enough for someone else.  At some point, you just have to decide what “enough” will be for you, for today, and make it be true. On the other hand, if you have something you’re working towards, maybe it doesn’t hurt to keep pushing up the bar a little bit, making what counts as “enough” just a little more as time goes on.

After my nine and a half pages, I ate lunch, then rode my bike to Crosby beach. The bike path smelled like jasmine, and I realized that it was good to get out of the house, away from the computer. I walked along the beach. The tide was really low. I spread out on my towel and told myself: one hour of laying in the sun. That’s enough. And it was. Then I came home and wrote this blog post. Because I’m not Joyce Carol Oates, and I think I’ve worked enough on my novel for today.

crosby beach

Crosby Beach on the Cape.

Worry-Wart No More, or, Six Unfounded Fears About Writing

Worry-Wart No More, or, Six Unfounded Fears About Writing

My husband is something of a worry-wart. He is afraid of nonstick pans because he thinks they release chemicals into food. He is also afraid of breathing in chemicals, which is why he wears a respirator mask when he cleans the toilet. He’s afraid of germs, getting in trouble, eating day-old food, and he once said he was afraid I might get abducted at the library.

He’s also afraid of anything and everything getting stolen. When we were driving cross-country, he brought his deconstructed 3-D printer (which comprised wires and pieces of metal and plexiglass) into the hotel room each night because he was afraid someone would steal it out of the car. “Babe,” I told him, “no one wants that. It looks like a bunch of crap. No one will even know what it is.” (Later I had to apologize for saying his 3-D printer looked like a bunch of crap.)

I’m not saying all of Paul’s concerns are unfounded, but in my opinion he spends a little too much time worrying.

Paul is very concerned about safety.

Paul is very concerned about safety.

And in my work as a manuscript consultant (for more info, see here), I have noticed that some authors let themselves get bogged down with unnecessary worries, which takes time away from the actual writing. In this case, I’m not talking about the fears that plague most creative-type people from time to time: Will I fail? Is this any good? What if I lose my ability to be creative? Those worries are harder to banish. But take a look at the concerns below – these are unfounded fears you can forget about… and use that worry-wart energy instead towards your writing.

What Not to Worry About When Writing A Novel

  1. Someone might steal my idea!

Quit your worrying. Like I told Paul about his printer, no one wants your idea (they have their own!), and besides, they wouldn’t know what to do with it if they did steal it. Even if someone does write a book with a similar premise to yours, they won’t do it in the same way. The Twilight books and the Sookie Stackhouse series are both about mortal girls falling in love with handsome vampires, but they are drastically different books. Your book is going to be yours, and you don’t need to worry. Just write.


  1. I need to get my work copyrighted!

This is something Paul was worried about before I set him straight. No, you do not need to get your work copyrighted, and in fact, this is often seen by agents as both amateur and pompous. As soon as you write (or type or tweet) words they are automatically copyrighted to you and fully protected under U.S. copyright law. Here’s what author Victoria Strauss has to say on the website Writer Beware:

Many authors have an unreasonable fear of theft by agents and publishers–but good agents and publishers won’t risk their reputations this way, and in any case it’s easier just to work with you than go to all the trouble of stealing your work and pretending it belongs to someone else. As for bad agents and publishers…they aren’t interested in your work at all, only in your money.


  1. Is it okay to use real place names? Should I make up fake business names for a real city?

When writing fiction, it can be easy to get tripped up on minutia such as this. For example:

I’ve set my novel in New Orleans, and I have a scene at St. Joe’s Bar. But what if they sue me for using their name? Should I make up a fake name, like St. Joesphine’s? What if someone who lives in New Orleans reads my book and says, “hey, St. Joesphine’s isn’t a real place! This author doesn’t know s*&t about New Orleans and I’m boycotting this book!” OR, what if I use St. Joe’s as the name of the bar, but I get something wrong – like my character orders something they don’t serve there? Maybe I need to get online and look at drink menus for different bars. Maybe I need to fly to New Orleans and spend two weeks drinking in bars as research…

See how this can throw you off track? Well, quit your worrying. It’s fine to use the names of real places. Unless you’re saying something terrible about the establishment (that’s called libel) or making something dreadful happen there (like a murder) then no one is going to sue you. In fact, chances are no one is going to sue you no matter what you write. No offense, but unless your book becomes a best-seller, the owner will probably never find out (nor care if they do) that you used the name of his/her business, and in general, businesses appreciate publicity. Maybe, one day down the line, you could even do a book reading there as cross-publicity. And as far as getting things “wrong,” if it’s something little, like your character ordering a type of beer that St. Joe’s doesn’t carry, no one is going to notice/care. If you’re worried you might make a bigger mistake, then maybe you should make up a name. You’ll have more wiggle room that way, and you don’t have to waste time researching a drink menu.

