Tag Archives: Stuff that Works for Me

Before the Blank Page, Part the Second: The Magic of a Magical List

Still working off one magical prompt for blog material from a Twitter pal, I’ve been writing about tactics for moving your writing along in those times when you need a little help. Last month I wrote about ways that I give myself a kick in the pants when an in-process project stalls. This month I’m writing about what happens before that–when you’re trying to pull vague ideas together into a Project, something you can dive into and begin to write. I have three main strategies (I think), and here they are:

Having already tackled Item Number One, let’s talk about lists.

My stories tend to come together like puzzles, which means I need to assemble a certain number of pieces before I get any sense of what the picture is. The story might have a single spark, but that’s very rarely enough to get started with, at least for me. So I start looking for the pieces that go along with it. I was on a panel last year with Sarah Beth Durst, who answered a question about the genesis of Vessel by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that her books often start out as ‘lists of things Sarah thinks are cool.’ I was really excited to discover that I’m not the only one who does this.

Making lists is kind of how I spend my days in between deadlines. I hunt down odd books. I make notes on things that interest me. My husband emails me almost daily with things he thinks might be useful either for something specific or just down the line. I keep everything. I read nonfiction like it’s going out of style, and I make notes when something interests me, even if I’m not sure why. Then every few months I sort the notes I’ve made into files or special notebooks based on what I think I might use them for. Sometimes, when I feel like I’m needing a new project, I’ll hunt through the file that holds the unsorted, undifferentiated notes. Inevitably, a few of them begin to coalesce into Something.

Now, what constitutes a useful list for you is going to be different from what constitutes a useful list for me, or that would be my guess, at least. I don’t think any two writers approach a potential story the same way. I also am not sure any writer approaches any two of his/her own books the same way. You might approach your list from a purely practical point of view: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, stuff like that, so you know what critical elements you’re still missing. I’m not a planner, so mine tend to be far less practical lists of stuff I want to include in the story. They tend to look something like this:

  • Fearsome critters
  • Old-fashioned candy
  • Pine barrens
  • Lost works
  • Radio dramas
  • A Popcorn Sutton-type character
  • Moonshine that isn’t moonshine

The downside of my whimsical lists is that there’s nothing to tell me what pieces I’m missing–but then, sometimes even though I need the list to get the story going, I need the story to tell me what it needs to be finished, and of course that comes later. (And yes, this is actually a working list for something I’m turning over in the back of my head.)

I think lists like these are useful because humans are wired to recognize patterns, to see how things fit (or could fit) together. Of course, sometimes it turns out a piece doesn’t fit, which probably only means it belongs more properly to a different puzzle. Save it! If you don’t already have one, may I suggest a folder or notebook specifically for cool ideas you haven’t found the right place for yet? Let no cool idea go to waste! And don’t judge yourself for what you put on your list. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. It doesn’t even have to make sense to you at first. It just has to put ideas–even if they appear to be unrelated–together for you to think about.

The bottom line is this: a list is a way of getting ideas out of your head without the pressure of figuring out story that comes with setting out to write an outline or synopsis. Outlines and synopses are tremendously useful tools, but they do require you to have, you know, the story figured out. (One could look at it the other way–that writing one or the other forces you to figure the story out–which is obviously true. But a) I’m on record that I personally break out in hives at the idea of writing outlines and/or synopses and b) anyway I’m talking about the stage in building a story before you’ve got enough to dive into writing outlines and/or synopses.)

The other useful thing about a list when you’re trying to work through what you haven’t figured out is that it helps you to see how much you do have figured out. And knowing that might give you a place to dive in and start writing. And once you’re there…well, you’re there! Get writing!

Next up: a trip to Nagspeake to discuss how building a set can bring a story idea into focus.

Before the Blank Page; or, Help! I Need a Story (Part the First)

In my last posts, I wrote a bit about ways to move an existing draft along when you find yourself staring at the screen. But that assumes there’s a draft there to move along. What about when there isn’t? What about when you still need to find the story?

