Boy, I had a whole different post written this morning, all about how I hadn’t made my goal of working through the antagonist’s worksheets inWriting the Breakout Novel Workbook. But then I got up early this morning, opened the second worksheet, and…bam! I still have one more worksheet to go in the character section–on combining characters (maybe I’ll finally figure out if I need the younger brother!), and then I’m done with character.

Yeah, right. Like we’re ever done with character.

But…Just to keep things moving, I’m going to do that last worksheet today. And to encourage myself, I’m designating this holiday Monday as part of the weekend, thus part of the week. Which means I will be ready to move onto the plot worksheets tomorrow. I’m SO ready for plot.

Um…again, Yeah, right. I’m not sure I’m ever ready for plot.

I’m sure I’ve whined talked before about how plot is my biggest challenge, about how I’m not particularly fond of plotting. And how much I need it, because I hate even more the feeling I get when I write without plot–like I’m wandering around in a fog, not knowing if there’s even a stepping stone anywhere around, let alone being able to tell which one I should walk on next. I like the stones laid out for me–it gives me the ability to fill in all the landscaping around them, decorate them with paint and stickers if I want, and–yes–throw some away and add some others. If I don’t have the stepping stones, it’s all just mud.

The worksheet I just finished told me to outline the antagonist’s story. Yeah. I did. Really. At least as well as I could. But it isn’t making me happy–not the outline I’ve got. It still feels nebulous and grey and blah. I’m going to let it go for now and hope that, as I work through the plot worksheets, I’ll see more of the picture and the details. And I WILL go back to that worksheet, as I get more concrete ideas, to make that storyline more solid and active.

The goal for this week, after today? It’s an easy one: Start on the plot worksheets!

Any goals for you this week? Any accomplishments you’d like a pat on the back for? Drop them into the comments below!

And, no, combining characters so you can finish up sooner with the Secondary Characters exercise in Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, does not count as a good reason.

Still…that’s when I ended up doing it.

I’ve been working for a while now on the Secondary Characters exercise in the workbook. Maass only requires that you do the exercise for a couple of characters, but I’ve been pushing myself to do it for all of them–all the ones I know at this point, anyway. And I was down to what I thought was the last one–a resident of Hull-House that, up till now, has been only that–a resident. Not anyone with a distinct personality or goal, just someone who linked my MC to the settlement house and popped up whenever I needed someone to do a Hull-House function. In fact, this character has been sort of multiple-personality up till now, because I hadn’t focused in on her yet as one person. Coherence? Continuity? Not so much.

As I started working on her exercise, I realized I was possibly getting her mixed up with another character–a visiting nurse. Who, no, I hadn’t done the exercise for yet, because I forgot about her. Or was thinking about her as a very minor character. As I started to think about the primary trait for the resident, I said to myself, “Self, you can’t use that trait. That’s the trait of the nurse.”


What if the visiting nurse is the resident. Of course, this took me off on some all-too fascinating research about connections between the Visiting Nurse program in Chicago, started–yes–by Hull-House and Jane Addams (seriously, what wasn’t started by those people?!), and about the nurse who did live there for a while, and the visiting nurse who didn’t live there but had a station at Hull-House from which she managed operations, and Dr. Harriet Rice, one of the first black women doctors, who lived at Hull-House for a while…and on and on and on.  Good times.

Did I find a concrete, absolutely 100% certain answer. No. Did I find enough to tell me that I can take the idea of a visiting nurse as a resident as a possibility, a likelihood, that I can write into the story. Which means, yes, I can combine the two characters?

But should I?

I’m thinking yes. Why? What are the good reasons?

  • One less storyline/arc to develop and, more importantly, to weave through the story. Which means one less path to weave into my MC’s story, and one less path for my readers to have to keep track of.
  • Giving this one character the qualities I was going to distribute among two means, I think, more layers and depth for one person, rather than two characters who would be uninteresting, flat.
  • Crowding up a character’s life makes things more busy, more complicated. For this story in particular, that’s a good thing–because everyone involved in Hull-House did have a busy, complicated life. If she’s got so much to do that she’s running around like the proverbial headless chicken, well…that’s realism. And, hopefully, engaging.