So yes, it’s totally fine to make up fake names, even in real cities. When people read fiction, they expect that things are going to be made up. If they are reading your scene set at St. Joesphine’s, it’s true they might wonder if this is a real place in New Orleans, but they’re not going to discredit your book if they find out it’s not. So use the real name or pick a fake one and move on to the actual writing of your book.

Paul says, you only live once, so get to writing!

Paul says, you only live once, so get to writing!


  1. I just realized there’s already a published book with the same premise as mine!

See worry number one. Just because it’s the same premise doesn’t mean the author has done it in the same way as you. It doesn’t hurt to read the similar book so you don’t go in the exact same direction, but chances are your book is totally different.

Now, when it gets to the stage of submitting your novel to editors, your agent may not want to submit your manuscript to the editor of the book with the same premise as yours (often editors don’t want to have “competing” projects that are too similar), but that’s something for your agent to worry about. Your only worry should be writing the book and writing it as best you can.


  1. I have a letter/email/newspaper article in my novel. Should I use italics? A different font? Different indenting or spacing?

It doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want for now. If your book gets picked up by a publisher, your editor will decide about all of that later. This is not your concern. Quit your worrying and write.


  1. This first draft isn’t as good as [insert best-selling/prize-winning book here]. Should I give up?

Well of course your first draft is crappy. It’s a first draft! That’s why first drafts are (rarely) published (thank goodness). Let the manuscript sit for a while then come back to it and start revising. Don’t worry, your book will get there. Give it some time and some tough love.


Now that I’ve said all of this, I will admit that there are some things you should worry about.  (How to make money while you’re working on your novel, how to properly query an agent, etc.). But the six concerns listed above only waste your energy and resources. The key is to cast aside those irrational worries so you have more time to focus on what’s really important: your writing.

Because of Paul, I now wear a bike helmet. Because of me, Paul now eats leftovers. It's all about finding a balance.

Because of Paul, I now wear a bike helmet. Because of me, Paul now eats leftovers. It’s all about finding a balance.

I’m Trying to Cut Back, or, When Blogging Becomes Procrastinating

I’m Trying to Cut Back, or, When Blogging Becomes Procrastinating

When I started this blog over three years ago, it was because I had just quit my full-time job to focus on writing, and I needed something to get me back into the habit of writing. Back then, I posted nearly every day. Sometimes the post was all I wrote that day, but at least I was honing my writing skills and warming up my creative mind. Plus, it was a major confidence booster – a way to prove to myself that I had things to say and a creative way to say them. The blog was the kick-start I needed.

But now the role of my blog has changed. In those three years, I have written four and a half novels. (Two I’m working on getting published, one is a “drawer novel” that will likely never see the light of day, one has some potential but needs a major rewrite, and the halfsie is what I’m struggling to finish right now.) These days, I don’t need to prove to myself that I can write (although sometimes I still feel that I do). Instead, what I really need is to put in some solid hours of work each day on my various writing projects.

These days I worry that I’m using my blog as a procrastination tool. Instead of working on one of my novels, which can be a hard and thankless task that might take years or even decades to see to fruition, I will choose to write a blog entry so I can get the immediate satisfaction of posting it and watching as people “like” and retweet it. It’s addictive, that rush you get when you know people are reading and appreciating something you wrote. But I don’t want to become a blog-writing junkie who never produces anything long-lasting.

Here I am in my pajamas, hanging from the staircase in my apartment...instead of writing!

Here I am in my pajamas, hanging from the staircase in my apartment…instead of writing!

I’ve had some hard blows lately when it comes to my writing career, and even though I know I’ll reach my goals eventually, I’m frustrated. I feel like I still need the immediate gratification and ego boost that a blog post provides… but perhaps I don’t need it quite so often.

For the past two years I’ve posted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. I spend anywhere from one to three hours on a post, which means that each week I’m losing up to six hours of precious time that I could be spending on my writing projects. (Not to mention the time I spend checking to see who has “liked” and retweeted my post.)

So I’ve decided to cut back and stop procrastinating. From now on, I will post only once a week: on Wednesdays. It’s going to be hard for me. I might go through a bit of withdrawl. But I think this is going to be good for me in the end and set me on the path to a more healthy writing habit.

See you next Wednesday!

No more procrastinating!

No more procrastinating!

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