Writers Who Write Things Down: Making To-Do Lists for Novels

Writing is a lonely, frustrating thing.

Wow. Big surprise there. I hear you. (I can also hear you rolling your eyes, thanks.) But it’s true. No one ‘gets’ what you’re doing, sitting at your laptop day after day. People see you sitting at the coffee shop and think you’re not doing anything, so they sit down to chat with you – and unless you want to be really rude, you feel like you kind of have to let them. Which kills whatever momentum you’d gotten going.

It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s hard to stay on task. It’s hard to pound the keyboard, not knowing if what’s going to come out today is pure gold, a dribble of cold pudding, or something in between. Generally, it’s something in between. If you’re lucky.

So how can we stay motivated?

A few years ago, an agent requested the full of one of my novels. It had a ton of issues, and I was frantic, unsure how long I could put her off, or how long it would take to fix the problems. Because there were a lot of problems! It was my first query, my first submission, and I was petrified I’d screw it up.

So I printed a fresh copy of the manuscript, sat down with a pen and a fresh stack of Post-It Notes, and started. I was overwhelmed and had no starting place – so I had to create one. I wasn’t revising at that point. I was making a to-do list. 

It’s pretty simple. I’m a very visual person, and I tend to forget things if I don’t write them down because I’m also a little scatter-brained. So every single page of that manuscript was gone over. Notes on everything were made. Then I typed up all those notes into a master to-do list for completing the revisions. These notes ran the gamut from character development and motivation, to dialogue, to scenes that could be cut or needed to be moved. This process took about a weekend.

Then, it was time to get to work. As I completed one item on the list, I crossed it off. And in far less time than I thought – just about two weeks – I was done with all the changes I wanted to make.

6124050I think this is reflected in one of my favorite self-help books, Write It Down, Make It Happen by Henriette Anne Klauser. The gist of this little book is that if we want to make things happen in our lives, the best way to do it is to announce our intentions – by writing them down. The act of writing our goals, dreams, and plans sends a signal to the subconscious that this is something to Pay Attention To. She has several examples in the book of people who did precisely this – whether it’s writing letters to as-yet unborn children to attract the kind of soul they want in their child, to writing and burning things we want to forget about, to Jim Carrey’s famous $10 million check he wrote to himself as an out-of-work entertainer.

Obviously, the act of writing them down doesn’t actually make them happen. I want to win the lottery, and I can write that as much as I want, but if I don’t actually go buy the ticket, it’s not going to happen. It’s the same thing with my to-do lists. I want to finish this novel or that one. What is it I need to do? 

The answer is a to-do list.

Lists keep me focused and grounded. I may not have all the answers right now, but that’s okay; my subconscious will be working on it. (Haven’t you ever had that moment where suddenly, all the problems you were having with a manuscript evaporate and the answer Reveals Itself Magically? It’s awwwe-some!)

For Nicky, my to-do list is all over the place – here’s a sample of what it includes:

  • p. 10 – move up about the post office from page 46.
  • p. 5 – do we need to explain that bodies weren’t shipped home during World War I?
  • p 27 – Simon teaches him to fight – need to put that scene here.
  • How much were property taxes in the 1920s? Need to know.
  • p. 35 – there’s no tension here! No questions being asked. What can we do about that?
  • Research court-martial procedures. Maybe change it so that Daniel isn’t a CO, but part of the mechanics’ corps?
  • What the bleep happened to the Model T’s top, and why don’t they fix it???? ?
  • p. 105 – um, why is the Sheriff at Sally’s? It’s a great scene, but what do we learn from it? How does it further the story? Make in integral, or ditch it.

It has also included things like:  finding maps of the area c. 1924, how fast a Cadillac V-8 can really go and could you build a turbo charger in the 1920s (the answer is yes, by the way), and many others. As something gets accomplished, it gets crossed off the list.

To-do lists are great for several reasons. The most obvious is that it gives you something concrete to work on. If you’re not feeling at all creative or energized today, work on those mechanical issues. Move that scene over there. Maybe write a new intro so it flows better. And you know what? It might just be that you start to get energized at that point. And then you can move on and maybe tackle something else, like dialogue that needs fixed or a question of motivation on page 81.

But another reason is that it keeps the novel in the forefront of your mind – or at least, in your subconscious. The very act of writing that list means you’re focused and serious. It sends a signal to the universe that you want to finish this. Badly! And it sends a signal to your characters that I’m here and I’m not giving up on you. And – maybe most importantly – it sends a signal to yourself. You’ll find yourself mulling over small things. In the middle of an afternoon meeting, you’ll find yourself jotting down a new transition for between scenes, one that’s brilliant and perfect. On your morning walk, you’ll suddenly have the solution to a character’s problem pop into your mind. You’ll find that tackling the mechanical issues pave the way for you to focus on the ones that require your creativity and focus.

Writing can be lonely, yes. And frustrating. But if you’re like me, the list can help it be a little less frustrating.