I’m a stationery junkie, so here’s how it goes in my world: I literally find myself staring at a blank page. (All right, I like quad-ruled paper, so it’s never a totally blank page, but you get the idea.) Sometimes I wind up staring at that page because I have a vague idea itching at me that I think might turn into something; sometimes it’s because I feel like I need some kind of palate-cleanser, but I don’t have any specific story in mind. On two occasions it’s been because I needed something to show an editor and I knew nothing on my current to-do list was going to be what she wanted, and once it’s been because my critique group gave each other prompts for a summer project, assigned by random drawing. I got “stained glass.” It meant nothing to me at the time, but I needed to come up with a story anyway, because that was the point of the exercise.

People find stories in all different ways–writing exercises, prompts, daily journaling, whatever else–so once again (I feel like it should go without saying), these are just things that have worked for me.

  • Do some research. 
  • Make a list. 
  • Build a set.

Today, item number one: ResearchSometimes it’s for when you don’t even know what the heck you’re researching. 

Ah, research, sitting on that fine line between productivity and procrastination like that idol thing at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Take it off the pedestal wrong and there goes your day. Do it right and you still might lose your day, but maybe tomorrow, after you’ve processed what you read and you’ve fallen asleep trying to figure out whether you actually learned anything useful and if so, how it relates to anything else–maybe tomorrow you’ll sit down and scrawl a few thoughts that relate to your potential story.

The tricky thing about research when you don’t know what you’re looking for is, obviously, where do you start? Me, I’m usually looking for weird.

Sometimes, for various reasons, I know the story hiding just out of view is probably going to need to be set in a certain era, which is awesome. Or perhaps there’s an era I’ve kind of been wanting to learn more about. At least it narrows things down, although not necessarily that much. After having done this for a few years now, I am getting a sense of where to look to find the kind of weird that appeals to me, and there tend to be good traces of it at the edges of science, religion, and the arts. Wartime has tremendous scope for the weird, for various reasons. Folklore and superstition, for reasons that are probably obvious. Technology, which often involves philosophy. 


Awesome for All The Reasons.

I find a lot, a lot of useful stuff reading about these particular elements of whatever era I research. These are things that involve tackling questions of the unknown, or at least the not-well-understood. They are things that people give their lives to. Not coincidentally, they are also things that polarize, and while I get very bitter and angry about the polarization I see in my own world in my own lifetime, a story needs conflict and a writer needs to know where to look to find it. Even when I don’t have a particular era to help focus where I’m looking, I still tend to default to the same basic spheres I mentioned two paragraphs up. As I hunt, like I said, I’m looking for weird, and I’m looking for something I haven’t encountered a hundred times before. I’m looking for something that makes me dog-ear a page and fumble for my notebook and a pen.

Last year I visited Deer Hill School in Massachusetts and took a bagful of books full of weird stuff to talk to students about finding stories in unexpected places. Together we went through an assortment that included science, history, bizarre diseases, cartography, cabinetry, a couple of my grandfather’s notebooks, and I can’t even remember what else. We were looking for things that could be the jumping-off point for stories. The kids each picked a book and scoured it until they found something, anything, that caught their eye as a potential plot point, character clue, whatever. Anything. Then we talked about how one might go from that first thing-that-made-you-stop-turning-pages to a rough story idea. We talked about the necessities of reading widely, and of keeping an open mind; we talked about how something you might never have thought you’d be interested in could turn out to be exactly the missing piece that either completes your story or helps to spark a vague story idea in the first place.

Research. Open-ended, open-minded, undirected research; research just for the fun of it. And for this girl, at least, it guarantees that I am almost never without a jumping-off point when I’m ready for something new. Finding a new story by going on this kind of hunt depends on two potentially contradictory things, I think.


Always guaranteed to inspire me: creepy old toys.

One: being roughly aware of what sorts of things catch your interest and knowing where to look for them. As I type this I’m reminded of something my friend and illustrator extraordinaire Andrea Offermann told me she’d been told about keeping a sketchbook. I’m paraphrasing here, but the basic idea was that a really great way to keep yourself sketching even when you aren’t inspired to do it or don’t have a subject in mind is to know what kinds of things you like to sketch and start with those when you need a jumping-off place.