What about you? Have you got a couple of characters who are thin on the page? W ho don’t have enough to do, who only show up once and haven’t told you when they want to show up again? Is it possible for you to combine then? What will it add to your story, even as it takes away one of the bodies on the stage, one of those names you sweated over? Good idea or bad?

Here’s to writing progress, however it comes!

I am the queen of writing forward. Okay, I’m the queen of telling other people to do that.

Nobody has ever said I don’t have strong opinions. Or that I don’t share them. So what’s happening? Well, as so often happens when we spout off share our opinions, life seems to be coming back at me with a “Oh, really?!” And a “Ha!” And, even possibly, a “Neener-neener.”

I’m considering restarting an entirely new draft of my YA historical without having finished off the last.

Not yet, obviously. I’m still working through Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, and I’m still on the character section–haven’t even started the plot section yet. So no decisions today.

But…remember my reasons for going back to the workbook? My WIP was in such a tangle, I felt totally lost. Believe me, I’m not out of those lost woods yet.

I’m hoping to be, and I’m seeing glimpses of light, and I’m realizing all over again what a tangle of bad knots that last draft is. (Not to mention the one before it!) And I’m feeling like the idea of stepping back into that mess makes me cringe. Plus, the ideas I am having–I can’t see how or where they would fit into what I have on the page, even if I do tell myself I’m still just drafting.

Which, obviously, I will be.

So my question to you is: if you’re a forward-moving writer; if you’re someone who–like me–feels that the best thing you can do is finish off a draft  and then restart…when do you break that “rule?”

When do you leave the earlier mess in a lump, without writing a last page, and start over? When do you let yourself start fresh?

And how has that worked for you?

Advice and words of experience welcome!

Yesterday was a catch-up day. My to-do list had gotten pretty long while we were out of commission, so I plugged myself in at my desk and slogged through, checking things off and moving on.

Felt good.

I have dipped a toe back into my writing & reading, too. Just a bit. And today felt like clearing the decks on things that were getting in the way of doing more of that.

For this week’s Friday Five, a peek at the baby steps I’m taking back into my word world.

1. Ran through a very rough draft of a kind-of concept picture book. Made a couple of little tweaks, and then sent it out the door to my critique group, with a request that they give me feedback on the overall (if any) viability and any ideas for creating that viability if it doesn’t exist. Yet.

2. Completed PiBoIdMo with more than 30 ideas, took the PiBoIdMo Winner’s Pledge (which means I am officially entered for some awesome prizes!), and ordered my PiBoIdMo 2011 mug, with Bonnie Adamson’s fantastic art, from the CafePress PiBoIdMo shop. The big victory for me here was not just finishing the month with enough ideas, but not letting the last few days of the month slide away without any ideas, after I took a couple of days off for being sick. I wanted to actually, actively complete the challenge, and I did. Yay, me. Yay, anyone who also won or participated. Yay, everyone who spent any time writing speedily for NaNoWriMo, too. November is really about doing more than you would/could have, if you hadn’t tried to take the challenge. So kudos all around!

3. Opened the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook again. Got started on the next exercise. Picked a scene to view from the other way around. And today I’ll dig in and really start looking at the YA historical. Again.

4. Read something other than an Agatha Christie mystery or a Terry Pratchett novel. All of you know with what high esteem I seriously hold both these authors, but they are also restful for me in a way that goes well with being ill, or tending the ill. So I’ve been reading a LOT of both. Yesterday, I started and finished Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. It felt great to pick up something new, something intense and powerful. Okay, probably not the smartest choice for a cold day when the sun set by 5:00, but definitely a read to recommend. And, again, a historical novel with tight, short chapters–something I want for my own YA and something I am really going to have to push myself to get right.

5. Critiqued pieces from two of my critique partners. Lovely to get back into reading good stuff and digging in for helpful feedback. Have I mentioned that my brain was starting to atrophy?