 

A link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can get Write It Down, Make It Happen:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/write-it-down-make-it-happen-klauser-henriette-anne/1121692444?ean=9780684850023

Here’s a link to a similar post from 2015:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/falling-back-in-love-with-your-manuscript/

And a clip from Oprah, where Jim Carrey tells the story of the check: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXwVD2ncqfE

A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712

“Where do you get your ideas?” EVERYWHERE!

This weekend, I attended the Rose State Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. It’s always full of wonderful workshops, great panels, and fantastic speakers. This year’s capstone speech was given by children’s author Anna Meyers.

In her speech, she said something — and I will screw up the exact quote, sorry — that was very true. She said, “People always ask me where I find my ideas. I tell them I don’t find my ideas; my ideas find me.”

That’s so important, let me make it into a pull quote:

“People always ask me where I find my ideas. I tell them I don’t find my ideas; my ideas find me.”

This is one of the things I find SO frustrating about new writers! Not to go off on a soapbox, but come on! I’ve mentioned before that I frequent the Writer’s Water Cooler. Nearly every week, it seems, there’s someone there asking, “Where do you get your ideas? I have no original ideas. I can’t figure out what I want to write about.”

I need a soapbox icon, don’t I? Here you go:

soapbox

YOU DON’T DECIDE TO BECOME A WRITER AND THEN BEG FOR IDEAS. YOU HAVE AN IDEA THAT DEMANDS TO BE WRITTEN, AND YOU WRITE IT. THAT’S HOW YOU BECOME A WRITER.

I’m lucky; I don’t think I’ve ever had a shortage of ideas, and most writers don’t. We take inspiration from everything around us. A newspaper article. Something we heard on the radio. A “what if,” gleaned from a conversation. A snippet of dialogue, overheard while out shopping.

A lot of mine come from old photographs.

photo 1

Take this one, for example. I collect vintage photos — you’d be shocked at how many you can find at antique stores, rummage sales, heck, sometimes even in the trash! — and my mind often works on the question of who these people were, what their lives were like, who they knew and where they went, what they did for a living. Who were these people? How did they get along? Do they seem like a family to you, almost — or is there some subtext going on under the carefully neutral expressions? Is there one that jumps out out at you, who doesn’t seem to quite fit in? Why is that? Who would have a photo done of his household servants? (And before you think this is a modern photo made to look old, it isn’t:  this photographer hasn’t been in business for almost 100 years.)

 

Or, you could try this one. I found this one in a vintage photo album at an antique store this summer. I bought the albuphoto 1m just for this one photo, in fact — and I am floored by the mystery that I found within the rest of the pages. (But that’s MY story!)

This is precisely how Ransom Riggs came up with the idea for his bestselling YA novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If you haven’t read this book, READ IT. I’m not even remotely kidding. Here’s his website:  www.ransomriggs.com

The point is, inspiration is everywhere. As a photographer, I know that; my camera is never far away. The same thing with story ideas. Your mind should always be a radar dish, spinning constantly for that next scrap or spark. I’ve had ideas that came to me while running (Nicky, my rumrunner, whose story I’m finishing for NaNo this year), stories that came to me while riding the school bus,  and stories that were inspired by the photos I collect (sometimes not an entire story, but just a character — my beta readers may notice that the dark-haired man in the top photo looks an awful lot like a certain ghost they’ve been reading about lately . . .).

So please, please, please, for the love of all that’s holy and everything that isn’t, go get your own ideas! Hit an antiques store. Hang out at the food court in the mall and jot down every conversation you overhear. Read online sites and magazines you’d normally never read. Open you mind. Accept that your next great idea might come from the least expected place. As Diana Gabaldon is so fond of saying, her initial idea for Outlander came to her while she was watching an old episode of Doctor Who — but then, once she started writing, one of the first things that came out was “I’m Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. Who the bloody hell are you?” (Here’s a link to one of her interviews:  http://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/953.Diana_Gabaldon)

You have to be open to ideas. A lot of people are so judgmental — I can’t do that! That’s too hard! I know nothing about X or Y; I’d have to do so much research, I’ve never written about this, there’s that adage about ‘write what you know’ and I don’t know a thing about this . .  .  on and on, ad nauseum. Who are you to judge the ideas that come to you? To brush them away like a flake of ash on your coat sleeve? It bloody came to you. YOU. Go with it! 

Once you’re open to receiving new ideas — never mind if they’re good or not, who cares at this point?! — you’ll be shocked at how many come to you. I have at least six other books besides Nicky and my urban fantasy series, just waiting to be written. Does that worry me? Nope. Not a bit. I’ll get there. And so will you. Get a small notebook. Carry it. Or use the voice notes recorder on your cell phone. Every single idea, every single time. Don’t think you’ll remember it; you won’t. Don’t dismiss anything; that idea may not come through, but if you glean one thing from it, it was worth it.

Where do I get my ideas? Where should you? Everywhere. Now go out and find some, darn it. 🙂

 

Ahem. If you’re still struggling, here are some links to writing prompts you may find helpful:

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts

 http://writingprompts.tumblr.com/

http://creativewritingprompts.com/

 http://www.pinterest.com/selsmith479/writing-picture-prompts/

http://awesomewritingprompts.tumblr.com/