Two: being open-minded enough to look in other places, too. The first time my husband wanted to read me an article about the differences between object-oriented and functional programming, I just about banged my head on the steering wheel to make him stop (I was driving at the time, and therefore couldn’t leave the room and claim I had work to do). But he was absolutely certain this article–about two types of computer programming philosophies, remember–was relevant to Simon Coffrett and the other Jumpers of the world of The BoneshakerAnd dammit, he was right. He was SO right that if I tried to explain WHY he was right, I’d be giving you huge spoilers. And I should have known he’d be right, because he’s given me critical tidbits like this about a million times before. The Broken Lands only has an ending because of a couple of those tidbits. But if you’d told me a couple years ago that I’d be increasingly relying on computer science to write middle-grade historical fantasy, I’d have laughed in your face. And yet, here I am, and quite literally neither of my forthcoming books would exist if not for things that I didn’t think I’d be interested in at first.

Other things I would not have expected to be fascinated by but that turned out to be critical to something I either have worked on or am working on right now:

  • Military history
  • Eighteenth and nineteenth century sailing ships
  • Role-playing games
  • Ancient alien stuff
  • Confectionery history
  • History of the Periodic Table of the Elements
  • The Ozarks
  • Sleepwalking
  • Programming languages
  • The Qing Dynasty
  • Stained glass
  • Tuberculosis hospitals
  • Livery companies

This is just off the top of my head, without consulting the truly batshit-crazy collection of books that lines my walls.

So I guess the tl;dr of this post is that, when hunting for a story, it sometimes helps to both know roughly where you ought to be looking and to be willing to peek into random cabinets along the way, even if they don’t look remotely like the sort of cabinets that are going to contain what you’re seeking. Be openminded. Keep copious notes. Look for the unfamiliar. And when the rabbit hole does, finally, turn up at your feet, you’ll be ready to follow it, even if it doesn’t, at first glance, seem to lead where you expected.

Next up, lists: they’re not just for household chores and grocery shopping!





Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: The Scary Problems

So far in this little series, I’ve rambled a little about a number of reasons why one might wind up staring blankly at a page, stalled mid-project, and the ways I work around them when they mess with my progress on a story. But the things at the top of the list–needing a kick in the pants and needing better focus–are sort of the easy problems. Time now to tackle the scary items way down at the bottom of the list.

  • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
  • byou cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
  • cyou cannot focus because internet.
  • dyou cannot focus because spouse/kids.
  • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
  • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it. 
  • g) you simply don’t know what happens next. 

The scary problems.

You suddenly don’t love this project anymore.

Sometimes this isn’t the problem; sometimes its a symptom of something else–one of those focus problems, for instance. Or it could be the result of burnout. Sometimes, especially if you’re on a deadline, you may be hating the thing because you legitimately need a break.

My last four books all had to be written, for various reasons, in relatively brief stretches of time (one month for The Kairos Mechanism and three to four months for The Broken Lands, Greenglass House, and The Left-Handed Fate). My workdays for these tended toward a minimum of 3000 words; in the case of the novels, I more often had to push to clock days that were closer to 5000 or 6000 words. At some point, I hated every one of those books, just out of sheer burnout. I go through points where I’m so focused on meeting the deadline that not just the dishes, but taking care of myself goes right out the window. Within two weeks of the deadline of every single one of the novels I got sick enough to require me to stop writing for a few days because I literally couldn’t sit up for a couple of days. It took getting sick to make me stop and slow down.

And it takes far less than this level of output to burn yourself out, especially if there are other things going on in your life that might be contributing to the angst. So make sure the problem isn’t that you need to stop and take a break. Maybe don’t give yourself such a hard time. (Says the girl who ought to take her own advice now and then.)

Now, if the problem isn’t that you’re working so hard on the thing you can’t do anything but curse it, but you’re still cursing it–that’s different. Maybe you need to be reminded why you loved the thing in the first place. Here are some ways I re-kindle my connection with what I’m working on when it starts to annoy me.

Print the thing out and read it from the beginning. I don’t do this while I’m working, usually. I might re-read what I wrote yesterday, but in general I neither read from the beginning or do any meaningful editing while I’m trying to get to the end of something. But sometimes stopping to read from the beginning is just what the doctor ordered. Reading the whole thing on paper is a great way to remind myself that what I’m writing isn’t awful. It reminds me that I want to know what happens next. And because it’s on paper and not on a screen, it’s an experience unlike all that staring at the screen I’ve been doing. Sometimes, as a special bonus, I discover things in the story that either I’d forgotten I put there or just didn’t realize I’d put there, and those act as catalysts to move things forward when I go back to writing.


Compasses are pretty, and also make a nice metaphor here.