What little pieces of reading and writing did you keep going in your life the last week or so. Did you push through for NaNo, pass the great number THIRTY in PiBoIdMo, or even just get an hour in here or there to move words from your mind to your computer’s? Whatever you managed, you have my admiration and my congratulations!

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Okay, not THAT long ago. But long-enough ago, I knew who the protagonist of my YA historical was. I had an image of her walking at high-speed down the streets of 1910 Chicago, going fast, because that was what she did, how she moved. She was antsy, energetic, and I loved that about her.

Somewhere in the drafting process of this novel, I lost her. She’s become a worrier, a fretter, someone who–well, you might decide to take the time to get to know her and find out if she was more, deep down, but then again–you might NOT take that time. In other words, not much of a hero at all.

The good news is, I think I’ve found her again. I’ve been working through the exercises in the first two chapters of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which focus on–guess who–the hero. Yes, when I first opened the files to answer Maass’ questions, I was drawing a blank. I was staring at the computer screen and back to the workbook, and thinking, “Yeah, if I could answer your questions, I wouldn’t be having these problems.” But I gave myself the chance to let my brain empty out a bit, let some of the frustration I’ve been feeling just drop away, and then I thought about who I feel Caro is, separate from all the confused actions and thoughts I’ve been putting on the page.

And I got it. Somewhere out of the silence, I got an adjective.


Oh, yeah. That’s MUCH better than worried or stressed or unhappy. And, guess what? The adjective came with a WHY. I know at least one reason behind Caro’s restlessness. It’s a reason tied to a goal.

If you’ve read my blog for long, you’ll know that I like goals. Big time.

It’s not enough yet, but, hey, I’m only two chapters in. I’ve got some more time this afternoon to spend with Caro and with the workbook, and I’m moving forward. Forward to remember all the other things I already knew.

First, Happy Halloween to everybody!

I’ve been feeling like my blog posts are a little scattered of late–kind of “my life” focused and a little light on craft-talk. Hopefully, this month, I’ll get back on track with talking about fiction and the writing of it. I’m digging into a couple of projects that I think will get me back on track, both with my own writing (the emotional AND time commitment) and with blogging about the process, tools, and ideas that I really love talking about.

First, as you probably already know, I’m participating in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) over at Tara Lazar’s blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them).

I’ll be guest-posting over there next weekend, but I’m guessing I’ll also be talking about it here plenty–what it’s like mining for a new idea every day for 30 days, how those ideas are feeling, if I’m seeing serious potential in any of them for development into actual stories…That kind of thing.

And I’m pulling myself back to the YA historical that has been driving me nutso.

This is my copy of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. No, you can’t buy it in a three-ring binder, but if you have a bandsaw in your garage, you can either bravely take the book to the blade yourself, or–like me–ask your husband to cut the edge binding off, then three-hole-punch the thing into a binder, thus leaving LOTS of room for all those extra pages of notes and scenes you’re going to create. Yes, it’s book mutilation, but in the best cause ever. Yes? Yes.

I’ve talked about this book before, well–about the prequel to it, Writing the Breakout Novel. And I used the workbook when I first got started on this WIP.  The story has changed so drastically, though, and I find myself struggling so much to understand the characters, that I’m going back to the workbook. Seriously, that’s the biggest compliment I can pay a writing book–that I return to it in times of stress, mind-chaos, or need-for-inspiration. I’m going to work my way through the workbook, and I’m going to do ALL the exercises. In some form or another.  Between Mr. Maass and me, we’re going to figure these people out! And, lucky you, you’ll probably get to hear about the process, and hopefully the discoveries, along the way.

So that’s what’s coming. A little more thinking, a little more writing.

And of course, there’s bound to be at least one post on…

November? Bring it on!

Can I use two -tion words right after the other? Well, yes, I can, because that’s how I’m feeling. I’ve heard so many people talk about reaching this stage in a writing project, where they’re so unhappy with the work they’re doing, the story they’re trying to tell, that they feel like…

Well, that I feel like

  • Putting this book away and finishing up the revisions on Picture Book #1
  • Putting this book away and starting the revisions on Picture Book #2
  • Putting this book away and digging out one of the MG ideas I’ve been tossing into files for the past two years
  • Putting this book away and doing major revisions on the MG novel in a drawer I still love
  • Putting this book away and Fill in the Blank

There are three things stopping me from doing any of the above.

  1. My innate and seriously deep-running stubbornness. If you don’t believe me, just ask my mom.
  2. The wonderful critique partner who said to me, “What do you mean figuring out character stuff instead of working on the book? How is that not working on the book?”
  3. The absolute knowledge that if I drop this, there will be a HUGE bump in the learning curve that I haven’t surmounted, that will be there waiting for me on whatever novel I decide would be easier, more fun, a happier place to spend my writing time.

If I have ever sounded flip or unsympathetic to any of you going through this stage, I apologize with all my heart. This stinks. I have no idea where I am going to go with this book. I do believe the next step is to back up and, yes, figure out my characters. This may mean buying a new, fresh copy of Donald Maass’ Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. It may mean filling out those character charts that I hate. It may (and almost certainly will) mean spending hours staring at a new file on the computer or a notebook in my hand and filling the page with doodling ideas about who these people are, who my hero is, what she wants. It may mean major brainstorming sessions with my critique group.

I am going to let myself work on those picture books, too. Right now, they seem to be the light in my writing time, and I don’t want to give that up. Besides which, they seem to spell the word progress, which is important for my sense of Yes, I’m Writing! But…here’s the thing.

One of my husband and son’s favorite books is a science-fiction novel called Armor by John Steakley. I haven’t read the book, but they tell me that in the story, one character Felix, gets attacked by ants, which aren’t actual ants, but some kind of “multi-limbed, insectile, chitonous, hive-minded, three-meter-tall aliens. With heat rays.” (Descriptive summary, thanks to Son.) Anyway, Felix is pretty much doomed not to survive. Another character, Jack Crow, finds recordings of Felix’s experiences during the battles, which show Jack why and how Felix keeps going in the face of absolute disaster. Jack says that Felix just flatly refuses to die. The quote, to the best of son’s memory, is: “The ants will get him. But not this one. Do you know why? Because it pisses him off.

This book may beat me. But not today. Do you know why? Because the thought of losing to this story pisses me off.

When I first started working on this WIP (which really needs a working title!), I read Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (my review here) and spent a chunk of time with his workbook of the same name. In the course of doing some of the workbook exercises, I wrote a few actual scenes–trying to get closer to my hero’s needs, personality, and her narrative voice.

Honestly, I like those scenes. It’s easier, I think, to write a scene that isn’t yet connected to what has come before or what will come after. It’s easier to get in touch with the prose and the voice, because you’re worrying less–at that point–about how it all fits together. It’s a more free kind of word play, I think, which is always fun. 

Of course, as I get further into the book (I hit page 150 today–whee!), I’m coming up to some of those scenes, finding a place to fit them into the story as I’m learning it now. And, equally of course, I was right–so much of the stuff I wrote back them doesn’t mesh, doesn’t tie up with where Caro is, who she’s become. So what I end up doing is pasting the old scene into the new, keeping some or all of the setting and pieces of the action, then doing a quick “rewrite” of the dialogue and narration. Yes, quick, because it’s still the first draft, and, hoo-boy, is this baby going to change next time around.

But…Oh, come on, you knew there was going to be a but. Here’s what’s also happening. I’m further along with Caro. I still don’t know whether the things she’s doing and thinking should be showing up for the first time this late in the book (Oh, wait, I do know. They shouldn’t!), but at least she’s doing and thinking them. Yes, she’s probably acting with too much melodrama, thinking too much about this stuff instead of saying it out loud in conversation and argument, but I can take the melo away from the drama later, and I can move things into dialogue in another draft.

The thing is, she’s further along than she was before, than when I was just starting to know her through Maass’ workbook exercises, through those early disconnected scenes. Yes, sometimes it feels like I’m playing Mother May I, and the only steps I’m being allowed to take are the baby ones, but I’m inching forward.

It’s progress.

What makes you feel like you’re getting closer to the heart of your story, to the truth of your characters, even when the end goal seems far away? How do you know you’re on a track, any track, even if you’re not sure it’s the “right” one?

Do you scratch it?

I’ve been talking a lot online about the research & planning I’m doing for my YA historical novel. It’s been going great. I’m learning tons about my characters, about their wants and their conflicts, about their back-story and their future. I know there’s more I can learn.

Except I’m itching to put all this aside and get writing.

I promised told myself I would finish Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook before I started writing. I said I would do a bit of plotting before I dug in. There are at least a third of these


that I haven’t read yet, and more I need to add to the shelf.

I can hear you all now. “Just write it!”

And here are your very good reasons:

  • I’ll learn more about your characters as you draft their stories.
  • The plot will change no matter how much time I spend on it.
  • I’ll narrow down my research needs as I write.
  • If I do too much planning, I’m putting handcuffs and chains on my muse.

Yep. So I’m going to write.

Soon. I’m still learning from Maass, but I’m giving myself permission to go a bit more quickly through his worksheets. I’m putting a few more tags on pages that need to wait until I have a draft to revise. And I’m letting myself relax away from the research a bit, so I can keep my actual characters at the forefront of my brain, instead of too many historical details/facts. And, since I still will have revisions to do on the critique book, I’m telling myself that any plotting I do has to be fit in between those changes. I’m not allowed to put the writing off, just because the whole outline isn’t complete and comprehensible.

When? I’m thinking June. A few other writing friends have first drafts looming, and we may all hit the keyboards together.

I’ll be MORE than ready.

So when do you start? What’s your comfort zone between knowing any/all of your story and needing to get those people on the page and moving? I’d love to hear how you do the balancing act?

Posts may be a bit thin on the ground the next few days–we’re in the middle of spring break over here. I’ll be back in force next week, though, and I’d love to start doing a little more talk about critiquing and critique groups. So if there’s a topic you’re “itching” to dig into, let me know that, too!

For the WIP I’m “writing” these days, I’m following a different path than I’m used to. And this new path involves an awful lot of non-writing. Also called thinking.


My husband, just this morning says that 90% of writing is actually thinking. Now granted, he’s a design engineer, but he does do a lot of creating in his work, and he has modified BIC (Butt in Chair) to BICFODSASWC (Butt in Chair, Feet on Desk, Staring at Screen, with Coffee).

For me, it’s tea, and I don’t do so well staring at the screen, but it’s the same theme.

For previous projects, I definitely did a lot of thinking, and much of that was ahead of time, but it was also with my hands on the keyboard, fitting things into the plot I was growing and the characters I was developing. Not so much, this time around.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m going through Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. It has become my thinking tool. Donald asks me questions, and I start looking for the answers. Now I could grab those answers out of my brain, scribble them down quickly, and move onto the next. You know, like this was one of those horrid, timed finals from college, where you had to come across as clever as possible in as short a time as you could manage (legibly!).

But that’s not what I’m doing. Instead, I’m dropping Donald’s questions into my brain (and my story) and seeing where they lead me. And they’re leading me in all sorts of direction. I have gotten a surprise the last three days I’ve done this work–a surprise that I’m pretty sure deepens and strengthens the story.

Do I have much idea of where all these layers will go–what the scene sequence needs to be, or what the cause-and-effect connections are? Not yet, although a sense of this is simmering along with all the other details. But–and here’s what I think is important–I am getting to KNOW this story, the people in it, SO much better than I ever have before. And I’m thinking (hoping) that this knowledge will have to pay off, when the writing starts.

Is all this magic because of the workbook? Well, a lot is, I think. The other part comes from me being ready for what Maass is talking about. And from using the part of the writing craft I already know, to go beyond what the worksheets ask me to do.

We tell ourselves that every hour, day, year that we put into this writing this makes us better writers, raises our skill level, but sometimes I think we don’t really believe it. We want to get “there” so badly that we are impatient with the time–and practice–that “there” requires of us.

I’m still impatient. I still want “there.” For now, though, I’m enjoying the path, the sparks that are flying between what I’ve already learned and I’m learning now. This is magic.


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