Taking a Break

I’m going to practice what I preach for the next couple of months. I talk about self-care for writers all the time. I need to take my own advice. I have trips coming up, big deadlines, and I’m dealing with some unexpected health issues.

So, for the next two months, until October 1, I won’t be posting new articles. I’ll still see you on Facebook, although maybe not as often. When I return, I plan to have lots of good things to share!



Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Completion Stage

The past two weeks, I’ve talked about the stages we go through in our writing projects, including the challenges at each stage and ways to keep from derailing. After we have prepared the work-in-progress, let it germinate, worked on it, then deepened and shaped it, we are ready to complete the work.

“There is a completion stage,” Louise de Salvo says in Writing as a Way of Healing, “during which we again revise, revisit, rethink, and refashion. .. Often the drive to finish a work takes precedence over other needs and obligations—like being social or taking showers or eating well.” She said her sons used to call this her “demented stage” because she was so completely involved in her work.

Derail or Finish? That Is the Question

During the completion stage, you can derail your process several ways:

  • If you work needlessly, refusing to let go of your writing project and send it out into the world, your book can fail to be published out of fear. (The “world” can mean your critique partner, your agent, or an editor.) You know in your gut that you’ve made the book as good as you’re able at this point in your learning curve, and that continuing to work on the book is probably not helping it much. In fact, if you keep tinkering needlessly, you can do more harm than good.
  • If you lose interest in your work at this point, you may sadly end up putting the manuscript on a shelf in your closet “to work on later,” only later never comes. Instead of this solution, you must find ways to rekindle your original enthusiasm for your book. If you kept a work journal for this project, go back and read your original notes and hopes for this book.
  • If you become careless during this stage, you might not do the necessary polishing or changing that deep revisions call for. You might settle for a good manuscript or story, but not rise to the excellence you’re capable of at this point in your career. If you find yourself reading through your manuscript and being jolted by certain paragraphs or sentences—yet go on by, hoping no one else will notice the jerky rhythm or unclear sentence—then you’re becoming careless. This can derail your project.

It makes no sense to spend weeks, months, or years writing and then, when finishing, to produce a slovenly, careless effort. During the completion stage, you must fine tune what is there. You must pay attention to detail at this stage. It can be a “slow, meticulous, often plodding process,” says Ms. de Salvo. Yet it is necessary. “Finishing strong is something great athletes learn… Finishing strong is something writers also must learn.”

Posted in craft, focus, strategy, Uncategorized, writing advice, writing challenges, writing life | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Deepening and Shaping Stages

In this series we’re discussing the seven specific stages you go through from beginning to end with a writing project. There is potential for both growth and failure at each stage.

(First read about the preparation stage, the germination stage, and the working stage.)

Deepening and Shaping

At the beginning of the deepening stage, you’ve already completed a rough draft. You may also have done some fixing on your draft, especially if you zipped through the rough draft at lightning speed, just getting it down as fast as you can. You may need to go back, fill in missing parts, rearrange some things.

If you’re a writer who writes a bit, then revises that bit before going on, your first finished draft was actually revised as you went along. Either way, it’s time to get down to some deeper work now. The deepening stage is more challenging, but very satisfying!

According to Louise de Salvo in Writing as a Way of Healing, in this deepening stage “we revisit, rethink, re-imagine, and revise what we’ve been doing. Often during this stage we learn what our project is really about, even if we’ve been working on it for years.” There is also a shaping stage, according this author, “during which we find the work’s order and form.”

Be Aware: Potential for Growth…and Failure

This is hard work, and these stages require a lot of deep thinking. During these stages, I tend to read books about deepening characters, or books on emotional structure and character arcs. I might study books on voice as I rethink various characters and how they’re coming across. There is potential for much growth during this period.

The dangers during the deepening and shaping stages have to do with maintaining our interest in the writing project. By now, we may be tired of the story, even sick of it, and the thought of going through the novel one or two or more times makes us want to run screaming into the woods.

If your enthusiasm diminishes, you must find ways to reignite it instead of abandoning the work. Read about the writing processes of other writers. You’ll see that you’re not alone by any means with the struggles of this stage. And give yourself credit–even celebrate–each new mini-completion you accomplish. It doesn’t feel like we’re making progress–we aren’t adding new pages now. However, each time you go through the manuscript and shape a bit here, cut a bit there, deepen that character’s motivation, enhance the outdoor scenery, or whatever you feel needs to be done–you are making progress. It is getting closer to the vision you had way back when you started the novel.

It’s a bit like the transition stage of having a baby–you’re sick of the whole process and would like to quit and go home–but you’re so close to holding the baby. Remember that with your book too. The deepening and shaping stages are bringing you ever closer to holding that finished book in your hands.

Posted in strategy, Uncategorized, writing life | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Working Stage

(Last week we started talking about the seven specific stages you go through from beginning to end with a writing project, and the potential for both growth and failure at each stage. First read about the preparation stage, then the germination stage.)

The Work-Out

Next we have the working stage, the one we’re probably most familiar with. During this phase we begin our rough draft, build on it, flesh it out, develop our plots and characters, and often fly by the seat of our pants to cross the finish line.