Revisit the original source of inspiration for the thing, or look for a new source altogether. For me, this usually means go back to the research that put me onto the story in the first place to revisit the reasons I want to write this particular project. Sometimes, though, it means looking for something new to bring to the piece, a whole new chunk of inspiration. Sometimes research accomplishes that, but sometimes it takes something else: a road trip, a visit to a museum–something to open my eyes, get me thinking with new circuits and looking down roads that might lead in completely different directions from the way I thought I needed to go.

Sometimes, of course, even after trying all of these things I still find myself stranded and lost.

You’re stuck without a clue as to what happens next.

Weirdly, I actually find this a cool place to be, because anything at all can happen and all roads are still open to me. But that coolness dissipates pretty quickly after a couple days of getting nowhere and morphs into anxiety the closer I get to a deadline.

The easy solution is perhaps, next time, outline the thing. But like most easy answers, that doesn’t solve everything. I guess it depends on how you outline, how much detail you figure out ahead of time, and whether the story decides to play by the rules your outline sets out. Me, I hate outlining. I do it when necessary (meaning, when an editor makes me or when the deadline is particularly tight, like with the novellas). And I’m happy to do it in those circumstances, but in my experience even an outline doesn’t guarantee I won’t find myself staring dumbly at the screen, without a clue as to what to do next. So I…

Skip to a part where I do know what happens. This sounds obvious, but sometimes I forget I’m allowed to do it. I’m not kidding. But it’s an almost foolproof tactic when I get stuck. Just move on. There’s no law that says you have to write sequentially, or have any one section perfect before you move onto the next. There’s also no law that says you have to come back to that unfinished section until you get to the end.

Work backwards. This works for me a lot when I know vaguely where I need to go but am not sure what needs to happen between where I am and that vague endpoint. I list chapter titles. It’s kind of an outlining compromise, something like bullet points. This tactic also tends to work well when I’m writing something I need to be shorter (like the novellas). It imposes a bit of restraint.

Brainstorm or talk it out with someone who really gets you and what you’re trying to do. For me, this person is my husband. He rolls his eyes when I ask if I can talk out a story problem, but he’s a great listener, he asks great questions, and he has great ideas. This could be where you make an emergency call to your critique group or to a particularly thoughtful writing partner.

Go back to your research. Sometimes for me, the problem is not so much that I don’t know what comes next, but that there’s a piece missing without which I have no way of knowing what comes next. Sometimes it isn’t just about thinking harder or working a problem out, it’s about hunting down that missing puzzle piece. Most often, this means going back to my books; internet research tends to require (for me, at least) knowing at least what I’m looking for, but if I don’t know what’s missing, trying to find it on the interwebs turns into screwing around aimlessly and wasting time. For me, anyway. And there’s a fine line between research and procrastination.

And…well, that’s all I’ve got. Again, I can only speak to what works for me, but these are the strategies I tend to fall back on–or, in the case of everything above that argues for not being so hard on yourself or allowing adequate time for exercise and taking care of yourself, strategies I fully plan to be better about next time around. Here’s hoping there’s something here that you find helpful the next time you’re staring at a blank page. Share your thoughts and strategies, won’t you? 

And thanks, @kindleaholic, for the great prompt!

Just Sitting Here, Staring at this Blank Page: Do You Need a Kick in the Pants?

Nothing like updating your website with a glitchy plugin that requires hacking and constant refreshing to force you to look 18 times at the nearly month-old blog post that’s the most recent thing (other than the glitchy plugin) on your front page. Granted, I kinda like that I also got to look at that swoony picture of Stephen Decatur every time, but that’s no excuse for lazy blogging.

I never have a good excuse. I also don’t feel like I often have good ideas about what to blog about. So yesterday I asked on Twitter if anybody had any requests. And interestingly enough, my pal @kindleaholic suggested I write “a post about figuring out what to write when your brain is zombiefied.” ‘Cause that isn’t at all the whole problem I’m having. IF I HAD THE ANSWER TO THAT, I WOULD ALSO HAVE HAD A BLOG POST.

And yet. And yet, as long as it’s not a blank post, I’m generally pretty good at getting past the blank page problem, and once I got going, it turns out that I had thoughts enough for several blog posts on the subject. Thanks, @kindleaholic! So here’s Part the First.

You’re humming along on a project you really love and all of a sudden the words stop. There are tons of reasons why this happens, and they’re all potentially scary, although some are scarier than others. A not-at-all exhaustive sampling of causes might include the following:

    • ayou need a kick in the pants. 
    • b) you cannot focus for various reasons, like for instance the fact that in order to eat anything you have to find a fork in the pile of stuff in your sink and wash it, and you can’t actually reach the taps any longer to turn on the water in order to wash the fork even if you do find it, and while we’re at it you’re wearing that shirt with the holes in it for the third day straight because it’s still the cleanest shirt in the house.
    • c) you cannot focus because internet.
    • d) you cannot focus because spouse/kids. 
    • e) you cannot focus because there’s this other very shiny idea running around your brain waving at you from behind things.
    • f) today/this week/this month you actually don’t love this project. You want to scream at it. 
    • gyou simply don’t know what happens next. 

Those are the most frequent offenders in my life. Some are easier to deal with than others. Today, let’s start right at the top of the list and take a look at Problem A.

When you need a kick in the pants


Suitable for delivering solid kicks. Take two as needed.

Set a deadline. Of course, this only works if you treat your deadline as seriously–or almost as seriously–as you’d treat a deadline from an editor. Make it reasonable, something that’s doable. A challenging deadline is great but not necessary. Set yourself up for success.

    • a) Set the deadline.
    • b) Get a calendar. Do the math and figure out how many words you need to do per day in order to meet your deadline. Not every day, though–the number of days you can reasonably write per week. I can theoretically write every day, but when I set my goals, I always assume I’m not going to write on Sundays and Mondays, because I work a full shift at McNally on both of these days. I might write on those days if I feel like it, but I know myself and how I feel after a day on my feet. Again, set yourself up for success. Readjust deadline if necessary.
    • c) Write your daily word count goal on each day’s box on the calendar and give yourself a little star or something each day you succeed. Schedule your days off. Schedule yourself rewards for when you pass a few good milestones along the way. Yes, a finished manuscript is great motivation on its own, but treats are great short-term motivators. 
    • d) If you write more than that amount on any given day, good for you, but don’t let yourself off the hook tomorrow. Those words don’t count towards future days. If, however, you don’t meet your goal one day, adjust the next few days to make up the shortfall.

Clock some words with friends. I can only speak for myself, but I’m hugely motivated by writing with friends on Twitter. A quick tweet to a group I can usually count on to be slogging through a draft–or to the community at large using #1k1hr–links me to friends who are often the key to getting a tough day’s work done.

Stop obsessing about making what you wrote yesterday perfect. Now, I have friends, excellent writers all, who really don’t like moving on from one section until they’ve perfected it. They have this preference because they (not unreasonably) feel that it’s hard to know where the story’s really going until that first chapter’s set it solidly on its way. It’s a perfectly legitimate approach, but it doesn’t work for me at all. In fact, when I’m actively trying to get through a draft, I start my writing day with working through my word count and save reading anything that’s come before as a reward.

I also don’t typically edit at all until very late in the draft. I know I can fix anything afterward, but if I get bogged down with perfecting things too early, not only do I not make forward progress, it doesn’t even save me editing time later. I often make discoveries about the plot or characters that result in big changes to the story itself as I go. I accept that the resulting retrofitting that’s sometimes necessary is just part of how I work. Of course, not everybody is going to enjoy working this way–some people I’ve talked to hate the idea, or can’t even fathom how it works. That’s fine. It’s just one way of going at it, but it’s what works for me. 

Because I work this way, spending time on early editing is more like procrastination than any kind of meaningful productivity. The way I figure it, I am always going to have editing to do afterward. The question is, do I have a draft to edit, or am I just editing a fragment? (Again, there’s nothing wrong with editing a fragment–your process is your process–but for me, setting editing aside until I’m done a draft is one of the ways I get through a draft in the first place.)

So that’s my three-part strategy for giving myself kicks in the pants when necessary. How do you keep yourself on task?

Tomorrow, on to the big fat middle of the list: focus problems.

Postscript: It now occurs to me that maybe the original prompt was actually asking for ideas for surviving the shambling apocalypse, in which case nothing here, nothing is going to help you. You probably need a bat or something, and a good pair of running shoes. I’m not at all prepared for that. Someone else will have to weigh in.