Sometimes we see our way clear through this phrase, especially if we are voracious outliners. If you hate outlines, this working stage may be more nebulous as you discover your story. You may get lost and have to start over a few times. But eventually you’ll have a rough draft, a completed draft with a beginning, middle, climax and end.

You might get the draft critiqued at this point, or you might revise your draft first, smoothing out rough spots, fleshing out the cardboard characters, and building the tension at the climax scene. The working stage is a longer stage, an exciting stage.

Danger! Danger! Warning! Warning!

What are the dangers during the working stage, the attitudes and behaviors that can derail our writing projects? There are many! Depending on your personality and favored way of working, you may do some of the following:

  • You may slavishly follow your outline instead of your instincts and creative impulses that encourage you to take detours.
  • You may derail during the working stage if you work zealously and with high anxiety. Working at a fever pitch, without taking time for relaxation, will cause burn-out and writer’s block just from exhaustion.
  • If you don’t learn to push through the confusion of this stage, you may abandon your project. All rough drafts and early revisions are confusing as you figure out what you’re really trying to say, where to put certain scenes and information, and what to do with the new characters and incidents that seem to spring full-blown from your unconscious mind.
  • If you are writing your rough draft with your Editorial Mind in gear, you will eventually give up. Editorial Mind is critical, which is an important trait later, but judging your work during your rough draft working stage can be lethal.
  • If you spend time thinking about the finished product (selling, publishing) when you’re trying to write, you won’t enjoy the process, and you’ll be very critical of everything you write. Instead, focus on enjoying the writing process and leave the “product” work until the last stage (the going-public stage).

“Sometimes,” author Louise de Salvo says in Writing as a Way of Healing, “writers mistakenly assume the work is finished when the working stage is over. But for us to do our finest, most authentic work, we must proceed further.”

We’ll discuss those deepening and shaping stages next.

Posted in organization, strategy, Uncategorized, writing advice, writing life | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Germination Phase

[Read about the first phase here: preparing to write.]

The second stage, called the germination stage by Louise De Salvo Ph.D. in Writing as a Way of Healing, is a time “during which we gather and work on fragments of ideas, images, phrases, scenes, moments, lines, possibilities for plots, characters, settings. Sometimes we don’t quite know what we’re doing or where all this is leading. Sometimes we feel like we’re working haphazardly. Sometimes, though, we have a clearer conception.”

Know Your Own Personality

During the germination stage, my Type A personality wants to organize, and yet so much of what occurs to us during this time isn’t “organizable” yet. I used to follow advice I’d read to write down ideas on scraps of paper and stick them in a folder, but I soon found that my own personality hated that. I would open the file folder, see all those scribbled scraps on paper napkins and file cards and the backs of receipts—and it looked like chaos.

Chaos of any kind has never been conducive to writing for me. And yet, if you push yourself to organize during the germination phase, you are almost sure to derail any creative impulses trying to emerge.

Tips for a Successful Germination Phase

So is there a solution to getting through this phase and gleaning from it everything you need to start working on your novel or project? I suspect this is an individual matter, but for me, this is what works to keep me from derailing during this phrase:

1. Follow your urges to read. They will come at such odd moments. You’ll be sorting through junk mail or paying bills, and suddenly you see a flyer on how to save on your water bill. Although ninety-nine percent of the time you pitch this junk unread, today you feel the nudge to read it. Pay attention to your urges to read. I have thus found careers for certain characters, plot twists and whole subplots, and clues for mysteries. The germination stage is a wonderful time to browse in museums, art galleries, antique shops, flea markets, and other places where you can let your mind and eyes roam. Watch what snags your attention and make note of it.

2. If you feel you must organize (like I do), get a three-ring notebook and those colored divider tabs. (This method has served me well through forty-seven books.) Make sections for book and chapter titles, character, plot ideas, setting, dialogue, and whatever else you’re collecting. Continue to write things on scraps of paper as they come to you, but after you have several scraps, sit down with your notebook and add the information behind the correct colored tab. (Scotch taping the scrap to a page is quick and easy.) Is it a snippet of dialogue you overheard on the bus that is just perfect? Transfer it to the dialogue section. Did you find an odd fact about 1940s mail carriers? Put it in the character section. Is it a bizarre thing that someone did that you saw in the newspaper? Add it to the plot section. None of this is written down in any order, but as your sections fatten with ideas, your mind will (quite unconsciously) start to sort it out and make connections. In a later stage, when you go through the various sections of notes, you’ll be amazed at the ideas that will have begun to gel. (That’s in the working stage, which we’ll talk about next.)

The germination stage can be such an exciting, fun time, but it comes with some frustrations. Look at the purpose of this stage, then balance it against your own personality and way of working. After some time–and it’s different for every person and every project–you’ll be ready to move on to the next stage.

[By the way, I'm skimming the surface of the material in De Salvo's book. If this rings true for you, I'd encourage you to get her book.]

Posted in creativity, organization, strategy, Uncategorized, writing advice, writing challenges | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments